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Understanding our shared history helps us to imagine a future


Joanne Joseph highlights small acts of courage during alumni webinar.

Many South Africans are familiar with radio and television broadcaster Joanne Joseph (BA 2000, BA Hons 2001, MA 2008), who has covered day-to-day and iconic events in the country’s history as a popular news media personality.Joanne Joseph

On 24 February, the proud Witsie was in conversation with Professor Dilip Menon, professor in the Department of International Relations at Wits, to kickstart the Wits Alumni Relations webinar series of the University’s centenary year.

Professor Menon praised Joseph’s “sharp, keen, historical and literary intellect”, using her book Children of Sugarcane (Jonathan Ball, 2021), as a prism to shed light on some contemporary South African challenges. “We turn to history to understand what happened, we turn to fiction to figure out what might happen,” he said.

Although Children of Sugarcane is set against the backdrop of 19th century India and the British-owned sugar plantations of Natal, Professor Menon said Joseph’s novel resonated today because many of the “nightmares of history” had been unaddressed.

He used a sentence from the afterward in the novel to begin the discussion: “If we begin to think of indenture as part of our shared history and to explore how deeply stained we all are by our collective colonial past perhaps we can begin to imagine a shared future.”

Joseph responded: “We talk about colonisation; we don’t understand how deeply its tentacles are buried in all of us as products of colonisation. In one way or the other we are tainted by it.”

She said she grappled with this in choosing the title of the novel. “You want a title that would resonate widely, rather than only with those who come from the indentured. I resolved to call it Children of Sugarcane because every player who was engaged in that exercise was in a process of becoming ‘children of sugarcane’. We are all children of that legacy… We are still longing to figure out who we are.”

Her debut book Drug Muled: Sixteen Years in a Thai Prison (Jacana, 2013) sold over 10 000 copies, but this novel is her first work of fiction. She said the novel format allowed her to think more deeply about contemporary life, something she’s found difficult in her daily work as a journalist.

“It’s difficult to do because you’re on a kind of treadmill up against the clock. You are delivering what you hope is a product of quality in a very short space of time and it’s quite transitory. It serves a particular moment – therein lies the trap of news; its domain becomes smaller and smaller…There is little time for analysis, depth, the origins of the events. I found it a bit constricted.

“The books explore different aspects of myself and my interests, but they are both an answer to the question of ‘what came before’? What do we need to know that matters in order to understand the present day?

“The overwhelming sentiment around apartheid is one of oppression,” Joseph said, relaying how she was introduced to a PhD seminar at Wits to a paper called The Mute Always Speak: Women's Silences at the TRC by Nthabiseng Motsemme, which demonstrated that: “Even in times of oppression and difficulty…People maintain their joy. In their private intimate places, they work against this. It’s a private subversion of the larger macro-political system.”

Joseph said she was particularly interested in the small ways ordinary people have agency. The central character in Children of Sugarcane, is a woman with a mind of her own, who feels that her life cannot be contained by what she is born into and she has to forge something else – much like contemporary South African society in which many are attempting to breaking free from the inheritance of their past.

The webinar also covered the changing role of religion, the justice system, gender-based violence and whether the term “rainbow nation” still has relevance. The full discussion can be accessed here.