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Interview with Sandile Memela

You seem to have made up your mind very early in life regarding what you wanted to do after high school. Your meeting with Ton Vosloo in 1980 ... don’t you think schoolchildren fail at finding themselves because most have no idea what they want to do until they enter university?
I was fortunate in that a young, beautiful and attractive Irish nun, Sister Rita Scollan identified my writing talent and directed me towards pursuing writing as a profession. She urged me to follow journalism.
Our Catholic missionary school, Holy Cross in Diepkloof, did not have a newsletter. I was the only pupil that often mounted provocative socio-political commentary on developments in the school and outside society, in general.
Following the Sister’s advice, this saw me approach Ton Vosloo who was editor of Beeld in 1980. I told him that I wanted to be a qualified journalist but my poor working-class parents did not have money to send me to Rhodes University. This particular Afrikaner verligte changed my life and future.
As a result, I became the first recipient of the Naspers/ Media24 bursary to study journalism in 1981. This programme has since been renamed after renowned City Press editor, Percy Qoboza and has provided post-graduate scholarship to many black students.
On the question of ‘finding oneself,’ the challenge of proper career guidance persists. The education system does not prioritise self-knowledge yet. As a result, most students, including those from so-called prestigious schools, neither understand themselves nor the purpose of their lives.
I was quite lucky that as early as Standard 9 (now Grade 11) I was made aware of my writing talent. Thus I knew that my future lay in journalism and creative writing. What I did not know was that this would not make me a millionaire. It is how it is.
Would a book like Zenzele; Young, Gifted and Free help high school students make better, more informed vocational choices?
The book was born of the realisation that there are not many motivational and self-help books directed at young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to encourage them to take responsibility for their lives and future. What is available does not speak to the black African reality, so to speak.
I was exposed to Norman Vincent Peal’s How to Win Friends & Influence People as a teenager. The doctrine was overzealous Christian optimism. At the back of my mind I have always desired to see a similar book that would specifically inform high school students that whatever decisions they take will have lifelong effects.
To be honest, I have looked at what the Life Skills course offers and felt that it would be good to have something with stories torn from the pages of township life, stories that young people would relate to and identify with.
I still believe that this book should be prescribed or recommended for secondary and high school pupils. It guides readers on how to go about making the right choices to take full responsibility for what happens in individual lives.
There are no accidents in life. Everything is a result of the choices and decisions we make.
Did you necessarily write better school essays?
I have vivid memories of my last three years in high school, that is, 1978 – 1980 when I graduated at Immaculata High. What I remember and know is that I was hailed as an achiever for my command of the English language, especially my essay writing.
I was drafted into the debating society and my presence helped boost the confidence of the team, albeit, briefly.
From a very early age, my submissions were cited as an example of how to write what was called a composition, then. In fact, my compositions were read aloud and shared with senior students by our English teacher, Sr Rita Scollan.
When they told me this and treated me with awe, I knew that I had something right. Well, as for my peers in class, it should suffice to say I was one of the top students in essay writing, especially in English.
Looking back, my father, Mbokodo was a self-taught Shakespeare lover and used to quote him a lot. Also, he wrote and spoke fluent English. He ignited my interest in English reading and writing.
Did you ever want to edit a mainstream South African newspaper? Does the fact that you haven’t give you sleepless nights?
I was acting editor for the Sunday World for a year, September 2004 – October 2005. I applied for the job when it was advertised simply because it was what I was doing. Of course, I was one of the leading contenders for the position.
But the late CEO and Publisher, Bongani ‘Makhekhe’ Keswa told me to my face that management would not appoint me to the position despite my track record, experience and qualification. He said they said I was seen as a stubborn radical militant, whatever that meant.
By then I was almost two decades into the South African journalism profession, if one can call it that. At the time, I was one of the fewest with a post-graduate degree in journalism from Stellenbosch. I had also taken up fellowships to Wales University, Maryland University and Duke University, among others.
Better still, I was focused, hardworking and a recognised brand name for my writing.
But I was condemned for allegedly having a ‘chip on my shoulder.’ The authorities felt I was “uncontrollable and unpredictable.”
To make matters worse, there was a sinister, clandestine drive to portray me as “not up to scratch,” whatever that meant. There was a programme to distort my meaning and profile. I think some seniors and rivals were intimidated by my presence.
Looking back, I was the most successful City Press entertainment editor (1992 – 1999) and one of its best known writers. The arts and entertainment sector awarded me prizes and I was held in high esteem.
