Prof Betty Govinden (Author; Academic; Lecturer at UKZN)



In what is described as one of the “unperishable novels of the 20th Century”, we see the relentless and perennial search for a home. This is Nobel Prize winner, VS Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, published in 1961. The novel is set in Trinidad, where Naipaul’s own grandparents worked in the sugar plantations as indentured labourers, having come from India in the late 1880’s.   Early in the novel, Mr Biswas is going over an inventory of all his belongings, his possessions – his bed, his car, his bookcase, among others  – and he realises that over and above them, is his house.

But bigger than them all was the house, his house. How terrible it would have been… to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been, unnecessary and unaccommodated. [Naipaul 1961: 13-14]

Shakespeare’s words in King Lear,  “unaccommodated man is no more but a bare forked animal…” also come to mind immediately. Similarly, in When the Chalk is Down [2010], B.P. Singh chronicles his struggles to acquire the title deeds for his parents’  home in Buffelsdale, near Tongaat.

As Singh writes:

Having a house in your name is a basic human need, a basic human right, yet in this instance it seemed that the process was going to be a very painful one.  To lose part of your property, especially when poor, is like losing a part of your body, a part of your soul. [p.65]

When the Chalk is Down is a twin-threaded autobiographical narrative of Singh’s long and protracted struggles to secure an “ownership home” for his parents in Buffelsdale, a low-cost housing settlement for Indians [the second after Chatsworth] developed from 1970 onwards , and of his experiences as a teacher.

Singh’s struggle for the title deeds of his parents’ home spans some 25 years. Singh’s struggle for the title deeds of his parents’ home spans some 25 years, and included the obstructionist bureaucracy of the Tongaat Town Board. We often speak of “entitlement” rather glibly and critically these days, and lose sight of the wilful denial of ENTITLEMENT, both literally and metaphorically, to the vast majority of South African citizens.

Sadly, by the end of the story, Singh’s father dies without enjoying the privilege of owning his home. And there is further poignancy when, after many years of fighting for it, the home is finally transferred to the mother’s name, but  his mother cannot enjoy this moment. She has suffered a stroke and has Alzheimer’s,  and  is “dead to this world” [p.211]. We realise that her story is a story of a life of waiting. As with Mr Biswas, “Living had always been a preparation, a waiting. And so the years had passed; and now there was nothing to wait for”  [Naipaul 1961:586].

This particular story of a struggle against dispossession must be seen against the larger  African dispossession of the land in the 19th century and early 20th century, consolidated by the 1913 Land Acts,  and other Acts that followed, and we realise that  different kinds of dispossessions were effected against all South Africa’s Black peoples throughout the 20th Century.

In When The Chalk Is Down there are other senses in which “home” is sought, where home as a space of “psychic shelter” is desired. These spaces may be the “community”, family, school, union, or the nation – but they may also sometimes prove to be alienating spaces.

The fact that this search for home persists in the new South Africa is a sad indictment on our hard-won democracy. Carol Campbell [2014], a Durban writer, in her novel, Esther’s House, writes of the “invisible” people of the Karoo, living in abject poverty, and who are endlessly frustrated by the machinations of bureaucratic municipalities, as they try to move from backyard shacks into modest RDP houses.


When the Chalk is Down , then,  fits into the large corpus of  writing, both fiction and non-fiction, in South Africa, that are  stories of resilience.  One such story is And They Didn’t Die, by Lauretta Ncgobo, which is an engaging  political novel,  which pays homage to the unsung heroism of rural women who opposed apartheid in South Africa. It is set in the desolate Sabelweni Valley [in the South Coast of Natal, in the Mzimkhulu and Ixopo areas, Ncgobo’s childhood home] of 1950’s to 1980’s, and revolves around  cattle and land, female power, tradition, violence, village culture and the injustices of the legal system. Above all, it is the story of resilience and agency of women in the face of the impact of the 1913 and subsequent Land Acts. It is similar to When the Chalk is Down in that it deals with dispossession of the land. It shows how the policies of separate development and of migrant labour leads to denudation of physical and material resources, but how the human spirit remains triumphant. The impetus to raise oneself from a state of VICTIMHOOD, of claiming AGENCY, is laudable.

