Cry the beloved country

VANESSA SMEETS

“Educating the mind without educating the heart, is no education at all,” Aristotle.

It has taken months to find the energy or a story worth writing, but watching these students burn, destroy and steal has ravished my soul…

Don’t get me wrong, the “born-frees” of South Africa have the right to be angry. They are experiencing high-cost of living like no one before. A loaf of bread is R15, a two-litre bottle of milk is R30, rent on average is R5 000 for a one-bedroom flat near campus, a BA degree is about R20 000 with registration fees soaring at R5 000 – R15 000, depending on you being a citizen or not.

However, is burning the varsities a solution? No.
There will be no education there tomorrow.

Is looting shops nearby a solution? No.
No one will take your cause seriously anymore.

Is using violence, beating policemen with bricks, the answer? No.
They will not protect you at your most vulnerable.

There’s a dark cloud above the youth of today. It disguises itself as honour and pride. They believe it is better to fight, than just survive.

While last year’s “Fees Must Fall” seemed noble, with students gathering around campus in unity, this year’s cause is dampened with innocent blood and soiled ideals. As predicted, the fight last year was quickly “shut up,” only to rise again this year as an angrier, more vicious corpse. The people of South Africa were given, as usual, temporary solutions to a major issue – to satisfy that moment, to kill that immediate need. Meanwhile, the solution infected other areas – varsities are going bankrupt, lecturers are not being paid on time.

“They can afford it!” the students scream, their shields made of mattresses and ironing boards high in the air. Their anger is sadly aimed in the wrong direction – the government’s expenditure that needs to be reprimanded, not the educators…

Varsities have not been able to continue with exam season.
Students are failing, as they are too afraid to come to class or be threatened on campus.

South Africa’s “rainbow nation” has continued to fade, suffocated by smoke, empty promises and an uncertain dawn.

Can we raise our children in a country where the only answer seems to be destruction?You want his car? Shoot him.
You want her to feel your power? Rape her.
You want that baby? Kidnap it.
You want free education? Burn it all.

Cry for our beloved country.
Cry on this thirsty land that craves for manna in all her forms – rain, money or change.

Powerful photographs by Lee-Roy Jason Photography.

Oppikoppi 2014: Odyssey

VANESSA SMEETS

“We are but dust and shadow,” The Odes of Horace

My third Oppikoppi and maybe ‘third time lucky’… I went for FREE! Thank you, Cinema Nouveau for choosing my random post on which movie best describes the Oppikoppi experience.
I chose “Searching for Sugarman” from the selection given, because we are all still searching for that experience/ that artist/ that time in our lives when we embark on an Odyssey, a massive adventure.

I separated myself from the city lights, embraced the dust and bushveld, was initiated by the full moon under warm winter nights and returned whole.

Many complained the line-up was not that impressive this year… But, for 20 years of Oppikoppi, one should know it’s not so much about the music, it’s about:
– discovering who you are in extreme conditions
– knowing what your best friend finally looks like without make-up
– making friends with strangers in long queues
– holding some celebrity’s drink while he/ she takes a selfie with a random
– catching the drumstick/ the CD/ the item of clothing full of hard-earned sweat
– sharing crazy “past Koppi” experiences
– making memories filled with dust, life and music

Here is a selection of my favourite dust, life and musical moments, accompanied by words from Homer himself. Long live this Odyssey!

Braamfontein: Joburg’s creative hub

VANESSA SMEETS

There’s something magical about Braamfontein, Johannesburg’s creative hub; home to the Joburg Theatre, Neighbourgoods’ Market every Saturday and an array of funky art and coffee shops…

A Racing Miracle

VANESSA SMEETS

Peter Whyte (21) was flung against a tree from his motorbike at 160km/ hour last December at the Bulawayo 3-Hour Endurance Race in Zimbabwe, breaking his 9th vertebra. The 9th vertebra is one of the lowest positioned of the thoracic 12 (T12). Breaking it could have resulted in paralysis of the lower limbs, loss of control over the bladder and bowels.

