Something was happening in Yeoville in Johannesburg in the eighties. A tribe was emerging. I thought of them as good whites that wanted to stay. They rode a new spirit, and James Phillips, rather than Nadine Gordimer or Andre Brink, was its voice. Like any good tribe, it had to have its entertainers and artists and I was happy to be one of them. As was Ryk Hattingh.
I met Ryk when an Aeroplanes member, Robert Muirhead, noted that I wrote some poetry and told me about a gig at Wits University where poets would be reading. Robert was part of the organizing committee and invited me to participate.
I’m not sure who was on the bill. Performance is a selfish state of mind and most of the time I was meant to be listening I was going through my own show in my own head. But the voice of Don Mattera managed to shatter my self-obsession. He read from a book he was working on, telling tales of growing up in Doornfontein, one of those areas of central Johannesburg that stayed racially mixed longer than most. Mattera told of the Italian and Xhosa strands of his family, and how the cultures mixed, just like the juices mixed when his grandfather pressed the grapes with his feet in the back yard, or the grain mixed when his grandmother pounded the maize. And he told of how the bulldozers came and his family’s life was demolished, and they had to start again from scratch in Soweto.
Then it was my turn.
Beetle beats its own rhythm,
Coming home, for the night.
Talks of supper, mother’s cooking,
Says that things will be alright.
Has a fish upon the bumper,
And a little shark behind.
In a time of plague and stoning,
Bringing father from the grind.
In the street stands mother waiting,
Holding baby by the gate.
Sun sinks red on Brixton Tower,
TV News will seal our fate.
On the screen the politician;
Loud his voice in his defence,
But our moral theoretician
Relies on simple common sense.
Writes a letter to the army:
Refuse to go, religious grounds.
Does the dishes, makes the coffee,
Tries to still the baying hound.
It wasn’t much, but it had its pulse and I beat it out slow and steady. There was a silence when I finished, and then Mattera’s voice, rich and growly as a township sax, belting out his appreciation. It was a great gig, and afterwards a tall, dark, beak nosed, bearded, Christ-like figure strode towards me and said:
“I live in Yeoville. Where do you live?”
“I live in Natal St. Where do you live?”
“Andrew Ryk Hitchcock Hattingh,” he said, offering his hand. “You must come for tea. And dagga.” And he gave me his address.
Ryk lived in a flat that looked south over the park next to Sylvia’s Pass where it winds down Observatory Ridge and into the valley towards Doornfontein where Don Mattera’s house was bulldozed by apartheid machines. I walked up the next day and knocked on the door and Ryk opened it. He made tea, and then a joint and we started talking. He was working on a book. It was about a fire, and the reptile brain that lives in the core of our consciousness. The fire took place in the Knysna forest. Then a baby was born dead in the silent trees and a marriage broke up and Ryk came to Johannesburg and commenced to write.
We took to meeting daily, telling our stories and reading each other what we were working on. We didn’t criticize each other’s work. We had similar instincts about rhythm and the spoken word and when either of us read we knew that we were on the same path. They were a pure and fine and cultured gift, those mornings of talk and reading aloud.
Ryk and I started performing together at little left wing gigs organized by outfits like the End Conscription Campaign (ECC). We’d read snippets, alternating to form a conversation, in English and Afrikaans. The conversations were about history and growing up in South Africa. They were about politics and sex. We were both fascinated by sex, and soon enough a name suggested itself: ‘n Gesprek Tussen Twee Cuntos in a Land of Despair. A “gesprek”, is “a discussion”, and “cuntos”, well, there’s a South African street word, “ou” pronounced “oh”, meaning dude, chap, person.
I learnt great lessons from Ryk. Afrikaans had been abysmally taught at school. In the broader world it was the language of hectoring politicians, a tool of oppression. In the army I had got a glimpse of its power as a medium of insult. There was an Elizabethan earthiness to it that undermined the politicians’ attempts to sanitize and control. And now, working and playing with Ryk, I found that Afrikaans could be beautiful and subversive.
The ECC organized a gig at the Oxford Hotel, since demolished, in Rosebank. It gathered together shows and performers that were appearing in town. Radical shows like Mathew Krause’s Famous Dead Man, about Verwoed and the man who assassinated him. Famous Dead Man featured an enormous turd in the colours of the apartheid flag. (This rang a chord. In Kroonstad I had stood at attention on the parade ground, listening to speeches about God and Patriotism, and imagined shitting on that flag.) They were shows that happened largely below press level because they were giving the finger to the border war and conscription and the whole mess, and were essentially illegal. When we arrived for the Oxford gig, we found that the hotel had been decorated with graffiti. Hammers and sickles, painted by fascists, adorned it like flowers. The place was being watched, and I was glad that I had chosen to wear shoes that offered good traction on tar.