Singh’s narrative must also be seen against the background the history of Indian indentured labour in the country, and the attempts by Indians to stake a claim in the land of their adoption and, for later generations, in the land of their birth.


When the Chalk is down, vividly recounted by Singh, confirms again that we in South Africa are living through a “TIME OF MEMORY.” It is a time when there is a “refusal of amnesia”, and South Africans are claiming the right to deal with the past [and changing present] in and through the particularities of their own, personal stories.  In this “flourishing of autobiographical writing”, we appreciate that the story of the self is also an exploration of “the self-in-communty” [see Nuttall and Michael:2000:299]. Importantly, and we see this evident in When The Chalk Is Down, there is a redefining of “self” in the telling/narrating, as well as a redefining of “community”.

Why is it necessary to tell this story, and similar stories? It is clear that through such biographical and autobiographical writing, we are continuing and expanding the work of the TRC. There are different kinds of injustices that were endured during the apartheid era, and while the TRC dealt with what was defined as “gross violations”, it did not cover the spectrum of issues caused by the Group Areas Act, and the many other discriminatory laws, such as “forced removals”, and the like. Telling the story, might also be seen as an act of “soft vengeance”, to use Albie Sachs’ concept [see Trewhela 2009]

We realise, of course, that a time of memory is A TIME OF RE-MEMORY, of re-membering, where we stitch together the disparate parts of our past:

Rather than romanticising the past or developing a discourse of victimisation, writing and critical work are among the many “memorial practices that foster the work of remembrance as part of the work of freedom, the ultimate ethical frontier. [Mbembe 2001; Govinden 2008a:17]


It is important to remember that in this “time of memory”, PLACE is an inescapable denominator in South African writing. It was Es’kia Mphahlele who observed that our literature is marked by a TYRANNY OF PLACE. In the South Africa of the past, living in a particular place was the result of who you were in racial terms, and this also determined your experiences and your identity.  Indeed, place is central, as we reconstruct past images of places and spaces birthed by the logic of apartheid, but also signifying resistance to apartheid. We realise that in South Africa, “space and place are not just physical locations but contested terrains”, where history, politics, race, and identity, among other factors, interact [see Desai and Vahed 2013:7].

Through Singh’s  When the Chalk is Down,  Buffelsdale  becomes in an important place of struggle in the South African literary imagination, and is similar to other places in South Africa, such as Cato Manor [Ronnie Govender], the Casbah in Durban [Aziz Hassim],  District Six [Richard Rive] and Sophiatown [Can Themba, Bloke Modisane, Nat Nakasa, Lewis Nkosi].  In Jacob Dlamini’s Native Nostalgia [2009]  Katlehong [Gauteng] as a place and site of struggle is now immortalised, and  Es’kia Mphahlele, in his  autobiographical writing, Down Second Avenue [1959], writes of  Marabastad, Pretoria.

Buffelsdale is not the only place captured in When the Chalk is Down, but may be seen as its epicentre, with constant moving back and forth, as others places are mapped into the narrative, places that have been relegated to the hinterland of the national imaginary.

I would like to evoke an unlikely source for comparison: the Ukrainian writer, and 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Svetlana Alexievich, who has captured the lives and memories of ordinary women and men in the Soviet Union through her writings based on her oral interviews. When the State obscures your own life and becomes your “entire cosmos”, Alexievich [2016] states, that is when there is compelling reason to retrieve those buried personal experiences and identities. Keeping silent augments the betrayals the marginalised have endured already.  There are different impulses at work in the construction of South African histories, with the tendency to highlight certain stories and relegate others to obscurity.

When the Chalk is Down is a valiant attempt to question such dominant, selective narrativising in the new South Africa, and broaden the “hallowed ancestry” of our developing sense of nationhood [see Govinden 2008b:312-313]. Singh embraces his vulnerability and diffidence with honesty, claiming in life and in writing a rightful place in the sun.


