Neil Coppen

writings/ plays/ poetry/musings/travel journals and newspaper columns

The pleasures of falling and flight.


For Vaughn on his 27th Birthday

You gave me a palace in clouds, a JHB skyline dressed in mist and moonlight, dust-storms and thunder showers. You hung me in a room seventeen stories above the agitated hum of the city, taxis congesting the arteries of the streets below. A metropolis hemorrhaging with hooting.

Those afternoons wrapped in sheets and each-other finding a strange peace in the noises of other people’s lives being lived furiously down below, a navigated chaos which from up here seemed worlds away. Calming to hear it and more so for not having to participate in it. Us the fortunate ones, the ones who could observe when we liked… looking down for perspective and up for respite.

We could look down to see the dance of pedestrians and their shadows. A favourite past time of mine, when in the late afternoon light ants became giants with disproportionate limbs straining under the weight of grocery bags. Down to watch men, in the dead of night, pulling towers of refuse: snails with scrap-heaps for backs. Down across the patchwork quilt of street traders, the rubiks cubes of vegetable sellers tables’: red squares of tomatoes, green of kale and yellow of banana.

If you were a building you might resemble this one, towering and unpretentious, magnificent and old world yet re-purposed (and all the more idiosyncratic for it) to suit the needs and requirements of a contemporary African city. I cannot separate you nor my thoughts of you from this flat and what you taught me here. The magic of the space, the kitchen jars with assortments of berries and nuts and teas. The clanking rusted pipes that sung sad subterranean songs whenever I submerged my ears in the bath. The cacophony of the building, orchestrations of decay which punctuated our every routine, whether it was a death defying lift-ride to the ground floor or malfunctioning fire-alarms that kept us up until the early hours. I cannot think of you and not connect these thoughts to the poetry of the space.

Those poor ornamental ducks lodged on your bedroom wall, pinned in perpetual migration, observing daily the flight of ibises into another apocalyptic highveld sunset and wishing with all their might that their wings worked the same. The chipped, frayed, rusted corners of things. A summer storm tossing us out to sea, making an Art-Deco galleon of this high rise. The winds that wreaked havoc on our laundry and deposited our underpants in yards in Soweto. Winds that howled with the collective laments of old white lady ghosts who many eons ago used to take high-tea in the same building and shop at the Anstey’s department store for fur trimmed coats and pheasant feathered hats. The wide-eyed toddlers who gazed up at us in the lift with a mixture of curiosity and terror.

You made me stop running in the city at night. I used to dash from the parking lot to the lobby door. You helped undo the conditioning of a suburban upbringing and a paranoia that only the privileged are privileged enough to indulge in. You did this till I was more at home here than anywhere else in the world and realised I would never feel more engaged and alive and connected to this county and its people as I did when arriving at the corner of Jeppe and Joubert.

So the other evening when I felt angry at having to sit in a sterile Rosebank food-court it was only because all I felt like doing was soaking in a candle-lit bath with you, watching your forehead crumple in deep contemplation, lying as we so often did in an awkward tangle of limbs, the cold steel of the tap pushing into your neck, lying here until our hands wrinkled, the water cooled and the candle flickered out.

I ached for that balcony at the end of the world, a platform that allowed me to imagine and speculate (in equal parts) the pleasures of falling and flight. I felt sad at only having a concrete cast of your hands when not long ago ones of flesh used to omfort the palm of my back.

There are many things I miss and will continue to, even more that I will come to understand and celebrate. These are just some but certainly not all

Absence makes the vine grow longer


You left me with…

1.) A green piggy bank (in the shape of an elephant). Loot from one of your car-boot sale trawls.  A relic from some Afrikaans bank promotion in the 70’s.

2.) A fridge full of inedible leaves. Watercress wasted on me—my resourcefulness with salad stuff extends to boiled eggs and iceberg lettuce- what does one do with watercress?

3.)A wobbly vintage bed side lamp, fond of conking me on the head during late night reading sessions.

4.)An ID photo, carefully placed amongst our shelf of Chinese wind-up toys, solemn eyes to keep a tin army in check.

5.) A Jasmine vine on the balcony which, in the absence of your patient fingers, now competes with fellow tendrils to topple the TV Ariel and strangle me in my sleep.

6.)A sculpture you made in second year: A concrete cast of your upturned hands, left outside to cup the evening rain.

Each morning I wake and empty two generous palms-full.

Jay Pather’s Standard Bank Young Artist Speech 2011


Ladies and Gentlemen

As my first outing as Chairperson, I want to pay tribute to my predecessor, Sibongile Kumalo. She was a beacon of light and authority amongst some of our most fragile years in the building of a National Arts Festival alongside the building of a new nation, and I would like to give her thanks.

