We’re sitting under the oaks outside the coffee shop, and it’s a beautiful evening. Karabo Kgoleng has come from two hours of Afternoon Talk and is recharging her battery with a bottle of sparkling water. I order a cappuccino.
When she arrived in the SAfm Literature studio two years ago she “had very big shoes to fill”, taking over the programme from the erudite Victor Dlamini, she says. This she did with what sounded like remarkable ease, a big personality, and a wealth of knowledge.
“Nobody knew who I was,” she says, and it might have seemed as though she had landed there out of the blue, but in truth “I started out at a community radio station in Lenasia, Radio Islam, in 2002. And then I went to work for a satellite radio station. And if you’re not getting the journalism degree, then work for nothing where the journalism is happening, that’s the way I look at it. And it was a good six years of slog, right at the bottom of the barrel. You have to work really hard and unnoticed until the opportunity comes, and then you’re prepared for it.
“One day I got a phone call: ‘We’re looking for a presenter, and we’ve heard that you’ve done this before’, because I had a book show on Channel Islam for about two years, and I’d been working in publishing for Jacana Media.” As well as presenting SAfm Literature she now presents the daily Afternoon Talk as well.
“It was hectic,” she laughs, recalling her first Literature show. “I had to interview Ben Okri and … oh my goodness! I remembered reading his earlier book, the one with the butterflies … The Famished Road, when I was 18 years old. That book knocked me out.
“I used to spend holidays with my grandparents in the rural areas, and at night you had to come in before the sun went down. You’d hear about witches. So that stuff sort of stays in the recesses of your subconscious if you grew up with it. Also, in Botswana we lived in Tlokweng” (a village popularised as the birthplace of Mr JLB Matekoni, husband of Mma Ramotswe, in Alexander McCall Smith’s The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency). “So there’s always that folklore. And black people talk about witchcraft, we do, so it’s still part of our collective subconscious. So for me, all my education had been in a very Western vein – we’d done Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, but mostly it was Lord of the Flies, Shakespeare … So a guy I was dating gave me his copy of The Famished Road, and I read it, and I was like: Wow! This is a serious intellectual read about this magic world that you’re not really allowed to talk about. You’re at university, and university tells you there’s this kind of knowledge, which is the knowledge that is going to get you somewhere. So it was amazing to read that.”
In 1988, when she was seven years old, her family went into exile in Botswana, where she lived until she was 16. In the peculiar way that South Africans of different races were able to get to know one another outside our borders when they were not allowed to do it at home, Michael Titlestad, now associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) remembers Karabo as an adolescent when he taught her at Maru-a-Pula high school in Botswana: “She was very skinny, and very enthusiastic.”
“Aaah, Mr Titlestad,” she smiles. “He was my English teacher in 1994. You didn’t mess with him. He didn’t laugh or joke with us, he was quite serious, but he had a very dry sense of humour. He also ran the music club. He’s responsible for my getting into Pink Floyd and Jim Morrison and the activist-type rock ’n roll from the sixties. At the beginning of the music club he’d be sitting on the teacher’s desk, and we’d all be sitting around, and he’d give you the background, the history, the way the world was at the time, where this band came from and what they were fighting against. Vietnam, and what sort of governments were in place. Then he’d bring it here. And in that time Botswana wasn’t even independent yet, South Africa’s in the grip of apartheid. Miriam Makeba, and the development of black consciousness and the civil rights movement in the US. So he’d give you a sense of the mood, of how the world was when this music came out, and the kinds of instruments that were popular. Then we’d listen to the lyrics and start exploring that. So it opened up my compass in terms of the music that I was exposed to. Otherwise I’d probably still just be listening to R&B today.”
Coming back to South Africa in 1997 wasn’t easy. “You watch Mandela being freed on TV, and then it’s 1994 elections. And now you’re getting these images of South Africa, you get Jo’burg, you get Cape Town – you get the cosmopolitan South Africa. And then we moved back to Stilfontein, a dying mining town about 10 ks outside of Klerksdorp, where my dad was working. And there were no black people, no black neighbours. My first weekend, I was going running, I looked behind me because I could hear a cyclist coming, and he said: ‘Wat kyk jy kaffer?’ I just sort of stood there. You’re 16 years old and life is already confusing enough as it is. You’re from this worldly international school and you come into this small little verkrampte town.
“Ja … encounters of a racial kind,” she sighs, “when you haven’t grown up with racism, it messes you up, it really does. The thing is, it’s irrational, but it’s incredibly personal, and it’s violent in a way that you can’t give words to. And because it’s something that you can’t see, you can’t say, hey, what you’re doing is incredibly hurtful, and you have no reason to do this. There’s still that mindset that die swart gevaar is in your backyard, the person from the servants’ quarters, hiding under your bed.
“Don’t be taking on those small towns when you’re black. They still serve people at different entrances at the shop and the bottle store.”
Of her altogether different experience in Pezenas, a small town in France, she wrote on the Book SA website: “It was incredibly humbling to walk into a shop and not be treated like I was coming to ask for a job or to slip something into my purse for free without the proprietor’s knowledge or permission.”