Peter White_seated ball

DETERMINED: Peter Whyte’s recuperation programme was a lot of hard work. In only 6 months, he is walking and talking again. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

He was in a deep coma for six weeks, leaving doctors convinced he would be brain dead. Today, he is walking and talking just like any other person his age. What makes him different? His extreme will and determination to survive and now recover completely.

Peter remembers nothing from that day, except driving to Bulawayo. His body is dotted in scars: a tracheotomy, an hour-long lung puncture to drain all the blood that had leaked into his right lung. His uncle saved his life through CPR and chest compressions.

Peter White_puncture far

BREATH OF LIFE: Peter shows off the puncture marks, where doctors had to drain his lung from blood. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

Although he walks a bit like a robot, his mobility is improving daily and his speech is at 100%. A true miracle, he explains:

“I am alive to share my story, that’s for sure.”

Much to his parents’ disbelief, he is determined to get on a motorbike again. But his physiotherapist, Didier Smeets, at the Sports Injuries Clinic in Harare disagrees: “One must realise your reflexes have to be 100% to participate in races like that. Next time, he may not be so lucky.”

Peter White_walk

HARD WORK: Peter and his physiotherapist, Didier Smeets, practised regularly for four months. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

Didier helps him with stretches and exercises once a week, building up the muscles that were as strong as jelly only a few months ago. Didier has been working as a physiotherapist for over 30 years and cherishes this as one of his most special cases: “You get people who come here because they are forced by family or friends. Peter came here out of sheer will.

The recipe to success is: a good operation, good aftercare and a great support system. Much can be done daily. There is no limit to one’s will to get further.

Each case for me is a new challenge, where both the patient and I have to work on their flexibility, stability and places of attention.”

Peter’s eyes sparkle as I ask him why he keeps getting back on after every accident (in his last accident, he broke his shoulder): “There’s something incredible in driving a bike: the freedom, the glide, even the graze against your leg. Once I can, I will! This has only made me appreciate life even more.”

Peter White_foot

FOOTWORK: Peter shows his weekly progress, getting his feet at equal length again. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

Another racer walks in the surgery and gives his support:

“Peter is a hero to us all. His will to survive is incredible. His will to recuperate even stronger. For those who don’t believe in miracles, just talk to Peter about his story.” 

Peter is currently back at work and has stopped his physiotherapy for now.

Watch the video here: 

Great Gatsby event at Brooklyn Mall

VANESSA SMEETS

The cover of the first edition of The Great Ga...

The first edition of The Great Gatsby (1925). PIC: Wikipedia

“People disappeared, reappeared, made plans to go somewhere, and then lost each other…”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Students, lawyers, doctors, journalists, mothers and grandmothers dressed up for an exquisite evening, decorated in frills, pearls, feather boas, long cigarettes and white gloves for The Great Gatsby Girfriends’ Getaway at Brooklyn Mall, on Wednesday 22 May, 2013.

The prizes were much more extravagant than last time, with the biggest prizes coming from sponsors like DisChem, House of Superior Clothing, Lenthéric and “The diet everyone is talking about.” Prizes went to best-dressed, second best-dressed, a lucky seat number, three lucky-draw numbers from DisChem, three lucky-draw numbers from “The diet everyone is talking about” and one Ralo Cosmetics hamper to the woman who could answer the question: Which other Baz Luhrmann movie did Leonardo DiCaprio star in? The answer being, Romeo and Juliet.

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Many audience members were left stunned by Luhrmann’s melodramatic ending, some found pleasure in the effervescent soundtrack, while other older members were irritated by its stern contrast to the époque.

Set in the early 1920s, Wall Street is booming, liquour is cheap and gangsters are abound. The movie blends modern music to the Charleston era, beautifully incorporating the novel’s quotes as words on screen, haunting the audience members hours after the show.

