By Sampson, Anthony | The Independent (London, England), September 11, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Sampson, Anthony, The Independent (London, England)

NADINE GORDIMER's new novel, None to Accompany Me, is set in South Africa after the release of Nelson Mandela, when exiles were returning and planning constitutions for the future: the idea of the book came to her in 1990. Its chief character, Vera Stark, works in a legal foundation which safeguards black rights to land, and brings cases against white farmers.

Like many of Nadine's novels, it reflects her growing involvement with South Africa's political life, going back to the early Fifties when I first knew her, when I was the editor of the black magazine Drum. She became increasingly committed to the fight against apartheid and to supporting the African National Congress; and since Mandela came out of jail - and they both won Nobel prizes - they have been often in touch.

My wife Sally and I were staying with Nadine during the South African elections in April which marked the fulfilment of many of Nadine's hopes, and the climax to the exhilaration of freedom which underlies her novel. A few days ago I talked to her about the changes since then, in the context of the book:

AS: You describe vividly the release of emotions after the exiles had returned: "as if already the unattainable evolution of mankind has arrived, where men and women discipline themselves". Is the atmosphere still so rejuvenating?

NG: I was so pleased to have experienced it: it really was rejuvenating. I felt that whatever happened afterwards, people deserved that emotional release.

AS: But is it an anti-climax now?

NG: No. People are so busy trying to do things - in education, in the arts, in big business - at every level. They're eager to take the opportunity. Whenever a new commission is formed, everyone is asking who will be on it. There's a great sense of purpose. But there's also a gravy train. People justify it by describing how much more was spent by the previous regime, to make them look good. But we don't want to emulate the apartheid regime.

AS: Has it been harder than you thought, the transition from rebellion to government?

NG: It's been more exciting: both for the people taking part, and for the people watching it, like me. If I'd been writing the book now, I would have developed that theme more.

AS: You say in the novel: "Perhaps the passing away of the old regime makes the abandonment of an old personal life also possible." Is that what has been happening?

NG: Over the last year it's been true of many people's lives - but particularly in government. The guerrilla hero, who had no base and no home, is now dealing with white papers and blue books: like Ronnie Kasrils, who is now at the Ministry of Defence. Joe Slovo, who is now Minister of Housing, is one of the most amazing: he's now preoccupied with practical details of building, which couldn't be further from his past experience as a revolutionary leader, who was trained as a lawyer. Yet he's one of our most successful ministers.

AS: But there are people like Didymus in your novel, suffering for a cause that is no longer needed, living in the past.

NG: Yes, not everyone is able to make the change. And it's not necessarily a question of age: some young people find it hard.

AS: In the novel you describe the excitement of working on a constitutional committee: that it was "the nearest humans will ever get to the myth of being God on creation day". When we watched the South African elections five months ago, there seemed an extraordinary sense of re-creation. Is that still so?

NG: It's not still "very heaven" - was that Wordsworth? - as it was at election-time. We didn't expect that so much would go right; but some things have gone wrong. We thought we'd anticipated everything. We didn't expect for instance that South Africa would become a clearing-house for drugs.

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