Reading South Africa

This December, I spent three weeks in South Africa. Through the course of my life, I’ve been intellectually and emotionally involved with the country to an unusual degree. Growing up, I sneaked Donald Wood’s biography of Steve Biko from my father’s bookshelf, and read it at around the time when one’s sense of the political is just beginning to evolve. A biography of Desmond Tutu followed (somehow, I never got around to reading Long Walk to Freedom), as did Cry the Beloved Country, both while I was twelve years old. A Nadine Gordimer short story stood out in a turgid CBSE English school syllabus. In college, a friend introduced me to Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which (expectedly) had a singularly powerful impact. And more recently, in my work as a lawyer, the South African constitutional court has shaped my thinking in ways too foundational to articulate.

So I decided to try and skim the surface of South African literature as I traipsed around Johannesburg, Soweto, the Drakensburg mountains, Durban, and Cape Town. This is what emerged:

Leonard Thompson, A History of South Africa: A historian-friend recommended this to me as the Howard Zinn of South African history writing. It’s a dense and accessible text that covers the history of South Africa from pre-colonial days to the Zuma Presidency. Zinn it is decidedly not – it reads more as a self-conscious attempt to appear balanced and objective, rather than a radical account (a particularly bizarre moment was its description of the British as having “withdrawn” from their African colonies in the 1960s). Nonetheless, it’s a very good book to read just before visiting the country, as it allows the visitor to contextualise locations and places beyond their physical appearance. It is also a good book to read before diving into famous South African literature, much of which is political, and contains coded references to some of the more notorious events of the apartheid regime. It was because I had read Thompson, for instance, that I could make sense of the references to the transition-era violence that is the centrepiece of Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying, or the 19th-Century frenzy of cattle-killing that is the subject of the same author’s The Heart of Redness.

Zakes Mda, Ways of DyingSouth Africa’s transition to democracy was not peaceful. The years 1991 to 1994 saw widespread violence. Part of it was the apartheid’s regime continuation of its previous conduct towards the African population, but a significant part of it was also Black-on-Black violence, as rival factions jockeyed for position in the coming order (this episode of South African history is unsparingly depicted in Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum). In particular, regime-supported violence by the Inkatha Freedom Party aimed at destabilising the ongoing political negotiations was particularly brutal, as was the “necklacing” of supposed political informants. 

Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying takes a scalpel to this immensely difficult topic, and what emerges is a haunting story that has resonances of Lord of the Flies (in its stark excavation of human atrocity) as well as To Kill a Mockingbird (in its refusal to abandon hope). The protagonist is Toloki, South Africa’s only “professional mourner” – a man who makes his living in an unnamed South African city by visiting (ever-increasing) funerals and mourning for the dead. During a rare Christmas-day funeral of a young boy, Toloki is reunited with Noria, a woman he once knew in his village, and who has just lost her son to the ongoing violence. Through narrative flashbacks, Toloki and Noria’s lives intertwine and come apart, until together, they try to build a life and meaning amidst the continuing wreckage. With a combination of vivid imagery (“His memories have faded from the deep yellow-ochre of the landscape, with black beetles rolling black dung down the slopes, and colourful birds swooping down to feed on the helpless insects, to a dull canvas of distant and misty grey…”), wry humour (“Toloki joined some boys who were sitting behind the church, drinking the brandy that they had stolen from the house of the minister, while he was busy saving people from fire and brimstone in the church…”), unsparing political insight that refrains from descending into polemic (“Police bullets have a strange way of ricocheting off the walls of township houses, and when they do, there is bound to be a child about whom they never miss…”), and the intensely personal (“I want to create from dreams, like you…”), Ways of Dying is a unique artistic achievement.

Zakes Mda, The Heart of Redness: One of the most controversial events in the colonial history of South Africa is the Xhosa Cattle Killing of 1856 – 1857, when, responding to the millenarian predictions of a young prophetess called Nongqawuse, members of the Xhosa people in the Eastern Cape region engaged in mass slaughter of their own cattle, and burnt their own crops. Some – “the Unbelievers” – refused to do so, and were accused of collusion with the colonisers. Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness explores two parallel events: Nongqawuse’s movement of 1856 – 1857 (placed in the context of the escalating conflict between the Xhosa and the colonial invaders), and a deep schism in a coastal village in the “new and democratic South Africa”, caused by the government’s plans to build a gambling casino and a water resort upon the traditional lands. In Mda’s novel, the conflict between the “Believers” and the “Unbelievers” plays itself out once more in the present day, with the descendants of the Believers now fighting to save the village from the government’s plans, while the Unbelievers celebrate the inevitable oncoming of modernity.

