The curious case of Mala Mala

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about SA’s most expensive land claim is that it should have never gone ahead at all

The 2017 report of the high-level panel on land, led by former president Kgalema Motlanthe, notes that the claim on MalaMala, near Kruger National Park, was settled “despite the finding of the land claims court and an initial decision by the minister that land restoration would be unfeasible. The community, recently formed for the purpose of lodging the land claim, was also not in fact eligible for restitution.”

The original asking price for the land, under the willing-buyer, willing-seller model, was R751m. The government rejected this as too expensive, and the case was set for the Constitutional Court, for a potentially precedent-setting ruling on expropriation of land without compensation.

But in an out-of-court settlement, the state agreed to pay a staggering R1.1bn — effectively wiping out the entire annual budget of the Land Claims Commission. This, in an area that the Wits University School of Public Health once described as among the poorest in SA — where more than half the deaths of children under five are from kwashiorkor or diarrhoea, and 60% of households are child support grant recipients.

MalaMala’s Jonathan Morphet tells the FM that the reserve — now run jointly by the previous owners and the N’wandlamarhi Communal Property Association (CPA) — employs 92 community members.

Morphet says levies are paid to a community development trust, which runs bursary and internship programmes, has sunk a borehole at a local school, and provided equipment to a community education centre.

Though a “strict confidentiality clause” precludes Morphet from revealing numbers, some tidbits have emerged from the parliamentary portfolio committee on land.

According to a Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) summary of a June 2018 meeting, the CPA received R36.2m in rental between November 2014 and December 2017, as well as a R5.5m community tourism levy.

At that point, 15 members of the claimant community had received bursaries.

In addition, the PMG summary suggests the MalaMala joint venture paid a dividend of R40m in its first year, of which 30% went to the community’s investment company (as per its shareholding). Half of this R12m was then paid to the CPA.

The PMG summary of a February 2019 meeting notes: “In 2015, R10,000 was distributed per household for 250 households; in 2016, R60,000 was distributed per household; in 2017, R30,000 was distributed per household; and in 2018, R60,000 was distributed per household.”

But these figures belie the opacity and upheaval that has surrounded the claim since it was settled in 2013. An “outdated” beneficiary list and membership disputes necessitated a new verification process — an attempt that apparently failed in 2016, but seemed to have progressed by the end of 2018. But an attempt to hold an AGM failed twice due to “disruptions”; some community members took the CPA to court (and lost); and others protested against the CPA.

In the February 2019 portfolio committee meeting, Louise du Plessis, the attorney who has control of the CPA’s trust account, was criticised for not being able to reveal how much had been deposited into — and transferred out of — the CPA account from 2016 to 2018.

From the outside, it seems the real beneficiaries of the deal were those who sold the reserve. Among them was David Mabunda, who became a shareholder of MalaMala in 2010 while he was CEO of SA National Parks. When he sold his stake in 2014, it was said to be worth R81m.

An edited version of this article appeared in Financial Mail’s 9 January 2020 edition

Protecting ecosystems while redressing land dispossession

With conservation sitting uneasily alongside redress in SA, attempts to ensure restitution for communities evicted from their land under apartheid – government-owned and private – have met with mixed success

Phinda Private Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal is not your average piece of bushveld. New species — the Phinda button spider, for example — continue to be discovered there; the reserve has a diverse habitat that includes the extremely rare sand forest; and it is home to a 1,500-year-old Lebombo wattle. It has also contributed to conservation efforts by relocating cheetah and endangered black rhino, among other rare species, to boost regional populations.

But Phinda holds another mark of distinction: it is the site of a land claim that has been a resounding success in a country littered with land restitution failures.

Conservation sits uneasily alongside redress in SA. Historically, it dovetailed neatly with systematised racial oppression under apartheid: when national parks and nature reserves were formalised or expanded, resident communities were booted out; and private game reserves were often established on private holdings that had previously been the site of dispossession.

As a result of the Restitution of Land Rights Act of 1994, communities who had been evicted from their land between 1913 and the end of apartheid had until 1998 to lodge claims for the return of their land or for “equitable redress”. While the return of government-owned conservation land was taken off the table, claimant communities could he case for six communities who received a combined R84m for their claims on land in the Kruger National Park). Alternatively, they could choose to receive land elsewhere, or enter into a co-management agreement with the government.

A number of the claims within protected areas were resolved through a combination of these, with communities entering into co-management agreements under which they would benefit from, for example, tourism income.

Co-management is a system that requires careful balancing of conservation with community interest. Joana Bezerra, an environmental science postdoctoral fellow at Rhodes University, writes on The Conversation website that co-management can fuel community resentment if it sidesteps the importance of cultural heritage.

“If the cultural and historical importance of the land aren’t taken into account, communities might not be fully committed to conservation measures,” she says. “In some cases, conservation agencies [have] used co-management agreements to reach conservation goals which, at times, were at the expense of communities’ needs.”

In the case of Phinda, a careful balance benefits the claimant communities as well as conservation efforts that began on this patchwork of former game farms and pineapple plantations back in 1991.

In 2007, comprehensive negotiations resulted in more than 9,000ha of the 13,000ha reserve being returned to the Mnqobokazi and Makhasa communities. Both community trusts signed a 36-year lease with &Beyond (then Conservation Corp Africa), with first rights to review for another 36 years, receiving R9m each for development within the reserve, and a monthly rental of R188,000 each (it has since escalated to a combined R528,300).

The view from Phinda’s Forest Lodge.
For the Mnqobokazi community, the decision to keep the land under conservation was economic, says community trust chair Jabulani Nxumalo.
“Phinda was well marketed domestically and internationally,” he says. In addition, the reserve’s proximity to the iSimangaliso World Heritage Site — an international tourist attraction — would provide “great opportunities … that not only help local economic sustainability but also [support] street vendors and increase job opportunities”.

The Mnqobokazi decided &Beyond should continue operating on the land, given its experience in the sector. But under the terms of the agreement, the company would also train community members in the commercial aspects of the business.

It’s gone beyond that: 129 members of surrounding communities have also completed employment training at &Beyond’s lodges, and more than a third of these continue to be employed by the company.

Since the resolution of the original claim, three pieces of land adjacent to Phinda have been returned to the communities — and subsequently leased to &Beyond to expand the reserve.

Nxumalo says the community trust last year distributed more than R1.1m directly to its 225 beneficiary households. It has also established a funeral scheme and bursary programme for school-leavers, paid for the electrification of 120 households and built a community hall.

