For this edition of Two Person Book Club, since I chose such a vast subject (apartheid in South Africa) it was hard to pick just one book. I’d just met this cool woman from Namibia and we chatted and bonded over coffee about being foreign (and brown) in France. She started to tell me what life was like back home in Namibia and I realized that you could literally fill an entire book with everything I don’t know about South African politics. I mean, I did go to elementary school in Texas so I suppose I could just ride away on that scapegoat but really, the truth is, I’m old enough to inform myself on such issues.
Since Beau and I both had a bit more free time this month, we decided to read two non-fiction books: a rather sobering book written in 1990 by South African journalist and direct descendant of Huguenot settlers, Rian Malan, and a lighter, autobiographical book written in 2016 by South African comedian and host of the satirical The Daily Show, Trevor Noah. I really don’t have anything negative to say about either book and I can’t stress how rare that was for me, the person who lights virgencita candles for Michiko Kakutani.
My Traitor’s Heart
After working as a young crime reporter in 1970s, Rian Malan moves to Los Angeles to become a music critic and to flee the increasingly volatile political climate in South Africa. After several years abroad, he returns to home to see that things have not changed for the better. The book contains many gut-wrenching first-hand accounts of violence committed at the hands of white South Africans, including policemen. Along this record of crimes commited by those in power, he seamlessly ties in a summarized history of colonialism and its after effects. As a white man, he dives into the collective white fear of blackness, and admits to his own racism. Instead of seeking to resolve the mounting tension in his book through platitudes, he ends the book admitting that he sees no plausible solutions to myriad of problems in his country.
I had to stop and look up so many terms while reading this book. For example, did you know a banana republic is a small state that is politically unstable as a result of the domination of its economy by a single export controlled by foreign capital? I was also unaware of the racial slurs used in South Africa like kaffir, a word with complex, widespread roots. I also found a lot of parallels between the methods of psychological terror used to subjugate rebels in Catalonia under Franco’s rule and South Africa in the 90s including detention without trial and police brutality.
I went into the book mistakenly thinking it would share at least some common threads with the ideas of race in the United States. You see, the social stratification systems in the two countries were rather different. For example, the Population Registration Act of 1950 separated South Africans into three racial groups: Natives (Blacks), Whites, and Indians & Coloured people (people of mixed race). The largest black ethnic groups in South Africa are the Zulus and the Xhosas. In the white community, more than half were Afrikaans and the remainder were of British or European descent. In 1994, in order to commit to being more of a “rainbow nation”, the apartheid government was replaced with a constitutional democracy with eleven official languages.
Beau liked the book and thought it was well-written albeit a bit depressing. He was pleasantly surprised that the author didn’t portray himself as a “woke” hero, much like the author of the Women in Islam book we read last year.
Born a Crime
A bildungsroman set in the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa, Trevor Noah’s autobiography is equal parts touching and funny. Born to a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father, Noah chose his autobiography title from the fact that at the time, sexual congress with a person of a different race was a criminal offense under the Immorality Act of 1950. As a biracial child growing up in 1980s Soweto, a township of Johannesburg known for its violence, things as simple as playing outside were nearly impossible for Noah, who risked being taken from his mother’s custody by the police because of the color of his skin.
Noah’s father played a minimal role in his life, partly because it was illegal for him to acknowledge their relationship but also because Noah’s mom, Patricia, wasn’t looking for a traditional relationship with this man. Patricia was a maverick, leaving her family home at a young age and renting an apartment in a “whites only” neighborhood in order to keep her typically white job. Between incredibly funny stories of his high school (illegal) side-hustles with his friends and moving vignettes of his relationship with this mother and her abusive husband, I found this book hard to put down. I highly suggest going with the audiobook version, so you can also experience the pure pleasure of Trevor Noah speaking Xhosa.
Both Beau and I agreed that these books marry very well and help create a more comprehensive history of apartheid in South Africa.
The accounts of unabashed systemic oppression of black people were exhaustingly familiar, a problem that is seen in every country that has tried to suppress its indigenous inhabitants. It made me think of this Thomas More quote from Utopia, Book 1:
“For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated and their manners to be corrupted from infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that first you make thieves and then punish them?”
And also of this (reductive, but true) quote from Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love:
“There are only two questions that human beings have ever fought over, all through history. ‘How much do you love me?’ And, ‘Who’s in charge?’ Everything else is somehow manageable.”
It’s hard to dig deep enough to uproot decades of racist disenfranchisement. It can be something as small as being ashamed to wear certain jewelry or to style your hair a certain way because you’ve been made to feel ashamed for it even though when a white person co-opts it, it’s “cool”. Case in point, Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) wearing a gold necklace with her name written in cursive which she calls “ghetto gold” in Sex and the City.
After reading these two books, I wondered what the situation in South Africa had evolved into today and how it has affected the way race is talked about. What should the white colonizers (or more accurately, their descendants) do? Move back to their home countries? Give all their money to people of color at random?
In 2017, the South Korean government asked the Japanese government to apologize for its abuse of many as 200,000 “comfort women” — often underage women forced into sexual servitude under the guise of working in a factory by the Japanese Imperial Army. The Japanese government “expressed regret” over the years and even pledged 1 billion yen to these women, but stopped short of acknowledging responsibility for these actions. This past February, the South Korean government once again asked for a formal apology which the Japanese government has yet to provide, even asking for an apology themselves.
In March, on the 500th anniversary of Spain’s conquest of modern-day Mexico, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador asked Spain’s King Felipe VI for a formal apology. King Felipe VI refused, stating it was completely inappropriate to ask the current government to apologize for crimes committed by the former empire.
Founded by Nelson Mandela in 1995, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), created to shed light on the atrocities of apartheid, held 2,000 public hearings with testimony from 21,000 victims. “In 2003, President Thabo Mbeki announced a once-off payment of approximately $4,000 each to 18,000 victims who testified before the TRC, and announced that community reparations programs, which aim to uplift black communities as a whole, would be implemented as part of broader development programs for all South Africans.” More recently, a proposed land reform bill that includes expropriation without compensation that was proposed in July will be finalized at the end of the year.
However, there’s still a huge problem of violence against women in South Africa. According to a BBC article from September of this year, “2,700 women and 1,000 children were murdered by men last year, and at least 100 rapes were reported daily.”
I suppose that’s the issue with reading non-fiction, especially works that retell a nation’s tumultuous history: there is no happy ending. Every country has its pitfalls and highlights. Reading these books left me hungry for more and I would love to visit South Africa to experience the rich culture firsthand.
*cover photo from National Geographic