Nothing Left to Barter With

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Review of ’Bitter Fruit‘, Achmat Dangor, Atlantic £10.99

To be in Johannesburg ten years ago during the first post-apartheid elections was a wonderful experience - most of the time. One of the less inspiring moments was watching Pik Botha, one of the apartheid state‘s most prominent butchers, appear on an Oprah-style show where he oozed about the need for reconciliation and forgiveness. In an extraordinary act of humanity, some black people on the show said how they were prepared to forgive Pik‘s grievous crimes. But the women in the bar where I was watching were less ready to dispense absolution. ’String him up, string him up,‘ they chanted.

Achmat Dangor‘s novel explores the continuing hold of the apartheid years on the lives of South Africans today. Without hectoring, it brings home that although the end of apartheid was undoubtedly a victory it ended in a settlement where the rich ’gave us the government, kept the money‘.

Set in the final months of Nelson Mandela‘s presidency, it takes us into the lives of a ’coloured‘ (mixed race) family caught up in the ’grey, shadowy morality‘ of an ANC government ’bargaining, until there was nothing left to barter with, neither principle nor compromise‘.

Silas Ali, the father, is an old ANC activist whose government job in the justice ministry is to liaise with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is a veteran of the struggle who has suffered for his commitment, and knows he was right to resist the state, but feels an emptiness about what has been achieved. His life is thrown into new turmoil with the reappearance of François Du Boise, a loutish white security policeman who, 20 years earlier, raped Ali‘s wife, having thrown Silas into a police van. Du Boise is no longer the arrogant thug who terrorised so many people. He is disfigured by skin cancer and is trying to gain amnesty for his crimes from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Silas‘s wife, Lydia, is also from a ’coloured‘ family. She was not formally part of the anti-apartheid struggle but now finds a new confidence in her hospital work and the care of her son. But whatever calm she has found is disturbed by the return of Du Boise. In one brilliant scene we read of husband and wife dancing together in apparent serenity until we discover that Lydia is dancing with bare feet on broken glass.

Their son, Mikey, is a child of the ’new South Africa‘. But he is also imprisoned by the past. He finds out that he was born because of his mother‘s rape by Du Boise. Mikey, now pulled towards a group of Islamist activists, feels a certain contempt for his parents‘ generation: ’“The struggle” sowed the seeds of bright hopes and burning ideals, but look at what they are harvesting: an ordinariness.‘

Dangor grew up in one of the ’coloured‘ townships of Johannesburg, and saw for himself the racist evictions (forced removals) described in Bitter Fruit. He was active in the anti-apartheid struggle and became head of the Nelson Mandela Foundation in South Africa. It is all the more powerful when such a man describes the drab disillusion of the heroism of the ANC turning into a corporate managerial ethos.

Dangor‘s novel gets better the longer it goes on as it fills out a rounded picture of the remarkable gains of the ’rainbow nation‘ and how much still needs to be done to reach genuine liberation. It is in the end a story of a family and of personal experience. But it also casts a light on why democratic revolutions that do not transform class relations cannot set the human spirit free.