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.

National heritage day celebration

Braai day

Celebrating National heritage day

We may be a tiny speck at the bottom of the African continent and we may have some of the worst crime stats in the world, but we also have some of the most beautiful scenery, some of the richest history and the most eclectic mix of people. To celebrate heritage day on 24 September, and to answer some of the questions my international readers have about the cultural aspects of ‘Five: A Maor novel’, here’s looking at some of the traditions that make South Africa unique and worth living in.

Braai: Similar to a barbecue, South Africans love to gather around an open fire and grill boerewors, steak, and all manner of ‘vleis’ (meat) with a group of friends and a lot of beer. We’re so passionate about this tradition, in fact, that we’ve dedicated a whole day each year to it. National heritage day, 24 September, is affectionately known as ‘National braai day’. Thankfully, our sunny skies and mild Winters are partial to this practice.
Mieliepap: A maize based porridge that is a firm staple in most households. Eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner and a favorite with ‘braai vleis’.
Nelson Mandela square: Located in the heart of the Sandton business district, Nelson Mandela square is the ‘go-to’ shopping and entertainment centre. But what makes this square so special, is the piece of empty, paved ground in the middle of it, where the bronze statue of our beloved ‘Madiba’ stands. Never was the square so beautiful than the days following the passing of Nelson Mandela, when every available piece of paving was covered knee-deep in flowers and cards to commemorate the life of a world-class leader.
Lekker: An Afrikaans word that is used by all South Africans, regardless of ethnicity or which of the eleven official languages we speak (that’s right, we have eleven! They don’t call us the rainbow nation for nothing). Often used to emphasize or describe something that is great, awesome or tasty. ‘The food is lekker!’ ‘That was a lekker day!’
Rugby: Our national sport. It’s a little like football, but the rules differ. South African’s become very patriotic during games and are passionate about both the regional and national teams. Rugby is best watched in a South African green and gold shirt, with a bunch of rowdy friends and a six-pack of beer.
Marmite: A yeast based extract that is a firm favorite for school lunches. Similar to Vegemite.
Biltong: Similar to beef jerky but I’m told that our version is much better! Cured, spiced, dried meat that is a must have for any South African get-together. We make it from various meats, the most common being beef and ostrich, and sometimes from game.
Mrs Balls Chutney: An essential South African condiment made from fruit or vegetables. No other brand will do and expats worldwide will search high and low for the original recipe flavor of Desmond Balls Chutney. Great on cheese sandwiches and bobotie.
Ouma Rusks: In 1939, Grandmother Greyvensteyn was given half a crown by her local church to assist their mission work following the devastation of the Great Depression. She began baking her delicious rusks for the local Molteno community. It wasn’t long before orders for her mouth-watering baking came pouring in from all over the country and today, Ouma Rusks is one of the best-known and most-loved brands in South Africa.
Mine dumps: Tailings are the materials left over from the mining process. South Africa has some of the deepest mines in the world and we’re renowned for our gold and diamonds. These man-made mountains dot the city-scape of Johannesburg. It’s a little frightening to imagine that all of that stuff used to be packed tight in the earth beneath our feet, but the piles of sandy remains add a certain character, and a layer of dust on windy days to the Joburg skyline.
Sophiatown: Formerly known as Triomf, this part of Johannesburg was the artistic, political, cultural and musical epicenter of the anti-apartheid movement. It may have been destroyed with the forced removals of 1955, but the indomitable spirit lives on in South African music, art and memory.

These are just some of the reasons I choose to stay in this wonderful country I call home, and some of the things Shaylee Greene from Five remembers about growing up in South Africa. Where is the place you call home? This heritage day, I urge you to put on your patriotic-hat and think of the reasons you love your country and your culture.