On Oc­to­ber 3, SA lost a lit­er­ary lu­mi­nary. Eli­nor Sisulu re­mem­bers the joy of be­ing around Chris van Wyk

CityPress - - Voices - Sisulu is an au­thor and chair­per­son of the Book De­vel­op­ment Foun­da­tion

Ire­cently sat on a stage with Mau­reen Isaac­son and Phil Molefe in the au­di­to­rium of Mu­seum Africa in down­town Joburg. We were talk­ing about Nadine Gordimer to an au­di­ence of a few se­ri­ous-look­ing adults in the front row and, be­hind them, just more than 50 fid­gety, inat­ten­tive high school pupils. could imag­ine from the bored ex­pres­sions on most of their faces that they were think­ing they had bet­ter things to do than lis­ten to some ob­scure peo­ple dron­ing on about a writer who they have never heard of and whose books they were un­likely to ever read.

I con­firmed this when I asked if the un­der-20s in the au­di­ence knew who Gordimer was. Three put up their hands. Asked if they knew what the Nobel prize was, one girl put up her hand and she was the only one who could tell us the names of the South Africans who had been awarded the prize.

I felt pow­er­less to cap­ti­vate their in­ter­est and, not for the first time in my life, I wished I had the gift of Gcina Mhlophe, Sindiwe Mag­ona or Chris van Wyk to cap­ti­vate any au­di­ence and light a spark in the eyes of even the most dis­in­ter­ested child.

Their abil­ity to in­spire and en­er­gise is ex­tra­or­di­nary, as is their com­mit­ment to go to school after school, speak­ing to thou­sands of chil­dren across the coun­try.

We lost one of th­ese na­tional trea­sures at the week­end and, as one com­men­ta­tor said, the world is a dim­mer place with­out him.

Since the dev­as­tat­ing news broke, there has been a del­uge of trib­utes about Chris, one of the most en­dear­ing per­son­al­i­ties in South Africa’s lit­er­ary land­scape. The one that moves me most is J Brooks Spec­tor’s homage, ap­pro­pri­ately ti­tled The beau­ti­ful soul of Chris van Wyk de­parted.

Chris was in­deed a beau­ti­ful soul and I cel­e­brate the priv­i­lege of hav­ing known this ex­tra­or­di­nary hu­man be­ing. Like Pumla Di­neo Gqola, “I will cher­ish ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion we ever had, ev­ery time I ever heard him speak”.

Each time I saw Chris, I felt in­spired by his hu­mour and en­thu­si­asm. Most of the time, he was with his wife Kathy, who he loved so much, and it was a joy to see them to­gether. Chris loved peo­ple and he loved their sto­ries. He gave gen­er­ously of his time and Kathy sup­ported him.

I re­call with a mix­ture of sad­ness and deep ad­mi­ra­tion the last time we shared a plat­form on the oc­ca­sion of the launch of the Nal’ibali Chil­dren’s Lit­er­acy Char­ter in April on World Book Day at Con­sti­tu­tion Hill in Joburg.

The launch of a char­ter to pro­mote the range of lit­er­acy ex­pe­ri­ence all chil­dren should have to best en­able them to learn to read and write was just the kind of oc­ca­sion where one would ex­pect to meet Chris, yet I barely recog­nised him.

As I greeted him, I strug­gled to hide my shock at see­ing a man who seemed a shadow of him­self. Yet when he rose to speak to his young au­di­ence, his char­ac­ter­is­tic ex­u­ber­ance was re­stored and with the first sen­tence he ut­tered, he had the chil­dren scream­ing with laugh­ter. I never ad­mired Chris more than in that mo­ment.

My mind went back to an ear­lier oc­ca­sion when I was asked by book ac­tivist He­len Holyoake to in­tro­duce Chris at a lit­er­ary lun­cheon in Pre­to­ria, not long after the pub­li­ca­tion of his me­moirs Shirley, Good­ness & Mercy.

Look­ing across the room at the sea of white faces, I won­dered what this mid­dle-aged-to-el­derly white au­di­ence in apartheid’s for­mer heart­land would make of Chris. I need not have wor­ried. He in­tro­duced him­self, say­ing: “I come from a place on the out­skirts of Jo­han­nes­burg called River­lea. Un­der the Group Ar­eas Act, it was only for coloureds, but now, mos, it’s open to ev­ery­one so, if you like, you can also come stay there.”

From that mo­ment, he had them in the palm of his hand and he ended his talk to deaf­en­ing ap­plause.

Go­ing fur­ther back, I saw Chris speak to a very dif­fer­ent au­di­ence on the oc­ca­sion of the launch of the biog­ra­phy of Ahmed Ti­mol by his nephew Imtiaz Ca­jee.

In the first con­ver­sa­tion I ever had with Chris, we spoke about the strange­ness of hav­ing the book launch at John Vorster Square, the no­to­ri­ous se­cu­rity po­lice head­quar­ters where Ti­mol sup­pos­edly com­mit­ted sui­cide by jumping out of a win­dow on the 10th floor.

If I re­call cor­rectly, the venue was cho­sen be­cause Charles Nqakula, the then min­is­ter of safety and se­cu­rity, wanted new po­lice re­cruits to un­der­stand the his­tory of the build­ing and mark a break with the past to build a new cul­ture of peace and democ­racy in which po­lice bru­tal­ity would have no place.

The pro­gramme in­cluded a tour of the cells to see the heav­ily barred lit­tle win­dows from which de­tainees al­legedly jumped.

The poem that made Chris fa­mous, In De­ten­tion, made per­fect sense. I re­mem­ber the wide eyes of the po­lice re­cruits as Chris spoke about how the poem came to the at­ten­tion of the se­cu­rity po­lice, re­sult­ing in his ar­rest and in­ter­ro­ga­tion.

Thank­fully, Chris sur­vived the ex­pe­ri­ence and went on to be­come a pro­lific au­thor of me­moirs, bi­ogra­phies and chil­dren’s sto­ries.

His bi­ogra­phies of iconic lead­ers such as Nel­son Man­dela and Oliver Tambo are an im­por­tant re­source for in­ter­gen­er­a­tional knowl­edge trans­fer. He has left us a li­brary and the best trib­ute we can pay him is to use it.

I will not be buy­ing flow­ers for Chris. In­stead, I will hon­our his mem­ory by buy­ing copies of his books and putting them into the hands of the chil­dren who need them.



Chris van Wyk

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