Hands Full of Rose Thorns and Fridge Oil

Elizabeth Lowry

In the English popular imagination, the grimly oligarchic Old South Africa, with its smug suburban swimmingpools, bullish police force, forbidden wines and ostracised sports teams, has become the sunny New South Africa, a country against which the rest of the civilised world may once again safely play cricket and where a holiday hardly registers on your credit card. The Anti-Apartheid Organisation has been disbanded. Fergal Keane has packed up his microphone and gone home. In Trafalgar Square, a beaming Nelson Mandela casts a paternal eye over the lobby of South Africa House. Joseph Shabalala and Ladysmith Black Mambazo have been signed up by Heinz to carol ‘Inkanyezi Nezazi’ in an advertisment showing blond children eating tomato soup. In Britain we are occasionally treated to a television documentary or news headline about the spread of Aids among South Africa’s black population, the decline in the rand or the alarmingly high crime rate, but most non-South Africans probably know little more about South Africa and its bewilderingly pluralistic society than they did before. One group, however, is always present and easily located on the Uitlander’s mental map. Just outside the boundaries of moral decency – beyond the pale, so to speak – there is a thorny area inhabited by parochial plutocrats speaking an incomprehensible variant of Dutch. It is marked: ‘Here be Afrikaners.’

In a sense, the Afrikaners have asked for it. It does not help a nation’s reputation if its leaders are hell-bent on preserving the image of a monolithic people opposed to all freedoms except its own. What outsiders are not aware of, though, and Afrikaners have been unwilling to admit even to themselves, is that they have never really enjoyed this supposed unity or Volkseenheid. From their earliest pioneering days, the Afrikaner people have tended to coalesce around powerful, often competing, leaders. In spite of their ostensible solidarity, their real history, as the South African journalist Marq de Villiers points out in his superb family memoir, White Tribe Dreaming (1988), has been one of schism. In the Cape there was a natural antipathy even among the first Dutch settlers between the free burghers and the servants of the East India Company. As the Afrikaners trekked into the interior, founded the two Boer republics and fought the British in two wars, other divisions arose: between ‘Trekkers and accommodationists. The Cape and the north. Potgieter and Pretorius. The Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Hendsoppers and bittereinders. De Wet and Botha. Hertzog and Smuts.’ To this list one should add rich and poor. Between the 1860s and 1880s a disastrous series of agricultural slumps forced hundreds of Afrikaners off the land and into neighbouring towns, where they made do by cutting firewood, working as gardeners or providing labour on the railways. Many of those who remained on their farms could not adapt to new farming methods. To add to the problem, under the Roman-Dutch law of inheritance the farms themselves were divided between all the sons in a family on the death of the father, and so became ever smaller and more unproductive. By the Thirties one in three Afrikaners was officially classified a ‘Poor Whit’, or armblanke, by the Carnegie Commission. The secretive Broederbond, an élitist, policy-shaping Afrikaner body, was formed in direct response to this problem, and its main initiatives – the Afrikaner Volkskas (the ‘people’s chest’), Sanlam (the South African National Life Assurance Company) and the FAK (Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Organisations) – were launched to unite a struggling, fragmented people by providing economic support and encouraging a sense of linguistic solidarity. De Villiers recalls a Bloemfontein childhood in which the differences between poor and affluent urban Afrikaners were always painfully evident:

No one quite knew what to do with the group of kids from the south end of town, kids from the poor white slums whose fathers worked as menial labourers on the state railway system. They travelled as a gang and were filled with a dangerous rage that occasionally took itself out against the English but came to be turned against the blacks.

Of all whites, the white proletariat ‘was threatened first’ and moved into ‘the modern age of confrontation sooner than anyone – theirs was never the politics of privilege: they were fighting for their place in the African sun, and they fought with an unnerving ferocity’.

One of the ironies of apartheid, which began as an extensive affirmative action programme on behalf of the Afrikaner, was that it implemented draconian measures to eradicate the problem of the struggling Afrikaner underclass once and for all, but failed. Had Verwoerd, the architect of Grand Apartheid in the Forties, been able to discriminate effectively against English-speaking white South Africans as well as blacks, coloureds and Indians, he would no doubt have done so; but by that time the South African economy was firmly in the hands of English-speakers, and has remained so ever since. In South from the Limpopo Dervla Murphy records her surprise in the mid-Nineties at encountering Poor Whites, mostly Afrikaners, begging in the towns of South Africa’s four provinces. They were usually drunk or stoned, and unexpectedly numerous, ‘wandering around in rags, their placards pathetic. “I will work honestley for a small wage.” “I can make good furnisher.” ’ This loss of self-sufficiency has always been the Afrikaner’s worst nightmare.

