Friday, May 4, 2012

Racism In South Africa - A Novel Study

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“She sometimes wonders whether they’d done the right thing, because she, too, is scared of being butchered in bed. Almost all white South Africans are. It’s a given. They’re all waiting for the night of the long knives. You never known when, but you know it’s coming.

And then one night you go to bed around ten. You hear the old red setter barking outside, but you don’t bother to get up; you doze off again, so you don’t hear the mosquito screen on the kitchen window being peeled back, and you don’t hear someone climbing quietly into your house. You don’t hear him coming down the passage on his bare feet, and you don’t hear him easing open the bedroom door. All you remember, really, is the split second of terror when you wake up. Bennie, your husband, is thrashing around at your side, and there’s a dark figure looming over the bed. And then the hammer smashes into your temple, and the next thing you know you’ve woken up in a surreal horror movie. Blood is dripping all over the telephone, the children are screaming, and your husband is tottering around in circles, drenched in blood, looking for his guns. You’re trying to phone the doctor, but you can’t remember how to dial”

You could easily believe, after hearing that passage, that I have just quoted a horror scene from a fiction book. Unfortunately, this is real life. That is the story of the Hammer Man, a black man in South Africa who stole into people’s houses, attempting to kill them with a standard claw hammer. Thankfully, the above couple survived. But some were not so lucky.

Racism in South Africa has existed for many years, and the two books that I have read, ‘The Power of One’ by Bryce Courtenay and “My Traitors Heart” by Rian Malan, both cover this topic, in different ways.

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Both these books have the common theme of racism in South Africa, yet they are contrasting in their views and stories.

Power of One is a fiction book, about a young boy growing up in South Africa, telling of the trials and tribulations of a young boy, Peekay, as seen through his eyes. In the story, blacks are shown to be the suppressed race, who have accepted their fate. Yet Peekay is the shining light in their life, and is able to do amazing and wonderful things, such as bringing all the different blacks tribes together, to unite as one. But ‘The Power of One’ shields from the reader a great deal of the real truths of South Africa, unlike ‘My Traitor’s Heart’.

‘My Traitor’s Heart’ is an autobiography by Rian Malan, an Afrikaans man growing up in the times of apartheid. His great-grandfather was ‘credited’ with initiating the seeds of apartheid. The autobiography tells how Rian Malan, a man whose cultural background dictates that he should be a kaffir hater, goes against the grain, in the search for his own destiny.

In ‘Power of One’, Courtenay mainly focuses on the main character - a white boy � and how against all matter of adversities he succeeds, through following a life of boxing.

Every black person that Peekay meets are nice, sociable people, that do as they’re told. For example, the maids that look after the house, Dee & Dum, are portrayed as young girls who enjoy coming to work everyday to clean up after their white bosses.

In reality, however, this couldn’t be further from the truth, as shown in Malan’s accounts of black people’s lives. Almost all black South African’s live in townships on the outskirts of white cities, living a meagre lifestyle in a tin shed or cardboard box, toiling to and from their place of employment, which can be up to hours away, for a pittance of money.

‘The Power of One’ shows a romantic view of Africa, with the wide-open plains, and peaceful lifestyle. This book would be very popular with many middle/upper class whites from around the world, because this is the South Africa that they know, whether it be from their personal travels, or T.V shows they’ve watched, etc.

Courtenay has intentionally set the reader up to have these feelings, as he himself was born, and had lived in South Africa, until moving to Australia for most of his adult life. However, in some circumstances, Courtenay does give the reader glimpses of what life for a black person is like living in apartheid South Africa, when Geel Piet, a coloured man was beaten to death in the prison by one of the guards, because he had some writing paper on him.

But insights such as this are few and far between, and the South Africa that is illustrated is very optimistic in many of its views.

Yet when someone does confronts the issues of the ‘real’ South Africa, as Malan did in his literature, people tend not to read it, as ‘it won’t happen to me’, or ‘that’s only in a few cases, it doesn’t represent the wider view.’ Yet this couldn’t be further from the truth, with almost 4,000 murders occurring each year, and a staggering 8,000 attempted murders as well.

Malan tells of stories of death, stonings, and torture being a part of everyday life to the black South African, not only from the whites, but also from opposing tribes in the areas. In one case, the father of a son who was burned to death asked the ‘comrades’ a group of young men from a rival tribe, supporting a different political cause, to stay away. But the comrades didn’t like being told what to do. So they throw the father into his son’s grave, and hit him with shovels when he tries to climb out, again and again. The old man eventually gives up, and sits down on his dead son’s coffin, cradling his bloody head in his hands. The comrades bury him alive.

But according to Courtenay, all the tribes in Africa co-operate and get along fine, even in places such as prisons, where the gang mentality run rife more than anywhere. For example, Peekay organises a group concert, where all the blacks sing together in a concerto, lead by Peekay, and Doc, a German piano master. Even though there was only a culmination of four tribes, the amount of tension would have been incredible, and one foul move would have amounted in a mass brawl. However, everything ran like clockwork, which, after reading ‘My Traitor’s Heart’ seems very hard to believe.

Yet in both books, the reader is made to feel, sometimes subtly, and in other cases openly, sorry for the black people of South Africa. Malan was in fact a journalist, and become friends with many black people through the years of reporting. In ‘The Power of One’, Courtenay often sympathises with the black person’s view, by showing them to be smarter than the situations that they’re placed in.

Even though Malan does show the nasty side of South Africa, he has used soft, emotional grammar, to allow the reader to feel sorry for the blacks, as it was not their fault that they were under apartheid rule, which is entirely true.

Another common theme running through both the books is how the Afrikaner is made out to be the villain, even though Malan is one himself. In ‘The Power of One’, the book culminates in Peekay fighting his arch-enemy, the ‘Judge’, an Afrikaner boy, who at school continually bullied and harassed Peekay. When little finally defeats big, the story ends, attempting to show that not only size, but the colour of one’s skin can either be a downfall, or an advantage. B

But as Peekay proves, little can beat big, and black can beat white, in a perfect world. The same can be said for Malan. He grew up in an Afrikaans background, where the blacks were always inferior, and had nothing. Yet through him travelling his only journey, he discovered that maybe the Afrikaners were wrong, that the blacks weren’t all that bad, and that they did deserve equal rights.

This was finally proved when in 14, Nelson Mandela; the first black man to be elected President in South Africa came to be.

However, even though these texts have some similarities, they have more differences, with the main issue being how black’s are portrayed. Courtenay is almost afraid to show what the true black person is like, instead he softens their image, and as he is such a respected author, everyone believes that this is how is must be. Malan, on the other hand, cuts to the chase, and shows the true South Africa. Some may argue that the blacks have bought apartheid on themselves, by being so violent and aggressive. But with the whites ruling Africa for such a long time, the snapping point was bound to be reached sometime, and as shown in ‘My Traitor’s Heart’, the line was clearly found, and broken.

Clearly, both these texts provide relevant, but some what differing insights into the life and workings of apartheid in South Africa, from both sides of the story, whether you’re black or white. And as I’ve shown, the magnitude of difference that two different authors have on one topic is amazing. It is almost sad that Courtenay’s ‘The Power of One’ has sold millions of copies around the world, but ‘My Traitors Heart’ barely raises a mention on the global scale. Yet maybe, if more people were able to read ‘My Traitors Heart’, they might have a better understanding of South Africa, and the problems which it has lived with for the better part of last century. Maybe then, racism, not only in South Africa, but globally, maybe finally be eradicated.

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