Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Beauty, Violence, and Redemption

By Michael Sears

Karin Brynard grew up in the Northern Cape and many of her books are set in that dramatic, semi-arid landscape. She was a journalist and editor for several of South Africa’s major newspapers before she became freelance to concentrate on her writing.

Her novels—originally written in Afrikaans—have been translated into several languages, and she has won a variety of literary and crime fiction prizes. Her next book, Tuisland (the Afrikaans version of Homeland), shot up to number one on the South African best seller list when it was released in 2016.

We chatted about OUR FATHERS, her latest book available outside South Africa.

OUR FATHERS is a book that tackles big themes in South Africa—the decay of family units, alienation by place as well as race, and different views from different groups as to the relationship between races in the country. Did you set out to address these, or are they the issues that will almost inevitably arise in contemporary South African crime fiction?

If you try and shadow one ordinary cop in the South African Police Service for a day, you will most likely stumble across every one of the “big themes” of this country.

Cops stand at the coal face of all the realities of life here, ranging from racism to the rape of babies and beyond. And that’s where my stories happen too, so addressing the “issues”  becomes sort of inevitable.

Karin on patrol with Captain Patrys Rautenbach

The question everybody keeps asking is why. Why do we see so much violence, so much brutality accompanying crime? We realize that this is a deeply complex society and that we’re continuously grappling with major challenges, ranging from poverty to greed, massive urbanization and the accompanying disintegration of cultures and belief systems. It is a society constantly under pressure, exposing all the cracks.

It would be almost impossible to ignore these issues. But: in the midst of all this, there is always redemption: relief in the beauty of the place and of the unexpected warmth of the diverse people who live here, their creativity and vibrant cultures.

What better background for storytelling, especially crime? The bad, the ugly, and the good all in one go.

You ask about “alienation by place as well as race.” Placing Sergeant Johannes Ghaap, a man of Griqua origin, in a predominantly black city like Soweto gave me the opportunity to showcase some of the diversity of our society and how challenging it can be on the personal level. It was such a rewarding exercise doing so, and allowed for wonderful suspense through Ghaap’s stumbling about.

The idea for OUR FATHERS arose from an interview I did with a man whose son had been accused of murder—bludgeoning his gorgeous girlfriend to death with a hammer. She was a promising student at the University of Stellenbosch and he a handsome postgraduate with an open, youthful face. It became a sensational case and the family of both the victim and the accused refused to talk to the press.

An unidentified body floating in a flooded mine shaft

I tried very hard to get an interview. And then got lucky.

The father of the young man agreed cautiously to talk. We met on a cold winter night and talked for hours. I will never forget the man’s despairing tears as he told me how he was torn from his bed in the middle of the night with the terrible news, and of his feelings of powerlessness as the investigation became a nightmare, his growing frustration with not being able to protect his son from this horror.

After the interview, driving back through the dark, wet streets of this beautiful student town, I thought how lucky this young boy was to have a father such as this.

Which set me to thinking about the role of fathers in the life of a family—and for that matter in the bigger family of a society. In psychological terms, the father is the constant guard at the gate, often sacrificing himself to protect his family and to provide for them. He keeps things stable, provides reason, reflection, order and wisdom, according to the myths of old.

What happens in a household where the fathers are absent? Research shows that more than half of SA children grow up without fathers. It also shows the detrimental effects on the psychological health of those kids, how it impacts on male violence, on suicide, promiscuity, even academic performance.

As the writing of this story progressed, this theme in particular, grew in importance.

The novel is two different stories in OUR FATHERS that are linked through Albertus Beeslaar, a captain in the South African Police service. Both involve dysfunctional families. In the one, Beeslaar, who is on holiday in Stellenbosch, is sucked into the vicious murder of the wife of a property magnate, and finds himself supporting the investigation of a young and smart black woman detective.  In the other, his previous girlfriend is hijacked.  The stories are very different in terms of the nature, setting, and purpose of the crime. Did you want to illustrate the two very different “crime scenes” in the country in this way?

