Illuminating Lives, page 1
Biographies of Fascinating People from South African History
Vivian Bickford-Smith and Bill Nasson
Published by Penguin Books
an imprint of Penguin Random House South Africa (Pty) Ltd
Reg. No. 1953/000441/07
The Estuaries No. 4, Oxbow Crescent, Century Avenue, Century City, 7441
PO Box 1144, Cape Town, 8000, South Africa
First published 2018
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
Publication © Penguin Random House 2018
Text © individual authors 2018
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the copyright owners.
PUBLISHER: Marlene Fryer
MANAGING EDITOR: Robert Plummer
EDITOR: Dane Wallace
PROOFREADER: Alice Inggs
COVER DESIGNER: Gretchen van der Byl
TEXT DESIGNER: Ryan Africa
TYPESETTER: Monique van den Berg
INDEXER: Sanet le Roux
Set in 11.5 pt on 15.5 pt Minion
ISBN 978 1 77609 264 2 (print)
ISBN 978 1 77609 265 9 (ePub)
* * *
Bill Nasson and Vivian Bickford-Smith
Tiyo Soga: The object of wonder
John Montagu: Master spirit of the colony
Isaiah Bud-M’Belle: Sportsman, interpreter, spokesman
Pat Pattle: The Icarus of the Transkei
John Koenakeefe Mohl: Painting with a peculiar beauty
Lilian Ngoyi: Flying with clipped wings
Jane Turner: A tale of love and loss
Danie Craven: The contrariness and contradictions of South Africa’s ‘Mr Rugby’
Eddie Barlow: As big and bold as life itself
Stephen Watson: The master of melancholy
Tyhini Robert Qengwa: A portrait of quiet courage
About the authors
Bill Nasson and Vivian Bickford-Smith
* * *
The title of this eclectic collection of biographical essays on eleven intriguing men and women from South Africa’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century past promises to throw light on the fascinating lives of a varied range of people, including a poet, a painter, a pilot, a farmer, an interpreter, an evangelist, a rugby player and a schoolteacher. Some may be quite well known to readers, while others are likely to be less known or even unknown. Some are distantly deceased, others more recently departed, and one is still living. Illuminating Lives also hints at the light that these short biographies throw on the nature of the twisting times and disparate places that the various characters assembled here experienced.
In that sense, the chapters that follow are tied together in one way or another by the telling of rich personal stories of a distinctive sort, based on a fruitful combination of biography, memoir and history spanning two centuries. As such, the authors of this volume explore these South African lives not as groups or categories but as individually striking, flesh-and-blood human beings. At the same time, in revealing the ways in which these memorable figures made their way through their exceptionally diverse worlds, the collection also explores the often hazy balance between the impact of historical circumstances on the men and women who populate these pages, and on the impact they made on those circumstances.
For the American historian Oscar Handlin, studying this balance, the interaction between individuals and their historical circumstances, was the proper and productive purpose of biography: they ‘illuminate one another’.1 Indeed, none other than Karl Marx believed this interaction to be the very key to explaining history itself: ‘circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances’.2 Marx expanded on this thought in an unusually lyrical vein: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.’3
One nineteenth-century tradition clearly weighing on Marx’s brain at the time, a tradition now all but vanished, was the use of ‘men’ as a synonym for ‘people’. His use of the plural noun is anyway revealing. Marx, like many historians and political writers of more recent times, was less interested in individuals than in groups of people – in Marx’s case, of course, classes – making or being made by history. Therefore, classes, nations, races, ‘men’ and ‘women’ duly march across the pages of many history books, as they do across contemporary newspaper columns, as monolithic categories to which positive or negative stereotypes can be readily attached. Contemplating the lives described in this volume makes any sweeping generalisation in this spirit far more difficult. They demonstrate instead the multifaceted nature of lived experience and, consequently, of identity. Isaiah Bud-M’belle, for instance, could over time see himself, often simultaneously, as British, Mfengu, a civil servant, husband, batsman, rugby player, Wesleyan lay preacher or director of a philharmonic society. Lilian Ngoyi could likewise deem herself to be a political activist, woman, daughter of a domestic worker, African, nurse, ballroom dancer, garment worker, political prisoner, mother, gardener or simply, when travelling in Europe, a go-as-you-please human being.
