Tohira Kerrike has been selling flowers at Silwood Centre in Rondebosch for the past 45 years. More than 50 years ago, her family were the victims of forced removals in Cape Town. Despite the end of Apartheid and the hope inspired by the first democratic elections of 1994, she is still waiting for a land restitution claim to be addressed. She talks about her early life in Untold Stories: Memories of growing up in a different era, a book by the Cape Town Museum of Childhood. The book was launched on 23 April 2019.
Tohira’s father owned a small farm in Constantia at the top of Ladies Mile Road. On the farm, they grew vegetables and flowers. Her mother sold the flowers that were grown on the farm. In Standard 5 (which is Grade 7 today), Tohira started helping her mother with the selling of flowers. After passing Standard 5, she dropped out of school and started working as a flower seller. She would continue in this occupation for the next 52 years.
Cape Town has a long history of flower selling. Melanie Boehi writes in “The flower sellers of Cape Town – a history”, that the cut flower trade began as an activity of slaves in early colonial Cape Town and that flower selling began in the mid-1880s.
“Being largely excluded from careers in botany and horticulture during apartheid, flower farming and selling were occupations in which black people successfully made a living by working with flowers,” she writes. Like many things in South Africa and Cape Town, in particular, the occupation of flower sellers and the regulations of the trade were subjected to racist legislation.
Tohira’s mother sold flowers on the Grand Parade in the Cape Town city centre. The sight of flower sellers in the central business district of Cape Town eventually became a popular tourist attraction. It was not always so. In 1905, the introduction of a permit for the sale of flowers was discussed in Parliament. There was opposition to allowing flower sellers to conduct their trade in the CBD. As one parliamentarian stated, “‘able-bodied coloured’ men and women should not be flower sellers but employed as farm labourers or domestic workers.”
by the early 1900s, flower sellers became a feature on postcards, tourist guidebooks
and in local newspapers and magazines. They were presented as exotic characters,
with little understanding of their real lives. Melanie says, “Photographs on
postcards were altered in ways that emphasised not only the colours of the flowers
but also of the flower sellers’ dresses, especially the ‘Malay’ attributes such
as women’s headscarves and men’s fezzes. Painters, with Irma Stern and Vladimir
Tretchikoff among the most well-known, frequently produced images of flower
Flower selling is hard work. When Tohira
started out, she had to get up at 5 o’clock every morning to get to the farm to
buy fresh flower. Then she would go home to pack them before travelling to
Rondebosch to sell them. In the early years, she would sell flowers till 2 o’clock
in the afternoon. But “now business isn’t like it was, and you have to work the
whole day!” she says.
The introduction of the Group Areas Act in 1950, placed the economic activity of black people in city centres throughout South Africa in a precarious position. In 1965, central Cape Town was proclaimed a white Group Area and it was announced that “the coloured flower sellers would eventually have to move from the flower market in Adderley Street.” In the end, they were allowed to stay.
However, the flower sellers experienced the wrath of the Group Areas Act in other ways. In 1968, Tohira’s family were uprooted from their farm in Constantia and forced to move to smaller land. Constantia, which today is one of Cape Town’s wealthiest residential areas, was declared a white area: black residents were evicted and their houses and gardens destroyed.
Melanie says that “Few traces remind us that until the 1960s Constantia was a farming area with a predominantly black working class population. They were farmers, farm workers, domestic workers and fruit and flower sellers, and they practiced subsistence farming, growing vegetables, fruit and flowers…” Being dispossessed of their land had serious consequences for black people. Tohira remembers eating the vegetables that her parents grew. Only surplus vegetables, like with the flowers, were sold on the market. Being forcibly removed from their farm and relocated to a much smaller area meant that they could no longer pursue their subsistence farming activities.
Tohira and went on a pilgrimage to Mecca at the age of 21. Today, evidence of the fact that her community once lived in Constantia is the Mosque and Muslim cemetery that still stands in Spaanschemat Road. Tohira and her family still go there. The school that she attended, Constantia Primary School, also still stands as a witness to their forced removal.
In 1998, Tohira’s family lodged a claim for the restoration of the rights to the land that they owned in Constantia. “If we ever do get it back, I’ll just thank God that we can go forward,” she says. Till today however, they have had no success.
