Five Lives: Love and hurt under apartheid


A tale of the relentless complexity of sibling lives and how they can intertwine and contradict and hurt each other, under the devastating pall of apartheid, just before democracy, Five Lives at Noon is a real page turner.

Meersman has created a bevy of characters which populate this text with a gutturalness and a sense of human grit that make you believe you will recognise them in the street. Tainted and broken and built and shaped by the racist laws that forged their roots, Joseph, Zukiswa, Mfundi, Francois and Bertie are roughly of the same age, but the enormous differences in their skin colour and spiritual make up have forced them into alarmingly radical directions.

This is no coming-of-age story. It’s a love story. It’s about sibling love and illegal love. It’s about marriage and disappointment. It’s about the horror of betrayal when the stakes are as high as they can get. Above all, it’s about the mire of complexity that being raised under apartheid represented for so many.

Underpinning the whole narrative is a tight and hilarious critique of the contemporary South African art world. The unequivocal highlight in this book’s writing is a description of the opening night of an art exhibition. It’s handled with the juicy acerbic wit of an insider/outsider in the arts community and Meersman infiltrates his words with as much visual caricature and wisdom as you can find in the best of the work of German Expressionist painter, Otto Dix. Even if you don’t know anything about South Africa or don’t resonate with the heavy dreadfulness of how things unfold in central thread to this story, this passage in the text is to be simply cherished.

With each chapter punctuated with genuine headlines and précis of media stories that rocked the city at the time, the work also features feisty thumbnail biographies of people like Harry Oppenheimer, Mangosutho Buthelezi and Chris Hani – very different and singularly important icons in the South African contemporary narrative.

If you are not South African or don’t have an internal memory of the goings on in the country during the early 1990s, however, you might find yourself a little at sea regarding these disruptions in the yarn that Meersman casts. Handled in a different font from the rest of the text, they are clear digressions but are not stitched to the central story with conviction.

But replete with hairpin twists in its plot, and often as not covered in the historical blood, cruelty and malice which defined military apartheid values, this book will leave you stunned and covered in goosebumps, if not tears, often.

Five Lives at Noon by Brent Meersman (2013: Missing Ink, Vlaeberg).

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