'I Fight With Love': Ten Rounds with Bukiwe Nonina by Nick Mulgrew

© Chris de Beer

© Chris de Beer

With South Africa's newest boxing sensation, before and after her landmark fight in Khayelitsha. Photos by Chris de Beer.


Bukiwe Nonina spars with men. It’s not an ego thing, really. “I just don’t see any female in South Africa who can give me a good challenge,” she says.

Four months ago, Bukiwe was named South African Female Boxer of the Year. Only 25, she has held the South African national women’s welterweight title for the last five years. So how about sparring with a female middleweight? “The weight doesn’t matter,” she says –  it’s a matter of quality. “I am the best female boxer in South Africa,” she insists. “I have to step out to find a new challenge.”

And a new challenge approaches. On Friday, Bukiwe fights a former eight-times world champion for the World Boxing Federation world welterweight title. “My aim is to prove the point,” she says, smiling: “I am the best.”



Women’s boxing in South Africa has technically only been formally legal and recognised since 2001. As per Boxing South Africa’s latest figures, there are only 46 professional women boxers in South Africa, across all weight divisions. An improvement over past years; still, some struggle to find regular fights.

In that context, it’s unsurprising that Bukiwe’s bout is the only women’s duel on the bill for the Fight for Hope tournament coming to boxing-starved Khayelitsha. As when most things come to townships, the tournament comes under the guise of “outreach” – this time, a charity fight between former twice-European Muay Thai champion, Uwe Hück, and Francois Botha, one-time IBF world heavyweight champ and all-round scary dude. The fight is a full-stop to the launch of an apprenticeship programme sponsored by Porsche, of which Hück is currently the Labour Manager in Stuttgart.

It’s going to be a big deal, they say. An article on News24 says that Arnold Schwarzenegger will be in attendance at the OR Tambo Hall. Imagine that – the Governator in Khayelitsha.

There’s another muscular European, however, that Bukiwe should be more interested in.



Alesia “The Tigress” Graf is thirty-six years old, but has the body of an athlete half her age. She and Bukiwe were supposed to square off last year, but their meeting had been postponed and postponed – until now.

On Thursday, at the weigh-in for the Fight for Hope, Alesia strips down to a navy bikini. Bukiwe opts for a powder blue T-shirt, boxer briefs and sunglasses. The contrast between them is startling, in both garb and body: the compact Belarusian-German, the lanky one who lives in Limpopo.

Howard Goldberg, president of the WBF, doesn’t really fancy Bukiwe’s chances: “Alesia is considered, pound-for-pound, one of the best women’s fighters in the world.”

“She’ll have a challenge beating her.”

© Chris de Beer

© Chris de Beer



Bukiwe has a strategy, of course. “I have to beat myself before I beat her,” she says. “And I know how to beat myself.”

And how do you do that? “Pressure,” she says. “I hate a fighter who comes at me.” Luckily, she’s got reach, a hinge for a waist. Her coach, Immanuel Neluoende, emphasises footwork. He makes her sprint every morning, “until the chest bursts open”.

“The best thing in boxing is fitness,” Bukiwe says. “I won’t let her get close to me.” She doesn’t think she’ll knock Alesia out. It has to go all ten rounds. Box smart, and win on points.

“I don’t believe in aggressive boxing anyway,” she says.

“I fight with love.”



She fights with love.

Bukiwe was born in iDutywa in the Eastern Cape, one of boxing’s traditional heartlands. She only started boxing, though, when she moved to the North-West for high school. “To be honest,” she says, “I don’t really love boxing.” Perhaps part of that is because, no matter where she goes, the same stereotypes of women boxers persist.

“It’s not my sexuality that brought me to boxing,” she says. “I was gay before I boxed. But even so, it’s hard to go to the location and say to kids, ‘Let’s go to the gym’, because parents think we are devils.”

“People have an attitude where they want to fight me in the street. But I’m already too sensitive in the ring – I can’t fight in the street.”



Of her sixteen professional fights, Bukiwe has lost only three. The first two were among her first bouts; the other was the first, and last, time she took a step into the international arena.

 Lusaka, two-and-a-half years ago. Her opponent was Catherine Phiri, hometown star and holder of the WBC Silver bantamweight title. The Government Complex on Independence Avenue was hot, the ring small, the lights too close. “My father and my manager were in my corner,” she recalls. “I said to them, let’s stop this before I get injured. So they agreed.”