Academic historians, previously often sceptical of its possibilities, have duly been drawn to biography in recent times as a way of better exploring and explaining the complex and varied nature of past and present identities. A 2004 survey of work on American women’s history, for example, discovered that roughly a quarter now took a biographical approach.4 Lois Banner, a pioneer of women’s studies in the United States, did so in writing about the lives of individual women as seemingly disparate as the anthropologist Margaret Mead and the actress Marilyn Monroe.5
The lure of biography for historians, as choosing to write about Monroe might suggest, has also been the desire to engage a wider audience beyond colleagues in academic institutions. The belief is that biography can render ‘the past more human, more vivid, more intimate, more accessible, more connected to ourselves’.6 After all, ‘even Marx was an individual not a process. We are all persons now.’7 And he, too, has had his share of biographers.
Individuals grappling enduringly with the vicissitudes of everyday circumstances have been at the heart of popular storytelling traditions across the globe, from ancient folk stories to modern cinematic epics, and they form part of most biographical narratives, including those in this present collection. Each life story involves struggle of one kind or another: for Pat Pattle, to realise his dream of becoming an air force pilot; for John Mohl, that of gaining acceptance as a black landscape artist; for a short-sighted Eddie Barlow, not just in becoming an international cricketer but in trying to enter the political arena; for Robert Qengwa, to overcome a dire and impoverished rural childhood and to live a worthwhile professional life despite the barriers posed by apartheid to his early aspirations; for Stephen Watson, to make the unfashionable argument in 1980s South Africa
There is something about delving into the lives of others that has always had the capacity to pique our interest, whether through empathy or a tantalising sense of difference, of admiration or even of repulsion, or a range of emotional engagement somewhere in between. Biographies and memoirs can draw us eagerly along with their protagonists into often hitherto unfamiliar places and time periods, to enable us to begin to encounter and ponder on their worlds: whether in terms, perhaps, of their prevalent ideas and values, the ways in which society was organised, or even the nature of its material objects, be they the convict barracks associated with John Montagu in the nineteenth century, the Gloster Gladiator or Hawker Hurricane flown by Pat Pattle in 1940, the fruit-box labels Jane Turner designed for Simonsberg Cold Storage in Stellenbosch in the 1950s, or the passbook carried by Tyhini Robert Qengwa as an inhabitant of Cape Town’s Langa township in the 1960s.
Although our short lives may give elements of these worlds greater or lesser attention, they do not concentrate squarely, as much academic history is prone to do, on either the cultural or the economic, the ideological or the material, the private or the public, the backgrounds or the beliefs, but seek, instead, to evoke a relatively more rounded world, familiar to an obvious extent, but one that can still surprise us. So, in turning to what may be thought of as a fairly familiar tale of the famous cricket-playing Eddie Barlow, or of the legendary rugby-playing Danie Craven, a reader can encounter an unexpectedly potent page. In the 1950s, Barlow was taught Zulu at the University of the Witwatersrand by Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, university lecturer and the founder of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). In the preceding decade, Craven threw his weight behind the wartime government of Jan Smuts in its support of the British Empire in the Second World War, and he was prepared, years later, to meet the arch-proponent of the apartheid sports boycott, Peter Hain, secretly in London.
The approaches, themes and topics adopted by biographers have varied considerably over time, as they do in this collection. At the outset, in the classical and Christian tradition, lives were presented as moral examples, as inspirational or cautionary tales. As Hermione Lee, a renowned biographer herself and someone who has written perceptively about the art of biography, has put it: ‘A good life or a martyrdom provided a model for good behaviour or spiritual aspiration; a bad ruler or a fall from greatness provided an awful warning.’8 The Scottish Protestant clergyman John Chalmers had this tradition very much in mind when writing the first biography of his missionary colleague and friend Tiyo Soga in the 1870s. Very different exemplary meanings of Soga’s life were subsequently presented and debated, threatening to disguise the complexity of the man and the extraordinary nature of his life. Other characters explored in Illuminating Lives raise moral questions, not least those around the conduct of John Montagu, colonial secretary at the Cape in the mid-nineteenth century, praised and reviled as a controversial figure not only in his lifetime but also by historians up to the present. For some today, the very fact that he worked for a British colonial government in the interest of Empire might be enough to condemn him, as Danie Craven might be denounced because he fought to retain South Africa’s international rugby presence in the apartheid era. For others, both lives may yet have eminently redeeming features. Ultimately, the fact that opinions may differ among readers as much as they might among biographers is a strong enough case that publicly controversial figures like John Montagu and Danie Craven deserve to have the histories of their lives explored.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the ‘warts and all’ approach to biography, in which both the good and the bad in a life could and should be discussed, had become more acceptable, though certain subjects such as sexual proclivities or practices were commonly prone to censorship. Today, many biographers feel able to explore all the minutiae of their subjects’ everyday lives, believing no intimate topic nor bodily function to be off-limits, thereby sniffing around the bedroom or even the bathroom to satisfy the tastes of the most prurient reader in our ever more prurient world. Others still demur or remain restrained by the limitations of the available evidence. Yet the practice of writing about exemplary lives, both good and bad, has continued, not least within a tradition of biography that displays lives that supposedly help to define a national history and identity.
