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.

Rainbow nation rogues and heroes

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

Ragged Glory is lucid, thoughtful and eloquent: a calm and smoothly digestible account of democratic South Africa’s political stage. Peppered with quotes from interviews Hartley did as a political reporter, the book explores the both the style and substance of post-apartheid South Africa’s leaders. There is Nelson Mandela’s reconciliatory approach and his bid to steady a listing economic ship, which had been battered by years of sanctions and disinvestment, and had a jittery business community eyeing the life-rafts. Hartley looks at Thabo Mbeki’s ascendance, the insanity of his Aids denialism, and his eventual downfall. Then there is Jacob Zuma’s astonishing — rise to power, and the legal tussles (involving accusations of rape and corruption) that has so far been unable to ensnare him.

But Ragged Glory is not just about politicos. Government’s policy formulation (and its spotty implementation) is accessibly decoded too. Hartley introduces us to the alphabet soup of abbreviations that would mark the constantly shifting approach to tackling apartheid’s legacy and growing the economy. First was the ill-fated RDP (the Reconstruction and Development Programme) whose only significant legacy, it seems, is to be the colloquial (and incorrect) adjective applied to low-cost government housing. Mbeki’s Gear (Growth, Employment and Redistribution) came next. It was pro-market and recognised the need for a labour market in which it was easier to hire and fire people— much to the horror of the ANC’s trade union allies who felt increasingly isolated by the imperious Mbeki’s imperious disdain for consensus-building. Gear was also abandoned, in favour of Asgisa (Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative), which emphasised spending on big infrastructure projects to try to curb the country’s stubbornly high unemployment rates. Hartley captures the ever-more vigorous muddying of policy waters as Zuma sought to appease the left wing which had helped propel him into office: in 2009 he created both an economic development ministry (run by a COSATU man, Ebrahim Patel) as well as a national planning commission which would ultimately produce the much-praised but largely unfulfilled NDP (National Development Plan).

While there isn’t much in Ragged Glory that you wouldn’t have known about had you been paying attention (or a frequent reader of one the newspapers Hartley has written for, or helmed) over the last 20 years, Hartley ably puts it all in context, providing sharp analysis and a narrative flow that sweeps you beyond the headlines to a better understanding of the political landscape. There’s not a lumpen cliche in sight; Hartley has a refreshingly crisp, vivid turn-of-phrase — for example: After a cycle in the political washing machine, Gear would have lost its bold colours and emerged as a faded quilt of stitched-together policies.

Hartley isn’t polemical — he marshals the facts to make a quietly scathing indictment of the erosion of the rule of law and “the rising tide of corruption and self-enrichment”. “There is hope for South Africa,” he concludes in the book’s final chapter. But while there is hope, Hartley shows the alarm bells are ringing, too.

Ragged Glory is published by Jonathan Ball and is available from Kalahari.com.

EXTRACT: Opposite Mandela by Tony Leon

Brian Gilbertson, the angular, youthful-looking chief executive of the mining giant Gencor, was an unusual business titan in South Africa in the 1990s. More in desperation than expectation, I had visited him around September 1995, to request funding for my party’s very threadbare municipal election campaign. At the time, other than the Oppenheimer family, most of Johannesburg’s commercial community met such entreaties with big smiles and very small, if any, cheques. Gilbertson, however, completely understood the need for robust opposition and promptly wrote a cheque for R250 000. He also requested my presence at the imminent opening of his company’s corporate headquarters.

So rewarded, I duly presented myself on a balmy Friday evening in downtown Johannesburg at the rather splendidly reconfigured Gencor building. We were gathered, the leaders of South African corporate and political leadership, in a marquee set up outside.

I was not surprised by the presence of President Mandela, there to provide the keynote speech. After all, he set great store by obtaining the buy-in of business leaders, both to fund his cause and to keep faith with the course of the new South Africa. I had witnessed this just over a year before, in June 1994, at the banquet he hosted for François Mitterrand. I, along with other guests, had been somewhat startled, then, when he hastily departed the dinner after the first course. It later transpired that his finance minister (and Gilbertson’s predecessor at Gencor), Derek Keys, was about to quit his post; Mandela needed to leave the dinner to telephone such business luminaries as Harry Oppenheimer, Donald Gordon and Marinus Daling to apprise them of this before it was announced, and to receive their blessing for his designated successor, Chris Liebenberg, the former head of Nedbank. Reassuring the markets and their leaders was a key presidential priority.

Equally unsurprising was the presence at the Gencor bash that evening of FW de Klerk. Gencor, after all, was the latest corporate iteration of General Mining, which, with some assistance from Anglo’s Harry Oppenheimer, had in the mid-1960s become the first Afrikaner-controlled mining corporation in the country, nearly eighty years after gold had first been discovered on the Witwatersrand back in 1886. De Klerk was the inheritor of a patient political tradition that, in matters economic at least, set considerable store by the empowerment of die volk (the people, or Afrikaners).

But what followed was completely unexpected for the several hundred guests, me included, arrayed before the podium. Having commenced a prepared speech of suitable and forgettable politeness, Mandela took off his reading glasses midway through his courtesies and went vehemently off script. In altogether more memorable fashion, he launched a root-and-branch attack on the National Party, blaming it directly for the crime wave then engulfing the suburbs and townships of South Africa, and which had been a central theme of the recent local government elections in Johannesburg. His angry tone was reflected in his eyes, which seemed to focus directly on De Klerk, then serving alongside Mandela in the Government of National Unity (GNU). As the former president later wrote in his autobiography: ‘He worded [the attack] in such a manner that it was clear that he had targeted me personally as leader of the party.’

This somewhat dampened the bonhomie of the night, but we all duly retreated into the building for the banquet – all except Mandela, who had indicated he would have to leave before the meal began. It was only the next morning, when The Star newspaper splashed candid pictures across its pages, that South Africa learnt that Mandela’s dressing-down of De Klerk had continued outside on the pavement. The photographs showed the two joint Nobel Prize winners wagging fingers at each other – with an anxious-looking Minister of Mineral and Energy Affairs, Pik Botha, trying to intercede. This was a further reminder to the country that the relationship at the summit of political power was neither peaceful nor happy. In fact, De Klerk and the National Party’s presence in government would end, by their own hand, less than a year after the showdown that evening.

Extracted from Opposite Mandela, published by Jonathan Ball and available from Kalahari.com. Read the AERODROME interview with Leon about the book here.