This year sees a spate of international novels wrestling with the subject of South Africa’s racial struggle: three Canadian titles, as well as British author Damian Barr’s buzzy You Will Be Safe Here. Finding a cause for such literary trends can prove impossible. Coincidence? Well-timed? (Thirty years ago the apartheid regime began to crumble as then-president P.W. Botha met the imprisoned Nelson Mandela for the first time.) Instead, let’s look at some of the best new and noteworthy fiction about South Africa, both international and from a new generation of South African writers who give credence to the idea that the country’s hope is in its women.
Damian Barr’s fiction debut, You Will Be Safe Here (Anansi International, 344 pages), follows teenaged Willem, who is sent to a camp called New Dawn, much like the camp where South African teen Raymond Buys was tortured to death in 2011. Ostensibly a “safari ranger training camp,” New Dawn turns out to be a militia training ground for the overtly neo-Nazi Afrikaner separatist group AWB. Barr sets the first part of his novel during the Boer War, in 1901 at the Bloemfontein concentration camp, one of the many such camps where British forces rounded up Afrikaner and black civilians. (Around 7,400 Canadians participated for the British side in the war, including in the camps.) The book delves into this history to show the war’s continued influence: Afrikaner resentment from the white concentration camps – where around 28,000 people died, 80 per cent of them children – festered into the hatred foundational to both apartheid and the camp where Willem arrives in 2010. Some have suggested places such as New Dawn, which continue to operate, are “conversion” camps. Barr is careful not to identify Willem’s sexuality, instead focusing on how others read him – a “moffie” (an Afrikaans slur for a gay man) for singing along to Britney Spears, for example. This emphasis highlights an anxiety around white masculinity in the new South Africa. Even Willem’s grandmother, his closest ally, admits her shame over Willem’s more feminine qualities, “But only because soft things don’t last in this world.”
Turning to some Canadian titles now: Kenneth Bonert’s 2018 novel The Mandela Plot (Knopf Canada, 480 pages) argues that the toxic vision of white masculinity represented in Barr’s novel is not new to South African society, but was necessary to the apartheid system all along, from boys’ school initiations introducing a taste for violence through to the compulsory military service for white men, law from 1967 to 1993. A follow-up to The Lion Seeker, Bonert’s 2013 debut, The Mandela Plot continues the story of the Helger family, Jewish immigrants from Lithuania who in Johannesburg are of the privileged white minority, even as they remain the target of virulent anti-Semitism. The author is himself the grandson of Lithuanian Jews and grew up in Johannesburg before moving to Toronto as a teenager in 1989. The Mandela Plot begins in 1988 with teenaged Martin Helger about to start at an elite Jewish boys’ school when an American university student draws him into the anti-apartheid struggle.
A similar relationship drives Oakland Ross’s Swimming with Horses (Dundurn, 368 pages), the outlier of these books, since roughly half of the novel takes place not in South Africa but the “horse country” northwest of Toronto during summer, 1963. Beneath this novel’s bildungsroman are the bones of a noirish mystery, made more intriguing for being narrated by a romantic, naive 15 year old who has a serious crush on an older South African girl working at a local stable. Ross based one character, Quinton Vasco, in part on the real-life Canadian arms inventor Gerald Bull, who spent six months in a U.S. federal prison for violating the UN weapons embargo on apartheid South Africa. It is commonly noted how apartheid’s continuation depended on white silence. In its setting and in Vasco, Swimming with Horses shows how complicity in apartheid, and the courage to fight it, is an issue Canadian readers can’t hold at a distance. After all, Canada has its own ongoing problems of racial inequality and colonial violence.
Where Barr only suggests the homosexuality of one of his characters, a lesbian relationship is of greater significance in Bianca Marais’s If You Want to Make God Laugh (Putnam, 448), set during South Africa’s transition to democracy. Marais, who was born in Johannesburg in the 1970s, moved to Toronto in 2012. (Canada is home to the fifth largest population in the South African diaspora.) It should be no surprise that the work of a recent South African-Canadian has the most in common with novels from other South African writers noted below. If You Want to Make God Laugh came out of Marais’s years volunteering for a non-profit caring for HIV-positive children in Soweto, South Africa’s largest black urban settlement. The novel is about a particular moment in the country’s history: the joy of black South Africans voting for the first time in the 1994 election, which saw Mandela elected president, mixed with the horror of sexual violence and the AIDS pandemic roaring through the informal settlements. As in Barr’s novel, the AWB is an antagonist here.
In Futhi Ntshingila’s 2018 novel We Kiss Them With Rain (Catalyst Press, 172 pages), set in a squatter camp outside Durban, a rumour spreads that HIV-positive men will be cured by sleeping with a virgin. “A sexual genocide of children and women began through rape by desperate men,” Ntshingila writes. Selected as a 2019 Outstanding International Book by the United States Board on Books for Young People, We Kiss Them With Rain has a fairy-tale quality despite its subjects, which include the spread of HIV and death from AIDS.
Rape, the furthest extreme of gendered violence, features in several of these books: the predatory “uncles” who stalk the camp in We Kiss Them With Rain as well as “corrective” rape in both If You Want to Make God Laugh and Kopano Matlwa’s 2018 novel Evening Primrose (Quercus Books, 160 pages). The latter novel, which was shortlisted for South Africa’s Barry Ronge Fiction Prize, follows Masechaba, a doctor disquieted by how the xenophobic inequities of the hospital where she works echo the apartheid era. Masechaba – who, similar to her author, is of the “born-free” generation – narrates with wry humour (“Maybe I’m just PMS-ing”) turned to self-rebuke (“If this were apartheid, I’d be one of those quiet white people who just stood by and watched it happen”) turned to dismay at news footage of migrants set alight by street mobs. Masechaba feels compelled to act and pays a high price.
Remarkably, three of these books (If You Want to Make God Laugh, We Kiss Them With Rain, and Yewande Omotoso’s Bom Boy) feature a white woman adopting a black or mixed-race baby, sometimes resulting in a Wisdom of Solomon scenario. “Bom boy” can be a term of endearment (“baby boy”), but also reproach for an adult man who has yet to grow up. In Omotoso’s Bom Boy (Catalyst Press, 182 pages) – which earned the Johannesburg-based writer a nod from the pan-African Etisalat Prize for first-time authors – the bom boy is Lékè. Adopted shortly after birth, Lékè grows into not bad man, but a strange, unformed one. He steals small things for no reason and makes doctor’s appointments though he’s physically well. What ails Lékè is that he doesn’t know his story; only by learning it can he end his family’s curse.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.