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Pan Macmillan

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“A powerful and though-provoking novel”: Margaret von Klemperer reviews Dikeledi

Published in The Witness

It has been a while since we had a new novel from Achmat Dangor, and in Dikeledi he has given us a complex and wide-ranging family saga that spans the years from 1970 to the present, set against the backdrop of South Africa’s turbulent political past and its disturbing current reality.

Among the characters are Patrick Tau, a stern, silent figure who is the son of a respected pastor from Mahikeng – or Mafeking, or Mafikeng. Names, their changes and the reasons behind them are a recurring theme in the novel. Then there is Patrick’s wife Julia/Baile and their children, Pitso/Peter and Dikeledi/Miriam. At the outset, they live in the mixed suburb of Newclare, but the Group Areas act will soon put paid to that, forcing them back to the apartheid homeland of Bophutatswana.

The story then jumps forward eight years, to 1978. Julia has left Patrick and returned to Johannesburg, where she is living with her female lover. In the first half of the book, Julia is the most realised and most intriguing character. But politics, and the involvement of her daughter in the struggle send her back to Patrick from the life she has carved out for herself.

Fast forward again, and now the main weight of the story is carried by another Dikeledi, this time Pitso’s daughter who was born in New York to Pitso and his African-American wife. Following the deaths of her parents, she returns to South Africa, leaving her lecturing job to become a journalist. And what she uncovers pitches her and her South African Indian boyfriend into danger as a brutal history of struggle veterans and traitors is revealed.

The novel is driven more by plot than character, and Dangor raises all kinds of issues – exile, displacement, belonging, politics, Aids, and always the apartheid past. As one character says: “we have sanctified the struggle”, but buried in it too were treachery and hatreds which are revealed and which stretch long tentacles into the present. There are moments in the latter part of the book when the saga aspect gives way to a political thriller, which does cause a certain unevenness of tone, but in general, Dangor handles his content in a more than competent manner. And, in doing so, he has created a powerful and thought-provoking novel of South Africa, its past, its challenges and possible hope for its future.

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