&Beyond has also contributed to uplifting the community. Its nonprofit arm, the Africa Foundation, has built extensive community infrastructure, including facilities at 11 crèches and 15 schools; established a clinic; and arranged water supply and equipment for three farms. The foundation has taught crafting, business and financial literacy skills to locals; and through a training and mentorship programme it teaches artisanal skills and business acumen to contractors from the surrounding communities.

It seems obvious that communities who receive tangible benefits from protected land are more likely to feel invested in its ecological wellbeing — and Phinda, notably, has had just two rhino poaching incidents since 2016 (though a number of factors will have contributed to this). But to be successful, negotiations that give rise to co-management arrangements need to be inclusive of the broader community.

Phinda manager Simon Naylor says one of the biggest lessons the company has learnt is that “community development committees must be as representative and as apolitical as possible. It is important to include women, the youth, the educated sector [usually teachers], the traditional authority and local government in the core committee.”

And it’s about more than signing cheques. “You need to build trust with the development committees, other neighbours and conservation authorities. This takes time — and trust must be earned rather than bought.”

Phinda may be an exemplar of mutually beneficial collaboration at the private level, but it’s a model that would seem to have shown some success in government-owned protected areas too.

If the Kruger National Park is the SA National Parks’ (SANParks’) crown, then the Makuleke Conservancy, at its northern tip, may be its brightest jewel. A landscape of dramatic gorges, ancient baobabs and spectral fever tree forests, the roughly 240km² region forms just 1% of the Kruger, yet represents a hefty 75% of its diversity.

The area has been part of the park since the 1960s, when the people living there were forcibly removed. When their land claim was successfully resolved in 1999, the community was not permitted to return, but it was granted co-management of the land with SANParks, and involved in the appointment of rent-paying concessionaires.

Sam Dalais of Return Africa, one of Makuleke’s two tourism concessionaires, says the company has “a vigorous and ongoing programme to advance community members into skilled positions”. Most of its field guides and several senior managers are drawn from the roughly 65 community members who work there.

Return Africa pays the Makuleke communal property association (CPA) 10% of its revenue, with a minimum fee guaranteed, regardless of performance (Dalais says exact figures are confidential). Guests also donate funds to the Makuleke CPA; this year alone, they gave more than R210,000 to “drop-in centres”, where children can do homework, play sport and be given a meal.

“We also buy a range of goods and services from Makuleke and other suppliers from the local area,” Dalais says, suggesting that this “is a significant contribution to the local economy”.

It’s a claim that’s difficult to verify. Makuleke is often held up as a shining example of successful co-management, and as a win for the community and environment. But without hard numbers — Return Africa, its co-concessionaire Rare Earth and the CPA itself were not forthcoming on this — it’s hard to quantify the effect in the lives of those community members who haven’t secured employment in the reserve.

A !Xaus Lodge game drive vehicle.

Like the Makuleke, the Khomani San were forced to make way for a national reserve during apartheid. In their case, they were banished to the barren edges of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park (now part of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park). A ban on hunting in the park forced them to abandon their self-sufficient way of life.

In 1999, the Khomani San land claim was settled, together with that of the Mier people, who’d also been removed from the park. Though they were not able to return, nearly 60,000ha was demarcated as the !Ae!Hai Heritage Park, to be jointly managed by SANParks and the two communities. There, Khomani San children and teens are taught traditional knowledge and culture at a veld school, though the frequency depends on available funding. And community members are allowed access to the land at any time (though this requires a vehicle, which most don’t have).

!Xaus, a luxury lodge jointly owned by the Khomani San and Mier, was established within !Ae!Hai in 2007. Though the Khomani San CPA has received only R910,742 in direct earnings since then, the lodge does provide employment (typically eight or nine jobs for each community) and an opportunity to showcase Khomani San culture to the world.

At any given time, there are also eight crafters living at the lodge making curios. Not only is this a lifeline in an economic wasteland (they’ve made more than R1.4m since the lodge opened); it’s also a way of keeping age-old skills alive.

And things are looking up, with visitor numbers likely to grow: the “Khomani Cultural Landscape” was declared a world heritage site in 2017; and last year !Ae!Hai was designated an “international dark sky sanctuary“, putting it on the map for astronomy tourists. Construction will soon begin on a new SANParks rest camp, named after the late Khomani leader Dawid Kruiper.

A profit-sharing agreement will ensure the CPA receives a guaranteed income of R600,000 a year.

Elsewhere, the claim has been less successful. The Khomani San were given six farms outside the park as part of the claim settlement. But a lack of capacity and oversight, factional conflict and allegations of corruption and mismanagement have put the future of these at risk, dashing hopes that they may offer a path out of grinding poverty.

Green shoots have begun to emerge as a result of external assistance. The Peace Parks Foundation, among others, provides funding, technical support and capacity training. Government has also provided a R20m grant through the environmental protection & infrastructure programme to develop infrastructure on the farms, to ensure participation in the wildlife economy.

In 2012, Erin — one of the six farms — received game from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, and a tented camp was built to attract both hunting and eco-tourism. Though earnings do not yet cover Erin’s full costs — and salaries of its eight full-time staff are covered by donor funding — the farm provides much-needed employment in a region where jobs are scarcer than water. During hunting season, its staff complement swells by an additional 24 workers.

Though the viability of the Khomani San’s various income-generating initiatives is far from assured, the boost in funding and technical support over the past decade suggests the prospect of the community transcending apartheid’s devastating legacy is slowly improving.

• I have visited the Makuleke concession as a guest of Return Africa and Rare Earth, as well as !Xaus Lodge as a guest of TFPD. I visited Phinda as a guest of &Beyond.

An edited version of this article appeared in Financial Mail’s 9 January 2020 edition under the heading “Land: SA’s conservation conundrum”.


South Africa’s land restitution process explained

Photo by Graham Holtshausen on Unsplash

The Restitution of Land Rights Act of 1994 enabled communities who were evicted from their land between 1913 (when the Native Land Act was promulgated) and the end of apartheid to lodge claims for the return of their land or “equitable redress” (typically compensation or another property).

The 2017 Report of the High Level Panel on the Assessment of Key Legislation and the Acceleration of Fundamental Change, led by former President Kgalema Motlanthe, indicates that, by 2017, there still remained over 7 000 unsettled and 19 000 unfinalised claims lodged before the original 1998 deadline.

Up to 80,000 additional claims were lodged when the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Act of 2014 reopened the claims process. The Constitutional Court ordered this law to be set aside, insisting that that pre-1998 claims should be finalised before new claims could be lodged. Assuming that the rate of 560 claims being finalised annually remains constant, the High Level Panel estimates that it will take up to 43 years to finalise old claims; new ones lodged before the repeal of Amendment Act will take another 143 years to resolve. If the law gets re-enacted, there is a further 397000 claims anticipated and the restitution process will take 709 years.

