Friday, January 03, 2014

275. South African Short Stories from 1945 to the Present by Denis Hirson, with Martin Trump (Editors)

The recent passing away of the first black president and for that matter the first president of post-apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela, put the spotlight on that country. In all the stories that floated on the sea of noises, praises, and total absurdities, one thing was clear: there has been darker days in South Africa's past. A time when some people believed that the black man was inferior to the white man and the two could not, in no way, mix. That it was imperative that the former is subjugated to serve the latter. This policy of 'apartness' was supported by developed and democratised countries of the West, most of whose leaders were at this funeral to share the pain of South Africans - a pain they had justified and supported. And again, those who thought they were wiser than every other person took the opportunity to advise African leaders, the very same leaders they had terrorised and destroyed, the very same countries they plunder and plunge into war and conflict so they can fuel their economies with its abundant resources, these leaders advised them on good governance. It is said that it is in the non-stop hitting of the wedge with the hammer that breaks the wood, so I will repeat that until 2008 this same Mandela whose love was trumpeted to all by these pretentious western leaders was on America's terrorist list; that is almost a decade after he relinquished power and fourteen years after his release. Mandela was 90 at the time. It was also after the supposedly liberal president Bill Clinton had served his two terms and George W. Bush was in the last year of his administration. In fact, the request to take Mandela and other ANC members off the terrorists' list, thus formally permitting them to travel to the United States, was made by Condoleeza Rice to a Senate Committee. Yet, these pretentious leaders had the gut to talk about love to us? To us?

But before apartheid ended, there was savagery and this anthology The Heinemann Book of South African Short Stories - from 1945 to the Present (Heinemann, 1994; 248) edited by Denis Hirson, with Martin Trump, presents the stories of South Africans between these two time periods from different perspectives, mostly apolitical or subtly political. Note that these time periods are very important since apartheid reigned from 1948 to 1994.

The anthology contains twenty-two short stories covering different aspects of life in South Africa. Two of these - The Prophetess by Njabulo Ndebele (in Contemporary African Short Stories, edited by Chinua Achebe and C.L. Innes) and The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses by Bessie Head (in Tales of Tenderness and Power, a short story anthology by Bessie Head) - have been reviewed on this blog. Njabulo's The Prophetess opens this anthology. 

It is followed by Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost by Dugmore Boetie. This story represents the lives of very young black boys (and girls) in South Africa in the face of vanished opportunities: jobs and education. The young boy tells his story on how he survived on his own in the streets, in storm drains with a thief for a god-father and how he was moved from juvenile prisons to orphanages and back to the street. From this narrative, it becomes clear that this was a child whose future was locked in a serpentine politics he barely understands, and whose father perhaps could be one of those winos on the street with hunger lashing at their intestines and knives in their pockets in search of their sustenance. He might have left home, her mother incapable of looking after him, just as the Great Depression forced several young Americans to migrate out of their homes in search of alternative livelihoods or the way the Great Famine forced several Irish to migrate into the United States. This mother might be struggling to feed the remaining mouths, working perhaps as a servant, at best. The story, through its narrator, showed the socioeconomic impact of political, social and economic emasculation of a people.