The Heart of Redness shifts continuously – sometimes dizzyingly – between past and present; this is exacerbated by Mda’s deliberate use of the same names for some of the protagonists. Underlying these shifts and overlaps is a now-familiar theme: the end of colonialism (and, in this case, apartheid) was less a transformation of an unjust order, and more a continuation of the same. This is highlighted by the repeated – and ironic – invocation of the “new and democratic South Africa”, and the Mda’s unsparing dissection of the conduct of the colonisers and the (colonial) conduct of the government, placed side by side:

“He had been a governor in Australia and New Zealand, they said, where his civilizing mission did many wonderful things for the natives of those countries. Of course he had to take their land in return for civilization. Civilisation is not cheap. He had written extensively about the native people of those countries, and about their plants. He had even given names to ten of their rivers, and to their mountain ranges. It did not matter that the forebears of those natives had named those rivers and mountains from time immemorial. When Ned told them about the naming of the rivers, a derisive elder had called Grey The Man Who Named Ten Rivers. And that became his name.”

And:

“After the chief has introduced the visitors, Lefa Leballo makes a brief speech. He tells the villagers how lucky they are to be living in a new and democratic South Africa where the key word is transparency. In the bad old days, such projects would be done without consulting them at all. So, in the same spirit that the government has respected them by consulting them, they must also show respect to these important visitors, by not voicing the objections that he heard some of the villagers were having about a project of such national importance.”

Much like Ways of Dying, Mda’s accomplishment is to yank off the democratic mask of a coercive State apparatus and the existing economic and political order, while preserving the integrity of the novel, and refusing the temptation of the polemic. And much like Ways of Dying, he does this with intensely-written characters, and deeply evocative prose:

“Qukezwa sings in such beautiful colours. Soft colours like the ochre of the yellow gullies. Reassuring colours of the earth. Red. Hot colours like blazing fire. Deep blue. Deep green. Colours of the valleys and the ocean. Cool colours like the rain of summer sliding down a pair of naked bodies… she sings in soft pastel colours, this Qukezwa. In crude and glaring colours. And in bright glossy colours. In subdued colours of the newly turned fields. All at the same time.”

Lewis Nkosi, Underground People: At one level, Lewis Nkosi’s Underground People is a political thriller. It is set in Tabanyane, a thinly-fictionalised village at the northern border of South Africa, in the period just before the transition (1988? 1989?), when the thinly-fictionalised “National Liberation Movement” is simultaneously pursuing guerrilla warfare against the apartheid regime, and attempting to engage in back-channel negotiations. Cornelius Molapo, a teacher and an ideologue of the NLM, is selected by the Movement to travel to Tabanyane (his birthplace), and take charge of an incipient armed rebellion against the regime, as well as the local chief. To facilitate his departure from Johannesburg, the NLM enacts Molapo’s “disappearance” from his home. As the disappeared teacher becomes a cause celebre abroad, the (even more) thinly-fictionalised “Human Rights International” gets involved, and sends Anthony Ferguson, a white South African who left his country fifteen years ago, to investigate the “disappearance.” The action shifts between the cloying environs of Johannesburg, and the forests of Tabanyane, where the long-suppressed contradictions of the apartheid regime are about to explode into catastrophic violence.

What sets Underground People apart from a regular political novel (and it is a very good political novel – fast-paced, intricate, and with a twist-of-the-knife ending) is the depth that Nkosi gives to his characters. Anthony Ferguson as the white liberal South African, uneasily attempting to straddle two worlds, and ending up utterly ineffectual in both; Joe Bulame, the NLM operative, a paradoxical blend of principles and opportunism; Princess Madi, an equally paradoxical blend of liberation ideology and conservatism; and of course, Molapo himself, who begins his career among the “Underground People” utterly unfit for the role, but gradually finds himself growing into it. For a novel that is unashamedly political, Nkosi’s characters – on both sides of the divide, even the police officers upholding the apartheid regime – are sympathetic, and cannot be reduced to caricatures. And nor are the characters’ personal lives submerged by the novel’s politics – quite the opposite. In fact, some of the book’s most beautiful passages are about the characters’ personal lives; these, for instance, about Molapo’s failed marriage:

“… he was overcome by a profound depression at the thought of the crouching beast of failure which slouched at the heart of every human affection.”

And:

“… like many husbands his whole life was built on an illusion and this illusion was designed to fulfil no other function save the propping up of a personality that was in the process of disintegration.”

