March 6, 2014

The Right Papers

Apartheid is a word you will have heard almost immediately upon moving to South Africa, or perhaps even earlier. It is of Afrikaans origin and means, roughly, the separation and classification of people according to race. It's a term inextricably linked with South Africa's fascinating history. I've talked a little bit about Apartheid before:

I've told you about the Apartheid Museum. It's the best place, should you find yourself in Johannesburg, to learn more about it.

I've told you about the history of Apartheid and how, in its day, it led to such strange concepts as the term Honorary White for American black dignitaries visiting the country. 

I've told you about Robben Island, the place where Nelson Mandela spent a good portion of his life languishing in prison as a result of his acts of defiance and sabotage in opposition to the policy of Apartheid.

But what I haven't talked much about is what life during Apartheid times (from 1948 until 1990) was like. How difficult it was for non-whites. How the Group Areas Act forbid you to own property in most of the desirable areas of town. How there were pass laws that made it a crime to be caught outside of your designated area at the wrong time. How almost every facet of your life was dictated by the color of your skin. 

I couldn't really tell you much about any of this, because I wasn't there to witness it. That's why I was so happy to recently come across a book that does just that. It is called The Right Papers, by Nico Bester. It is a collection of short stories that are all set in the time of Apartheid, all of them interconnected with each other in a clever way. They feature everyday people from all stations of life, of various racial backgrounds, and from all corners of South Africa, who sometimes resort to extraordinary actions to adapt to life under such arbitrary rules. From the Coloured woman who obtains a forged birth certificate for her son so that he can "pass" as white and go to a better school, to the impoverished weed-smuggling wife in a township near Durban, all of the actors in these vignettes about ordinary life in 1970s and 80s South Africa are so real and believable, you might think you could have known them yourself.

You might think that these stories are bleak, but they are not. In fact, I found myself laughing out loud more than a few times. I was reminded of Roald Dahl and his plot twists that often end in the macabre. Yes, there is human tragedy, fueled by the suspicion and fear Apartheid stirred in people, but there is so much more in this book. The relationships between the people in these stories are beautifully described, and the character development is exquisite. I also enjoyed the lively dialog, peppered with some wonderful Afrikaans phrases.

The Right Papers is not a condemnation of Apartheid, even though it will give you more than a glimpse into what living under its yoke was like. It is a celebration of everyday people, of the stubborn striving for daily survival, of the ingenuity of regular people in the face of insurmountable obstacles. And it is yet another wonderful snapshot of life in Africa.