The next day, the Zambian papers were mocking. Bukiwe had “surrendered”, The Post said; she was worried that Phiri “would have killed her in the ring”. Bukiwe maintains she never said those things. “Now it’s personal. They can bring their ring. I’ll train in Limpopo, outside in the sun.”

“I want Catherine Phiri now. I just need the title on Friday.”



Schwarzenegger, as it turns out, isn’t here. A few hundred other people are, though, coming in from the mist. A large German contingent are in the ringside seats, among the old men of South African boxing, in their blazers and top hats. Children mill around the edge of the crowd, shadowboxing, eating Simbas and raisins, playing shibobo with Coke cans.

Bukiwe shares a humid changing room – more a repurposed store room – with three or four male boxers. The undercards are almost over. A third-round knockout by a rookie junior middleweight rocks the crowd. Inside, Bukiwe has her earphones in, her phone tucked into the elastic of her fight shorts. Her parents stand by as Immanuel tightens her gloves. The male fighters and their hangers-on gather as Bukiwe’s mother, Noteko, prays over her. Then the singing starts.



Alesia has a sequined tiger on her vest, which she discards to reveal that muscled torso again. Her gloves look too big for her, especially when she moves them that fast, whirling out from her sides, and back into her compact, stone-hard stance. She’s trying to coax Bukiwe into countering her attacks, so she can counter herself. Chess, with sweat raining on the canvas.

Bukiwe keeps her distance, retreating into the corners, more the tiger than the Tigress herself. She bends, avoids, lands a hard jab. Alesia swings, wilder and wilder. She comes after Bukiwe, her face glowing red. But she can’t reach her opponent. Bukiwe is awkward, her face serene, feet like a ballroom quick-stepper. She’s in control.

Then, suddenly, the ringside Germans roar: Bukiwe’s finally caught in a flurry. Thud. The locals roar louder: the referee has slipped, fallen over.


© Chris de Beer

© Chris de Beer


In the seventh round, it’s Bukiwe’s turn to slip. She falls through the ropes, dazed. Then at the round break, her continence changes. She sits on her stool and looks past Immanuel at the crowd, at the photographers surrounding the ring. She isn’t listening to anyone – she’s just smiling. People like her hit many obstacles; pain thresholds, glass ceilings. By now, Bukiwe knows the way to get past this. The last push always has to be the hardest.

Seconds out. The bell. Bukiwe just about runs out of her corner. The new aggressor. She pushes Alesia down, then asks her to come get her. Alesia is desperate, charging around the ring, her gloves met only by the silence of clean air. The Tigress literally begins to growl.

And sure enough, only minutes later, Bukiwe finally falls. Only, for Alesia, it’s too late. Her opponent can be brought to her knees only by the knowledge of her victory.



94-96, 93-97, 94-96 – unanimous, but close. She is mobbed on the way back to her changeroom – no VIP protection here. Inside, safe, Noteko wipes tears from her eyes. There are plenty places to rest, but Bukiwe doesn’t sit. There’s blood on her white Nikes – she doesn’t really notice that her eyebrow has been split. “I feel awesome,” she says.

Outside, Hück and Botha gear up to face each other. But the real fight has already been fought. Through the wall, a live band shrieks out a song by Toto. It’s “Africa”, of course. The continent Bukiwe will soon leave to find the appreciation she desires.

Well, maybe. Maybe she’ll stop off in Lusaka first.


Anxiety & Arriving: an interview with Dylan Moran by Nick Mulgrew

Illustration: Sarah Rose de Villiers

Illustration: Sarah Rose de Villiers

After his first sold-out show at the Guy Butler Theatre, Grahamstown’s most sought-after visitor gave me an exclusive interview about his new show, getting to know South Africa, and the positive side of performance anxiety.

A hearty welcome to Grahamstown, Dylan. Is this more a work trip or a family vacation?
Well, it’s both. We’re all together. Back where we live, I’ll usually get a gig in London or Glasgow; it’s obviously not quite the same thing. But this merits us all being here, and we’re thoroughly enjoying it.

Do you find people kind-of expect you to be Bernard Black when you come to a new place?
There’s a bit of that. I mean, people – you know – most people know it’s a character, but some people go, “Oh, he’s going to be that guy.” But I have to say though that people here, I’ve found them to be thoughtful and responsive and interested. And open, too. I couldn’t have asked to have a better audience, to be honest with you. Everyone’s more than happy to meet you halfway.

It says a lot about globalisation that you can come to a small city on the other side of the world and people are clamouring to see you. I’ve seen some Moran-themed graffiti around town.