The parallel strand in When The Chalk Is Down is the story of B P Singh as an educator. Singh’s narrative spans his life as an educator under the House of Delegates in the Tricameral Parliament during the apartheid era, to working in the new South Africa after 1994 under the Dept of Education. His experiences also include his work in the teacher associations [TASA and SADTU] in the different dispensations, and the politics of each.

One of the most remarkable aspects of When The Chalk Is Down is the way Singh the teacher/educator breaks down walls and fences, travelling across place and space, crossing borders, from the known to the unknown, from the familiar to the unfamiliar.

We have a unique trajectory of one man’s peregrinations across various schools in KZN – from NEWCASTLE, to FORESTHAVEN [in Phoenix] to MZINGEZWI. This is an unusual and different example of the DIASPORA in South African writing [see Jacobs 2016], showing displacement, migration and relocation within the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

The first school that Singh is appointed to is the School of Industries for Girls in Newcastle. This called for adjustment of different kinds, for Singh as a novice teacher, but Singh enters into the novel experience as an opportunity to learn. When the boys from a nearby school are caught trespassing onto the girls’ school at night and  “breached the barbed-wire fence” [p.18], I thought of   Alan Paton’s attempts to pull down barbed wire and plant geraniums at Diepkloof Reformatory [1986].

Singh was transferred to Foresthaven in Phoenix, after 2 years in Newccastle. His time at this school was during the reign of the House of Delegates, with all the lure of partisan politics if you wanted to get ahead in the teaching universe!  With the emergence of a robust teacher union activities [SADTU], there was threats and instances of victimisation against those who questioned just one of many “plagues” that descended on Foresthaven!


But the winds of change were also blowing, and Singh records the unbelievable “miracle” of April 27th 1994!  Nkosi sikele iAfrica!

Singh notes that Foresthaven “throbbed to the beat of a changing nation, reflecting the transformation process of the new South Africa” [p.81].

What is significant, however, in Singh’s narrative are the “morbid symptoms” of this period of transition from the old apartheid era to the struggling birth of the new fledgling democracy. We see this is the machinations of the Tongaat Town Board [as the attempts to secure the home in Buffelsdale continue unabated], but we also see this in the hallowed halls of educational institutions.

 Raised in the ethos of apartheid’s separate schooling, Singh’s promotion to MZINGEZWI SECONDARY in rural Ndwedwe, an area outside VERULAM, is seen as an opportunity to bridge the separation caused by history.

Especially significant is Singh’s interest and enthusiasm [in spite of initial trepidation], when confronted with the unknown and unfamiliar. His encounters, as a person of Indian origin separated through Group Areas legislation,   of teaching in an African school, show a ready disposition to learn, understand and identify with his fellow countrymen and women, and redefine received notions of “community”. His journey is similar to many others who have cross such borders, among them Sarita Ranchod, who writes:

In journeying beyond and through my own insider-outsider identity, in making sense of myself beyond the confines of self, community…finding myself in places I could not have imagined, I have come to know that my communities, my ways of being, are fluid, constantly changing, creating and recreating a world without borders: a world that defies the policing of borders or boundaries.”  [Ranchod 2016:203]

Accordingly, in When The Chalk Is Down, we see typical South African ghettoised living, fashioned by apartheid, but we also see valiant attempts, and a readiness, to cross racial barriers.


Because When the Chalk is Down is literally about crossing borders, there are many narratives of travel. Yes, we have a great deal of physical travel in the narrative – travelling across wide highways and bumpy, uncertain, unknown and perilous country roads.

Of course, all this travel warrants the USE OF CARS, and cars become   very important, if not indispensable, in the unfolding narrative.

When the Chalk is Down, then, is also a story of cars. Foreboding terrain   warrants a new, sturdy car. I am not a car fundi, but I slowly began to appreciate the role that cars play in this narrative. Cars become another character in the story! So we soon befriend the new, trusty NJ 8516 RED TOYOTA VENTURE, and relegate  the humble VW Jumbo Golf to the “dustbin” of the past.  And what a day of jubilation it was when Singh acquired his first car, after 3 years of teaching – a 1977 Toyota Corolla!