“It’s that conversation that we swept under the carpet,” she says, “and now it’s starting to stink and we don’t know how to take it on again. Foreign people say, you guys are so obsessed with race. But ja, I suppose it’s defined who we are for 400 years.
“After high school I got a scholarship to study medicine at Tuks in Pretoria, and after a year there that was it. I couldn’t. I had a different idea about university culture. Then I went to Wits to study science, but there was no money. So finally, I just started working.”
Now, having to read an average of three books a week for Literature, she’s working up to the postgraduate degree. “My colleagues say I’m going to go mad, but I’m going to be a professor when I grow up,” she laughs. “It depends on the type of book. If it’s popular fiction, you gobble that up in no time. But then you get the political biographies – shoo, those ones! And there are those books that shock, and offend me, but I have to get through it. I think it’s good, because if you only do the things that you want to do it doesn’t help you grow.
“We have to have a variety – kids’ books; health books; academic; popular fiction; serious literature.” They also feature a number of self-published books. “Some are really, really good, and some are shockingly bad, but we have to give the space to those as well. You can’t let the publishing houses set the agenda. The books arrive in whack-loads, even from other countries, because they see a market here.” She’s also had a cyber-stalker pushing her to review his book.
“Socially, I do go out, meet up with people and have drinks and whatever, but mostly, if I’m not on the radio talking to thousands of people, I’m on my own. Otherwise I just wouldn’t get all the work done.
“I love philosophy. That’s the one thing that I’m aching for,” she says. “I passed Philosophy I through Unisa, I did logic, so I’m chipping away at it slowly. I might just drop off the face of the earth and one day I’ll creep up out of the woodwork, my dreadlocks will be long and grey. I’d like to do something on the great African philosophers. I’m still scratching around for them.” She cites Kole Omotoso, better known to the masses as the Vodacom “Yebo Gogo” man, as “one of the professors I look up to. He’s one of my favourite people in the world. He has a background in English, French and Arabic literature, and I love speaking to him. We need to build a tradition of African philosophy, because we’re losing that worldview, we’re losing it so fast.
“My parents didn’t want me to do arts, they wanted me to be a doctor. When I explained to them that this is what I want to study, they said, but what are you going to do with it?” I mention a friend, a linguist, who went on to study philosophy and became a Catholic priest.
“I did a linguistics course with him at Wits!” she says with surprise. “He gave us a setwork of Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, and since then I’ve been a big Stephen Pinker fan, and I got into Noam Chomsky. He was such a brilliant linguistics lecturer.
“Language is so important. What disturbs me is how we look at success, because to do well at school, to get to university, you have to have a higher grade English first language pass, because once they start teaching you things like integral calculus you have to have a grasp of a first language. And unfortunately in South Africa we don’t have schools that teach any other first language as well as English is taught as a first language, to the extent that you can express yourself properly and understand abstract concepts. Then you can start to translate. You learn other languages better if you have a very strong mother tongue.”
Meshack Masondo, South Africa’s best-selling crime writer (outselling even Deon Meyer), who writes in Zulu and has sold well over a million copies of his books, illustrated another problem when he told Jenny Crwys-Williams: “Blacks at the moment – I’ll use the term ‘blacks’ because I’ve got no problem being called a black man – we are blamed or labelled as an unreading nation. Now we are trying to implement that culture of reading. When we try to read English books, we find it very boring, because we’ve got a language barrier. Most of us, we are battling with English. Somebody like myself who grew up on the farm, went to school on the farm, and came to town when I was old, trying to speak English with the white man for the first time when I was in Johannesburg. Now we are trying to bridge that gap.
“At the moment I’ve got a manuscript with very simple English. With this book I’m trying to get the people who are battling with language to start reading in English as well. I’ve tried to read a number of books … The other day I was on a plane to Germany, and I had this book I was reading, it bored me to death and I didn’t finish a chapter. Because I could not understand what was happening there. Still today I hear people talking about it, it’s a nice book, and I’ve got it on my shelf but I have never read it. Now it is the time for people like me, who are battling with the language, to start writing in very simple English so that everybody will be able to read it.” He is highlighting the dearth of books available to South Africans in their mother tongues.
Nigerian poet Tolu Ogunlesi, in the First Quarter 2009 issue of Wordsetc, writes in awe of the Göteborg Book Fair: “By my estimates, ninety-five percent of the thousands – if not millions – of books available [there] were in one Scandinavian language or another. The Uppsala-based English bookstores stand was the only one at which I saw English in the majority.” This is the case throughout most of Europe. By contrast, even in Africa, African literature is more often available in English.
In her latest book, Begging to Be Black, Antjie Krog marvels at an advertisement she saw in German in Berlin: “One may be ambivalent about the sentiment but the articulation is fantastic. Is it because the majority of South Africans function in our second or third languages that one never comes across such succinct and imaginative articulation?” She speaks of a “longing for a coherence between the world and texts I read”.
One of Karabo’s regrets is that she never got to read in her home language, Setswana (her father’s), or her mother’s language, isiXhosa, as a child, though she speaks them fluently. She also speaks French, and her Zulu, she says, “will get me from Noord Street to Randburg”. In all she speaks six African languages, including Afrikaans. And yet she is often accused of being a “coconut”.
