Between good and evil

June 23, 2000

Andre Brink is helping to rear his black maid's child. Her life, he tells Jennifer Wallace, encapsulates South Africa's tensions - explored in his new novel.

The University of Cape Town. A collection of western Palladian-style buildings huddled under the lowering peak of Table Mountain. A stunning view in one direction of the sparkling bay and the new expensive tourist development on the waterfront. A depressing view in the other direction of the endless Cape Flats and the shanty towns of Langa and Crossroads and Khayelitsha. Flyers on university notice boards protest student rights while, in the canteen in the social sciences building, two white girls chat over a coffee and some black boys play snooker.

Cape Town is a university that tugs in different directions. It is traditional and progressive. It is white and black. It is politically interventionist yet independent, quietly getting on with its own affairs. In some ways, it might seem a strange place to find the international radical Andre Brink, one of South Africa's leading white dissident novelists, winner of literary prizes in Africa, France and Italy and twice shortlisted for the Booker prize.

Teaching Shakespeare in a small, bare office, he keeps a low profile. When I arrive at the university reception to collect my pass for the interview, the (white) official asks me: "Professor Brink? How do you spell that? And which department is he in?" But in other ways the university, with its two vistas, is a highly appropriate setting for Brink. For although he was a thorn in the side of the pre-Mandela government and had his books banned under apartheid, he has always charted, in novels such as A Dry White Season, the personal cost of radical dissent as well as its necessity and the ambivalent tensions of the white, liberal, anti-apartheid sensibility.

He worries about belonging to one politically identifiable group and often writes about how private lives get caught up reluctantly in public politics. "I'm not so starry-eyed as to think that anybody can be a free agent," he tells me in his careful, reserved voice. "But, for me, writing is tied up very much with the liberty to blame."

I have come to Cape Town to talk to Brink about his new novel, The Rights of Desire, to be published in August. It weaves together the stories of two relationships, one set in the present day between Ruben, a man of 65 and his 29-year-old lodger Tessa, and the other set in the late 17th century, between a Cape Dutch master and his young slave, Antje of Bengal. Ruben is tormented by his sexual desire for Tessa and simultaneous reluctance to impose himself upon her. Meanwhile, the house is haunted by the ghost of Antje, who was finally abandoned by her master and executed after helping him murder his wife. The fourth character in the novel is Ruben's housekeeper, Magrieta, whose violent experiences in the black township are covertly contrasted with Ruben's self-absorbed love and anxiety.

The novel is about guilt - the sexual guilt that afflicts Ruben, and more subtly, political guilt about the legacy of male, white oppression in South Africa and the continuing privilege of whites even in the post-apartheid years.

"In South Africa, race oppression goes hand in hand with sexist oppression," Brink says. The novel is about where the personal and the political collide, where the private world of Ruben, for example, meets the public world of Magrieta and township politics.

"There was only a kitchen table between us, but we might have been creatures from different worlds," Ruben says. "She harbouring inside her global body the violence and rage, the raping and killing and burning of her everyday world and I, secluded among books and music and cats, disturbed at most by images of unrequited lust."

Live-in black or "coloured" maids are still the norm in South Africa's white households and are, for many white people, their only window on black experience.

As Brink points out, although there is still "the cushioning effect that the privilege of whiteness brings with it", white lives are being gradually altered by their increased exposure to the black majority. "Everyday in your house, maids or housekeepers bring with them a certain otherness that one cannot just ignore," he says.

Brink is experiencing this first hand. He and his wife are helping to bring up the daughter of their maid, allowing mother and daughter to live with them now that three of their houses in the township have been burnt down. Each weekend, the mother and daughter return to the township to see their family, only to encounter violence. While it would obviously be better for the two of them to live independently, the reality of the situation is that it is more beneficial in the short term to be taken in by whites. "After each weekend there is such a lot of damage control," Brink says. "Just in the life of this one beautiful little person, we see the unresolved splits and clashes of this country."

These unresolved splits, between loyalty to black identity and affinity with liberal white kindness, are part of the complexity of post-apartheid South Africa. In the dark days of apartheid, politics - and novel writing - were paradoxically simple. The government was evil, blacks were oppressed and writers had a duty to expose the situation. It was clear to which side a writer should belong.