The narrative is largely about men and the goings on among men. But there is one section of the narrative where a woman leads, and a man follows. This is the story of Mrs Ngidi, Singh’s new HOD,  acting as his guide  as he negotiates rather  hazardous terrain.

He is travelling to Mzingezwi,  a school he has never been to before [p.95],  with  Mrs Ngidi at his side, acting as guide. He describes her as “my rock and foundation” [p.118]. They travel up and down the roads, engaging in descent and ascent, down valleys and up mountains. The Emona River below seems to be waiting to engulf them.  They travel over a makeshift bridge [p.96], become anxious when the road feels like quick sand, and the cell phone signal is lost.  They cross over a sea of rocks [p.97], travel through dark dense forest, and then eventually emerge, reassured, when they see the sky and sunshine again. Altogether, it is a most dramatic and riveting description [p. 97].

Singh encounters a different universe! He learns of the place and role of the Local Tribal authority, and the work that women do in these sparse rural spaces. He was startled into reality when he sees the impact of partisan violence before the 1994 elections: “I was now looking at the shells of lives and livelihood and love lost, of people so fundamentally affected by the winds of change in this country that there could be no redress or turning back” [p. 98-99].

At the end of their long, winding journey Singh is relieved to arrive at the school – only to be confronted with the stark denudation of the building and its surrounding area.  I thought of this experience as a metaphor for our travelling in South Africa, through our history, on rugged terrain, in gloom, with intermittent sunlight, negotiating hazardous roads, only to experience the painful irony of finally arriving at a destination that is stark and foreboding. There are many evocative   elements in this narrative, that  bring home very starkly to us the extent of our separated living in South Africa and the effort we must make to bridge the divide.


Singh’s encounters of African schools opens his eyes to the dismal conditions that obtain in them. The schools are generally defined by “LACK” – lack of books, furniture, stationery [p. 106]. The poverty of rural schools – with no water, electricity, telephone connections [p.93] – leaves him quite demoralised. He realise that these students still have to compete on equal terms; yet the playing fields are far from level.

But Singh also learns to appreciate the BOUNTY in these schools – the consummate hospitality that he is accorded.  There is material poverty, but great generosity and riches in other respects. He is in awe, for example, of the   heavenly singing that he encounters [p.103].


The grammar of education, its lexicon, is very revealing. It is a language of objectification, managerialism, of order and hierarchy.

Teachers are treated as “units”, soulless, body-less automatons. Singh shows how words like “excess” [p.46], and the “displacement” of a teacher [p.46] imply that teachers are seen in an impersonal way. It is not unusual for the word “terminated” to be used.

After 1994, when an “exhilarating wave of renaissance … engulfed almost all citizens of South Africa” [p.   ], the much-anticipated transformation was slow to materialise. He was able to witness first hand, the impact of the political transition in the country on the schools, caught as they are between the old and the new:

The schools quickly became a quagmire where clashes of ideologies and practice mirrored the emerging South Africa. The old guard attempted to retain the status quo for the sake of providing quality education whilst the unionists attempted to bring the ethos of the changing country into schools. [p.44]

Jack Whitehead, Professor of Education in the UK, has rightly pointed to When The Chalk Is Down as a good example of LIVING THEORY, where one’s values are closely linked to one’s choices and action  as a teacher. He illustrates how Singh’s values for social justice influence and determine the role he plays as an educator/leader/manager. Living Theory highlights how individuals may sometimes be prompted to act, not by acquired formal disciplinary knowledge  but by fundamental values of equity,  how a sense of agency propels one to  change one’s  circumstances [See Whitehead 2010]. This is in the same spirit as the PEDAGOGY OF HOPE that Paulo Freire emphasised [See Freire 1992].


Singh reflects multiple identities –  as teacher, manager, leader,  social activist, mediator, arbitrator, unionist as well as family man [son, husband, father]. As the narratives proceed we appreciate that these identities merge with one another. While conventional race, class and gender identities are evident, there is also an attempt to strain against them. Similarly, the construction of the notion of  “TEACHER” is  constantly revised and re-defined.


