My personal experience of South Africa fits within a one-week period in November of 2014. That’s not a lot of experience for guessing what my future will look like in that country. I would rather not step in bear-traps the moment I land in Cape Town, and so I have been borrowing heavily from my public library. In this post, I would like to profile some of the sources that have been most useful in building a coherent picture of South Africa.
My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan was the most stirring book I have encountered. The book begins by profiling the author’s childhood, when he imagined that he had struck a blow for equality by spraying graffiti messages in his white neighborhood, only to be rebuffed by members of the black community. The tales that spring from his later years as a crime reporter, both before and after his self-imposed exile to avoid the draft, reveal a man of far greater awareness. When I took the University of Arkansas honors course in the Literature of the Holocaust, I encountered The Painted Bird, by Jerzy Koinski, a book that redefined “cruelty” for me. My Traitor’s Heart resonated strongly with my memories of The Painted Bird. In Heart, I had a glimpse of the violence that was pumped into the non-white communities of South Africa during the decades of Apartheid. I had not understood the gulf between the followers of Stephen Biko (Black Consciousness) and Nelson Mandela (African National Congress) that led to many killings in the 1980s. The book also made me think about the destruction of self-worth in a society where a white could kill a black with essentially no consequences. This book, more than any other, has illustrated for me the magnitude of suffering from which today’s South Africa has emerged.
The Rumour of Spring, by Max du Preez, attempts to tell the tale of an altogether different South Africa that has emerged from the democratic elections in 1994 and later. Since the post-Apartheid governments have had twenty years to heal the nation, we can reasonably ask how much has been accomplished. Mr. du Preez shows a nation in very equivocal condition. The evil of Apartheid is gone, but xenophobia has carelessly been allowed to fester. Government housing is springing up rapidly, but more people arrive in the cities every day. Laws to ensure that corporations benefit people outside the white community have brought some racial diversity, but it seems obvious that money is flowing disproportionately to the relatives of those with political power. The noble example of Nelson Mandela has not been followed by his successors in the presidency. This book has helped me to understand how the African National Congress has been changed by its grip on power.
In the United States, we frequently speak of the hardy pioneers who drove our nation West with admiration; in The Covenant, by James Michener, we see that the Boers (farmers of Dutch ancestry who took part in the Great Trek north and east from British Cape Colony) may hold a similar fascination for the Afrikaner community. Michener, an American, attempted to capture the entire sweep of South African history in a single novel. The result highlights the divisions within the white community (primarily between British and Dutch families), but it also notes the complex structure of other communities. Much of what I read in The Covenant echoed what I read in The South African Story, by Ron and Lisa McGregor. The Story relates South Africa’s history in entertaining vignettes; it’s the history that a tour guide would relate, not the one you would hear from an academic department.
I am certainly not finished learning the back story of the nation I will soon call home, but these books, along with several others such as Nadine Gordimer’s excellent July’s People or Olive Schreiner’s classic The Story of an African Farm have begun painting a picture for me. I am excited that I will spend the next five years finding my role in the story of this complex nation.