In Inner Workings, J.M. Coetzee writes about his (former) fellow South African writer, Nadine Gordimer: she was highly influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre and Algerian-born Albert Camus. In particular she adheres to Sartre’s view of the writer: “The function of the writer is to act in such a way that nobody can be ignorant of the world and that nobody may say that he is innocent of what it is all about.”
Since her debut collection, Face to Face, in 1949, Gordimer has taken up the role of writer-as-witness to South Africa. Now, at age 88, with fourteen novels, ten volumes of stories, countless essays, a Nobel Prize (1991), Gordimer is still serving as unflinching witness to post-apartheid South Africa. The result is a novel that shows South Africa’s rough and tenuous transition to democracy, with economic status and class now supplanting race as a source of instability and violence.
In No Time Like the Present, Steve, a white man who used his knowledge of chemistry to make explosives for the African National Congress (ANC), is now a professor at the university. His wife Jabulile (Jabu), a black woman and former member of the ANC, is now a lawyer with the Justice Centre. They met in Swaziland and married at a time when such a union was illegal. In the new South Africa, however, they can live openly, so they move to the Suburb and befriend other comrades formerly in the Struggle, as well as a gay couple. Jabu and Steve have a child, Sindiswa, and soon have another, Gary Elias.
Early in the novel, a reader from the developed world and of the middle class is on familiar ground—the couple wonders whether they should have another child; should they move to the Suburb? Buy or rent? Should their kids go to public or private school?
Yet Steve and Jabu remain publicly minded. Steve begins to organize at the university for better education for both blacks and whites. Jabu’s work at the Centre keeps her involved with civil rights issues. As the novel progresses, the pages fill with black poverty, strikes, shanty towns, a carjacking, an assault and robbery, attacks on refugees from Zimbabwe. Most upsetting to Jabu and Steve is ex-Deputy President Jacob Zuma (South Africa’s President since 2009), with his name linked to corruption, racketeering, arms trade, and rape. Jabu attends the rape trial only to hear Zuma tell the court that in Zulu culture it is traditionally incumbent on a Zulu man “to satisfy a woman who showed she was sexually aroused. ‘You cannot just leave a woman if she is in that state.’” He is, eventually, acquitted (as he was in real life).
The couple takes a trip to London and experiences something new: “Free of the discipline of the Struggle, free of the discipline of the Aftermath, the equally absolute necessity to resist, oppose the underside prejudice and injustice persisting, whether with the witnesses she must coach when the Justice Centre is to testify for their defense or whether he must be regarded in the academic establishment as a Leftist troublemaker self-righteously supporting students in their ungrateful demands of the higher education system granted them by a Constitution.”
If you don’t know much about the machinations of South Africa, Gordimer fills you in with nearly every big newspaper headline woven into the novel, primarily through dialogue among the comrades living in the Suburb. Problems mount and disillusionment crystallizes, Zuma is elected President by the ANC and Steve considers emigration to Australia. “Australia needs your skills today!” (Side bar: Is this Gordimer’s nod to Coetzee? Coetzee is a native South African, but in 2002, he moved to Australia and in 2006 became a citizen. This was after his post-apartheid novel, Disgrace, published in 1999, which emphasized the violent disorder and was denounced by the government as racist.)
If you’ve not read much Gordimer, she is a big fan of the ellipses and convoluted syntax: “—Was this what it was for, what we did—The Struggle. Comrades—reborn clones of apartheid bosses. Our ‘renaissance.’ Arms corruption, what’s the nice procedure in your courts, the never-never—the Methodist dump just one of the black cesspots of people nobody wants, nobody knows what to do with—‘Rights’ too highfalutin’ to apply to refugees—shacks where our own people supposed now to have walls and a roof, still living in shit, I could go on and on as we do, the comrades.”
But it’s worth wading through some of the tangle. By the end of the novel, the new South Africa has taken on a complicated shape. With her hard look at South Africa, Gordimer has made it clear there are no easy answers, and as former revolutionary fighters depart for a less complicated place, the reader wonders who else will not listen to Afrikaner Max du Preez who writes in the newspaper, “Don’t allow bad politics to drive you out of the country of your heart.”