This series is supposed to be about the rise of SFF on the continent, so I’ll start with that.
Visiting South Africa knocked my timeline for the development of African SFF back by almost a decade. I thought SFF in Africa really got going about 2013, with early glimmers in 2009.
But Lauren Beukes wrote the pioneering story "Branded" in 2004. She co-produced (team-writing with Sarah Lotz and others) 103 episodes of a half-hour animated SF TV series produced entirely in South Africa—which started broadcasting in 2006.
The magazine Chimurenga published its first graphic novel issue in 2007 and issue 12/13 (2008), which was dedicated to black technology, contained a piece by Nnedi Okorafor and an analysis of Afrofuturism.
Jungle Jim, the vital pulp magazine, started in 2011 regularly publishing crime, SFF, and horror by writers of the calibre of Chinelo Onwualu, Nikhil Singh, Masimba Musodza, and Samuel Kolawole. Kolawole was regularly publishing horror stories based on traditional belief in Western venues from 2010—at least three years before the publication of Ivor Hartmann’s landmark anthology AfroSF in 2013.
SFF on this trip was overshadowed by South Africa itself … beautiful, wounded, and tense.
The first and last thing I noticed were the social divisions—driving from the airport, I was surprised to see tracts of informal housing, shacks and unpaved roads, with rows of portacabins for sanitation. The taxi driver was a Cape Coloured gentleman, who said the things that white Americans said about ghettos in 1962: "You should see inside those places, they all have carpets and plasma TVs. They choose to live there because they can steal their electricity for free. Look outside you’ll see Mercedes and SUVs."
So I looked and the only vehicles I saw were one beat-up van and a small white Toyota.
Then the taxi crossed some kind of divide and suddenly everything was the sharp-edged, white social housing built by the ANC, new and clean but stark, no trees in the planned streets. Ahead like green clouds, the mountains loomed.
Cape Town reminds me of Rio, the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen, and like Rio, it can’t be photographed. Outcroppings of rock, and sweeps of green, capped by stands of trees cut across the city. Pastures and moonscapes loom over the skyscrapers. The sweep of harbour is immense, the bay so huge that it turns you around. You think you’re facing south, but you’re facing north. Across that bay are more skyscrapers and along the horizon, snaggle-toothed mountains that are improbably vertical, like poor CGI.
Parts of the Cape Town bowl look like Australia—Gardens and Tamboerskloof and of course the Waterfront, which feels like it’s meant for visitors. The suburbs are vast. Taking the train, I saw lots of clean, neat, modern bungalows. Train transport is for the poor—crowded, hot, the seats torn. Graffitied windows mean you can’t read the station names. Later, Nerine Dorman didn’t let me take that train back alone, but drove me miles over beautiful hills to get me back to town.
What follows are anecdotes, things that struck me as odd, and made me feel that things in South Africa were worse than I was expecting.
I arrived at my first Airbnb at midday to find my host (I’ll call her Cathy) smiling and helpful—but having to excuse herself. Her boyfriend had been arrested the night before and he was still in jail. "We have a police brutality situation," is how she described it. "It wouldn’t have happened if he wasn’t black." Derek’s VW had broken down late at night in a white part of the city. He’d called her, she went to collect him, and she arrived in time to see him on the ground being handcuffed.
Derek was charged with resisting arrest. He’d refused to be intimately searched in the street, and asked to be taken to the police station. He is Rastafarian, and yes, he is black (although please don’t presume the officers were white—they were black or coloured).
In the main central police station of Cape Town, Cathy lost it, and was hustled outside. "You’re not allowed to touch me," she told the officer. His reply: "Oh yes I am."
A twenty-year-old Muslim coloured student was visiting a friend who had been arrested in the student protests. He saw Cathy being manhandled, and intervened ("reluctantly" according to Cathy), and told the policeman he couldn’t do that, that her human rights were being violated.
The police response was to arrest and jail the student.
Cathy then made sure the police understood that she was there to ensure the safety of both men. The Muslim student was allowed out of the cells briefly to give Cathy his mother’s phone number. While doing so he silently held up his T-shirt to show her bruised ribs and stomach—the police had beaten him up as well.
That afternoon, Cathy was heartbreakingly cheerful after her visit to Derek. A different shift of police had an entirely different attitude. Rastafarians are allowed small amounts of marijuana on religious grounds—so a different shift was clear he should not have been arrested.
However, the police do not guarantee the safety of anyone held in the cells. Rastafarians are a particular target. While in his cell, a gang member stole Derek’s shoes. He threatened to take off all his clothes and tell the guards that they had stolen those too. This worked—he was given back his shoes. The police then moved him to a different cell for first-time offenders, but Derek was indeed beaten up by the gang on his last day in jail, in transit to court.
