REVIEW: New Times

New Times, Rehana Rossouw’s vivid new novel about the early days of the Rainbow Nation, traverses familiar territory for YAZEED KAMALDIEN.

New Times by Rehana Rossouw

Although circles around myself and author Rehana Rossouw have intertwined, we’ve never met. Those circles would be obvious since we are both journalists but then it’s ironic that we haven’t met because we operate in a small media world in the same country.

While we may not have met, I did pop in at one of her book talks, held at the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg with her relative – my dear friend – Nasia Seria. And I’ve worked for a few years with Chiara Carter, editor of Weekend Argus newspaper, who spoke at the Cape Town launch of this novel and who is a mutual friend. Then there’s author Barbara Boswell who is also mentioned, along with Carter, in the acknowledgements section of this book, whom we also share.

We are connected through the people we know, but not directly. Maybe I should just add her on Facebook, if she’s on there. Anyway, at least now I feel connected with her after having read New Times, which takes its name from the newspaper title where the novel’s lead character Ali Adams works as a journalist. The point of all of this mentioning of interconnectedness is to entrench a bit deeper the fact that Rossouw’s book is terribly familiar territory to me. That stretches from her depictions of Ali’s reflections on life in a busy newsroom to the Islamic traditions in Bo-Kaap she participates in. And then there are references to Cape Town’s left-leaning crowd who forms parts of characters in New Times. We still see them at Cuban government events and Palestinian support rallies in the Mother City.

When Carter saw New Times on my desk at the paper’s office where I’m still doing some freelance journalism, she stopped to talk about the left crowd referenced in the book, although not named of course. Carter joked about how they were having conversations about who was actually who in Rossouw’s novel.

New Timesthus appears as a deeply personal work for Rossouw. It feels as if she has literally taken her diary from reporting on South Africa’s social and political challenges – particular understanding its post-apartheid identity – and published it here as the story of Ali Adams. I’m not sure if she has mentioned this in any interview or whether any book reviewer elsewhere picked up on this. I’ve chosen to avoid reading anything about New Times in favour of forming my own reflection without influence.

Back to the main character: Ali is a journalist who has direct access to Nelson Mandela during his second year in office as the country’s first democratically elected president.

Fresh out of apartheid, she has black friends who served time on Robben Island and works closely with a white journalist who had links to the apartheid military. She sees the many faces of the country, as journalists often do, and shares it through her newspaper writing.

Reflecting on Ali’s close proximity to her sources, I’m always sceptical of journalists who get too close to political parties and politicians but, OK, one can understand the context of those back-in-the-day times. Back then the post-apartheid South Africa was all mixed up – well, it remains still mixed up.

It was common for anti-apartheid activists to turn up in newsrooms while their comrades would turn up in government, right next to Mandela.

Rossouw shows us the life of Ali, the young journalist, not yet 30, who navigates ins and outs of Rainbow Nation lives to tell stories, fight her demons, make peace with her household and find peace with herself.

As mentioned, the novel appears autobiographical, and it does not pretend to make grander statements than what it reflects: the new times of a new country. And what it all means for a young, female journalist.

A line in the book that appears as a tagline for the new times reflected in this book appears on page 20: “Sometimes it’s hard to understand the choices people make when they’re finally free.”

And so Ali asks tough questions about how the African National Congress – regarded as the liberation party that shook South Africa free from white apartheid rule – has turned its back on the people who ensured its victory. (The ANC is referred to in the book as The Movement, by the way.)

The writing pace moves at the pace of Ali’s busy life. When she’s not at work chasing deadlines and fighting monster managers she’s enjoying simple moments of shared meals that her grandmother makes in Bo-Kaap – a community whose residents and history Rossouw depicts with great affection. It is portrayed with all its Islamic gatherings, patriarchy and laikoms (we will get to that later).

I really liked how Rossouw’s brushes off the patriarchy without trying to sound too self-righteous. She doesn’t need to go on That Angry Feminist Rant to make her point.

I’m not meaning to take a dig at that kind of non-inclusive feminism that demands women should not wear burqas because white women don’t wear it so therefore no women should. I’m just saying that I like Rossouw’s way of showing that Ali’s feminism isn’t about burning a bra. It’s about claiming her space in the world on her terms.