Later, I was a founding editor of the Sunday World’s Hola supplement and introduced the concept of Shwashwi into the paper. The success of Hola and Shwashwi changed the whole direction of the Sunday World to become a tabloid newspaper.
You must remember that when Sunday World was launched in 1999, it was a broadsheet aimed at satisfying the editorial expectations of former President Thabo Mbeki’s wishy-washy aspirations to establish the black bourgeoisie. It was a paper that aimed at so-called LSM 8 – 10, what has come to be known as the black middle class.
Thus what I did was to introduce a soft newspaper revolution that I brought into the mainstream. Already, I was aware that the struggle was over and people would be more interested in celebrities than politicians. Yet I was condemned for allegedly being “not up to scratch.”
It was a good thing that I did not allow myself to be defined by other people’s opinions, especially rivals.
In hindsight, it was never my dream to be an editor of any newspaper. In fact, I was aware that my radical and self-assertive Black Consciousness / Pan Africanist orientation would close down doors to opportunity and position. I was willing to live with that.
It was enough that I rose to become assistant and acting editor. There can only be one editor at a time.
Most importantly, the prerequisite to hold that editor hot seat is that you must be controllable and committed to keeping the shareholders happy. An editor must be the darling of the capitalist shareholders.
Well, I had long chosen to be oppositional in my ideological writing. I believe in questioning the system. Of course, I would not become editor. And this is what made them think I was “uncontrollable.”
Looking back, I don’t care that I was not appointed editor. It is a position that simply means nothing, at least, for me. It is what it is and exists not to speak truth to power but to make money for media owners. This is capitalism based on selfishness and greed.
Does writing heal you … most writers say the process is cathartic?
I must confess that I agree that writing heals me. When you read His Master’s Voice, based on my life experiences as a young black journalist in capitalist controlled media, you unavoidably feel the anger and bitterness jumping off the pages. This is a story that tells it like it is. The capitalist system is holistic and screws us every hour of every day.
Writing helped me to come to terms with the realities of our condition. It helped sober me up to be a pragmatist. Yes, we are all part of the system we fought against. We are caught up in the Establishment.
I see myself as a man of ideas. I use writing to get them out of my system, especially because living in a schizophrenic, self-contradictory society forces one to battle to stay sane. We have resigned ourselves to accept the absurd as how things should be. To stay sane, I have write, almost daily.
Also, when my first born son, Wamu was murdered in his Bryanston suburban home with his wife, Wendy, I could not make sense of it all. This happened in January 2014. But I chose not to ask God why he allowed that to happen. They were a young couple with so much going for them.
It is writing that has kept me sane and helped me to find the resilience to heal myself. I have put together over 30 ‘prayems’ – a combination of prayer and poetry – to hold conversations with God and what he allowed to happen. This has helped me to heal. I hope to bring this out as part of his unveiling.
If I am correct, reading can be healing too. I believe a lot of people who have suffered the pain and agony of losing beloved ones to violence in this country will be touched by the work.
I was invited by Metro FM’s Wilson B. Nkosi to read a poem, Grave is Not Your Home as part of the first anniversary commemoration. Apparently, it resonated with people throughout the country.
Journalism, someone says, is literature in a hurry. Do the two forms of writing give you the same joy, the same ‘high’?
There must be a distinction here. What is addictive is not journalism but the social prominence that it provides on a plate. It is a trade that automatically catapults one into prominence. When a journalist, depending on the beat, you can easily be mistaken for a celebrity because you are well known or recognised. You hobnob with the rich and famous. That is what is addictive for narcissistic and egocentric people you find in journalism and the media, in general.
Thinking and writing, which are essential elements of journalism (and not reportage), are quite demanding. They are intellectual exercises. Not many are attracted to this. In fact, most people do not enjoy thinking as an activity.
As for me, this is what I enjoy most, critical thinking. I derive a lot of joy from critical thinking and putting down those ideas to paper, so to speak.
I love looking at words jumping back from a page to engage and challenge one’s thinking or view of the world. After all, the purpose of journalism is for the nation to engage in critical discourse, for a society to look at and talk to itself.
Who read the first draft of Flowers of The Nation, the manuscript?
This debut novel was finished in 2000. It was among the first novels on the battle between exiles and inxiles for the soul of the ANC.
I gave it to family as an example of the stories that needed to be told and books that should be prescribed in schools. I remember my younger brother, Drakes saying he loved it. And so did my ex-wife, if I remember.
My sisters who are former exiles found it explosive and politically challenging. It made them uncomfortable much as it was dedicated to former President Thabo Mbeki.
