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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Everything you ever wanted to know about crime, but were too afraid to ask

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IT INFILTRATES OUR very existence – from the way in which we conduct ourselves in life, to the literature we read, the misconceptions of others we indulge in and the sensationalism that it smears across a world of broken dreams. The concept and reality of crime, that is. And with this reflection on the all-pervasiveness of it, the Comaroffs’ latest publication The Truth About Crime is unputdownable, but not for the conventional reasons. This foray into the complexities of crime, particularly in a South African context comes under the intense focus of quintessential seasoned sociologists Jean and John Comaroff; while you will not emerge with one gleaming “truth” which reflects “solution”, you will have a rollercoaster of a read.

Academic writing is a curious thing. Fraught with many rules of accreditation and checks and balances, it can be immensely dry and formulaic. Combined with old-fashioned hard work and rigorous intelligence, it can surpass the value of any bit of fiction, even yarns well-written. And this is what you get here: an intense, oft witty, detailed and wise explication on stories that go bump in the night, about real people. The text is dense but it flows with a mellifluousness that makes you want to read it out aloud. The Comaroffs play with sounds and idioms, with parables and metaphors as they knit together associations and perceptions, book research and field work.

While they do manifest a tendency to use terms like the ancient regime as a reflection on apartheid, which might not necessarily always be contextually meaningful to most readers, and you obviously need to bypass the in-text references if you’re just an ordinary reader and not an academic, these are minor digressions that cannot even be seen as inconveniences. The text is divided into two parts – the first offers insight into the historical dynamics of modernity and its interface with policing, the order of things, and the economy of representation; the second looks at the other side of crime dynamics, the mythostats and the kangaroo courts, the witch hunts and the alternative methods designed and marketed to keep crooks out of your stuff, including the fake ivy product on the contemporary South African market called Eina!

Stories pepper the text, from the big headline events that saw Oscar Pistorius attempt to use white fear as a foil to explain the violent death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, to more low key ones that sometimes don’t make it to headlines, but are nevertheless no less complex and disturbing. These include the 50-year-old hairdresser in the Western Cape willing to sjambok any miscreant to death in the name of social justice. They’re stories told with a great deal of levity, accessible facts and balance, leading you through the Comaroffs’ focus by the proverbial hand.

Indeed, the book touches on all the bits and pieces that comprise our society, and there are moments in which you will feel as though you’re reading a South African manifestation of Michel Foucault, touching as it does on so many elements that point to the basis of power in our society. But it is not the last word in crime. It’s not a how-to text that offers you insight into where you should go to protect your body, your loved ones and your life from being hurt by others. But it doesn’t pretend to be.

You emerge from this heady read with a whole lot of stories that you won’t forget in a hurry. You emerge with an enlarged sense of context as to the huge catchall that may be understood as criminal behaviour – from the draconian rules and appalling legalism applied by the apartheid regime, to the values of the 1990s Muslim organisation People Against Gangsterism and Drugs that was headlined in the Western Cape. It’s a book that will stand proud and well-thumbed on any reader’s bookshelf – over and above the mandatory university library and syllabus for which it is designed.

  • The Truth About Crime: Sovereignty, Knowledge, Social Order by Jean Comaroff and John L Comaroff is published by Wits University Press (2017).

Here’s looking at you. And you. And you.

Recognition.jpgTHERE’S SOMETHING UNMISSABLY effervescent about a beautifully written short story. It has not only to do with its brevity, but with the way in which its writer crafts a whole universe in a few pages. And with a particularly good short story, it’s a universe replete with everything, a universe that will haunt you forever. This is the kind of experience you can anticipate with David Medalie’s latest anthology of South African short stories, Recognition.

There is not one of these hand- picked, lovingly formed tales that glares out for being under par or without a voice of its own. Cohesively, this anthology offers a uniquely South African voice. It is beautifully crafted, in spite of the fact that stories deal with a wide range of issues, from feeling unwanted to being broken, from remembering abuse to articulating violence. It’s a series of tales which give you insight into the soul of South Africa, from its youngest and most vulnerable to its oldest and most hard done by.

These 22 stories by a range of South African authors – living and dead, contemporary and historical – are powerful testimonies to our ability, as South Africans, to laugh and cry, disparage truths and describe things as they are. It’s the kind of collection that you must take a breath from, every now and then, so that you can keep the memory of each story pristine in your heart and not allow them to merge.

Loosely bound by the notion of recognition, the focus of this anthology splays wide across the Karoo as it burrows into the poorest, most humble township homestead. It’s a discourse about robbers frightened in rich estates and Muslims who digress from their faith and their family, and a series of essays on hunger and meeting strangers on a train. It’s about what might happen to the widows of apartheid’s leaders, and how a blanket feels to a man who has nothing.

Many of the stories are written in the first person, but this is not to say that they are autobiographical. This is South African fiction at its finest, offering you a taste of everything in a rich and fulsome smorgasbord. Medalie is to be celebrated for putting together this brand new collection – on some levels, it evokes Encounters, a book of South African short stories, also selected and edited by Medalie, that slipped into school curricula and first saw light of day in 1998. Recognition is  the kind of book – if it does become part of South African school syllabuses – with which you know your children will be in safe hands, if they are taught with it, or gravitate toward reading it of their own accord.

As you read this book, many diverse South African voices will fill your head. The brilliance of Medalie’s curation of this selection means that it doesn’t self-censor or mute itself around terminology that is no longer considered acceptable. It doesn’t skew itself apologetically away from racist caricatures or perspectives articulated by writers or their characters. It tells it like it is. And it gives the kind of recognition to South Africans large and small, rich and poor, good and evil, that we all need to read.

  • Recognition: An Anthology of South African Short Stories selected edited by David Medalie is published by Wits University Press, Johannesburg (2017). It features stories by Herman Charles Bosman, Achmat Dangor, Nadia Davids, HIE Dhlomo, Ahmed Essop, Damon Galgut, Nadine Gordimer, Dan Jacobson, Alex La Guma, Mandla Langa, Wamuwi Mbao, David Medalie, Kobus Moolman, Njabulo S. Ndebele, Lindiwe Nkutha, Pauline Smith, Can Themba, Miriam Tlali, Chris van Wyk, Mary Watson, Zoë Wicomb and Makhosazana Xaba.