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Déjà Vu PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 02 September 2011 00:00

Written by Ravi Govender

Review by Betty Govinden

Déjà Vu, composed by Ravi Govender, is a selected collection of his  columns that have appeared in the  Post newspaper. They are  largely reminiscences and descriptions  of experiences linked to the city of Durban – in keeping with the title of his column,  A Blast from the Past.

It is  necessary to see Déjà Vu as a part of the biography of the city of Durban. The descriptions of  many different facets of the city that Ravi evokes tell an important part of the life story of the city. We have many writers who have depicted  the colourful tapestry of our South African cities,  revealing its warp and woof hidden and lost in time.

On the city of Johannesburg, for example, Phaswane Mpe and Ivan Vladislavic, among others, have written fiction that brings the city to life, and in Cape Town we have the legendary Richard Rive, writing short stories and drama during the apartheid era, who depicted the many faces of District Six.

Among those Durban writers who have written the city into  their fiction are Aziz Hassim [2002;2009] and Sally-Ann Murray [2009]. Hassim’s The Lotus People, depicts life in the Grey Street Casbah and the Warwick Triangle, with its subterranean world of gangsters, among others [see Govinden 2010], while Murray, in her novel,  Small Moving Parts, writes of a poor neighbourhood on the 1960’s in  Umbilo in Durban. All these writers recall a rich vibrant urban culture, mapping the city from different vantage points.

Through Ravi’s experiences we   are able to map out parts of the geography of the city, as we visit vicariously some of its familiar haunts. Reading the collection, we find ourselves tramping a trail from The  Butterworth Hotel, to The Britannia Hotel, to The Seabelle Restaurant, and to Selvarani’s and Manjara’s, who are all established  household names noted for Indian cuisine. And it is not surprising that reference to bunny chow is an expected staple in writing on the city of Durban.

Other places in the city’s imaginary include Magazine Barracks, Ajmeri Arcade, the Shah Jehan, the  Avalon-Albert and Avalon-Gitanjali cinemas, which were familiar haunts for entertainment. Also prominent in the landscape of memory of the city is Sastri College. For Ravi, Sastri College was a singular influence in his life, where a passion for life and reading the world was ignited,

In Déjà Vu, Ravi conjures up the palimpsestic  textures of the cityscape, especially during the past, with particular reference to the lives of Indian South Africans.  It soon becomes apparent that much of this mapping of the city has its own peculiar circuits and flows. This is no accident. Inevitably, apartheid tended to give  us separate memories, and Ravi shows how we lived in enclosed social worlds, and were determined [and overdetermined] by contingency. Of course, we do need to create new memories in the present time that show our efforts to re-create and re-define community. We see the way the apartheid machinery of ethnocentrising and racialising groupings in South Africa occurred, and we  need to acknowledge the fault-lines of identity politics, that persists to this day. In Undressing Durban [2007], the contributors attempt to create a shared experience of urban space in which political and social boundaries are not drawn in terms of protecting “us” from “them” [Pattman and Khan 2007:14].

Notwithstanding, we also see how a shared identity and a sense of community developed  in an otherwise alienating society. Ravi’s  world is peopled by  tailors, barbers, boxers, sportsmen, and business entrepreneurs. In a world of insecurity and change during the apartheid era, many of these persons, who became institutions in their own right in the  city,  provided familiarity and stability for urban dwellers. In spite of sparse  opportunities for advancement, we appreciate the achievements of legendary sportsmen, such as the boxers, Seaman Chetty and Benny Singh, and the golfer, Papwa Sewgolum.

The value of Ravi’s descriptive pieces is his lightness of touch. He is able to provide impressionistic sketches, resurrecting events and people from faded memory,  and showing how the ordinary and even banal, are not as nondescript as we assumed. In Rediscovering the Ordinary [1991], the respected scholar Njabulo Ndebele has stated that we need to focus on everyday and ordinary stories and not only the spectacular master narratives, that we all know so well.  And Raison Naidu, quoting Edward Said,  reminds us that “the truth of lived communal [or personal] experience has often been totally sublimated in official  narratives, institutions, and ideologies” [Naidu 2008: 12].

We need to appreciate that there are multiple ways of “negotiating the past” and “making memory” in South Africa [see Nuttall and Coetzee 1998], from the grand autobiographical acts depicting Indian indenture,  Robben Island experiences,  Truth and Reconciliation  Commission exposés, to ordinary, “backstreet”, everyday living such as we find in Déjà Vu. In this collection we find many examples of “shadow people” [from Pillay 2006], whom Ravi is determined to move into the light of day.

Ravi’s book reminds us of the way oppressed groups lived under apartheid, and managed to survive and overcome its indignities. Similar to Native Nostalgia, by Jacob Dlamini, who recalls his growing up in Katlehong, Déjà Vu is not condoning apartheid, but suggests that life under apartheid was not a vast moral and social desert.  Through the various pen portraits we see how cultural change in a racial caste system obtained, and the various forms and processes of change that were especially embodied in popular culture. In this social history of the city what is immediately evident is that there are hybrid  styles of cultural survival.  People found alternative worlds of pleasure and urban suavity, as they enjoyed  food and dining, dressing up, music and Holly wood  films.

