Putting pen to paper to solve the problem of prejudice
Marianne Thamm’s memoir is a poignant study of SA society, writes KEVIN RITCHIE
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,