The High Level Panel points out the claims are often contradictory or overlapping and that the Land Claims Commission lacks the expertise to conduct effective research into the veracity of each claim.

Kruger Park science centre aims to inspire a passion for ecology

South Africa has no shortage of problems facing its astonishingly rich biodiversity, from climate change and habitat encroachment to pollution and poaching. Skills and knowledge are required to meet these challenges, and helping to address the shortage of both is the Skukuza Science Leadership Initiative (SSLI), a state-of-the art science facility in the Kruger National Park’s administrative hub.

NW Architects - ReWild Africa - Alistair Daynes--6
The SSLI’s exterior.

Since it was launched in July 2017, the SSLI has been working with a lengthy pipeline of talent and experience, including local high school pupils, university students, SA National Parks (SANParks) employees and other scientists.

The design and materials of the SSLI campus — which includes a lecture theatre, library and laboratory — put sustainability at the forefront. Recycled girders and rubble from nearby parking bays and a helipad were used in construction. Mud bricks were baked on-site (a technique taught to the local builders who were involved in construction).

On one side, a breathable, fireproof rammed earth wall was built using local soil; its thickness helps to moderate temperatures and control humidity. Inside, the floors consist of stabilised earth, while external ones are “soil-crete” (half cement and half locally sourced soil). There’s no air-conditioning, but the campus was relatively cool on the sweltering summer day when I visited earlier this year. This is thanks to elements such as the lecture hall’s clerestory windows (which facilitate cross-ventilation) as well as a roof garden of indigenous plants, which shields the spaces below from hot sun.

Sustainability was at the forefront of the building's design. Picture: ALISTAIR DAYNES

SSLI co-founder Karen Vickers says that making the building as green as possible was important so as to highlight humanity’s role in ecosystems.

“​In order to demonstrate this, students need to think about their own environmental footprints on a daily basis,” she says. “In Skukuza, if you are filling up a bathtub, you are literally taking water away from the hippos. Everyone needs to make that connection. Kruger’s ecosystems are the classroom, but the facility enhances this learning by also allowing us to collect data on our own water use, electricity use and waste production, then to reflect on our consumption and challenge ourselves to do better,” she adds.

Vickers hopes that the sense of environmental stewardship that students gain while on the campus will continue long after they’ve returned home, because, even in cities, human “impacts are the same and nature is still present”. As the campus proves, it’s “possible to build comfortable, beautiful infrastructure that has minimal carbon footprint” and she hopes that this will inspire students should they ever consider building or renovating their own homes.

The campus also offers, she says, “a test case for sustainable infrastructure development” that could inform how SANParks builds infrastructure in Kruger and elsewhere in SA in the future.

The design of the Skukuza Science Leadership Initiative includes a laboratory.
The design of the Skukuza Science Leadership Initiative includes a laboratory.

Since July 2017, the SSLI has hosted nine groups from local universities (such as Nelson Mandela University, the University of the Western Cape and the University of Mpumalanga), and 21 from international institutions, including the University of Western Sydney in Australia, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Princeton University.

It offers an annual biodiversity training internship for local university students, technicians and environmental monitors. Over the course of six weeks, the interns learn various techniques for surveying biodiversity and understanding the relationships between animal behavioural patterns and vegetation.

Though the campus mostly hosts university students, the SSLI is committed to working with high school pupils too. Already it’s conducted 10 high school courses since opening.

“SA is not producing enough master’s and PhD-level students required to generate the expertise that the country needs to face its current and future environmental challenges,” explains Vickers. She hopes that the science camps offered during school holidays to local high school pupils will help to change that.

Aimed at imparting an understanding of science research, biodiversity and data analysis, the camps are designed to help students realise their potential as leaders while exposing them to myriad career opportunities in Kruger (and the environmental sciences more generally).

Vickers says that as passionate educators she and her fellow co-founder, Dr Laurence Kruger, believe that field courses have the potential to be transformative experiences for students because they challenge them not just cognitively but socially and emotionally too.

“By providing them with these transformational experiences, we hope to ignite a passion for science and an understanding of the importance of connected social-ecological systems, and hopefully inspire these students to study further and become the leaders that SA so desperately needs,” she says.

The SSLI is managed by the nonprofit Nsasani Trust on land provided by SANParks. Providing much-needed income to cover its costs and support its programmes is the campus’s anchor tenant, the Organisation for Tropical Studies (OTS). Offering ecology courses to university students predominantly from the US, the organisation uses the SSLI’s facilities for roughly one-third of the year. OTS has also assisted with fundraising and the conceptual development of the SSLI’s programmes.

There are big plans to expand the SSLI’s reach and impact. This includes additional construction of accommodation, and catering and administrative buildings. The founders hope to ramp up engagement with high schools, develop a teacher training programme and expand the existing biodiversity internship into a year-round ParaEcologist programme, which will teach important life and biodiversity science skills.

The SSLI also hopes to increase the number of tailor-made short courses and workshops it offers business professionals. One that is already up and running is the biomimicry workshop it hosts in collaboration with the Biomimicry Institute of SA. Over the course of several days, participants from diverse career backgrounds learn about the design principles that exist in nature and how these can be applied in a variety of contexts, from entrepreneurship and organisational development, to product design and architecture.

Vickers hopes that the long-term impact of the SSLI will be a global network of alumni who have been exposed to a life-changing experience and who now have the confidence and desire to become “change agents” themselves.

“It’s been so inspiring to see how people use and enjoy the space — how it enables deeper learning and connections,” she says. “Almost every participant I know who has attended a course at the SSLI longs to return for more!”

Pictures of the SSLI campus were taken by Alistair Daynes.

An edited version of this article appeared in the 31 October 2019 edition of Business Day.

Hot Air Ballooning Above Elephants

An exhilarating aerial safari in Zambia’s Kafue National Park.
Above the Busanga Plains in Kafue National Park, Zambia.

Dawn arrives slowly at Shumba Camp. First, just rich black silence. Then the first tentative bird calls, swelling louder. On the deck, where we sip tea, there’s the scent of dust and smoke and soil. The sky is becoming opalescent — flecks of shiny pinks and blues.

We head out onto the Busanga Plains in a game-drive vehicle. Ahead of us are flashes of copper — puku scampering daintily over the stubby grass, kicking up dust as fine as puffs of smoke. Shadowy silhouettes of elephants haunt the distant, smudgy tree line.

