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Your ‘to read’ list: Two set texts for all South Africans

Your ‘to read’ list: Two set texts for all South Africans

As 2013 bled into 2014, I read two books that on the surface, had nothing to do with each other. Yet they led me to a startling realisation that made me think perhaps they should be set reading for all South Africans. By MARK HEYWOOD.

The idea that children should be educated has existed for thousands of years. The idea that all children have a right to a quality education is, however, a more recent idea, several hundred years old in some European countries, but only just turning twenty in ours. More recent, too, is the notion that education has more than just a utilitarian and practical objective. Education is about sustaining and deepening cultures and about building communities and nations.

Learning about literature (for a long time imperiously just called ‘English’) is an essential component of education, long a stock part of the syllabi. And so it should be. But how much organised thought, or debate, do we invest in understanding the role that literature can actually play in nation building or creating capable citizens? How do we inspire our teachers to teach literature and our learners to receive it? Is reading to be perceived as an onerous Dickensian chore of plot and quote learning, or can we make it into a gateway to creating national solidarity, empathy and social justice?

Two books I read over the holidays made me rethink these questions.

Every era and most nations have outstanding novelists and historians – the great writers who capture the spirit of the age, who labour over the intersections of life, embedding the personal in the political and vice versa. Great writers don’t lecture. They allow the accumulation of layers and colours until a picture begins to emerge. The great novelist or historian is able to portray the tectonic movement of social forces, the evils caused by some men (for it is usually men), and its impact on other men, women and children.

And then bang – suddenly a canvas exists where it all makes sense.

Although there is a tendency to separate fiction from non-fiction, the definitive history is also a work of art – pieced together by the meticulous and committed researcher, presumably aware of the higher end of history. A great work of history is a text that when all the cloth and button finding is done, sews together something that always was, but never would be – but for his or her dedication.

In many countries’ literary traditions the names of the great novelists and historians – or their hybrid, what we might call histovelists – come quickly to hand: there was Dickens, Tolstoy, Trotsky, Orwell, E P Thompson, Austen, Fitzgerald and maybe Salinger, Soyinka, Achebe, Ngugi, Roy and Rushdie… the list goes on and on.

But, surprisingly, one does not easily or immediately come up with the names of South Africa’s great historical works and their partners in fiction. Histovelists do not yet form a part of our national consciousness or indeed character.

Universities and schools still have a task to identify, excavate, elevate and embed our writers. Perhaps Paton, Schreiner or Mphalelele; Gordimer or Serote. But who else?

When they do – on the basis of the luxury of recent reading – I would argue that one little-known novel that must be given its place is The Lotus People by Aziz Hassim, first published in 2002. Similarly a ‘history’ that should be recognised as a definitive account of the struggle era and some of its key actors, is the recently published Joe Slovo and Ruth First in the War against Apartheid, by Alan Wieder.

Although very different books, unaware of each other, they intersect and draw from the same raw material, particularly the history of dispossession of the last 150 years.  And, as with all histories, they tell us a great deal about our present.

Hassim fictionalises the experience of Indian people in South Africa and describes the rise and demise of Durban as the port city that most gave expression to Indian people’s entrepreneurship, creativity and culture. In the course of a grand narrative that sweeps up 150 years, I understood how – but for Apartheid and its cruel bureaucratically enforced decision to reroute and physically relocate the Indian experience in South Africa – Durban might have evolved as quite a different city.

What has subsequently been made its periphery may well have been its heart.

The book buzzes with the life of the old Durban Casbah. It makes the reader want to retrieve maps of the old Durban it describes (alas, not easily done). But it is in its modest, patient, slowly created cast of family characters and their friends, and the story of how an apolitical family largely intent on going about its own business, bore the nonsensical depredations of Apartheid, that the book’s tragedy and nobility is found. Through it is possible to rage against the oppressors’ wrong that was inflicted on a segment of our country’s population. It is a rare book that after 500 pages maintains a momentum to its last page.