Achmat Dangor, Bitter FruitIn Zbigniew Herbert’s poem, Elegy of Fortinbras, the eponymous Fortinbras ends by standing over the corpse of Hamlet and saying “what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy.” In Achmat Dangor’s Bitter Fruit, as South Africa transitions from the extraordinary days of the struggle to the ordinariness of a post-colonial existence, the protagonists of the struggle find themselves fading into oblivion and irrelevance, and a crumbling family is denied even the comfort of invoking tragedy to give its disintegration a sense of grandeur:

“Perhaps history had dwindled away. Their lives, Lydia’s and Silas’s, the whole country’s, had become ordinary things. Not worth recording any longer, not worth the few precious moments of her busy day.”

In the fashion of Arial Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, Bitter Fruit begins with Silas Ali accidentally running into Du Boise, a former policeman who had, many years before, during apartheid, raped Silas’ wife, Lydia. The revelation shatters the uneasy equilibrium that has long existed between Silas, Lydia, and their son Michael. Even as Silas struggles with South Africa’s troubled past in his capacity as trouble-shooter for the embattled Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he is unable to come to terms with his own history:

“He knew then, several years before he encountered Du Boise in a shopping mall, that Lydia really wanted to explore some hidden pain, perhaps not of her rape, but to journey through the darkness of the silent years that had ensued between them. He was not capable of such an ordeal, he acknowledged. It would require an immersion in words he was not familiar with, words that did not seek to blur memory, to lessen the pain, but to sharpen all of those things. He was trained to find consensus, even if meant not acknowledging the ‘truth’ in all its unflattering nakedness. Hell, he had an important job, liaising between the Ministry of Justice and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was his task to ensure that everyone concerned remained objective, the TRC’s supporters and its opponents, that they considered the law above all, and did not allow their emotions to sway them. What would happen if he broke his own golden rule and delved into the turmoil of memories that the events of those days would undoubtedly unleash?”

This paragraph is at the heart of Bitter Fruit, a subtle yet immensely powerful interweaving of the personal and the political, and an exploration of the overwhelming weight of history that can suffocate both an individual and a nation. Bitter Fruit moves seamlessly between the two, and uses each to illuminate the dark corners of the other. Through some extraordinarily evocative prose (“her joy pressed like a dead flower between her unsmiling lips“; “frontiers of emotion without twilight“; “Did the slow crumbling of their relationship begin there, the relentless tides of their different histories start their corrosive wearing away of love?”; “Affection flickers once more, a brief, candlewick flame that hisses and goes out.”), Dangor paints both a family and a country trapped in a web of constraint, primarily of their own making.

In its uninhibited – yet perceptive – exploration of sexuality, Bitter Fruit reminds one of Philip Roth; in its unsparing description of a family slowly – yet inevitably – coming apart, it has echoes of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night; and in the subtlety with which it explores human relationships, it makes one think of Julian Barnes. A combination of the three creates a novel, reading which is an almost visceral experience, and which lingers to haunt you long after you have put it down.

Damon Galgut, In a Strange RoomPossibly the strangest – and saddest – book in this list. In a Strange Room is not, strictly, about South Africa, although the narrator is South African, and a small part of the action takes place in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Rather, it is about solitude and rootlessness, both physical and emotional. In a Strange Room is a collection of three stories; in each, the narrator – switching between a contemporaneous first-person voice and a later third-person voice – begins with undertaking a journey of escape (from his country? himself?), while being ironically aware of the impossibility of such an undertaking:

“And maybe that is the true reason for this journey, by shedding all the ballast of familiar life they are each trying to recapture a sensation of weightlessness they remember but perhaps never lived, in memory more than anywhere else traveling is like free-fall, or flight.”

However, he soon finds himself entwined with the lives and journeys of others, whether as a “follower” (Story 1), a “lover” (Story 2″, or a “guardian” (Story 3). These relationships – which are contained, constrained, unfulfilled, and ultimately end in devastation – come to define both himself, and his journey (a hiking trip across Lesotho, a frantic dash across southern Africa, and a futile, weaving tour around southern India). And each relationship is characterised by a failure of language (“why is violence always so easy to imagine but tenderness stays locked in words for me?“; “He would like to say something, the perfect single word that contains how he feels, but there isn’t any such word“; “… perhaps everything comes down to one silence too many), the impossibility of closure (“… there are still times, walking on a country road alone, when he would not be surprised to see a dark figure in the distance, coming towards him“; “the journey hasn’t ended where he wanted it to, it has frayed out instead into endless ambiguities and nuances, like a path that divides and divides endlessly, growing fainter all the time“; “Whatever they say, it is in breezy phrases like these, phrases without content, or perhaps too much“;), and, ultimately, the impossibility of any kind of permanence, an idea that is reflected in the very act of traveling (quick glimpses of other lives that glance off his in a tiny collision of images…”):

“A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are. In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again. The very air closes behind you like water and soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory.”