We are right in the heart of the vast Kafue National Park in Zambia. At 22,400km², it is bigger than Wales, and one of the last true wildernesses left on the African continent.

The only sign of humans — aside from tyre tracks — are the very occasional wooden poles used by Nyanja fishermen. They return to trap fish here each rainy season, when the plains have been transformed into a shallow, endless lake.

Right now, though, the earth is parched. We bump and bounce across grass and dried mud. We reach a small pond where egrets, herons and yellow-billed storks keep one another company. Onwards, to admire lions — three young males and three females. A youngster chases after two doves that flutter teasingly just ahead him. Another — nicknamed “The Killing Machine” — sits alert and tense as she eyes an unsuspecting lechwe antelope.

We break for tea right beside a pod of at least two dozen snorting hippos, tails flicking up splashes. A jacana walks on the animals’ round backs like he’s hopping along a sequence of boulders. I try to urinate in a nearby donga — a task that proves almost impossible. It’s hard to say whether that’s because of the proximity of the hippos or the two well-heeled retirees that have joined us on the game drive.

The next morning offers a radical shift in perspective — literally. As the sun rises, so do we — floating gently in a hot-air balloon. Neither camera nor notebook can capture the poetry of balloon flight. The astonishing, gliding grace of it. The wordless magic of seeing the bush completely differently — from above.

A balloon is different to a helicopter or a plane because travelling at the speed of the wind allows you time to absorb your surroundings, to soak up the splendour. And what splendour! Below us is a rare and precious sight: as far as the eye can see is protected land, barely touched by the human hand.

Thin channels of water — like capillaries of mercury — stretch out beneath us. Scattered across the plains are small “island” mounds — home to wild date-palm trees, tall sausage trees or figs, woolly caper berries and acacia.

A balloon is different to a helicopter or a plane because travelling at the speed of the wind allows you time to absorb your surroundings, to soak up the splendour.

We spot a male lion, oblivious, padding across one of them. We drift over a herd of elephants. Bird calls rise up to us: the duet of the black-collared barbet, the mournful wail of the fish eagle. An enormous tangle of twigs — a hamerkop’s nest — slips below us.

In a pond, we see a 5m-long crocodile — the longest the balloon pilot has seen. We land dazed and speechless. The flight feels like both an infinity and instant.

Hippo crossing.

I bunk one or two drives to enjoy Shumba Camp. On the deck adjoining our humble tent (one of only six), I write and read and do yoga as two puku chase each other on the grass.

There are certainly slicker safari operations. Shumba’s somewhat murky communal pool was being cleaned so we couldn’t cool off on arrival. Gin had to be procured from a supply cupboard for our sundowners. The maintenance team had to fix our outdoor shower. The food, when trying to be fancy, was sometimes a disappointment — though there were delicious dishes too, such as a creamy vegetable pie; and Boma Night was tasty from beginning to end.

This lodge is incredibly special. Its staff are friendly, outgoing and attentive. And a stay here offers something incredibly rare — the opportunity to be immersed in a pristine endlessness, one that’s remote, raw and wild. It’s a decadent kind of nothingness — one richly absorbing, teeming with life.

Shumba is sublimely far away from just about everywhere. From Johannesburg, it took a day to get there: two flights and a bumpy 40-minute drive (lengthened by our pause alongside a dozy pride of lions). Of course, the paradox of this remoteness is that, freed from the tyranny of round-the-clock connectivity (there’s no Wi-Fi), you become more connected to the present, becoming immersed in the magic of the bush’s ever-changing colours, textures, flashes of life. Here time slows and stretches. A sense of utter, sublime contentment emerges: a spacious joy.

A trap used seasonally by the Nyanja fishermen.

On our last day, after a siesta in the bleached noon hours, we go on our final game drive. A bachelor herd of puku saunter about; vultures congregate atop a tree. We stop for gin and tonics at a massive sycamore fig that has been lit yellow by the lowering sun.

We leave reluctantly — but happy — the next day. This has been a proper, radically reinvigorating break, one that has left us quietly awed by the power of nature, and newly conscious of the overwhelming, incessant and often inane and insignificant trappings of modern life. A visit to Shumba Camp is nothing less than an act of liberation and an invitation to, once back home, live life a little differently.

And to that, as the Nyanja say when it’s time to raise a glass, “!”

An edited version of this article appeared in Business Day‘s 5 December 2018 edition under the heading “Remote Zambian getaway resets life to a serene, rich rhythm.”

What Working on a Remote Scottish Farm Gave Me

Two weeks of physical labour left me with far more than just dirt under my fingernails.

View from an outbuilding doorway.

From Glasgow to the Scottish island of Jura it’s half-an-hour by helicopter. Not having one of those at my disposal, though, it takes me most of the day to get there. First, a large bus winding along moody lochs and around mountains to Kennacraig. Then the big CalMac ferry to Port Askaig on Islay — which is little more than a pier, a pub and a hotel. And then another, much smaller ferry that battles swift currents to deposit me at the lonely jetty at Feolin.

A bus is meant to take me to my final destination on the island, but I can’t spot it. There’s a minivan with “Corporate Tours” emblazoned on the side that I assume is there to collect tourists. Only once it has departed and there’s no sign of any other vehicle that I realised that must’ve been it. I board the vehicle when it returns an hour later, one of only a handful of passengers — mostly children who attend the high school on Islay. The 25-mile journey northwards gives me a sense of the island: moors and peat bogs, secluded bays, the soaring breast-shaped Pap mountains, an occasional cottage.

Finally, about two-thirds up this narrow finger of an island, I reach Ardlussa: a deer-stalking estate and working farm owned by Andy Fletcher and his wife, Claire, with a large, ancient manor at its heart. I’d stumbled across it on the UK website of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, which connects volunteers with opportunities to work on British farms in exchange for food and lodging. For a long time, the Scottish islands had intrigued me — their remoteness, their austere beauty. For a freelance writer on a tight budget, I figured two weeks working on a farm at the edge of the sea was a great way of getting an authentic taste of island life. And boy, was I right.

Every morning, I don Wellington boots and walk the Fletchers’ two dogs. Then, a cup of tea back in the house’s cosy kitchen before the hard graft begins — three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon, with a break for homemade soup and fresh-baked rolls between.

There is plenty to be done. It’s spring — calving season — and while the four Fletcher children can be relied on to do odd jobs and assorted feedings, Andy and the assistant estate manager are the farm’s only full-time pair of hands.