The Poor Whites are not well represented in South African fiction – outside the Afrikaans novel, that is. In the Thirties several Afrikaner writers wrote poignantly about the armblanke and bywoner class, but nobody outside the Afrikaans-speaking world reads Jochem van Bruggen, D.F. Malherbe or C.M. van den Heever today. Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf is unusual in being a major new Afrikaans book about the present-day Poor White problem and in gaining an equally wide readership in translation both in South Africa and abroad. It makes harrowing reading. Its deadpan scenes of verbal and physical violence, incest and sticky despair are as unsettling as anything in Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, betraying a sensibility that has no room for the pieties of van Bruggen and his contemporaries. The irony of the book’s title is obvious. Triomf is the name of a suburb of dilapidated modern houses, now occupied by white municipal workers and down-and-outs, which was built on the ruins of the former mixed-race neighbourhood of Sophiatown after it was razed in 1955 by the Nats in a bout of social engineering. In van Niekerk’s novel the suburb is the home of Treppie, Pop, Mol and Lambertus Benade, a Poor White family whose steady decline into squalor conforms to a typical pattern: having long since lost their grip on the land, the Benades have become urbanised and are now unemployed, scratching a living by tinkering with old refrigerators or hawking flowers. It is 1994 and the general election that is to change the face of South Africa for ever is in the offing. As me National Party canvassers come calling, the rift in the Afrikaner psyche becomes evident:

They knew fuck-all about fuck-all, but they wanted to come and tell us about the finer things. Us with our hands full of rose thorns and fridge oil. With our grandfather who lost his land in the depression and our mother who coughed herself to death from TB. And our father who hanged himself by the neck in a Railways truck ... It was the same bladdy story in ’38, and again in ’48 ... There’s always a light at the end of the wagon-trek. They never said there’s a gun or bread or a factory or a trading licence there at the front of the wagon. No, always a fucken light, a column of fire, a Spirit, a Higher Idea, an Ideal of fucken Unity or something. And that’s ’cause we’re all supposed to be from the same culture.

It gets worse. The Benades have a family secret: Pop and Mol, who live as husband and wife, are in fact brother and sister, and since their younger sibling, Treppie, has for years also been having sex with Mol, no one is quite sure whether her son Lambertus, a misshapen Caliban with a psychopathic streak, is his child or Pop’s. The Benades have prepared a painstaking story about being distant cousins to explain their shared surname, but the truth threatens to erupt at several points in the story. As Treppie explains, ‘that’s what happens ... when you take a place like this, full of prefab wagon-wheels and aloes, rotten with rubble, and then give it a name like Triomf. Then people think they’ve got a licence to bullshit.’ According to Treppie the only licence that counts is poetic licence, ‘the liberties poets take with life to make some things rhyme with other things’. But even then, ‘those same poets have to live with poetic justice,’cause words can boomerang badly.’ As the election date draws nearer, preceded by Lambertus’s 40th birthday, the floundering Benades become increasingly frantic. The grotesque Lambertus rapes his mother and trashes the house. His violent fits are stoked by Treppie, whose cruel streak is fuelled in turn by a liquid diet of Klipdrift and Coke. Treppie delivers some of the most scathing passages of social criticism in the book: van Niekerk’s targets include not just the National Party, attempting yet again to remake itself as a party of liberation, but all other bodies, political or religious, that promise instant Utopia – the ANC, the AWB, the Jehovah’s Witnesses who trawl through Triomf; even the vauntedly liberal English mining giant, Anglo-American, comes under fire for its long, lucrative involvement in South Africa’s apartheid economy. As the propaganda machine grinds on, Treppie remarks that ‘it’s the same old rubbish recycled under a new name. But the rubbish itself is a brandless substance.’ We expect an explosive conclusion and van Niekerk delivers it in a surreal dénouement that has Lambertus finally uncovering the truth about his parents on election day, just as the Benades’ house is being repainted an ironic snowy white. The final implosion of the Benade family, as the now murderous Lambertus goes on the rampage, introduces a note of blacker-than-black comedy.

A lot of what Treppie would call ‘poetic licence’ is taken in this novel, although van Niekerk is consistently original in her use of it. As a metaphor for South Africa’s (and the Benade family’s) domestic tensions, she gives us the clapped-out refrigerator. The narrative contains a good deal of technical information about refrigerator breakdown and repair that manages to be astonishingly compelling. ‘Removing the heat from inside a refrigerator is somewhat like removing water from a leaking canoe,’ we are told in the epigraph, which is taken from a handbook called Modern Refrigeration and Airconditioning. ‘A sponge may be used to soak up the water. The sponge is held over the side, squeezed and the water is released overboard. This operation may be repeated as often as necessary to transfer the water from the canoe into the lake.’ Eventually, of course, the family canoe sinks, while the machinery of apartheid breaks down. It is typical of van Niekerk’s style that she never quite spells these metaphors out. On the whole, mainstream Afrikaans literature seems to tolerate a greater degree of abstraction and schematism than its English equivalent. In this case it works equally well in translation: Leon de Kock has done an excellent job of turning Triomf’s lapidary prose into taut, abrasive English.