There are many things that could make one feel despondent in South Africa: politics, corruption, crumbling infrastructure, potholes, the lack of water – and increasing bouts of load-shedding that leave us sans electricity for hours at a time. Rural towns are falling into disrepair and even our town – a centre of education in the country – is overrun with cattle, donkeys, and an increasing number of goats. South Africans learned a long time ago to ‘make do’ and generally rely on their sense of humour to get through some of the darkest times.
This is a situation that is not always easy for outsiders to understand and so I was delighted to be lent a copy of The Miracle of Crocodile Flats: an affectionate satire by Jenny Hobbs.
You cannot imagine many places more rundown and desolate than Crocodile Flats: a decaying country town adjacent to a sprawling community of poverty-stricken shack-dwellers. Life here is a daily grind. Then, a young schoolgirl believes she has encountered the Virgin Mary, who is as brown-skinned as the people around her. As news of this miracle spreads like wildfire, we meet some of the leading characters in this cosmopolitan community which is a microcosm of South African society.
While the Catholic Church seeks verification, other religions want their share of the glory too. Jealousy and rivalry abound as the town is flooded with journalists, politicians, police, pilgrims and the curious. There is money to be made: people need to be fed and watered, have a place to stay – and who can miss out on an opportunity to get into the limelight?
A run-down hotel bursts into life; the Chinese shop quickly diversifies by providing food; a gang of thugs are frightened off by an old nun sleeping where she shouldn’t be; an Afrikaans farmer’s wife breaks out of the enclave created by her menfolk by driving a tractor and joins forces with the first (of several) wife of a black charismatic religious leader – there is definitely money to be made.
As Crocodile Flats begins to burst at the seams one cannot help laughing at the old spinster who wishes to murder her sister; feeling angry at the exploitation of the little girl who had the vision; being sympathetic to the plight of many of the characters who inhabit this world; admiring of the way communities pull together during adversity; and sighing at the satisfactory ending. This is South Africa!
Okay, Okay, Okay by Finuala Dowling is a very different look at what is currently happening in this country.
Her focus is on university life and the changes that are being wrought as a result of student protests, political correctness, poverty, bureaucracy and the combined effect these have on the people who both work and study at the university. Although the setting is Cape Town, similar situations have become common on other South African university campuses.
A student dies; cars are set alight; people are accused of being insensitive; some academics try to hold things together, while others give up completely. A man loses his job and almost loses his family as a result of the turmoil. Throughout the proceedings lessons are being learned in the most surprising ways.
The unfolding events are sad, tragic, very annoying, unbelievable – and laughable. One cannot help feeling helpless in the face of such changes and wondering about who the real winners are. The story is uncomfortable at times, enlightening and is beautifully written. It is indeed a witty snapshot of South African academia.
Both of these novels make excellent holiday reading.