Occasionally I’m roped in to help herd adorably dim-witted cows into muddy pens or corral sheep into pasture — a team effort. But much of the time, I’m on my own.

There is weeding in the greenhouse, where I shovel clods of weed-choked soil onto the wheelbarrow, pushing this to the compost heap when it’s full.

In a ramshackle shed nicknamed the Crystal Palace, I heave chunks of pine to the juddering petrol-fuelled wood splitter. There’s the satisfying hiss as the blade slices into the wood, and thuds as the pieces fell to the floor. The scent of pine resin, sharp and sweet, stains the dank air. I’m in forest-fragranced heaven as I pick up the logs and chuck them onto a slowly-expanding pile.

The “Crystal Palace”.

One rainy morning, I dig a ditch into the side of a hill, slicing into thick, slurpy mud with a spade so that the water streaming downwards is redirected away from the road below. Another morning, I walk down to a storm-scoured cove and collect clumps of rotting seaweed to be used as a natural fertiliser. While I work, I also pick up sackfuls of rubbish that have washed ashore — a bounty that includes rope, fishing tackle and heaps of plastic.

Predictably, it rains a lot. There’s also a brief snowstorm, followed by dazzling sunshine. Slightly shocked, I wear sunglasses and strip down to a T-shirt to perform my most important task: juniper planting.

In 2015, along with two other local women, Claire Fletcher co-founded Lussa Gin, an artisanal distillery which operates out of the old stables on the estate. While juniper — the most important of the gin’s 15 botanicals — is currently sourced from elsewhere, it is Fletcher’s hope that in time they’ll be able to use a homegrown crop.

In a nutrient-rich former cattle pen, I lay down plastic sheeting which is meant to protect the plants and prevent weeds from growing up. Then, with an increasingly muddy pair of scissors, I stab the sheet, digging with a trowel through the slit, before placing a spindly juniper bushel into the hole I’ve carved. I’m worried that I’m doing it wrong — that the roots will be too squished once I’ve covered them with soil again. Claire seems confident, however, that they’ll survive. “They’re tough — these plants have been around since the Ice Age,” she says reassuringly.

Crouched down for hours, planting, is hard work. Occasionally, I stretch my aching back, pausing to admire the mainland’s purple and yellow hills and the milky teal of choppy sea which separates them from me. Spots of rain appear on my waterproofs, while I remain snug and dry underneath.

By the late afternoon, I’m fairly exhausted. I soak in the huge bath (an enormous luxury as back home, Cape Town is still fending off the effects of prolonged drought). Even after scrubbing my fingernails, there is still dirt under them. I don’t mind — I wear it as a badge of honour.

Claire is an excellent cook. Dinner, shared with the family, is typically something hearty — a Spanish omelette, for example, or chilli con carne, washed down with a nice glass of red. Sometimes I’ll join them afterwards to watch TV by a crackling fire. Then I retire to bed with book.

On the weekends, when I’m free to do as I like, I go on long, solitary walks. I make a pilgrimage to Barnhill, an isolated cottage where George Orwell wrote 1984 – not long before dying of tuberculosis. I also tramp across squidgy peat bogs to the windswept western side of the island where a rustic cottage — known as a bothy — offers a free sanctuary for overnighting hikers. I stumble across a wild goat and her kid — two of roughly 500 that dot the island. No one is totally sure how they ended up here — one myth suggests that their ancestors were left here when the Spanish galleons carrying them got shipwrecked on Jura’s rocky shore. I poke my head inside.

Barnhill, where George Orwell wrote “1984”.

I visit Jura’s only village, Craighouse, where most of the island’s 230 residents live. In addition to its handful of houses, primary school and a community-owned grocer, Craighouse is also home to the Jura Distillery, where the island’s eponymous whisky is made. The Filipino conglomerate which owns it has recently redesigned Jura’s bottle to make it more enticing to the American market, elongating its once distinctive, squat shape. The flavour profile has changed too — across the main range there are now hints of the peatiness so typical of the whiskies on neighbouring Islay. All this change has caused consternation among some of the islanders, who grumble about it being a sell-out.

In the village’s only pub, affixed to its only hotel, a local lass is celebrating her birthday. People are friendly, and the drams of whisky I order soon put me at ease. There’s live music and singing, followed by dancing. Amidst the din, a scruffy building contractor from the mainland informs me, with a knowing look, that there are lots of single women on Jura. Clearly, he doesn’t realise that I’m gay, and I don’t feel all that comfortable in enlightening him. I’m less reticent when the island’s bricklayer asks if I have a girlfriend, though. He’s impressed by the frankness of my admission. (I, too, have surprised myself — I blame the whisky.) Clearly attitudes here are changing — but it’s always difficult to gauge exactly by how much.

Sunday evening. Back at Ardlussa, the new-leaved trees are silhouetted against pale blue sky. I leave the Fletcher family clustered around the TV, and walk down the lane to take photos. The sea is mirror-calm.

My fortnight on Jura has ended far quicker than I wanted it to. I’ve felt at home and content here in a way that feels almost uncanny. Physical labour is tough: frequently tiring and occasionally boring. Still, I’ve found it hugely rewarding. There’s been the sheer bliss of being of spending days outside in the country, by the sea — and far away from the noisy, frantic bustle of urban life and digital distraction. Here, in this decidedly analogue world, I’ve had the satisfaction of seeing physical changes as a result of my efforts — whether its rows and rows of juniper I’ve planted, or a ditch that I’ve dug.

Much as I love my writing day-job, I’ve relished being away from a screen, doing a day’s work with my body, not my mind. This way of life is new but, at some deep, wordless level, profoundly familiar. Maybe I’ve been communing with all the generations before me who worked the land — as recently as my late grandfather. When duty called in World War Two, he, a pacifist, took up plough and tractor instead of gun and tank, helping to feed wartime Britain. Me planting juniper might not be as noble. But still — it’s a way of being a bit closer, a bit more connected, to the parts of me that were formed by the past. The parts of me most at home in an outside, rural, analogue world.

A Jura resident told me that most people who come to the island are escaping something. Did I come here to run away? No, not really. The past two weeks have felt like I’ve been running towards myself. Towards the kind of life I’d like to live: one with more nature and less screen-time; more meaningful moments grounded in the present, and fewer superficial and superfluous distractions.

On my last morning, as I climb aboard the little bus that will take me to the ferry, I feel a wrenching. The ensuing ache lingers for longer, even, than the stubborn dirt under my fingernails.

An edited version of this appeared in Business Day on 23 October 2019, under the heading “Holiday of ditches, dirty nails and rotting seaweed.”