When I finally met Derek there was a big open gash on his forehead and his arms were covered in scabs. He and Cathy were full of praise for the magistrate who had arranged for him to take a course that would expunge any criminal record.
Get a hold of a binary in South Africa and it breaks down into smaller groups with a history of distrust.
One of my Afrikaner hosts told me: "My Dad was very uncomfortable around the English. He would go stiff and formal around them. My grandmother hated them, hated them."
I heard stories of tensions between Xhosa and Zulu, and of tensions between black South Africans and expats from other countries.
Ekari Mbvundula, a writer who you will meet in the Malawi Chapter, studied in South Africa. "On a personal level the group that was hardest to befriend were black South Africans. I was really shocked—it was so much easier with other expats. The black South Africans don’t really get along with each other, the Zulu vs. Xhosa thing. You come in as a foreigner, come to a party and someone will speak to you—and then cut you dead if you don’t speak their language.
"I went with a South African black friend to a Zimbabwean friend’s birthday and she saw Indians there. She had a look of pure fear. She looked at those people as you would at a lion. She kept saying, ‘I can’t go in there, I don’t know those people.’ That said more to me about apartheid than anything else. You fear every other group than your own."
In Durban, I stayed with a black writer and actor. She and her husband adapt novels for theatre. Taking me to my room, she proudly pointed out the panic button next to my bed. "In case the house gets invaded by 35,000 people."
Her house is surrounded by wall topped with barbed wire and high voltage fencing. I said I would cook dinner. She cautioned me against walking to the supermarket and made me take a taxi. When I strolled back into her kitchen carrying groceries, she covered her mouth, made a noise like a vacuum cleaner, and scuttled backwards away from me in fear. It seemed obvious that she had been traumatized at one point, so I didn’t ask what had made her so fearful.
South Africa is, for me at least, an unpleasantly tense place. The university I was supposed to teach at was effectively closed by student protests, and the literary scene had been on edge. Just how much on edge? Read this.
The white writers are divided against each other as well. The big South African publishers still boldly state that they do not accept science fiction or fantasy. This pisses off the SFF writers. Dave de Burgh is the author of Betrayal’s Shadow: "We’re in a situation in which South African publishers are having to buy the rights to Lauren Beukes’ new books from the USA. Haven’t they noticed that Harry Potter has sold rather well? Why aren’t they publishing SFF?"
Rachel Zadok is an acclaimed writer of literary fantasy, who is well integrated with the Cape Town SFF community, but she also understands how white literary writers feel about the success of SFF.
Rachel: "Right now, there’s nothing more irrelevant than being a South African literary writer. No kind of market or readership at home and there’s no market anywhere else. While some writers like Masande Ntshanga and Niq Mhlongo are finding success, internationally no one is particularly interested in the perspective of white South Africans. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but with our history, an understandable one.
"Internationally the only people who are making any kind of impact are science fiction and crime writers—Lauren Beukes, Fred Strydom—basically every South African who is published outside South Africa who can make a living with their writing. Frank Owen, it’s all speculative fiction."
I kept seeing old white men acting aggressively to others and to me. One old white guy lumbered onto the plane carrying a huge bag that, evidently, could never be hand luggage. He left it jammed in front of an emergency exit seat, blocking access. When I said to him that he probably wouldn’t be allowed to leave it there, he waved me away. "They can move it." When the stewardess asked him to move it, he refused. In the end, she had to wrestle it out of the cabin. Before take-off, that same black stewardess asked him to turn off his mobile phone. He waved her away again, and mimed turning it off. Despite being asked, he continued to text all through take off.
On another flight, I was reading Unathi Magubeni’s book Nwelezelanga: The Star Child (you will meet Unathi, a practising sangoma with a vocation for writing). The cover design is plainly about a traditional African subject. An old white man with an Afrikaans accent wrenched the book round while I was reading it so that he could see the cover.
"What’s this?" he demanded.
I started out smart-ass. "A book?" I then began to describe it—a detailed depiction of an albino child becoming a sangoma in the pre-colonial era. That triggered, first, praise of traditional rural life for blacks, and then: "Every government since Mandela has been evil."
On another flight, I sat next to an arts teacher in a bottle-green suit. I started telling her about my project. I’d just come back from Malawi and may have been gushing a bit about the writers I met. I saw someone in the row ahead of me holding up his phone, with what I thought was a picture of him. Then I realized it was a video of me.