Yes. I was initially going to write only the Stellenbosch story, focusing on the darkness that often bubbles beneath the pretty veneer of a privileged, culture-rich town of elites. But a different storyline about hijackings and dark witchcraft and the sale of human body parts kept bugging me. I then decided to combine the two stories and loved the juxtaposed result.

On the one hand we deal with murder in beautiful, genteel Stellenbosch, very white, very European and Afrikaans, very rich. On the other, the crime is about to be committed in the un-loveliness, the torrid poverty and harshness of the slums of Soweto—a vast community of almost 1.6 million people speaking more than 11 different African languages. Those are two of the realities of life in SA.

It was wonderful to write this and to explore in how many ways these two opposites are so different, but just as much the same.

A shack like the witch doctor’s in OUR FATHERS

Beeslaar has had a rough past, and has found some peace in the Northern Cape where he feels less alienated and can avoid the frenetic nastiness of Johannesburg. It’s also a retreat from the unsuccessful relationship with his girlfriend, Gerda. Like many South African detectives who decide to remain with the police despite all the issues, Beeslaar’s focus is almost single-mindedly on the victims. The message seems to be that one has to be an extraordinary person to remain in the South African Police Service. Do you see this as the current reality that South African crime fiction needs to reflect?

Yes and no. There are two kinds of people in the SAPS—the ones who care primarily about the victims of crime and the community they serve. And the ones for whom it is just a job.

Doing research for each of my books, I meet a lot of policemen and women—of all racial and cultural backgrounds. The passionate ones are always amazing people, daring to do extraordinary things in often impossible circumstances. They are the ones who stay despite the often idiotic decisions made by politicians, despite incompetent (political) and often criminal appointments to the top structures, and despite difficult circumstances, like broken vehicles or insufficient training and a whole lot more.

Cruising the nighttime streets of Soweto and the West Rand with the guys from Tracker, I met some of these amazing policemen.

One was a diminutive woman, Captain Patrys Rautenbach, who had been kicked straight into hospital numerous times by drunken thugs smashing up shebeens, who had been hunted by assassins for a local crime bosses, earns a very poor salary, is a single mother. Despite all this she has put a lot of bad people in jail during her life in the police. “My blood is blue,” she’ll declare when you ask.

In the Kalahari, Beeslaar has become a mentor to Sergeant Johannes Ghaap, who has now decided to try his luck in Johannesburg—Soweto to be precise. Ghaap finds himself completely out of his depth in every way. He even cannot understand the local version of English.  He starts off being shot—in a way that provokes laughter rather than sympathy—and has his car stolen. Yet he rises to the challenge. He starts by calling on Beeslaar for help at every turn, but by the end of the story, it’s the other way around. Is this a coming of age for Ghaap?

Yes, Ghaap gets what he wished for, unfortunately, namely to shed the youthful skin of his country bumpkin upbringing and become a street-wise big city cop (like Beeslaar).

Sangomas (witch doctors)

Just like the archetypal hero, he has to overcome several hurdles in order to fulfill his quest. For starters he lands on a different planet, where both the culture, the language and types of crime are utterly foreign to him. He experiences racism of a different sort, being mocked and belittled by his black superiors (him being a mixture of Griqua/Coloured ancestry), witnesses petty corruption and police incompetence. But he also gets to know the people who live and work in this vast city, consisting of both palaces and slums, and he does so through the eyes of the classic outsider, often with comedic results.

One of the obstacles he faces is the Kasi language. It is a rich soup of chopped up isiZulu, Sotho and Tswana, Afrikaans and English, with its own colorful expressions and wildly creative idioms and phrases.

I loved exploring this specific language, also called Tsotsi-taal (language of criminals), spoken in Soweto, because it is such a uniquely African creation. It is one of the typical cultural fusions taking place in Johannesburg—to me one of the most exciting places on the continent.