We make art for many reasons. We view art for another range of reasons. We promote art for yet another whole host of reasons. At the National Arts festival we are meant to deliberate on all of these myriads of reasons why a work of art exists, why it may be shown or not. We also know that the kinds of reasons that are contemplated determine some crucial trends, decisions, and careers paths, praise and criticism alike From Fringe to Main, from Arena to Think Fest, from advert to sponsor, from sore bums to bums on seats, from programming to venues, we deliberate on all kinds of imperatives about art: Its excellence, its innovation, its transformation, its impact, its distribution, its demographic representation, its commerce, its value, its saleability its internationalism and so on and so forth.

But the reason why the Standard Bank Young Artist Award is so special is that it epitomizes the dream in what we do.  It sits at the core of the value of art; it represents the imagination at its most pure. It is Young in the best sense of the word. Not innocent, or flippant, or slight, or just effervescent. The Young Artist Award is about the young but not the unwise. It is young and not careless, it is young and not untrained, and it is young but not unknowing. It is young and brave, courageous, fresh, electric, idealistic, dynamic, pure, unwavering, stubborn, opinionated, hopeful and free: Free from constraint, from compromise, from fitting a mould, from brash commercialism, from trying to live up to industry expectations. Read the rest of this entry »

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Malema, Power and the Performative Turn


The following is an extract taken from an essay I wrote in 2008 exploring South African politics and the Performative turn.

I print an extract of this paper as I think it sheds some interesting light on the notorious Mr Julius Malema and his more recent “Kill the Boer” comments.

This was an Academic essay written during the succession battle between Zuma (who at time was awaiting his corruption trial) and Mbeki in 2008, during which (a comparatively ‘milder’) Mr Malema was just beginning to make himself known.

I have decided not to re- edit the extract even though my thoughts and feelings have shifted significantly over the last two years. Still I think it illustrates just how little changes.

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The Great Elephant Debacle


Stupidity plummeted to new lows in Durban this week (with Sunday newspaper headlines that even satirists like Haibo might have been hard pressed to come up with) with the report that acclaimed artist and sculptor Andries Botha’s R1.5 million life-size elephant sculptures, made of recycled wood, metal and rubber, were ordered to be removed from a Durban free-way island, after passing ANC megalomaniacs found them reminiscent of the –shock horror— same unwieldy mammals gracing the IFP logo.

Let’s get one thing straight. With three sculptures, costing as much as this and weighing over six tons each, this was no trivial commission. This was no beaded chandelier or beach-front curio City- managers commissioned to dangle in their reception areas.

Predictably, Durban City-Manager Mike Sutcliff (currently enjoying the more wintry climes of Vancouver, Canada, where he is attending the opening of the Winter Olympics) issued his usual diss to Durbanites for “over dramatising” the situation and claiming that Botha’s Elephants were not passed through the correct procedures and committees before going ahead.

At the cost of R1.5 million one would imagine (but hardly hope) that the that city leaders and planners had pontificated long and hard enough before blowing tax payer’s money on an art work that is now in danger of being reduced to a pile of rubble because it has irked certain “elephant-sized” insecurities within the ANC.

At the same time, can we blame those who commissioned the sculptures? Should we pity eThekwini Municipality head: international and government relations Mr Eric Applegreen?

Could Mr Applegreen have ever in his wildest, woolliest dreams imagine that such preposterous claims would be laid against the sculptures and, more bizarrely, that such claims would seriously ever come to threaten the fate of Botha’s art-works.

The Elephant it seems is no longer allowed to be considered just an Elephant. No longer can we see it as a quintessential African symbol of power, freedom and grace. Rather the ANC would like us to believe that the Elephant© was created exclusively by and for the Inkatha Freedom Party, conceived, not by some higher power, but rather by a loopy illustrator armed with copious amounts of Ganja and a pencil.  Read the rest of this entry »

Anglo-Boer(-ing) War Conference


To kick start each morning of the South African Military Societies International Anglo Boer War History conference, held in Ladysmith two weeks ago, a blank was fired from a British Naval 12 pounder. This I soon discover is the Military equivalent of slugging back a double Espresso first thing the morning. A reverberating shock to attendees’ ear drums and pace makers, prepping us all for the illuminating and often arduous day of battle-speak ahead.


Held at the Platrad Lodge, overlooking significant Anglo Boer War battle terrain, the conference boasted a range of international and local speakers talking on topics that ranged from this War’s many myths, tactics and military blunders as well as revisionist takes on controversial and largely misunderstood historical figures of the time.

With one hundred and ten years having passed since the War, it seems Boer and Brit can now comfortably share the same room without wanting to ‘bliksem’ each other every time things get a little heated. Throughout the conference, areas of research and interest were analysed with healthy amounts of objectivity and the atmosphere reminded one of a jovial old boy’s reunion.