Bloodsong by Ernst Havemann is a story of hope, or more precisely what could have been if the National Party in 1948 had reasoned, a wee bit, with their brains, that we share a common humanity - black or white, red or yellow. If chimpanzees share almost 99 percent of the DNA of humans, and with just one percent their physiological features are distinctly different from humans, then as a people across cultures and races we share more than 99 percent. In this story, a young white boy was left on his father's farm - obviously this farm had been appropriated from the natives when in 1948 laws were passed that made blacks settlers on their own lands. However, this young boy, partially ignorant of the taboos between black and white allowed his human instinct of love and affection towards a fellow human being to rule him. When on a night of a traditional festival, the black tribes sought to use their traditional route, which also passed through the white man's farm with a huge 'NO TRESPASSERS. NO RIGHT OF WAY' planted on the route, Ngumbane knew there could be troubled. As a foreman on the farm he had convinced his people to avoid using that route, but they were adamant. After all, they could not read the inscription on the board. Fortunately, the boy was alone on the farm and seeing the people pass through his farm, dressed up and joined them. There he helped an old man who was unable to make the long journey to the traditional gathering point for the celebration. He helped him onto his horse and as a lonely innocent white boy, unknown to the world of adults steeped in hatred and suspicion; he trudged to the centre of the activities, far off from his farm. Later, at home, when he saw two factions imitating the days of the conquest under the moonlight by pretending to be fighting one another, the adult fear of white men towards black men surged through him. He picked his gun, hid somewhere, waiting to fire upon the natives approaching his house. However, when one of the suspicious men walked into the lamplight and the boy shouted from his hideout, asking what he wanted, he told him he had only come for water. And water was offered; joined by another, they thanked him for what he did for the old man. This is what could have been. The peaceful coexistence of the two. And even though it had been drummed into the boy's head of the wickedness of the natives, he overcame it at a point where it mattered most.

Escape from Love by Jack Cope is a love story that could be read differently. A young white man, Franz, had inherited his father's farm, with all its native squatters. He was however, burdened with Aletta's love and his father's expectation of him. When they returned from a long vacation to realise that hundreds of his animals were missing, he sought to find the perpetrator, even though thousands still remained. The problem was how his father would take it. He would be deemed incompetent and his frail father might die as a result. Consequently, he decided to seek the help of a famous fetish Dismata, against the advice of Aletta. But did Franz have the heart to withstand or goes through all the grisly rites that would lead to identifying the perpetrator? Could he kill Aletta's favourite dog to find his animals? The pressure of marrying someone he really did not know, of his father's expectation and the fear of failure, and explaining to Aletta that the gun wound on the dog's leg was an accident, led to suicide.

That money is not everything is known to all. That respect for adults has become an ice-age trait is also known. So too is the traditional role of stories in pointing out our inadequacies. These three facts converge in Night at the Ford by Elise Muller. It is a beautiful story about an arrogant woman with supposedly modern sensibilities who thought she could pay the hospitality an old couple offered her when she got stranded in the dead of night in a location where the only structure available, as far as her eyes could see, was a tiny house miles off the main road. The morning after, after she had complained of the 'services' - the poor furnishings and the absence of luxury, she offered the couple enough money as payment for their hospitality. However, when the poor couple refused and told her that 'one doesn't charge for hospitality', her arrogance hit her full in the face. She was further dumbstruck, her ungratefulness cascading on her like a collapsed building, when she saw that the couple had offered her the best bedroom in the house - their own bedroom. This story, translated by Catherine Knox, showed that there is more to life than money; that respect and appreciation are priceless.

Herman Charles's Bekkersdal Marathon is one funny and extraordinary story. When Billy Robertse, a former sailor took up the job as an organist in Bekkersdale, he did not know that one day he would be at it for a whole day, non-stop. Father Dominee Welthagen was used to quoting the Psalm to the exact verse for the congregation. However, one day just as he quoted Chapter 119 of Psalm he was overtaken by a trance that stopped him for adding the verse. And there he stood; and there the congregation stood - with no idea of what their pastor expected of them or what was happening to him. And so began the congregation singing from the very first verse, hoping that when they had read enough, to Father Dominee's expectation, he would stop them. With this thought they sang from verse to verse, but the Father showed no sign. Billy Robertse consumed all the liquid - which was some sort of medicine that kept him from a certain 'sudden attack' - and asked for more. This went on till the 176th verse, when the drone of Amen and the sudden silence brought out the Father from his day-long trance.

Breyten Breytenbach's The Double Dying of an Ordinary Criminal is a detailed description of death by hanging. The author provided all the detailed steps and preparations involved in executing a criminal by this method. He also provided the psychological torment - the second death - that the condemned criminal go through, and the executioner too. And he did all these in a beautiful poetic language as if the beauty of the language should atone for the gruesomeness of the things described: of the snapping heads and freed uterus and ova. It also touches on the race discrimination that existed in South Africa. It is clear that almost all the condemned prisoners were 'unwhites'.

