Dirt under the business front

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THE horror: Human trafficking is the focus of Elma Potgieter’s radio play Betrayal.

FROM THE GET go, you’re in a newspaper environment in a city where young women are currency and business fronts to terrible wheeling and dealing proliferate. This is Betrayal, an English-language radio play by Elma Potgieter, which attempts to bring in all the dirty threads that comprise the underhand stories central to our contemporary world, where little should be taken at surface value and psychopaths are hard to recognise. That is, until they are challenged.

It’s a good enough story, evoking from the first few moments, novels such as Peter Harris’s Bare Ground, or Marilyn Cohen De Villiers’s Deceive and Defend, which offer fictional insights into horrifying truths and how stories are cast into motion. But sadly, that is where the resemblance ends: Betrayal engages with the texture and urgency of a newspaper environment and a crime scene, but it is profoundly predictable in its structure and writing and often peppered with literary idioms and platitudes which compromise the realness of the characters.

Patrice Mathibela (Patrick Bokaba) is the kingpin in something that looks too good to be true. A wealthy businessman, he is set on turning the city’s problems upside down with a new establishment mooted ‘Nugget City’. He’s in a relationship with Alexa (Mpumelelo Manganya) who is also the Women’s Editor for The Voice, the newspaper which is the heart of the story. She’s the best friend of Lerato (Sibulele Gcilitshana), the paper’s news editor, who isn’t quite sure that all is kosher with her friend’s relationship.

The story gathers momentum under the watch of crime reporter, Sipho (Archie Nhlapo), and a secret letter from a young woman seals the deal. The rest happens as it must, leaving you curious as to what a news editor actually does, wondering what said letter said, and perplexed as to the absence of twists in this tale. As a result, even the title is painted in a shade too bland and unpromising, making you feel a tad betrayed.

In a sense, this work suffers from too much ambition and not enough development: in the brevity of an hour, not enough is left untold, you’re in the know from the first few moments and the denouement feels pushed in, hurriedly. Having said that, the characters are generally nicely developed and competently performed, but sometimes too many platitudes in their words make for woodenness in their presences.

  • Betrayal is written by Elma Potgieter. Directed by Posy Keogh, and featuring technical input by Bongi Thomas and Evert Snyman, it is performed by Patrick Bokaba, Emmanuel Castis, Sibulele Gcilitshana, Victor Malepe, Mpumelelo Manganya, Archie Nhlapo, Russel Savadier, and Bronwyn van Graan, and will be broadcast on SAFM – 104-107fm – on June 17 at 8pm.

Jewish Jo’burg through a dirty keyhole

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EVERY ONCE IN a while a novel might cross your path that snatches at every spare minute you have and occupies your every waking hour – until you’ve found out whodunit, that is, or how the narrative comes to closure. When you read Marilyn Cohen De Villiers’s Deceive and Defend, the third novel in her trilogy, mooted the Silverman saga, about conflict and sensationalism in an opulent Jewish Johannesburg family, be aware that all your other deadlines or commitments may fall into abeyance.

A story that begs comparison with the dexterity with which Agatha Christie plies her characters and inserts hairpin bends in how things transpire, this work (and the two that precede it) have something of the urgency and energy in the Lynda la Plante stories that were magicked into television mini-series in the 1990s under the Trial and Retribution titles, featuring David Hayman.

Even if you haven’t read Cohen De Villiers’s two other books, A Beautiful Family (2014) and When Time Fails (2015), you will be sucked into the complex relationship of the members of the Silverman family, addressing the threads cast out by the first two books. It’s a saga that touches on everything from sexual abuse to incest, child molestation to murder and while the authorial voices paints Jewish Johannesburg with devastating hues, it’s clearly fiction.

But it’s fiction that gives the notion of self-publishing a very important compliment: this writing, which is crisp and well defined, informed, racy and alive with contextual relevance, is stronger than a lot of contemporary published fiction. Similar to Peter Harris’s brilliant debut novel, Bare Ground, published earlier this year, the book is written with a firm sense of narrative, a playful and deeply intelligent understanding of language and a clarity that embraces all levels of contemporary South Africa, in a way that makes this trilogy arguably something of a great Jewish South African novel, that brings together many strands.