GG Poster

Baz Luhrmann’s latest blockbuster has left audiences around the world stunned by its beauty, yet disgusting reality of greed and fortune. PIC: Internet

The Great Gatsby explores Nick Carraway’s recollection of visiting his cousin, Daisy, on the east coast of the USA. His neighbour happens to be the mysterious Jay Gatsby, millionaire extraordinaire, known for his wild parties. But who is it all for? Nick starts to weave everything together, leaving him haunted by his loss of innocence, relationships and more, thrown into a world of decadence, greed and the elusive American Dream. Can the past ever be repeated, when one feels “within yet without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life”?

Natasha Secchi (21), Financial Management student, said: “Ladies night at Ster-Kinekor is filled with excitement from the very first second. Everyone looks forward to the interesting lucky packets and the raffle for the lucky draw. I enjoyed The Great Gatsby from the great graphics to the realistic acting, as a whole.”

Bianca O’Neill (27), lecturer and actress, said: “It was a wonderful cinematic experience, depicting the greed and deceit of the human race. Evil is always decorated with sparkle and glitter a.k.a. Gatsbilliosis.”

The night was an overall success, with a full house at Brooklyn Mall and a few random men (who had booked without knowing), who enjoyed the razzle and dazzle of the beautiful women surrounding them.

 

Paradise Lost: Zimbabwe

A little bit of paradise lost found again…


Christmas time in rural South Africa!

VANESSA SMEETS

Please scroll down for the full slide-show…

About 40 children at the Peng-ai-Gong Care Centre in Zone 16 of Ga-Rankuwa, a few kilometres out of Pretoria, were greeted with toys, clothes, food and stationery last week, just in time for the holiday season.

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CHRISTMAS LOVE: Abandoned children were greeted with gifts and food last week in rural South Africa. PIC: Vanessa Smeets

The children all come from disadvantaged, vulnerable or abused backgrounds and attend schools near by. They go to the care centre after school till about 16h30 to eat and do homework. But things have not been easy: the centre lost its main sponsor a few months ago.

However, Bianca O’Neill, a lecturer at Tshwane’s University of Technology, heard about their plight and decided to help out. In September, the children were asked to draw anything of their choice that they would like to own and O’Neill instructed her students, who are future Foundation Phase teachers, to make these toys out of whatever materials they had.

It was a project that would be both educational and inspirational. The result was phenomenal: the children were given objects like a giraffe, doll houses, a Chris Brown doll, wire cars, amongst other things.

For Irene Kgasi, the centre’s manager, O’Neill’s arrival was a divine appointment:

“Bianca is a gift from God. She wiped away our tears just in time. We, however, still need a donor and more food as we cannot expect Bianca to continue helping us. Whoever is interested must please contact our Board Member, Angie Molebatsi.”

The centre is made up of a total of 46 boys and 58 girls (when they are all present) between the ages of 4-19 and also includes activities like numerical literacy and sport.

Peng ai Gong_smeets

HOPEFUL: The care centre’s manager, Irene Kgasi, hopes they will find a sponsor in time for Christmas. PIC: Vanessa Smeets

The project of transforming a child’s hand-drawn dream into a real-life model was inspired by the idea of giving to those less fortunate, but also giving something that you made personally. It was a test to see how generous and imaginative the students were, but also to test their love for children and whether teaching was truly their chosen profession. The students were marked on originality, durability, neatness, as well as evaluated on the journal they had to keep from the day they started on the toy till now.

For student Mpho Kesimoloste, it was a wonderful experience:

“To see the smiles on the children’s faces was truly amazing…The whole thing became personal for me, because I did not know where to begin or how my toys would turn out. We also didn’t know how the children would react to the toys that we made and, to our surprise, they were very happy and it brought a sense of joy and happiness to them.
I believe that as people we should continue to help and care for needy and vulnerable children, this kind of thing should not end with us but continue to help these children to be positive in life.”

For Mpho* (8), an orphan at the centre, the gifts came just in time:

“We are so happy. We have never had a real Christmas. All I wanted was a toy… old or new. Now, I have so many! We are going to share and make it the best Christmas ever!”

O’Neill describes the success of this community project:

“This involvement has inspired my students so much… I’m proud of all my students and happy with all the people who made donations. Here’s hoping to continue with his for a long time and bring as much joy to the children and teenagers as we can.”

