The Fred de Vries interviews - From Abdullah to Zille

The book breaks down countless South African stereotypes and is beautifully researched, perceptive, humane
De Vries, Fred
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The Fred de Vries interviews - From Abdullah to Zille

Author: Fred de Vries
Publisher: Witwatersrand University Press
Johannesburg, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-86814-469-3
Paperback, 13x20 cm, 366 pages, several bw photos

The Fred de Vries interviews - From Abdullah to Zille Bücher wie dieses sind es, die Alltagsstimmungen und Lebenslagen in Südafrika zwar individuell, aber ungefiltert bieten. Spannend zu lesen für alle, die sich für das aktuelle, wahre Lebensgefühl interessieren.

Introduction by Tim Cohen:

Journalism schools teach something called rather grandly 'art of the interview' - a kind of mix of methods and techniques, and, truth be said, some tricks of the trade.

Often it tends to descend into a set of simple and rather inflexible rules and maxims. 'There is no such thing as a stupid question' is one saying you often hear.

My old editor once told me with typical flippancy that journalism was essentially about something very simple: 'You ask stupid questions and then you take the stupid answers and put them in the newspaper.'

Yet there is an art to the interview which is a more ephemeral thing, and I think the root of it lies in empathy. Empathy is something you cannot fake, something you cannot learn through the crude methodology of applying a set of maxims.

You have to feel and share the secret hopes and desires of the person being interviewed, even if just for a moment. You have to walk in their shoes. These interviews embody that technique, if you can call it that.

Fred's interview technique is really not a technique at all but rather the application of a soft eye to a set of characters, some famous, some who should be famous and some who simply represent an embodiment of the striving that lies behind the actions of all of us.

The characters he interviewed are diverse but often they fall into the category of people who seem like chicks frantically pecking on the egg in a desperate effort to get out: small but determined, frantic, not cowed by the world.

Many of them are musicians and artists, and underground artists at that, people who feel they might have something to say but are struggling to define what it might be. Though the characters are diverse, they fit into an odd pattern. They are very reflective of place, of the urban mix, and of a peculiar time and segment in history.

One critic described one of his pieces as a 'historical psycho-geography', which is true of many. They include a particularly interesting focus on young Afrikaners, who are in the process of their own peculiar insular renaissance. You get a sense of discovering or at least trying to discover undercurrents in an odd time and place from these pieces, which is one the reasons they are so gratifying.

As Fred's main editor for many of these pieces, I must say to my shame, that I was always pressing him to try and interview more famous people. The axis on which newspapers work is that fame develops its own newsworthiness. Happily, Fred just ignored me and continued submitting interviews of his motley array of weird artists and singers many of which I had never heard of but in a strange way got to like, even though I had never met them.

Fred's own description of his choice of characters was that they were selected mostly on the basis that he admired their 'stubborn singularity'. His admiration of the interviewees provides a kind of background glow to the pieces. But it's his belief that his job is to try to catch a glimpse of their vulnerability or their hidden motivations that keeps them from descending into a kind of puffy personal advertorial.

One of the arts of the interview is the tricky business of managing the distance between interviewer and interviewee. People who consent to being interviewed often have an agenda of their own, even if it's simply a sense of vanity. This is why the critical tools in the interviewers arsenal are a quick eye for the inflections of what is being said and a sense of judgement about what is significant and what not.

One of the things that impressed me about the articles was the adept way that Fred handled this 'distance issue', closing in and out like a movie lens, at times critical but more often, just insightful. What you won't find here is sense of angry confrontation on the one hand or sly voyeurism on the other.

Taken together, these interviews constitute a kind of deeply personal moment in South African history when identity rather than, say, freedom is the essential topic of the day. The political world is now not so much an issue of oppression/liberation but of personal identification. These interviews don't constitute any overarching historical narrative.

In truth, they tilt more towards the suburbs rather than township which makes them positively ahistorical. But in a way, I think they reach into the political moment more accurately and insightfully than a historian ever could. Often we see each other in each other's reflections better than we see ourselves. These interviews provide a bit of that sense of refractive personal truth. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed editing them.


Michael Titlestad, WISER:
The Fred de Vries Interviews offers a panorama of contemporary, largely arts-oriented South Africa. The book breaks down countless stereotypes. It is beautifully researched, perceptive, humane. De Vries never lets his conversational voice dumb down intellectually engaging content. Gwen Ansell, journalist, jazz author and columnist Fred de Vries's voice - his preoccupations, frame of reference and intellectual demeanour - are those of an inside-outsider.

He has lived in South Africa for years, but maintains a vital distance from a country on which so many of us battle to keep perspective. It is the unique place from which he speaks that makes his writing so important, persuasive and endlessly intriguing.

About the author:

Fred de Vries - Dutch-South African travel writer, journalist, published author, music fundi and coffee shop intellectual - has set a precedent with his interviews, which open up a kaleidoscope of the brave and colourful in the arts, media, politics and literature.

