What’s New in the African Politics Summer Reading Show?

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In 2003, I took a few days after a conference to travel to the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. I hired a car, managed to avoid wreckage by driving on the left for the first time and drove north of Durban. My first stop was Ixopo, where South African writer Alan Paton staged one of my favorite books, 1948 “Weep, beloved country.” The book tells the story of injustice and fear in South Africa’s new apartheid state. It includes one of my favorite passages in literature:

For it is the dawn that has come, as it has come for a thousand centuries, without ever declining. But when that dawn comes, of our emancipation, of the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, well, that’s a secret.

Before and during my trip, just about everyone I consulted — friends, hotel receptionists, other conference attendees — warned me about driving in South Africa as a young white woman alone. “Keep your purse in the trunk,” they warned. “Don’t open the windows for anyone and don’t hesitate to run a red light if someone approaches your car.” The unspoken subtext was that, by default, I should be afraid of black men, who could attack at any time, without warning. Despite the massive social changes that had taken place a decade earlier, fear still reigned.

Of course, these fears were exaggerated. I was completely safe, experiencing the generous hospitality of almost everyone I met. My trip through this beautiful region ended without any problems.

I couldn’t help but think of that journey and Paton’s words as I read Andrew Harding’s beautiful and heartbreaking new book, “Not nice people: two dead men. Forty suspects. The trial that shattered a South African town. Harding tells the story of the 2016 murders of two young black men, Samuel Tjixa and Simon Jubeba, in a rural area near the town of Parys in South Africa’s Free State. This skillfully written book reveals how an all-consuming sense of fear and mistrust caused the murders and undermined efforts to bring justice to the families of the victims.

Tjixa and Jubeba died after being beaten by a large group of white farmers, all Afrikaners and most of whom were related. Beyond that, the facts of the case are unclear. Tjixa and Jubeba had approached the farm family patriarch either to demand unpaid wages or to rob him. They may or may not have had a gun. The patriarch pressed a panic button and the two men began running through the pastures, eventually being chased by around 40 white farmers who had received a message to respond after the patriarch used the panic button to alert a private security network.

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The rest of the book tells the story of the police investigation and the court case. In doing so, Harding explores issues of fear, race and equality in post-apartheid South Africa, portraying a community in which people from different racial groups are still very afraid of each other. This lack of connection, trust and knowledge creates a vicious cycle, creating misunderstanding, fear and more mistrust.

For example, why did these farmers have a private security network in the first place, and what made them think it was okay to attack the two men rather than just wait for the arrival of the police ? As the story unfolds, we learn that there were several rural attacks and killings of white people, prompting the farmers to organize. The long shadow of apartheid, in which whites suffered no consequences for attacking blacks, looms as farmers believe in their absolute right to self-defense, with or without the law.

At the same time, however, after complaining to the police that he needed more formal protection, one of these farmers is disconcerted to learn that the rates of murder and sexual assault are much higher. raised in the all-black townships of Parys, with several performing each month. How would he allocate resources in such circumstances, the police chief wonders. Fear, anger and violence are also widespread within the groups, a point highlighted when the wife of one of the accused farmers realizes that her husband has a long history of violence and abuse and believes that he is absolutely capable of doing the things he has been charged with.

While the narrative certainly focuses on trying to uncover the truth about what happened to Jubeba and Tjixa – and who actually killed them – ‘They’re Not Sweet People’ is more nuanced than a true crime tale. typical. It focuses less on the gory details of the crime scene or detective story, though we learn as much as necessary to move the narrative forward. Harding approaches the story with care and grace, showing the ruthless racism of most farm families and their indifference to possibly beating two men to death.

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It also depicts with finesse and gentleness the anguish of the families of Tjixa and Jubeba, whom no one takes the trouble to inform of their murders. In fact, both families are often left in the dark about important days for the trial until a reporter (who I assume is Harding himself) informs them. Ruth Qokotha, Tjixa’s mother, is a central character in the story. When she learns of the murders, she quits her job as a cleaner for one of the farming families, moves to a township in Parys, and begins to experience much greater economic and emotional precariousness. Throughout the case, the magistrate, lawyers and most witnesses struggle to find out who the body belongs to, adding indignity and insult to the tragedy.

Ultimately, “These Are Not Sweet People” is a heartbreaking reflection on the complications of reconciliation and unity in a country still plagued by political corruption, greed and social inequality. I won’t spoil the ending here, but Harding ably shows that South Africa still has a long way to go to become the ‘rainbow nation’. For many in the country, Paton’s “dawn of emancipation” still seems like a distant hope.

Find out more in this summer’s APSRS:

Paul Farmer’s latest book teaches even more about pandemics

‘Born in Blackness’ is an engrossing and unforgettable read

Find all the books from our ninth African Politics Summer Reading Show here.

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