Ringing in the New Year

At 14:24 on Monday, 5 December 2022, my daughter Rachel walked up to a brass bell at the Rondebosch Medical Centre. She gripped the rope attached to the bell and swung it. The bell chimed. I swallowed the lump in my throat. 

A few minutes earlier, her doctor, paediatric oncologist and haematologist (and musician and all-round hero) Marc Hendricks, opened a government-brown medical file, bulging with notes, and wrote two little letters: “D/C”, the medical abbreviation for “discharge”. 

These two little letters signalled the end of a seven-year-and-eight-month long medical journey. It’s tradition for healed children to ring the bell when they walk out of the doctor’s rooms for the final time. 

Dr Marc – as his young patients and their parents fondly call him – opened Rachel’s file on 9 April 2015 in a small office across the road at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital. 

Rachel, who was then six, had landed up at the Red Cross because something had been terribly wrong for a long time, but no one could work out what it was. She was lethargic and listless. Her skin was translucent, her lips were blue and her heart beat like a machine gun in her chest. She didn’t eat and didn’t sleep. 

Our GP sent her to a paediatrician who, after doing a series of tests, told us that she needed highly specialised medical expertise. Which is how we – my wife Jean and I – ended up in Dr Marc’s office at G1, the Red Cross’s oncology and haematology unit, that day.

I remember sitting in that office with the walls closing in on me. I remember struggling to breathe. I remember wanting to be anywhere else. 

Dr Marc could sense my anxiety. “You’re in good hands,” he reassured me. 

A team of Red Cross doctors were looking after Rachel. “You don’t need to phone, you don’t need an appointment, if something is wrong just bring her – don’t wait,” he told us. 

“There will always be someone here to see Rachel when she comes. You’ve got a golden ticket to the Red Cross.”

Pure Red Cell Aplasia,bone marrow transplant

Rachel and Dr Marc

As a child, I was desperate for a golden ticket – but the one I longed for would give me unrestricted access to a factory with rivers of melted chocolate, candyfloss clouds and oompa loompas; not a medical facility.

I soon discovered that Dr Marc’s golden ticket was much more valuable than Willy Wonka’s. Here, some of the best medical brains in the world puzzled over Rachel’s rare illness.  

These doctors are not only highly skilled, they also have huge compassion. Each visit to Dr Marc would be carefully recorded and placed in Rachel’s medical file. Her haemoglobin levels, the blood transfusions, the results of the biopsies and all the different tests her fragile body endured. 

Rachel was eventually diagnosed with a super rare bone marrow failure condition called pure red cell aplasia (PRCA) – she’s the only patient with PRCA that has crossed Dr Marc’s stethoscope. 

The words pure red cell aplasia seemed harmless, but when I typed them into Google I made the horrific discovery that the life expectancy for a child diagnosed with it was 10 years.

Dr Marc explained that Rachel’s bone marrow had gone on strike and wasn’t making red blood cells. The year flew by in a whirl of doctor’s appointments, hospital visits, biopsies, blood tests, emergency transfusions, and morbid Google search binges. 

In one Google session, I discovered an obscure academic research paper that found that some cows in India who ate bracken fern had PRCA. We have bracken fern in our garden. I put two and two together and reported my findings to Dr Marc, who promptly banned me from Google.

Whenever her blood levels dropped to dangerously low levels we would rush her to the Red Cross for a blood transfusion or, as Dr Marc referred to it, “a can of the best”.

After a transfusion Rachel was full of beans. It was like a switch had been flipped – she suddenly became alive, jumping on the trampoline, riding her bicycle and defending her title in the world monkey bar championships; she became the child she deserves to be. But blood transfusions carry their own danger and the intervals between transfusions were becoming shorter. 

Pure Red Cell Aplasia,bone marrow transplant

Rachel in hospital before her transplant

In December 2015 Dr Marc told us that Rachel had become transfusion dependent and she needed a bone marrow transplant. This, he explained, would be like rebooting her bone marrow, although it was associated with significant risk.

He warned us that not all the children who receive transplants come back – but it was her only hope. 

The South African Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR) embarked on a search for a donor. The odds of finding a donor are one in 100 000 and, in 2016, there were only 70 000 people on the SABMR’s list of donors.

After a year-long search, scouring international databases, Terry Schlaphoff, SABMR’s then deputy director, discovered a 10/10 match; a young woman living in Poland. 

Magda Lewandowska, a stranger 14 000km from Cape Town, gave Rachel the gift of life. On 14 March 2017, Rachel had her life-saving transplant. After months of isolation and a wonky start that saw her admitted to the Red Cross several times, her new bone marrow eventually kicked in.

Since then, we’ve been making trips to Dr Marc. However, unlike the intervals between transfusions in 2015 and 2016 which became shorter and shorter, the intervals between Dr Marc’s check-ups were getting further and further apart as her new and improved Magda-infused bone marrow restored colour to her cheeks and turned her lips strawberry red. 

Pure Red Cell Aplasia,bone marrow transplant

Dr Marc reads a card from Rachel.

Last year, Dr Marc said he wanted to see Rachel one more time and if there’s colour in her cheeks, he said, she would ring the bell. 

