Notes from underground

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The Native Commissioner (book review)

The Native CommissionerThe Native Commissioner by Shaun Johnson

One of the things about growing up in South Africa is that one reads a lot of books published elsewhere in the world, and so the settings are unfamiliar, but this book comes far closer to home, in time, in place, and even in people.

A man opens a box left by his father, George Jameson, who had died when he was 8 years old, and tries to reconstruct his father’s life and his own family history. In this the book reminds me of A recessional for Grace by Margurite Poland. One of the similarities is that the protagonist in that book was researching the life of a Xhosa linguist, making a study of the terms for different kinds of cattle, and in The Native Commissioner the protagonist is fluent in Xhosa, Zulu and Afrikaans as well as English, his native language, so it is difficult to avoid comparisons.

The father was a civil servant, and, like many civil servants, was subject to numerous transfers in the course of his career, and most of those places I was familiar with, having passed through them many times. George Jameson was born to a white farming family in Babanango, and when I lived in Melmoth 35 years ago I regularly visited a farming family there. Jameson was stationed at Tsumeb in Namibia, and at Libode in Transkei, which I passed through on the way to visit my mother when she worked at St Barnabas Hospital, Ntlaza. So it was easy to picture the places and the settings.

Also, I could not help picturing the protagonist as being like Buller Fenwick, a retired Native Commissioner I knew in Melmoth. When I knew him he was doing odd jobs for various people, and would come to us for photocopies, because back in 1979 we had the only photocopier in Melmoth. He was an interesting bloke, and confirmed in real life one of the things that is central to the story. Before the Nats came to power in 1948, his job as a Magistrate and Native Commissioner was to administer justice — white man’s justice to people of a different culture, to be sure, but justice nonetheless. After the Nats came to power the nature of the job changed; it was no longer to administer justice, but to administer government policy. And that is the central dilemma faced by the protagonist in this book, which eventually drives him to a nervous breakdown.

The book is therefore, at one level, true to life. It can give an authentic picture of what life was like for some people in South Africa in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. But was only like that for a relativly small proportion of people — white civil servants who had doubts about the morality of the National Party policy juggernaut, where the alternatives, if you did not jump on the bandwagon, were to get out of the way or get crushed. Jameson tried, but failed, to get out of the way, and got crushed.

The method of telling the story, reconstucting a life from documents, has its disadvantages, however. I know from my own interest in family history how difficult it is with real people — it is all so fragmentary, and there are so many loose ends. Using such a technique in a work of fiction is unnecessarily limiting, though I think Magurite Poland handled it better than Shaun Johnson does. In this case it leaves too much of the story untold.

For example, the narrative tells us that “On the 5th of September he sends a reply to the Johannesburg head office regarding its instruction to repatriate one Buthi Mngomeni to his homeland. Unfortunately, writes my father curtly, your order cannot be acted on as neither we nor he know where his homeland is.”

In real life biography, coming across such correspondence in the archives is pure gold. It speaks volumes to the researcher. It portrays exactly the impersonal bureacratic cruelty of the apartheid system, treating human beings who have names, like Buthi Mngomeni, as non-persons, as mere “human resources” (why is that obscene term still in such common use?) And it tells you of a civil servant who is gatvol of the whole system, who has had it up to here.

But the average reader of a novel is not a historical researcher, easily able to tease out the significance of such documents. Many people, especially white people, lived through that period with very little clue about what was going on there, and so its significance would escape them. Those who were born after 1980, or those who have never been in South Africa, unless exceptionally well-read, would miss it altogether.

The fiction writer has the opportunity to tell the story fully, to show Buthi Mngomeni as a real person with a life, with a family. It could be expanded to a paragraph, a page, a whole chapter even. But the “documentary research” format does not allow it.

So while one can say that the story is true to life, it is what apartheid was really like for some people, it gives only a tiny fragment of the picture. There is also much more to the story than this.

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