South African Comics Series Crossroads Launches At The Book Lounge

By: Mandy J Watson
Posted: 18 December 2014
Category: Features Comments View Comments


The stories of the women of the Crossroads informal settlement in Cape Town have been transformed into a series of comics by Koni Benson and the Trantraal Brothers. The team joined political cartoonist Zapiro at The Book Lounge in Cape Town to discuss the project.

Crossroads is a South African comics series featuring art by André Trantraal, Nathan Trantraal, and Ashley Marais, research by Koni Benson, and letters by Ronelda S Kamfer. The series focusses on the stories of the women involved in the organised resistance to slum clearance in Crossroads in Cape Town during apartheid South Africa of the 1970s and 1980s. The women of Crossroads are well known for being the only people from a squatter camp who were able to resist the government bulldozers successfully, although they later lost their homes when the Witdoeke ("white scarves"), a conservative black vigilante group so named because of the white pieces of cloth they wore around their arms or heads, set fire to hundreds of shacks, displacing thousands of people, in repeated acts of violence in 1986.

South African Comics Series Crossroads Launches At The Book Lounge
Above: Koni Benson, André Trantraal, Nathan Trantraal, and Zapiro in conversation at The Book Lounge in Cape Town.
The first two issues of Crossroads were quietly made available during the course of this year, the first at a mini comics festival at Blank Books in Woodstock and the second at this year's Open Book Comics Festival. For the launch of the third issue the Trantraal Brothers and Koni Benson joined Zapiro at The Book Lounge in Cape Town to talk about the project and introduce it to a wider audience.

The project began when Koni Benson approached the Trantraal Brothers to help her transform the interesting research that was wrapped up in her 500-page PhD thesis on Crossroads into something more accessible to non academics. She also wanted something that she could give to international visitors who have attended workshops and courses she presents, as part of her political-education work, which distill the history of Cape Town and the inequality and politics of the region. André Trantraal read the thesis and adapted it to a form suitable for comics, split into chapters, with each chapter condensed into a 12-page comic book. The team then sketched out the pages in pencils (with Ashley Marais imitating Nathan Trantraal's style so the artwork is seamless), inked the sketches, and scanned them into the computer before colouring them digitally and adding the text.

South African Comics Series Crossroads Launches At The Book Lounge

During apartheid when homes were destroyed and people were forcefully removed from their neighbourhoods they increasingly landed up in Crossroads. There the women decided to organise and launched what became an international campaign that included letters, protests, and marches, as well as a play, which Koni Benson says originally started as a joke amongst the women after a really intense raid as a form of stress relief as they acted out the dramas of what had been happening during their organising work.

Support workers saw the play and thought it was great so they organised for a drama teacher to work with the women. The women were suspicious of the idea and initially chased the teacher away, opting to work on the play themselves, which they never wrote down, before performing it in Crossroads. They were then asked to take it wider, to places such as Soweto and Johannesburg, which they did by getting on busses and going on a road trip with allies to perform. The women acted out all the roles - male and female - and their children participated by playing the roles of the dogs, which is depicted on the cover of the third issue of Crossroads.

The play is, in essence, the women's memory of this time period in Crossroads and their lives as they don't have visual mementoes, such as photographs or video, or anything written down. As Koni Benson says, "the recalling of the play [for everyone in Crossroads] became an agreed upon version of what happened", although over time the play would change based on the audience and to reflect recent events affecting the people of Crossroads, so characters would be added or removed from the work as the play was reworked and re-adapted.

South African Comics Series Crossroads Launches At The Book Lounge

Part of Koni Benson's research was to discover what had happened to these women "after the media hype and books written about them had ended" and what had happened with regards to the issues they had raised, which were "about the right to be in the city and the right to housing, and water, and education, and schools for their children who weren't allowed to be in Cape Town".

"What happened to their history took three different routes - they aren't the same story if you look at what happened to them as individuals, what happened to their issues, and what happened to their histories, all of which are still alive today so there's another 30 years of that story, which is what the thesis tracks and what the rest of the [Crossroads] series will also tell," says Benson.

The series is being published by Isotrope Media, the publishing arm of Blank Books, and each issue exists because of grants and funding that has been made available by various organisations around the world due to continued efforts - over years - by Koni Benson to find funding and bits left over in budgets that the project could use. An example is the Canadian Steelworkers, which has a humanity fund. The organisation sends workers from Brazil and Mozambique to South Africa and it was looking for an accessible, "bite-sized" resource of information related to Benson's workshops that the workers could take home with them, so it offered discretionary funds to pilot the Crossroads comics project and produce the first issue.

The second issue was produced with the help of a grant from Pro Helvetica, which funds South African artwork that can be taken out of South Africa, the third issue was funded by The Ontario Public Sector Union Workers, and The Department Of Historical Studies at The University Of Cape Town funded the printing costs of issues two and three. Part of the grant proposals also included stipulations of an allocation of money to allow for half the print run (the total print run is 2000 copies per issue) to be given away for free to people who can't afford the cover price.

As this is an important, accessible exploration of the city's difficult history the Western Cape education department is also looking to include the comic in its syllabus for grade 9 students, so the costs for those copies will be covered by the government printer and the issues will go to all schools in the province.

The series is ongoing with an indeterminate issue count - it was originally going to be three issues, then the team realised the information couldn't be condensed quite so much so it became a five-issue plan by the time the second issue was published, and now the team is expecting there to be at least six issues, although it all depends on further funding.

Crossroads goes into great detail about a largely ignored part of Cape Town's history that is difficult to find adequate information on unless you start delving into academic publishing - just have a look at the Wikipedia entry for Crossroads or search for the term in a search engine to see how little useful information is publicly available. Hopefully the funding will continue to transpire as this series is too important to be allowed to flounder.

The fourth issue of Crossroads is currently in production and is going to be larger, at 24 pages. It will likely be available next year. The first three issues are available at The Book Lounge and Blank Books in Cape Town.

Crossroads: Official Site

Tags: #arts_and_culture, #books, #cape_town, #comics, #sacomics

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