South Africa: getting a perspective

May 21, 2012

I can still remember the day I first heard about South Africa. I was eight years old and sitting in my classroom at school when our teacher – a young, smiley woman who reminded me of Miss Honey in Roald Dahl’s Matilda – came in excitedly to tell us it was a great day because a wonderful man called Nelson Mandela had been freed in a country that had been being unfair to black people for a long time and we were all going to write a story about it.

Twenty-two years later, that memory came back as I found myself having to decide which South African book to read for this project. I had a great list of titles kindly suggested by Sophy at South African literary site Books Live, but, for the first time this year, the question of the author’s race seemed significant. Should I choose something by a black or a white South African?

In the end, largely because I realised I couldn’t think of a book by a black South African author I’d read, apart from Mandela’s autobiography – whereas Gordimer, Trapido and Coetzee are regular guests in my imaginary universe – I decided to go with a black author and plumped for Siphiwo Mahala’s intriguing-sounding African Delights. 

Spanning the mid-late twentieth century, this irreverent, gutsy and absorbing collection of interlinked stories paints a picture of life in the townships and luxury districts of South Africa. From witty, local tales of men’s attempts to cover their infidelities, as in ‘The Suit Stories’, to parabolic portraits of the betrayal of the nation for short-term gain in the title story, the pieces span South African society, weaving a complex, rich and vibrant picture of this land of contradictions and unsettled scores.

Mahala’s conversational style is one of the keys to the book’s success. From the very first page, he casts us as characters in his stories so that reading his words is like sitting down at the kitchen table with the protagonists as they tell you the latest gossip, reaching over now and then to tap you playfully on the arm – ‘Ag man, I forgot that you young people wouldn’t know those dresses,’ says the narrator of the first story, for example, as he attempts to describe a girl who caught his eye.

This familiarity combines with a winning audacity to make many of Mahala’s characters irresistibly likeable even as they cheat, lie and pull the wool over other people’s eyes. In ‘Hunger’, for example, an impoverished student’s attempts to impress a Danish woman with his family connections are very funny:

‘”Yes, he’s my grandfather,” I said. Traditionally speaking, I was telling the truth. Mandela shared the same clan name as my grandmother, and that made him my grandfather. But the closest I had come to meeting him was seeing him on TV.’

Behind the bravado, wit and ingenuity, however, lurks a starker, darker truth. Shaded into the background of every story is the monstrous injustice of a society weighted heavily against more than half its citizens on racial grounds. Sometimes this is present only in the fleeting choice of which road to run down after dark because ‘a black man fleeing with a parcel tucked under his arm [...] could make a perfect shooting target’. At other times it erupts into the midst of stories, dragging lives off course, as in ‘White Encounters’, in which a maid loses her job for bringing her sick child to work and allowing him to play with the houseowner’s son.

Mahala, however, is careful not to allow his stories to become tales of us and them. Told from a variety of contradictory perspectives, which often see the narrators taking issue with one another’s descriptions of events, they are instead tales of me and me and me. We discover that the pious radio pastor of the previous story is running a racket and that the wronged woman is secretly pregnant with another man’s child. Or are they?

Memorable, fearless and funny, Mahala’s characters burst off the page. While apartheid may have engendered ‘a lingering bond that always brought [Africans] together’, Mahala’s stories prove that it did nothing to erase the individuality of those it sought to oppress. As this life-affirming and engrossing book shows us, nothing is ever truly black and white.

African Delights by Siphiwo Mahala (Jacana Media 2011)

9 Responses to “South Africa: getting a perspective”

  1. willettk said

    Nice post, and a useful introduction to me and many others who don’t know much about black South African writing.

    Quick question: is Doris Lessing South African? I know she was born in Iran and brought up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). I’m not aware of her living in South Africa for any period of time.

  2. alua said

    How about other than black or white? Like Indian-South African or Asian-South African? (I don’t know any such writers, but I would be interested in learning more.)

    Actually, all the white South Africans you mention write in English. I think reading a white South African writer who writes/wrote in Afrikaans would be rather interesting as well. I don’t know any names either, at least not on top of my head, although I did once have a (South African) course mate who studied literature written in Afrikaans. Have to go through my papers/emails, because I think I asked her to recommend some writers to me (this was like 8 years ago).

    What language does Mahala write in by the way?

    Okay, I’ll stop being an opinionated reader now. :-)

    • You’re certainly keeping me on my toes! Great to hear your views.

      Again good points on the other communities and language groups. Mahala writes in English. I was considering a Zulu novel at one point, but the list of recommendations from Books Live was (as far as I remember) exclusively English language and I was keen to take one of their suggestions.

  3. Other authors from South Africa include: Andre Brink (Dry White
    Summer and others) often written from an Afrikaaner’s perspective, Bryce Courtney (The Power of One, Thandia probably my favourite stories from South Africa), Gillian Slovo (wife of the late communist leader in SA, many years ago – Jo Slovo) James A Mitchener wrote in his historical style going way back and telling a vast tale much like the country itself – The Covenant.
    Fabulous task you’ve set yourself, I’d love to print this list out and try and make my way through some of them. Whats on your agenda for 2013?

  4. James said

    Just read the BBC article. Amazing project. On the issue of SA literature in translation, some of my fave novels about SA are translated into English from the original Afrikaans. Namely, those by Dalene Matthee, a descendent of Sir Walter Scott, dealing with the woodcutters and gold prospectors who worked the Knysna forests in the 19th century. Circles in the Forest is my favourite, followed by Fiela’s Child.

    • Great stuff – yes I would love to read some literature in translation from Afrikaans. Zulu too – someone gave me a fascinating novel in translation which is still on my to-read pile!

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