WHERE WERE YOU when Nelson Mandela was released from prison? Who were you when human faeces were plied on one of South Africa’s most prominent public sculptures? Why aren’t you vegan? How did you react to news of the Marikana massacre in August 2017? One of the classic problems with actuality writing is how quickly it dates. Rattling the Cage, Brent Meersman’s unabashedly personal and opinionated foray into the twists and circumstances of everything that has defined South Africa of late, pulls no punches.
It might, however, leave your proverbial cage feeling less than rattled – depending on your own context and your own opinions of these cornerstone events. Divided into six sections dealing with the pricks and kicks that South Africa has given and taken in the last three decades or so, the narrative unfolds in broad brush strokes. And on one level, this works incredibly well. But what is it that makes Meersman’s work stand aside from others in this field?
Firstly, his writing is impeccable. He reaches into the potentially murky waters of writing in the first person and generally is successful in yielding copy that you can relate to. Many of the pieces succeed in standing their own ground, out of the reach of history and into that of thought and dialogue. There are, however moments in which the work dips into feeling more like punts for the value of GroundUp, an online platform for which Meersman works as deputy editor.
Not to say that this is a bad thing: GroundUp is a vital resource that tells the stories of those who are not covered by more mainstream media outlets, but the line is jagged and blurry between what is Meersman’s take and what, GroundUp’s. And while you read it, on the one hand, you yearn for a compilation of GroundUp’s best pieces, and on the other, for copy clean of GroundUp and resting more on Meersman’s opinions.
But there, often, lies the rub. Sometimes Meersman’s opinions seem stapled on to the end of a chapter, a little caveat of self: a small attempt to take obvious ownership of a given opinion. This leaves the work uneven – and sometimes even self-deprecating – in its narrative voice. And while some of these essays – including the notion of Nelson Mandela being a sell-out, the account of the violent protests on campuses in 2016 and the vegan extrapolation, are gold, in terms of Meersman’s turns of phrases and the way in which he situates his voice, not all of them are.
Having said that, it is these self-standing passages that could be viably and vitally used in the educational context. These are the kinds of short essays that young people at school could be instructed to read and answer questions about; the kind of short essays that encapsulate a timeframe with all its pizzazz and acrimony. And that offer muscle as a learning tool, and one in which empathy and discourse can be sown.
For that reason, Rattling the Cage is a very important book and a good read. Clean of heavy duty economic or political diatribes, it reveals how art illiterate contemporary South Africa is, as it reflects on the currency of the Porsche Cayenne that indicates the rude disparities in our economy.
- Rattling the Cage: Reflections on Democratic South Africa by Brent Meersman is published by Picador Africa (an imprint of Pan MacMillan), Johannesburg (2021).