– By Toyin Akinosho
It was an unusual way for a worshipful admirer to meet the goddess.
I was lounging on the airy, sunlit, first floor lobby of the Hilton Hotel in the centre of town, when a frail old woman walked through the doorway looking distinctly wise. The photographs of hers that you see in newspapers all over the planet suggest a fuller face, with an intense, accusatory gaze. That sort of assertive feature is expected to sit on a tall, large body. In reality this is a small, bemused visage, expecting an inquiry.
I scrambled up in a greeting. She’s obviously used to being curtsied. You don’t win a Nobel Prize for literature; one of only nine women out of 102 winners, in the hundred plus years of the prestigious prize, without building up an aura of self-importance.
“I am supposed to be leaving here for the airport at 10am”, she explained. “Do you have any idea how I can confirm that there’s a cab driver waiting”?
It was 8.30am. I jumped at the opportunity to help.
A lady at the registration desk cleared the anxiety, but I stuck around for a tete-a-tete. I had just finished reading The Pick Up, I mentioned quickly, and I wondered why Hamilton Motsamai was showing up for the second time in one of her novels. “Is it to reflect the significance of the new Black elite in the social life of post apartheid South Africa”?
“One of the most effective tricks to get a sustained conversation with a distinguished writer is to describe a key character in her work.”
It worked. One of the most effective tricks to get a sustained conversation with a distinguished writer is to describe a key character in her work, with the familiarity of someone who didn’t just glance at the blurb. Montsamai was the victorious black defence lawyer for a white family in The House Gun, one of Gordimer’s first post-apartheid novels. In The Pick Up, he is introduced to the reader in a cocktail party scene that’s largely filled with affluent whites in an upscale suburb.
Gordimer is one of those white South African writers who have continued to document the life of their new country with the rigour and clarity with which they documented its past.
“Let’s sit down somewhere”, the author suggested. After explaining that the appearance of Motsamai was one of the devices to show that people of all races were now working together in the new South Africa, she asked me the usual question: “Where are you from?”
“Lagos, Nigeria”. I replied.
“There is a lot of negative stories about Nigeria”, Gordimer said quietly, and while I admitted it was a familiar statement, she kindly ventured that the few bad eggs always create the general perception about any society. “Still; I am coming to your country in August”, she enthused. “There’s this Soyinka thing…”
A conversation with a South African icon in mid 2006 would be incomplete without a mention of Tsotsi, the Oscar winning movie. I informed Gordimer I was looking forward to seeing the picture.
“Watch out”, she warned. “The ending is too sentimental. It’s not the way it should be”.
I WAS LOOKING FORWARD TO SOLID entertainment when I went to see Tsotsi in the evening before my departure from Berlin.
But when Tsotsi, the lead character, punched the heart of the big man in the train with a long, sharp object, I sort of felt responsible for everybody’s horror in the cinema hall. It didn’t help that l was one of only two black men in the hall.
Tsotsi (the word actually comes from “zoot-suit”, the dress of gangsters/pimps) is set in both the ghettos and suburbs of Johanessburg, South Africa’s main commercial city.
The only white character in the film is a smart police officer; the play explores the soft underbelly of gritty crime in Africa’s most industrialised economy.
But even though Tsotsi, deftly played by Presley Chweneyagae, leads a bunch of bandits who attack, maim, kill and dispossess…..the film grabs you by the collar and drags you along, opening doors to reasons why people turn out the way they do and why the toughest looking armed robber is actually the softest sissy on the planet.
Tsotsi was born to a drunken, abusive father who doesn’t think much of blasting off a dog’s head just because it doesn’t stop barking. He runs away from the violence in the house and grows up in the menace of the street. He sees, in the child he stole, the possibilities of a childhood that he failed to have.
The film ends where the thug, now repentant, returns the child he stole to his parents, and willingly surrenders to policemen waiting for him.
I didn’t think it was sentimental. But Ms Gordimer lived in the real South Africa and so should know.
This piece was written in June 2006 and published in Africa Oil+Gas Report. Ms. Gordimer died on 13 July 2014.