On the bright side, the right wing had done some effective publicity for us and the venue was packed. The audience hung on every word, and the Weekly Mail gave the show serious attention. It felt like something was happening. The ECC had gathered around its issue a larger grouping, writers, actors, dancers and musicians, a loose affiliation of the angry. We might not have represented the broad mass of the people that took part in the Defiance Campaign, but we were most certainly defiant. The EEC, however, chickened out. The next gig took place deep in the safety of Wits University, and with little publicity. I arrived early to find a couple international news crews considering whether to set up their cameras. Within half an hour they judged the event irrelevant and departed.
Ryk and I had some adventures with our little show. Our last gig was a trip to the Grahamstown National Festival of the Arts. I drove down with my friend the painter, Carl Becker, in a 3-litre Cortina pick-up that belonged to Carl's uncle. On the back was the Aeroplane's sound system. Also travelling were actors Nicky Rebelo and David Butler. They were part of a team adding value to the Aeroplanes’ act. Between sets the actors would get on stage, the dancers would stop dancing, fill up their glasses and sit on the floor. And Nicky, myself and others would perform sketches like Nicky’s piece about the insane Reconnaissance Commandos called Buks and Rooker:
BUKS. Remember Pyp.
ROOKER. Pyp Terreblanche! Used to drink a bottle of Tequila and smack his head against a tree!
ROOKER. (Beat.) Is it?
BUKS. Stood on a land mine in Ondongwa.
Everyone that Buks and Rooker talked about was dead:
BUKS. Remember Shorty.
ROOKER. That bastard. He stole my other piece of chicken.
ROOKER. (Beat.) Is it?
BUKS. They took him out with an AK in Katlehong.
Buks and Rooker were maniacs from the war zone who went around slaughtering black people. They referred to women in genitally specific terms:
BUKS. So what are you doing here?
ROOKER. (Beat.) Checking out the poes.
Carl and I used the mountain route past Clocolan and Wepener on our night drive to Grahamstown. Each of those Free State towns was divided in two: one little town for whites, and one little township for blacks. The townships were surrounded by lights, like soccer stadiums. The lights had been installed so that the police or the army could go in there at night and see what they were doing.
A refined state of emergency had just been declared and there were many roadblocks. They were big roadblocks with lots of vehicles and army and police personnel. When they stopped us in the darkness they’d shine their torches in our faces and wave us on when they saw we were white.
There was trouble as soon as we hit Grahamstown because the ECC, banned under the new emergency, had distributed leaflets at the Goodwood Hotel where we were playing. By distributing leaflets at the Aeroplanes gig the ECC were letting their supporters know that they were still around. The manager felt that supporting banned organizations and inviting the attentions of the Grahamstown Security Branch might be bad for his standing in the local business community. He gave us a lot of flack and the gig started on an edgy, wired, note.
It wasn't the best we ever did and after two or three sets we'd go up to Cathcart Arms and drink. We drank consistently and hard for eight days. By ten in the morning Carl and I would be in the Cathcart having a beer to take the edge of the hangover. At around five or six we'd acknowledge that the beer wasn't working and order three tequilas each.
We tended not to see many shows but some Aeroplanes and camp followers did come and see Ryk and I perform 'n Gesprek Tussen Twee Cuntos in a Land of Despair. They were among the few. The show was too strange and raw for any general audience of that time. But if we played, sometimes, to audiences of five, or even three, it did nothing to lessen the intensity of the experience. Each time, an accumulation of drink and emotion and worry about the country lead us into a cathartic relationship with our audience.
We'd meet before readings in the 1840 Settler's Monument foyer. A generous part timer ran the bar. He sold his tequila for regular prices in glasses twice the normal size. It was irresistible. The spirit would ease its warmth into our hearts and we'd feel those accumulations of anger and love that were our relationship with our tribe and country squirt into our blood streams from the motherland gland. That's what it felt like anyway.
There was a snippet that Ryk used in the show, and it has stayed with me ever since. Ek wil leef, he would proclaim, met twee foote of the aarde and my kop teen die hemel vas, ek wil leef met 'n ereksie, eksie-perfeksie, altyd amper daar, nooit nie sommer net kom nie.
It is impossible to get the buoyancy of those lines into English. Afrikaans is just better for saying what Ryk meant. But now that he is gone, I will use them to try and say goodbye.
May your dead heart live, Andrew Ryk HitchcockHattingh, with two feet on the ground and your head tight against heaven. May you live with an erection, ecstatic perfection, always almost there. Never just coming.