South African history and literature have a tiny and fairly mixed crop of books that might be said to fall into this well-established category. These collected biographies have claimed – certainly by their titles – to be about the individual lives of some of the country’s inhabitants. Starting in the early twentieth century, in their tone or in their biographical choices, they have either been crudely racist, earnestly nationalist, radically or mildly anti-apartheid, or else simply exuberant or celebratory. Volumes in this tradition include Sarah Gertrude Millin’s 1926 The South Africans, George Calpin’s 1941 There Are No South Africans, and Alexander Parker’s 2012 50 Flippen Brilliant South Africans, a selection imaginative enough to include Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi. Or perhaps the country just has to scrape the bottom of the barrel to provide a decent list of the great. Predictably, Parker’s humorous 2011 50 People Who Stuffed Up South Africa has no need to scratch as deeply to fill its cast of national villains.
There is also the more business-like and formulaic Dictionary of South African Biography series, which appeared in several volumes between 1968 and 1987, chronicling the careers and achievements of over 4 500 prominent men of the country’s ruling white establishment who were considered to have shaped South African history and society in influential ways. Changing step with changing times, that compendium was succeeded by the New Dictionary of South African Biography, which in 1995 and 1999 recounted in condensed form the lives of several hundred black leaders and political activists and of notable women. The lives of these characters are recorded, in the usual historical dictionary or encyclopaedia sense, as compressed biographical entries, with a focus on facts and dates rather than on style and flavour.
The premise that informs Illuminating Lives is that viewed as brushstrokes of a broader picture, national biography is a valuable way to understand the often-tangled, worm’s-eye realities that make up a country’s history – placing the person, both public and private, at the centre of things, rather than fixing on an impersonal tide of great crises, problems and remorseless trends. And in the telling here of the moving stories of figures such as the early-nineteenth-century Tiyo Soga and the mid-twentieth-century Jane Turner, there lies a flame of hope. For, perhaps above all, it is through an appreciation of the tiny individual ambiguities and contradictions displayed by this patchwork of South African humanity that we might become more questioning of some of the presumed certainties or preordained assumptions about the country’s older colonial past and its recent apartheid era. Surely, if the common citizens of South Africa today might nourish the hope of being able to choose more than one tomorrow, so its foregoing inhabitants would also have sought to have had more than one yesterday.
Accordingly, the everyday richness of lives has to be given its due as an enjoyable and rewarding way into our historical universe. This was acknowledged decades ago by the English historian G.M. Young. Writing in 1944, he declared that the best record of a nation’s past that any civilisation can hope to produce is the biography or memoir of an individual’s life. In his thought-provoking view, the real essence of history is not what happened in the past but what people felt about it when it was happening. What did they think? How did they attempt to handle their lives? How did they chart their existence in circumstances that sometimes looked to be stuck or to be changing in new ways, either promisingly o
Naturally, the nation that Young had in mind was Britain, a country that has long had a fondness for biography as a distinctive kind of art or craft. In that form, in one way or another, the personal story intersects with the national story, so that history can become a kind of magnified biography, or biography a kind of condensed history.
By contrast, we do not have in South Africa anything like an aptitude for the succinct sketching of ordinary individual lives and personal experiences as rounded or balanced historical biography. Or, at least, we surely do not have much by way of historical portraits that invite empathy and understanding of a reflective kind, rather than of a possessive kind in which the national story is a therapeutic roll-call of people who were saints and sinners, heroes and heroines, and victims and martyrs – characters from recent or more distant history presented for you to either clap your hands or turn up your nose. In other words, a version of the South African past that is easy to tap into, simple to understand, and easy to judge.
Instead, it is worth repeating what Illuminating Lives is seeking to do. Essentially, its objective is quite simple: to tell the stories of a remarkable set of South African characters whose complex lives reveal the exceptionally wide range of ways in which individuals coped with living or fashioned livelihoods in South Africa’s past. These stories reveal how such lives could be imbued with meaning through immersion in education, art, farming, sport, religion, writing, aviation or dedicated colonial public service. Fashioning a life, or coping with living in South Africa, also involved travel, whether within the country or well beyond: to study in Scotland, to fight in Greece, to paint in Germany, to play cricket in Australia, to pursue suspected apartheid assassins in the Seychelles, or, for Lilian Ngoyi, to attend an international gathering in Europe and experience at least a temporary liberation from South Africa’s obsession with a discriminatory racial order.