Inside the Politics of Our Lives
- Title: London – Cape Town – Joburg
- Author: Zukiswa Wanner
- Publisher: Kwela Books
- Number of pages: 337
- Year of publication: 2014
- Category: Fiction
Zukiswa Wanner’s witty prose excites, unsettles and discomforts in shocking ways. It reminds the reader, in certain ways, of Ama Ata Aidoo’s prose, but Wanner’s prose is subtler and her work is richer than art that is directed solely at provoking the establishment.
Like Aidoo, Wanner identifies as a feminist. In the tradition of African Feminist Literature, there is one tendency, among others, for male-bashing and female protagonists dealing with societal abuse and taboos. The novel’s co-protagonist, Germaine, is a feminist. You might expect the character to be a misandrist, but such expectations will be disappointed – a feminist can marry, have a successful marriage and enjoy sex. A husband can marry a feminist wife and their everyday preoccupation will not be abuse and how irresponsible other women’s husbands are.
What then will their lives be, a fairytale? What will be their ‘third thing’? What will be their motivation? Will their memories endure?
London – Cape Town – Joburg is set in three cities. It follows the lives of Germaine Spencer, a ceramist and art lecturer, and Martin O’Malley, an Irish-South African who holds a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics. Martin is mourning a sudden breakup with his girlfriend when he meets Germaine. Germaine, on the other hand, is helping her friend, Priya, get over a heartbreak. They fall in love rapidly. Then, Germaine gets pregnant with Zuko and everything changes for both of them. Their relationship takes them from London, across the Atlantic Ocean, to South Africa, Cape Town and Johannesburg.
The story is set in the period from 1994 to 2011. These years are not just historic – they are landmarks in the lives of the lead characters. The temporal setting provides context, but what the novel concerns itself with is the impact of that context, the politics of private lives.
Narrated from the perspectives of Germaine and Martin, the novel begins with a prologue. The beginning is dramatic. Germaine’s narrative starts with this:
‘Zuko Spencer-O’Malley is dead. Dead via suicide. At the tender age of thirteen.
My son is dead’ (p 2).
We do not know any character yet but we are moved to empathise with the speaker. The statements are both an admission of guilt and an acceptance of fate. It is this stream of consciousness that lets us into Germaine’s space, into her mind. Her grief motivates the novel and sheds light on the plot. She blames everyone, everything. She questions herself; her love for her son; her son’s love for her; her husband, who might not be as hurt as she is. She thinks, ‘He too needs to hurt like I hurt. He has to doubt himself like I doubt myself. He needs to know: we failed Zuko’ (p 5).
Martin, on the other hand, thinks, ‘I shouldn’t resent how Germaine chooses to grieve but I do. Damn it, I do. We have a shared grief, why will she not grieve with me?’ (p 8).
Martin again thinks, ‘She took her mother’s absence with a shrug of her shoulders’ (p 8).
Germaine thinks, ‘I wish my mummy had made it, though. I know she had her own problems but if there was a time I needed her, now it is’ (p 5).
There are obvious differences in how each perceives and thinks of the other. Martin begins to come to terms with what might be the reason for their estrangement, the death of their son: ‘As soon as the last person left Germaine shed her first tears. Heartbreaking sobs that shook her whole body. I tried to hold to her but she was rigid in my arms. In our sixteen years together, this was the first time she’d ever shut me out. And she’s been doing so ever since’ (p 8).
As Martin rages on, he comes to a realisation: ‘It’s the first time she has mentioned his name to me since the funeral’ (p 10). This partial resolution of the conflict sets up another, the central conflict, on which the novel is based.
London – Cape Town – Joburg is narrated in the alternating perspectives and voices of Martin, Germaine and Zuko. Zuko’s thoughts are revealed in his diary entries. The early sections of the book deal with Martin’s uneasiness about going back to South Africa. He is too conscious of his skin colour, his classification as black, its privilege and burden. That South Africa is home, a home full of flaws and beauty, is what he was taught. What he knows for himself is that London is home. The process of becoming and being is a daunting task. It exposes truth as a thing to be contested. Martin contests it with his mind and heart.