On Monday, there was colour in Rachel’s cheeks. “Right,” Dr Marc told her as he wrote the letters “D/C” in her file, “now you can do whatever you want … except smoke.”

Rachel shook her head. “I won’t smoke, but what I want to do is get a belly button ring.” 

“I’m staying out of that,” said Dr Marc. “That’s between you and your parents.” (Add diplomat to Dr Marc’s impressive list of accomplishments.)

From a belly button ring to a bell ring. 

John Donne’s famous line, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,” means that sooner or later, death comes for us. That’s true. It’s also a reminder that we are all connected to each other, and we should feel loss at every death, because it has taken something away from humanity. 

When Rachel rang the bell I thought of the children we met who never got to ring the bell. During Rachel’s journey we met many children with life-threatening conditions and rare diseases, who faced them with courage and humour.

Not all the stories had successful outcomes or happily-ever-after endings. Many of the children being treated at the Red Cross for cancer and blood diseases do not survive.

Rachel rang the bell for them. She also rang it for all her guardian angels who walked with us on this medical journey: the remarkable Dr Marc, Prof Alan Davidson, Sister Brown and the nurses and lab technicians at the Red Cross; Prof Novitzky, Dr Madurai and Sister Sindi at Groote Schuur Hospital’s transplant unit; Terry and her colleagues at the SABMR; and Rachel’s genetic twin, Magda.

Magda gave of herself – literally – to save our daughter’s life. 

And, of course, Rachel rang the bell for herself. 

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Zoom Passover

It’s 15 minutes to Zoom Passover and I’m scrambling to get my seder plate together. The irony doesn’t escape me: the reason we eat matzah is because the Jews left Egypt at the very last minute and couldn’t wait for their bread to rise – and I’ve left the seder plate to the very last minute.
I type ‘what goes on…’ into Google and the internet search engine offers me ‘a cheese platter’, ‘the x axis’ and, third on the list, ‘a seder plate’, which means I’m not the first Jew anxiously trying to get their Passover groove on.
Each of the five Passover staples on the seder plate – shank bone, boiled egg, bitter herbs, spring greens and charoset – represents something of the holiday celebrating the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery thousands of years ago.
I grew up in a traditional Jewish family. We didn’t keep kosher and hardly ever went to shul, but we fasted on the Day of Atonement, celebrated the Jewish New Year and marked Passover with a ceremonial feast known as the seder.
Of all the holidays Passover is the one I have the most affinity to; it anchors me to Judaism. Judaism, for me at least, is family, friends, food and that invisible force that keeps the fiddler from slipping off the roof – tradition. All these elements converge on Passover. Within the formal customs and rituals are our own family traditions, like my father’s dad jokes.
‘What is that,’ he asks every year pointing at a bowl of what is clearly bean salad.
‘It’s bean salad,’ someone dutifully responds, to which he replies. ‘I don’t want to know what it’s been … I want to know what it is.’
We groan but it wouldn’t be Passover without it.
A seder wasn’t a seder if Herman Caplan wasn’t there. Herman was my father’s friend. He was 6ft6 to my father’s 5ft5 and the two spent hours in each other’s company, swapping stories, cracking jokes, watching movies, chatting about sport, politics and calling each other Shmecklehead, which is Yiddish for goofy person.
Herman knew everything about everything. His brain was filled with details, trivia and stats. He could tell you who won the best supporting actor in 1953 or which cricketer hit a six off Ian Chappell to win the fifth Test in Port Elizabeth. He was a walking Wikipedia.
Herman was always the first one to arrive for the seder and as soon as he arrived he would ask for a whisky. One day I offered to fetch it for him. I poured the whisky to the top like it was a cool drink.
‘From now on you’re pouring the whisky,’ he told me. I was eight.
Passover is the retelling the story of the exodus. It’s the same procedure every year and the same story is told over and over, but when Judith, my oldest sister, went to university she returned with a new version of the story; one that lifted it out of Egypt and into the politics of apartheid South Africa, teaching us that we cannot be free until everyone is free.
We’d spill red wine on saucers as we recounted the ten plagues but the plagues we cited in the turbulent 1980s were the imprisonment of political prisoners, deaths in custody, detentions without trial, torture, state of emergencies, censorship, bannings, troops in the townships, Bantu education, and poverty.
The role of Pharaoh was played by PW Botha and Nelson Mandela was our modern day Moses warning Die Groot Krokodil to Let My People Go.
My political awakening occurred between mouthfuls of gefilte fish and chopped liver on matzah, endless choruses of Da-da-yenu, and gulps of red wine.
Time marched on.
Politically, as we know, the Nationalist Party got its comeuppance (prison sentences would have been nice, though), and South Africa was freed from the bondage of apartheid. I moved to Cape Town with my own family, and sobbed when my father phoned to tell me Herman – the giant genius, whisky-swigging walking Wikipedia – had died.
I always meant to return to Johannesburg for family seders but never quite found the time. This year, in lockdown, not passing over Passover seemed particularly urgent.
The whole world is broken. We cannot move. We’re enslaved to an invisible enemy that is wreaking havoc on every aspect of our lives. I was feeling frayed around the edges and wanted to connect with something solid and reliable – my family; even if it’s only for a digital seder, which was due to start in five minutes.
I looked at what I had managed to scrape together for my plate: a hardboiled egg, bitter herbs and parsley, well three out of five ain’t bad. I didn’t have a lamb shank bone but if you don’t look too closely a roasted carrot could be its doppelganger. It was just the charoset I had to make. Charoset is a sweet-and-sour sticky paste that’s meant to resemble bricks and mortar to symbolise the backbreaking work the Jews did during their enslavement. It’s made of apples, walnuts, honey, red wine and cinnamon. We have all the ingredients except walnuts. We have no nuts at all, but I remember spying a slab of wholenut chocolate in my wife’s emergency snack stash. I can pick out the nuts. Walnut, wholenut … why not? If there’s one thing the novel coronavirus has taught us it’s that you’ve got to make do. I crushed the apples, sprinkled the cinnamon, added the repurposed nuts and made the charoset in record time.
I assembled my gang – my wife Jean and our children: 16-year-old Khwezi, 11-year-old Rachel and 5-year-old Maya. Maya arrives with no pants. I send her off to put some on before clicking on the Zoom link.
With that click my parents, three siblings and an assortment of their in-laws dotted around various Johannesburg suburbs crackle into our dining room. And just like the Passover of my youth, everyone is talking at once.
My father’s laptop is pointed too high and we can only see the top of his and my mother’s heads. But he’s on mute so we can’t tell him. I phone him and give instructions to point his laptop down – it feels like I’m conducting remote precision keyhole surgery, but we eventually work it out.
Judith takes charge. Why is this night different from all other nights, she asks and begins to tell the story of the exodus, this time lifting it out of Egypt, out of apartheid South Africa and into the time of Covid-19. She only gets a few words in when Ruth, my other sister, blurts out, ‘Why is Maya’s pants on her head?’
The connection’s not good and our screen freezes. Then Ruth gets kicked off the call and can’t log back on. We decide to reconvene on Google Hangouts where we can at least turn on captions for my hard-of-hearing mother.
We restart. It’s my brother’s turn to read.
‘Moses was born…’ he begins.
Khwezi almost chokes on his gefilte fish (well, a fish finger that self-identifies as gefilte fish).
What’s the matter, I ask my son. He points to the caption on the monitor.
‘Moses was born’ is transcribed as ‘Moses watched porn.’
We continue but the garbled captions get more attention than Moses’ heroic exploits.
‘Pass the matzah’ becomes ‘pasta master’, which is when it occurs to me that matzah is the perfect lockdown food: it fills you up and makes you constipated; handy when you run out of toilet paper.
We recite the ten plagues caused by the Covid-19 fallout: the deaths and the people dying alone, rising infections, mass retrenchments, troops in the townships (the more things change, hey), people going hungry, stock market crashes, social distancing, quarantine, bored children at home, and all the social, cultural and sporting events cancelled.
The coronavirus hangs heavy over our seder but I’m comforted by the fact that all of us are together. Well, most of us. I have a large glass of whisky in honour of Schmecklehead.
It’s time to say goodbye and return to our own socially-distanced meals.
‘Next year in Johannesburg,’ I vow.
Just before my father logs off I ask him what he and my mother are having for supper.
‘Charoset, hardboiled eggs, matzah and bean salad,’ he says.
I can’t resist.
‘I don’t want to know what it’s been…’ A lump that’s suddenly lodged in my throat prevents me from finishing the joke.
He smiles.
We may be down but, unlike matzah, we will eventually rise … we just need a little time.

