It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.
DIANE DE BEER
New Times by Rehana Rossouw (Jacana):
Familiar and startling as the quote (above) might be, it is the perfect introduction to Rossouw’s book as she must have intended – placing it on the page preceding the start of this involved and intriguing tale of a country at the dawn of its democracy.
It points to many different things including that familiar adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s the never-ending cycle experienced through the ages, as the story takes the reader back more than 20 years to a time of hope and distrust, mingling together in a way this country had never experienced and allowing for many different narratives to develop.
The excitement was palpable, and remembering those heady days at a time in our country’s history when we seem to be experiencing this kind of maelstrom yet again is a reminder of the validity of the Dickens quote, and adds to the depth of the story which makes it so much more than mere fiction.
Most of us will have our own memories, but what Rossouw is doing is dipping into her own world to tell a story and investigate certain personal truths she wants to play with.
But she stresses: “The story is not mine, although I was a political reporter in 1995 and I was covering Parliament and the Presidency. Nelson Mandela’s timeline in the book is accurate and all the issues Ali covers were unfolding at the time. And I do have PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), partly as a result of covering all the political violence of the 1980s. I began writing the novel out of frustration with the Fallists: in many interactions I had with them there were two refrains: Nelson Mandela was a sell-out and violence is a justified form of protest. I wanted to explore how compromised Mandela was as he spent most of his presidency involved in work on reconciliation and did little to ensure redistribution of wealth to poor and black South Africans.”
She does however emphasize that the book was written in anger and that she was unhealthily obsessed by violence. “I need to write for other reasons, other than healing,” she says about future work. But it feels as if she hasn’t quite finished what she has started in her first two books – both so revealing in different ways of so many different issues which is what makes her stories so powerfully engaging.
Her father died while she was writing, which was incredibly stressful and triggered one of her worst bouts of PTSD flashbacks and she explains that all of the symptoms Ali experiences are hers. She would write during these attacks which is why they make such an impact and feel so immediate and raw.
The PTSD flashback, for me personally, was a revelation. Of course, when you look back at our history and what journalists were put through during those horrific, oppressive years, it is understandable.
It’s not as if no one has spoken about it before but Rossouw has given it a personality in the form of Ali and lifted the veil for us to experience what it feels like and how it happens. It did catch me by surprise and brought a renewed awareness of the different lives led in the same country from so many perspectives – not just the obvious ones.
That has always been both our challenge but also the fascination of living here – and as Ramaphosa pointed out time and again in his first State of the Nation Address – as one people.
But writing about the PTSD as she does also plays into her engagement with the Fallists. “Don’t lead your people into violence,” is what she argued strongly because students can do their protests legally and Rossouw is still carrying the pain of the violence she witnessed and experienced. She knows what that does to a life.
Being a woman in today’s world is not an easy thing – and again this changes from individual to individual and personal circumstances. Ali’s struggles in her community, who she is, her coming to terms with her sexuality in a religiously conservative environment, where being a woman comes with very particular problems, drive much of the story.
She’s appealingly hardcore, a politically-driven journalist, the toughest job in a country as volatile as ours – especially in those times if you had all the cards stacked against you. Ali was both female and a woman of colour. That was enough to make her world a much tougher one than many of us experienced.
We are currently living in times when perhaps we look at the world more cynically than we did in the Mandela years. And many believe that skeletons from those heady days will all start tumbling out as Zuma tries to salvage some honour.
That rockets this book into a heightened space even though it was relevant from the start. That’s the thing about our stories. We live in such a divided country still. What that means is that some narratives still play out more loudly than others and the different sections of society are at odds often because they ignore the similarities and focus on the differences, which should be exciting and embraced rather than viewed as a threat. But that’s the world we live in and who we are.
Reviewing our world today through the prism of the past but selecting specifically a time that is arguably viewed by many as golden years, reminds us how far we have come and who we are becoming, even when it is a sometimes an excruciatingly bumpy ride.
And in-between all these huge stories, Rossouw reminds us that there are the smaller individual stories about people who are affected directly as history plays itself out around us. It’s fast, furious and I love the fact that I am constantly learning more about our people and this place when I read stories from here.
In a fractured society and world like ours, it’s the best way to discover who we are in all our rich diversity.
And as Rossouw talks about issues she deals with when writing, she concludes that with everything that has happened in her life, she would still rather be part of the oppressed than the oppressor. That’s why her stories have such power and reach – especially today.