News From South Africa

By Mike Nicol

Recently, a political science student by the name of Thorne Godinho took SA crime fiction writers to task for being rainbow-struck. That allusion is to the tag ‘Rainbow Nation’ which Archbishop Tutu coined in those heady days of 1994, after the country’s first democratic election. Godinho really waded in and laid three charges against crime writers that were, well, pretty bruising. In fact he was critical of most of the crime fiction published here in recent years. So much for whatever hardboiled swagger we writers have developed. I have to confess I was stung into a quick reassessment.

Charge No 1: ‘The current trends in local crime fiction, however, tend to be a more docile response to the issues which plague our nation – not a literary revolution of sorts. Writers now work within the carefully-drawn lines which surround our society – poignant paragraphs rallying against economic inequality, etc remain scare. Where are the writers who challenge the status quo?’

For the defence: Admittedly SA crime fiction cannot be called a literary revolution but then I do not see this as the remit of crime fiction anywhere. I’m not sure that it’s entirely true that the criticism of the status quo has been scarce. It occurs repeatedly in Deon Meyer’s books, in the works of Sarah Lotz and Chris Marnewick and Roger Smith – to name the crime writers that Godinho didn’t mention. I haven’t yet read Smith’s latest, DUST DEVILS, but picked up the book and at random came across these paragraphs which I would call critical of our health policies and hospitals:

Zondi felt dizzy. Shut his eyes for a moment, blocking out the sunlight that blasted in at him through the windows of the hospital corridor. Had to steady himself against the wall. Took a breath and got a lungful of disinfectant and the bitter smell of death and disease.

All around him were wasted men and women in candy-striped pyjamas. Shuffling along the corridor with thousand–yard stares. Slumped on benches. On the floor. In wheelchairs. Gaunt, hollow cheeked. Skins patterned with lesions. Coughing through lips gummed by yeast infections think as churned butter.

South Africa has the highest rate of HIV in the world…

Charge No 2: ‘The genre rarely shies away from illustrating reality, but the passivity in some of South Africa’s popular fiction makes the genre appear far less honest and more accepting of society as it is.’

For the defence: In Deon Meyer’s DEVIL’S PEAK, Thobela Mpayipheli, is driven by a failure in the justice system to exact his own very bloody revenge. Then there is Sarah Lotz’s look at how rape is handled by the criminal justice system in her EXHIBIT A – a damning indictment indeed. Sifiso Mzobe’s portrait of Umlazi in YOUNG BLOOD is hardly passive: he presents lives out of control as a result of their social conditions. In fact, the contrast between conditions in the townships and the suburbs is a constant in most of the crime fiction.

Charge No 3: ‘In such an extraordinary country, where is the criticism, the exploration of some things we’d rather not talk about?’

For the defence: It will take a more thorough reading of the crime novels to answer this question in depth but a quick list of some of the themes covered to date: people trafficking; organ trafficking, the brutality of the ganglands, the appalling conditions inside our prisons, the political ramifications of the apartheid state in the current politics; tenderpreneurship; government corruption; corruption in big business; the failures in the justice system, the drug industry, money laundering, the arms scandal, arms trading, blood diamonds, fraud, illegal property schemes, paedophilia, the Samora Machel air crash, the demoralised state of the police force, farm murders, hijackings, abalone poaching, organised crime, illegal trade in wildlife. I’ll rest my case there M’Lord.

October has been another busy month for book launches. First off was Roger Smith with his third stand-alone, DUST DEVILS, then Jo Hichens published her first crime novel, DIVINE JUSTICE; and the next week Deon Meyers hit the shelves with his seventh, TRACKERS, and the following week Margie Orford added her fourth Clare Hart to her series under the title GALLOWS HILL.

Meanwhile on Crime Beat my colleague Liz Fletcher has been looking at the role of female PIs in our crime fiction. Here are her four articles:

Orford’s Clare Hart

Jassy Mackenzie’s Jade de Jong

H J Golakai’s Vee Johnson

Angela Makholwa’s Lucy Khambule

Mike Nicol

Mike Nicol is a journalist and writer and now a hard-core crime fiction addict. He's published two crime novels - Payback and Our To Score (a co-authorship), and is a founder of the blog Crime Beat. He lives on Cape Town's peninsula, up a mountain, in the teeth of the wind.

Visit Mike at: www.crimebeat.book.co.za.

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