1994: apartheid comes crashing down. There is an election and Nelson Mandela becomes the president of the Rainbow Nation. Opportunities beckon people like him to return home. At the airport, back home in South Africa, he is reminded of the history of a nation. He soon reminds himself that apartheid might be over but it has already poisoned the land.
1998: in Cape Town, he finds work as Vice President of an investment firm. Despite Martin’s position at the firm, he has to work as hard as the lowliest, entry-level employee. He has to prove that even though he is there because of affirmative action, what sometimes is seen as ‘reverse racism’, he genuinely deserves his position. Affirmative action is corrective surgery on society, but it is cosmetic. A society is not healed with a scalpel. It benefits the elite of the marginalised and it burdens them, too. Germaine starts Nomakanjani Girls’ Club with help from Nomawethu, a woman she meets through her brother-in-law, Liam. In Cape Town, Zuko’s diary appears for the first time.
2011: Johannesburg, the family moves. Martin gets bored and takes up a different job with Liam’s holding company. In a plot twist, Martin’s father comes around after being absent from Martin’s life for a number of years. He is a man that Martin respects. Martin says, ‘Martin Mtshali is a man that Liam and I have admired for ages. He’s possibly the only man I’ve ever heard Liam speak of with reverence. Liam and I defy him; he is our Mandela of sorts’ (p 269).
But, the younger Martin’s mother says, ‘Oh, baby. I love you but I wish he’d died a long time ago. You had a father who brought you up well, who loved and cherished you. You don’t need to connect with some abusive person because he donated a sperm for your conception’.
The older Martin is dying. He dies and dies with everything. His death reveals the Ponzi scheme that he ran in his company. It throws an unexpected jab at the younger Martin who had investment interests in the old man’s company and that leaves him, the younger Martin, dazzled and his family hurt.
We see the lives of the other characters from the perspectives of the narrators. This is of course clearly an artifice. The style of narration enforces the sharing of objects of attention. It is, however, unreal in the sense that Martin and Germaine fill the holes in each other’s narration even though they are sometimes apart.
There is one character who remains dark in the view given from the perspectives of the narrators. Martin finds it difficult to talk about his brother. Liam’s story is shrouded in secrecy, tightly guarded by a brother’s protective instinct. Even when Liam rapes Zuko, Martin finds it hard to accept. He is uncommunicative when Germaine raises the issue, and he is unwilling to confront his culpability fully: ‘I really could have prevented this. But how was I to know that his ex-wife’s allegations were true?’ (p 11). Zuko himself contemplates this. He writes, ‘Is this why Mxo ran away or is it the way I look?’ In all these, Liam’s side of the story is not heard.
The novel is devoid of sensual details. However, Martin and Germaine’s ‘third thing’ is sex, plenty sex. Later in their lives when there is not much sex, it evidently suggests they are growing apart even if they are not necessarily seeing other people.
In London – Cape Town – Joburg, there are allusions to World Cups, football clubs, the West’s representation of Africa, race relations and elections in South Africa. The novel, however, focuses on the competing choices – trade-offs and opportunity costs – that individuals face as a result of these phenomena.
Wanner treads the territory of clichés with regards to how the couple falls in love. That part of the narrative has the quality of a telenovela being broadcast somewhere in Lagos. But she rescues the novel in a spectacular way. Her sentences cut through. They are simple and beautiful, laced with humour and a sense of enlightenment. London – Cape Town – Joburg is totally an awesome read. It opens up the Rainbow nation to the world and seeks to save us from ourselves.
Photograph: ‘Grief – September 11, 2011’ by Alex
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Kwabena Agyare Yeboah lives in Accra, Ghana. His blog is The African Thought (www.mragyare.wordpress.com).
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