These were all  attempts in different ways to engage in the humanizing  process,  in the face of the dehumanizing of apartheid. Reading Déjà Vu,  we appreciate, for example,  that a rich musical culture existed in Durban, with groups such as the Dukes Combo, founded and led by Dee Sharma, becoming a familiar fixture on the  entertainment scene. It was interesting to note that Natalie Rungan, the well known Durban singer, enjoys a  hallowed musical pedigree. Her father, Selva  Rungan was the leader of the music group  called the Raiders,  in the 60’s.

Writing about township music, David Copland points out that :

“The achievements of urban Africans must be viewed…in relation to the obstacles they have faced. Culture is not simply a broadly shared system of knowledge and its products. It is also the voice of a community, and urban black South Africans were eager, like people elsewhere, to have their voices heard. An oppressed people, they wanted their complex humanity acknowledged, their hard-won successes admired, their failings understood” [Copland 1985:3].

Copland rightly imputes a deeper layer of meaning and significance to the different facets of popular culture that people living in an oppressive society engage in,  even if they are not overtly aware of the significance of their behaviour: “Performance expression, like other cultural forms, does not derive solely from the minds of creative individuals. It emerges as an action of social action and resonates with emotion and meaning among members of communities in the context of social institutions. If Black South Africans have retained some vitality and autonomy in their culture, it is only because in their segregated neighbourhoods they have managed to build new structures for social order and survival” [Copland 1985:4].

He  argues  that, “weighed against apartheid, the contribution of musicians, composers, dancers, dramatists, comedians, actors, and impresarios to the quality of the black community may appear trivial.  Yet  performing artists have given the struggle for black self-determination an indispensable cultural vitality… As historical conflicts and communities of interest emerged and changed the relationships and destinies of people, performance culture became an instrument of identity, competition, and self-transformation” [Copland 1985:4,5].

It is in this light that we need to appraise the contribution and popular appeal  of South African urban forms such as  gospel music, isicatamiya, gum-boot dancing, and the like… Much of  the recent work on music and politics in South Africa during the apartheid era is instructive in this respect [see Ansell 2004, and  Olwage 2008], and there is need for specific research on the history of popular music in Durban, with particular reference to the achievement of Indian and Coloured musicians.

In Déjà Vu we appreciate again that in apartheid society both centrifugal and centripetal forces were at work, where the tendencies to  look inwards and outwards are  evident. There was the inevitable disposition to find psychic shelter from within communities, and there was also the attempt to connect with a larger outside world.  Seeking connections with a remote cosmopolitan culture was natural,  given the ghettoizing nature of apartheid. It is not surprising that Ravi’s world is peopled with a star-studded cast, with the likes of Elvis Presley and James Bond.

Alongside this exuberance,  Ravi recalls  cramped city living, as people  lived cheek by jowl [see his vignette entitled “Share the Feeling”, p 47], and yet shared their meagre provisions with one another [see also Mosoetsa 2011]. We also recall with Ravi the way our fathers and neighbours would spend long hours under their broken-down vehicles, to get them spluttering into life again. These were the “bush mechanics” and “grease monkeys”,  who used their leisure time to engage in recreation of a different kind, and saved themselves repair fees in the process.

Ravi also shows the attempt to embrace other worlds through reading. We follow his itinerary down memory lane,  as he recalls the  great pleasure he derived from reading the  classics of yesteryear, such as VS Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, the many books by Dickens and  George Eliot and, of course, the book that every South African child of yesteryear has read  - White Fang.

In conclusion, it is important to reflect on the value of writing. We are witnessing a spate of writings since 1994. Many of the new writers are writing for the first time in their lives, and generally with no experience of writing and the publishing world.  Many are persons, especially South African Black writers,  with no formal academic training. There has been  some criticism of the quality of writing, given the fact that we are schooled to expect high literary standards. But, the question I would like to pose is: Why are people writing?  Why is there a spate of writings since 1994, when we witnessed the first democratic elections? It is no co-incidence that the new writing has emerged in the new democratic space that has been created in the present time.

Speaking of Frederick Douglass, a slave in the US during the mid 1800’s who became well-known after compiling a narrative of his life, David Remnick notes:  “Writing elevated a slave from non-being, from commodity, to human status, as H L Gates,  Jr., has written: a slave wrote, above all, to ‘demonstrate her or his own membership in the human community.’” [Remnick  2010].  Indeed, Douglass’s  very autobiographical act, called Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, showed his capacity to re-define his life and give its validation in the face of  overwhelming attempts to erase it.


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The Continuum International Publishing Co:New York.

Copland, David. 1985.  In Township Tonight! South Africa’s Black City Music and Theatre.

Ravan Press: Johannesburg.

Govender, Ravi. 2011. Déjà Vu.

Ravi G Promotions: Durban.

Govinden, D.  2010. A Time of Memory – Reflections on Recent South African Writings.

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Dlamini, Jacob. 2010.  Native Nostalgia.

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Wits University Press:Johannesburg.

Murray, Sally-Ann. 2009. Small Moving Parts.

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Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Olwage, Grant [ed]. 2008. Composing Apartheid – Music for and against Apartheid.

Wits University Press:Johannesburg.

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Madiba Press: Durban.

Pillay, Sunna. 2006. Shadow People.

STE Publishers:Johannesburg.

Remnick, David. 2010. The Bridge – The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.

Random: New York.