If you know Jewish Johannesburg, you may respond to this story more profoundly and with recognition. But, if you don’t, this book is not moored in a sense of insularity or parochialism – rather, against the broad narrative of the collapse of the journalism industry with the character Tracy Jacobs in the complicated quandary of wanting a story, a reputation and love but having a news editor with clear biases to contend with, the story is bigger than just the smarmy bits.

With research-based eyes on the field and current status of social work and that of prison in South Africa, Deceive and Defend is tightly woven, easily the strongest of three already strong texts, it’s an astonishing read which will keep you guessing incorrectly until the very last pages.

Having said all of that, the type setting of the book is not always satisfying on the eye – while the text is tightly packed, the attention to ‘widows and orphans’ in terms of hanging text is taken into consideration leaving the layout of the text upsetting to the eye. But as the narrative begins to flow, you forgive everything, as you hope your domestic responsibilities will forgive you for your absence, while you’re reading it.

Deceive and Defend by Marilyn Cohen de Villiers is published by Mapolaje Publishers (2018).

Jo’burg: A portrait with broken dreams

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YOU WILL RECOGNISE many characters in this debut novel by Peter Harris, not by their names, but by their amoral attitudes and cavalier actions that enable them to play loose and fast with money, values and other people’s lives. Bare Ground is absolutely unputdownable; it’s ideal holiday reading – not because it’s frothy and easy, but because it is crafted with such a deft understanding of the complexities of madness, human nature and greed with such an intelligent approach that you will race through it, your heart in your throat, in a bid to know what happens next. And you will be surprised by the nifty bends in the story, from its prologue to its very last word.

These characters are the ones who populate our news right now; you’ll find many a ‘flabby fellow’ in the tight fitting suit of a government minister, with mayonnaise from an expensive club sandwich dribbling down his front, and his face, distorted by the reflections in a whisky glass. Hell, you even encounter the president himself, who remains nameless behind dark glasses and much unmirthful laughter. He’s a man to be avoided, or cherished and adulated, depending on how much you – or your loved ones – have benefited from him over the years.

Bare Ground is the complex tale of Max Sinclair, a man born of South African privilege who seems to be piling riches on riches as he goes. With Oxford credentials, he was raised a lonely child, but has grown into someone controversially respected. Perfect though he may seem, from his sharply ironed impeccable clothing to his taste in the most expensive cars and whiskies, he’s a man not without personal horrors.

It’s also the tale of Sifiso Lesibe, an earnest hard-working geologist from the Eastern Cape who studied at Rhodes University. Like anyone in his shoes, he’s ambitious and wants good things for his young family. In every way, this chap is ideal grist for the mill of sordid hypocrisy, writhing snakes and gifts – a multitude of gifts cast in the sickly sweetness of dangerous traps, hidden resources and corporate crime on a massive scale.

And then there’s the straight lawyer, and the guy with struggle credentials who smells a rat and finds a notebook. There’s the wives who have more perspicuity than their men credit them with, and the contexts and childhoods which have left their mark on each individual. Stereotypes abound here, and the narrative is laced with the relentless sound of singing cicadas, a cipher of horror and insanity that subsists just under the surface of the unfolding events.

More than all of this, it’s a story about the mining history of this city, and how even the mine dumps, detritus of an earlier history of mining technology, become useful means to continue squeezing money from it. Think the biggest mining consortium the country has seen being put together, but also think kick backs and cartels, deals and sinister manoeuvres, the kind that keep the backstabbing in corporate jargon alive and seething. It’s a racy tale by any account, but it is written so well and has its characters and their contexts so intently and wittily described with such strong and convincing narrative line work and colour that you feel you are a part of it all.

Everything from opportunistic crime at Johannesburg’s traffic lights to the dirty little street urchins, some more horribly deformed than others, comes under the loupe of this exceptionally fine novel, playing its role in the richly textured portrayal of contemporary Johannesburg with all its rough and tumble, underhandedness and disparities. If you’re not from Johannesburg – or South Africa – you may find some of the references to real monsters in contemporary society a bit obscure, but that will not hurt the rollercoaster you will find yourself on in every one of Bare Ground’s 291 pages.

  • Bare Ground by Peter Harris is published by Picador Africa, Johannesburg (2017).