I wrote this in 2020 after the world was locked down. It was published in Lockdown: The Corona Chronicles.

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Grilling an octopus

2020’s hit documentary My Octopus Teacher has inspired a string of memes, spoofs and even a mockumentary. I grilled the pyjama-shark-dodging, shape-shifting, ink-squirting, fish-chasing, human-cuddling octopus about becoming an instant sea-lebrity. (Warning: contains puns!)


Why did you decide to let Craig into your world?

At first I thought it was a bunch of different people coming to visit because all bare-chested humans in board shorts look the same, but whenever I peeked out from under my rock he was there. I would retreat and wait for him to go away, but he never did. After a few weeks I realised that if I didn’t venture out and make friends with this determined human I would be stuck in my den for months — it would be like level 5 rockdown.

The documentary has gone around the world, making you a sea-lebrity. What do you think of that?

It’s a bit of a damp squid really. I’m a shy creature and although I like waves I don’t like to make waves.

What did you think of the film?

I loved it but wasn’t pleased that they filmed me getting intimate for the first time … I never wanted to be a prawn star.

One of the biggest debates among marine biologists is getting to grips with the plural of octopus. Can you shed light on the octopi-octopuses debate?

Some people are quick to shout “octopi, octopi” when anyone says “octopuses”, but the letter “i” for a plural noun applies to words with Latin roots. Octopus is derived from Greek, so the correct word would be “octopodes”, but grammar gurus agree that “octopuses” is fine. You have my permission to tell anyone who shouts “octopi, octopi” to octopus off.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing a skop, squid en scallop whodunit about a famous detective called Kallie Mari who is hunting a murderous sea creature that has left a trail of dead bodies on the ocean floor.

