This review of Rainbow Diary was written for the Johannesburg Star by author and poet Arja Salafranca who has kindly given me permission to reproduce it here.
TO SEE OURSELVES AS OTHERS SEE US
We South Africans love reading about ourselves through other people’s eyes. This is such a complicated country- with such a complex history that we wonder how others will see us. In Rainbow Diary, John Malathronas, a Greek-Brit (his own description) passes a laser beam over our country, and that beam picks us out in all our glory and pockmarks.
This is a rollicking good read about travelling in South Africa nearly 10 years after democracy, but it’s much more than that. A long list of references points to the author’s extensive research, which he puts to good use in trying to make sense of this complicated southern tip of Africa and its people. Malathronas is a funny, witty travel writer, like Bill Bryson. He’s also gay so you get a glimpse inside a few gay clubs and learn about gay B&Bs. This is South Africa as few have portrayed it.
Starting off in Pretoria, Malathronas skips Johannesburg entirely. A bit of a disappointment to Joburgers wanting to know what a foreigner thinks of their city, but Malathronas had been warned.
“When I decided to go to South Africa,, everyone and his guidebook was against the idea. At best I would be ritually sacrificed and my entrails used for witchcraft. I’d have to carry an Uzi on my shoulder to walk about and drive a Challenger truck to avoid carjacking.”
The South African Handbook advises him to stay in Pretoria. Once there, though, he finds he still can’t do things he’d taken for granted, such as walk to Hatfield Square at night. Still he does get to try kingklip and a night at The Yearling, a gay club in Pretoria where he thinks robots patrol the streets until someone explains that robots are traffic lights. Later in Durban he’ll find himself being followed by a group of men and, by the time he reaches–Cape Town, he has absorbed some of the paranoia that ordinary South Africans acquire. Meanwhile, he finds himself at a bar where the Tina Turner impersonator is white. Eish.
Then it’s off to the Kruger Park with an annoying Canadian woman and the obligatory German couple. While luxuriating in the bush and learning fascinating things about wildlife – did you know that a leopard doesn’t have spots, it has rosettes, and that hyenas are prime witchcraft material? – he’s horrified to learn that the Germans think he and the Canadian are a couple because they’re always at each other’s throats.
Discussing the “Boers”, as he insists on calling them, he quotes this passage: “The Boers spent their time reading the Bible and singing hymns… in their moments of leisure the young men… indulged in trifling games or engaged each other in scuffling matches or attempted to be witty by telling the coarsest of jokes.” And the writer of these words? Adulphe Delegorgue, a French explorer in 1840. Ouch. Some things don’t seem to change.
On the Baz Bus, a hop-on hop-off bus for backpackers that winds its way around South Africa, Malathronas hops over the border into Swaziland and is amused to discover a big poster in Immigration that gives this advice on how to combat Aids: “Do not have sex”. A poor lesson in sex education, he observes. His time in the kingdom seems brief – but not so brief that he doesn’t delve into the politics of this place, discovering that the king is part of the powerful Dlamini clan, who can and does choose his brides at will.
The Durban chapter is colourful – men following him, gay bars, finding a black man he wants to bed and falling prey to some old white South African prejudice. This chapter is also filled with some fascinating information on Zulu culture and rural life, as well as absorbing information on Shaka. For one, Malathronas insists that Shaka was gay. I’ve never heard anything to this effect; and maybe he’s having us on, but here’s Malathronas’s assertion:
“He never fathered a child and any royal ‘sisters’ (his women) who got pregnant were killed for adultery, since he claimed the child could never be his … Most historians agree that Shaka did not like sex, and by that everyone implies sex with women …If you aren’t convinced yet, how about this: at the age of 40 Shaka started greying, and like any self-obsessed queen, he got quite, quite upset… With his lisp and all he must have been screaming.” Hmm, take it or leave it.
As he leaves KwaZulu Natal, he finds himself contemplating the mix of people who inhabit this province which steals his heart: “The black Zulu and the white Zulu who mistrust each other, but sadly refuse to acknowledge that their values, shaped by their close proximity, and mutual admiration, are ultimately based on the same passions and obsessions, and that if their culture is not yet homogeneous, then hey, they’ve only just begun.”
The chapter on travelling through the Eastern Cape is peppered with testimony from the TRC hearings, in which scientists Dr Johan Koekemoer and Dr Jan Lourens talk about their role in biological weapons research. It’s farcical, but chilling too. And that’s the beauty of this book – Malathronas’s touch is light and funny, and the witticisms are many and welcome, but by reading this narrative you’re also going to get a pretty full, rounded history of the country. This ranges from a description of Pretoria’s Police Museum, which, leads into an examination of the treatment of Steve Biko, to a serious explanation of circumcision, to reminiscing over the way white South Africans were reviled and lampooned in the 1980s. South Africans will learn something about themselves by reading this travelogue: it takes a stranger to shine a light on our country.
Although Malathronas is at great pains to meet and talk to all South Africans of all races, he seems to meet and stay mostly with Afrikaners. The only great fault in the book is that he lumps all whites together as Afrikaners, ignoring the English/ Afrikaans divide, as well as the various other divisions. It’s odd this. He has done such thorough research that you’d think he couldn’t possibly have missed the fact that all whites are not of one grouping. Perhaps he reasoned that it somehow simplified things for an overseas audience. If so, it’s a poor excuse; if not, then this is one weakness in an otherwise excellent examination of where we are right now.