The Brothers by Ivan Vladislavic is a story of brotherliness and of deception. Two brothers were travelling to their farm house and had been helping each other on the way. When one developed a sore, the other carried him and with this they progressed through the desolate plains. But another guy who followed them saw their togetherness and seeing that he could devour the two brothers at a time, mapped out a strategy to separate them and then consume them one after the other. First he took one of the brothers away, promising the other that they would come back with a car to for him. This was not to be the case, for after a few miles he jumped onto the brother and injected himself into him such that when the brother reached the road leading home and he raised his head the brothers could not see each other and so were lost to each other, separated for life. This could be a symbolic representation of South African history - the blacks (Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, etc), British, and then the Boers, who in 1948 after winning the elections instituted apartheid. Prior to their coming to power, the Boers had fought the English on several occasions and the Boers requested the subjugation of the blacks be part of the constitution as part of the road map to peace. This triad is what Ivan depicted in his story.

For Four Voices by Hennie Aucamp (and translated by Ian Ferguson) tells the story of a suicide from four different voices, or characters. It is a complex story which still remains incomplete in its tell after each of the four had narrated their version. Freddy had migrated into a different town. In this town, he befriended some individuals and a coterie was formed that included Beiman. Then one day someone - because each of the versions had a different say on who called for this - came up with the idea that Freddy should dress like a woman (Fifi) to trick Beiman. This went on as planned and Beiman fell in love with Fifi. Perhaps Beiman thought Freddy was truly a girl, something the latter doubted; but Freddy harboured a sort of homosexual love for Beiman. Before Fifi could leave town (to be transformed back into Freddy) the two shared a passionate kiss. Beiman asked for her address and Freddy who worked as a postman gave it to him. They began to write to each other. But in the end Freddy, who could not live his wishes and could also not tell Beiman the truth - that there is no Fifi, that he was her - committed suicide.

Etienne van Heerden's Mad Dog (translated by Catherine Knox) is about the plight of a black family escaping famine and drought and their fear of a mad rabid dog following them. Rabies had become common and rabid dogs were a thing to fear; however, this one turned out to be, or by his sudden disappearance after the family chanced upon a deserted house filled with food and other provisioning, the uncle of Jakadas, the husband or the patriarch of the family. The desolation of the land was congruous with the desolation and paucity of life in the lives of blacks. The sadness, the lifelessness of blacks in apartheid South Africa virtually seeped out of the story. They had to trudge hoping to find a job, which was scarce because of the drought, or to find anything that they could live on. They were prey to white folks and to other wild animals. And death haunted them like darkness at every turn. Yet, the mad dog, feared for its behaviour, rather led them on, like those ancestors who kept and pushed the uprising till freedom was attained.

Nadine Gordimer showed in The Conservationist that the natives' possession of the land is different from the settler's. That the blacks own the land in a way that is spiritual and communal; whites only for what the land could give them. Barto Smit showed something similar in I Take Back My Country (translated by Catherine Knox and Martin Trump). A black artist who was bent on taking his country back by drawing the landscapes in ways that was difficult for the art aficionado - who later became his friend - to appreciate. Though Silwane was hungry and starving - his mother too was - he would not sell his paintings. It was too precious than money; it meant more to him than a painting. To him, it is a store of memories to feed on after the greenness had been taken over by glass and concrete following the invasive and aggressive developments the country was going through.