Books, books, glorious books: my 2019 highlights

From a year of rewarding reading, these were my favourite books.

In fiction:

  • Okay, Okay, Okay, Finuala Dowling’s novel inspired by the student protests at the University of Cape Town, is smart, funny, achingly poignant and powerful. Read my review.
  • I devoured Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy; it’s hard to capture succinctly its many beautiful attributes — the eye for detail, the empathy, and an appreciation of nuance. Plot is not a priority; instead, it’s the exquisite evocation of human lives and truths that keeps you turning pages.
  • Half of a Yellow Sun: I finally got around to this searingly brilliant novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Haunting, complex, exquisite.
  • I read two gorgeous book by Philippe Besson. In the Absence of Men elegantly imagines a burgeoning friendship between Marcel Proust and an adolescent in wartime Paris. Lie With Me — his new autobiographical novella packs a punch, precisely capturing the powerful, lingering effect of a short-lived romance
  • Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran: By turns hilarious, heartwarming and tragic, this 1978 novel (republished this year with a lovely forward by Alan Hollinghurst) elegantly and clear-sightedly captures the hedonistic frenzy of gay New York life after Stonewall and before AIDS.
  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer was delicious — funny, poignant, moving, wise. It also won the Pulitzer.
  • Sally Rooney is brilliant. Normal People is disturbing, captivating, vital. A book that really captures the complexities of relationships, romantic and otherwise. As does Alain de Botton’s gorgeous, gentle, funny novel, The Course of Love.
  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the debut novel by Ocean Vuong, is a startlingly powerful portrait of the immigrant experience — and an unflinching dissection of tragedy and trauma, large and small. Read my review.

In non-fiction:

  • How to Do Nothing — this terrific manifesto by artist Jenny Odell doesn’t simply bemoan the alienating addictiveness of smartphones: it offers ideas about “resisting the attention economy” and leading richer, happier lives that are more deeply connected to the natural and social ecosystems which we’re part of.
  • The Nature Fix by Florence Williams: An easily digestible treatise on the scientific research which explains why standing under redwoods (or hiking in the desert, or even a stroll in your neighbourhood park) benefits body, mind and soul
  • The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. A memoir about gender transition, pregnancy, the modern family. It’s a book that is both full of raw, pulsing life as well as bristling intellect. Wow.
  • How to Love Wine: A Memoir and a Manifesto by the New York Times’s wine critic, Eric Asimov, is fantastic: a passionate and eloquently argued riposte to the snobbery and anxiety that all too often afflicts our relationship with wine.
  • Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott’s book on writing, is down-to-earth, funny and very wise: in short, a must for any writer.

Listen up! The year in podcasts

Roughly 12,000 miles of road-tripping this year meant many happy hours of listening to podcasts. (It also means I really need to plant more spekboom). Here’s a list of favourites:

  • Bundyville: A rigorous, nuanced and spellbinding podcast about the ranchers fighting the US federal government. It touches on so many important themes — including religious fundamentalism, rightwing terrorism, the future of public lands — and how these all intersect. This is podcasting at its addictive, thought-provoking best. (So far, I’ve only listened to the first season; I’m looking forward to diving into the second in the new year.)
  • Pivot — Arguably the smartest (and sassiest) take on the colliding and overlapping worlds of tech, business and politics.
  • On Being — this series of conversations between Krista Tippett and notable thinkers is an evergreen favourite. I recently listened to the chats with conversation with the late poet Mary Oliver and the 2012 conversation with audio ecologist Gordon Hempton. Both capture the exquisite connections between presence, attention and the natural world — and how this can both soothe and inspire us.
  • Evil Genius: a panel of comedians skewers the reputations of the famous and (in)famous — including Amy Winehouse and JFK. Thought-provoking, hilarious (and sometimes a little sick)
  • Tunnel 29: the can’t-switch-it-off true story of a tunnel built underneath the Berlin Wall to rescue refugees from East Berlin
  • Cautionary Tales: Economist Tim Harford’s accounts of catastrophic mistakes from history — and the lessons we can learn from them
  • As the name implies, the BBC’s Brexitcast combines two of my favourite obsessions: Brexit and podcasts. I’m addicted to its gossipy, smart, funny analysis of the latest twists and turns of Brexit from BBC journos and guests. Brexit might be a horrific, slow-mo car crash, but it feels rather reassuring that Adam, Chris, Laura and Katya (and their silly jokes/puns) are on hand.
  • Avery Trufelman’s Nice Try is an interesting exploration of various utopias created over the course of history. It’s better than her compelling but somewhat uneven podcast series on clothing, Articles of Interest.
  • I’ve enjoyed How I Built This — the NPR show that interviews successful entrepreneurs. Favourites include the chats with Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia and Herb Kelleher, the late founder of Southwest.
  • I’ve also enjoyed the bite-sized episodes of The Last Continent — a PBS podcast about Antarctica’s history and uncertain future.
  • Science Vs. — brilliant science journalism that explores all sorts of things, from veganism to alcohol
  • The Dropout — a gripping account of the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, founder of blood testing company Theranos
  • Slow Burn — the addictive story of the Monica Lewinsky scandal (season 2) and Watergate (season 1)
  • Something podcasting seems really good at is helping to make sense of recent history — a welcome antidote to the myopia of 24-hour news cycle. While the absolutely brilliant, binge-worthy Slow Burn (which delved into Watergate and the Lewinsky Affair) is perhaps the most obvious example, there are other goodies — such as Expenses (about the UK parliament’s 2009 expenses scandal) from The Telegraph and NPR’s Throughline — I found recent episodes on Christian fundamentalism and bussing fascinating. I was also hooked on Conspiracyland , veteran investigative journo Mike Isikoff explores how the 2016 death of a Democrat party operative has been exploited by a whole cast of unscrupulous characters — including Russian intelligence, rightwing talkshow hosts and Julian Assange. The perfect (and perfectly gripping) primer on the post-truth era.

Happy listening!

Decoding the Past to Understand the Present

An interview with World War Two historian Sir Antony Beevor.
Anthony Beevor-6823
Antony Beevor. (aerodrome/Gareth Smit)

Sir Antony Beevor, a former army officer with the 11th Hussars, studied at Winchester and at the British Army’s prestigious military academy, Sandhurst. He has written four novels and 11 historical works —  many of which deal with aspects of World War Two — such as Crete, Berlin and D-Day. Over eight million of his books have been sold around the world in more than 32 different translations, making Beevor one of the world’s bestselling military historians. He has also received a slew of awards — Stalingrad alone, scooped up Samuel Johnson Prize, the Wolfson Prize for History and the Hawthornden Prize for Literature after it was published in 1998. His magesterial account of World War Two, The Second World War, was published in 2012.