How did your second book, His Master’s Voice, do? Was it autobiographical?
The book was written in 1988 only to come out 22 years later, in 2012. Just the idea of getting it published was a feat. For many years, it was declined by mainstream publishing houses.
They had a serious problem with the ideological content and outlook. There is no way that white supremacist publishing house would okay a story of how professional are screwed up in the corporate world.
But I felt that it was a story that needed to be told. It was self-published in 2011 with 700 copies that were sold out within 100 days. Due to demand, I brought out another batch which did very well. It continues to sell from the boot of my car.
My dream is to see it prescribed at media and journalism schools. Well, the jury is still out on that for obvious reasons. It is an anti-establishment book, very critical of how journalists are treated.
Are you recognised and stopped in the streets for an autograph or a chat about writing and/or books?
At every mall I visit in this country, I am bound to meet at least one person who recognises me for my writing, from Limpopo to Eastern Cape.
Those who have been exposed to my books have said complimentary things on social media and via e-mail. Those who have met me in person have expressed the same sentiment. It is soul nourishing, I must say.
I never expect praise. In fact, it is flattering. But my ego does not need it. I don’t exist.
Is there a gap in the market for black publishers?
I don’t know what we mean by black publishers. What will they do that is different? I don’t think they will bring anything new to the game except to expand the market to include the marginalised and disadvantaged to make money.
Let us be honest, the aim is to make money out of potential black consumers of African literature.
But no doubt there is a need to create publishing houses that will allow all people, including so-called black people, to tell their own stories without being pressured to satisfy the expectations of thought controllers and money mongers. What we need are publishing houses that truly understand and value freedom of expression.
Sadly, this is a commercial driven sector. The preoccupation is profits.
Do you write with music playing in the background or insist on total silence?
I find it difficult to read with music playing in the background, unless it is jazz or classic. The vocals are a distraction because the words may interfere with my creative flow. If and when I can, I prefer total silence.
There have been many occasions where I woke up at 4,30am or slept at 3am just to write. It is a sacred act that somehow requires total silence.
Is there a time of day that’s best suited for writing?
For me, not quite ... I write whenever the mood or Muse catches me.
I may have something brewing in my heart, soul and mind for months. But I will not sit to execute or write it down until it is ready to come out.
Writing is like a woman giving birth. It will happen when it will happen.
Is there a book you wish you should have written?
I think Bloke Modisane’s Blame Me On History is a classic. I have high regard for Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.
Look, that is me. I love deep, profound and substantive stuff even it comes in the form of Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrey.
I don’t think I am that much into fiction. But the fiction of this country is great. What happens in real life is unbelievable. My book His Master’s Voice, for instance, was more than 90% real.
What is the one writing tip that you have always followed?
Just let it flow. Let it all hang out. Don’t sit down to write until you have been possessed by the urge. Let the story brew in your heart and head and release it when it will.
For me, a writer is just a conduit, a vehicle. The inspiration comes from out of space. It is for this reason that I do not put much emphasis on what I consider to be my work. It comes from a Source I don’t understand. It belongs to the world, to humanity.
Is the book as we know it facing extinction given the rise of the e-book and gadgets?
There is something magical about holding a hard copy version of a book in your hands. But looking at the crisis facing newspapers and magazines with declining sales and readers, it would seem we are headed to a paperless age.
That will be a good thing. We need the trees, man. We do so for the survival of the human species.
If you were not doing what you do, how would you be eking out a living?
I am caught in the middle-class debt trap. I live to pay off my car, bond and put kids in school. Like millions, I have sacrificed my time and purpose on earth for commercial success to fit into the prescript of what capitalism defines to be success.
If I was not working as a government functionary, I would be at home reading and writing and just indulging in national discourse. I would be teaching a subject like Philosophy just for purposes of engaging in ideas.
I would be living the life of the mind, going to places like Franschoek or Grahamstown to consume the arts. Ideas are colourless. The biggest challenge here is how race has impacted on our understanding and experience of Life, of the arts.
Who among the new black writers do we need to watch out for?
I really don’t know. Writers are not messiahs. What is a black writer? And why must we look out for them? This is a globalization where we are all subjected to what jazz maestro Zim Ngqawana described as gobblization, a global phenomenon that sees us falling victim to capitalist greed. We are all in the capitalist stew. It does not matter whether you are a black or white writer.
What we need to watch out for are new voices that point to the future of the human family under one heaven. The rest is self-indulgence. Writers must point the way to the new world of justice, equality and brothershood.

-          Sandile Memela is a writer, journalist and social commentator  
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