AN EXHIBITION titled My Very First Question to you – an acoustic portrait of journalist Ruth Weiss and Southern African liberation politics opened at the South African Jewish Museum yesterday and runs until October 31.
Sound installations allow visitors an insight into Southern African history as documented through interviews by journalist and anti-apartheid activist Weiss. The English version of Weiss’s autobiography, A Path through Hard Grass: A Journalist's Memories of Exile and Apartheid, written in German in the 1990s, has also been launched.
Weiss was 12 when she moved to South Africa in 1936, having boarded a ship to Cape Town, where relatives were offering to help her family settle, far from the dangers of Nazi Germany. She didn’t understand the “nuances of politics” at that time, but understood “things had changed” and her family “were no longer welcome as Jews”.
When she arrived she felt she had entered a world where she would have to get to know black people and was surprised to find this wasn’t the case.
She’s had only had two encounters with blacks – the first a boy on display at the zoo in Hamburg “exhibited as you would any creature”.
The other was a Jewish man from Ethiopia studying in Nuremberg, where her family lived before the Nazi takeover.
Despite coming from an upbringing with so few encounters with people of other races, she felt uncomfortable with segregation.
When she became a journalist in the 1950s she didn’t choose this career – it chose her, she says.
Basler Afrika Bibliographien – the “centre of documentation and expertise on Namibia and Southern Africa”, in Basel, Switzerland – approached Weiss in 1992 asking if she “had anything of interest” from her many interviews. Unfortunately, she had just moved to the UK from Zimbabwe and had “thrown bags full of material away”.
“When you do an interview you don't necessarily keep the tape,” she said. “I’ve been interviewing people since the 1950s. I have few early tapes, but some survived.”
Five will be available to listen to at the exhibition.
These interviews are with the first president of independent Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, in 1979; the first black Namibian medical doctor and former deputy president of Namibia, Libertine Amathila, also in 1979; South African icons Miriam Makeba and Nadine Gordimer, both of whom were interviewed in 1978; and the then-ANC leader, Oliver Tambo, in 1985.
Weiss hadn’t listened to her tapes for years, until the exhibition opened in Basel earlier this year. She said she listened to a few lines of her Makeba interview and was taken back to the brief interview.
“She was in Germany for a concert and a couple of people I knew were meeting her at the airport,” Weiss recalled.
“She was very open and prepared to talk about her career.”
While Weiss thought the exhibition was an achievement in Basel, it didn’t “touch the Swiss”.
“Here I’ll be meeting people for whom this past is their past.
“It’s a tremendous thing to be in Cape Town, talking about people who are no longer with us.”