And as someone who knows the hell of newsrooms – and its accompanying patriarchy, chauvinism, and the way critical thinking can easily be trumped by knee-jerk reactionary drivel – it’s great to see a story about a female journalist of colour who kicks butt at her job.

We all know and can see that race and representation in media is still not as diverse as it could be. And racism is still an issue in the media, whether in newsrooms or in the endless reports of pathetic racism that erupts across South Africa and beyond.

To state the obvious: Rossouw is a woman of colour who wrote her story. She placed a character into the archive of our collective library that tells our stories. She writes without much fuss or pretence about navigating the journalism, politics, her community and race. None of it is blatant or pedantic, thank goodness. There is no political correct bullshit either. Rossouw has a sense of humour too, which shows in New Times.

Her Muslim, woman, journalist character is very real: she smokes, she swears, she prays, she loves her family, she tells men where to get off and she even does a shadow boxing bout with Mandela in Parliament. It’s a story that I’m glad has been told.

And when I do eventually meet Rossouw, I’ll greet her: “Laikom, Rehana.”

That’s the Cape Town version of the longer Arabic greeting Asalamu alaykom wa rahmatulahi wa barakatu.

New Times is published by Jacana.

Yazeed Kamaldien is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town.

BOOK CLUB: Firepool

Firepool, Hedley Twidle’s outstanding new collection of essays, is an exquisitely observed snapshot of contemporary South Africa and a deeply personal journey into the mind of its author. By GARETH LANGDON.

In an age of social media, blogs and easy self-publication, the idea of the personal essay (and indeed, essays in general) has become almost repulsive to me. As Jia Tolentino opined in The New Yorker earlier this year the genre, which came to be dominated by whiny 20-something white women with a MacBook and a Lena Dunham poster on their wall, has largely faded away leaving in its wake a scorched earth of forgotten blogs and silenced millennials.

However unpopular it may be, the essay provides a unique lens through which to view the world. A good, well-written essay situates the author in the world in a particular, subjective way – providing a personal spin on a set of ideas or an argument that novels sometimes can’t do. In Hedley Twidle’s new collection of essays, Firepool, he does exactly that.

When I took Twidle’s English classes as a first-year student at the University of Cape Town, I found his teaching always engaged students in a way that was more casual, more inviting, and more human than the more formal lectures I was accustomed to elsewhere in the department. Twidle has done a good job of achieving this same comfortableness in his essays, without losing any of the intellectual rigour or political punch so necessary in a country as fraught as South Africa.

The collection moves, somewhat chronologically, from the author’s days as a young pupil at boarding school in KwaZulu-Natal, through to his years as a student at Oxford, his years as a lecturer at UCT, his personal experiences travelling through the country and some views on the contemporary politics of South Africa. The collection is named after an essay about the tragicomic “firepool” saga in which President Jacob Zuma used an exorbitant amount of taxpayer money to pay for additions to his private homestead in Nkandla. He claimed the lavish pool area, complete with auditorium style seating, was a “safety precaution” – the water there to be used in case of a fire breaking out among the many thatched rondavels of the homestead. The joke was aided by the performance of firemen pumping water from the pool to demonstrate its usefulness in an emergency. Twidle deals eloquently with this issue, and what it really says about our country and its leaders, in the final essay of the collection.

But “Firepool” is not a political opinion piece. It is not a criticism of South Africa and its many faults, nor is it explicitly an examination of the country’s many good qualities. What made “Firepool” an enjoyable read for me was how it placed the author’s personal experiences of the country in a broader national context. Novels, as Twidle notes, are protected by the golden rule of literary criticism: “This is not a book about the author, don’t read into it”. But the essay removes that veil entirely and in fact embraces the personal as a central part of its conceit.

Twidle is at his most deft in an essay about his hike along the Otter Trail, a five-day hike along South Africa’s coast. One of Twidle’s party is unashamedly racist; the essay carefully exposes the flaws in this man’s arguments, and the many frustrations the author suffers when engaging with him. It concludes amicably, noting the humanity of each attendee on the hike, despite their flaws. For Twidle, alongside a necessary self-awareness, is the empathy required to engage effectively in post-apartheid South African discourse – to be human in the face of hurt across racial divides.

