Around twelve years ago I left Johannesburg and moved down to Cape Town, seduced the mountains and the ocean. People say Cape Town looks like the south of France, or California, just more beautiful. For a while I lived in a bubble of privilege, ignoring Cape Town’s harsher realities, until I met the woman who would become my wife. Sumaya grew up out in the sprawling ghetto called the Cape Flats – the flipside of the Cape Town picture postcard – home to millions of people of mixed race, where the rape, murder and child abuse statistics are the highest in the world. The true stories she told me, and the world she introduced me to, changed my view of Cape Town forever.
A few years ago, I went with her to prison to visit her brother. He’s in his thirties, a human canvas of prison artwork. Since the age of fourteen he has spent a total of two years out of jail. He knows if he ever goes out into the world again he won’t stand a chance, will end up where he always ends up: back in inside. When I left the prison I knew I wanted to write about a man like him.
Doing research for Wake Up Dead, I met other brown men who had grown up wild on the harsh, windswept Cape Flats. They had a similar story to tell: under apartheid, going to prison was inevitable if you weren’t white. And in the racially segregated prisons they quickly found they had power over weaker brown men. Joined the prison gangs, wore the tattoos of rank, murdered fellow inmates as part of initiation rites. Found that they never wanted to leave this world of brutal discipline and unbreakable codes. Every time they came up for parole they committed another crime and had time added on to their sentences.
These men found “wives” in prison: young boys who were easy meat. Most of these marriages were short-lived. But some endured. Some men even fell in love, and broke out of prison to be with their “wives”.
South Africa is a society still divided by race, and increasingly, wealth. Predatory crimes like home invasions and carjackings frequently bridge that divide. Wake Up Dead begins with a violent collision between privileged Cape Town and the Flats – a South African gunrunner and his American ex-model wife are carjacked – an incident so commonplace that it wouldn’t even make the local news. What fascinates me is to look beyond the statistics, to get into the people who are flung together by these violent events, and the impact on their lives.
In Wake Up Dead I was interested in capturing what I believe to be the reality of many people’s lives, without sentimentalizing that reality, even if it’s uncomfortable. I live in – and write about – an extremely violent country. I don’t write about anything that doesn’t happen every day in South Africa. I loathe the comic book porno-violence of a lot of European and U.S. crime writing (and movies, TV and video games, for that matter) where bloodshed is used to titillate. People aren’t turned on by what I write – they’re shocked. As they should be. Each day children are raped and slaughtered out on the Cape Flats, just miles from where I live. My wife counsels abused children, and tells me stories that give me nightmares. If this was happening anywhere in the West, there would be an outcry. Here it barely makes the newspapers. I write about this stuff because it freaks me out. Writing about it seems the only way to stay sane.
Wake up Dead is published by Serpent’s Tail