5 of 5 stars to ‘Shirley, Goodness and Mercy’ by Chris van Wyk

Shirley goodness and mercy

A Cultural experience

There are many novels available in recent years that deal with Apartheid and the struggle. Many autobiographies are available detailing the lives of those closest to the struggle and thankfully, history books and school curriculum have been rewritten to better reflect the truth of those times. However, there are few books that deal with the ordinary man on the street, and fewer yet dealing with those of the minority groups, like the ‘colored’ community.

‘Shirley goodness and mercy’ is a wonderful collection of snippets from the life of Chris van Wyk, a ‘colored’ boy growing up in Riverlea and Coronationville during the thick of the Apartheid years. Van Wyk tells the stories of his childhood in true South African style, with humor interspersed with proudly South African lingo. He brings to life the vibrance of township life, the simplicity of childhood and at times, the depressing normality of a poverty stricken part of the country and culture that very few South Africans really got the chance to see.

One of the lessons that will stick with me include the stories surrounding Chris’s teachers. His memories have reinforced my views that most teachers never realize the astounding impact they have on our children, how a flippant word can affect their entire lives and how one word of encouragement can turn a struggling child into a dreamer, a writer, a poet, or even a President. The same can be said of parents and authority figures in the community.

There were many references, places and traditions that I, as a middle-class white South African could relate to. Some of the things Chris used to eat and do with his parents, I remember doing with mine. One of the things I found particularly interesting, was the way Chris’s parents tried to shelter him from the political goings-on around him in the earlier years. The affection in his family was tangible in his story-telling. I particularly admired the way he reflected back on the discipline his parents meted out to him and his siblings and the obvious respect he continues to have for them. Chris clearly understood that they did the very best they could for him, despite their circumstances.

The role of alcohol in the community and family life was, and judging by the number of liquor stores and shebeens still adorning even the smallest South African outpost, still remains, a huge part of our culture. Chris’s explanations of township life have put this into perspective for me and while I still feel that the tendencies of South African’s to over imbibe are perpetuating many negative behaviors, I now understand that the roots are deeper.

This collection of experiences from the life of a young, ‘colored’ South African poet was eye-opening, funny, sad, rich and vibrant. It should be a part of every South African’s reading list, and for those of you who aren’t native, but would like to learn a little more about the country at the tip of Africa, this is an excellent cultural account.

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