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