The Restless Supermarket
Apartheid is finally over, and Aubrey Tearle is noticing an alarming decline in the standard of public signage: a late-night supermarket (that does not rest) is ‘restless’; a kebab shop is proffering ‘humus’ in place of hummus. A proofreader of phonebooks by trade, Tearle spends his retirement days at his favourite coffee spot—the until recently whites-only Café Europa—doing the daily crossword and writing his magnum opus, ‘The Proofreaders’ Derby’, a text he hopes will set the standard for up-and-coming proofreaders in a society whose rules are slackening.
The ticking anxiety of The Restless Supermarket evokes the unsettling reality dawning on whites during South Africa’s transition: the arbitrary rules that kept your lives in order no longer apply. Things have changed. As Aubrey Tearle struggles to accept sloppy grammar and Café Europa’s more diverse clientele, we see that the real question is whether the new South Africa that he inhabits will accepted him.
April 1994 brought the end of Apartheid and the start of a new struggle. Newfound political freedom meant that South Africans of all races had to jostle for a place in society, an unfair situation when most people had suffered generations of exploitation and exclusion from education. The ANC government set about correcting this imbalance with a system called 'Black Economic Empowerment' (BEE), designed to put money in the pockets of historically disadvantaged people.
Twenty years into BEE, Zakes Mda's humorous novel Black Diamond highlights the cronyism and corruption dominating Johannesburg's business and political scene, where cunning members of a new black middle class exploit reputations and relationships cemented during the anti-Apartheid struggle to forge lucrative careers.
Private security guard and anti-Apartheid struggle veteran, Don Mateza, has not parlayed his guerrilla credentials to achieve Black Diamond status, despite unrelenting pressure from his materialistic girlfriend, Tumi. The pressure is near screeching point when Don is assigned to protect Kristen Uys, a white magistrate who has incurred the wrath of the notorious (and comic) Visagie brothers, unsavoury characters who for her, symbolise the degradation of South African society. In many hilarious and touching ways, protecting the headstrong Kristin Uys is more than Don Mateza signed up for.
Ways of Dying: A Novel
Zakes Mda grew up in Soweto during the Apartheid years. As the son of the president of the ANC Youth League, he came to know the prominent freedom fighters of the time, including Nelson Mandela, whose home he lived in for a while. From a young age he was acquainted with the delicacy of the struggle: in order to advance their cause, blacks had to suppress pain, deny suffering, and turn a blind eye to appalling violence within the movement itself.
Set in arguably the most violent period of the Anti-Apartheid struggle—between the release of Nelson Mandela and the ANC's 1994 election victory—Mda's first novel Ways of Dying explores the uncanny ways that this suppressed hurt leaks into the lives of the characters struggling to contain it.
In an unnamed violent city, solitary down-at-heel Toloki has carved out a dignified career for himself as a self-employed professional mourner. Dressed in threadbare clothing, he attends the township’s frequent funerals to assist bereaved families in mourning their dead. He lives a monastic life, adhering to strict principals that he feels prepare him for his work. He does not necessarily know the dead or the mourners personally, but at a child's funeral he recognises the bereaved mother as Noira, a friend he not seen since childhood.
Reunited, Toloki and Noira begin to unravel the violent stories that they—and the novel’s narrator until this point—have suppressed: the dispersal of their native community, and the circumstances of the child’s death. Mda deploys oral storytelling techniques to reach deep into Toloki and Noira’s pasts, and magical realist passages to dramatise a shared imaginative world that may have the power to heal them.
The Persistence of Memory
The Apartheid government had its own version of the country’s history, but when Mandela’s ANC came to power, a new, hopefully truer history had to be unearthed to account for the crimes of the fallen regime. To this end, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established. Victims of Apartheid’s worst crimes were invited to testify, along with many of the perpetrators, who were granted amnesty.
The Persistence of Memory is narrated by Paul Sweetbread, a white man cursed with a photographic memory. ‘Cursed’ because, having grown up under Apartheid, he cannot help recalling scenes that the government no longer acknowledges. Drafted into the South African Defense Force to fight in the Border War in Angola, he participates in a horrific massacre whose every detail he will remember for the rest of his life. Numbed by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Paul hopes that participation in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will heal him.
The Story of an African Farm
Published in 1883, The Story of an African Farm is one of the founding texts of South African literature and also one of the most radical novels of the late Victorian period. Its outspoken concern with gender politics, atheism and the flaws in British colonialism made it highly controversial in its day.
