- Publicizing Private Lives in a Rainbow NationThe Year in South Africa
Free speech during the apartheid era was not possible, especially for blacks.M. Neelika Jayawardane noted in her 2013 Symposium Magazine article, titled "Memoirs Take a Daring Turn in South Africa," that until recently the apartheid state was obsessed with controlling the national narrative, as well as the stories people told, believed, and internalized about themselves and others. It imposed that control using surveillance, legislation, state-mandated violence, and community policing. But since the fall of apartheid in 1994, the world has witnessed a deluge of life writing—biography, autobiography, memoir, and testimony—from South Africa. My review will be limited to a small fraction of these works, specifically those that have appeared in English from mid-2016 to September 2017. Some of the notable publications that have appeared during this period are works by Glynnis Breytenbach (Rule of Law), David Coplan and Oscar Gutierrez (Last Night at the Bassline), Piers Cruickshanks (Confluence), John Fredericks (Skollie), Rafique Gangat (Bending the Rules), Thandeka Gqubule (No Longer Whispering to Power), Bridget Hilton-Barber (Student Comrade Prisoner Spy), Daryl Ilbury (Tim Noakes), Ahmed Kathrada and Sahm Venter (Conversations with a Gentle Soul), Mandla Mathembu (The Backroom Boy), Herman Mashaba and Isabella Morris (Black Like You), Fatima Meer (Fatima Meer), Sibusiso Mjikeliso (Being a Black Springbok), Bongani Ngqulunga (The Man Who Founded the ANC), Ambre Nicolson (An A to Z of Amazing South African Women), Malebo Sephodi (Miss Behave), Lesley Smailes (Cult Sister), Karina Szczurek (The Fifth Mrs Brink), Lindiwe Hani and Melinda Ferguson (Being Chris Hani's Daughter), recovered drug addict Grizelda Grootboom (Exit), talk-show host Trevor Noah (Born a Crime), fashion and media maven, and TV and radio presenter Bonang Matheba (From A to B), and the indefatigable journalist and politician Helen Zille (Not Without a Fight). [End Page 657]
A potpourri of themes inform this extensive collection, ranging from speaking truth to power (Gqubule); politics (Ngqulunga, Hani, and Zille); activism (Sephodi); crime, violence, and poverty (Fredericks and Noah); lack of belonging (Noah and Grootboom); entrepreneurship (Mashaba and Matheba); drug and substance (ab)use (Noah, Grootboom, and Hani); rape and sexual exploitation (Grootboom, Sephodi, and Smailes); sports and entertainment (Cruickshanks, Coplan and Gutierrez, and Mjikeliso); and resisting apartheid and its divisive laws (Hilton-Barber, Meer, and Noah).
From this impressive body of life writing, I have singled out three texts for discussion: Trevor Noah's Born a Crime and Other Stories (2016), Malebo Sephodi's Miss Behave (2017), and Grizelda Grootboom's Exit: A True Story (2017). While there is a curious connective thread that cuts across the selected works—the challenges youth face in post-apartheid South Africa—I will explore how the selected authors reconstruct the rainbow nation, which, as Jayawardane claims, is "still obsessed in many ways with using racial classification to structure individual and group identity."
trevor noah, born a crime
Although Noah's Born a Crime aims at comic relief, it is through this narrative style that one gets to appreciate the seriousness of the issues he relentlessly interrogates: the plight of being biracial in (post-)apartheid South Africa. Noah opens his narrative with the contrite voice of someone who considers his birth a mishap. The "sin" his parents—a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father—committed was that the two of them agreed to give birth to him in a country that criminalized sex across the races. "It was illegal to be mixed (to have a black parent and a white parent)," observes Noah (34). "The government went to insane lengths to try and enforce these new laws. The penalty for breaking them was five years in prison" (26). Noah, thus, is the crime born out of his parents' coital arrangement, which leads to feelings of unbelonging in him: "my birth certificate doesn't say that I'm Xhosa, which technically I am. And it doesn't say that I'm Swiss, which the government wouldn't allow" (32). The anxiety of being neither black nor white soon begins to take its toll on him. During his childhood, he couldn't freely walk with his mother, for...