To listen to the Casper De Vries interview, play from 36:10 to 54:30
Here is a sneak peek…
Scott Thomas Outlar: Well, Don, this interview has been a long time coming. First of all, thank you for taking a moment to answer a few of my questions. Now, without further ado, let’s dive in! You certainly lived through some unique experiences growing up during the final decades of Apartheid in South Africa. How did those early years of life shape both your psyche and art? I’ve often heard you speak about one’s “moral compass.” Was it during this time that yours was formed?
Don Beukes: Yes indeed Scott and I am ready to heed to the call! Thank you for including me in your interview series and for your readers to ‘hear’ my voice from your pages!
Now that I think about it, from the day I was born in 1972 to the time when Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster prison in Paarl about 45 minutes from Cape Town, it was actually almost two decades. I was in my first year at University after a challenging secondary education involving a national student uprising against Apartheid, intimidation by the Apartheid regime’s military and police forces to prevent pupils from attending classes during this time for fear of demonstrations, mass meetings and perceived violence against armed forces, which was exactly what anyone my age experienced during that historic revolutionary period. Most of my peers at the age of 13 and 14 just starting high school experienced the wrath of the armed forces to prevent dissident gatherings and congregations of pupils at schools. I remember seeing an army vehicle called a ‘Casspir’ one morning before school (Belhar Secondary), and watching a soldier aim in slow motion towards my two friends, Heinrich and Gavin, and myself before firing! We ended up dragging helpless girls across the sports field towards the fence, enshrouded by swirls of Armageddon teargas. It was our first experience of teargas canisters being deployed to chase pupils away from the school premises in order to prevent mass gatherings and for older students to tell us what was really going on in our suburbs, our city and indeed the country, as we were quite protected from politics growing up though primary school.
Interview with Selwyn wMilborrow to celebrate my debut South African publication with 3 South African authors.
Milborrow Media interview with poet, Don Beukes
Milborrow Media (MM): Don, thank you for the opportunity to interview you. Let us start off with the question of what made you leave South Africa?
Don Beukes (DB): I initially took a year’s unpaid leave – in my sixth year of teaching – to go on a working holiday visa to the UK. It was also my first visit overseas. In short, London was grey and unfriendly, despite its world-class infrastructure, especially the underground train system and light railway system which connected all of this historic metropolis. I left London after two days, went up north and worked as a waiter in a stately home.
After returning to South Africa, I wanted to study a Master’s Degree in Town Planning. The University of Cape Town offered me a place but the Cape Town City Council which was governed by the African National Congress (ANC) rejected my bursary application, as part of their Affirmative Action policy, thereby discriminating against my colour and cultural background as a racially classified ‘coloured’ citizen. This prompted me to reconsider my place in South African society, and when the opportunity came for me to be recruited as an English and Geography teacher in the UK – after turning down an offer from Oxford University to teach Geography in Sixth Form College (Grade 11&12) – I decided to leave SA in August 2001 and remained until 2011.
MM: What was your experience moving to and arriving in a strange land?
DB: On arrival at Heathrow airport in 1999, I had to present an original X-Ray to prove I didn’t have Tuberculosis (TB) as part of the entry rules at the time. During my first two days in London at the youth hostel, a friend and I had to share a cramped room with an American girl who visibly had her mouth open every time she heard our South African accent.
She avoided us at all costs. The two Germans just grunted and the Japanese guy just smiled a lot and said thank you a lot. We ended up befriending a Maori called Ike who was the only one who cared to talk to us.
On my first visit to France before becoming a British/European citizen during my first holiday there by car ferry across the English Channel, I was horrified to get marked on my windscreen with a gigantic round neon green sticker, as I still travelled with my SA passport containing my UK work visa! I chillingly thought of how the Jews must have felt with badges to show others they were not the same or equal as others. It felt humiliating and degrading. Only years after I became a British/EU citizen in 2007, did I become ‘invisible’ and crossed with no problems at all.
MM: How did your citizenship come about?
DB: Through Naturalisation in April 2007, having had a 5-year work visa. I kept my SA citizenship and had to get permission from the SA Embassy in London via Pretoria.
MM: What are the biggest differences between SA and France literature-wise?
DB: A hefty one to respond to. Literature-wise, I got to teach English Literature poetry to Years 10 and 11 (GCSE Certificate) as well as Year 12 and 13 Prose (University entry levels in the UK) where I taught Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ as their exam novel. I also had the choice to teach ‘Poetry from Other Cultures’ and to my astonishment discovered an Egyptian/South African poet called Tatamkhulu Afrika with his poem ‘Nothing’s Changed’ commenting on the same sentiments existing after Apartheid. I could then give my pupils unique South African context, which boosted their grades! I also taught a prescribed young adult novel by Benjamin Zephaniah, ‘Face’ with hard-hitting realistic social themes as well as ‘Refugee Boy’. I was honoured to meet this celebrated British author at an annual GCSE literature exam conference where senior pupils heard from the poets for their final exams. There are many publishing houses in the UK but Indie authors find it difficult to get published.
MM: What are the biggest differences between SA and France cultural-wise?
DB: Culture-wise there are many levels of differences. In the UK, free education and resources for families and free access to health impacts on the attitude of children feeling they deserve it and therefore most pupils do breeze through school unchallenged with many social and intellectual problems. They get free school meals and basically for some their target grades are D-G, which some are happy to attain just that and content to not study for exams or aim higher. Classes are never more than 25-30 and as little as 10-20 with pupils set in groups of ability at all schools and special needs pupils receive government-funded assistance in class. The UK has many social and cultural problems with many Asian and African/ Caribbean communities still feeling ostracised, which impacts on youth relations and cohesion in society. Many children have no boundaries at home and live in households with low income and supported by government funding.