He’d videoed me and was posting it with the caption: "This is the idiot mouthing off."
As I watched, a comment came back: "At least you got the guy on video."
I thought over what I’d been saying, and was sure I had not criticised South Africa. All I had done was praise some writing by black people. I couldn’t stop myself blurting out: "That man is posting a video of me. Why would anyone do that?"
OK, I’m queer, maybe a bit effeminate, and I was being enthusiastic—maybe he likes his men laconic. When we landed he stood up, puffed himself up, and had the strangest look in his eyes, a cross between an ashamed You want to talk about this? and quite frankly, a squaring off.
I was reminded of Nick Wood’s interview. Nick emigrated from Zambia as a child during apartheid. He found himself put into cadet training. Their instructors wore blackface and the boys practiced hunting black terrorists. This guy was the right age to have been one of those boys, and he looked so like me.
Every time I made a choice of where to go or where to shop; every contact I followed up, or bookshop I went to, I found myself channelled towards white people, white areas—that’s how structural racism works.
I managed to fight back a bit by finding black or coloured Airbnb hosts, but they were privileged people too. I only managed to interview three black South African SFF writers—Ziphozakhe Hlobo, Mandisi Nkomo, and Unathi Magubeni. I did interview some expats from elsewhere in Africa, including Ntone Edjabe, Efemia Chenla, and Samuel Kolawole.
I was meant to be teaching at the University of Cape Town, but it was effectively closed down by the FeesMustFall protests. Instead, a seminar was organised by Nerine Dorman in her own home. This helped me fulfil the terms of my grant, and I was extremely grateful for Nerine’s kindness and organizing skills (I suspect many people are). I met nice and talented writers and editors at the seminar, but all thirty-seven of them were white, save for one black editor.
Ayodele Argibabu had warned me about South Africa: "If you go hoping to connect with black people, you won’t." Fred Strydom, author of the really very good The Raft, told me: "There may be some cutting-edge science fiction coming out of the townships, but you’ll have difficulty finding it."
At the Ake Festival in Nigeria, I met Panashe Chigumadzi, a second-generation immigrant from Zimbabwe, and a smart young mainstream novelist and social critic. She told me: "Cape Town is the worst. I hate Cape Town. It’s the last outpost of apartheid, and so it’s the last outpost where you feel your blackness the most. Everything about Cape Town tells you that you are not supposed to be there."
Nick Mulgrew, one of the organizers of Short Story Day Africa (you will meet him later as well), is from Durban, which he says is much better integrated and more diverse than Cape Town. I was surprised when Nick said that Cape Town was both the nicest place he’d ever lived and the worst—with a "nasty psychic energy".
I know nothing, but it seemed to me there was something odd about people’s body language. A middle-aged black man was sitting on the curb on Kloof, his head in his hands in the middle of the day. Young black men at 1:00 a.m. trotted, perhaps drunkenly, across a divided highway through speeding traffic. A supermarket supervisor moved like a wind-up doll gone wrong, in jerks, spitting with rage at her staff, and throwing wet sponges at them. An Uber taxi dropped me off at a wrong address. Walking to my next BnB, I got blocked by two older black men in overalls who, enraged, blocked me and shouted in Afrikaans. I had my suitcase, my passport, and all of my interviews with me and thought I might lose this project. The weirdest thing was that I couldn’t get them to acknowledge I didn’t speak Afrikaans.
Seguridad, Justica y Paz lists Cape Town as the ninth most violent city in the world. The only other African cities in the top fifty for 2015 were all South African—Durban ( forty-first), Nelson Mandela Bay (forty-second) and Johannesburg (forty-seventh). The UN Office of Drugs and Crime rates South Africa as having the ninth highest rate of murder (per 100,000 people) in the world. Among states in Africa, including war zones, only Lesotho—a small independent state surrounded by South Africa—scores worse. Wikipedia shows this data in a useful interactive chart.
Again at the Ake Festival in Nigeria, the South African poet Lebo Mashile wrote this summary on a napkin: "A sense of not belonging is what holds South African identity together. No one belongs: not black people, not white people, not the poor, not the rich. This is the thread that binds us."
But there is also a flip side to South Africa. There were several creative people, who weren’t white, and who told me that this is the best time ever to be South African. There is indeed a kind of manic wonkiness to Cape Town. Marathon fun runs? Dog parties? Karaoke strip tease? Amateurs who go and strip for fun, including a guy who regularly does a pole dance in the character of Jesus Christ? I’ll come back to this flip side in the Endnote.
And here are the editors, doing what they can in difficult circumstances.
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