The project also hopes to break down the stigma attached to the Tshwane University of Technology, which became infamous earlier this year for their strikes and unrest. O’Neill explains:

“My students have proved themselves as hardworking and dedicated individuals, who are willing to make a difference.”

Readers who are interested in helping the centre, can visit their website: http://noah.clickclickboom.co.za/?p=2468

South Africa goes gaga over Gaga!

VANESSA SMEETS

Despite a staunch stand by South Africa’s Council of Churches labeling her “a satanist” and “bad influence on our youth” as well as a whiplash by SANEF (South Africa National Editors’ Forum) for her refusal to have any media at her Born This Way Ball, Lady Gaga performed for an incredible two hours at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg on Friday night.

Gaga_stadium inside

JOBURG MAGIC: The FNB Stadium slowly starts to fill up with Lady Gaga’s fans. PIC: Vanessa Smeets

However, the stadium stood quite empty in comparison to Linkin Park, a few weeks ago. Many fans arrived later, missing out on the opening acts by Lady Starlight (Gaga’s good friend) and the Darkness, best known for their hit “I believe in a thing called love.”

She made her grand entrance on a puppet horse, wearing outrageous headgear, which some rumoured was the reason for her lip-syncing for most of the performance. Another reason could be the incredible stamina and moves she had to display while performing, with some fans calling her the best performer since Michael Jackson.

Gaga_fans

LA VIE EN ROSE: Gaga fans were handed free pink wigs, after doing some wine tasting before the show. PIC: Vanessa Smeets

The stage was mostly taken up by a huge castle, filled with secret rooms and detail that Lady Gaga mastered with acrobatic ease, while being decorated in chains, sequin, lace, latex, etc. It was fascinating to watch her change into at least 30 different outfits in just a few minutes at a time. No wonder she needed six vans to transport her outfits and her rumoured 200-people entourage.

Big Concerts tweeted it was by far the most expensive concert they’ve ever held. By 6pm, “Lady Gaga” and “Gaga5” were trending on Twitter, with 5FM DJs like Rob Forbes and Poppy retweeting the best outfits and pics of the stadium.

The crowd gasped as a giant ball emerged from the castle, with legs on its sides. Yes, she emerged from a two-metre vagina, as the crowd sang in unison. She sang her most famous hits: “Born this Way,” “Pokerface,” “Just Dance,” “Paparazzi,” “Telephone,” amongst others. Some fans truly believed Beyoncé would make a surprise appearance for Telephone.

Jean Esterhuizen (@jeanesterhuizen on Twitter), a Lady Gaga and Beyoncé fan and celeb-connoisseur, claimed the show outlived all expectations:

“It was beyond epic. She’s such an inspiration. She even came back to do more after the final song, as if she didn’t want to leave. We laughed. We cried.”

She also appeared in what seemed to be that infamous egg from the music awards and also hung from a butcher’s rail as a piece of meat, for another song. She both fascinated and shocked the audience with her religious motifs: she often mentioned “black Jesus,” which happened to be one of her dancers, wearing a crown of thorns and tight top, which he later tore off. She appeared between two lumo crosses for another song and spoke to the crowd of coming to South Africa on a goat.

Some Christian fans were offended by this:

“She claims she arrived on a goat, the sign of the devil in Revelations. Christians know this is a mockery, as Jesus appeared on a donkey. She insisted we say her name many times, claiming we must rejoice her coming to South Africa and adore her forever. Very weird. Maybe those Christian protesters were right after all. We love her, but we don’t need to worship her.”

Gaga_monster pit

DEDICATION: Dylan Jack (centre) and his friends camped since early morning to be part of the Monster Pit. PIC: Courtesy Dylan Jack van Vuuren

Dylan Jack van Vuuren (@dylanjack on Twitter), who queued up since early morning to be part of the Monster Pit, disagrees:

“I really enjoy the religious motifs. As someone who was an Evangelical Christian, along with the rest of the family, letting go of those unrealistic and unfounded religious expectations for yourself is the first step to being and accepting who you are.”

