Sunday, 10 November 2019

The Dream of Political Racial and Economic Equality in South Africa

"There's no such thing here (in South Africa). The facts may be correct but the truth they embody is always a lie to someone else. Every inch of our soil is contested, every word in our histories." 
– Rian Malan, The Lion Sleeps Tonight 2012

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
– Nelson Mandela




Truth and Reconciliation Commission
“Having looked the beast in the eye having asked and received forgiveness, let us shut the door on the past and not forget it but to allow it not to imprison us.”
– Archbishop Tutu
“It is precisely these contradictions, the ability to say radically incompatible things in the same breath, that reveal the true nature of politics here. A Government minister declares, in a week when a Government order has forbidden  any protests over the detention of thousands of prisoners and has even forbidden prayers on their behalf, that he is opposed to detention without trial. This from a member of a government, which since it has introduced detention without trial in the sixties, has wielded the weapon with pugnacious relish! I feel as I would were a practicing cannibal to tell me that he disapproved of human flesh. My range of responses is limited when faced with brazen hypocrisy or hypocrisy enthroned; to laugh or to cry, or run. Or maybe to do all three.”
– Christopher Hope White Boy Running, 1988 

“The country [under apartheid] was a giant menagerie where zookeepers who claimed to divinely appointed presided over less-than-human others, who were locked into the prisons of their skins.”
 – Christopher Hope, The CafĂ© de Move-on Blues, 2018










A World Apart was written by Shawn Slovo who grew up in South Africa in the 1960s, while her parents, Ruth First and Joe Slovo, were involved in the anti-apartheid movement, and it is very much a daughter’s story. Even though her parents were brave and dedicated, their child still nurses a sense of resentment because she did not get all of the attention she felt she deserved. A World Apart is both political and personal  a view of a revolutionary as the middle-class mother of a normal 13-year-old girl.

'
The memoir, Every Secret Thing, is "a passionate witness to the colossal upheaval that has transformed her native South Africa, Gillian Slovo has written a memoir that is far more than a story of her own life. For she is the daughter of Joe Slovo and Ruth First, South Africa's pioneering anti-apartheid white activists, a daughter 
who always had to come second to political commitment. Whilst recalling the extraordinary events which surrounded her family's persecution and exile, and reconstructing the truth of her parents' relationship and her own turbulent childhood, Gillian Slovo has also created an astonishing portrait of a courageous mother and a father of integrity and stoicism."
(author unknown)


Steve Biko
“His message to the youth and the students was simple clear: Black is Beautiful! Be proud of your Blackness! And with that he inspired our youth to shed themselves of the sense of inferiority they were born into as a result of more than three centuries of white rule.”
– Nelson Mandela from the Preface of Biko A Biography


"Steve " more than any other person  I have encountered  had the most impressive array of qualities and abilities in that sphere of life which determine the fates of people-politics." 

– Donald Woods,  Biko, 1978




"Cry Freedom is based on Biko and Asking for Trouble, books by Donald Woods. The movie shapes itself around the friendship between Woods, a smug white liberal journalist, and (Steve) Biko, the gentle intellectual who expands Woods' cozy horizons. At first, Woods attacks Biko as a black supremacist, but he revises his opinion when he meets with the activist. The first half of the movie traces the friendship, concentrating on Biko's career, but the second concerns Woods' escape from South Africa with Biko's contraband biography.
(Richard) Attenborough has been criticized for the second half, an action thriller that tags a white hero onto what some felt was a black hero's story. But that's a little like whipping Paul Simon for introducing Ladysmith BlackMambazo to American audiences. In both cases, the ends justify the means. And here that end is to expose the spiritual and physical genocide of apartheid. South Africa hides behind a press blackout; Cry Freedom exposes it in the bright and persuasive light of Biko's consciousness."
– Rita Kempley, Washington Post, November 6, 1987

From being a cheerful child, Sandra now grows into a troubled adolescent (Sophie Okonedo) who tries to bleach her skin. Her parents set up two disastrous dates with white boys. She falls in love with Petrus (Tony Kgoroge), a young market gardener who is black, and her father chases him away with a rifle. Pregnant, she runs away from home, but now since she is officially considered white, it is a crime under apartheid for her to live with a black man.


The story of Sandra Laing (her real name) played out into the 1970s, and fascinated South Africa like no other. It cut directly into the official fiction that the races were separate and would never meet. She was proof that they'd been meeting a lot in the 400 years since the Dutch landed at Cape Town.