What did the words “World War Two” mean for you as a child?

My first contact with it was, in a way, a physical contact — we had a chest with clothes in that was called a dressing up box; at the bottom of it, what should I find but my father’s 9mm Browning pistol from the Second World War. I was thrilled — I was only about six-years-old. My mother was absolutely freaked. She immediately took it round and handed it in at the police station. My father was in Special Operations Executive [an espionage agency] — he was a senior SOE officer in Italy in the Second World War on Field Marshal Alexander’s staff. I remember the way that people’s lives were defined after the war by whether they’d had a “good war” or not. And those who had had a good war did in a way often did very well out of it — there was a tremendous mafia between those who had learnt who to trust out of their colleagues in the war — and they were all giving each other jobs and so forth.

You started out writing novels. How has this influenced your historical books?

I mean, I read novels first and that I suppose had a certain influence on the way I wanted to write history even though of course there was nothing imagined or made-up in the history —  but it was much more the way of the reader’s experience … I feel very strongly that you should write for yourself, you shouldn’t try and write for anyone else. You should try and write the sort of book that you like and if other people happen to like it too then that’s great.

How has having studied under the acclaimed military historian John Keegan influenced your own work?

He was incredibly kind and helpful. And he was also quite provocative in the way that he would quite often emphasise to us, rather arrogant young officer cadets why we should look at things afresh or from a totally different angle.

John was a tremendous influence in many ways, mainly because of his book The Face of Battle was the start of the revolution in military history. It had always been written in the past by staff officers or former generals or whatever who tried to impose a form of control over the battle from above which had actually never really existed in reality. Military history had always been written in collective terms; it was the collective version of history. John blew that one apart with The Face of Battle. I was lucky because I was already struggling, partly because of John’s influence already with the Crete book but much more deliberately then with the Stalingrad book, trying to integrate history from above with history from below. And I’d always been dubious about that fashion for oral history which I didn’t think was a proper book in many ways — a collection of letters or interviews or diaries or whatever — because it lacked the context and I think you needed to have the two.

In an interview with the FT you mentioned that you turned to writing as a means of alleviating the boredom of military life. Tell me more about that.

I had Perthes disease which meant I was on crutches [as a child]. Of course I got bullied and that’s obviously where I decided I wanted to become a soldier. But you know you never acknowledge that to yourself and it was only after five years in the army — and I had a wonderful time in the regiment; they were a really nice lot — but then I had to do this really boring job in north Wales and so I thought, with the innocence and arrogance of youth, why not try writing a novel? And then of course in that first novel I suddenly realised that actually the reason why I joined the army was because I had a physical chip on my shoulder. That was why I then felt I’m not going to stay on after discovering that — why not try being a writer?

Do you think the time spent being a solider has had a bearing on your approach?

Of course it has. I think it’s helped enormously. I’m not trying to say that only former soldiers can write military history. What is essential is to be able to put yourself in the boots of the soldiers so that you can understand why they behaved in the way they did. The first duty of the war historian is to understand. What I was rather shocked by was the way that particularly from the 90s onwards military history suddenly also became such a controversial subject that it attracted in outsiders, particularly in the academic world — sociologists and so forth who tried to impose an ideological grid on a subject they didn’t really understand. You’ve got to understand why an army which is far from being a cold, calculating machine which it’s so often portrayed as is actually a very emotive organisation.

There is a huge amount of suffering, cruelty and carnage in the books you have written. How do you personally cope with dealing with such grisly content during your research?

The vital thing was to try and maintain an emotional detachment while you’re getting the material down — so that you’ve got it correctly and accurately. But then it would hit you, usually a couple of nights later I found — it would come back and haunt me, usually sometimes waking up in the middle of the night. And it was impossible for literally several years afterwards; it very occasionally still hits me if we’re looking into a plate of food and thinking how much that would’ve meant to 10 people at Stalingrad and not just one person. When you actually write you cannot really judge what you’ve written — and that’s just true of every writer; you’re too close to it in many ways, and particularly when it’s on such controversial material — you are conscious of the danger of the pornography of war. I did leave out some things because either they were so horrific that even I couldn’t face them, and I certainly couldn’t face putting them down in print for other people to read, but at the same time in a way you shouldn’t duck it. [Soviet journalist] Vasily Grossman said after writer about Treblinka [a Nazi extermination camp] said, “It is the duty of the writer to record this, and it is the civilian duty of the reader to read it.” But at the same time you’ve got to be careful.

Can you speak about the history as a form of literature — the art of writing a story fashioned from a huge chunk of research?

Leaving aside the art for the moment, I think there is the very important debate that certain Continental countries, particularly Germany and Scandinavia take a very academic view trying to describe history as a science. Well, history cannot be a science — it’s preposterous that. History is a branch of literature. Even if one recorded everything you would still not be able to get to a total truth. What matters is really a question of the scholarship and the writing and it’s the fusion of those two; the scholarship has to be absolutely right and impeccable, and also, I hope original — there’s no point in doing these books unless you’re going to be coming up with new material. The actual writing has to be not literary in a self-conscious sense, but, the purity of the prose and the clarity of the thought have got to go together. The analysis should be incorporated in the narrative. You don’t have to have a greatly analytical section and all the rest of it, but you should be able to provoke the thought processes of the reader well enough so that they see the different issues and the different choices available at that particular time without you actually losing the narrative momentum.

Your previous books have dealt with many episodes or aspects of World War Two history. Was that useful when writing The Second World War?

Enormously. Inevitably when one is trying to bring together all of these different conflicts — which were very different conflicts; that’s why the point of the book in many ways was to show how it was an amalgamation of conflicts rather than a single war itself — requires much more top-down history rather than bottom-up. It would’ve been nice to have included many more personal experiences to illustrate all of that but I did want to keep it [within a certain length]. But in terms of the research when people ask, “How long did it take you?” I can quite genuinely say it goes back over the last 25 years or so of work on the subject because it wasn’t just a question of recycling previous material or anything like that from earlier books — it was in many cases because after the book has come out you then get so many personal stories sent to you, or information from various archives.

Would the book have been different had you written it 20 years ago — has more information come to light in recent times?

Yes, a lot more. I found that in particular with the D-Day book for example, that many of those who were involved in the war didn’t talk about it to their children or their families afterwards. And it was actually only when they started to die, in the 1990s and 2000s in bigger numbers that either before they died, they, or, after they died, their families, would then start handing over their papers, their private diaries and so forth, to archives. And suddenly a huge amount of personal experience material became available. And that was a vast, vast bonus.