Athol Fugard, Plays (1) (Contemporary Classics Edition): This volume features five of Fugard’s plays: The Road to MeccaA Place with the PigsMy Children! My Africa!Playland, and Valley Song. It is an interesting collection, which showcases different aspects of Fugard’s work, at various places along the personal/political spectrum. The Road to Mecca is about the troubled relationship between an ageing woman and a young social worker, and is a powerful story about how art can be a woman’s means of escape from repressive social structures (‘Never light a candle carelessly, and be sure you know what you’re doing when you blow one out…’); A Place with the Pigs is a curious play, a take on the real-life Pavel Navrovsky, a Soviet army deserter in World War II, who spent the next forty-one years hiding in a pig-sty (“… leaden footed little seconds, sluggish minutes, reluctant hours, tedious days, monotonous months and then, only then, the years crawling past like old tortoises.“) My Children! My Africa! is the most explicitly political play in the collection, exploring a doomed friendship between a Thami and Isabel, a black and a white student, at the time when student protests against the Bantu system of education are reaching their crescendo (“The ‘revolution’ has only just begun, and you’re already word-perfect.”). Playland intertwines the personal and the political, consisting entirely of a conversation between a white Afrikaner who fought against SWAPO, and a black African who killed a white man for raping his fiancee (If I forgive you, then I must forgive Andries Jacobus de Lange, and if I forgive him, then I must ask God to forgive me… and then what is left? Nothing! I sit here wit nothing… tonight… tomorrow… all my days and all my nights… nothing!“). And Valley Song – the only play in the collection written after the end of apartheid – (unsurprisingly) deals with the slow erosion of the old ways, and the birth-pangs of the new, through the relationship between a grandfather and his talented grand-daughter, who cannot wait to leave the quiet backwaters for a life in Johannesburg.

One feature of Fugard’s play is the extreme minimalism when it comes to the number of characters. In each of the play, there are either two or three characters. Consequently, there is great stress on dialogue, on the slow unfolding of the inter-personal relationships, and on the characters themselves. For the most part, this works well, since Fugard is particularly good at building up to a crescendo through dialogue, and also at investing his characters with great depth. At times I was reminded of Brian Friel (especially plays such as Faith Healer, which has three characters and is written only in a monologue), although (most) of the plays in this collection are significantly more optimistic about the human condition than Friel’s work. For all that, the subtle exploration of individual human relationships in the backdrop of apartheid – which (apart from My Children! My Africa!) remains in the background, out of sight yet always sensed – makes this collection particularly valuable.

Dikgang Moseneke, My Own LiberatorA bit of non-fiction – a memoir – to wrap things up, but the story it tells is more than a match for any work of fiction. In 1963, Dikgang Moseneke was fifteen years old when he was convicted of sabotage against the apartheid regime, and sentenced to a ten-year prison term on Robben Island. At Robben Island, he completed a degree in literature and political science, and taught himself law. He was also part of a prison hunger-strike, which resulted in a substantial amelioration of prison conditions, one of which was permission to play sport – and he then became the head of the Robben Island prisoners’ football association. After serving his ten-year sentence, Moseneke was then subjected to a five-year long banning order that confined him to his parents’ home; nonetheless, he successfully completed a law degree, got married, and started the fourth black law firm in Pretoria. He sued the Law Society for refusing to admit him as an attorney, and won. He was a founder-member of the Black Lawyers’ Association, and as State repression intensified in the 1980s, he defended scores of anti-apartheid activists in court. Moseneke survived two assassination attempts, became the Deputy President of the Pan-African Congress (PAC) during the transition years, served on the drafting committee of the Interim Constitution, was one of the two chairpersons of the Electoral Commission overseeing South Africa’s first ever democratic election (alongside Johann Kriegler), then became the Chairperson of Telkom (the State-owned telecommunications company), represented Winnie Mandela against Nelson Mandela when he sacked her from his cabinet, and finally, in 2001, was appointed as a judge (and subsequently, Deputy Chief Justice) of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, where he served until 2016.

By any standards, this is a truly extraordinary life. From the daily prison schedule at Robben Island to last-ditch negotiations to persuade the reluctant Inkatha Freedom Party to participate in the 1994 elections, from fighting against preventive detention in the apartheid courts to writing an important judgment on joint criminal liability for the Constitutional Court, Moseneke’s memoir is a fascinating account of a tumultuous half-century by a person who not only had a ringside view, but was an active participant and a shaper of things amidst all the tumult.

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