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Pan Macmillan

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“Apartheid did impart in us a violent approach to life” – a feature on Achmat Dangor

The last time Silas Ali encountered Lieutenant Du Boise, Silas was locked in the back of a police van and the lieutenant was conducting a vicious assault on Silas’s wife, Lydia, in revenge for her husband’s participation in Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress.

When Silas sees Du Boise by chance twenty years later, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is about to deliver its report, crimes from the past erupt into the present, splintering the Alis’ fragile peace.

A clear-eyed story of a brittle family on the crossroads of history and a fearless skewering of the pieties of revolutionary movements, Bitter Fruit is a cautionary tale of how we do, or do not, address the deepest wounds of the past.


 

Kwanele Sosibo recently wrote a feature on Dangor, published in The Mail & Guardian; the two discussed Dangor’s acclaimed novel, the TRC, and why it’s an appropriate time to have reprinted Bitter Fruit, 16 years after its original publication:

‘What turned these apartheid police into killers?” asks author Achmat Dangor. He is in his lounge in the Johannesburg suburb of Parkview discussing the inner worlds of the complex characters that populate his novel, Bitter Fruit.

“They weren’t born inhuman. Is it their culture, is it their upbringing? Is it things that are planted in them by their surroundings, by their family, by their culture? That’s what creates human beings.

Bitter Fruit, because of its context, was the one where, perhaps, I took this beyond what people would expect … the personalisation, turning into personification.”

First published in 2001 and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2004, Dangor’s Bitter Fruit was re-published by Picador Africa earlier this year.

“I think it was appropriate to [re]publish it because there are issues in the book that we are still dealing with today,” says Dangor.

“Ahmed Timol’s killing is only being truly investigated now, after all these years. Apart from people who suffered like that there must also be families and communities who need an understanding of what happened so they can come to terms with it,” he says. “Ahmed Timol’s mother gave evidence at the TRC [the Truth and Reconciliation Commission] but there was no follow-up investigation.”

The TRC is a significant pivot in Dangor’s Bitter Fruit, set as it is at the tail end of Nelson Mandela’s presidency. Its unfinished business and its lack of capacity preoccupy the professional and personal lives of several key characters. At a party to celebrate the 50th birthday of Silas, a spin doctor in the safety and security ministry, guests throw pithy darts at the TRC process, with the report having just been released.

“After all this time, we’ve got a big fat report but we’re still no closer to the truth,” says one guest. “That’s because we always put our faith in priests. They don’t have it in them to hold these apartheid thugs accountable!”

Having known people close to the process, Dangor is even-handed in his criticism of the commission, noting how the commission was hamstrung by not having its own investigators and very little time. “I think at some point the government just decided, ‘Look, it is time to move on, beyond just dealing with the past …let’s try to plan for the future.’”

The irony, of course, is that there are apparently too few positive results of that eagerness to move on. Reading the book 16 years after its first publication, the absence of a giddy euphoria is refreshing.

In Dangor’s recently liberated South Africa, a sense of foreboding surrounds the Old Man’s presidency. Corruption is not quite the order of the day but the urgency to paper over the cracks of the transition hem in the lives of the new democratic country’s citizens, in particular its women.

“I don’t know if I had a direct political agenda. My intention, really, was to tell some untold stories,” says Dangor. “I come from an activist family. The things that my family went through …

Continue reading here.

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