Can Themba's The Suit tells the story of a man who found his wife with another man and instead of fuming and reacting instantaneously decided that the suit the perpetrator left behind, in his escape, should be treated as part of the family. Initially, the wife was unsure of the husband's intentions and took it calmly. She had come out unscathed. She could bear a mere suit. But Philemon insisted on what he wanted: the suit be treated as a guest, it be served food, and it be bathed. When Matilda threw a party for her friends, and in the presence of all Philemon insisted that the 'guest of honour' - the suit - be served, there was shock on the people's faces and questions began fly around. When Philemon was asked why he was insisting that the suit be served, he 'carelessly swung his head towards Matilda. "You should ask my wife. She knows the fellow best."' The suit became a medium of psychological torture, finally ending in her death.

A woman who wanted to keep her loved one visited a witch-doctor for a juju that would help her in this quest. The potions the witch-doctor gave her to use turned out to be a snake - the mamlambo, which cannot be just thrown away. It must have an owner. Sophie sought the help of another fetish priest who showed her what to do. One morning she put the snake in a suitcase and took off, to hand it over to a different owner. The old woman whom she left the suitcase with turned out to be the mother of Elias, a man who dated and deserted Sophie. The mamlambo finally came into the possession of Elias. In Mamlambo by Bheki Maseko, we get to know that we definitely reap what we had sown; that whatever we do, we would bear the consequences.

Thoughts in a Train by Mango Tshabangu, the shortest story in the collection, is a unique take on where fear lies in apartheid South Africa. According to the author, the white minority - though appropriated the best of everything and treated all others as slaves - like thieves lived in perpetual fear, hiding behind tall and electrified walls. Their neatly laid out communities was shrouded in a miasma of fear. And even when they travelled by train, they shut their windows, blocking out the landscape they had claimed for fear of seeing the products of their hands. On the other hand, the blacks, with nothing worth losing - no gold rings or diamond toothpick - lived freely in their quarters. Again, whereas the settlers lived soulessly on the land, in the country they have come to own, the blacks, though oppressed and dispossessed, were free.

The Zulu and the Zeide by Dan Jacobson also reflect what could have been, had a different path been taken. Not that this story differed from the realities of the day. No it does not. There was still some sort of abuse; a lot of disrespect towards the black men, and more. However, it showed that the bond between man and his fellow men is boundless. A young Zulu man struck a friendly relationship with a Jewish old man. Though none could speak the other's language, the friendship was deep and fulfilling. It was a friendship though the Zulu in actual fact was a caretaker of the old man, hired by the latter's son, because of the old man's penchant for walking, and getting lost in town. When the old man would not do anything without the Zulu and would not listen to his son, Harry Grossman (the son) was crazy. He could not understand why his father should be closer to a Zulu than to him. Harry mistreated the Zulu and when he realised that the Zulu had a family he was saving to bring them to the city, he was shattered, perhaps only now realising that the Zulu was a man, that he had a family just as he had his. That he too was a human being.

Nadine Gordimer's Six Feet of the Country explores the misunderstanding of whites towards blacks and their relationship with their ancestors. They do not understand why blacks should fuss over dead bodies. Why they should organise elaborate rituals just to bury the dead. A boy who had walked for about 800 miles from Zimbabwe (northern Rhodesia) to Johannesburg in search of better livelihood, had contracted pneumonia and died. The authorities who took him away for postmortem had buried him in an unmarked grave. The relatives of the dead boy began to demand their dead for burial from the boss. Later when inquiries showed that they had to pay for the exhumation, the baas thought this would dissuade them from pursuing the matter further. It did not. If anything at all, it brought them together, as Petrus - the headman - later presented the man with the required amount. However, the body the authorities handed it to them turned out to be that of a white man. Thus, even in death blacks could not own their own six feet of the country.

Ahmed Essop's The Hajji is a story about forgiveness and love. It is about putting humanity above religious doctrines and personal beliefs. It is about doing what is right for its sake and not be dissuaded by what others might think of us. Karim had left his brother Hassan and had married a white woman. After ten years, Karim is dying and his last wish was to see his brother and be buried like a Muslim. However, Hassan would not hear of this. Though he wished to do the right thing - to accept his brother, he was afraid he would be considered a weakling by his friends. Later, when the same people whose opinions were higher than his personal love for his brother came to plead with him to accept his brother back, his conviction and decision had matured to a level that there was no turning back. The brother died and just as he was about to be buried by the Muslim community, Hassan did everything to hold onto his brother for the last time. But it was too late.