– Roger Ebert full review

Soweto uprising June 1976
Pass laws under Apartheid

Rivona Trial (1963-64)

Robben Island



















“The policy of apartheid created a deep and lasting wound in my country and my people. All of us will spend many years, if not generations, recovering from that profound hurt but the dictates of oppression and brutality had another unintended effects, and that was it produced … men of such extraordinary courage, wisdom and generosity that their like may never be known again. Perhaps it requires such depth of oppression to create such heights of character.”

Mandela 
– From an excellent article

“The Nelson Mandela who emerges from his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom is considerably more human than the icon of legend. He is a naive and headstrong youth, a neglectful husband, a distracted father. He misleads his allies and manipulates his followers. He is uncritical of despots who support his liberation struggle. Time after time, he chooses tactics over principles. Mr. Mandela is, on the evidence of his amazing life, neither a messiah nor a moralist nor really a revolutionary, but a pragmatist to the core, a shrewd balancer of honor and interests.”
– Bill Keller The New York Times December 18, 1994 

"In fact, and to give [the film] its due, Nicholson's screenplay... shows the burly young trial lawyer and amateur boxer joining the ANC to fight apartheid and police brutality, getting radicalised by the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, passionately leading an armed struggle and then once in prison transforming his anguish and rage into a Zen mastery of exile. He disarms his guards with a politician's knack of remembering their children's names and birthdays.... His very retreat from the world gradually feeds his prestige and once free he is able to bring off a remarkable new metamorphosis into South African president and inspirational world leader."
 – Peter Bradshaw The Guardian January 2, 2014




































"Red Dust is an exciting and, at times gripping film which manages to bring the complex mechanism of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to a wider public…. The film is a truth reflection of the TRC process – especially with regard to the amnesty hearings.”
  Annelies Verdoolaege, from an essay in Framing Africa: Portrayals of a Continent in Contemporary Modern Cinema edited by Nigel Eltringhan, 2013 


Mandela and Francois Pienaar

The film tells the inspiring true story of how Nelson Mandela joined forces with the captain of South Africa's rugby team to help unite their country. Newly elected President Mandela knows his nation remains racially and economically divided in the wake of apartheid. Believing he can bring his people together through the universal language of sport, Mandela rallies South Africa's underdog rugby team as they make an unlikely run to the 1995 World Cup Championship match.

"Mandela is a unique human being; indeed, he is the George Washington of South Africa who inspired millions of blacks to end their feelings of revenge in order to create a great, new country. Morgan Freeman's portrayal of Nelson Mandela creates a superb moment in time on the movie screen."
 – Ed Koch, The Atlantic January 11 2010


“He’s got so much to teach us about forgiveness. It isn’t about soft-headed and kind-hearted and essentially weak. Mandela found that forgiveness was a tragedy for survival. Because he found a forgiving heart  under the most adverse circumstances, because he learnt to hate the apartheid cause without hating white South Africans, he had space left inside to grow and become great. In the process he freed not only Black South Africans but he freed White South Africans too.”

– Bill Clinton cited by Peter Hain in Mandela: His Essential Life 2018



“Madiba's light shone so brightly, even from that narrow Robben Island cell, that in the late '70s he could inspire a young college student on the other side of the world to reexamine his own priorities, could make me consider the small role I might play in bending the arc of the world towards justice.”

– Barack Obama speaking at the 2018 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture 
To read the complete speech

"What's the price of being a bystander? Sidney Bloch is an internationally recognized professor of psychiatry, ethicist, loving father, singer and author of books on mental health. He is also a man with a troubled conscience. In this film, Sid returns to South Africa for his medical school reunion, determined to resolve the guilt that has troubled him for forty years. He's accompanied by his teenage son, Aaron who turns out to be his harshest critic.
In the Apartheid era, Sid had benefited as a 'White', contributed negligibly to the struggle against racism and then left for Israel the day after his medical graduation in 1964.
 A sense of guilt and shame accompanied him throughout his later move to Australia. Growing up in Apartheid South Africa, Sid abhorred the system but did almost nothing to oppose it. So how does a man who lost fourteen relatives in the Holocaust become complicit with a racist system? In 1964, twelve of the one hundred medical graduates in his class were classified 'Non-White' and were subject to a myriad restrictions–blacks couldn't examine white patients, they couldn't attend post-mortems on white bodies, they couldn't socialize equally and their prospects were limited. Sid and his white colleagues barely registered this reality. Returning to Cape Town to share his past with Aaron, Sid wants to confront his lack of courage during the Apartheid years."
– Author unknown
What the documentary fails to explore is the position of Jews during the Apartheid or Post-Apartheid eras.


