Rather silly for two old veterans like us to be relating to each other from the ends of a silly little “chain”, but here goes. As someone who has admired you over the years both as a man and an artist I would like to start my five questions with two personal ones.
- What is the first or one of the first memories you have from your childhood? And if you can find it, could you share with me the details?
How “relevant” the memory is I honestly don’t know. But it goes back to when I was between two and three: I can no longer remember in what way I’d sinned, but my mother had decided I needed punishment – and I ran away. She was hugely pregnant at the time, and when I ducked under the lowest rung of the fence, she couldn’t catch me. I just ran blindly across the nearest street, and the next, paying no heed to cars (fortunately it was a small Free State village, so traffic was not really a hazard), until I reached my father’s office (he was the magistrate). A black policeman was warming himself in the thin winter sun outside, and he motioned me to where I should go. I threw myself into my father’s arms, sobbing with relief.
He was most amused about my breathless story. And then he gave me the few slaps on my backside he thought I deserved, and sent me home with the policeman. Much of my ambiguous relationship with my father started there. I’m still not sure I’ve come to terms with the mixture of betrayal and security in that encounter.
- Another memory question. Looking back over the life you've lived, your wonderful achievements as an artist, can you think of one particular memory or image from the past that you would like to recall just before you close your eyes for the last time?
I have no hesitation here. It was the birth of my daughter. I’d always yearned for a daughter, but she kept me waiting. Then, after three sons (all of whom I love and cherish dearly), she was born. And suddenly life was full to the brim, and there was meaning in everything in and around me.
- In spite of the prophets of doom, the Afrikaans language is alive and seemingly flourishing in the New South Africa. Do you agree? And if you do, what do you think made it possible for it to shake off that false legacy of being the “language of the oppressor”?
I just cannot agree with those prophets of doom, at Stellenbosch or elsewhere. On the simple numerical level, there are enough mother-tongue speakers of Afrikaans in the country (the majority of whom are not white) to ensure survival. I believe, with Antjie Krog, that Afrikaans can really only be saved once it is saved from the people who try to save it. (This said, I do think that – especially compared with Bloemfontein and Potchefstroom – Stellenbosch is going about it the wrong way. And of course, despite all the pious denials, the government sadly does not seem to care enough to act with integrity in this matter, as in others. There are still too many individuals in power who appear to bear grudges against “the language of apartheid” – however false and outdated such a view may have become.
The very roots of the language, in the mouths of slaves, and in the community of the deprived, should ensure for it a very special place in the future. And the sinewy vitality of Afrikaans makes it something which, in its own right, is WORTHY of survival.
- Looking at the contemporary literary scene, do you think it is facing up to the challenges presented by our fledgling democracy?
I think South African literature as a whole is wonderfully alive and well, and entering a period of real creative explosion. In the variety of responses to our world, and in the quality of the responses (also in the refusal to remain bogged down in clichés and stereotypes), writing in both English and Afrikaans seems to be flourishing. (My one concern is the lack of stimulation for writing in the indigenous languages. And the government’s almost criminal negligence in responding to the huge problem of illiteracy and semi-literacy. There is almost no attempt to support libraries and to sponsor huge programmes of adult education. As long as the priorities are to buy arms and to line the pockets of the powerful and their families and friends, literature will remain under a cloud.)
- You are surely the most senior and admired figure in our literary scene; as such, please pass on a few words of encouragement, or criticism of whatever, to the emerging generation of young writers.
Very simple and down-to-earth: don’t allow anyone from outside to dictate what you should, or should not, write. As long as you passionately, and with total commitment, believe in what you’re writing, you’re heading in the right direction.
I wish you well, dear friend.