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A country no writer could imagine

By Merle Rubin / September 2, 1988



I left South Africa in 1974. ... I felt then, and still do, like an escapee, and perhaps this is partly to be explained by the institutional nature of South African society where no corner of life, private or public, is not touched by the shadow of racial obsession,... and the result is to create a country more bizarre than anything a writer could dream up. South Africa is a deeply inventive asylum where the inmates long ago took over.... From ``White Boy Running,'' by Christopher Hope White Boy Running, by Christopher Hope. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 273 pp. $17.95.

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IN ``White Boy Running,'' South African-born poet and novelist Christopher Hope turns to nonfiction in his attempt to describe a country he regards as an extended exercise in fiction: a complex system of racial engineering designed to keep reality at bay. Reasonable observers have called apartheid preposterous, outdated, regressive - an anachronism on the verge of extinction. Growing up in its midst, Hope shared this view. Yet, revisiting his native land in 1987, on the eve of a crucial national election, he finds ample evidence to confirm the far more pessimistic view that led him into exile some dozen years before.

Hope goes first to the dilapidated town of Balfour, where his Irish-born grandfather once owned the station hotel and served, on occasion, as mayor. He moves on to the suburbs of his own birthplace, Johannesburg, and from there to the dusty streets of Pretoria, where he grew up, Roman Catholic and English-speaking, in the capital of a nation that defined itself as Calvinist and Afrikaans-speaking. Belonging to a group, young Hope discovered, was boring, hateful, and inescapable.

In cosmopolitan Cape Town, where he served in the Navy, Hope caught a glimpse of a more natural and relaxed society - which apartheid soon proceeded to undo as best it could. In 1987, Hope revisits District Six, once a teeming Colored area in the heart of town, now demolished by government planning. Stellenbosch, Durban, northern Natal, Soweto are on his itinerary. Moving from place to place, Hope travels back and forth in time, combining history, memoir, reportage, and political commentary to produce a sharp, bleak verbal portrait, beautifully written, bitterly ironic.

Although there's much that is personal in this story - from the author's memories of a teacher who made Shakespeare come alive to his account of how he composed his earliest verses to entertain his classmates - the emphasis throughout is political. This emphasis echoes the concern expressed by many other South Africans that theirs is a country in which it is impossible to escape from politics.

Wherever Hope travels, he keeps his ears open: whether it's a speech by Progressive member of Parliament Helen Suzman, a meeting of the neo-fascist Afrikaaner Resistance Movement, P.W. Botha rallying the faithful in Stellenbosch, a skeptical black audience questioning Hope at a poetry reading in Soweto, or a Boer farmer in a country town.

In some quarters the prospect of the election is a cause for optimism about the possibility of moving toward a more democratic future. There is talk of change in the air, of a ``fluidity'' in the mood of the electorate. Observers from abroad eagerly pick up on these signals.

But to Hope, such talk - however admirable - has a ring that is distinctly d'ej`a entendu: ``They saw the beginning of the end for the present administration after the Sharpeville shootings of 1960, they talked of one more push after the Soweto riots of 1976, and they began organizing for liberation during the State of Emergency of 1985.... [They] look for a new progressive grouping of opposition forces to oppose the Government, after the elections on May 6th.'' For Hope also listened to burly Boers on barstools in small towns and rural outposts talk about guns, bullets, and heading for the veld, as their ancestors did against the British.

The result of the election was, of course, to increase the power of the ruling Nationalists, and if any opposition was strengthened, it was that of the far right, afraid that the party that had invented apartheid and ruled for 40 years might be selling them down the river!

Hope's relentless irony has a disturbing spin to it. He loathes apartheid, but he seems at times to take a grim satisfaction in being proved right about its prospects for endurance. He cultivates a sort of perverse admiration for the zeal of Afrikaaner prophets of international isolation and racial separation - Paul Kruger, Hendrik Verwoerd, Eugene Terre'Blanche. He also seems to betray the intellectual's bemused, Schadenfreude-tinged respect for men who prefer fighting to talking, bullets to ballots.

Yet it would be a serious mistake to read Hope's ironies at face value. The ironic stance he adopts is a mirror image that clearly reflects his anger and frustration about a situation in which he sees few if any signs of improvement. He has little use for the ameliorist Progressives, and he is unimpressed by the Zulu-led indaba (conference) going on in Natal or by the resignation of 27 prominent Afrikaaner academics from the Nationalist Party. He sees signs everywhere - even in the curious aptness of names and acronyms: White supremacist Terre'Blanche's name means white earth; the initials of the Progressive Federal Party, PFP, sound ``pneumatic'' to his ear - people joke that they stand for ``packing for Perth.'' He does not point out what is perhaps the most pervasive irony in terms of nomenclature, which will be immediately apparent to any who read this book: There is little hope to be found in Christopher Hope's view of South Africa's future.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.