"Detention Without Trial" was one of the most appalling of the South African apartheid regime's
methods of social control. People could be locked away almost permanently without access to law-courts
to prove their innocence.
Prisoners who were regarded as politically dangerous often met with a savage death while in detention.
The excuses given were usually the same: suicide or a silly accident.
Opponents of the regime knew that these excuses were merely lies. In this very simple poem, Chris van
Wyk examines these excuses with some sarcastic humour.
A NOTE ON THE POET
Chris Van Wyk was born in Soweto and lived his early years in Newclare before moving to Riverlea, a
poorer suburb of Johannesburg.
He was educated at Riverlea High School before working for a non government organisation known as
SACHED -- South African Committee for Higher Education -- as an educational writer.
He was also editor of Staffrider and started the short-lived Wietie magazine with fellow
poet, Fhazel Johennesse.
Van Wyk showed signs of wanting to be a writer as early as five years of age -- and since then, he says,
he has had a love affair with words.
He credits much of his success in storytelling to his love of "skinder" (gossip). "I skinder more
than most women", he says. He listened to all the gossip between his mother and her friends, and
this found its way into the many stories which he thereupon wrote.
"You will not believe the kind of information you can pick up just by keeping your ears open," van
Wyk says, although there are certain little tricks you have to observe to prevent yourself from being caught
These include not behaving like a quiet little mouse but rather making noises, "like drinking a glass of
water" or singing bits from pop songs or calling to the dog outside, or doing something like reading or
writing while you are also preoccupied in listening.
But above all, he says, don't give yourself away by laughing at a joke that you have overheard. "If you
do, it's a dead giveaway and means that you've had your ears tuned on them all the time."
Van Wyk has written over 20 books, including poetry collections and children's stories. He published his
first volume of poetry -- It Is Time to Go Home -- in1979. This was to win him the prestigious
Olive Schreiner Prize the following year.
He would win other awards for his novels and short stories, including the Maskew Miller Longman Award
for Black Children's Literature in 1982 and the Sanlam Literary Award for the best short story of 1995.
His first novel -- The Year of the Tapeworm -- was published in 1998 while, in 2004, his
childhood memoir Shirley, Goodness & Mercy became a successful play by director Janice
Unlike many South African writers who wrote "as a weapon against apartheid", van Wyk preferred
to use humour as his primary weapon. "We've got our own magic, lots of it," he says.
He married his childhood sweetheart, Kathy, and they've reared their two sons in Riverlea where he has
lived most of his life. "I want to be part of this community," he says. "There's an element of the
writer that keeps me here."
Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?