Oooh, and who is the sea-rial killer?

It turns out that it’s a once much-loved octopus whose whole undersea was his oyster but he went rogue. His name is Octopustorius. Fortunately, Kallie Mari’s long arms of the law eventually catches up with him and he ends up in the can.

The US election is around the corner. Can you channel your clairvoyant powers and predict who will win?

You’re confusing me with Paul the psychic octopus. Unlike humans, octopuses do not all look alike. Anyway, I hope it’s not the orange guy. He thinks he can just grab us by the octopussy. I’m an Octopus vulgaris; he’s just a vulgaris. I will tell you, though, I was watching Sea-N-N and there was definitely a squid pro quo with Ukraine.

You should stand for the election. I’ll vote for you.

Cool. I’ll be the first OCTOPOTUS.

Do you have a motto you live by?

Carpe diem, which is Latin for both “seas the day” and “seize the carp”.

You’re kraken me up. OK, what’s your favourite movie?

Oceans 11.

Speaking of movies, I heard a rumour that you are working on a sea-quel to My Octopus Teacher called My Human Teacher?

No way.

Damn. The hake news media got it wrong again.

No offence, but I don’t think there’s anything good to learn from humans.

Is it because you don’t have a bad bone in your body and humans are evil creatures who are destroying the planet?

No. It’s because you lot are obsessed with awful puns. Stop it already.

I’m sorry, I can’t kelp it. I’m a sucker for puns. The sea is full of your foes, salivating at the gills to munch on some octopus-pie. How do you survive?

When I leave my den I make sure I’m well-armed — if being four-armed is four-warned, I’m eight-warned. I’ve also learnt to keep my friends close and my anemones even closer.

Now who’s making terrible puns?

I can get away with it because I’m a cute and loveable octopus. You’re a human.

Am I? Am I? I’ve got two forearms, doesn’t that make me an octopus?

One more pun and I’ll ink you.

Ok. No more puns, but please can I have next week’s PowerBall numbers…

Go away.

You can read Part 2, the interview with the film’s supporting actor Craig Foster, here

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Rachel’s Second Chance!

Rachel turned 12 on 26 November. She was a bright and cheerful baby and sailed through her crawling-walking-talking-toilet-humour milestones. When she was five we noticed there was something wrong – she would become so pale, her lips would turn grey and her cheeks would be translucent. She had no energy and would collapse in a heap on the floor. It turned out that she had a life-threatening bone marrow failure condition called Pure Red Cell Aplasia (a very rare disease; she’s still the only child that we are aware of with the condition).

The Red Cross Children’s Hospital became our second home as the next four years went by in a fog of hospital visits, biopsies, blood counts, and blood transfusions – so many transfusions! After she became transfusion dependent the SA Bone Marrow Registry started to search for a match so that she could have a bone marrow transplant.

They couldn’t find anyone on the SA registry or any of the international registers and they were starting to lose hope of ever finding a match – that is until Magda signed up in Poland.

Rachel had the transplant on 14 March 2017, which is when we celebrate her re-birthday. After chemo, three months of quarantine and a wobbly year while her new marrow decided to get with the programme, her blood count is normal, her cheeks are pink, her lips are red and she is a bright and cheerful tween who only collapses in a heap on the floor after she has spent too much time Tik-Tokking (whatever that is).

She is now a healthy child. Her birthday happened to coincide with Thanksgiving and seems appropriate to give thanks to all the hundreds of people who helped us, supporting from the sidelines – and, of course, Rachel’s three guardian angels, Terry Schlaphoff from the SA Bone Marrow Registry, the fantastic Dr Marc Hendricks and the miracle that is Rachel’s genetic twin, Magdalena.

A huge thank you to all the people who have joined the registry and who give the gift of second chances. If you would like to consider joining – it’s easy and painless – click here.

Happy birthday, Rachel.

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Old School

A few months back I received a Facebook invitation to the Highlands North Boys’ High School Class of ’88 reunion. I marked that I was “interested”, but the truth is that I was ambivalent about going. It’s not that I didn’t want to hang out with big-bellied, bald men approaching 50 who would certainly drink too much and sing school war cries. It’s just that when I think of high school, I cringe.

It was the something of November 1988 when I finished my final matric exam and walked out of the gates of Highlands — pronounced Haai-lands — in northeastern
Johannesburg for the very last time. I was leaving behind boyhood and taking my first
tentative steps into the world of adulthood — long hair, beer and, hopefully, sex.
While I was waiting at the gate for my mother to fetch me, a speeding yellow Datsun stormed into the school. The tyres screeched as the car performed doughnuts and figure-eights, black smoke belching from its exhaust. The driver had his hand pressed down on the hooter — beep-barp-beep-barp. It was a drive-by hooting.

Pupils poured out of classrooms to watch the car race up and down. Then the Datsun
came to a stop and in what seemed like one well-rehearsed choreographed movement,
four doors swung open and six boys spilt out. They were my classmates who had also
just finished their school career at Highlands. They started pelting passing pupils with eggs. It was pandemonium. A teacher marched up to the egg pelters, who scattered. All the boys save one managed to jump back into the Datsun, which sped away. The teacher grabbed the hapless boy by his ear. The teacher’s car had been splattered with egg yolk. The boy he’d grabbed was a muscleman you would not want to meet in a dark alley — or in any alley, or anywhere.

