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Tuesday 24 May 2016

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Gordimer reaffirmed as South Africa's moral conscience

Published 01/04/2012

Something of a teenage prodigy, Nadine Gordimer published her first story in a Johannesburg magazine before the Second World War.

Her debut collection, Face to Face, appeared in 1949, just after apartheid became state policy in South Africa.

Now, aged 88, after 14 novels, 10 volumes of stories, multiple book-bannings by the apartheid state and scores of landmark essays (not to mention the Nobel and Booker prizes), she returns with an impassioned family saga of post-liberation dreams, shocks and fears, as alert and nuanced - tormented, even - as any of her works.

No Time Like The Present follows the fortunes of one family and their friends in a Johannesburg suburb between the mid-1990s and the end of 2009, with the populist Jacob Zuma installed as the democratic state's third president.

Steve, who has a Jewish mother and Anglo father, met Jabulile, the Zulu daughter of a headmaster and granddaughter of a Methodist pastor, in the bush camps of Swaziland while both fought for Umkhonto we Sizwe: the armed wing of the ANC.

After years of illegal living in the shadows, this mixed couple with their impeccable pedigree rank as the aristocracy of the revolution, and gifted daughter Sindiswa as "the first infant progeny of a new age".

In Mandela's new dawn, the parents and their "child of change" - soon joined by a son, Gary Elias - move to the "Suburb". From its friendly gay household to its fellow-veterans of the struggle, this bohemian "enclave of human variety" serves as a microcosm of the nation in transition.

Or rather, of its bourgeois fraction, black and white: the novel shows how class can supplant colour as a toxic source of division in a country that still ranks as "the most unequal in the world".

Jabu and Steve have always put public commitment ahead of private happiness. "Freedom demands everything," and that was what they gave.

Now, both wonder whether they deserve "the normal life, the one that never was". We see in fragments what that means: jovial lunches with their stalwart gay neighbours.

Yet a troubled history, and its tough outcomes, shape both their emotions and the novel's progress.

Their disaffection deepens with every sign that political business-as- usual, along with the widening chasm between rich and poor, has supplanted revolutionary idealism.

Yet Gordimer will never let apartheid, and the soul-deep wounds it inflicted, off her moral hook.

The idea of the initiation ritual supplies a running motif: Xhosa circumcision, Zulu bull-fighting, barmitzvahs in the suburb.

Likewise, we can read the disappointments and frustrations of Steve and Jabu as the pained response to a fledgling democracy's rough rites of passage.

A phrase that recurs is Steve's "finish and klaar" - the black-and-white clarity of the old racial state, replaced by every shade of ambiguity.

This history of freedom isn't past.

We must hope that Gordimer, a nonpareil observer of the outer and inner life alike, sustains her heroic mission of witness and of warning.

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