I saw someone writing your name on a wall.
I’ll tell you something funny. We were out in the game reserve looking at the lions and I got a text asking if I’d do a gig in Kiev. So, yeah, globalisation is definitely a feature.

Either way, it’s refreshing to see a comedian as prominent as you to come to Festival, and not just bypass Grahamstown for the bigger cities. What was behind the decision?
One part of it is that I had been asked to do shows in Cape Town and Johannesburg before. But my concern was that I didn’t want to end up talking to a single type of people. I wanted to play somewhere I could talk to a wide range of South African society, so it sounded like it was probably more likely to happen at this Festival. You have a big, cosmopolitan student body, and so you have a good chance that – for the first time I’m here at least – I can get some sense of how everything is going here. You have to play catch up once you get to a different place: sucking all the different newspapers and conversations you’re having here; trying to imbibe the vibe and the feel of where you are and what people’s hopes and concerns are for the near future. You have to get a little taste of everything. I want to talk to lots of different kinds of people to be able to do that, and I feel like I now know a good deal more than I did. You have to get that and then go away and think about it for a while. You have to remember that I come in with a lot of European baggage, and I’m keen to get beyond that and get to the next level of understanding life here.

I mean, your concerns are universalist in nature, but were you worried initially that certain things wouldn’t translate well?
No – or, well, you know, you do traffic in universal concerns when you do stand-up comedy. What’s shared humanity? What’s common experience? That’s the glue of the whole thing: what you share. And then, you know, obviously you obsess with the differences when you’re on your way to someplace that’s outside your comfort zone. I don’t know much about South African society. But what I do know is that people are the same in their fundamental concerns everywhere, so you begin with that.

Before Friday night it had been about a month since you last performed Off the Hook?
That’s right, yeah. I’d been up since six-thirty in the morning looking at lines and thinking about South Africa, and I was all over the place. I feel a lot more relaxed today, and I’m looking forward to the show tonight.

I suppose it helps that your style has an improvisational quality.
I don’t know what I’m doing, in short.

But I wonder how much of that is rehearsed? I mean, you’ve been doing stand-up more than half your life. There’s a practiced kind of liberation.
Well, what I hope to do is have a conversation – one where I get to do all the talking. But, you know, it actually is a conversation. If you do stand-up and you lecture people or you just deliver this text, it’s not really a live experience. So what I do is that I submit myself to the experience of being in that particular room at that particular time at that particular place with those particular people. It’s always different, and I don’t know where I’m going to start or end or what I’m going to do in the middle of it. I have this stuff, but I don’t know when it’s going to happen. It means it keeps me sufficiently scared. It also means that I will forget things, come back to things, and that every day is different. And that’s the way it should be.

Anxiety is a great motivating force.
It is, absolutely. It keeps you awake, it keeps you focused. It’s your friend, really.

The new show seems to be a bit more personal than your older material – or more domestic, if you will.
It is more personal. I’m trying to talk about the small worlds we all inhabit. You know, we’re not all thinking about politics and what’s going to happen and dramas and all that stuff. The life you inhabit is actually close to you: your kitchen, your family, your work situation, your mortality, all these things you live with. All the things that are on the go in your head all the time. I’m trying to use that as a key.

Ten Questions with Larry Siems about Guantánamo Diary by Nick Mulgrew

Image courtesy of Aerodrome

Image courtesy of Aerodrome

I had the immense pleasure of interviewing Larry Siems, the editor of Mohamedou Slahi’s almost-incredible Guantánamo Diary, a searing memoir of Slahi's years-long, unlawful incarceration in Gitmo. (He's still there.)

During the interview, we chat about the immense readability of the manuscript, naive redactions on the part of the US authorities, the challenges of corroborating information, and other aspects of the unique challenge of editing Slahi's vast, brilliant and chilling diary.

The full interview is currently on Aerodrome. Click here to read it

I wonder what the experience was like for you personally, reading Slahi’s diary for the first time?”

”I was transfixed, too. It was like hearing a voice from the deepest void.

Review of Julian Redpath – Maiden Light by Nick Mulgrew


Originally published in the Mail & Guardian, 13 March 2015.

“I hope you don’t get fired for trying to make a story out of the most boring human in musical history.” Granted, things on the surface don’t paint Julian Redpath as particularly exciting – and he seems to know it. Another reclusive singer-songwriter with a day job, 29-years-old, who has just independently released his debut full-length album – of acoustic guitar-driven folk. About as vanilla as it gets, in other words. 

