“SO this is where the trouble started,” I mused, standing before what could be mistaken for the first McDonald's sign (erected 1945) in Franschhoek. As an 11th-generation Du Plessis, I am, for better or for worse, a direct descendant of the Huguenot Jean Prieur du Plessis, who is listed in a museum beside the Huguenot monument.
A surgeon and nobleman from Poitiers, France, he begat many offspring with two wives, as did the children — particularly those such as his son Peter — to make Du Plessis the fifth most common Afrikaans surname in South Africa.
A glance into the clan’s pre-African history will reveal the dubious distinction of us being descended from the dukes of Du Plessis de Richelieu, who include Cardinal Armand du Plessis de Richelieu, one of Europe’s most famously despised Machiavellian despots.
Standing in the shadow of the edifice and dwarfed by the granite backdrop enfolding the town, I thought of the James Taylor ballad Sugar Trade:
Oh the crown and the cross
The musket and the chain
The white man’s religion
The family name
Two hundred years later
And who is to blame?
The captain or the cargo
Or the juice of the sugar cane
At that moment, everything seemed uncannily peaceful, and burgers or no burghers (both the nearly edible sort and those of colonial stock), the monument at least offered welcome respite from the maelstrom of mincing magniloquence (to use as haughty a term as the people it describes). A momentary escape from the surge of high-flown poseurs, the unwhipped cream of South Africa’s nouveau-riche crop, besetting the main drag through town.
Perhaps only in the puffed-up ostentation of Gstaad or Cortina or Seventh Avenue during New York Fashion Week would you witness such a relentless ream of specious posturing. And in between all the stilted swanning about and the too-too that they do so well, delegates from the wellspring of well-to-dos, it seems, had time to boast their would-be intellectual prowess.
The “triple-w” demographic of weathered, white and wealthy was clearly reflected in the attendance at specific events: a half-hearted showing at celebrated South African journalist and socio-political commentator Justice Malala’s dissection of the explosive week following Chris Hani’s assassination. A hall bursting at the seams for the sycophantic extravagance of Michael Cardo’s dripping hagiography, Harry Oppenheimer: Diamonds, Gold and Dynasty.
So much for the good news. The bad news was delivered in no uncertain terms after astute analysis, meticulous research and clear thinking by authors Chris Bishop (The BEE Billionaires) and Pieter du Toit (The ANC Billionaires), sensitively guided by fellow author Carol Paton. They traced the rise and continued festering of South Africa’s empowerment oligarchy in a session refreshingly devoid of boredom.
And with the horror of systematic state capture and renegade greed revisited, Paton eventually reminded the authors that their efforts, however journalistically sound, did not include solutions to the mess we are in. Towards the end she prompted them into conceding certain pertinent points.
No, Du Toit admitted, there is no possible positive outcome or end to the Eskom nightmare. (Predictably too much corrupt money invested by too many corrupt officials.) And no, Bishop pronounced with unsettling confidence, do not expect any significant change in BEE policy, however counterproductive it may become. (There are many alternative routes, but what leader would dare to rock that boat?)
And with that Paton ended the session. Like a death row inmate finally receiving confirmation of the electrocution date, the insights felt strangely comforting. And many drinks later at one of the Frenchified sidewalk eateries lining the main road, it felt as if we’d successfully emigrated to Provence already.
Until the next sunrise, when even the translucent deep-red vine leaves and the powder-blue backdrop to the carpeted crags barely managed to raise our spirits (for lack of a better expression).
Our battering by what seemed to be morphing into a doom-fest wasn’t over. In another discussion, Dennis Davis had deftly steered the audience and co-authors Richard Calland and Mabel Sithole (The Presidents: From Mandela to Ramaphosa), through the wasteland left by our five supreme leaders. And scant relief from our national despair was found elsewhere in interviews with three thriller writers headlined Untwisting the Tale.
What promised to be a panel dissection of whether the process of writing and reading about crime can alleviate the trauma it causes inevitably veered towards the all-prevailing spectre of blood-drenched crimes, gender violence and paedophilia in our land. It was a surprisingly enlightening and entertaining hour nevertheless, expertly hosted by John Maytham with eloquent masters of their art Margie Orford (The Eye of the Beholder), Tracey Hawthorne (Flipped) and Lester Walbrugh, who dolefully revisited the Station Strangler’s spree (Elton Baatjies).
It was Maytham again who discovered light at the end of the tunnel with a discussion on the final day of the literary pow-wow for the predominantly fiscally empowered. His riveting interaction with writer and political activist Songezo Zibi of the Rise Mzanzi movement elicited ample applause in the packed NG church hall (bedecked with abstract artwork for the occasion to dull the glaring irony of presenting a book of hope for a mixed society in one of the apartheid’s traditional gothic lairs).
As the rest of the town thronged to hear more of the same from a beleaguered André de Ruyter Zooming into Franschhoek from his secret hideout, a confident and enthused Zibi held forth with sufficient grace and know-how to silence one of the most representative audiences at the LitFest. Where question time was limited and often reduced to a limp formality at most of the events we attended, there was no lack of hands demanding interaction here.
Maytham highlighted the salient points of Zibi’s Manifesto: A New Vision for South Africa, which lays out the ground rules for an “ethical and accountable” political dispensation. Much was made of the differences between a political party and a movement but it was clear that Zibi’s vision entailed working for change from the bottom up instead of the other way round.
On the way back from the Huguenot monument on the last night, I was halted by an image staring at me through the display window of the Aity Gallery. The portrait by Thembalethu Manqunyana exuded a riotous jumble of bright, flat Norman Catherine-like colouring but with a little less playfulness. Then, what initially appeared to be a grimacing indictment of its surroundings in an apt summary of the past few days and the sorry state of our nation in general, slowly morphed into a more accommodating grin.
The more I “saw” the picture, the more it expressed an understated exuberance. Until the character, elephantine limbs and all, eventually seemed poised to break out of the frame and skip for joy into a hospitable eternity.
And striding off into a cold sunset through the residue of the festivities, I too was forced to smile. “Perhaps there could be a place for the literary-inclined filthy rich in a future South Africa,” I thought. “If they don’t leave town too much and remain confined to their cabernet-laced cage right here in this magnificent mountainous stronghold.” Hell, there might even be a place for the miserable descendants of evil autocrats like Armand du Plessis.
♦ VWB ♦
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