Read more on his blog: Just Dylan Jack

Lady Gaga made the crowd laugh with her safari tale of that morning (which, according to her tweets, looks like it may have taken place at the Lion Park), claiming she cut a hole through her hat to fit her pony-tail and wore fishnet stockings:

“I feel bad for those animals… All day they get people staring at them, I wanted them to have something to look at!”

She made the crowd cry towards the end with her powerful a capella performance, singing her “Princess Di” which she claims was inspired by her dark past of being bullied and abused:

“Some people write a diary, I write a song and keep all the pain there. Healing comes from being honest to who you are.”

She then grabbed a few fans from the Monster Pit and whisked them on stage. One fan shouted, with tears in his eyes:

“That’s what I love about her. She remains true to us. She sees us as equal to her. Yet, she’s not human or mortal… She’s a goddess!”

Gaga_boys

ALL OUT: Lady Gaga has become a huge inspiration to the LGBTI community, fighting for equality for all. PIC: Vanessa Smeets

Lady Gaga has become an inspiration to the LGBTI community, fighting for gay rights in the army and equality for all. In South Africa, her fans seemed to be a collection of all genders, sexual identity, races and religions. You saw children as young as five standing next to drag-queens and happily married couples. Lady Gaga even remarked upon this phenomenon:

“That’s what I love about you, South Africa. We somehow speak the same language. You are all here, whatever your history or background. That means the world to me. I can’t speak South African, but I can if you want me to.”

Her “Don’t give a f*ck speech” was by far the highlight of the evening:

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re gay, bi, straight… You are born this way. Don’t give a f*ck about what people think or say about you… It doesn’t matter if your parents don’t have a seat for you at their dining table, because they can’t accept you for who you are, you will always have a seat at my table. Look around! You will have a seat at these little monsters’ tables too. What makes me so proud is watching you all grow… Some of you used to copy my style and fashion, now I watch you grow into who you are. You are finally born this way! Now, don’t give a f*ck anymore! Have an amazing evening… Go get drunk and vomit on your friends!”

South Africa’s people

VANESSA SMEETS

South Africa, a country once cursed and condemned by her racist past, is now flourishing with eleven different tribes and numerous cultures. Here is just a glimpse into the beauty of her rainbow nation

These photos were taken over the span of two years (2010-2012), from posh cities like Cape Town and Stellenbosch to the more desolate Sutherland and the forgotten parts of Stellenbosch.
I avoided captioning the pics, in fear of people stealing them.

Please do not use these pictures for your own use. They are all copyrighted and my testimonies… If you have any questions about any of them, please leave a comment below. I am happy to share the stories behind each one, from 40 years of friendship, to Gay Pride and unique art.
South Africa reawakens in her people’s journeys.

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Watering Dreams… My Bucket List

VANESSA SMEETS

“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know. 
Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.”
– Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

blog_crossroads-sign

CROSSROADS: 27… A year for change and growth. PIC: Internet

27 marks an incredible crossroad.
I’m ready to settle on a career (or two), yet fascinated by my surroundings. It’s also an age doomed for rock-stars like Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and Jimi Hendrix, amongst others… Which is what influenced me to get started on my bucket list. One never knows when today is the last day.

Things already completed:

  • Reunion with my best friends from primary school. We laughed, we cried, we shared, after a long 14 years. Unfortunately, there was one missing member. She passed away tragically last year, but we felt her presence in so many ways – through the memories we shared and photos/ letters we brought.
  • Be part of Hillsong Church Australia. This church probably has the biggest congregation in the world, with millions of members worldwide. Its band, Hillsong United, has gone platinum several times. I was first introduced to them in 2007, a year which ultimately was filled with as much good as bad. Their music kept me grounded, when nothing else could.
  • Become a published poet. When you least expect it, doors open. Since the age of 15, I’ve been in love with William Shakespeare and John Keats. At 17, I finally started writing my own and four years later, my two favourite poems made the cut: one in an American anthology Twilight Musings and the other in a Christian anthology Angels &Little Scrolls.
  • Take a photo that changes the world… Well, my picture of two male students kissing didn’t change the world, but it certainly opened up the homophobia debate in South Africa and helped many scared individuals come out in an unaccepting world. See: Maties’ Gay Kiss Goes Viral

