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A conversation with Nelson Mandela

The reaction to Thunder in the Distance has been extremely positive, helped in no small measure by the claim by Dave Savides (who reviewed the book) that it is the best I have written, and that it could hold its own in the world of fiction.

But a friend of mine, whose opinion I value, disagrees. In his opinion No Country To Call Their Own, is the best book I’ve written.

So I read it again.

The genre is different, adventure versus history, but No Country, which tells the story of the struggle of the coloured people, is heartrending, universal and has relevance to the ongoing problems in South Africa today.

An example is a conversation that takes place on Robben Island between Nelson Mandela and the main character of the book, Falk Baartman. Falk was accused of an act of arson, tortured for days to extract a confession from him, and when they finally gave up, sent to Robben Island without a trial.

Seven months later Mandela asks to meet with him and at the end of their conversation he asks about the ANC.

“What do you think of the ANC, Falk?”

“You are the only political party accepting people of all races and I like that.”

“What else?”

“Nelson, I’m not one for political dogma. I recognise the necessity to organise people into parties to win elections and maybe it will come to that in time, in your ten to twenty years. It means a conglomeration of individual ideals into something that has universal appeal, or you won’t get the votes and that’s the bit I don’t like, the compromise to gain popularity.”

Mandela did not answer for a long time. It was another trait of his that Falk was to learn about; his pauses, almost actor-like, for effect.

“So, you’re a non-conformist?”

“I wouldn’t put it that way. In some areas of life I like discipline and conformity. I just don’t like compromise when it comes to values.”

“Like what?”

“Like human dignity. And honesty and truth. Bodies of people distort those things to their own goals of supremacy.”

“Supremacy. Interesting word. You think that’s necessary to govern?

“Yes, I do.”

“Well, Falk, you’re an interesting man. We must talk some more. I don’t agree with you, but I’ll think about it.”

And then the novel insinuates that the ANC deliberately downplayed the influence of the United Democratic Front in bringing about the fall of the apartheid regime, particularly the role played within that organisation, and others, of white, coloured and Indian men and women.

As part of the research for No Country my wife and I visited Rocklands in Mitchells Plain, the venue for the inaugural meeting of the UDF. This section of the novel is introduced by an excerpt from Johnny Steinberg’s book titled The Number;

“For all that Africans talk of colonialism having torn them from their roots, it is only the coloured minority in the Western Cape that suffers collective amnesia; where their past used to be, there is only insult.”

And this is what my wife and I found, as expressed in the novel:

The community hall in Rocklands is a very ordinary place. Visit it today and you will be hard pressed to see the historical context that should make it special. It has a small parking lot in front of it. Across the street there is more parking, a patch of tar lost in a vast empty tract of land, void of vegetation, one of those urban spaces that have no function. The building itself stands on a raised brick plinth but has no stature, long and low is the style, with ugly iron bars protecting the windows and entrance areas.

There is a library alongside, but even in that utility you will have difficulty finding a celebration of the event that put Rocklands on the political map of South Africa. If asked the librarian will bring out a small folder with a scant history. It’s disappointing.

And there is a monument, a thing constructed of steel and concrete, a sort of spire to tell you this is where the United Democratic Front was formed. It looks like one of those ugly workers’ memorials that you can find in former Soviet Bloc countries, idealised pictures of the proletariat marching with purpose, surrounded by relics of the struggle.

You can’t help wondering if the historical context has been buried deliberately to downplay the important role the UDF played in bring down Apartheid. After all, you can’t confuse the new proletariat. There can only be one victor.

I think my friend is right. The book published nearly ten years ago trumps the one published yesterday.

Published inBlog/Gallery

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