But Schreiner’s famous novel is more than just a fascinating historical document. It’s also a moving coming-of-age tale. The Story of an African Farm traces the lives of three children on a remote farm in the Karoo as they struggle to free themselves from the social and intellectual restraints of Calvinism and colonial society. The children’s loss of faith takes place against the bleak backdrop of the Karoo desert, a landscape whose stark beauty continues to haunt them as they grow up and leave the farm. The protagonists begin new lives in other parts of South Africa, but the brutality of Victorian patriarchy and colonialism’s strictures frustrate and ultimately destroy them.
The Story of an African Farm owes much to female writers like George Eliot and the Brontë sisters, and even points the way toward Virginia Woolf. If you love these authors, Olive Schreiner will be a wonderful discovery.
Rumours Of Rain
Published in 1978 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Andre Brink’s novel, Rumours of Rain explores—among other things—the political and ideological gulf between white men and their sons at a time when the younger generation were shouldered with maintaining the unjust, oppressive system designed by their fathers.
In Rumours of Rain, the Apartheid government is buying up South Africa’s least arable land to use as tribal homelands for non-whites. Martin Mynhardt, a wealthy Afrikaner businessman, has been offered a small fortune for the drought-stricken ancestral farm where his mother still ekes out an existence. He sets aside a weekend to drive out to the farm and break the news to his mother. His son has just returned from military service in Angola, where the South African Defense Force is fighting an illegal war against so-called terrorists. Father and son have a chilly relationship, and Martin thinks a weekend at the farm will help break the ice. And it does, but not in the way he hoped.
Solomon Thekisho Plaatje, born in 1876, was arguably the first major black novelist to come from the African continent. He was also a journalist, an activist and politician who helped establish the party that would become the ANC. Master of several languages, he even found time to translate Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar into his native Tswana.
Published in 1930, Mhudi was the second novel ever to be published in English by a black South African. Plaatje described his book as a ‘romance’, and it has all the elements of a romantic epic, but it is also an historical novel rooted in thorough research. It relates the events of the Matabele people’s expansionist campaign of the 1830s, under their king Mzilikaze. The Matabele’s defeated opponents, the Barolong, turn for help to the white-skinned strangers who are penetrating their territory for the first time.
Mhudi is an inversion of the Afrikaner account of South African history, portraying the voortrekkers as interlopers in a fully-developed political scene rather than settlers on virgin ground. But it also refuses to frame South African history in strictly racial or ethnic terms. The voortrekkers are white supremacists, but they’re not villains. The Matabele are brutal conquerors, but they’re not the bad guys either. In acknowledging the bewildering complexity of South Africa, and celebrating it, Mhudi looks ahead to the Rainbow Nation modern South Africans are struggling to build today.
Peter Abrahams was born near Johannesburg in 1919 to a black father and a Coloured mother. He went to work as a sailor and washed up in London, where he began to publish fiction and journalism. In London he became involved with a circle of exiled Africans who would eventually return home to lead successful independence movements. His novel A Wreath For Udomo (1956) predicted some of the turmoil that erupted in many newly-independent African nations.
Peter Abrahams’ best-known novel is Mine Boy. Xuma, a young black man, leaves his home in the rural north to seek his fortune in the gold mines of Johannesburg. He ends up in Malay, a makeshift township for black mineworkers, where conditions are so cruel that neighbours must betray each other in order to survive. When a terrible mining accident reveals the company’s disregard for workers’ safety, Xuma and his white supervisor lead a resistance movement that transcends race.
Few novelists have tackled as directly as Nadine Gordimer the failures of communication between white and black South Africans, even between those who want to cooperate and co-exist. The Nobel prize winner was a vocal and active opponent of Apartheid from the 1960s onwards, and many of her novels were banned under the regime.
One of those novels, July’s People (1981), imagines the end of Apartheid. At the time, Gordimer intended the book to be an informed prediction of what would happen when Apartheid ended. One effect of reading July’s People is to realise the extraordinary achievement of Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk in bringing about a peaceful transition to democracy.
Gordimer’s version of events is not so peaceful. Civil war reduces South Africa’s cities to war zones. One white liberal family, the Smales, flee their urban home and take refuge with the family of their former servant, July. For the Smales family, adjusting to conditions that rural blacks have endured for decades is a struggle to say the least. But this adjustment is only the beginning. As they start to understand the culture in which they now live, they begin to appreciate what their presence in the community is costing their employee-turned-protector, July.