"Usually writers live very secluded lives, but during the apartheid years there were compensations to being a writer," Brink confesses. "A wonderful sense of solidarity among writers, black and white, Xhosa, Afrikaans. We were all in the same boat."

Three of Brink's novels were banned under apartheid. The first ban, on Looking on Darkness, caught him by surprise. "I suddenly found myself without a reader, which was a devastating realisation." After that, he wrote his books in English and Afrikaans, and published them in Britain to beat the censors.

When An Instant in the Wind was published in 1976, a private list was compiled of all the people who had managed to buy the book in South Africa, so that by the time A Dry White Season came out in 1979, the list of 1,500 readers could be targeted directly and the first edition sold out within two weeks, despite the ban. "One always had to try to keep one step ahead of the government," Brink says. "It was exhilarating. It gave a sense of meaning to what one was doing."

Brink was never imprisoned, but he was subjected to constant pressure from the government, followed wherever he went. He even had his typewriter confiscated. These experiences found their way into A Dry White Season, in which a white man, investigating the death of his friend in police custody, becomes the victim of interrogation and willy-nilly discovers he is a rebel. For Brink, apartheid polarised people into oppressors and oppressed and, inevitably, politicised the role of the writer.

But in the post-apartheid years, writing and politics are more complicated and ambiguous. For a start, the African National Congress government, which was greeted so enthusiastically in 1994 as the democratic alternative to its wicked predecessor, has proved disappointing in many areas and only wins Brink's "cautious" support.

He is put off by the excessive forms of corruption with which the government is riddled and alarmed by the degree of support within the ANC for what is happening in Zimbabwe. He acknowledges that some of the white farmers who are being attacked are remnants of the old extreme right, colonialist regime. But he points out that their territories are being given to cronies of the regime and that anger should be directed as much at Robert Mugabe's government as at white extremists. ANC support for Mugabe is alarming because "it seems to suggest that what the so-called miracle of the South African changeover was about may have been window-dressing and may not have been deep enough to guarantee that we have the make-up to face the real challenges of a new South Africa".

Meanwhile, for whites, the two main topics of conversation are the soaring crime rate - South Africa has the highest number of reported rapes in the world - and the difficulty of getting jobs. The consequences of "affirmative action" - a policy of recruiting blacks and women in preference to white males in order to reach a more representative workforce - is leading to serious white unemployment and emigration. Two of Brink's sons, one with a doctorate in physics, are unemployed. They have stayed in South Africa, but others are leaving.

Brink, who has never been a member of a political party because he thinks it would compromise his freedom as a writer, explains the ambivalence of many: "The liberal establishment, which used to be anti-apartheid and has now lost its privileges, has had to redefine its position, vis-a-vis a new government that represents on paper many of the things it has been fighting for. But the reality is much harsher than (the liberals) expected. The ANC is not making it easy for many of these people to be incorporated."

Whites, Brink says, are reluctant to criticise the government and want to be seen to be giving it support. But he thinks the country needs an effective opposition for healthy politics.

Despite his acute sense of the problems in South Africa, Brink is optimistic. He distances himself from the bleakness of his Cape Town University colleague J. M. Coetzee, last year's Booker prize winner, whose novel Disgrace told the story of the scandal of a university professor, sacked for sexually exploiting his much younger student. The professor is attacked by a group of black youths while staying with his daughter on her isolated farm and his daughter is raped. Hunted and shamed by events, the professor finishes the novel, brutalised and uncommunicative, reduced to ferrying dead dogs to a crematorium.

Coetzee, Brink thinks, is too harsh in his analysis of the present South Africa. Relations between blacks and whites, or between the present and the past, are not as bleak as he suggests. Guilt, Brink agrees, is one of the key problems that whites have to deal with. But rather than numbing them, it should be used creatively. "So many things have gone wrong, but if we let that crush us, what is the point?" His novel ends with optimism, with Ruben not disgraced by his relationship but treated tenderly, his desire for Tessa intact.

"What used to be just problems in South Africa have become challenges and can be faced," he says positively. "Perhaps I have out of desperation been an inveterate optimist, seeing little glimmerings of hope. But I think there are more reasons for hope now than there were, even though there are days when it is very hard."

Jennifer Wallace is fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.

The Rights of Desire will be published on August 3 by Secker & Warburg, Pounds 15.99.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.