BOOK REVIEWS: Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and me; Eyes in the Night
Journalists mine the past for a clearer view of the present
Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and me. A memoir of sorts
Eyes in the Night. An Untold Zulu Story
Memoirs of sorts, tracing the bitter past in SA, have been published by two well-known journalists — but there the similarity ends.
Marianne Thamm traces her family’s journey from Hitler’s Germany to Verwoerd’s Pretoria before finding new beginnings with Mandela’s democracy.
A chance remark at a family gathering galvanised Nomavenda Mathiane to start digging up her grandmother’s story a century after the Battle of Isandlwana that tore apart her gogo’s childhood as it ripped up the Zulu nation.
Both books deal with seismic historical events. And while we all bear scars that are stories and history written on the body, to misquote author Kathryn Harrison, that is more true for some than it is for others.
For Thamm, born in England to a German father who fought in Hitler’s Wehrmacht and a Portuguese mother, the how, the why and the where she comes from are the spine of her book.
It begins with Georg Thamm’s ashes and details the author’s life with some hilarity – she is a stand-up comic in addition to being an excellent journalist — through conversations with, and reactions to, what her father was and stood for.
She was outraged to learn he arrived in SA after he was recruited by the Department of Defence to help make the trigger for the first R1 rifle. He personally handed it to Verwoerd "on ze factory floor", he told his daughter in his heavy German accent.
Shocked, she yelled: "You survive a war in Europe in which 55-million people die and you come to a country with political shit and make a trigger for a gun and you do not think about the human beings who might find themselves at the other end of the barrel?"
"No, vhy would I do zat?" Georg responded.
This conversation sets the tone for the memoir and explains her rebellious, tomboy youth when she changed schools without her parents’ knowledge, used drugs and roamed the streets as freely as the boys, punching those who messed with her.
"I understood that the world wanted something different from me as a girl. Ours was a support act to the main event," she writes.
Thamm, who describes herself as "a recovering Roman Catholic atheist lesbian immigrant" was in her mid-teens when she discovered she was gay. She kept quiet about it, "because if the rest of the world believed that what I was, was ‘mentally ill’ … it was best to glide through life detached from an essential part of my being."
But this self-hobbling was not to last. She became a journalist in the early 1980s, a pipe-smoking crime reporter for the Cape Times. She travelled extensively in that decade, eventually ending up in Berlin where she learnt of an aunt who had been good friends with the governess of the Goebbels family.
On her return to SA in the early 1990s, the country was welcoming Mandela, "a beaming and benevolent colossus".
By the age of 33 in 1994, Thamm began to feel more anchored and met her partner, whom she calls X in the book. They adopted two black babies, Kenya and Layla.
Thamm’s is an insightful, thoughtful, exhilarating read about relationships and the history that defines them.
Mathiane’s Eyes in the Night also begins with a death — her mother’s in 2003. At a family gathering after the funeral she learns why her mother never spoke of her grandmother.
"Her story was filled with too much drama, regret, guilt and, finally, triumph," Mathiane’s normally silent sister told her.
As she discovered that her grandmother was Nombhosho, daughter of Mqokotshwa Makhoba, who was one of King Cetshwayo’s generals and advisers, she became determined to write the story.
Mathiane has done so in the first person while dipping into her own life.
Nombhosho was about to reach puberty when the war between the Zulus and the English broke out. The Makhoba clan fled to a cave in the Shiyane mountains, near Rorke’s Drift, which served as a fortress.
As the battles continued, Nombhosho, her mother and her sister continuously moved from mountains to caves. Zulu villages were burnt down, fields pillaged and herds of hardy Nguni cattle disappeared.
The family of the revered adviser to Cetshwayo suffered along with the rest for, even when communities harboured them, there was no peace.
Eventually, as time passed, Nombhosho ended up living and working on the farm of a cruel man she called Oubaas.
He had bought orphans from another farmer who "found" them on his property during the war and whipped his workers until they bled.
Nombhosho finally found the courage to flee, a breathtaking tale that would make an excellent movie.
Mathiane describes African food, traditions, clothing, herbs and healing as she tells her haunting tale of dispossession.
The only surviving picture of her grandmother is in a 1957 government-issued pass book.
The taking of the photo — with its attendant humiliation — is simply and powerfully told by the author. Her gogo’s gaze is defiant and full of pathos, evincing the vanquishing of a once-proud Zulu nation.
The history of Isandlwana will be the richer for this book.