But from the first minute of Maiden Light, an eleven-strong suite of restrained and resonant heartsongs, something clicks. Redpath’s voice is clear and sonorous; his lyrics poetically concise; the production warm and clean. The opener, “Nightingale”, exhibits everything good about Redpath’s music: assured songwriting embellished only by passages of bright piano and cello, rich with reverb, and hinting throughout at some intimate, primal longing.

Such studied simplicity is the culmination of years of work, and the corralling the experiences of a young life spent between Mthatha, Nottingham Road, Johannesburg and a few places in between. Having recorded his parts for Maiden Light primarily on a farm in Dullstroom in 2012, Redpath has spent the interim period bringing on a host of collaborators – including virtuoso instrumentalist Guy Buttery, cellist Clare Vandeleur (who Redpath met on Facebook) and States-based musician Prism Tats – to further coax the heart out of his compositions. Even in the album’s (very) few weak moments, the nature of Redpath and Buttery’s production means that something interesting is seldom far away. Whether a sudden orchestral moment, a slash of anti-folk fuzz and sheet-metal shimmer, or a burst of poetry from Simo Majola, there are pieces for magpies in every track. 

While there are plenty flourishes to savour on a second listen, Maiden Light’s emotional context initially makes some of its songs overpoweringly sad. The album’s two great highlights both meditate on death, albeit in very different ways. “Richard Turner” – which appeared in a slightly different form on Redpath’s EP Shipwrecks in 2009 – reflects on the firebrand University of Natal philosopher and activist, who was shot through a window in his home by an unknown assassin in 1978, and died in his daughter’s arms.

Redpath says the track was directly inspired by an exhibition, Andries Botha’s (Dis)Appearance(s), which featured a drawing of the front of Turner’s home in the suburbs of Durban. “The song just came to me, complete, as I stood looking at the drawing,” he says.

“Immediately I went to the front desk, where I found a pen and scribbled the words down on the back of a flyer. Then I rushed home to play it.” After six years of gestation, the song comes out hypnotically unrushed, laced with gorgeous, subtle shifts in timbre, resolving brightly into its melancholy chorus: “Sometimes January / seems so cold and lonely.”

Then there’s “Ballad of a Good Man”, written in memory of Redpath’s father, its lyrics strewn with the minutae of mourning: standing around in circles with loved ones, listening for footsteps on floorboards, the counting back of moments and words shared. But as it progresses, the song’s plaintive tone shifts ever upward. Eventually, the sun breaks through the clouds, a triumphant passage of strings lifting the pall, however momentarily. It’s a moment of palpable catharsis; a bringing of colour into the gray landscape of life after loss.

Redpath calls these moments in Maiden Light “a joyous celebration of sadness”, but warns that too much shouldn’t be read into it. “I’m nervous to give too much of my stories away,” he says, “because what the album is to me is not necessarily what it could be for someone else.” 
“Songs are alive,” he adds, “and you have to be careful not to chase their meaning off.”

In any case, the final two tracks – including a ever-so-swaggering full-band instrumental – sand off any emotional roughness. And even then, Redpath resists the urge to turn a trot into a canter, exchanging counterpoint for crescendo, slow release for grandeur. 

These hallmarks distinguish Maiden Light as one of the most assured and exemplary folk albums to come out of South Africa in recent memory. An album with broad vision and influence, intimately its own, and – thankfully – not boring at all. 


Maiden Light is available at http://julianredpath.bandcamp.com/

Is Spur Racist? by Nick Mulgrew


For Native Americans, Spur's steakhouse fantasyland leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

Published under the title "Come Angry, or Bury My Heart in the Salad Valley" in the Sunday Times, 22 February 2015.

Imagine, in Estonia, a 200-strong restaurant chain called Kraal. They say they give homage to Zulu history, but something’s not right: the paintings are more San; the textiles more Ndebele. The staff wear imitation fur loincloths – more Tarzan than imitsha – and Technicolor Basotho blankets, greeting children who run around the dining room in paper headdresses. The logo depicts someone with a spear and shield. Is it supposed to be Shaka? Dingaan?

It doesn’t really matter. The point being: would you find this distasteful? Offensive, even?
Thankfully, Kraal doesn’t exist. But it does have something of a South African analogue – an empire of restaurants built on stereotypical (and sometimes incorrect) depictions of faraway people. Spur Steak Ranches, founded in 1967 as a Western-themed restaurant in Cape Town, now numbers 275 restaurants in South Africa, and is one of the most recognizable brands in the country. Spur Corporation – operators also of Panarotti’s and John Dory’s – reported revenue of R5.5 billion in 2014. And it’s all fronted by a mascot of a Native American chief.
Most South Africans might not think that’s a problem, and perhaps understandably so. But outside of South Africa, the kind of imagery in which Spur traffics is being furiously challenged.

