Ways of Staying. By Kevin Bloom. Portobello; 228 pages; £12.99. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
SINCE apartheid, white South Africans have become introspective. Rian Malan created the template with his wonderful, and now classic, “My Traitor's Heart”; Ivan Vladislavic has written a fine book about Johannesburg, and Jonny Steinberg, an Oxford graduate, has written remorselessly about gangs in the Cape and about the murder of a farmer's son in the Natal Midlands. All three authors are worth reading if you want to try to understand the new South Africa.
The alarming murder rate, the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, the rampant corruption and the belief in high places that the rule of law can be applied selectively make this a place of extremes. At the same time there is a vibrant cultural life, a strong business sector, good infrastructure, a wealth of natural resources and a thriving tourist industry that can barely wait to cash in on the football World Cup this summer. But the most worrying issue for whites is whether they can find a way of accommodating themselves to the new South Africa. J.M. Coetzee's answer, implicit in his 1999 novel, “Disgrace”, was that anyone with a belief in Western culture should leave right away.
Kevin Bloom's book is a little thinner than those of the three non-fiction writers cited above, but it is still moving and at times very perceptive. It starts with the funeral in Johannesburg of his cousin and his partner. They were seized one night in Cape Town, shot in the head a few hours later and left naked beside a motorway. The killers were high on crystal meth, known locally as tik, and one of them was the brother of the leader of a notorious Cape Town gang, which goes by the name of “The Americans”.
Mr Bloom (pictured) wonders what has caused this rash of violent, often sadistic crime. He senses something in the past that licenses violence against whites without scruple. He looks at two more incidents, one in an orthodox Jewish suburb and another against the family of a distinguished professor of medicine, which included the rape of his 17-year-old daughter by a man who told her he was HIV positive. Mr Bloom also attends the watershed conference of the ANC in 2007, at which 4,000 delegates ousted Thabo Mbeki and installed the polygamist and barely educated Jacob Zuma. Mr Bloom, who is Jewish, tries desperately to balance his own profound love for the country and his deep conviction that it is indelibly and forever his home, with the recognition that there is an understandable urge to drive out whites, whatever the consequences. A disturbing but necessary book.
This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition
Summary — Chapter 22
Absalom’s trial begins. Europeans sit on one side of the courtroom and non-Europeans sit on the other. The narrator notes that in South Africa, the judges are treated with great respect by all races, but though they are just, they often enforce unjust laws created by the white people. Absalom’s two accomplices plead not guilty, but Absalom’s lawyer says that Absalom will plead guilty only to “culpable homicide” since Absalom did not intend to kill Arthur Jarvis. The prosecutor denies this petition, however, and Absalom is forced to enter a plea of not guilty.
The other two defendants—John’s son, Matthew, and a man named Johannes Pafuri—look sad and shocked while Absalom tells his side of the story. Absalom says that Johannes planned the robbery after hearing “a voice” that told him a time and date. After entering Arthur Jarvis’s house, Absalom says, Johannes confronted Arthur’s servant and demanded money and clothes. When the servant called out for his master, Johannes hit him over the head with an iron bar. Arthur burst in on the robbers, and Absalom fired his gun because he was frightened. He and his companions ran away. The judge asks Absalom why he brought the revolver, and Absalom says it was for his own protection. He also tells the court that Johannes brought the iron bar and claimed it had been blessed. The judge interrupts to ask Absalom if his father would bless such a weapon.
Absalom then resumes his narration: after the murder, he went to Mrs. Mkize’s house, where he met his accomplices, then buried his revolver in a plantation field. He says that anyone—Mrs. Mkize, Matthew, or Johannes—who denies this claim is lying. He then says that he prayed for forgiveness. He spent the following day wandering around Johannesburg and ended up in a friend’s house in Germiston. When the police found him there, they questioned him about Johannes, but Absalom told them that he himself shot Jarvis and indicated where the gun might be found. He meant to confess earlier, but he waited too long, and when the police arrived, he realized that waiting was a mistake. The court adjourns, and outside Kumalo sees Jarvis. He says nothing, however, because he feels that there is nothing he can possibly say to him.
Summary — Chapter 23
The trial receives little publicity because the front pages all carry news that gold has been discovered at Odendaalsrust. There is excitement at the stock exchange and talk of a “second Johannesburg” being built. Before the discovery of gold, the land was wasted, but the engineers’ patience has finally paid off, and the stock prices are soaring. The English say that it is a shame that these prodigious feats of engineering should have such ugly Afrikaans names and that it is a shame that the Afrikaners cannot see that a bilingual state is a waste of time. In the spirit of unity, however, they keep their thoughts to themselves.
An anonymous conservative voice takes over the chapter, noting that some do-gooders want the new profits to go toward subsidizing social services or higher wages for the miners. This voice notes that it is a pity that these people, most of whom have no financial standing to speak of, are so good with words, such as a strange priest named Father Beresford. The thinking of these people is muddled, the voice says, and the narrator unjustly accuses the people of Johannesburg of being greedy when many of the town’s prominent citizens actually give money to charities and collect art.
Another voice begins, this time one that is more liberal. It praises the work of Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, who suggests that the new mines should house whole families in villages rather than house male workers in crowded compounds. Money is not everything, the voice says, and the world does not need a second Johannesburg.