Wieder, by contrast, brings real people back to life from their fictions, both hagiographic and demonic. Through their own words he assists Ruth First and Joe Slovo to become real people once more, rather than cardboard cut-outs made of them in either their demon years, as depicted by Apartheid, or their angel years, as depicted by comrades. As I write both remain the subject of appropriation and contest in the battles raging in the Tripartite ‘Alliance’.

Ostensibly the two books appear quite different – their only coincidence that I read them as one year slipped into another.

But actually there is a great deal of overlap. On one level, the intersection occurs during years in the 1940s and 1950s when Hassim describes the reawakening of the Congress movement in Durban and its impact on the Suleiman household, its sons in particular. From the vantage point of their (soon to be no more) home in Verbena Road we encounter a range of real and imagined-real characters, including Dr Goonum, Fatima Meer, and others who came from Johannesburg to try to organise and conscientise the anguish that was being felt by the Indian community as the Ghetto Bill-process of ejection from their homes and communities gathered force.

Joe Slovo’s great friend and comrade Yusuf Dadoo makes a brief appearance in Hassim’s novel. Which character, I wonder, may have been based on Ismail Meer, Ruth First’s first lover?

But on another level the pages of both books recreate the spirit of age and the outrage that made “mensch” like Slovo and First into outstanding revolutionaries and catapulted them into a life they never intended or imagined.

What also links the two books is their enormous descriptive power. Hassim achieves it by weaving a family story around the sons and daughters of two nineteenth century émigrés from India, Yahya Suleiman and Pravin Naran. Wieder achieves it by building into the heart of a well-known history 77 oral interviews, which capture the anecdote that is the real stuff of life and the diversity that comes with multiple voices and memories.

Both books are an emotional roller-coaster. Anger and outrage at the murder of Ruth First in 1982 is revived as a result of now knowing more about her ideals, ambitions, quirks and contradictions. A similar anger and despair wells up with the description of the murder of Jake, one of Hassim’s main characters.  Sadness surges as Wieder describes Slovo coming to terms with his unavoidable death as a result of cancer at the very time when his intellectual and imagination was at its greatest.

But as I travelled both books’ pages they surfaced and then resolved an issue that has puzzled me over a long time.

Our country is universally praised for having faced down the past, for its Truth and Reconciliation. Yet those of us who live here know it remains fragmented and vrot. To First, Slovo or Suleiman it would seem inconceivable that those who benefitted materially from the past could benefit most from the present (although neither Joe nor Ruth would have made peace with it or wallowed in its material fruits as some of their followers have). But more worrying to me is why so many of those who live and luxuriate in the fruits of the democracy continue to show so little empathy or interest in the lot of those whose lives were blighted by Apartheid.

Why? Why? Why?

The answer lies in these books. It is found in the idea of identity.

At Slovo’s funeral the then Chief Rabbi, Cyril Harris, attributed Joe’s political commitment partly to his “humanitarianism” which, he said, “springs from a deep sense of identification with the oppressed, the ability to hear their cry, an acute awareness of the realities of poverty, a personal anguish at the suffering of fellow human beings.”

Those words ring true. They contain a universal truth. South Africa might have gone through a process of truth and reconciliation, but without identifying with the lives that were destroyed it seems impossible for those who directly benefited from their destruction (as most white people did) to feel empathy or solidarity.

Both books make “identification” possible by bringing the adversity and nobility in life to life.

At Slovo’s memorial parts of his favourite symphonies from Beethoven and Mahler were played. Towards the end of Hassim’s book, the main characters reflect on life of ‘Jake’ Yacoob Suleiman, murdered by the security police, and recall what they were taught from sections of Tennyson’s grand poem Ulysses. When Hassim’s character quips: “But you can’t make a bullet proof vest out of Tennyson’s poems” you can almost see Slovo nodding in agreement.

As we go into our 20th year of freedom, those people who were on the safe side of the Apartheid fence would do well to try and understand how devastating Apartheid was for the lives of people on the dark side. These two great books can help you get there. That is why they should not just be set texts for school and university students, but for all citizens of the new South Africa. DM

The Lotus People by Aziz Hassim is published by STE Publishers.

Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid by Alan Wieder is published by Jacana.


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