“Spur has a really strange mascot,” says Jacqueline Keeler, a disarmingly chipper Native American activist working out of Portland, Oregon. “And it’s really disturbing to think that this is how we’re represented to South Africans.”

It’s really disturbing to think that this is how we’re represented to South Africans.

Keeler is the founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, a group that protests misrepresentations of Native Americans in the United States. Most recently, groups like EONM have focused their efforts on offensive mascots attached to American sports teams like the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians. They argue that these teams’ mascots constitute and encourage “redface”: the performance of hokey and racist representations of Native Americans historically inculcated into people by Hollywood Westerns and adventure books. Think: eagle-feather headdresses, war paint, tipis – all, interestingly enough, components of Spur’s branding. 

Mascotry is bad for many reasons, Keeler argues, but mostly because “it gets in the way of actual knowledge about people. We’re unlike how we’re portrayed in the media, to the point that most people don’t know anything about us.” At best, mascotry and redface showcase a kind of culture that has little to do with modern Native American life; at worst, they reference narratives that depict and celebrate the triumph of settlers of Native Americans.

Keeler says mascotry not only “gives cover for all of the atrocious things that happened to Native American people,” but also has immediate practical effects: “they affect how legislators see us when they write laws, how donors give money to programmes that affect us, and the outcome of judicial cases.”

Anti-mascot activists have had their small victories, including the cancellation last year of the trademark of the Washington Redskins football team. That said, the cancellation alone won’t force a change in the team’s name, and the decision is currently under appeal. “People feel entitled to use our images in any way they want,” Keeler says, “and that’s why it’s so dangerous.”

Surely Spur have cottoned onto this – especially seeing as their logo shares many similarities with the Redskins’. When I put the question to the company, however, Spur’s convivial CEO Pierre van Tonder says it’s not a huge worry. “We’ve had one or two guys write to us and ask if we’re not being politically incorrect,” he says, “but overall we really haven’t had any real negative feedback.”

And, he says, they’d notice if they did: “In South Africa, the thing that’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind – from a business perspective – is that you don’t want to offend anybody. It’s like walking on eggshells.”

And understandably so. But it’s somewhat ironic that, in a society that broadly tries to expose racist depictions of people, a brand such as Spur can be seen as patently apolitical. That’s probably because there isn’t a Native American presence in South Africa – but even so there are obvious resonances between the historical treatment of Native Americans and the millions of South Africans who were marginalized and dispossessed during colonialisation and apartheid.

Keyan Tomaselli, Professor Emeritus at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Communication, Media & Society, says that Spur’s branding does a neat job of negotiating such negative evocations. In his words, their advertisements and corporate identity has created and based itself upon an image of “a non-racial, internationalist, unthreatening, fun-loving, mythical, all-inclusive, naturalised indigene”, resulting in a brand in which “race, colour, national-origin, ethnicity, and language are all erased.” In simpler terms: a rainbow-nation friendly brand, which stands in place of knowledge between differently-cultured people.
Van Tonder concurs, in a sense. “We’re in a fortunate position that our consumer base is truly representative of all South Africans,” he says, “and that’s probably because we didn’t get involved in political minefields.”

Perhaps that’s a good way to look at Spur’s branding: something that attempts to draw upon ideas of community in a divided country. Look at old Spur menus and what you find – other than how expensive things have gotten over the decades – is that the restaurant’s Native American turn came only in the late 80s, when it moved from, again in Van Tonder’s words, “Cowboys and Indians” into something more “neutral and apolitical”.

Spur’s greatest strength lies in its construction of what Tomaselli calls “a contrived but welcome fantasyland”. But is that dependent on its mascots? Spur themselves seem cognizant of this: in their overseas restaurants – from the UK to Australia, Dubai to Mauritius – the Native American branding is toned down.

Nevertheless, Keeler says, toning down isn’t enough. “I was shocked when I saw that there are Spurs in the UK,” she says, “and the truth is is that they form people’s ideas about us. This isn’t what we want people to learn about us, as modern, sovereign people.”

“But it’s a funny thing,” she says, “thinking about what your responsibilities are to people who are far away.”

A Dash to save kids' literacy by Nick Mulgrew


Published in the Weekend Argus, 21 February 2015.