With its multiple, competing stories, as intimated already, When the Chalk is Down demonstrates the variety and complexity of living in South Africa, its many conundrums. It reminds us that South Africa is a place of stark contrasts and opposites. Just when you have one scenario painted for you, and you are trying to make sense of it, you are soon given an alternative, contrasting scenario.

It is a story of endings and beginnings and endings: we see the ending of Apartheid and the beginning of Democracy; of the dreams for the future, yet the ending of hope in the future. We have stories of living and loving, but also of dying and of death. In When the Chalk is Down,  we have  stories of  loss and  despair  juxtaposed with  stories of hope; stories of dreams, of infinite possibilities  and stories of harsh and dismal reality; stories of failure and of  resilience;

We also see stories of BETRAYALS – betrayals by the very people who are supposed to be on your side – and stories of camaraderie. Against the wider backdrop of the betrayals of apartheid, of their very humanity of peoples, we have betrayal against one another, among victims of apartheid. The oppressed turn against themselves or against their own. This is a typical scenario when you are dealing with power and the impact of a politics of divide and rule. This may be described as DISPLACEMENT, in its metaphorical sense. When you are oppressed, you cannot turn against your oppressor so you turn against yourself or your own. We see this generally in the incidence of family violence, the betrayals of comrades, and the instances of internalised racism.

When the Chalk is Down is a story of RESISTANCE but also of COMPLICITIES at various levels. Mark Sanders [2002] has broadened our notion of “complicity” during the apartheid era, alongside the state and sections of civil society, where there was direct and indirect complicity.


It also highlights the way the options of VIOLENCE and of  PEACE constantly stalk our lives. Singh’s father was a Passive Resister in the Merebank Passive Resistance Society.

Singh deals with the question of the carrying of firearms with great honesty. We are painted pictures of volatility in schools, such as the atmosphere in Foresthaven [p.91]. I feel an   unease, when I read these scenes [p.91], because of my general view on firearms.  But the threat of taxi violence and of intimidation of motorists is real, and he is forced to concede that discretion is the better part of valour:  that, in truth, the sight of a firearm can act as a deterrent.

We learn in the book about the nature of VIOLENCE – that violence knows no colour. We learn about the corrosive nature of violence, that violence diminishes the perpetrators of violence and those who combat violence with violence. It is a sad indictment on the state of our society, and it behoves us to fight even harder for a reign of peace. It is a tragic society that forces us to condone violence in the name of self-preservation, and of considering it as a possible option in fast-tracking a sluggish bureaucracy. What a schizophrenic society we have when we are driven by a wider sense of mission on Arbor Days and Peace Marches, and are forced to carry guns in our car cubbies! 


The style that Singh uses is a good example of Creative Non-fiction. The interconnectedness of the two main narratives – of the attempts to secure the title deeds for his parents’ home and his experiences as a teacher – shows an interesting stylistic principle at work. The twin narratives are plotted against the major signposts of apartheid and the movement to a new South Africa.  There are many different smaller narratives embedded in these two framing narratives.

The personal diary-like entries give the writing an authenticity and sense of realism, of history unfolding before your very eyes, and records the micro happenings against the larger macro narrative of developments in South African history.

Njabulo Ndebele [1991], one of our foremost literary critics, has emphasised the Rediscovery of the Ordinary, where the everyday, micro realities of life under apartheid are as important as the grand macro narratives.  Singh balances the quotidian and the banal as part of the warp and weft of one’s epic journey through life in a particular place and time.

The narratives, thus, work by JUXTAPOSITION and ENTANGLEMENT [See Nuttall 2009], as they spiral forward. As in the Cubist genre, there is a constant shifting between figure and ground, as each pole becomes reconceptualised in the process. The metaphor of the Mobius Strip may also be deployed to describe the way the narrative structure develops, with flow and movement from one node of experience to another occurring  continually…This style of narration serves to show how the self-in-community  is not lived in a one-dimensional, linear way, but is constantly imbricated in the different facets that impinge on and constitute one’s life…


It was the best of times and the worst of times.

It was the age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness.

It was the epoch of belief; it was the epoch of incredulity.

It was the season of Light; it was the season of Darkness.

It was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair.

 We had everything before us; we had nothing before us”

[Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities]




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