He writes so well, dammit

Review: Vivien Horler

But He Speaks So Well – Memoir of a South African identity crisis, by Ivan Johnson (Tafelberg)

Ivan Johnson is something of a shape-shifter. He’s hard to pin down – he found himself hard to pin down. But he’s had a lot of fun trying in the writing of this delightful and often hilarious memoir of a young man growing up in Cape Town.

Today Ivan Johnson is a veteran ad man with his own agency, 3Verse. He’s won awards, he writes radio commercials, and has been a juror and president at industry award shows all over the world.

But once he was a little coloured boy in Belgravia Estate, living with his parents and two older sisters in a comfortable home on the edge of Athlone. Or Rondebosch East, as he then preferred to call it. Aunts and uncles and cousins lived nearby. He was part of a close community.

Johnson’s colour is at the centre of this memoir, and yet it is not a chip-on-the-shoulder, “poor me” story. Johnson is too clever, too funny for that. He writes lightly and with humour, but this does not disguise the pain.

His father Joe was a printer with a passion for his job, but he had to train white apprentices to a level he was not allowed, by law, to attain himself. When one of the apprentices was made Joe’s manager he snapped. He told his bosses: “Toe moer met julle!” And left.

Johnson’s first confrontation with the Struggle came when he was about 9. During assembly one morning in the courtyard they heard chanting coming down the street: “Down with gutter education! Down with Bantu education! Down with Afrikaans!”

Back in their classrooms the pupils heard that local high school kids were at the gates, demanding an end to the singing of Die Stem and the raising the SA flag. Johnson felt a bit sorry about that – he had just learnt how to draw it.

In Belgravia Estate if you had visitors, you made sure to close the cupboards, because it was impolite to show off what you had – or had not. One evening in 1976 the family was at supper in the kitchen when four white riot police burst in, only to rush out of the back door. As they went, Johnson’s sister shouted: “Close the cupboards!”

The cops were, after all, the family’s first white visitors, even if they hadn’t been invited.

Johnson’s part in the struggle tended to be, as he puts it: “brief rioting followed by baseball practice and home for supper at 6pm”. But there was real danger. Some months later, he and his friend Ady were in a crowd of youths when they noticed a build-up of police and troops on the street.

It didn’t feel right. The protestors in front had reached the T-junction at Thornton Road when an unhappy Johnson and Ady stopped and turned back.

The boys heard a truck revving, the sound of bricks hitting metal, and then shots. They ran and ran as fast as they could – and discovered they had just missed the Trojan Horse massacre.

Studying graphic design at Pentech, Johnson got a couple of holiday jobs in advertising studios. The first was great with fun people, the second less so. He told his classmates on his return to lectures: “Those (at the first studio) were fun whites but these okes kakked ice-cream and moaned about the piles the cold brought on.”

His shapeshifter modus shifted into gear during a “gap” trip to Europe, which he funded by a lot of freelance work. Having mostly shed his “coloured” accent by then – prompting a white colleague to hiss: “But he speaks so well!” – he quickly picked up an English accent.

Eventually Johnson joined an ad agency in the former homeland of Bophuthatswana, and settled in with a mixed bunch of ex-pats, whites and coloureds – although no Tswanas.

When Afrikaner friend Kobus asked if he’d like to go water skiing at the dam, Johnson said yes. He’d never been on a skiboat before, much less skied, but what the hell. Just like the surfing at Muizenberg and the horse riding he later embraced, he thought: “I’ve played white before, but not that white.” He stood up first time.

Girls, soccer, travels, surfing, horse riding and poignant memories of family are all part of this entrancing memoir. In a shout on the cover broadcaster John Maytham says: “And He Writes So Well.” He does – and I loved every moment of it.


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