Things to come:

  • Do Spain walk (Santiago de Compostela) with my brother. I first heard about this incredible pilgrimage reading Paulo Coelho’s books. It is bound to change one’s life forever, bring you closer to those who accompany you and help you find yourself again.
  • Do Oktoberfest with my mom. Munich’s Oktoberfest is filled with hundreds of beers, incredible outfits, fun drinking songs till the early hours… What more could a photojournalist and true Belgian ask for?
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RED HOT: La Tomatina Festival in Spain sees about 50 000 people gathered in the month of August to throw tomatoes at each other. PIC: Internet

  • Do tomato fight (La Tomatina) near Valencia, Spain, with my dad. I’m not sure why I chose my dad for this epic adventure, but probably because he’s the most adventurous person I know.
  • Finish my book. I started a book in 2007, which unlocks a lot about the mystery of life and true characters I met along the way… Just need to find the guts to complete it.
  • Publish a children’s series of books, bring them to the television screen, change their lives. I hope I don’t jinx this dream by placing it here, but children have always been life’s greatest teachers.
  • Work in the vineyards in France. Simple. Beautiful. I thank the movie A Good Year for this dream.
French vineyards

C’EST LA VIE: French wine. French sunset. Perfection. PIC: Internet

  • Go on a Contiki tour. Yes, next year may be it: my BFF and I traversing the Golden Age for our Golden Birthdays. Holding thumbs.
  • blog_machu-picchu

    LA VIDA LOCA: Exploring Machu Picchu was even on Che Guevara’s bucket list. PIC: Internet

    See Machu Picchu… Clichéd, yes. But Che Guevara proved anything is possible, even just with a motorbike.

  • Interview a head of state… I’d prefer someone who didn’t murder millions of people. Maybe someone who set them free instead, Nelson Mandela would be ideal.
  • Publish my blog as a book… YES!
  • Try out for Idols. Okay, Singstar doesn’t really count. I just love singing.
  • Work for Top Billing, South Africa’s most successful lifestyle programme. Getting paid to travel, interview amazing people and witness the oddest events? Hell yeah!
  • blog_paris hot air balloon

    LA VIE EN ROSE: Imagine seeing Paris from the sky? Incredible… PIC: Internet

    Fly in a hot air balloon in Paris. Why Paris? Its history, culture and people fascinate me…

  • Sell some art. My art isn’t amazing… but it would be amazing to see it in someone else’s home apart from my family members.
  • Be part of a flash-mob. I thank Channing Tatum and Step Up 4 for molding this dream. Booyah!
  • Go on a road-trip with good friends. Wherever. Whenever. As long as we’re together.
  • blog_casa-giulietta

    BRAVE DREAMS: The Casa di Giulietta provides women all over the world the opportunity to wish for love, heal it or find it, by placing letters in what is believed to be Juliet’s home in the real Verona… As the movie “Letters to Juliet” proved. PIC: Internet

    Write a love letter… Italian style, at the Casa de Giulietta in Verona.

  • Learn two more languages: Spanish and German fluently.
  • Write poetry in French. Not as easy as it seems.
  • See Neuschwanstein Castle in the spring. I saw it covered in snow in December 2010. It was magical, yet mostly hidden.
  • japan autumn

    AMAZING AUTUMN: One of my favourite months, in a land far far away… PIC: Internet

    See Japan in the autumn. Burning colours, peaceful music: a feastful zen for the eyes and soul.

  • Work on a cruise ship. I want to photograph people, places, lives, all religions and races.
  • Go back to Israel, live in a kibbutz. Israel was the most spiritual place I have ever been to, yet in 1996 I was too young to soak it all in.
  • Find someone to do this with. Fall in love. Be loved in return… That seems to be the biggest challenge of all. In the words of  Ursula K. Le Guin: “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”