Inequality, death and compassion during apartheid


Leroy Dzenga


Apartheid South Africa is a time exploited by writers, the phase in itself is already emotive, any book that focuses on it already has a borrowed ambience owing to the setting.

People who wrote during the time projected their worlds from different perspectives. Others wrote from a point of anger, others vocalised their shame in the (then) status quo while others hoped things would stay the same way.

It created turpid relationships between many writers and their people. Many were expected to be expedient to further their people`s causes, black writers were expected to write for the nationalistic movements without questioning some of their odd ways.

White writers were expected by their people to use their words to preserve their privilege.

Those who wrote against this expected order faced rejection from their people as a basis of being sellouts while the audience they targeted would not be trusting based on colour and history.

Despite the dilemma, there are writers who braved and told stories as they were regardless of their colour as well as standing.

JM Coetzee in Age of Iron wrote a brave, graphic book that confronts a number of social realities at the time in apartheid South Africa.

The book reads like a set of long letters from a mother who misses her daughter who is overseas.

Elizabeth, was an elderly privileged white woman in a country nearing transition from colonial rule to self-rule, where events were volatile and violently unpredictable, who felt she had too much for a person nearing her last days on earth.

Being diagnosed with cancer she needed to rediscover herself for the last time before what she believed was her imminent departure.

But before she could even think of how she would go about her old age introspection journey, a scary and curious friend emerged.

In a country where there was stark inequality, she felt guilty of the space she had to share with just her thoughts while others struggled for a space to sleep.

What she always treated as a remote thought had come right by her doorstep. The homeless people she always pitied in her drives across the city, fate had brought one in her private space, at a time when she felt numb to most of the world`s realities.

Vercueil, a man whose story she did not know, but his truth she understood, came into her life with his loyal dog.

She did not fear the man, even in Cape Town, a city which was at the time riddled by violent crimes.

A paragraph in the book`s early chapters captures the character`s sentiments towards the strange man who had found space to curl in her spacious mansion yard.

“There were not so many homeless people in your time. But now they are part of life here. Do they frighten me? On the whole, no. A little begging, a little thieving; dirt, noise, drunkenness, no worse.”

Coetzee`s tact in introducing characters plays out when he brings in a racial dynamic to the narrative through Florence, the lady`s black house help.

Florence is trusted by the lady but comes from the townships where anger against racial inequality is brewing.

Florence`s son who was a freedom fighter was faced with a conflict. The person who played a key role in ensuring her family in the township was well fed was indirectly a part of a system they were trying to overturn.

Elizabeth finds herself fighting inequality on the side of those disenfranchised by the same system that preserved her privilege.

The book carries a graphic account of the nature of force that characterised police response to activism at that point, even Elizabeth, the main white character understood that although it was her privilege that was being preserved, the dosage was obscene.

Age of Iron, explores the concept of trust. Elizabeth trusted Vercueil to send the letters she wrote to her daughter in America. But this was a man who barely spoke as he waited for Elizabeth to succumb to cancer.

He wanted to oversee her death, she knew of his impatience towards her departure. Vercueil was troubled by her pain, he struggled with the idea playing the role of the de-facto angel of death.

The book carries a dose of painful colour. A well written account of beautiful struggles, Elizabeth in her last few days came to terms with what it meant to be privileged.

Her late life discovery in the wake of her cancer diagnosis was that she loved to fight for the poor and marginalized.

Tragedy was the same system that insulated her from what bedeviled Vercieuil and Florence, is the same system she fought.

Coetzee`s humour prose made the dilemma bearable, even for a mother who was not sure the letters she was writing for her daughter will be discarded or delivered.

The intensity of detail makes the book one of the most poignant writings on apartheid South Africa.

It was a brave piece of work, considering that the time it was published (1990) the democratic trajectory of the country was yet to be clear.

Released around the time Nelson Mandela left jail, Coetzee`s book can be a literary manual on inclusion.

With very little change in terms of power-race relations, Coetzee`s writings can fit into the narrative of modern day South Africa in a jigsaw manner, 29 years later.


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