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Chris van Wyk

In Detention

Some easy questions!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 18 January 2014
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"Detention Without Trial" was one of the most appalling of the South African apartheid regime's methods of social control. People could be locked away almost permanently without access to law-courts to prove their innocence.

Prisoners who were regarded as politically dangerous often met with a savage death while in detention. The excuses given were usually the same: suicide or a silly accident.

Opponents of the regime knew that these excuses were merely lies. In this very simple poem, Chris van Wyk examines these excuses with some sarcastic humour.


Chris Van Wyk was born in Soweto and lived his early years in Newclare before moving to Riverlea, a poorer suburb of Johannesburg.

He was educated at Riverlea High School before working for a non government organisation known as SACHED -- South African Committee for Higher Education -- as an educational writer.

He was also editor of Staffrider and started the short-lived Wietie magazine with fellow poet, Fhazel Johennesse.

Van Wyk showed signs of wanting to be a writer as early as five years of age -- and since then, he says, he has had a love affair with words.

He credits much of his success in storytelling to his love of "skinder" (gossip). "I skinder more than most women", he says. He listened to all the gossip between his mother and her friends, and this found its way into the many stories which he thereupon wrote.

"You will not believe the kind of information you can pick up just by keeping your ears open," van Wyk says, although there are certain little tricks you have to observe to prevent yourself from being caught eavesdropping.

These include not behaving like a quiet little mouse but rather making noises, "like drinking a glass of water" or singing bits from pop songs or calling to the dog outside, or doing something like reading or writing while you are also preoccupied in listening.

But above all, he says, don't give yourself away by laughing at a joke that you have overheard. "If you do, it's a dead giveaway and means that you've had your ears tuned on them all the time."

Van Wyk has written over 20 books, including poetry collections and children's stories. He published his first volume of poetry -- It Is Time to Go Home -- in1979. This was to win him the prestigious Olive Schreiner Prize the following year.

He would win other awards for his novels and short stories, including the Maskew Miller Longman Award for Black Children's Literature in 1982 and the Sanlam Literary Award for the best short story of 1995.

His first novel -- The Year of the Tapeworm -- was published in 1998 while, in 2004, his childhood memoir Shirley, Goodness & Mercy became a successful play by director Janice Honeyman.

Unlike many South African writers who wrote "as a weapon against apartheid", van Wyk preferred to use humour as his primary weapon. "We've got our own magic, lots of it," he says.

He married his childhood sweetheart, Kathy, and they've reared their two sons in Riverlea where he has lived most of his life. "I want to be part of this community," he says. "There's an element of the writer that keeps me here."

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

This is by no stretch of the imagination a difficult poem. Indeed, it is hard to see what questions could be asked in the exams. Nevertheless, here are some topics to test you.
  • What is the overall TONE of this short poem? Be able to explain your answer. (4)

[Need help?]

  • In a sense, this is not so much a poem as a series of statements. Can you perhaps comment? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why would the poet prefer to use humour rather than direct criticism? (4)

[Need help?]

"He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He fell from the ninth floor."
  • What is seriously wrong with the excuse, "He fell from the ninth floor"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why should one have been suspicious of the excuse, "He slipped on a piece of soap while washing"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is seriously wrong with the excuse, "He hanged himself"? (4)

[Need help?]

Try another worksheet?

See also:
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