The majority of the essays in the collection run in this fashion, placing the author in a seemingly typical situation – on campus, on a hike, writing or discussing literature, or thinking about his own position as a writer and teacher in South Africa – but manage also to look inward, relating the external to the internal. This kind of subjectivity speaks volumes of Twidle’s self-awareness and his desire to speak up and speak back to the national condition, something which is sorely needed in a society that all too easily loses perspective. Sucked up in the news cycle, from disaster to disaster, we can so easily forget about human emotion and its relationship to political experience, and its important role in the creation of a better future.

Without delving into each essay in detail here, I would go so far as to say that as a snapshot of contemporary South Africa, and as a deeply personal journey into the mind of the author, Firepool stands out amongst its peers. Twidle shows that it’s time to wrench the essay medium from the hands of the millennials, and bring it back to the bestseller shelves. For the right reasons.

Firepool is published by Kwela Books. Read an extract from the book here

POEM: The Cry of the Youth

BY LAZOLA PAMBO

Was it foolish of me,
to cast my vote for you
on that cold
Saturday morning?
Today, I am still unemployed
after your one hundred
empty promises
and still counting.

My sister is expecting
baby number three,
all the township girls
running away from university,
claiming that
child grants
are the best policy,

My elder brother conformed
by ministering in tavern,
and so today
he is a heavy beer drinker,
an academic of the lager.
Was it fair for you,
to bribe me with liberty
and build a mansion of lies?
Maybe we should rebel,
bring back 1976.
Have I been cast-away?
Oh Mr President,
I want to hear no more lies,
for such an occupation
is fit enough for lawyers,
who do a far
better job at it!

EXTRACT: What’s Gone Wrong? by Alex Boraine

Control is almost a fetish. It is not sufficient to control members of parliament; even mayors have to have their sanction, provincial premiers are elected by Luthuli House, all those who hold any office at all are under very tight supervision. The executive of the state has been replaced by the top six ANC leaders, who are Jacob Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa, Baleka Mbete, Gwede Mantashe, Jessie Duarte and Zweli Mkhize. Nothing happens without rigid control and deployment to ensure that loyal cadres are in place.

The aim remains the exercise of power at every level, and leading up to the 2014 election, Zuma and other leaders of the ANC are calling for a two-thirds majority. To what end? To change the Constitution in order to increase the power of government.

A further question which was raised in an earlier chapter is whether the criminality and the culture of corruption which occurred during exile foreshadowed the criminality and corruption which is rife amongst ANC leaders and many in public service, and seems endemic in every government institution. Bureaucracy, maladministration, wrong choices, deployment, political incoherence, the high life enjoyed by the top leadership, were all in evidence during the exile.

If all of this could be seen as a passing phase, mistakes made by a new government, it would be disturbing but understandable. New leadership with integrity could appear and steer the ship of state into a more positive, more moral direction. But if it is symptomatic of the ANC over the last 50 years, then it engenders a deep sense of uneasiness, an ominous suggestion that a failing state could become a failed state if not checked. Very importantly, it also means that reform from within the ANC is impossible.

Of course, there are many good people within the party, both at leadership level and in the rank and file, and many of these faithful supporters of the ANC must be deeply embarrassed and even ashamed by the failure of the senior leadership. But because the culture of power seems to be so ingrained, genuine and extensive reform is simply out of the question. What is needed is a new coalition which will give South Africa a fresh start and enable it to return to the period which has been termed the Mandela years.

It is the ANC’s obsession with power that engenders a culture of suspicion, distrust and extreme intolerance. This was evident in the period of exile and accounts today for the party’s disenchantment with the Constitutional Court and much of the media, and its contempt for parliament. In exile, it could be argued that the ANC had good cause to be paranoid and lacking in transparency. After all, the movement seemed to be riddled with state security agents. But nearly 20 years later, the same phobias exist and the ANC is no longer an exile movement but the government of South Africa. The leadership has not yet learned the lesson that a besieged movement in exile is not the same as a democratically elected government. It remains obsessed with control and is more concerned with the state of the party than with good governance for all South Africans.

What's Gone Wrong? by Alex Boraine Extracted from What’s Gone Wrong?, published by Jonathan Ball and available from Kalahari.com.