Interview with The South African, London

Living in London
01 July 2008 0:00

From Rock to Kraut

By Liezl Maclean From Rock to Kraut is the humorous but difficult journey of a South African journalist from urban Johannesburg to small-town Trier, the oldest Roman town in Germany and birthplace of Karl Marx. Her tale is spiced with journalistic accounts, while working as a BBC TV researcher and producer of meeting the last surviving officer with Hitler in the bunker or being at home with populist right-wing Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn days before his murder. Anli Serfontein’s novel is a vast, sprawling affair that extends magically beyond its hefty 216 pages.

Nearly one million South Africans have left the country in the last decade. 41 per cent landed in the UK, how did you end up in Trier?

I was an exchange pupil to Trier in 1976 and kept contact with the family throughout the years. After the 1994 elections in South Africa I was completely burnt-out. I had worked long, hard and non-stop for nearly nine years for the foreign press in South Africa. In addition I was a single mother with a hyperactive five year old at a time when it was certainly not acceptable to be a single mother in South Africa. I knew that in Trier my daughter and I could have lots of time together and I could be away from the madness of South Africa.

The region around Trier is really beautiful with woods and steep vineyards and the town itself is quaint and full of Roman ruins. So we came here for a month in June 1994 and stayed with my friends. It was a very hot summer and we swam, roller-skated and had outings along the Moselle.

At night I was sitting outside till late, talking to my friends and drinking good Moselle wine. I was basically at a crossroads privately and career-wise. Then in the middle of this break, I by chance met someone at the local University and fell head over heels in love. The rest as they say is history and six months later we were married and I was moving to Trier.

Your list of interviewees from your years as a journalist reads like a who’s who, interviewing among others, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu; author Salman Rushdie and sports stars Zola Budd and Hansie Cronje. What have these experiences taught you as an author?

I think I have always been more interested in the signs of humanity and humour in interviewees. Some of them kept up appearances, others we got to know for their prima Donna antics, I am not referring to the above people. Archbishop Tutu has the most infectious laugh I have ever come across – he really sees a silver lining around every dark cloud.

And in the scenes I describe in my book travelling with BBC TV teams I do not describe the grand interviews but the small details – like not finding a basin to wash my hands, but only a pissoir in openly gay right-wing Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn’s villa in Rotterdam. Or Hitler’s chauffeur who proudly told me after the camera’s were all switched off and safely packed away and he had made all the right repentant noises about the Nazi time, how he had kept a used napkin with Hitler’s initials on it.

What interests me, are the people behind the façade. I remember years ago on a late summer afternoon, buying vegetables at my favourite greengrocer in Parkview and bumping into Nadine Gordimer in a simple frock doing the same. It was shortly after she won the Nobel Prize and I thought to myself I wonder whether a male Nobel Prize winner would still be doing such simple chores.

How did you come up with the title?

I can’t remember exactly when I came up with the title. All I remember was that it was there fairly early in the process and that I was incredibly stubborn about changing it. A lot of people tried to talk me out of the title, suggesting safer and dull titles. It especially did not go down well with Germans.

We do tend to call people names in the English speaking world, and I have certainly been called a Rock and I have said to people that I am now a Kraut. When I ran the title past British friends here, I was surprised that they did not know the word Rock. Every South African I ran it past thought it was funny and understood the essence. I tried many other variations and sub-titles, but found it all too long and boring. In the end I think it aptly describes the process I went through and yes it is also meant to be provocative, but then so certainly are parts of the book.

Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?

I think each reader has a different relationship to a book and I am wary of writing with a message in mind, as it can easily turn into propaganda. I did however make it clear that I wrote about my personal experiences and difficulties in settling into this country. These are my personal observations that I am sure many people would disagree with me or see things differently. The only concession I made to my readers, was that I did set out to write for an English-speaking audience. I wrote in English and tried to explain the German set-up for people outside of Germany.

My copy-editor was certainly more worried about what readers would think and how they would perceive me and she did cut things for that reason. She at some stage warned me to think about what the neighbours would say if they read about themselves in the book, as it counts a lot in this country what they think and I have a good relationship with them.

I scoffed at the idea that any of my neighbours would ever read it, as their English is too weak and I had no intention to have it translated. I politely gave each of them a book to use as a colourful beer mat, when the book came out. Therefore I nearly fainted when the first one casually made a remark about me finding my cleaning gene, which meant that she had read it – not only that, she has in the meantime bought six books to give to friends, and has sent copies to relatives in the USA. And that is a development I did not expect at all: that Germans would read and even enjoy the book, even though I may at times have been pretty rude about them. Maybe they are masochists, but I think they can also be incredibly generous. In fact I have just been asked to have it translated into German, whereby it was never written for Germans.

How do you choose what you read?

I am very haphazard about what I read. On the one hand I feel a need to work through the Booker Prize short-list and keep in touch with trends in the English-speaking world, on the other I buy impulsively while browsing. I generally like biographies, memoirs, history, South African literature, some German literature, and some Dutch literature. I also read lighter stuff like Bill Bryson, Kathy Lette, Maeve Binchy or Stephan Clarke. It is funny that in our house we all read so differently – I go for books that are either highly entertaining or deals with history or current affairs or well-written novels. My teenage daughter is all into Jane Austin and the Bronte sisters – she calls it 19th century Mills and Boons. The rest of the family are also all comic fans and there are permanently 10 comic books lying around the lounge which irritates me no end. They proclaim that they learn languages that way, as most are in French. My youngest daughter told me in the Comic Museum in Brussels earlier this year that I do not have a clue about comics, as I was asking such stupid questions.

Anli grew up in Johannesburg. Her rather unusual Afrikaner childhood began when her father, Hennie (JHP) Serfontein, joined the Sunday Times as a political correspondent in the early Sixties. By the age of six she knew what was meant by exposé and scoop; by the age of ten she understood what a tapped phone was, and by twelve, was aware that “Big Brother” (the security police) was watching them. Anli worked for the international press for several years but turned her back on full-time journalism in 1995, she moved to Germany where she now lives with her family.

For more information about the book visit

Also available as an eBook or iBook in English under the German title:
Basteln, Wandern and Putzen: From South Africa to Trier