Ghaap finds support not from his colleagues in the police, but rather from the private Trackers, whose job is to find stolen cars using GPS technology. You mention your research with them. Have these private security companies become the new de facto police in South Africa, and is that likely to feature in more mysteries written here?

I’m rather surprised that more SA crime (besides maybe Mike Nicol) doesn’t feature private investigators, because the private security business is about twice the size of the police and the SA National Defence Force combined. It is also the fourth largest in the world per capita.

Those are amazing statistics. New to me!

With almost 500,000 members, of which over a third are in armed response, it is a rich source for storytelling. Many of these companies specialize in specific fields, offering services ranging from SWAT (special weapons and tactic) teams to hijackings, retrieving stolen vehicles to cash-in-transit operatives, all of them carrying heavy weapons.

Getting good info on these private security companies wasn’t easy. I needed to get close to companies specializing in stolen or hijacked vehicles. Then I got a lucky break when the PR guy of one such company in Johannesburg, Tracker, turned out to be a writer himself (Gareth Crocker). He took pity on me and organized a meeting with a team of their operatives. What followed was the best adventure of my life—to ride with those fearless guys through the meanest ghettos of Soweto, chasing stolen cars driven by heavily armed gangsters (some of them young teens).

I already knew the territory pretty well, having been a journalist for most of the eighties, when those streets burned with political unrest. But I had never done so in the middle of the night at breakneck speed, dodging dogs and potholes, bullets flying. It was great fun. And those guys are truly fearless. And funny and amazing people. I made some friends for life.

The belief in witchcraft and in the use of human body parts in black magic plays a role in many mystery novels set in southern Africa. Sometimes audiences outside Africa find it farfetched, but the reality is very grim. Would you comment?

Karin Brynard

There’s a lot of urban legend attached to this “phenomenon,” but I met a number of policemen who had seen murders police believed were in aid of “harvesting” body parts for witchcraft, otherwise known as “muti-killings.” It is a subject not openly spoken about and is a crime that remains largely secret because the bodies of victims are not often recovered. But from time to time there are incidents of such murders, especially of young children living with albinism, reported in the press. According to the Red Cross there is a rise in this sort of crime across the continent, huge sums being paid for particular body parts. A lot of people still believe in witchcraft, as demonstrated from incidents where people are harmed because they had been accused of putting bad spells on neighbors or hated family members or love/business rivals.

We based our book Deadly Harvest on the true case of a school girl from Mochudi in Botswana who was grabbed by witch doctors for body parts.

Most South Africans, on the other hand, visit traditional healers, called sangomas, for both medical and psycho-social problems. These healers, however, use only their ancient knowledge of medicinal plants for healing and would never use human tissue or indulge in the “dark arts.” Unfortunately they often have to defend themselves in an ill-informed press.

Your new book Homeland has just been released in English in South Africa, and will be available elsewhere next year. Would you give us a few hints about what to expect?

It’s a story of murder in the red dunes of the Kalahari, set among an ancient tribe of “Bushmen,” the |Khomani San. They are the last of South Africa’s first peoples and live on a small tract of traditional land along the main route to one of the country’s top tourist destinations, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park, home to the notorious Kalahari lion.

It is on the eve of an important political event: the president of the country will hand over more traditional land and announce an ambitious scheme to lift the community from its state of miserable poverty.

But there is trouble brewing. The San elders threaten to derail the proceedings because of an unsolved murder case and the investigating cop accused of major corruption. Then an important German scientist is violently attacked, there is talk of a lion escaping from the Park and a mysterious killer prowling the red dunes.

Captain Beeslaar is sent to restore peace before the political big wigs arrive. But then the accused cop is murdered and all hell breaks loose.

Amid all this, Kytie Rooi, a cleaner at a luxury guesthouse in Upington, main town of the Kalahari, commits a murder to save a strange street child from abuse. She flees into the deadly heat of the desert with her charge. In this world, places of safety are dangerously elusive and trust is a scarce commodity.

I’m greatly looking forward to reading it!

Michael Sears
Latest posts by Michael Sears (see all)