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Queenstown

By Sandile Dikeni

The grass in Queenstown was pink in 1996. Or, at least, so it seemed to Antjie Krog, one bright winter morning after days of dark skies when a feeble footed sun tried, in vain – to pierce obstinate clouds that shrouded the small Eastern Cape town. Queenstown was dark for most of the time when the TRC held its human rights violations hearing there. It was dark and the sky was weeping. It was a week of weeping in the town as victim after victim narrated to the country and the world their pain. I was also damn depressed and ill during my stay there. I caught a cold that just refused me to satisfy a particular curiosity that I have been nursing for more than a decade about the psyche of that town.

It all began in the year of fire this fascination and obsession with the frontier town. ’85 is for me a year of fire in South Africa’s modern history of turbulence. In that year die Groot Krokodil declared the first state of emergency in a few magisterial districts. The surprise in the declaration that contained some of the predictable trouble spots like Duduza and the Vaal triangle was the inclusion of Queenstown. Why Queenstown? I remember wondering. I also remember that any attempt at answering the question by means of the popular press and broadcast services produced no results at the time.

Duduza, the Vaal triangle and even Cradock were obvious targets of the first emergency regulations because they were literally on fire. In Duduza Maki Skhosana was one of the first victims of a series of necklace murders that spread through the country like a veld fire in that year and onwards. She was also a very publicised case. The SABC screened some real gruesome footage on the murder of the girl at a funeral in the township. It was that time that bishop Tutu in absolute disgusted voiced his abhorrence and even threatened to leave the country. Duduza was burning.

The Vaal tringle at the same time claimed its spot in the violent calendar of uprising with what became known, later as the Sharpeville 6 trial. Before the ‘Sharpeville 6’ trial, that township was known for the massacre that took place there in the 60’s when protesters against the pass laws were shot and killed. In a way, one expected this township to be part of the PW Botha state of emergency.

Cradock as small as it is was also a predictable inclusion because of its high media profile during the Matthew Goniwe crisis at Lingelethu Secondary School and after his assassination. Before the Goniwe crisis and his subsequent assassination, Cradock, to those who knows it was not really the small innocent karoo town that everybody makes it out to have been. In fact between Cradock, Graaf-Reinet and Beaufort West there was always a struggle and competition for the number one spot in stone throwing in the Karoo. Beaufort West later won the title in the late eighties when they brought down a police helicopter with a stone. Pundits in the stone-throwing department are still at loggerheads about where the title used to be before the Beaufort West incident. There are some, who say, it was in Graaf Reinet, where Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi was stoned at the funeral of Robert Sobukwe in 1978. Others disagree saying that while the geography was Graaf Reinet, the actual stone throwers were mostly from Cradock. The real answer is somewhere in struggle mythology and urban legend and whatever it is, it does not answer the Queenstown mystique.

The mystique was deepened for me when my room mate at the Wits students residence in Mofolo, Soweto, exclaimed at the number of necklace murders in Queenstown. Whatever his source was, it declared Queenstown the unofficial headquarters of the necklace murders. Queenstown in 1985 had more necklace murders than Duduza or any other place in unrest stricken South Africa. “Why?” seemed to be the new question occupying my mind.

The more questions I asked the deeper the mystery of Queenstown became. I discovered from a friend who lives in Queenstown that the town had two mental hospitals for a greater part of the seventies and eighties. The reason for this apparently had to do with the division of Queenstown into two parts when the Transkei, was declared a homeland in 1976. The one part was South African and another the Transkei. The Transkei portion was Queensdale. With this division of the town the inmates of the mental hospital had to be separated into Queensdale and Queenstown patients. A new mental hospital was built for Queensdale just across the road. At the time of hearing about the two mental institutions, (circa 1989) I suspected the town was off its mind. By the time I heard the reason behind the two hospitals in 1996 I was certain Queenstown is a loony bin.

My conviction is slightly diluted by another curious aspect of the town; music. A few years ago conversing and questioning another member of the town about this and that I discovered that some of the biggest names in South African music were born and or live in Queenstown.

Amongst them are people like, Victor Ndlazolwana, the Matshikiza dynasty, which includes the famous pianist Pat Matshikiza who wrote the score of King Kong the musical and composed many of the choral gems that are classics in their genre, Todd Matshikiza another jazz legend, Dudu Pukwana who made himself a Jazz name in London and Europe; Mongezi Feza who composed a song that adds to the mystique of his birth place with a title like “You think you know me, but you do not know me”; Letta Mbulu who made a name in the states in collaboration with husband Caiphus Semenya and Quincy Jones; Margaret Singana who was actually Mcingana and also known as Lady Africa; Don Tshomela by far the most famous jazz singer alive in the country at the moment, Stompie Mavi the man with a golden voice who is currently having a beautiful revival with Joe Nina.

Many of these artists are late. Dudu Pukwana died in exile in London. Todd Matshikiza died in exile. Mongezi Feza ran naked out of a mental hospital (a sad pun) in Switzerland and died in the cold. Margaret Mcingana (or Singana as she was known) was confined to a wheel chair before she died last year. Johnny Dyani died on stage playing his bass in Paris.

At the time of the discovery of the Queenstown music epic, I was flattened by a strange coincidence that was just too fantastic to ignore. Both Stompie Mavi and Margaret Mcingana were in wheelchairs. My informant was quick to point out that “Queenstown is a place of black magic. The musicians there are all special people. It is a special madness.”

Indeed, in Xhosa culture, the singer or musician is supposed to have inkenqe or intwaso. Which is a diagnosis of a special spirituality usually possessed by the sangoma. Schizophrenia in the Xhosa tradition is not recognised as a disease. It is a special attribute to have. Many schizophrenes undergo a healing process called ukuthwasa and end up sangomas. Much of the healing (and training) process consist of music. Ezra Ngcukana, a jazz saxophonist in Cape Town, commending that I speak to Stompie Mavi says, “Stompie and Don Tshomela sing like they have been granted special permission by the ancestry.” Unwittingly he is revealing that Don Tshomela is yet another of the musical icons from Queenstown. He also reminds me of a nickname of Queenstown that I knew but granted no further importance other than that of a nickname: “emagezeni” – which means place of the mad people. Queenstown is known as a place of madness both for its mental hospitals and its musicians. “You will get ill if you go to Queenstown” Tshomela says to me as if he knew my experience in 1996. I tell him that I got ill and he asks, “Are you an artist?” When I tell him that I am a poet he reckons matter of fact; “Well there you go!”

“It is a strange coincidence,” Bra Don continues, “I am leaving for Queenstown day after tomorrow. Why don’t you come and see me?”

This essay is also available in print in Chimurenga 11: Conversations with Poets Who Refuse to Speak (2007). 

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