The ‘Shirley Goodness’ legacy: Chris van Wyk Tribute

Writer, poet and activist


He slipped on the ninth floor while washing
He fell from a piece of soap while slipping
He hung from the ninth floor

Chris van Wyk
- In Detention (1979)

South African writer, poet and activist, Christopher van Wyk, passed away last week at the age of 57, after a prolonged battle with cancer.

The internationally celebrated author strove to make his writing accessible, using humour to capture the attention of book enthusiasts and the imagination of children in order to cultivate a love for literature.

“He was a wonderful storyteller, a gentle person with a naughty sense of humour. He was writing in and about his own community with very strong links to them. Through his writing he became a spokesperson for the coloured community in Joburg and his work is a great reflection of that,” said WITS associate professor Michael Titestad.

Titestad met van Wyk in the 1980s, when the writer and activist harnessed the power of literature to inform, educate and mobilise black South Africans, in line with the teachings of the Black Consciousness Movement.

He published 20 books including adult and children’s fiction, poetry and two memoirs, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy (2004), and Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch (2010). He also published a children’s version of former President Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom (2009). In 2003 he released a series of children’s books, which documents the lives of South African activists including Chris Hani, Sol Plaatjie and Desmond Tutu.

The renowned Theatre Director Janice Honeyman who adapted Shirley, Goodness and Mercy for the stage said he was “a true South African son, a man of deep insight, both political and focused, but also humane, kind and with a wonderful, ebullient and generous sense of humour”.

“What warm and detailed memories he gave to us, what cutting-edge poetry and political comment he delivered bravely, unflinchingly and with conviction. How dedicated and committed he was to education, reading, and revealing accurate and true versions of our history for children. And what a huge heart and an expansive soul he shared with us.”

Honeyman recalled fondly the times they worked together to adapt his book for the stage:

“When Chris saw our first-draft try out he was as excited as a young schoolboy, in his short-sleeved checked shirt, his greying hair and his wide, open smile! How he chortled, and chatted, and celebrated with the actors and myself.

At the launch of Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch Photo: Books Live

At the launch of Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch Photo: Books Live

“And by the time the seventh draft was performed at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town and The Market Theatre in Johannesburg, the crowds were storming the box-office, queuing out into the precinct, and a sense of recognition and identification with the piece was tangible from the audiences. It spoke not only to his own community from Riverlea and Newclare, but also to those from Sandton, Soweto, Bryanston and Booysens. His stories reverberate with heartfelt humanity. He will be sorely missed by all of us who experienced his work, but his legacy will live on and be cherished as one of the Greats in South African literature.”

Van Wyk was born in Baragwanath hospital, Soweto, in 1957 and grew up in Riverlea, a working-class, coloured township in Johannesburg. As a schoolboy he was teased mercilessly for having a squint eye and as a result found himself retreating from the playground and into his school’s well-stocked library, where he developed his love for literature. He announced at a young age that he would be a writer.

In an interview with Africa Book Club van Wyk he said, “Even before I was nine or ten years old, I remember boasting to my parents, uncles and aunts that I would one day be a writer – when brothers and sisters and friends were dreaming of becoming teachers, doctors, firemen and policemen. In my last two school years I had poems published in the Saturday edition of a local newspaper, The Star. That was in 1975 and marked the beginning of my “writing career”. It wasn’t easy: the apartheid government reacted harshly to anyone who criticised it. And in those days much of the writing by black writers was unavoidably about life under apartheid”.

Following the Soweto Uprising in 1976, the literary output of black writers soared with artists and activists using the spoken and written word to conscientise black South Africans and spread the teachings of the Black Consciousness Movement. It was not without consequence as writers were often harassed and imprisoned, their work banned and confiscated. But this did not deter van Wyk or his contemporaries.

Together with local poets such as Mongane Serote, Sipho Sepamla and Mafika Pascal Gwala, van Wyk published a volume of poetry It Is Time To Go Home, a collection of writing that captured the Black Consciousness era, and included one of van Wyk’s most famous poems In Detention, based on the absurdity of explanations given by the security police for the violent deaths of political activists while in detention without trial.

Van Wyk believed fervently in engaging with young writers, and often gave talks and presentations at schools and tertiary institutions, his humour drawing in his audience, regardless of age.

“He’s been such a remarkable man and is a valued member of the literary institution,” said Titestad, adding that van Wyk would often attend poetry readings and presentations at WITS, always willing and ready to pass on his skills and engage with the youth. His first memoir, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy was prescribed as a set text for WITS university students. “It’s always been a popular and engaging text for students,” said Titestad.

In 1981, van Wyk received the Maskew Miller Longman Award for A Message in the Wind, which chronicles the adventures of two boys who travel back in time to explore their cultural roots. 1996 saw him win the Sanlam Literary Award for his short story Relatives. It Is Time To Go Home won the Oliver Schreiner Prize in 1980.

He is survived by his wife, Kathy, and sons Karl and Kevin.

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