Learning to Fly by Christopher Hope is about the cycle of torture and victimhood. It shows that at any one point, a torturer could become the victim of the tortured. Colonel 'Window-Jumpin' du Preez was a famous torturer whose victims almost always jumped through the window to their death. The system needed such a person as riots were becoming more rampant and the blacks difficult to push back. This was the period where apartheid was on its last leg. Du Preez always encouraged his victims to do the right thing, after he had tortured them to their limits and had obtained every piece of information he wanted, by jumping to their death. Unfortunately for him, he met his equal in Jake Mphahlele who did not only withstand Du Preez's tactics, but rather caused Du Preez to commit suicide by hanging. Mphahlele gained legendary status. At the collapse of apartheid and the beginning of the new one, Jake Mphahlele became its interrogator in chief, climbing to the position of a colonel. His victims were political prisoners, especially white prisoners and he became known as Colonel Jake 'Dancin'' Mphahlele, and after his name it was customary to add 'thank God', because he was a strong man...

Alan Paton's A Life for a Life is a classic tale of white-black relationship. It also showed how some crime are committed just for fulfillment. When a white farmer got killed, his senior headman became not just the suspect, but the one whose blood, if spilled, would avenge his master's death. This was because Enoch Maarman was the only one who could argue with Flip and who showed no fear of the baas. The investigating policeman knew what he should do. Early in the morning, Enoch was picked up - presumably for further questioning - but truly for revenge killing. In the evening he was reported dead by the police; he had accidentally slipped and fallen to his death and he had been buried. But Sara Maarman knew better. Detective Robertse - the investigating detective - had suddenly gone on leave. And Sara's brother could play no role because he was afraid that the licence that permitted him to sell meat could be revoked. Back on the farm, the new baas of Kroon, Baas Gysbert, gave Sara three days to pack all her possessions and leave the house for the new senior headman.

A Trip to the Gifberge by Zoe Wicomb is about the uneasy relationship between a daughter - who had come back home after education abroad (London) and her mother, as they lived through the plains of the Khoi-khoi people, discussing apartheid on the by.

If a people's historical antecedents and environments influence their literature, then South Africa's literature will not be complete without the apartheid theme. Yet, the existence of apartheid for such a long time negatively affected a comprehensive South African literature. Writings by blacks were affected. First, they had no education or time to write. The few who had acquired some learning were either in exile or were at the fore-front of the struggle and fiction writing remained fantastic hallucinations on their minds. It is for this reason why the post-apartheid literature that exploded within the last two decades had revolved around the apartheid theme. It is now being written about. Second, those who took the chance to write wrote mostly short articles and stories. Mandela's first book published by Heinemann No Easy Walk to Freedom and Steve Biko's I Write What I Like were all collections of articles and ideas; none capable of being published alone.

This collection of short stories provides a glimpse of life in South Africa then. The summaries provided here showed that each story could be politically interpreted. It is recommended but should not be read in isolation as knowledge of the country's history is important for complete appreciation.
About the Editor: A novelist, poet and essayist, Denis Hirson grew up in apartheid-ridden Johannesburg, South Africa. He left the country at the age of 22, after his father's release from jail. Moving firs to the UK, he later settled in France in 1975, where he teaches. Remaining true to the title of one of his poems - The long distance South African, he has written several novels revolving around the memory of the apartheid years. From his debut book The House Next Door to Africa to the much praised I Remember King Kong (The Boxer), his frequent crossing between prose and poetry have installed him as one of South Africa's most original voices. [Source]


  1. And I just ordered Athol Fugard's "Statements," a trilogy of plays written during Apartheid. It'll be interesting to see light it sheds on South Africa's past.

  2. I will like to read your thoughts on it.


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