This review first appeared in the Cape Times and is reprinted complete with permission.
“The problem with South Africans is we do not know each others’ stories. When we do, we will understand.” The problem is that so many do not care to know. Perhaps, with Reports Before Daybreak, Brent Meersman hopes in some small way to remedy that.
Much African literature is overwhelmed by idiosyncrasies specific to one culture and doesn’t help us out in cross-cultural vision. Here we have something that, instead of trying to expiate, blame or moralise, and mostly unsentimentally describes the lives and perceptions of the generations that lived through apartheid. This is not to say you will not be brought to tears, but it’s not just for the oppressed in the classical sense, but also for those who were brain-washed, and suffered breaches of their human rights even though they were allowed to vote.
Reports Before Daybreak is cleverly structured: each chapter kicks off with a selection of newspaper headlines from each year, from 1968 to 1990, followed by reports of the activities and lives of the main characters. Mfundi, aka Wandile, underground activist, is hell-bent on his half-sister Zukiswa, Cape Town township girl, having better opportunities than the majority of the oppressed, even if it means sending her into exile. Their mother, Alicia Nonkosi, works as a domestic for two white families, the lower middle class De Konincks and the upper class Diepenaars. The “madams” exemplify white South Africans’ ambivalence and confusion of the times, and even Theó de Koninck, father of François and Joseph, who would by our standards be considered racist, draws the line at working for a company that he discovers manufactures tear gas canisters.
Frans is conscripted, but then discovers an unfortunate taste for military life. Joe, however, is a pacifist – a draft-dodger if you will. Gratifyingly, dark horse Bertie Diepenaar finds his calling as a human rights lawyer. The run-ins these characters have with “the law” and the “authorities” are chilling, and what Alicia and Zukiswa are subjected to will make your blood boil, but it is surely an accurate depiction of the times. Pass books, work permits, bulldozing of homes, brutal MK training and forced conscription rent families asunder and alienated us all in our own country, while “fighting” Angola, Namibia and each other.
Each chapter ends with a succinct vignette of other personas, some named, like the “First lady” (Ruth First), “Doctor celebrity” (Dr Christiaan Barnard); some nameless, like Miner, Hangman, Migrant, Farm worker… Clever, very clever.
However, at the risk of sounding churlish, I must point out the novel’s one obvious blemish – that of two sexual encounters. A boy and girl having sex in a night club consummate their union as a bomb tears through the club, and Zukiswa, as she has her first sexual encounter, asks herself, “Was this freedom?” This kind of stereotypical imagery works better in films than in novels, and anyway, eroticism is best left to Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin.
Orchid or onion? Orchid. With just a hint of onion flake. Not for the faint-hearted, or ostriches. Warning: Do not read if suffering from a depressive disorder.
– Aly Verbaan
- Reports Before Daybreak by Brent Meersman
Find this book with BOOK Finder!