Putting pen to paper to solve the prob­lem of prej­u­dice

Mar­i­anne Thamm’s mem­oir is a poignant study of SA so­ci­ety, writes KEVIN RITCHIE

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

MAR­I­ANNE Thamm doesn’t think of her­self as a par­tic­u­larly great writer. She didn’t think that her story was worth telling ei­ther.

Thank­fully, she’s wrong, on both counts.

Thamm, who cut her teeth as a cub re­porter on the Cape Times, fol­low­ing the trusted route of the court and crime beats be­fore be­com­ing an arts writer, has writ­ten at least six books, as the au­thor or ghost writer, in­clud­ing the best­selling and com­pelling I Have Life: Ali­son’s story, as well as su­per sleuth Paul O’Sul­li­van’s story and PJ Pow­ers’s mem­oirs.

You might think that at a youth­ful 54, she’s far too young to pen her own mem­oirs. She’d be the first to agree.

She was plagued by doubts, she ad­mits. “Ev­ery­one’s got a story, what made mine spe­cial?” she pon­dered.

She didn’t trust her writ­ing ei­ther.

She re­gards her­self as an ar­ti­sanal writer, a jour­ney­man rather than artist, some­one who writes – and does prodi­giously in col­umns for mag­a­zines and anal­y­sis pieces for web­sites – as a liv­ing.

The thought of writ­ing with­out a pos­si­ble pub­lisher or a pay day at the end was a huge hur­dle. In the end, it took the fi­nan­cial sup­port and mo­ral en­cour­age­ment of her life­long friend and “brother”, Belgium’s lit­er­ary en­fant ter­ri­ble Tom Lanoye, and the syn­chronic­ity of the uni­verse at large, to con­vince her oth­er­wise.

Hitler, Ver­wo­erd, Man­dela and Me, her sev­enth book, is as much a per­sonal mem­oir as it is a jour­ney through a mine­field of prej­u­dice, find­ing a path through the en­trenched big­otry of the 20th cen­tury; racism, sex­ism, in­sti­tu­tion­alised ho­mo­pho­bia, com­pounded by the en­grained bu­reau­cratic an­tipa­thy against in­ter-racial adop­tion by les­bian moms.

It’s also about Thamm’s life as a Pretoria tomboy in a dys­func­tional fam­ily, com­pris­ing a Ger­man dad who grad­u­ated from the Hitler Youth to the Luft­waffe, and a Por­tuguese mom.

The ti­tle pro­vides the clues, as Thamm ex­plains: “My mother grew up un­der Salazar, my fa­ther grew up un­der Hitler, I grew up un­der Ver­wo­erd.”

The book, she laughs, is her re­venge on the 20th cen­tury.

“I live in the coun­try that I al­ways wanted to live in.”

It was this that Lanoye en­cour­aged her to ex­plore and write about.

It’s be­cause of all of this that she’s san­guine about the dif­fi­cul­ties South Africa faces.

“We’ve al­ways been five min­utes to mid­night, ever since Van Riebeeck landed here. We were there in 1961 with Sharpeville, 1976 with Soweto, 1985 with Botha, we were there in 1993 with Chris Hani’s as­sas­si­na­tion.

“We are a very prag­matic peo­ple, we get through things. What’s hap­pen­ing now is ex­actly what’s hap­pened be­fore (dur­ing apartheid), the dif­fer­ence is that we have laws hold­ing the guilty ac­count­able.

“We’re not even unique,” she ar­gues. “Look at (dis­graced for­mer Ital­ian prime min­is­ter Sil­vio) Ber­lus­coni. Cor­rup­tion and crime are the flip­side of cap­i­tal­ism. South Africa’s lead­ers bring out the best and the worst in us.

“Nel­son Man­dela’s pres­i­dency was a dis­as­ter – ex­cept sym­bol­i­cally. He was a god-like fig­ure and we needed him at that mo­ment. Thabo Mbeki was the de­mand­ing fa­ther fig­ure who wanted to get things done but didn’t re­alise the struc­tural dam­age wrought by decades of apartheid. Ja­cob Zuma, ‘Who’s Your Daddy’, rep­re­sented in the be­gin­ning of his pres­i­dency at least a restora­tion and dig­ni­fy­ing of the African self; the abil­ity to prac­tise polygamy proudly, to sing and dance with the com­mon folk, to drink umqom­bothi from a paint tin.

“It was an African­ness that had been so eroded by white hege­mony, that’s what he rep­re­sented in its purest form. He was the herd boy who be­came the pres­i­dent, the liv­ing proof, the em­bod­i­ment of the Amer­i­can dream, ex­cept it could never hap­pen there. And then it be­came a dis­as­ter.”

It’s a pity, Thamm says, be­cause the world is cry­ing out for an African world view, an African cos­mol­ogy of jus­tice and eq­uity… “In South Africa, and Africa, there’s a sense of com­mu­nity – when we’re not killing each other. Another hu­man be­ing is not your com­pe­ti­tion, he or she is your brother or your sis­ter.

“In­stead of striv­ing for bling and ex­cess, we should be striv­ing for enough. We should be re­mem­ber­ing the African val­ues of char­ity, of Ubuntu, of the fact that it takes a village to raise a child. There’s much (for the world) to be gained from that view.”

There’s a lot that white South Africans can do too, she be­lieves.

“I went to a May Day rally in Khayelit­sha last year and thought it would be so in­cred­i­ble if white South Africans could just show sol­i­dar­ity with black South Africans, and use a pub­lic hol­i­day, any one, to ac­tu­ally get out there.

“The econ­omy’s tough, we lie in bed won­der­ing how we are go­ing to get through the month, then we think of those less for­tu­nate and we won­der how they are sur­viv­ing. Don’t won­der, don’t be re­sent­ful, get up, get out there and help. If some­one’s beg­ging, give them money. Show you care.”

Writ­ing the book has made her think about prej­u­dice, whether so­ci­ety’s or even her own fa­ther’s. She be­lieves peo­ple can change, that like ca­naries they can be taught other songs, that a part of their past need not nec­es­sar­ily de­fine their en­tire fu­ture.

They can be for­given too for their prej­u­dices, like Zuma’s com­ments about ho­mo­sex­u­als.

The pres­i­dent’s sub­se­quent apol­ogy, though, was even more im­por­tant, be­cause it shows, she says, that he un­der­stood the im­pli­ca­tions of what he had said, the hurt it had caused, and ul­ti­mately the fal­lacy of his prej­u­dice.

“Prej­u­dice is some­thing you need to take out and pol­ish ev­ery day. The world’s not a nice place when you are prej­u­diced,” she says. “The only way is to ex­pose those prej­u­dices and get the peo­ple who hold them to ask them­selves why they do.”

Thamm has learnt to for­give too. She’s for­given her late fa­ther and in the process for­given her­self too.

“My fa­ther wanted to be happy, but ex­pected it to ar­rive, mirac­u­lously, on its own. In see­ing his melan­choly, I’ve come to un­der­stand that life doesn’t work like that. Life is about solv­ing – and over­com­ing – prob­lems one by one, and get­ting the hap­pi­ness out of that.”

Thamm’s mem­oir Hitler, Ver­wo­erd, Man­dela and Me is pub­lished by Tafel­berg, at a rec­om­mended re­tail price of R280.

Jour­nal­ist and com­men­ta­tor Mar­i­anne Thamm has penned her mem­oir, Man­dela and Me. Hitler, Ver­wo­erd,

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