The artists, writers, musicians, activists and entrepreneurs interviewed are representative of the cultural scene, emerging and mainstream, of post-democracy South Africa in the early noughties. De Vries has developed quite a following of Sunday brunchers and culture vultures, who thoroughly enjoy the interviews published in The Weekender and other local and international media.


Introduction - Tim Cohen
Fred de Vries

Abdullah Ibrahim, Hyatt Hotel, Rosebank, Johannesburg, November 2007
Chris Chameleon, Newtown, Johannesburg, September 2007
DJ Kenzhero, Rosebank, Johannesburg, February 2007
Fokofpolisiekar, Back2Basix, Westdene, Johannesburg, March 2006
Japan and I, Montecasino, Johannesburg, June 2007
Jaxon Rice, Melville, Johannesburg, September 2006
Jim Neversink, Melville, Johannesburg, April 2006
Prinses Petro, Bohemian, Johannesburg, August 2006
Toast Coetzer, Kloof Street, Cape Town, October 2007

Nikiwe Bikitsha, Rosebank, Johannesburg, September 2006
Jeanetta Blignaut, Spier Estate, Stellenbosch, February 2006
June Josephs, Newtown, Johannesburg, September 2006
Eric Mafuna, Woodmead, Sandton, May 2007
Benjy Mudie, Rosebank, Johannesburg, May 2006
Warren Siebrits, 111ovo, Johannesburg, April 2007
Henri Vergon, Newtown, Johannesburg, October 2006

Gabeba Baderoon, Spier Estate, Stellenbosch, March 2007
Melinda Ferguson, Norwood, Johannesburg, March 2006
Ronelda Kamfer, Kloof Street, Cape Town, November 2006
Kleinboer, Yeoville, Johannesburg, December 2006
Danie Marais, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, June 2007
Lodi Matsetela, Roka, Johannesburg, October 2006
Marlene van Niekerk, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, May 2006
Yabadaka Shamah, Hatfield, Pretoria, October 2006
Ivan Vladislavic, Troyeville, Johannesburg, September 2006
Ingrid Winterbach, Durban, May 2007

Vusi Beauchamp, Hatfield, Pretoria, August 2006
Jodi Bieber, Hyde Park, Johannesburg, July 2006
Kudzanai Chiurai, Melville, Johannesburg, February 2007
Karl Gietl, Troyeville, Johannesburg, March 2007
Anton Kannemeyer, Observatory, Cape Town, October 2007
Maja Maljevic, Greenside, Johannesburg, August 2006
Hermann Niebuhr, Fordsburg, Johannesburg, April 2007

Bok van Blerk, Krugersdorp, March 2007
Steve Hofmeyr, Midrand, Gauteng, March 2007
Adam Levin, Parktown North, Johannesburg, August 2006
Rian Malan, Parkview, Johannesburg, January 2007
Elinor Sisulu, Khotso House, Johannesburg, December 2006
Helen Zille, Civic Centre, Cape Town, November 2006



Google the word 'leadership', and you'll get over 171 million hits. Add the words 'South Africa', and you'll still end up with a staggering 13,6 million. From the Afrikaner battle cry for a new De la Rey to the glossy Leadership magazine and the ANC presidential succession saga, there's an obvious need to grapple with the leadership issue.

That's what business mogul Eric Mafuna has been preaching for some thirty years now. In his Woodmead office he bangs the table with a flat hand as he says:

'Ninety per cent of South Africa's problems are the result of poor leadership, bad leadership or lack of leadership. And until you sort out leadership, South Africa will remain a basketcase.'

Leadership is about setting examples and moving people forward.

Sound leadership motivates and structurally changes our environment in every aspect, from the psychological and the social to the physical and the economical. 'Apartheid was very good at destroying black leadership at community level,' continues Mafuna. 'You'll be hard pressed in the black areas to find a community that functions to the same extent as the Jewish or Indian ones. And if you don't have communities that function, can you have families that function...?'

Eric Mafuna, who is regularly cited by President Thabo Mbeki, is a 'leadership guru'. In 1976 he founded the Black Management Forum (BMF), which developed from a social group for black graduates into a powerful institution that would devise Black Economic Empowerment and affirmative action. In 1995 he established the think tank, Africa Now. And last year President Mbeki officially launched Mafuna's twin project of the African Leadership Development Trust and the African Leadership Group, which has the basic aim of helping South Africa to develop proper leadership on every level.

Talk to Mafuna and you'll meet a 60+ man still on a mission, his thinking a curious blend of black nationalism and pragmatism, a man who thinks affirmative action has run its course, and who wants to throw the Mandela style of leadership in the mix with Indian, Jewish and black American success stories to create something uniquely South African, which he calls 'constellational leadership'.

His biography reads like a metaphor for the attempts of the apartheid government to thwart black efforts to rise above. A residue of bitterness still lurks in his throat as he recounts how in the late sixties he was denied the opportunity to study 'group dynamics' at the American Stanford University, even though he had been admitted.

But the rector of the University College of the North sabotaged his dream, citing bureaucratic reasons. To understood why, because by the third year I was a student president and had lot of scrimmages with him. I was really at the forefront of campus activism,' says Mafuna.