A late-winter’s morning in central Cape Town. The sun crouches stark and golden over the Grand Parade, where stallholders set up for the morning’s trade. A crowd, forty people, has gathered outside the Central Library nearby, rubbing their hands in the cold. The doors open, and the crowd rushes to the top floor. They take out laptops, tablets and art supplies. Bunting hangs from the rafters, muffins are handed out; the room hums with productivity.

There’s laughter, too – and little wonder. This is a gathering of some of the brightest writers, illustrators and designers in the city. And by the end of today, they will have started and completed ten children’s books between them – colourful, charming tales to give to children anywhere, free of copyright.

From its inception in May 2014, Book Dash has already held three meetings and produced 23 books. This veritable outpouring of literary volunteering was conceived by a trio of publishers, Arthur Attwell, Michelle Matthews and Tarryn-Anne Anderson. In Anderson’s words, a Book Dash is where teams “work quickly to create a high-quality children’s book in a day.” An attractive idea in its own right, but it’s one that’s also addressing an urgent need: to create a literature for South African children, and to get those children reading.

There are many interventions trying to grow South African children into readers, mostly in response to worryingly inadequate literacy rates. While it’s nearly impossible to present a coherent and up-to-date statistical picture of South African literacy – the sparseness of and discrepancies between sets of data make it more of a stained-glass window – the dysfunction is easy to see.

While literacy rates have improved since the end of apartheid, roughly a quarter of all adults in seven of the country’s nine provinces are illiterate, according to the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation’s 2013 Transformation Audit. Similarly, according to the most recent statistics from the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Equality (SACMEQ), 27% of South African children halfway through their schooling careers are “functionally illiterate” – a term defined by researcher Nic Spaull as the inability to “read a simple paragraph and extract meaning from it”.

The same SACMEQ indicators suggest that as few as 21% of South African schoolchildren have books at home. Additionally, according to child-centric literacy group Nali’bali, 51% of South African homes don’t have access to leisure books, while 85% of people live out of reach of a library. Between dropping circulations in print media and unequal distribution of bookstores and libraries, along with inaccessible internet infrastructure, millions of South Africans simply don’t have much to read.

“We can be sure that most South Africans have never owned a book,” says Attwell, himself a former Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow. “And that’s unacceptable.”

Attwell argues that each South African child should own 100 books by the time they’re five years old – a whole little bookshelf of their own. A huge ambition, but one that got its start in August at a community centre in Mitchell’s Plain, one of South Africa’s most violent townships, when 250 toddlers received a trio of privately-sponsored Book Dash books each.

“As a publisher, strangely, you rarely get to meet your readers,” Attwell says, “so it was extraordinary to hand books to these little, growing people and see their eyes widen.”

“For many, these might've been the first books they'd ever owned,” he says. “My job doesn't get more meaningful than that.”

Attwell, somewhat ironically, has a background in digital publishing; and many literacy organisations in South Africa use digital technology to deliver stories. 

The FunDza Literacy Trust, for instance, uses social networks to deliver serialised fiction to readers, mostly teenagers, on their mobile phones. According to FunDza’s Mignon Hardie, their network has reached 55 000 unique readers in the last four months alone.

Book Dash, in contrast, takes tech-inspired philosophy and applies it to children’s books, requiring that all participants contribute under a Creative Commons licence, which in essence allows free distribution of all books that result from each Book Dash.

This is significant beyond the fact that Book Dash books can be transmitted freely and in any format: Attwell argues that although “there are a lot of great literacy initiatives in South Africa, almost every single one gets their books from commercial publishers. A lot of initiatives use philanthropic money to buy intellectual property – and that’s a waste.”

But cost and coverage aren’t the only issues in creating a children’s literature and closing the literacy gap – content is just as much of a concern. “It’s not enough that there are books,” says Anderson, “but that the books are relevant, too. A lot of children’s books in South Africa are imported – but children need to see their own realities reflected.” The stats back this up: members of the Publisher’s Association of South Africa reported receiving a paltry turnover of R43 230 (US$3 930) from local children’s fiction in 2012, in comparison to R63 861 (US$5 812) for imported books.

Partly in response to the dearth of suitable children’s non-fiction, the third Book Dash resulted in ten new biographies of iconic South African women, including anti-apartheid activist Albertina Sisulu, and humanitarian figurehead Graca Michel, the former First Lady of both South Africa and Mozambique.

And it is perhaps politicians who can help the drive for reading in South Africa gain better purchase. Arabella Koopman, a former publishing director and current materials developer at Nali’bali, argues that government has to pro-actively back literacy initiatives.

