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John Conyngham PDF Print E-mail

John Conyngham (1954- ) was born in Durban and brought up on his family’s sugar farm inland from Stanger (now KwaDukuza). After three years at a farm school in the Doringkop district, he attended Cowan House, Hilton College, Haileybury & Imperial Service College in England, the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, where in his B.A. he majored in English and Classical Civilization, and Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied Anglo-Irish literature. He later completed a post-graduate diploma in education through the University of South Africa.

After two years’ national service in the South African Army, and six months teaching English at Maritzburg College, he was for thirty-one years a journalist on The Witness (formerly The Natal Witness) in Pietermaritzburg, and from 1994 to 2010 the newspaper’s editor. He has held journalism fellowships at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St Petersburg, Florida, United States and at Oxford University.

During his years as a journalist he wrote three novels.

The Arrowing of the Cane (Ad Donker 1986) was joint winner of the 1985 AA Mutual-Ad Donker Vita Award and winner of the 1988 Olive Schreiner Prize and 1989 Sanlam Award, and was also published by Bloomsbury in Britain and Simon & Schuster/Fireside in the United States, and translated into French, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish. In the Irish Sunday Independent, Colm Tóibín likened it to Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing and Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, saying it was ‘as good and as skilful as either of those two novels’, and ‘as good as anything which has come out of white South Africa’. Maureen Isaacson in the Johannesburg Sunday Independent called it ‘a brilliant novel’ and Heather Mackie in the Cape Times said it ‘must rank amongst the finest descriptive writing to come out of this country’. In the New York Times Book Review, Michael Ross said ‘Mr Conyngham has deftly fashioned a metaphor for a country facing its own three o’clock in the morning of the soul’ while in the Los Angeles Times Charles Solomon called it ‘a rare look at the rapidly vanishing privileged world of white South Africa’. English literature professor W.H. Bizley, writing in Natal University Focus, stated: ‘The Arrowing of the Cane has something of classic status in Natal terms’.


The Desecration of the Graves (Ad Donker 1990) was shortlisted for the 1991 M-Net Award and published in Britain by Bloomsbury, and translated into Spanish. In the Johannesburg Sunday Times, Barry Ronge described it as ‘a bracing blend of history, political analysis and a personal discovery which is externalised in a beautifully terse, non-committal plot’, before going on to say in The Natal Witness that ‘the reason he [Conyngham] is so successful is that he writes good English. There is a sense of refinement which one doesn’t often find anymore’. In El Mundo in Barcelona Nelson Marra called it ‘an entirely original and refreshingly different novel’.

The Lostness of Alice (Ad Donker 1998) was published in South Africa. Zolile Nqayi in the Sowetan found the black characters undeveloped and stereotypical but that the book was nevertheless ‘a fascinating read’. In Sawubona, Rina Minervini called it ‘Brilliantly descriptive – Conyngham’s polished but deceptively straightforward style simply draws you on and on’. On Capetalk, John Maytham described it as ‘a really intriguing story ... a poetic, oblique, rather fascinating take on Africa.’

After an 18-year interval, much of it taken up as a newspaper editor, he has written Hazara: Elegy for an African Farm (Natal Society Foundation 2016; Shuter and Shooter 2016), a narrative non-fiction account of an Anglo-South African family and its sugar farm, which has been called ‘outstanding’ by Stephen Robinson in Business Day, ‘inspirational’ by Patricia McCracken in Farmer’s Weekly, and ‘a consummate elegy’ by Stephen Coan in a review on this website.

Selected Work

from The Arrowing of the Cane (1986)

The road from Nonoti into the hills rises slowly out of the mugginess of the town, switchbacking its way past deep old houses seething with wispish Indian children, mango trees with their glossy leaves, car and bus carcasses, and fluttering flags on tall bamboo poles. Slowly, reluctantly, the sprawling suburb succumbs to the ubiquitous cane. Labouring under its load, the Land Rover edges into the sighing greenness, rising and falling with its ebb and flow.

Clusters of palms indicate farmhouses hugged to their outbuildings by high hedges. Signs on the verge announce the company's sections - Carrickfergus, Quantock, Umsundu and Kerry Dale - each with its own manager, overseers, sirdars, indunas and army of labourers. Next the polo club, its team once provincial champions, holders of the Waterford Cup, but now fighting relegation to the third division. Then the company hospital with its two white doctors and shuttered wards, and the little St John's Church with its cemetery. Planter families lie neatly in rows while the Indians' crosses wander from the bottom fence into a grove of gums.

Gradually the air becomes more rarified. Coolness jets through the vents. Far below to the left the Umvoti River coils through another finger of KwaZulu which was a hotspot during the Bambata Rebellion. Now overpopulated, overgrazed and rutted, the valley looks idyllic to strangers crossing this neck miles above it. There is a lay-by from which tourists can take photographs of the picturesque hutted kraals. As with anything gross, distance placates the onlooker.

After another steep ascent I reach Manning's Post, the local trading store and bus terminus where each morning one of the gardeners collects the newspaper, and returns in the afternoon for the post. The familiar sign - Rangoon Estate - is on the right, swaying gently from twin chains above the T-junction. Beyond it spreads a neighbour's plantation of bananas, the ripening bunches swathed in hessian.

The wide district road with its harsh all-weather surface bisects the farm and descends to the mill in the valley. Around it capillaries a network of private roads and cane-breaks. Continuing past the mouth of the avenue, I weave along a series of overgrown tracks to the cutting where I consult with the induna. Several men are absent; otherwise all seems to be well. A tractor and loaded trailer move slowly across the row corrugations and I dart ahead of them, doubling back to the avenue.

As I enter the vaulted shadow, a puff adder is crossing the pink gravel, writhing its chain pattern across the open ground. Hideously distended like a length of diseased bowel, it hurries as the Land Rover approaches, entering the path of the right front wheel. To continue would mean popping it, but I decide against it, bearing fractionally to the left as it disappears into the undergrowth bordering the Indians' houses. Why the sudden magnanimity? I ask myself, but the answer isn't forthcoming.


1986. The Arrowing of the Cane. Craighall Johannesburg: Ad Donker

1989. The Arrowing of the Cane. London: Bloomsbury (hardback)

1989. The Arrowing of the Cane. New York: Simon & Schuster/Fireside

1990. The Arrowing of the Cane. London: Bloomsbury

1990: När Sockerrören Brinne/The Arrowing of the Cane. Stockholm: Forum (hardback)

1991. Le commencement de la fin/The Arrowing of the Cane. Paris: Editions du Rocher

1994. Cuando florece le caña/The Arrowing of the Cane. Barcelona: Emecé Editores

1994. Lanças de fogo/The Arrowing of the Cane. São Paulo, Brazil: Editora Best Seller

1994. The Arrowing of the Cane. Johannesburg: Ad Donker/Jonathan Ball

2002. The Arrowing of the Cane. Johannesburg: Ad Donker/Jonathan Ball

1990. The Desecration of the Graves. Parklands Johannesburg: Ad Donker

1992. La profanación de las tumblas/The Descecration of the Graves. Barcelona: Emecé Editores

1992. The Desecration of the Graves. London: Bloomsbury

2002. The Desecration of the Graves. Johannesburg: Ad Donker/Jonathan Ball

1998. The Lostness of Alice. Johannesburg: Ad Donker/Jonathan Ball

2016. Hazara: Elegy for an African Farm. Pietermaritzburg: Natal Society Foundation (hardback)

2016. Hazara: Elegy for an African Farm. Pietermaritzburg: Shuter and Shooter