the freedom to throw up

I stopped reading newspapers in the UK several years ago when I decided I didn’t have enough energy to sustain the irritation that surfaced every time I read pages and pages of simplistic and biased reporting. Today, I tend to rely on books, blogs and certain select magazines to inform myself about the world in which we live. If that sounds pompous, so be it.

South African newspapers – especially when it comes to reporting the world – are as bad, and sometimes worse, than the British press. Frequently, they reprint UK copy (pulling from Prospect, the FT, The Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Guardian and no doubt others), just as the state broadcaster SAFM uses BBC reporting to fill minutes of news slots (amazingly, SAFM even transmits BBC reports on Zimbabwe, reports that are produced in the Johannesburg BBC bureau office… and, yes, that is true). South African newspaper copy on (the rest of) the continent of Africa is… actually, I don’t think I can bare to go there today… Instead, let me take you into the world of South African reporting of itself, in particular, it’s great ageing hero, Nelson Mandela.

Below I offer to you, sweet reader, a piece I had the misfortune of reading this weekend. It comes from the Travel & Food pages of a paper called The Weekender. Yes, I know all Travel & Food pages are ghastly… and don’t ask me how I came to this… but it is my belief that this piece – which was, I promise, published – is an indicator of just how far this country has, er, walked since 1994.

Titled ‘Food and the struggle for freedom’, the cook book review begins:

“If anyone had ever told me I’d cry over a banana, I’d have scoffed, but I have.

“The story goes like this: in 1979, when former president Nelson Mandela had already been imprisoned on Robben Island for 15 years, [funny that, I thought he was a terrorist in those days?] he received a present of a parcel of fruit from Dullah Omar’s wife Farida.

“‘Ah, a banana! It’s the first time I see a banana in 15 years,’ he said.

“I know I should already know this; I’ve been to Robben Island and done the tour, but somehow it was this book that brought home to me the starkness of the Robben Island diet for prisoners.”

Our reviewer then gives a short list of the kind of food “grown black men” and “Coloured and Indian men” were allowed to eat on the island, and continues:

“Reading the chapter on Mandela and his comrades’ Robben Island diet made me so angry I seethed for days – and guilty that back then I had no idea that Mandela and Co were being treated so badly. (Cut me some slack, I was eight in 1979.)”

You can feel that seething writhing off the page, can’t you? Poor luv.

She goes on:

“While the political prisoners supplemented their diet with what they could grow in vegetable gardens and scavenging from the sea, what angered me was the deliberateness of planning so meagre a diet for those men – regardless of who they were – that South African Communist party member Laloo Chiba remembers his gums bled.

“Food as punishment.”

You don’t say. Grrrr… she’s getting cross now:

“Reading, I seethed on.”

I had to stop at this sentence and re-read it several times. Was this a subbing error? Did she originally write, “Seething, I read on”? Who’s having the laugh now? Seeth, seeth, seeth. Brrr… Grrr… Woof! Woof! But I’m going to leap over three thick paragraphs of seething and take you here:

“We all measure our lives, partly, in food: stolen sweets; family meals; first-date dinners; slices of wedding cake under the pillow; birthday cakes; and Trapido has delivered to us a Madiba who is more human than icon…”

Incredibly, it gets worse:

“This book made me want to apologise to black people for the small [baby?] acts which, during those apartheid years, so deliberately and so pettily set black and white apart (and, I suspect, in some quarters, still do).”

She suspects! This is marvellous! Stay with me, reader, and gulp on the following paragraph:

“Most of us white South Africans born before 1985 or so can remember incidents [incidents?] (or patterns of behaviour) [much better!] such as one Trapido relates of how even at the “liberal” law firm Witkin, Sidelsky & Eidelman, where Mandela did his articles, the secretary informed him that new cups had been bought for his tea, with “the unstated [un-what?] message being that he was not to use the existing crockery from which white members of staff drank”.”

Oh, alas, the lax liberals of olden times.

Let me quickly put you out of your misery – and take you straight to the closing line. Hold on to your seat for this clanger of a conclusion:

“But what I like best is knowing that this man, famous during his years as president for horrifyingly early mornings, now comes downstairs around 9.30am or 10am for breakfast. Quite right!”

Phew. Good, good, good. All better then. Nasty stories all gone away. Nicey breakfasty.

Hunger for Freedom: The story of food in the life of Nelson Mandela by Anna Trapido.

P.S. Chapter fourteen is called, Happy Endings and Just Desserts.

OK, you can go and run for that bucket now. And don’t forget to wash your hands.

The full article – if you’re sure you want to read it – can be found here.

[Reading: Waiting for the Barbarians, by JM Coetzee, who has become one of my all-time favourite authors. He is a truly brilliant writer.]


8 thoughts on “the freedom to throw up

  1. UK newspapers know everything. If you don’t believe it, just ask them.

  2. I don’t know anything you don’t. My point is UK newspapers believe they have the last word on anything and everything.

  3. Ah! Yes! Well then we are in agreement. Sorry: I misread the tone of your comment. Happens sometimes. Forgive me.

  4. you are merciless
    I imagine you writing this post and seethingly banging the keyboard in a kind of hysterical lucid bliss
    it quite woke me up

  5. Hysterical lucid bliss… It was something a bit like that, actually, Mia, yes. I laughed and laughed. Is that a sign of vanity? Sorry. Normally things I write make me depressed, unable to communicate, and pessimistic. Why shouldn’t I get a bit of pleasure out of such phenomenal crap!
    Merciless! Yes. That’s the only way forward…

    If it’s any, oh, I don’t know what, my partner responded like this:

    “Darling, you must remember the difference between bear and bare and its and it’s.

    “There’s a whole genre of “The XXXX Cookbook” whereby someone approaches some great historical phenomenon
    through cooking and therefore “valorises” a “feminine” or domestic “reading”. As well as producing something very saleably bland and depoliticised. Not to mention stupid. “Food in prison is shit” is about
    on a level with Pope/Catholic and bear/woods revelations. Probably Steve Biko didn’t have a very nutritious diet before they kicked him to
    death either. And… and… well, as you said.”

  6. Look, can we keep the subbing between ourselves? I’m not sure I like the picture of myself that emerges from what you choose to reveal on your blog. I come out sounding like the some left-wing Disgusted of Basingstoke, not the spiritual, sensitive and above all deeply talented artist that I am!

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