Decency in a time of hateful chaos

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IT IS SELDOM that you read a chunk of autobiographical writing by someone and come away not only with a deeper understanding of the historical context of the period under scrutiny, but also with a genuine warmth toward the writer himself. This is patently apparent in this text by Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein (1920-2002), one of the heroes of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, which is beautifully honed, curated and articulated.

The downside of this eminently meaty read which is at times surprising, exciting and witty, as it takes you through the detail and history of South Africa and pulls you through the bristly heart of the anti-apartheid struggle, is the handling of the publication: there are some typographical errors in this iconic South African text. Not many. But enough. There is also a blatant lack of engagement with the material itself and Bernstein’s biography, which is disappointing. Both authors of the forewords, in this, the second edition of this publication – Lord Joel Joffe and Thabo Mbeki – basically write about what a jolly good text Bernstein’s is. And it is – they do not exaggerate, but both forewords read like press releases marketing the book rather than engagements with the text itself.

You might want to know what happened to Bernstein between 1994 and his death in 2002. You might want to know a little more about Bernstein, the man – though the basic decency of the writing and the way in which Bernstein describes his own position and challenges does a pretty good job of it. You might want to understand what prompted the writing of this important text or when it was published, or even why it was published again in 2017. You might want to know if the drawings on the book’s frontispiece and cover, presumably made by Bernstein himself, were from the Rivonia Trial or the Treason Trial. None of these mysteries are uncovered here.

However, once you get your teeth into the body of the text, all is forgiven. Taking you from 1938 through the challenges he faced in becoming the architect, the political activist, the communist, the husband and father and the mensch that he was, the text is fulsome and detailed. It’s crafted with a sense of openness – it’s written in the first person and the present tense throughout, but there’s a delicate balance that Bernstein achieves from beginning to end – it’s never self-congratulatory or egotistical, grand-standing or foolishly moralistic in its articulation. You’ll weep at the crude and cruel injustices of not only the apartheid regime, but also of the way in which men such as Bernstein were treated in prison.

This work sits with great comfort and dignity on the shelf alongside Raymond Suttner’s Inside Apartheid’s Prison and Jonathan Ancer’s Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson, not only for its historical iconicity but also for its readability and value as a publication, presenting an understanding of the monster of apartheid as something a lot more nuanced, dangerous and complicated than a litany of white legislation imposed on black civilians. It’s about vindictiveness and loyalty, paying the highest price for one’s values, and above all, it’s about the basic value of human decency. This is a must read for any reader of South African politics, young or old.

  • Memory Against Forgetting: Memoir of a Time in South African Politics 1928-1964 is by Rusty Bernstein and features forewords by Lord Joel Joffe and Thabo Mbeki. It is published by Wits University Press, Johannesburg 2017.
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When Time Fails: a small novel with an enormous guttural reach

TimeFailsSearing the South African political and Jewish landscape with a glance that takes in everything from the bizarre realities of farming culture and land reclamation to the philosophy of the kibbutz and where it is flawed, Marilyn Cohen De Villiers’s second blockbuster novel is a real page turner.

When Time Fails tells the complex story of an Afrikaans-speaking white South African woman called Annamari van Zyl. A mote in the eye of Alan Silverman, the central most disturbing character of Cohen De Villiers’s previous book A Beautiful Family, Annamari’s tale leaps off in a different direction and while you don’t have to have read the first book, it helps yet in a sense bruises the reading of the second.

The dovetailing of violent narrative between Cohen De Villiers’s two books fleshes out characters that were only sketched in roughly in the first book and leaves its reflections more three dimensional, but your knowledge of how things unfold in a Beautiful Family, does, in many ways, rob the story of some of its surprise elements. Then again, the Alan Silverman link is a bloody thread that runs through the book and keeps you turning pages until the ultimate climax of the work, and there are fresh hairpin bends that will keep you rivetted.

A consummately skilled writer, Cohen De Villiers has woven a text that reflects on the contradiction, quirkiness, challenges and horror of a so-called ordinary white South African family on the cusp of apartheid. Mixed with a frisson of violence, a delicate handling of sex and a deeply empathetic reflection on farming culture in the country and how it was beleaguered and encroached upon in different ways, the novel is very compelling, and from the first moment where an envelope is received from the department of land affairs, to the last, which sees the promise of happiness in an unexpected way, you will be intrigued and moved.

Structured with a satisfying formula, When Time Fails begins in 2014 and then slides back through the trajectory of time to the early 1980s, framing the story in history and context. Sprinkled with the harsh values of racist bias, considering not only the black and coloured communities, but the Jews as well, When Time Fails is well researched and developed with a mature eye that doesn’t flinch at describing some horrendous scenes and levels of violence.

Cast as it is against the unyielding landscape of a farm in South Africa’s Free State province, the writing embraces everything, from the weather to the light, to the lie central to Annamari’s identity, which acts as the underbelly to the work. You do know roughly how the work will unfold, given the parameters of possibility it presents, but there are some sheer surprises that have the power to make this read an all night long one.

Again, as she did in her debut publication last year, Cohen De Villiers has yielded a tour de force in this book which fits very smoothly into the pastoral novel genre specific to this country. But more than just a plaas roman in the conventional sense, the novel throws up the inherent contradictions of Jewish South Africans, and also of people marred by sexual behaviour reflecting psychiatric illness. Blended with an understanding of incest and its taboos and the strong arm of affirmative action in fields as diverse as cricket and law, in bold yet very intelligent sweeps, Cohen De Villiers’s pen embraces everything from Hansie Cronje’s sorry saga, to Thabo Mbeki’s HIV and Aids remedies.

Arguably with an appeal that will embrace a wider fan-base than A Beautiful Family, When Time Fails is written with a candid pen, and a strong sense of plot. It is eminently readable and perplexing in the social and community-focused dilemmas it suggests. In short: read this book. Cohen De Villiers promises a third in her prologue, and already, it’s keenly anticipated.

  • When Time Fails is written by Marilyn Cohen De Villiers and published by Mapolaje Publishers (2015).