REVIEW: Grace

MANOSA NTHUNYA reviews the new novel by Barbara Boswell.

“Her whole life it had been drummed into Grace that every living thing had its cross to bear.” This is what Barbara Boswell’s protagonist, Grace, lives with, and accepts, from an early age. It is the knowledge that life is difficult and therefore every single being has to bear something as long as they are a part of it. The perilous aspect of this is that one bears what one cannot anticipate and it is here that Boswell’s remarkable debut novel, Grace, shows how vulnerable human life is.

The first part the novel is set in the 1980s, a tumultuous time in South African history, in the Cape Flats. Grace is a teenager who has little interest in the political matters of her day. Even though other young people, including Johnny, her first love, are engaged in the struggle, she has been taught by her parents to respect authority and to therefore not participate in actions that challenge its power. This approach to political issues is, as the reader slowly learns, also tied to how she responds to events that take place in her own home. Grace’s father, Patrick, is an abusive alcoholic who does not tolerate dissenting views from his wife, Mary, or Grace. When the novel begins, Mary has made a decision to divorce him and it is this act that informs how the plot evolves. The narrative moves between their present lives and their past and in this way allows the reader to see the devastating impact that Patrick has had on them.

Boswell’s stunning novel is about the consequences of living in a world where power is distributed in a hierarchical manner and the dehumanising effects this has. Grace admires her mother’s beauty and often compares herself to her. What she sees, however, when she looks at herself is “a pleasant round face, nut-brown skin and adequately pretty eyes”.

There is, though, a contradiction between this figure that she admires and the abuse Mary has to endure from Grace’s father. In one moving scene, after another night of beating, Grace accompanies her disgraced mother to a cosmetic store where she is going to buy make-up in order to cover her injuries. Observing her mother, Grace is distressed at her mother’s “cowering” attitude towards the store’s white assistant when she is refused to test the make-up and instead told that as a coloured woman, she has to buy the product as testing is only reserved for white women.  It is no surprise then that “Grace wished her father would just die.”

When we meet Grace in the second part of the novel, in 1997, she seems to have a stable family; she has had the advantage of going to university and lives a lifestyle that makes her a part of the new black middle class. She is married and has a child with David, a man that she met at university and who gives her care and attention in a way that is vastly different to the relationship that she witnessed between her parents. She seems to be happy until her past returns to haunt her when her first lover, Johnny, who had mysteriously disappeared in the ’80s, returns and demands that they continue where they left off.

One of the questions that the novel asks is whether societies that have experienced trauma survive or will a traumatic history recreate itself in the new. The last paragraph of this novel attempts to answer this but is somewhat unconvincing. If individuals cannot anticipate what will happen to them, it seems impossible to see how one can claim to be free, as Grace does, even if they are in a process of reinventing their lives. Freedom will always depend on a constant negotiation with others, including those who might enter one’s life to question one’s assumption of freedom as Grace is consistently forced to learn. Ultimately, though, Grace is a beautifully written novel that interrogates the history of South Africa and its continued impact on personal lives with extraordinary effect.

Grace is published by Modjaji Books.

The talented mister mystery

BY GARETH LANGDON

People hide their scaredness, I don’t know why, but we all do. Maybe because we see people being brave in movies and stuff and we want to kind of be like them.

The decision to write anonymously is sometimes met with scorn. Critics snort and say “what are you hiding from? If you really believe what you’re saying, why not say it as yourself?” I had never read an anonymously authored novel before One Man, but I have more respect for the author now, and I fully understand the decision. There is power in anonymity.