“Please,” I willed the boy, “smack that smug look off his face.” I wanted justice for being the teacher’s punching bag — or at least one of his punching bags — when I was unlucky enough to be in his geography class three years earlier. He was due some
comeuppance and it would be symbolic if it happened on my very last day of school, my
final moments on Highlands soil, because there was no way I was ever coming back. The boy didn’t do it. Instead, the teacher made him take off his shirt, and the poor bare-chested guy cleaned the teacher’s car with it.

My high school years — 1984 to 1988 — weren’t all terrible. I had friends, I learnt stuff, there were some very good teachers (OK, there was one — thank you, Mr Ledwidge), I played sport and Highlands wasn’t Dotheboys Hall in Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, where there are no holidays for the abused pupils who are whipped and starved by Mr Wackford Squeers. But there were many periods of terribleness. I endured Christian National Education, swart gevaar propaganda, veld school, cadets, corporal punishment and bullies — both in the form of sadistic teachers and brutish pupils. When I walked out of the gates in 1988 I had no desire ever to return. I had done my time. I didn’t want anything to do with the school.

While I was at school I’d fantasise about the day when one of the bullies would come
to see me in my huge office. I’d be all successful and have this huge grin on my face as he told me a hard-luck story. He’d call me Sir, issue a heartfelt mea culpa, beg for forgiveness and plead for a job. I’d shake my head sadly and say, “I’d love to give you a
job, Biff Tannen, but … nah!”

I also dreamt of bumping into my geography teacher and the headmaster, and belittling them. But mostly I just wanted to move on. And I did. That is, until Facebook happened and I found myself being added to a Highlands North Boys’ High School page, stirring up unwelcome emotions.

Thanks for nothing, Zuckerberg.

Highlands opened its doors in 1939 and when I arrived 45 years later it was a rough-
and-tumble school made up of boys from mostly working-class and lower middle-
class immigrant families: Italians, Portuguese, Lebanese, Brits, Greeks and Jews. That was our diversity.

It was said there were two kinds of boys who went to Highlands: lawyers and their
clients. Not too many Old Boys in my year became ground-breaking researchers or
captains of industry, and the Highlands old school tie is about as useful as an Iraqi
passport. As far as I know, our most famous Old Boy is cricketer Mandy Yachad, who represented SA in a single ODI (scoring 31 runs) because most of his career took place
during the international sporting boycott in the 1980s.

Our school was just another brick in the apartheid wall. Each year on Republic Day
(May 31) we were forced to take part in a military parade. We’d march around a field
being commanded to “eyes right”, salute dignitaries, and then stand at attention
behind a cheer-leading squad from Waverley Girls, our sister school. The cheerleaders bent over to pick up their batons, giving the boys behind them a split-second flash of their knickers. It was the highlight of the year. On “normal” days, 16-year-old cadet corporals would haul other boys out of the marching line and command them to do
ridiculous things, such as tell a joke that would make the troop of mini-soldiers laugh, or else he’d “liberty” them. Being “libertied” was Highlands talk for being punched in the face. The jokes that emerged from terrified boys whose minds had gone blank were inevitably of the racist variety, which tells you a bit about what commonly passed for humour in those ranks.

I remember one Monday morning hearing boys talk about how they had gone “K-bashing” over the weekend. I’m pretty sure it was nothing but talk, but the school,
like South African society, was sick, violent, perverse and toxic.

In 1991, three years after I left school, black pupils were admitted to previously all-white classes in a few government schools where “enlightened ” parents had approved plans for limited integration. I doubt if Highlands was one of them. I’m not sure when the school admitted its first black pupil, but I do remember doing a double take when I saw a black pupil in the blue-and-white-striped blazer.

My association with that blazer, like the old South African flag, was one of profound
racism. Although I kept my vow and never returned to the school, I’d occasionally visit
it virtually and hang out on the Facebook page, which for many Old Boys was a nostalgic romp through their glory days. My meander down memory lane was not
as pleasant.

When I received the invitation, I wondered why high school reunions seem to mean so much to so many people. It’s even a whole Hollywood movie genre. Maybe it’s because we all started at the same place and we want to compare how we stack up against our peers. Yes, I was curious to see how my former classmates had turned out: who had been successful, who was on their third marriage, and who had been lucky enough to have kept their thick hair (not me, unfortunately).

I decided not to go. When I thought about why, I realised it was because I was ashamed of myself. I hadn’t stood up to the corporals. I hadn’t confronted the people who told racist jokes or who boasted about going “K-bashing”. I was complicit. I didn’t go because there was nothing glorious about going to an apartheid school. As it is for most people, my high school years evoke contradictory feelings — of longing and belonging, loathing and alienation; of moments of joy and an eternity of dread, humiliation and regret; of strong bonds of friendship and deep animosity. Of pride and of shame. I try not to think of school but when I do, Bright Blue’s haunting song Weeping plays in my head.

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Celebrating The Joy of Matt


Grand MASTers: Matt Buckland and I at The Mast – about four hours into our 7-hour ride.

