Suspending Disbelief in the Age of Digital Wonders

I cast an eye over the TV in my landlady’s living room. On the screen, a handsome cop in a car radioed his partner back at HQ to let his wife know he’d be late for dinner. ‘That’s rude,’ I mumbled, ‘… text her yourself.’ The camera shot widened and, from the shape of the car, I saw the era predated the mobile phone. My landlady snorted. “OK then,” said I, leaving the rent money on an expectant table. She pointed the remote and turned the volume up as I edged out the door. A good narrative depends on the suspension of disbelief. Authors want readers immersed in their story, caring about the characters as if they were real. Plot details that jar, niggle or provoke disbelieving wisecracks are simply no good.

Van der Walt

originally published in Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2013 I stood on the side of a street with a new name.  Van der Walt has become Lillian Ngoyi; a veldkornet erased for a comrade.  Sleek busses drone by.  A taxi double-parks without couth. Dark-green shade-cloth ripples up and down in puffs of air over scaffolding twenty stories high.  Below, pedestrians politely side-step each other. The Soil’s song Inkomo, clogs the intersection.  Winter hurries everyone up just a little bit. Inner city Pretoria has a pleasant human press about it at home time. Office-workers, soldiers and shoppers scurry past fruit and vegetable stalls, past take-aways, weave and dread salons, curtain and linen shops, mini-meds and stores selling ‘fashion’ in the form of Italian shoes or light-wood furniture.


originally in Botsotso, no. 16 Velislav Milov started his own religion on the first day of March. Of course he never planned such a preposterous thing. It happened in a fit of pique.  Nevertheless, the signs were there to see. A stomach bug two days earlier all but forced a fast upon Milov. The night before that, there’d been a truly terrible storm, his dogs pissing themselves as thunder banged and rolled. Sitting on his balcony on the first day of March, the wood still soggy after the deluge, Milov pondered the state of his life. He was sixty-six and the first year of his retirement was a disappointment. His health was failing. All the fantasies he had stored up, hoping to act upon at this stage of life, fantasies cherished, taken out from time to time during a working day, like a matchbox car still in its cellophane covering, excitedly considered from all angles, these …

The Life And Times Of Tsietsi (Part 1)

A Portrait of Greatness Beginnings and Antecedents Was Tsietsi born in 1954 as tradition has it, or in 1963 as contemporary scholars maintain? Howard Missy, his most recent biographer, suggests 1954.  The fact is Tsietsi must have increased his age by a few years, either from vanity or to add to his prestige.  It is certain he was born at Zeerust, the son of Sese kaModise and his wife, Cecilia; that from his earliest childhood he showed a leaning towards politics and that, at the age of eight, he was sent with his older brother Tefo to an uncle, to receive political education from a Sharpeville veteran. The two brothers started with John Gumede, an Africanist, who afterwards sent them on to the cell of Reggie Khumalo.  But Tsietsi had little enthusiasm for Khumalo’s “stiff and laboured” style.  He had already singled out the right man for himself: Zacharia Hlatswayo, at whose side he worked …


He had impeccable credentials.  Impeccable even though he missed Seattle but that was for meningitis.  He was in the very front ranks at Genoa where he shed blood with a hundred militants and was deported with a bandage still seeping.  In the camps in the forests preparing for Berlin he fashioned an affinity with twenty-four other comrades.  They came up with a non-violent, anti-authoritarian tactic that was Gandhi 2.0.  With arms taped to their sides, they threw their bodies at the police and Black Bloc equally, and received rather bluer bruises from the latter.  In between these excitements he traipsed between squats, lent money to teenage hackers, wrote pamphlets misleading the cops, cooked collectively and had sex unpossessively on all the northern continents. But it was in the South where he really made his name.  His first visit to the camp-sites of Porto Allegre gave rise in him to an indignation at the luminaries that …