When did you decide you wanted to write The Second World War?

It had been hanging over me a little bit — I didn’t know when I was going to do it: do I wait till my dotage? And it was very much pressure from publishers very keen on the idea. But it was also because I needed to do it for myself to understand how it all fitted together. I was appallingly ignorant about the Sino-Japanese war, for example. You’ve got to understand how it all fits in and how the theatres on different sides of the world affected each other.

Why is it so important that we read about World War Two?

We’ve got to understand the world today. If you want to understand and the tensions in the Far East between China and Japan over the South China Sea, you’ve got to understand the Sino-Japanese War. You’ve got to understand China’s bitterness and anger against the West for not having properly supported it properly in the war against Japan — China has been treated in the past so appallingly by Western powers, particularly Britain — and why there is total determination in China not just to beat the West at their own game, but probably to humiliate the West in the future.

There are dangers, as I’ve often said, about the obsession with the Second World War, both by the media and by politicians, and the way that false historical parallels are made when they want to sound grandiose. The Second World War has become this dominant reference point for every major problem — so we do need to understand it, if only to realise where [politicians] are going wrong and where they are actually making major, strategically disastrous mistakes.

First published in Wanted magazine’s March 2014 edition.

Being a Writer F*cks Up Your Life

An interview with Craig Higginson.

Craig Higginson - The Dream House“I think about dying every day — I’m very aware of time passing, constantly,” Craig Higginson tells me. “I think it’s practically impossible to be present in the present. It’s always just struck me as so mysterious — life — it’s such an extraordinary, strange sort of dream we’re in. And I’ve always wanted to catch some of it and explore it and try understand what it might be.”

We’ve met on an early, crisp morning at a restaurant in Johannesburg to chat about his fifth novel, The Dream House, which charts the return of Looksmart, a wealthy black businessman, to the Natal Midlands farm where he grew up. As his conversation with Patricia — the elderly white woman who supported him during his childhood — unfolds, Higginson captures the tense uncertainty of contemporary South Africa with astonishing power and eloquence.

“I received absolutely zero encouragement to do anything artistic in my entire upbringing — it was probably actively discouraged,” Higginson says with a wry smile. Despite this, he wrote poems and even a novel while he was growing up in Johannesburg. By the time he was in matric at Michaelhouse, he wanted to be a painter, and went on to spend two years studying fine art at Wits. And then he fell in love — his first “proper relationship”. As poems started pouring out of him in response, he knew he wanted to be a writer, and so changed over to studying a BA.

“I’ve never really left that state that I started writing in when I was 19 — essentially the state of being a poet in the world. I don’t think of myself as an activist. I see myself as someone who’s trying to write poetry — it’s just that the forms in which I write are fiction and theatre.”

He believes poets “de-familiarise the familiar” — their work is “about us re-engaging with the everyday. Because the everyday is extraordinary — it’s all we have access to. The problem with human beings is that everything becomes naturalised, normalised.”

“I want my reader to be more alive to the world,” he says. “I think if we were a bit more like that, we would be less inclined to live in the destructive cycle that we’re all locked into.” South Africans, he believes, “are a frightened, rather harassed group of people, and what that does to us is that it makes us kind of shut down and put ourselves back into a sort of laager state.”

After finishing university, Higginson worked as an assistant to the legendary Barney Simon at the Market Theatre, before moving to the UK and falling into the theatre scene there. Over 10 years, he facilitated workshops and read scripts at the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Young Vic and was also a theatre critic for Time Out.

Embodied Laughter, his “little bit embarrassing” first novel, came out in 1998. “I kept trying to leave the theatre,” he recalls: what he really wanted to do was write fiction. The stage wasn’t finished with him, however. In 2004, he was lured back to South Africa, to become the Market Theatre’s literary manager, helping to transform compelling but poorly written stories into strong scripts. He agreed, conscious that South Africans “are my people — I care about these people. I had never been connected to the people in England; I had never wanted to write about them or speak for them.”

The past decade has seen a steady stream of work flowing from Higginson’s pen: plays (some original, some adaptations) performed all over the world, as well as novels. Initially the two forms were very different in scope. The plays were “politically engaged, state of the nation” pieces. Watching plays at the Market Theatre in his school holidays in the 1980s “changed my thinking and they woke me up to the world and I’ve always thought that theatre had that function; it has to be in some way socially engaged.”

His novels, in contrast, were rather Joycean, “shunning the public and the political”, exploring “the internal consciousness of the protagonist”. “There were no heroics in any of the novels” while in the plays characters tended to meet their fate “in a grand sort of way”.

Now they’ve begun to merge, reinvigorating each other.

“I realised after The Landscape Painter (his 2011 novel) I need to start doing my fiction much more urgently because we’re living in such extraordinary times; we’ve got to do battle with the present and I think as writers we’re failing if we don’t engage with what’s going on around us, and I saw less and less of it in my contemporaries,” he says.

With The Dream House — which had its roots in his first original play, Dream of the Dog — “I wanted to write a novel that had dialogue at its heart, and so the theatre was a good model for that”. This is not just dialogue between characters: it’s also internal dialogue — and the gap between what people are thinking and feeling and what they’re saying.

“All of the relationships are ambiguous, really. I’m trying to find a form that doesn’t shut down the strangeness of the present, this middle space that we’re in, but actually tries to dramatise it and catch it.”

Higginson is currently working on play and novel versions of a new story.

“I have a feeling I’ll drift more towards fiction than theatre in time,” he says. Novels are “more satisfying” — there’s more control over them than with plays, which can often feel like “a bit of a missed opportunity” because of their collaborative nature and tiny budgets. “The South African theatre scene really just depresses me. There’s absolutely zero room for formal experimentation of text-based theatre,” he says, complaining of conservative audiences, critics and producers.

I ask him if he ever gets creatively drained.

“I think you get fit by doing it. I don’t think there’s any shortage of stuff out there to be stimulated by. And when I write a thing, it’s usually something that’s been bubbling away for quite some years. I’ve got lots of things in the wings. The good ideas don’t go away.”

“I wouldn’t be able to live without [writing],” he says. “When you’re doing it, you feel good about yourself; you feel alive and you feel OK about yourself in some way fundamentally.” But he warns: “I wouldn’t necessarily recommend being a writer. It fucks up your life.”

The Dream House was published by Picador Africa.

This article first appeared in Wanted’s October 2015 edition. Higginson’s most recent novel, The White Room, was released in 2018.