One Man traces the events over a short period – probably about a week – in the lives of six protagonists. Characters get their own chapters. The overleaf tells us that Gwaza, an escaped convict on a revenge quest, is our lead. His chapters are written in a mix of poor English and Zulu, with some jail slang thrown in. The novel opens with Gwaza violently removing the tongue of an enemy in jail, and feeding it back to him. Not kid’s stuff, by any means. Gwaza is in hot pursuit of the lawyer who put him away, herself facing the realities of the South African legal system as she watches criminal after criminal escape conviction for violent crimes. Her young daughter Kiki also features, her chapters expertly rendered in a childlike prose that betray a much more nuanced understanding of the world around her. She is smart, but she is also spoilt. The youngster is being cared for by Mira, a twenty-something Afrikaans white woman who struggles with her career prospects after being denied a place in medical school due to affirmative action policies. Mira’s father, Mr Du Toit, features too, a chain smoking, heavy drinking oom who tries to sabotage his business before it is taken over by a young black entrepreneur with “the right connections”. The cast of six is completed by Joseph, the Du Toit’s gardener, who is actually a fully qualified doctor himself, forced to leave his home of Zimbabwe due to the lack of work.

By the character list alone, you can begin to see what this novel is doing. Between the disgruntled white tween, the angry Afrikaans man, the convict, the immigrant and the spoiled young future leader, the diverse tapestry of South African stereotype is more than well-catered for. But while a knee-jerk response may be to discount this novel as another feeble attempt at exposing stereotypes – stereotypes we all know are wrong and grow tired of – such a reaction would be misguided.

The novel is adeptly written. Without context, I cannot congratulate the author for an amazing debut in terms of literary nous. Nor can I congratulate him or her on an artful rendering of each individual voice, since it could be that this single anonymous author is a group of people familiar with these character tropes and properly equipped to write them. The anonymity has a peculiar effect then – it forced me to read the novel as novel only. As words on a page weaved together to tell a story. The “author” is well and truly silent here, and all that we are left with is the character’s voices, entities unto themselves.

The experience of reading One Man was peculiar, but revelatory. Existing outside of context and with authorial intent inscrutable, the novel excels as both exposé of South African society and as a call to readers to work harder to change what we see as wrong. One Man reflects the sometimes exhausting tragi-comedy that is the state of our nation through its nature as an artefact untethered from the political, racial or ideological assumptions we might make if we knew of the author’s identity. It tells it like it is, and also how it could be. One Man challenges the preconceptions of what a South African novel should be, and what South Africa as a nation and young democracy looks like and could be. I was deeply moved by the novel’s events but I was also frightened by the accuracy and power that it had.

I fear going into more detail may reveal the plot and the novel’s power would be shattered for you. But if you haven’t read any South African literature in a while, One Man is a great place to start.

One Man is published by Kwela Books.

10 QUESTIONS: Joel B. Pollak

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

Joel B. Pollak is the author of Wacko Birds, an account of the US Tea Party movement’s mixed fortunes and impact. He is the senior editor-at-large of Breitbart News, the right-leaning political news site founded by the late Andrew Breitbart. A graduate of both Harvard Law School and the University of Cape Town (where he studied a master’s in Jewish Studies), Pollak also served as Tony Leon’s speechwriter when the latter was leader of the official opposition in parliament.

Why did you write this book?

I wrote Wacko Birds firstly because I felt the Tea Party has been misunderstood. I wanted to show how it fit into the American political system as a necessary opposition force. In so doing, I hoped to explain its legitimacy to those who might otherwise be inclined to believe the worst media slander about it. I also wrote Wacko Birds because I think some constructive criticism of the Tea Party is long overdue—chiefly in regard to its failure to make the most of leadership opportunities.

How would you define the Tea Party?

The Tea Party can be defined by three core principles: a commitment to limited, constitutional government; strong opposition to runaway federal spending; and intolerance towards corruption, either for the benefit of business or labour. To that, some would add a traditional defence of American sovereignty. But that is more of a classic posture of the Republican Party, not the Tea Party in particular, which can be quite ambivalent about foreign policy.

What made it explode onto the political scene?