The aim of the conference was to provide a new source of understandings around the causes, events and consequences of Anglo Boer War. As organiser and military historian Ken Gillings stated in his opening address: “Such a conference is arranged so we can learn from the past and ensure that such atrocities never again occur in the future.”

Certainly the seminal purpose of any historical gathering– the very hook on which history’s precarious future hangs– is how to ensure that younger generations of South Africans are made privy to such findings. Read the rest of this entry »

Giant Killer Prehistoric Rubber-Duck on the Rampage


My brother Gregg and his wife Angella (a web developer and illustrator) live on a mountainside in Fishhoek in the Western Cape. Their house overlooks the main swimming beach. On a balmy summer’s day their lounge window frames an idyllic picture: a stretch of white beach lining an azure coastline littered with bathers, surfers, tourists and the like.

From such a height the people on the beach tend to resemble the miniature figurines populating a model train-set or the busy layout of a Where’s Wally picture book.

On Tuesday afternoon, around 15:35 Gregg and Angella heard a commotion on the Fishhoek beach and ran outside to see what was happening. Glancing down at the Fishhoek bay they spotted a giant shadow (of about 150m) gunning towards a colourful bobbing object.  From such a distance they were unable to make out whether this object was a bather, bouy or beach ball?

It’s now pretty well known that the shadow turned out to be a Great White Shark, a suspicion confirmed when they saw the creature break the waves and wrap its jaws around the bobbing lump before submerging itself again and taking the object with it. Gregg being the techno savvy guy he is– with i-phone permanently attached to hip– Tweeted the sighting on micro blogging portal Twitter as fast as it seemed to happen.

His first Tweet read……

Tue 12 Jan at 15:40: Holy shit, we just saw a GIGANTIC shark eat what looked like a person right in front of our house in Fishhoek. Unbelievable.

Seven minutes later he posted a new update……

Tue 12 Jan at 15:47: We are dumbstruck, that was so surreal. That shark was HUGE. Like dinosaur huge.

This was followed by further tweets over the next few hours that included details on the arrival of the emergency services and confirmation that the colourful bobbing lump was indeed a human-being.

What is both fascinating and disturbing to see was how quickly these ‘tweets’ were snapped up by Internet news agencies and how fast news, via the rapid and tangled broadband grapevine, is capable of getting around these days. Read the rest of this entry »

Top Billing from the Bottom Drawer


Last Thursday I happened upon an episode of Top Billing on SABC 3. What ensued over the next hour was something, that as much as I try, I will never be able to forget.Excuse me then if you are one of the brides who have in past flashed your million-rand wedding ring at the camera (while the impoverished masses watch on) or if you happen to be one of the interior decorators or house owners responsible for the over the top atrocities that weekly assault our disbelieving eye- balls.

 You need only posses a reasonable sliver of intellect to see that Top Billing (henceforth and aptly abbreviated in this column as T.B) is full of utterly useless information. One minute seducing you with a calorie infested cooking master-class and the next showing you how to burn it all off in time for the summer.  In fact here is a show that aims to teach you a hundred and one ways how to guiltlessly indulge yourself to death in the new South Africa.

Of course if scrap booking, paper mache or mosaic are how you choose to idle your precious minutes away then you will find this essential viewing or if you are one of those house bound mommies who spend fortunes on a themed children’s party for a two year old– who let’s face it– will have absolutely no recollection of the costly celebration in a day’s time. Read the rest of this entry »

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The text is unequal to the task of being alive– Meeting Margret Edson




It’s vaguely terrifying speaking the words of a Pulitzer winning playwright as she sits inches away from you in an opening night auditorium. Almost impossible to inhabit any semblance of a character when you find yourself imagining her ears to be pricked by your mis-delivery or mis-interpretation of her precious prize- winning words.


Margret Edson, celebrated American Playwright of Wit, was recently flown out by the American Embassy to attend the opening night of Kickstart’s version of the production, directed by Steven Stead and featuring Clare Mortimer in the role of Professor Vivian Bearing. Read the rest of this entry »

The Hunger for Excellence


I am at a loss trying to write about Steve McQueen’s debut Camera d’Or winning film Hunger –and much has already been written on it. In a nutshell the film follows the death of an IRA hunger striker named Bobby Sands in Belfast’s claustrophobic maze prison in 1981.

McQueen, a visual artist, has a patient and poetic eye, an intuitive sense of how images work  alongside and against one another. Images with an accumulative cinematic clout that left me gasping. It was about twenty moments into the film that I had to press pause on the DVD and step outside to breathe and then sob.  Such emotion, while incited by the narrative events (and harrowing they are) was mixed with elation at the sheer artistry of it all.

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