“None of us receive government funding, while the reality remains that the government is the biggest buyer of books in South Africa,” she says. “That isn’t going to change anytime soon unless government creates the conditions in which initiatives can be more fruitful.” And that’s urgent, she adds, because “creating a South African children’s literature will help acculturate children to know what it is to be South African; what it is to be human. But creating a children’s literature is a process, not just an event.”


Getting under the skin of the new SA: an interview with Masande Ntshanga by Nick Mulgrew

Photo by David Harrison

Photo by David Harrison

Mail & Guardian
21 November 2014

Masande Ntshanga’s debut novel ‘The Reactive’ follows an HIV-positive young man who is dealing with the long-lasting trauma of his brother’s death by selling his antiretroviral drugs, chewing a lot of khat and drifting around suburban Cape Town with his friends. Describing the novel baldly, though, ignores its immense thematic depth. I sat down with Ntshanga to discuss one of this year’s most startling novels.

In The Reactive, I wanted to write something about someone who was trying to evade everything in their life, someone who lived in a suspended state. I wanted to deal with something in this novel that was not only real, but something I could be intimidated by. The inspiration came when I was at home in King William’s Town. I tried to take a step back from myself and tried to become perceptive to what other people were going through in their lives; about how people operate, about what communities are moving from and working toward.

I realised that we’re all just trying to survive, to strive against mortality, against death, against grief. I wanted to find a new way to think about these things – to treat the idea of death in the novel – in such a way that these things seem a lot less daunting when you come out on the other side.

Read the full article for free here.

Gayness and getting on with skateboarding: an interview with Yann Horowitz by Nick Mulgrew

Photograph © Jansen van Staden

Photograph © Jansen van Staden

Huck Magazine
13 November 2014

I spoke with my old school pal Yann-Xavier Horowitz for Huck Magazine about the troubles with coming out, the troubles with being a gay sportsman, and the troubles when all everyone wants to talk about is how you've come out and that you're a gay sportsman.

NM: It’s a tough position, I suppose, because it’s something that you feel doesn’t define your identity, but because it’s something that people don’t speak about – and it’s important that they do – you sort of have to speak about it.

YXH: Yeah, totally. Look, I’ve made a decision to talk about it so that it can be out there and that people can talk about it. But it’s getting to the point now where I’m getting tired of speaking about it. And I shouldn’t have to be tired of speaking about it. Ideally I shouldn’t have to speak about it at all.

Look at this way: if people were going to say either, ‘Hey, there’s Yann-Xavier Horowitz the skateboarder!’ or, ‘Hey, there’s Yann-Xavier Horowitz the gay skateboarder!’, I’d prefer the first option. Most people would choose that.

I could say I am an activist by speaking out, but I’m not going turn it into something bigger than what it actually is, and that is just me living my life.

Read the full interview online here.

Review of Chris Mann – Rudiments of Grace by Nick Mulgrew


Mail & Guardian, 10 October 2014

There have been seldom more appropriate settings for a book launch: a cool Grahamstown morning during National Arts Festival, in a side room of the Anglican cathedral on the crest of Hill Street, with the sun drifting in through the arched windows – and Chris Mann and David Butler reading and launching the former’s latest book of poems, Rudiments of Grace. Centred around a charmingly metatextual two-man play written for the occasion, Mann and Butler managed to place the collection – in essence a suite of slightly off-centre love poems – in a strong emotional and political context.

Starring Mann as Matthew Robinson – a small town writer and lawyer – alongside Butler, who played US-based neurobiologist Jack Viljoen, the play depicted a chance meeting between two old acquaintances at a school reunion in Cape Town. Less a fully-fledged production than a reimagining of a traditional reading, it nevertheless allowed Mann to poignantly explore and elucidate the collection’s thematic thrusts – of romance, of the neuroscience of love, and of the shades of lives and generations past – from an assured narrative distance.

A good idea, perhaps, given the poems’ intensely autobiographical geneses. In the hands of a less-skilled poet, a dedicated collection of love poems might be an unenticing prospect, but Mann’s uncommon eye and easy juxtaposition of myth, memory and anecdote mitigate against potential mawkishness. And while the themes explored in Rudiments are undoubtedly indulgent, it sidesteps nostalgia and platitude. There is no wish here to relive, only to recall and release, with a tenderness and frankness that left even Justice Edwin Cameron, who chaired the launch, temporarily tongue-tied.