“A listener to the radio the other day accused me of trying to push ‘the coconut agenda’. I mean, what’s a coconut agenda? It was always bubbling under, the jibes. In high school it was about musical tastes. Because I listened to more than just music that black people made, and black people from America. And then it would be like: ‘Oh, she’s listening to rock ’n roll, she wants to be white.’ And the white kids were also interested: ‘She listens to rock ’n roll, how did that happen? She’s not like the other black kids.’ But it’s like … I’m the coconut who doesn’t have an English name, and I’ve actually read Steve Biko. But when you disagree with another black person …” She trails off, seeming tired of this debate.
Her current enthusiasm is for her newly acquired, custom-made bookcase. “I tried the hospice second-hand shops and went all over the place, but nothing was right, and then I finally found this lovely Afrikaans lady called Ansie, who builds bookshelves out of Oregon pine. She’s got all these yapping dogs, and she said, just tell me the dimensions. So it arrived, and I packed my books, and now I’ve got to get another one. I’ve got another load of books at my parents’ home.”
One day, she says, when everyone else has converted to Kindle, “I’m going to have a whole library, with a study, and a big mahogany desk. I’m going to have a reading room that overlooks a garden with lots of flowers. I still love that feeling of when you crack open the spine of a book, and the smell of the fresh ink, and to know that I’m one of the first people to clap eyes on this book, I’ve got the first print run. If they’re signed I refuse to lend them to anyone. I say to people, you can come and read it at my home. First edition and it’s a signed copy – I think I’ll hold on to that for posterity!
“When we were young my dad never allowed us to be bored,” she recalls. “He taught me to read and write when I was four, and he took us to the library. So I grew up surrounded by books. And I was a member of the Young People’s Book Club, my mom got us membership and they’d send us books. I remember reading how Papa Mouse Found His Own House, and the What-A-Mess books. We were always so engaged in stuff. My dad used to buy the Star, the Sowetan and the Citizen every day, and you’d have to pick your favourite article, read it to him and tell him why you liked it. So you could talk, and make your point, but you weren’t allowed to talk nonsense. You had to think.
“Finding a passion in life, people don’t give themselves time to do that. And the race for material things … You do what you think will get you the money to get you the things that you want that you think will make you happy, instead of doing what you love in order to be fulfilled. At the end of the day I’m exhausted, but I’m happily exhausted. I’ll sit with a pile of work ahead of me, but I won’t be dreading it. I have to get through it, but I can’t wait to get stuck in.
“I’ve always had to work. I grew up under circumstances where you had to be creative with the few resources that you had, so that doesn’t really faze me. Guess what, you can make things happen without money. Living in an artistic environment, people who’ve chosen that have been in a permanent recession anyway. My father’s never been someone who was driven by money. He’s turned it away, turned it down. He’s rather chosen a life with quality where he feels there is meaning in each day. But then also, my lack of obsession with the material, I’ve never gone to bed hungry. We’ve always lived comfortably. So there was space for the pursuit of things that were more meaningful because we didn’t have those bread and butter issues to worry about.
“Our generation’s been put under a lot of pressure,” she reflects, “to realise the dreams that our parents weren’t able to achieve. For the parents, it’s: degree, get the bond, get the car, get married, and we want to see you living like the madams that we used to see. Keeping up with the Khumalos is what you’re supposed to do. But you get the big car, and then what? Now we’re in a recession and people are faced with the chop at work, and they’ve been believing in this as their one and only truth. But fortunes come and they go. When you want to leave something lasting behind, people are going to say they made a lot of money, and?
“South Africa’s an incredibly religious country, and even in the way that people are told why they should behave in a morally upright manner, it’s because God says so, and he will reward you on Earth and in the Kingdom of Heaven, so even the prosperity gospel is preached to a lot of young people. Across different religions. For the Christians it’s Brand Jesus. And the cars that they get – it’s my reward for being a good obedient Christian. Their leaders are driving flashy cars.
“My role models in my life, most of them were my teachers, and they couldn’t really afford fancy cars,” she says, “but they just lived such rich lives. I suppose for me, when I started earning a bit more money I extended my trip to France. I’d rather have the experiences than the things.
“I think we really need to respect ourselves as human beings by giving ourselves time and space for thought, and that’s why it’s important to read, why it’s important to listen, why it’s important to just slow down for a while every day. Because it’s only thought that has brought human civilisation to where it is now, and I think that’s where we’re losing the plot. There are people sitting with the means, but they are just lazy intellectually. They’re not thinking, they’re reacting. And that’s why we’re becoming so base, so violent, and so short and so rude to each other. So unkind and so selfish. It’s one of those things that we have to respect about our own humanity, and about how far we’ve come, so we don’t wipe ourselves out. Just give ourselves time to think.
“It’s one of the joys that we can find in being human, that we’ve got these minds, these minds that can change, and can literally change the world …”
At this point the heavens explode. “There’s the raaaiiiin,” she laughs, and we run for cover.
- Andie Miller is the author of Slow Motion, a collection of stories about walking, published by Jacana.