For a few months at the beginning of 2018 at about 3pm every Friday my phone would ring … I’d be hoping that I wouldn’t get The Call, because that call meant pain! It was Matthew Buckland with his plans for the following day’s ride.
“I think we need to do The Mast three times,” he’d say. The Mast is a steep climb at Tokai: doing it once is brutal, doing it three times is, well, truly meshuggah.
Or he would say, “I’m thinking Die Wa Pad, then Noordhoek Peak, then the Mast and then the Peak again.” I was usually thinking, but where will we stay overnight?
Matt was training for the Transalp – one of the world’s toughest multi-stage mountain bike races that takes riders along a 600km journey with 18,000 metres of climbing through Austria, Switzerland and across the Alps to Italy.
I wasn’t doing it but had volunteered to join him on long, tough training rides. When we told friends we encountered where we’d been and where we were going, they would shake their heads and tell us we’re mad. “If you think I’m mad,” Matt would respond, pointing at me, “he’s not even doing the Transalp.”
I joined Matt for two reasons: I love riding and I enjoyed spending time with him. Matt was interesting and fun and always buzzing with creativity. (Probably a third reason too is that I am actually mad.)
One ride was particularly memorable. Matt wanted to ride up all Cape Town’s main climbs. We set out at the crack of dawn and we rode and rode and rode. It took us seven hours and some change. (Here’s a link to the ride on Matt’s profile on the cycling app Strava.)
Conquering the Transalp was important for Matt, and he succeeded. When he returned he told me that one of the days was particularly brutal and he didn’t think he would make it but then he remembered our 7-hour ride and he knew he could do it.
Soon after he returned from the Transalp he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. On the day of his first chemo session in October 2018 he started to write So You Want to Build a Startup, a book about his entrepreneurial journey. Two months later he sent the manuscript to his publisher.
Matt died on 23 April last year shortly before his book was published. He was just 44.
There was a massive outpouring of heartfelt tributes – Matt was loved.
Whenever I see someone wearing a similar cycling jersey to the one he wore my heart skips a beat. And then I remember.
For our last daily episode of Amabookabooka we chat to Matt’s dad Andrew and Matt’s friend, Vince, and pay tribute to Matt – a tech guru, a digital fundi, an entrepreneur, an innovator, a journalist, a publisher, an author, a passionate mountain biker and a compulsive dreamer who had big dreams. You can listen to the episode here.

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Amabookabooka: The Quarantine Chronicles

We have been running a daily interview with authors in lockdown for our special series Amabookabooka: The Quarantine Chronicles. The authors we’ve interviewed have written all sorts of books: crime (Deon Meyer), organised crime (Caryn Dolley), historical fiction (Fred Khumalo), speculative fiction (Imraan Coovadia), biographical fiction (Hedi Lampert), family fiction (Raashida Khan), self-help (Judy Klipin), tween fantasy adventures (Bontle Senne), amusing musings and whimsical witticisms on social media (Gus Silber), environmental romance (Melissa Volker) and a range of enthralling memoirs (Brent Meersman, Sara-Jayne Makwala and Moe Shaik) and an extraordinary author/publisher who produced an entire book in just seven days (Melinda Ferguson).

In Friday’s episode we interview Lindiwe Hani – an author, a mother, a recovering addict and the remarkable daughter of Chris Hani

Friday was the 27th anniversary of the SA Communist Party leader’s assassination. It was a watershed moment in South Africa and anyone who is old enough remembers where they were when they heard the devastating news. For many he was the president we never had. But 12-year-old Lindiwe hadn’t lost the head of the SACP – it was her daddy who had been cruelly taken away from her. Tragedy after tragedy followed – a teenage pregnancy and an abortion, the death of her boyfriend, the death of her sister – and Lindiwe disappeared into a fog of cocaine and booze until she smashed into rock bottom. In 2014, she became sober. In 2017 she penned her memoir Being Chris Hani’s Daughter, detailing her descent into addiction and the hard road to recovery and redemption. People often wonder what South Africa would be like if Chris Hani hadn’t been killed – it’s an impossible question and while we can speculate, we don’t know. What I do know, though, is that Chris Hani would have been extremely proud of his courageous daughter.

In this episode Lindiwe’s talks about her father, her addiction, and coming face to face with her father’s killers. The 10th April is usually a busy and demanding day for Lindiwe. She spends it at her father’s graveyard with different politicians but today she won’t be distracted by all of that and will spend the day “reflecting, remembering and appreciating my father … and I’ll have a good cry.”

You can listen to that episode (and all the others and more from our previous seasons) and subscribe to our Amabookabooka podcast – and the episodes will magically find you.

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Betrayal book launch

betrayal - love books launch

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How a Wombat and a Jackal kept the wheels of justice turning

When I was summonsed to be a judge’s mountain-biking sidekick, it was really a butt-bruising, hair-raising sentence


The wheels of justice turn slowly … but 59km into the second day of the sani2c the wheels of justice stopped turning altogether. That was when Western Cape High Court judge Lee Bozalek fell off his bike.