The #Running4Pads initiative
has the aim of securing and donating sanitary pads to schools and communities
in need. #Running4Pads is a Non-Profit Company consisting of individual
This team offer skills towards
the campaign from social media, organising collections and running to raise
awareness and ultimately the collection of packets of sanitary pads that is to
be distributed to schools for girls in need. The team’s goal is to ensure that
we can help as many school girls as possible by restoring their dignity and
keeping them in school.
I enjoy running for medals but
now I’m #Running4Pads. Contact me if you would like to donate a pack of pads for
girls who need them. You can also make a financial donation into the following
Once a term, we visit schools in the Cape Town area and drop off pads that we have collected. Everywhere, that we’ve been the school staff are always grateful for our contributions and confirm the need that is out there.
The South African government has finally exempted sanitary pads from VAT. It’s a pity though that such an essential item is not made available free of charge for girls who need it.
I was an undergraduate student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) between 1989 and 1993. I subsequently worked at the university until 2002. During my tenure as staff member, I worked closely with two Vice-Chancellors – Stuart Saunders and Mamphela Ramphele. (I might write some more about that on another occasion.)
While a student and a staff member, I was involved in anti-apartheid politics and some of the work on institutional transformation.
Many times, I walked up to the Upper Campus and would pass the statue of Cecil John Rhodes. It was positioned prominently, overlooking the rugby fields. Despite my growing political awareness, I had accepted the presence of the statue as a necessary feature of the university’s landscape. It was in line with the rooftop of the university’s main hall (Jameson Memorial Hall), which in turn was aligned with Devil’s Peak in the distance.
So, when the #RhodesMustFall movement started in 2015, I had to do some serious reflection. I am not going to use this opportunity to make excuses for what I now accept to have been blindspots in my education. As an alumnus of the university, I joined together with other progressive alumni/ae to see to what extend we could support the movement.
Nineteen years ago, I wrote a small book about my experiences in the New Apostolic Church and the factors that led to my breaking ties with that church. It is hard to believe that so many years have passed. A lot of water have flowed under the bridge since then and I have moved on to many new ventures since.
However, my association with that book and the articles that I wrote on the subject are still the most common results when I search my name on Google. Occasionally, I get requests for information on the topic. So, I have decided to place the three articles that were published here: NAC Articles.
The book is unfortunately out of print, and since some of the information is out of date, I will not upload it here. Instead I am embarking on a new chapter in my writing and if you want to follow progress on that then you are welcome to contact me and I will add you to my mailing list.
Recently, news reports drew the links between crooked cops, gang violence and the seedy world that exists beneath Cape Town’s tourist-friendly surface. It is therefore not surprising that the so-called Mother City has been the setting of a number of works of crime fiction over the last few years. Enter, Paul Mendelson.
On face value, Mendelson is singularly unqualified to join the club. He is born and bred in London. “I discovered Cape Town almost 30 years ago; fell in love with it, the people, and a group of friends who have grown to be enormously important in my life,” he says when I caught up with him shortly after the launch of his latest thriller, Apostle Lodge. What an odd way to pay tribute to a city that one loves. But the same can be said about crime fiction writers who choose New York or London as their settings.
“I think that the contrasts between the beauty and horrors of this city make a fine backdrop to a crime novel,” he says. Mendelson’s Cape Town is a city of contrasts. On the one hand there is the natural beauty typified by the mountain and ocean, and on the other, there is the visible evidence of poverty in the sprawling informal settlements composed of corrugated iron and wood houses. There is the hope brought about by the new freedom and democracy but there is also the scourge of high rates of violent crime and corruption.
Cape Town has become part of the international scene. The communications revolution has brought everyone closer but there are pros and cons to this. All people, including criminals, can now communicate easier and work more efficiently. South African crime fiction writers such as Deon Meyer (whom Mendelson considers to be a master of the genre) and Margie Orford have previously introduced Cape Town as the backdrop to best-selling thrillers. Mendelson isn’t far behind them.
Paul Mendelson enjoyed success with his first novel, The First Rule of Survival. But this was after 35 years of trying. Meantime, he had written over a dozen non-fiction books, newspaper columns, features, and for local magazines. His first novel was followed by The Serpentine Road and then The History of Blood.
