Sylvia Vollenhoven

“My initial foray into the world of telling stories for a living leads me into a media environment that requires you to leave your critical faculties behind. My career begins on a small newspaper in the 1970s. The Cape Herald is owned by the rich, white Argus company but is aimed at the black working-class people of the Cape Flats. The content is strictly controlled by a British editor appointed by the white, male, middle-class (invariably middle-aged and urban) South African bosses. We hardly ever question why we should straight-jacket our world to fit into the diminished perspective of the management.

“We are discouraged from taking history or politics too seriously and pushed towards the titillation of crime, sport and frivolity. The confines of being blinkered in this stifling box is a fitting metaphor for where we find ourselves in the 21st century. Our story is still controlled too often by bourgeois economic interests with agendas that mitigate against telling the truth about who we are.

“This chapter is written from the perspective of a storyteller who has gone in search of a healthier way of positioning myself and my people in the landscape of our history…

“This lack of knowing the exact destination, or the means of getting there, is completely contrary to everything I have been taught as a journalist. But fortunately, the blind trusting that is required is perfectly attuned to my early training (a kind of apprenticeship) with my maternal grandmother, Sophia Petersen. When I ditch almost everything that I have been taught about storytelling at the Argus Company Journalism Cadet School, the chaos is overwhelming, completely destabilising. But to avoid clichéd creativity, we have to embrace a disorderly artistry, a process that involves bypassing the intellect. My whole life has been a preparation for the writing I begin when the stranglehold of journalism weakens.

“Embracing a new kind of narrative has required a different way of life that opens up the doors of perception, to allow the unhindered flow of inspiration between the realms of the seen and unseen self.

“I have been inspired to address primarily the problems caused by problematic histories and by the fact that Khoe and San characters, my First Nations ancestors, hardly ever drive mainstream storytelling in South Africa. A turning point in my writing and understanding of myself comes with the discovery of the story of //Kabbo in the Bleek-Lloyd Archive, housed at the University of Cape Town.

“In 1870, //Kabbo /Uhi-ddorro Jantjie Tooren, a pipe-smoking, revolutionary Bushman hunter, driven by his need to safeguard his fragile culture, travels hundreds of miles through the Karoo to find city people whom he has heard can write down stories and preserve them in books. The result of this vision quest is an archive recorded over a thousand days and nights. More than a century later, this Bleek-Lloyd Archive is entered into UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. It contains over 100 notebooks and more than 12,000 handwritten pages. In this work of Victorian philologist Wilhelm Bleek, his sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd, and their informants, //Kabbo is the main informant as well as their teacher.

“The Bleek-Lloyd duo’s account of their meeting with //Kabbo paints him as a passive informant whom they ‘discover’ in the Breakwater Prison in the 1800s. Many researchers, academics and artists repeat this version of events… When //Kabbo was in his early 30s, the colonial governor extended the boundaries of the Cape Colony, taking away almost all his people’s land, and thereby providing a conducive environment for Boer commandos to hunt them down. //Kabbo had a vision that he could save his people.

“As a hunter and visionary, //Kabbo knows his terrain better than any interloper. In the archives there are many accounts of his prescient dreams and abilities as a rainmaker. It is much more likely that, having lost so much due to colonial incursion and aggression, he realises that their most precious possession – the stories of who they are – should be saved. It is also likely that he has a dream that someone in distant Cape Town could assist with his Vision Quest. In this scenario, he allows himself and some of his fellow crusaders to be captured. Instead of being a passive participant in the grand plans of a Victorian academic and his researcher assistant, he becomes a co-creator of the Bleek-Lloyd Archive to tell the story of our people.”

The overarching aim of my writing and storytelling in recent times has been to place this kind of rich legacy squarely in the hands of ordinary people everywhere, especially the descendants of our First Nations – people who remain largely unaware of the existence or significance of visionary ancestors like //Kabbo. It is a continuation of the work //Kabbo, started in the mid-1800s. The result so far has been:

  • A Writer’s Last Word (writer): a theatre play (co-authored with Basil Appollis) about the Cape Town writer Richard Rive. The play is a tribute to his work, especially the novel Buckingham Palace, District Six. This play is renamed My Word! Redesigning Buckingham Palace for a run at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London’s West End.
    • Buckingham Palace, District Six (SA producer): a feature film in development, which is an adaptation of the Richard Rive novel. The context of the film is that, although apartheid used race as a determinant to destroy communities in the 1960s and 1970s, the gentrification of inner cities worldwide is no different and continues to this day.
    • The Keeper of the Kumm (author): a non-fiction novel that engages with //Kabbo by journeying through my internal landscape and the modern world, where traces of him are found everywhere. By going in search of //Kabbo, I explore his global relevance and the opportunity he represents to re-story South Africa.
    • The Keeper of the Kumm (author): a dance drama and factional theatrical adaptation of the book, which is a conversation across time and space between a modern journalist and //Kabbo, her 19th century ancestor.
    • Cold Case: Revisiting Dulcie September (author): a theatre play that revisits the unsolved assassination in 1988 (possibly by an apartheid hitman with the collusion of French authorities) of the ANC’s representative in France.
    • Krotoa Eva van de Kaap (author): a theatre play commissioned by the Volksoperahuis of the Netherlands. The play opened in Amsterdam with a subsequent six-week, nationwide run in the Netherlands and a sold out run in South Africa.
    • Rooibos Restitution (producer): a documentary film that captures the struggle of the Khoe and San people to get recognition as the traditional knowledge holders of the uses of rooibos. An epic battle to acknowledge and protect First Nations’ indigenous knowledge, which leads to victory for that recognition after the film is released.
    • Pirates of the Drakensberg (writer and SA producer): a television series in development. It is the story of KhoeSan resistance against colonial aggression in the 19th century. This six-part drama series will follow the adventures of the Khoe Chief Madoda (his name became the word for manhood), his powerful shaman wife, Hoho, and a band of rebels who built a most unusual settlement in the lower reaches of the Drakensberg.
    • A work in progress: the story of Blanche and Alex La Guma. Another creative collaboration with Basil Appollis for The District Six Museum and the Artscape Theatre Centre. Alex La Guma, one of our most notable writers of the 20th century, hailed from District Six. He spent most of his life in exile and died in Cuba in 1985. He was a defendant in the Treason Trial but is not very well known in South Africa. His works helped characterise the movement against Apartheid. La Guma was awarded the inaugural 1969 Lotus Prize for Literature.

Sick and tired

Sick to death of marginalised Bushmen, the dancing tourist cliché, in skins clinging to fragile First Nation connections, I set out to create healthier stories of our common ancestry and heritage.

This is more than mere professional research and writing. It is my belief that a serious illness I suffered in recent times has been part of an ‘ancestral calling’ to undertake this work. I have been fortunate to find creative collaborators, a traditional healer and other professionals, who work outside of the confines of the mainstream, who have assisted me.

My storytelling is redolent of a broader movement that is using the power of creativity to create a new understanding of our traditions and of ourselves. However, these are strongly research-based works. I engage innovatively with text, locations, artefacts and art, excavating literal and figurative signatures of the character’s world, interrogating its relevance in ours. Writing ourselves into history requires a fresh approach that breaks down the barriers between the divine and the secular; tradition and modernity; spiritualism and materialism; us and them.”

The book Rethinking Africa: Indigenous women reinterpret Southern Africa’s pasts published by Jacana Media this year is available at bookstores. For more information on ordering direct contact Tel: +27 086 127 2273.