From gavel to gravel, trials to trails, cross-examinations to cross-country, Judge Bozalek took a break from putting criminals behind bars to spend some time behind bars; a bicycle’s handlebars, that is.

A few months earlier we had met for coffee where he asked me to be his riding partner for the KAP sani2c – a three-day mountain bike ride in KwaZulu-Natal. Judge Bozalek was wearing a hard collar. He had been riding in Tokai Forest, Cape Town’s mountain-biking mecca, when he took a wrong turn and found himself on a downhillers’ track. Downhill is extreme mountain biking, where riders leap over obstacles and jump over gaps.

The judge misjudged a drop and landed at the bottom, hitting his head. He didn’t know it at the time – and, unbelievably, rode the rest of the way down the track – but he had broken his neck.

He was sentenced to three months in a hard collar. It could have been much worse. He didn’t want the crash to end his mountain-biking career. He needed a challenge to keep him motivated, which was when an e-mail from sani2c plopped into his inbox. It was a sign. There was just one snag: this was a team race and he needed a sidekick.

And that’s where I came in.

I was reluctant so I played the race card. I have taken part in a few mountain bike stage races and don’t particularly like the Mamil culture that goes with it. Mamils (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) ride expensive bikes, are obsessed with their cycling data, and wear clothes that are too tight, parading package-protruding bulges in coffee shops. They also take themselves far too seriously. I started out as a Mamil but after my second midlife crisis graduated to a Camil (Curmudgeonly Ageing Man in Lycra) and have now become a card-carrying Wombat (Wild Old Man in Baggies And Trendy Socks).

“Think about it,” said Lee, who is a Jackal – Judge, Addicted Cyclist, Keenly Avoiding Lycra.

A few things made me reconsider. Firstly, the sani2c Adventure – the event he’d entered – is not competitive. It would also be a break from a constantly pinging phone.

Besides, Lee had an unspoken ace up his sleeve – the old school tie. We are both alumni of the rough-and-tumble Johannesburg school Highlands North Boys High, aka Haaailands. When a Highlands boy (or, in our cases, a Highlands Very Old Boy – Lee is a class of ’68 graduate, I’m from the class of ’88), is in a pinch you came to his assistance; no questions asked. Back in the day, the pinch was “backstop” at a Doll’s House punch-up with our KES arch rivals. Loyalty is the Haaailands way come schoolboy scuffle or sani2c high water (more about that high water later).

I had to make a decision quickly because justice delayed is justice denied. I agreed. If I turned him down he might hold me in contempt.

We met for a few pre-trail motions to discuss logistics, training, and a race strategy, which was: We survive from water point to water point.

The judge explained: “We go at Bozalek pace: not bad on the flats, reasonable going downhill, and slowly-slowly uphill.” Cyclists talk about a magic power-to-weight ratio, which is the indicator of your performance in the saddle, but Lee was warning me that on the climbs I’d better exercise my power to wait. I didn’t mind. We weren’t doing sani2c to get a good time, we were doing it to have a good time.

Our training didn’t get off to a good start. On our first ride Lee crashed. Blood poured out of a deep gash on his arm. A good Samaritan drove him to the hospital, where he was stitched and patched. The next ride we managed to lose each other. Things improved after that and on our final ride we tackled Cape Town’s twin peaks – a first-degree murderous climb up to Tokai’s Mast and then a killer climb up Noordhoek Peak. Lee dubbed The Mast and The Peak, The Meak.

“Mission accomplished,” he said. “The Meak – shall not inherit the girth.”

On May 14 we were as ready as we’d ever be and, with the most important gear for a multi-day stage race in our pockets (earplugs), we made our way to the Underberg – the start of the sani2c Adventure.

The following morning, a hiss of racing snakes, a spandex of Mamils, a caravan of Camils, one Wombat and one Jackal set off on our three-day adventure from the foothills of the southern Drakensberg to the South Coast.

We cycled along farm roads and in cool pine forests; we floated down smooth, flowing singletrack, and huffed and puffed up steep climbs.

Eighty-five kilometres later we arrived at Mackenzie. It had been a tough day. Proceedings were adjourned and we retired to our tent for a night of rest and recuperation. If only. Supplements riders take cause explosive flatulence and the tent village was popping and fizzing with phaaarrrrtts so I wasn’t sure if I should put my earplugs in my ears or nose. The tent village erupted in a cacophony of snoring and a kak’ophony of farts.

I turned to my learned friend to ask what he recommended but on this occasion justice wasn’t blind, it was deaf – Lee had already inserted his earplugs into his ears. After hearing our neighbour’s death-rattle snoring, I plugged my ears.

The next morning, snoring was replaced by the sounds of smacking as 1,450 riders slapped chamois cream on their saddle-weary butts. Soon we were back on our bikes to confront the monster 97km Queen Stage from Mackenzie to Jolivet.

An hour later Judge Bozalek stopped to answer the call of nature: The Leak of Justice.

South African cycling could have its own league of justices; pedalling is popular among these legal titans (see sidebar).

I understand why judges swop the bench for the saddle: cycling clears your mind of clutter and helps you focus. I imagine judges who cycle have weighed evidence, considered arguments and wrestled with an accused’s fate while riding.