In France, each Region is different but every child has access to the same opportunities, with the top pupils gaining entry to specialist tertiary institutions to prepare for employment in every state department and civil service. Those who do not, follow vocational careers and in rural areas, the farming community has a proud legacy of producing food for the whole nation with government funding. Regrettably, even here standards are also falling for some.
MM: What are the biggest differences between SA and France literature lifestyle-wise?
DB: Lifestyle wise in the UK – Pub crawling in the UK is exactly that for some – literally crawling in a gutter – unable to walk or know who they are.
Brits come alive in summer when the gloom and darkness of winter vanishes. Their BBQ (braai) get-togethers are frankly a disappointment. There are no boerewors (unless you are with Saffas) nor Snoek braai! They mostly eat Indian or Chinese takeaway food, and those who can afford it will spoil themselves to a Michelin Star restaurant. At Christmas always the same turkey and stuffing. You get the Brussel sprouts with carrot, Yorkshire pudding with gravy and desserts – No thank you!
France – You must speak the language to be respected, but with my (what I call situational French) limited ability, I understand it enough to get by.
You buy your baguette(s) at your local Boulangerie (traditional bakery) where desserts are a delicacy depending where you go. Many restaurants have great food and for €12-20 you could get a fantastic three-course menu of the day anywhere you go in France. Summers are hot and the beaches are great. Each village and town/city has a Mayor with annual festivals and local traditional activities, depending on which Department/region you live in. When you meet someone for the first time, you shake hands, afterwards, you greet the French way, kiss on each cheek and once more, for all in the company! I’ve never felt any animosity from the French because of my background, unlike in England.
MM: Did the move to France made you a better and riper person and writer? If yes, why?
Moving to France has certainly cemented my writing culture, being surrounded by nature and without the stress of working 9-5, as I am self-employed and in charge of my own destiny. I get inspired by sights, sounds and people I meet and when a word, an idea or image enters my mind I DB: jot it down and wait for the right moment to spill ink to become a poem or fiction.
I am inspired by Victor Hugo, the poet, novelist and dramatist from the Romantic Movement, who is famous for his books, ‘Les Misérables’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, also his poetry collections ‘The Contemplations’ and ‘The Legend of the Ages’
Although disappointingly he held strong colonial views, he was a passionate supporter of Republicanism and campaigned for the abolition of capital punishment. Interestingly, he spent his exile on Guernsey Island from 1855-1870 in the English Channel Islands, where he wrote his famous works and where I had my last teaching post in 2012.
The other inspiration is Voltaire which was actually his ‘Nom de Plume’ or Pen Name for Francois-Marie Stoner. He was a French Enlightenment author and was famous for his wit, attacks on the established Catholic Church and enforced Christianity. He advocated for freedom of religion, speech and the separation of church and state.
Another interesting fact is that Breyten Breytenbach had to move to Paris due to his views on the Apartheid racist government where he still lives with his Vietnamese wife. I mentioned him because, before a visit to Cape Town in 2009, I was a regular contributor to a special poetry section in ‘Die Burger’ (The Citizen), a major Afrikaans daily newspaper in Cape Town. I was subsequently invited to help launch a literary group at the Breytenbach Centre in Wellington, which happened in August 2009, where I met fellow contributors and had my very first poetry reading. Unfortunately, the newspaper removed its poetry blog and consequently the literary group was disbanded.
MM: A lot has happened in South Africa since you left. How do you feel about SA now that you’ve been away for so long?
DB: I’m just going to speak from the heart. As an educator, my passion has always been to ensure children get the best out of their education despite their race, culture or socio-economic status. I have always tried to keep up to date with education in SA and although the change was inevitable, after two decades I am sad to see that not much has changed. I am shocked to hear from teachers that classes are still overcrowded in ‘coloured’ and township schools, especially in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape, with as much as 40-55 learners in a class. This makes me really sad. The government should be ashamed of themselves, both nationally and provincially across the country for that matter. How can we expect the new generations to be part of a global society when they are still getting a ‘gutter’ education? The mere fact that SA students are bilingual and for some even trilingual should already give them a head start. It is clear that the language policy in schools has failed miserably. Literacy levels are still too low. How can eager learners concentrate on a hungry stomach? If the authorities cannot appoint worthy leaders to improve literacy and numeracy and provide realistic study routes, especially vocational study options, then the country cannot possibly move forward.
I like many others have been victims of crime and have lost friends and family because of it. My prayer is that lawmakers and community leaders will work together to protect citizens.
I am aware that Apartheid built schools still lack many facilities to ensure a holistic and balanced educational experience. I am proud of the new sporting stars produced in SA but would like to believe that all children from especially coloured and black heritage, be given a chance to access sports facilities and opportunities.
Lastly, as a writer of mixed race heritage termed ‘coloured’ by a racist authoritarian regime, I hope other writers from my background will one day be recognised by major publishing houses in South Africa. Yes, some have the connections and means to get published, but many other talented writers are being dismissed.
MM: Thank you for this wonderful opportunity you have afforded Milborrow Media to interview you, one of the true ambassadors for South Africa.
DB: Thank you. I am immensely proud to know how you have supported authors who otherwise would never have had the opportunity to share their words with SA and indeed the global village.