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“I do believe our nation is scarred by violence” – Rehana Rossouw discusses the issues addressed in New Times

Published in the Sunday Times

New TimesNew Times
*****
Rehana Rossouw
Jacana, R250

Rehana Rossouw follows her award-winning novel, What Will People Say?, with the riveting New Times. Set in 1995, on the cusp of the rugby World Cup, the story revolves around political reporter Aaliyah (Ali), a woman whose faith is at odds with her sexuality.

Rossouw explains that even today, things are not easy for women in Ali’s position: “Muslim lesbians living openly are still very thin on the ground, despite there being mosques for gay people started after 1994. The country has made massive progress … but this has not filtered through in many communities in the grip of patriarchy.”

Ali’s inner tug-of-war does not hold her back in the newsroom. Tenacious and driven, she is chasing one exclusive story lead after another. It is a whirlwind of sources, deadlines, and office politics, a setting that Rossouw knows all too well, having worked as a journalist for over 30 years. That didn’t, however, make Ali’s story easy to write: “I started writing a book about a young woman whose father had died and who was struggling to cope as the head of the household. Three chapters in, my father died and the post-traumatic stress disorder I have been battling with for decades – as a result of the violence I witnessed as a young reporter – hit me hard and long.”

Mental health, violence, and PTSD thread through the narrative, from the newsroom, to Ali’s mother, to Ali herself. “I do believe our nation is scarred by violence,” Rossouw says. But while New Times may be set in the past, it is also a caution to the new generation. Rossouw explains, “The book was started in a fit of anger with the #FeesMustFall activists who blithely believed that their violence was justified because they had to ensure we all understood that Mandela was a sell-out. I wanted to warn them that violence is not a toy and could cause lasting damage.”

The well-drawn characters are damaged – whether an Afrikaans ex-military man turned sports reporter, a gay HIV/Aids activist, or Nelson Mandela’s right-hand man. But these broken souls all have one thing in common: Ali’s family table. This everyday piece of furniture pulls together a sense of community, responsibility and strength. The descriptions of the food throughout the book are so vivid that the smell of home cooking practically rises from the pages.

“The Malay community in Bo-Kaap made a massive contribution to early South African identity with their food,” Rossouw says. “Everyone knows koeksisters and bobotie and all of their sweets. Because the slaves that made up the Malay community had no roots they could pass down generations, their food showed that they were a fusion of Malay, Indonesian, Javanese and Indian people.”

But even a good meal cannot stop the déjà vu when reading about the HIV/Aids crisis in 1995. Yes, ARVs are now available, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that over seven million South Africans are living with the disease, according to UNAIDS data. Nor does it mean the old players in the HIV/Aids denialism have disappeared. “It is astounding that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma considered herself presidential material when she supported the development of Virodene, a toxic industrial solvent, as an ‘Aids cure’,” Rossouw says.

But she is far from giving up: “I am fighting all over again as a novelist.” – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

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