Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and Me: A Memoir of Sorts

Marianne THAMM, Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and Me: A Memoir of Sorts (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2016)

THE British newspaper The Guardian runs, alongside its conventional obituaries, a parallel series called ‘Other lives’. South African publishing of biography and autobiography follows a similar path: predominance of the great and good and the occasional contribution from a less prominent writer that illuminates forgotten, and often highly significant, corners. Marianne Thamm’s book falls squarely into the second category.

It is hard to think of someone with a more complex background. She and her brother were born in Britain. But her father was an ex-Luftwaffe pilot captured at Arnhem who liked Britain enough to stay after the war. Her mother was a Portuguese migrant worker. In the early 1960s they joined the stream of immigrants to South Africa and lived as part of the English-speaking minority in Pretoria.

Georg and Barbara Thamm seem to have lived out national stereotypes that were in some senses diametrically opposed. Much of this book is preoccupied with their daughter’s complicated relationship with each of them. Both had grown up under highly authoritarian regimes and then moved to another. Georg remained wedded to his German roots, even the Nazi past, for the rest of his life and was emotionally reserved. Barbara was volatile and demonstrative until she suffered a crippling stroke and an early death.

While dealing with her parents Marianne Thamm was also living a marginal life as a lesbian in apartheid South Africa. This is covered in great and personal detail culminating in her moment of individual liberation when, with her same-sex partner, she was able at the turn of the century to adopt two baby girls, both black. This in turn led to the partial liberation of her now aged father, although she never did make with him the connections she sought.

All too often authors write about childhood and youth in far more interesting and penetrating way than their later years. That is true of this book. Thamm’s account of childhood and schooling, and teenage years of semi-delinquency, in the repressive atmosphere of Pretoria in the 1960s and 70s – ‘without joy and lifeless with ignorance’ and ‘claustrophobic and hermetic, cut off intentionally from the rest of the world’ (pp. 47 and 53) – is fascinating and readily recognisable by those who remember those arid years; a country trying hard to be Albania within the West – this ‘arse-end of the world’ as Thamm colourfully describes it (p. 117).

The account of her first job, with Barclays Bank, is both hilarious (she now occasionally performs as a comedian) and redolent of a long-gone age. Then she did a journalism course in Pretoria and ended up working in the newsroom of the Cape Times for much of the 1980s, a challenging era to be a reporter. Indeed, it is she who appears in the famous photograph (sadly not reproduced in this book) taken outside the paper’s offices the day editor Tony Heard was arrested for publishing the words of Oliver Tambo in November 1985. Work as a crime reporter was grim, but Thamm later transferred to the arts and culture desk only to be driven away by the paternalism and authoritarianism of newsrooms even at the dawn of democracy.

Her subsequent career was spent working for magazines and freelancing; and much of the rest of this book deals with the relationship with her parents and her lesbian identity while continuing to cast interesting reflections on the changing nature of South Africa. It is a classic example of the apparently ordinary able to reveal much that is truly extraordinary.