That is not the case with Kenneth Bonert's captivating thriller, The Mandela Plot (2018) set primarily during the late 1980s when Apartheid was it its deathalbeitviolent death throes. Martin Helger, the only student with a blue-collar parent at an expensive private Jewish high school, is the narrator for most of the novel. The hazing, dispensing of corporal punishment and general bullying at the school mirrors the violence that occurs in the Black townships that is meted out by the police, especially by a Captain Oberholzer. His hatred for Jews rooted in his and the Helger family historyrecounted in Bonert's debut novel, The Lion Seekeris driven by a need to inflict a terrible revenge. When a young attractive American Jewish woman named Annie Goldberg moves into the Helger home as a guest, Martin is smitten and becomes a willing accomplice in her efforts to assist the African National Congress setting in motion a series of events that culminate in his family's tragic encounter with Oberholzer. 
The final ninety pages switches to the third person and may be the novel's most poignant and powerful with revelations about the disenchantment with the new South Africa, corruption and greed from former resistance fighters, as well as a new anti-Semitism veiled under a hostility towards Zionism. The novel also features a riveting climax. 

"All this makes Always Another Country, a graceful memoir by Sisonke Msimang, a welcome novelty. Msimang, a South African writer and political analyst, charts an alternate course to the now familiar conclusion that home is not always a place on a map. Her story begins in exile. Her parents, members of the African National Congress, then fighting to overthrow South Africa’s apartheid regime, have fled to Zambia, where they have three daughters. 'We are raised on a diet of communist propaganda and schooled in radical Africanist discourse, in the shadows of our father’s hope and our mother’s practicality,' Msimang writes. Her father is a soldier in the A.N.C.’s armed wing — its 'illegal army' — a job that has taken him across the world, from Russia, for training, to Tanzania, where he helped establish a military base, and, finally, to Zambia, where he met and married Msimang’s mother. As a result of their work, Msimang spent her childhood calling a different country — Zambia, Kenya, Canada, Ethiopia — home every few years. 'My parents were freedom fighters,” she writes. 'So they cast our journeys around the world as part of a necessary sacrifice. Our suffering was noble.'

Msimang’s parents believed in an exceptional South Africa, one whose future would be free of injustice. Their daughter learns not to see the world this way. In Canada, a boy in her grade-school class calls her an African monkey, and a group of white girls with whom she became close abruptly exclude her. These moments reveal racism’s 'sharp little teeth'; before long, she realizes she has been spoiled as a child, bred to believe that she and her sisters weren’t just children — we were representatives of ideals.' Living abroad, far away for the sake of freedom,' her family was 'no more special than anyone else.'"
 Lovia Gyarakye, The New York Times November 9, 2018

Post-Apartheid novels: literary, mystery and thrillers


Both of these novels are worth reading, especially Disgrace in part because of Coetzee's powerful rendering in the second half of a violent assault upon the protagonist and his daughter, and the slaughter of her dogs on an isolated farm on the East Cape.
"It is therefore curious that their most recent books seem so oddly similar, as if the end of apartheid has brought them closer together.


 Both Gordimer's 1998 novel The House Gun  and Coetzee's (1999) Disgrace  winner of this year's Booker Prize  develop out of judicial procedures: a murder trial in Gordimer's work, and in Coetzee's the charge of sexual harassment that separates his protagonist, David Lurie, from his profession. Neither of these books sits easily as anything like an allegory of the fact-finding commission headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu; still, the judicial connection can be no accident. Yet neither book stops with such procedures. Though most of Gordimer's novel does in fact deal with the trial, she ends by exploring the mystery of the transition from life to death. Disgrace finishes quickly with the question of judgment; its real interest lies in what comes after, when all one's days are stamped with the word of its title. And the way the novel develops suggests that it is perhaps Coetzee, despite his resistance to a historically conditioned realism, who has the more deeply political mind."
– Michael Gorra,  The New York Times November 28,1999



"The sense of an on-going betrayal of people's lives  in the past and into the futureis the wounded territory of Achmat Dangor's novel. Set in Johannesburg in the closing months of Nelson Mandela's presidency, it charts the open wounds and disintegrating relationships in a "coloured" family caught up in the "grey, shadowy morality" of an ANC government "bargaining, until there was nothing left to barter with, neither principle nor compromise".