Read in sequence, the poems in Rudiments follow a relationship from its hesitant beginnings to its later communions, in situations as varied as the horrors of tending to a diarrhoeic baby and the drudge of the weekly shop. Moments of profundity spring regularly from Mann’s uncommon renderings of intimacy. And in the collection’s best moments – such as “The Bower of Bliss” and “The Music of Ordinary Things” – Mann’s stories and histories cross from the personal to the political, speaking to sacrifice, compromise and history; a portrait of a love not insular, but one of and entangled with the world.

Review of Nikesh Shukla – Meatspace by Nick Mulgrew

Sunday Times
October 2014


I really wanted to hate Meatspace, an at-times clunkingly metatextual second novel by a social-media obsessed British-Asian writer, about a social media-obsessed British-Asian writer trying to write his second novel.

You can play a few rounds of 21st Century Trope Bingo with the concerns of Shukla’s protagonist, Kitab Balasubramanyam: Facebook ennui, Twitter ennui, timeline obsession; identity theft, secret sex parties, leaked nudes; loneliness in an over-connected age. All of this tends to cloud over a compelling and often hilarious plot, centred on the fallout from the arrival of Kitab’s bungling digital doppelganger at one of his readings.

It’s perhaps the main strength of Shukla’s writing that his characters’ tics – the way they say “hashtag” and “LOL” out loud – come out seeming so realistic, and thus so potentially annoying.

As such, while Meatspace captures a cultural moment with immediate and intimate relish, how you relate to it probably depends on how you relate to the world it inhabits.

Interview with Okwiri Oduor, winner of 2014 Caine Prize by Nick Mulgrew

Mail & Guardian, 22 August 2014

An interview with Okwiri Oduor, winner of the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing.

"When I first read your Caine-winning story, 'My Father’s Head', I set out to find more of your work. I couldn’t seem to find anything. Then I came across a young Kenyan writer called Claudette Oduor, who I thought initially was your sister or something. I had visions of this amazing writing family — until I realised, obviously, that it was you all along. Why the change in pen name? 

I came full circle. For a long time, I had been running away from many things, including this name that had been given to me at birth, but which I had grown up believing was rough and ugly and unacceptable. The things I believed about my name can be taken as metaphors for how I saw myself and my writing as well, and so coming to terms with the person I was meant first and foremost carrying my own name with no shame. I chose to be unapologetic about being myself."

Read the full story here.

"Words exchanged on short story writing": a conversation with Efemia Chela by Nick Mulgrew


Mail & Guardian, 1 August 2014

An interview with my friend and colleague Efemia Chela.

"What do you think writers in South Africa should be focusing on? We’re super young and I just don’t, for example, relate to a lot of writing done by many of our older peers. I want to see more genre-bending, more gender-bending, more … I don’t know, innovation.

I would like to see fewer books that use apartheid as a crutch to prop up bad writing. I would like to see more tentacles in South African writing. There are very few, if any at all. Tentacles are very important. They have suction and are wiggly. What more could you want?
      But, seriously, I want to see publishing houses get bolder about what they publish. I want to read absurdist South African plays. I want to read a fantasy short story that seamlessly opens portals into stories inside other stories. I want to read more graphic novels.
      I want South Africans to write a fictional icon, in the same way [that] Okonkwo, or Patrick Bateman, or Marla Singer, is an icon. I want dystopia, utopia and the afterlife rolled up into one. I want to read feminist zines that smash together poetry and pictures.
     I want more literary journals like Prufrock that are game to take on anything and aren’t stuffy and boring like some others I could mention."

Read the full story here.

Review of Thando Mgqolozana – Unimportance by Nick Mulgrew

Sunday Times
June 2014


In turns hilarious and plaintive, Thando Mgqolozana’s finely-crafted third novel Unimportance follows SRC presidential candidate Zizi in the hours before he is due to deliver a manifesto to an expectant crowd at his Western Cape university. Part allegory and part campus novel, Unimportance is eventful to put it mildly, as a series of distressing events leads Zizi to urgently re-evaluate the course of his life.

Mgqolozana succeeds as much in delivering nuanced arguments about electoral politics as he does in creating a convincing portrait of what a transformed local university campus might look like. The characters are flawed, reprehensible even; but relatable, brimming with verve and juggling with refreshingly hybrid identities. The disarmingly self-aware Zizi in particular is an excellent conduit for the book’s empathetic explorations of the mechanics of ambition and the traumas of young adulthood; a suitable figurehead for a narrative loaded with an emotional burden that belies its lithe prose.