All four of his crime fiction novels feature the Cape Town cop, Colonel Vaughn de Vries. Vaughn de Vries is very much a child of the apartheid era, trying to adapt to the new South Africa. “I am Vaughn’s age and I find I am becoming increasingly change-averse, so I appreciate that it is not always easy for him,” Mendelson says of his protagonist.
Mendelson is a fairly disciplined writer. He spends about six to nine months thinking about a book before he starts writing; taking about three to four months to do the actual writing. Typically, he starts a writing day at 15:00 and finishes at 01:00 the next morning.
Will Vaughn de Vries make the transition to screen as so many fictional detectives before him? “There are film and TV companies with options on my work, looking to develop books into TV series or feature films and when one of those comes to fruition, I am hoping that may free me up to develop screenplays and scripts,” Mendelson says.
For now, Mendelson is working on his fifth novel. “When I’m writing a book,” he says, “I go through what I now realise are recurring emotions. After the first quarter, I can’t decide if what I’m writing has any merit whatsoever. At the half way point, I think I should have written a different book, usually focused on a minor theme I have running in the book, and at the three-quarter point, I question whether anyone will be want to read what I’ve written at all. So far, thankfully, these concerns have proven fruitless but, I think, as a creator of any kind, you do wonder if you will ever be able to do it again. Here’s hoping…”
1. What made you decide to locate your crime novels in Cape Town?
I think that the contrasts between the beauty and horrors of this city make a fine backdrop to a crime novel, as do the immersive political machinations which South Africa has endured over the past 150 years and, not least, during the reign of Jacob Zuma.
Politics in South Africa is so visceral, so immediate that I think to ignore that element of a story which is happening in the public eye, is to misunderstand how people in Cape Town (certainly those whom I know) view their lives here.
2. What is the most difficult part of your writing process?
I try to be meticulous in ensuring that there aren’t holes in plots – that is a constant battle to ensure continuity and logical progression. The characters must live, not only within the novel, but certainly before they appear, and perhaps even afterwards. I want to honest and true to my characters and not have them act in a way just to suit the plot, which would seem false, or in an illogical manner. The characters always come first and, if the plot must change because of them, so be it. That sometimes leads to problems but, if I can solve them, I feel that I have been loyal to the people I have created.
3. Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I try to treat both as the imposters they so obviously are. I am delighted if people enjoy what I do, but I’m aware that we all have different tastes. There are hit TV shows, garlanded novels, and multi-award-winning films, that I simply don’t enjoy or admire. So, obviously, not everyone is going to like what I do. That said, I have been lucky that, generally, people seem to like my novels and, when they are critical, they make completely valid, constructive points which I try to remember.
4. What advice do you have for someone who would like to become a published writer?
I enjoyed overnight success with my first novel after only 35 years of trying.
Meantime, I had written over a dozen non-fiction books, newspaper columns, features, local magazines, etc. So, I regret to say that it is simply this: write and write and write some more. When you are not writing, read. Immerse yourself in your chosen genre and learn what appeals to you and ask yourself how you might reproduce it in your own style, with your own characters, and your own stories.
5. What are your favourite authors and books?
Within the genre of crime, there are many writers whose work I admire. Let’s start with the king of SA crime, Deon Meyer, whose first half dozen books are master classes in wonderful writing (and that’s even in translation – I’m told they are even better in Afrikaans).
I enjoy US crime very much, my hero being James Ellroy. His early work (which, he claims, he now no longer likes) is raw and disturbing, and his later novels brilliantly weave his own, largely amoral, characters into twentieth century US history, which are epic, the use of language utterly wonderful. Like Shakespeare, you need to give your ear time to adjust to the rhythms of the speech, but I find them all-consuming.
Michael Connelly and Robert Crais are two more US authors whose work is inspirational and who I cannot recommend highly enough.
In the UK, Mark Billingham and Val McDermid are two authors whose works continually enthrall me, both masters/mistresses of their art.
6. If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Just my partner, Gareth; thank you. He’s a fine braai-meister and, even after 23 years together, still the best company around. So, a nice braai in the garden on a lovely summer’s evening. That makes me incredibly happy.
7. What does success as a writer look like to you?
There are film and TV companies with options on my work, looking to develop books into TV series or feature films and when one of those comes to fruition, I am hoping that may free me up to develop screenplays and scripts and spend more time writing and less time teaching and lecturing and doing other things.
If that were to happen, that would be my idea of success as a writer.