Despite the head of the department finding the subject too political, a stubborn Mafuna did manage to do an Honours in 'group dynamics' and was subsequently snatched by the Joburg branch of the American advertising company J. Walter Thompson, which greedily tapped into his knowledge of black consumer behaviour. They rewarded him with overseas trips, and enabled him to get a management diploma from Tufts University in Boston.

Mafuna loved the States. In the late seventies he travelled from New York to Texas, Alabama, Chicago and Detroit, feted by representatives of the flourishing black civil rights movement who drove him around in a long green Cadillac. He was amazed to hear that in America there was an organisation with an African name that had been in existence for over 150 years. A black organisation that old! Older than the ANC! So by the time I got back, my message to the BMF was very different.

It shifted from black study group to something with a political, an economic and a communal mission. I began to understand why it is we cannot develop far-sighted leadership. It's because we didn't have organisations to support that leadership.'

Deeper and deeper he dug into the leadership issues, asking himself why, for example, the Jewish, Indian and Afrikaner communities got it right, while black South Africans didn't. Which raised other questions around the issue of 'what constitutes a South African?'. Where are the commonalities? And how to bridge the labyrinth gap between a tightly knit community and a floundering sense of nationhood in a country composed of minorities?

During our conversation he identifies two major problems. Firstly, there's a serious lack of black organisations on community level, which partly explains the culture of greed
and corruption that has emerged over the last years. 'You find greed and corruption in any human society everywhere,' corrects Mafuna. 'But in our particular situation we are fast tracking people without the nets to capture them when they fall out, without the mechanism to provide the discipline, without the moderating structures.

So the person feels no responsibility to the family or the community. There are no organisations that tie them to the community, no structures that force them to go back to the extended families.'

Secondly there's a severe lack of nationhood. While the US has put a lot of effort into creating a melting pot, South Africa is still in the stage of potjiekos (literally, 'food in a little pot', South African food cooked in a three-legged pot) with lots of hard-to-digest bits and pieces. 'One of the few times you were able to feel and see and taste its real common context and texture was when we won the world rugby cup. Sports help us to articulate our newness.'

But at the same time the country does have a perfect case of successful leadership - in the person of Nelson Mandela. 'Mandela's secret of success is the issue of paradox, how to manage the paradox,' says Mafuna.

After studying the Mandela machinations, Mafuna's organisation coined the phrase 'constellational leadership': something which from a distance looks like one bright star, but in reality is an interplay of many stars. In the case of Mandela, there were the smaller stars of the ANC delegates who decided Mbeki would make a better deputy than Cyril Ramaphosa, even though Madiba preferred Ramaphosa. Subsequently Mbeki became the less visible star who did a lot of difficult organisational legwork, while Mandela reflected moral leadership.

'This is a binary leadership model. In essence it works within this constellation of leadership.'
Given the fact that this is essentially an inclusive model, it's not surprising that Mafuna sees little future for an exclusive policy like affirmative action. 'BEE still has legs to go, but affirmative action has run its course. It has been relatively successful in putting black people into organisations and positions where they previously were not.

'The problem we have is that when these people arrived in organised life they were not able to connect to professional or workplace networks which the whites had before. So a lot of affirmative action people today are battling because they cannot find connection to the informal networks that normally run business and have been lobbied in restaurants or clubs.'

The country now needs something new, something that goes well beyond colour or race. And that, he stresses, is not the responsibility of the government. 'The BMF and their fellow travellers need to come up with a post-affirmative action policy. They'll have to target young South Africans, regardless of social, racial or economic background. You cannot continue to say to young graduates that they were advantaged by apartheid structures.'

After two hours I've heard complex analyses and sound theories, but it still lacks something tangible. It feels like the discussions on climate change: you can ponder forever, but if no one does anything, nothing will change. Mafuna nods. Okay, the practice is simple, he says.

His organisation will do research, acquire the rights to concepts from places like Harvard and the London School of Economics, choose case studies, work with world-class academics, leaders and educators and eventually devise unifying models and programmes for young South Africans of all races. The country should no longer be satisfied with getting the odd fish from foreign donors as a stop-gap to structural problems.

So when will we see this rise of new leaders? 'We're still in the tooling phase,' he admits. 'That's why I go to Europe to raise money. Let us acquire the skills to fashion the fishing rod so we can fish ourselves.'

1945 Born in Sophiatown
1958 Attends Douglas Lane Smith High School in Lemana, Venda 1964 Studies Psychology and Sociology at University College of the North 1970 Works for J. Walter Thompson
1976 Founder of Black Management Forum, president for ten years
1980 Diploma in Marketing from Tufts University, Boston
1980 Starts own company Consumer Behaviour
1990s On board of directors of various companies including Reebok SA, Johnson & Johnson, South African Revenue Services and Ceres Fruit Juices
1995 Founder of Africa Now
2004 Presents Eskom-funded research at World Economic Forum
2006 President Mbeki launches African Leadership Foundation and African Leadership Development

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