Silas Ali, the father, is an old ANC activist whose government job in the justice ministry is to liaise with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A South African spin doctor, his fate is to watch the passing of his own life marginalised on TV, "as if it was foreign, fictional". His wife, Lydia, goes to work as a nurse researching HIV transmission while entrenching her distance from an emotionally shell-shocked husband. Their son, Mikey, gets caught up with Muslim activists associated with the vigilantes of Pagad, known for their involvement in the bombings of Cape Town. All the bases are touched in a reckoning with South Africa's past and present turmoil, and no box left unopened in the search for some kind of limbo or twilight zone where all unresolved conflicts might find resolution."
– Gabriel Gbadomsi, The Guardian



An excellent review of both Water Music and Cobra can be found in the Los Angeles Review of Books in a piece by Glenn Harper. I highly recommend both these compelling mysteries set in Cape Town. Orford's novel may be one of the most disturbing of the South African  crime fiction that I have read as she portrays the stark vulnerability of women and children in a macho culture.


Rarely does a  novel so forcibly demonstrate how history can seep into and poison peoples' lives in the present in the manner of Damian Barr's ironically-titled novel, You Will be Safe Here. Although the plotting is dissimilar, the novel does share with Orford's Water Music a concern for the vulnerability of  women and children as well as the toxicity of male masculinity. Not surprisingly in Barr's acknowledgments there is an appreciation of  Orford's conversation with him. 


"Damian Barr’s debut novel, set across more than a century of South African history, has an unusual structure in that the first third initially seems unrelated to what follows but it soon becomes clear that the experiences of the earlier characters resonate through the lives of those who subsequently pick up the story.
It begins in 1901, during the second Boer war, with a diary kept by a young Afrikaans woman, Sarah, who along with her six-year-old son, Fred, is interred at a British concentration camp in Johannesburg. Sharing an account of the many hardships and indignities that are visited upon the women, the medicines they are denied, the food they’re deprived of and the lengths they will go to in order to keep their children alive, it’s an authoritative recreation of a time that is rarely talked about in history classes.... 
A hundred pages in, the story skips forward to the 21st century, where another mother, Irma, is complicit in allowing her 16-year-old son to be sent to another camp, New Dawn, where sadists in uniforms, masquerading as soldiers and awarding themselves army titles, welcome troubled teenage boys for three-month stays where, they promise, they will be turned into men, or at least what their unenlightened understanding of that word means."
– John Boyne, The Irish Times August 31, 2019

"Mike Nicol is the best stylist writer in the thriller genre in South Africa today—his staccato language, tense plotting, and nice and nasty backdrop of Cape Town makes each of his books impossible to put down. Nicol’s novels just keep getting better. And if you’ve never read a South African thriller before, try SLEEPER—you’ll be hooked.
Cool-cat surfer Fish Pescado and his ex (maybe) spy girlfriend, Vicki Kahn, are back. The minister of energy is murdered and his lover hires Fish to find the killer—but then disappears herself. A much deeper game is going on, and one that sucks Vicki back into her old profession. Spies, terrorists, a briefcase of enriched uranium, and a sleeper all come to a head at a farm in the Agter-Paarl."
– Michael Sears, Africa Scene, November 30, 2018.
I agree with these sentiments with the caveat that the earlier novel, Agents of  State, may even better. Set also in Berlin, the novel explores the trafficking of children, the widespread corruption and violence of the Zuma years, and how the South African spy agency operated during the apartheid years. Read it first.




Most of Wessel Ebersohn's novels, that extend back to the apartheid years, feature the prison psychologist, Yudel Gordon, a privileged white, albeit Jewish who is regarded with suspicion by Afrikaners. Ebersohn's early novels such as the 1981 Divide the Night were so attacked by the regime that he was banned and his family was so threatened that he went into exile. This novel features a psychopath who kills young vulnerable black children and yet he is regarded as a hero by both his family and the security police. What makes the novel most interesting is that Yudel witnesses an event that deeply troubled him, an experience that has haunted him and is referenced in his most recent post-apartheid novel, 2018 The Robben Island List
In October Killings as well as in The List, Yudel works with Abigail Bukula, a talented African lawyer who works in the Justice Department with a fascinating back history that is relayed in October Killings. In The List a sniper is killing former liberation activists, old men who spent times on Robben Island yet no longer play any role in politics. An early suspect is a white farmer who feels that the ANC government ignores the concerns ofwhite farmers who he feels are oppressed. Ebersohn is very perceptive at providing a critical yet sympathetic portrayal of the man and his family. Ebersohn's novels are not easy to find but they are well worth reading.  



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