The seeds of what became the Tea Party were planted in the closing months of the George W. Bush administration, with inchoate conservative opposition to the massive Wall Street bailouts. Many felt that the big banks should be allowed to fail—that doing otherwise meant weakening the system of incentives that is necessary for a healthy, free market economy. What really triggered the Tea Party, however, was President Barack Obama’s massive stimulus package in February 2009—a law that spent nearly $1 trillion on propping up Obama’s political allies through grants to state and local governments, wasteful “green jobs” boondoggles, and the like. It was nearly 20 times larger than the stimulus Obama had promised on the campaign trail, nearly the cost of the entire war on terror, and a predictable failure. Many Americans were outraged by the plan—and by Obama’s clear refusal to consider Republican alternatives. That, combined with several political and media events I describe in Wacko Birds, caused the Tea Party to emerge as a political force that changed American politics.

What was the movement’s most pivotal moment?

Undoubtedly, the 2010 elections marked the high point of the Tea Party (so far), with massive victories for Republicans across the nation. Though the Republicans failed to take the Senate as well, it is important to understand just how important 2010 was, in terms of reversing the momentum that Obama and the Democrats had once had. No less than James Carville, Clinton political strategist extraordinaire, had predicted 40 years of congressional dominance for Democrats. So for the Tea Party to push Democrats to defeat so quickly was a great political achievement. It also halted, or rather slowed, the massive expansion of federal power and spending that Democrats had hoped to bring about in the wake of the 2008 crisis.

How much influence does it carry today?

The Tea Party carries tremendous influence in terms of defining American political debate, and holding the line on key issues. It single-handedly stopped Democrats and Republicans from forcing through was what euphemistically called “comprehensive immigration reform,” for example. However, in individual political races the Tea Party sometimes struggles. It has proven most effective at removing moderate Republicans from office, and rather less effective at dislodging left-wing Democrats, most obviously in the case of Barack Obama himself.

What was the most surprising thing you encountered while researching or writing the book?

I think the most surprising thing is how the Tea Party has embraced the book, despite some of my criticisms of the movement. I think that is a sign of political maturity.

What is the biggest misconception about the movement?

The biggest misconception is that it is racist. That is a lie propagated by the Democratic Party and its allies in the media. It is probably a lie that has filtered into South African perceptions of the Tea Party, via CNN and other sources. It has no basis whatsoever. Ironically, the Tea Party is actually responsible for the rapid rise of new, young black, Latino, and female candidates, who could not get around the gatekeepers of the Republican Party until they had the Tea Party to help them amplify their message. That is a reality the media ignore.

What lessons does this movement have for South Africa and other developing countries?

I think the most important lesson for South Africa is the importance of constitutional principles. My old friends in the Democratic Alliance may cringe—wrongly—to read this, but the fact is that the DA’s constitutionalism and the Tea Party’s constitutionalism are essentially the same. Without a strong constitution to restrain government, democracy quickly becomes tyranny. South Africa and other developing countries often define their goals in terms of what government sets out to achieve. But if they focused, as the Tea Party does, on the question of what individuals may achieve without interference from government, I think developing countries would benefit greatly. Part of the problem in South Africa is that big government is baked into the constitutional cake, as it were, with socioeconomic rights. That’s where the DA has been innovative in providing services by reducing the role of government. More of that is needed.

Your book has received an endorsement from Sarah Palin, one of the American Right’s most colourful and controversial characters. What’s your personal take on her, and do you think she’s got her sights set on the White House?

I think Sarah Palin can achieve anything she sets out to achieve. She is a uniquely authentic voice in American politics. I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon and evening with her and her family recently in Alaska, and they are wonderful, warm and genuine people. I think she has suffered greatly from the character assassination by Democrats and the media. But she has shown tremendous resilience, and she still has enormous impact on particular political races, when she chooses to become involved. I am not sure she wants to be president, but if not, any future administration should consider her for Secretary of Energy or Secretary of the Interior. No one better understands the balance of development and environment.

What does the future hold for the movement — do you think it will ever get someone into the White House?

I think any Republican who wants to win will have to be seen, simultaneously, as a Tea Party candidate and a candidate in general. In Wacko Birds, I describe how some Tea Party-backed leaders have managed that balance at the state level. There are several potential candidates in 2016 who could do the same at the national level. The more interesting thing to watch is how Democrats try to position themselves as more conservative than they actually are in order to minimize pushback from the Tea Party. That tells you the movement is winning.

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.