For Lee, cycling is a de-stressor and he says that in the long, blank periods of cycling, a small but important part of his brain unconsciously works on legal problems he is grappling with.

That morning though our focus was on the descent down the Umkomaas – a 40km drop, considered the jewel of sani2c – and then the agony of climbing out of the valley.

Unfortunately, we got stuck behind a couple who were crawling down slower than a stalled criminal trial bumbling its way through the legal system. The riders objected to my polite request to make way, but Lee overruled their objection and they moved aside so I had the freedom to enjoy the mountain-biking bliss of whooping and swooping down the fast switchback descent.

We eventually landed on the banks of the mighty Umkomaas, which means “the place of cow whales” in isiZulu (whales once used the estuary as a nursery, giving birth in the shallows), and after some river crossings it was time to tackle the event’s toughest climb, a 3km grind up a steep, loose-gravel and rocky hill known as The Iconic. So many riders were pushing; you could say it was a push of a climb. As we reached the 59km mark Lee tried to squeeze past a rider who had stopped on the trail and was giving us the thousand-yard stare of a battle-weary soldier, and that’s when Lee crashed. He may have hit the dirt, but his Honour remained intact.

He got up. He wasn’t going to bail. After all, The Law must take its course.

The final day saw the intrepid Haaaailands Old Boys ride through sugar cane farms, singletracks and climbs as we travelled to the sea. We had ridden about 85.5km of the 86km ride without any drama when we arrived at the floating bridge that snakes across the lagoon at Scottburgh Beach to the finish.

As we started to make our way across the bridge I thought about the judge ensuring I had an unobstructed ride down the Umkomaas descent and it occurred to me that our judge-journalist cycling adventure was a metaphor for the relationship between the media and the judiciary: the judiciary protects the interests of the media and ensures the freedom of the press; the media’s job is to keep justice and the spirit of the law alive.

But our adventure wasn’t over. We still had 500m to negotiate.

The judge was ahead of me as waves started to whip the floating bridge which, like a sexually adventurous couple, was swinging wildly. I tried to stay in the middle but the middle kept shifting as the bridge pitched aggressively to the left and then rocked savagely to the right. I looked up: the judge was wobbling precariously.

With only a few metres before the end of the bridge it looked like justice was about to plunge into the depths of the ocean, but, Lee, like a good judge, retained his balance and managed to cross without falling into the lagoon. Miraculously, so did I.

We conquered the 265km journey from the mountains to the coast in about 20 hours. It took us double the time it took the racing snakes, but the snakes weren’t distracted by the tasty snacks at the water points. Besides, we won the Haaailands Old Boys Overachievers (HOBO) category.

The verdict: it was a heart-thumping, lung-bursting, eyeball-popping, jaw-dropping, teeth-shattering, butt-bruising, hair-raising, bone-rattling, body-shaking three days on a bicycle – and we loved (almost) every minute. We were treated to nature reserves, rural villages, farms, flowing rivers, cows, bouncy trails, mountains and breathtaking views. There’s no better way to appreciate SA than on the back of a mountain bike. My only complaint is lugging a weighty bag with all the cycling gear. When I arrived home I put my bag down. Finally, after an epic adventure with the judge, I could rest my case.


SIDEBAR: The League of Justices

Western Cape High Court Judge Lee Bozalek is two Cape Town Cycle Tours away from being admitted to the elite club of cyclists who have completed 21 editions of the world-famous ride. His colleague on the Western Cape High Court bench, Judge Elize Steyn, is a formidable cyclist, completing more than 200 races, a number of them on the podium in her category. Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron has a dozen Cape Town Cycle Tours under his belt and a clutch of 94.7 Cycle Challenge medals in his drawer. When judges Azhar Cachalia and Ashton Schippers are not sitting in the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein, they are sitting on their bikes. Judge Schippers is probably SA’s fastest judge on two wheels. His best Cape Town Cycle Tour time is three hours, five minutes, agonisingly short of the magical “sub-three”, considered the holy grail of road cycling.

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Prof Jansen’s ‘As By Fire’ generates Heat

JansentWhat are the real roots of the student protests of 2015 and 2016? Is it actually about fees?

Why did so many protests turn violent?

Where is the government while the buildings burn, and do the students know how to end the protests?

In his book As By Fire, former Free State University Vice-Chancellor Professor Jonathan  Jansen delves into the unprecedented disruption of universities that caught South Africa by surprise. In frank interviews with eleven of the VCs most affected, he examines the forces at work, why the protests escalate into chaos, and what is driving – and exasperating – South Africa’s students.

This urgent and necessary book gives us an insider view of the crisis, tells us why the conflict will not go away and what it means for the future of our universities.

Jansen recently discussed the book on AmaBookaBooka. Listen to the episode  here:

Amabookabooks is a novel podcast about books and the people who write them. It is produced by Jonathan Ancer and Dan Dewes. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes – or wherever you get your podcasts. 

“The problem is it only got attention – scholarly attention and political attention – when it came to the former ‘white’ universities”

Prof Jonathan Jansen is a leading South African educationist, commentator and the author of several books including the best-selling Letters to My Children. He is the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, where he earned a reputation for transformation and a deep commitment to reconciliation.


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