Like the hero of his novel in ‘A Dry White Season’, Ben Du Toit, the late South African novelist Andre Brink was considered a “veraaier” (traitor) by his own Afrikaaner people by taking the side of those fighting against the National Party’s evil apartheid regime.
The novel, which jolted me back in time with a dose of dark nostalgia, tells the story of Du Toit, a middle-class suburban school teacher who finds himself pitted against the apartheid machine, and its “special branch” or “security branch police, when he begins investigating the deaths of Gordon NcGubene, a gardener at the school where he teaches, and Gordon’s young activist son Jonathan.
Prior to his fateful decision to pay a visit to John Vorster Square, the notorious Johannesburg police headquarters, to politely inquire about what happened to Gordon on the initial naïve belief that it was all a “mistake”, Du Toit was comfortably ensconced in his suburban home and the routines of white Afrikaaner family life.
His desire to “help” Black South Africans is well-meaning, but cast within the “master-servant” apartheid dynamic – the Du Toits have been paying Jonathan’s school fees provided he stays out of trouble and does well academically. This rids them of their guilt at being part of the oppressive system, without ever really taking a stand or getting involved in the struggle for equality.
This is a position I knew well from my own experiences growing up in South Africa in the 1980s, where I was surrounded by quasi-liberal adults doing “well meaning” gestures for the Blacks that cleaned their houses or bathed their children, but who were happy not to rock the boat and enjoy luxuries that came with being white and privileged.
Ben’s apolitical but good-hearted position starts to shift when first Jonathan dies in police custody in the cells of John Vorster Square, and then later his father Gordon, when Gordon persists in trying to find out what happened to his son and where he was buried, marking him as a troublemaker in the eyes of Special Branch.
Ben’s change into becoming a veraaier is fueled by an inquest which shows the judges to be in cahoots with the police after they find Gordon to have committed suicide. Soon after the trial he meets young, liberal journalist Melanie Brewer, who through stories of her own terrible experiences, encourages him into the light.
“And now it was inside of him, it was happening, the sudden loosening like a flock of pigeons freed from a cage…he allowed it to flow from him spontaneously, all the years he’d cooped up inside of him. His childhood on the Free State farm, and the terrible drought, after which they had lost everything…He told her about Gordon, about Jonathan…and his visit to John Vorster Square.”
While Melanie becomes his confidant and ally, Ben’s growing activism does not resonate with his more conservative wife Susan, who as the novel progresses grows more and more agitated and fearful as her husband becomes obsessed with proving Gordon was murdered by Special Branch, and did not as they claim – and the court found – kill himself.
These subtle, but inexorable shifts in character, which Brink writes so well, plays out in an early scene when Susan implores Ben, lost in troubled thoughts in his study, to come to bed. According to Susan, all Ben needs is a good night’s rest to rid him of his worries.
But Ben resists, even at the “subtle promise of her breasts and belly” seen between the loose folds of her house coat.
“After she had gone out he could hear the gentle dripping of the gutters again. The small and intimate wet sounds of the departed rain.
“Tomorrow he would go to John Vorster Square himself, he thought. He would talk to them personally. In a way he owed it to Gordon. It was little enough. A brief conversation to correct a misunderstanding. For what else could it be but a regrettable, reparable mistake.”
The visit to John Vorster Square takes Ben into the belly of the apartheid beast, and under the radar of cruel Afrikaner men like Captain Stolz, a gleeful torturer of black men considered “terrorists” in the eyes of the Apartheid state.
Ben’s obsession with discovering the truth takes him to the “other” Johannesburg: the impoverished sprawling township of Soweto, a world he scarcely thought about until his political conversion.
Ben becomes acquainted with the larger-than-life township character, Stanley, who moonlights as a taxi driver whilst arranging clandestine resistance meetings in the townships and on trips across the border. As Stanley educates him on the terrible things being done to Black South Africans and as Ben grows closer to the journalist Emily Bruwer, he starts to drift away from his wife and family and the comfortable middle-class life he once enjoyed.
Similarly, Andre Brink, through his writing, pitted himself against his birthright that of a descendent of 18th Century Dutch settlers, who became the Afrikaaner boers (farmers) and later the National Party that developed the inhumane policies of segregation.
The 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when more than 50 black people protesting peacefully against Apartheid laws were murdered by the South African police, opened Brink’s eyes to the monstrous policies of his “people” and set in motion novels like ‘A Dry White Season’ which pitted good against evil and those who seek and tell the truth versus those who lie and distort.
“No Afrikaans writer has yet tried to offer a serious political challenge to the system … We have no one with enough guts, it seems, to say ‘no’,” said Brink in 1970, nine years before he finished “A Dry White Season”, his most famous book.
“All I know is that I must do something,” Ben Du Toit tells the young Reverend Bester in the novel, echoing Brink’s belief that as a writer he must tell the truth.
By comparison to the other South African literary heavyweights – J.M. Coetzee, Damon Galgut (read my reviews of his novels here) and Nadine Gordimer among them who were more allegorical in their novels, Brink writes in a far more journalistic style and employs the techniques of reportage. In his retelling of the life of Ben Du Toit, his re-birth as a seeker of the truth is mostly told through diary entries handed down to someone else.
It’s a powerful book about the price one must pay for taking a stand, but also the liberation of the soul that comes with doing it. Brink’s message is universal and just as potent today amid the dark forces shaping the world.
(Make sure you read the book before you watch the Hollywood movie, which in my opinion is a vastly inferior interpretation of Brink’s work. This is despite an impressive cast including Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon, Marlon Brando and Zakes Mokae)