BOOKS / People in power: Nadine Gordimer, in her new novel, describes South Africa's shift to democracy. Here she talks about the hopes of the people, about the transition from rebellion to responsibility, and the realities of the new freedom

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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. They've just discovered a big haul of cocaine from Nigerian dealers.

AS: In the novel, the law seems to be the fixed structure which holds the country together, behind all the changes.

NG: That's true. There's still a great respect for the law. In the apartheid time they were determined to defy the system in a legal way.

AS: It all seems a far cry from the pessimism of your book July's People, in 1981, which was about a white family fleeing from the civil war.

NG: Yes, but people forget that civil war seemed very likely at that time.

AS: The ownership of land, which features so much in the book, is still the central issue?

NG: I still keep cuttings about transfers of land, which show how the law is working: I feel as if Vera, my heroine, and her legal foundation are still there. All apartheid laws sprang from the possession of land, and I've always been interested in it: for instance in my book The Conservationist.

AS: In this latest book you make the contrast between justice and empowerment. Are they really opposed?

NG: Justice has always been a noble idea in the human mind and in history: it has been the concept of moral behaviour in a secular world. Empowerment now seems to be becoming a buzz-word everywhere, including South Africa. But people don't know what they should do with it, once they've been empowered.

AS: You describe how one of your characters, Oupa, who has been on Robben Island, still has a 'prison self', and how he felt some fellowship in jail with other prisoners who were criminals. Is that a problem today - confusing politicians and criminals?

NG: There was a feeling among 19th-century rebels, which comes out in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, that when the system is bad everything is permitted. At the peak of the apartheid system in South Africa some people compared the thief to the political prisoner: they were both only taking what belongs to them. Even in the Fifties, when you were editing Drum, the gangsters were often idealised, because they bucked the system, and got away with it.

AS: So is that a problem now, behind the crime-wave?

NG: I think today the residue of the old system is rather different. For instance, in the townships people are being given houses which they used to rent, but they're so used to boycotts as a means of protest that they still don't want to pay for their electricity. Mandela tells them that now it's their system, and they must pay for it. But they've got used to bucking the system. And they're still poor.

AS: Do you feel you're now able to write a more Russian kind of novel, against a vast background with a wide range of people?

NG: Here in South Africa everything is big, so I felt I had to tackle the size, and give the book a broad canvas. Also, I've always been interested in how different people become when they are among different people. Vera, the heroine, is quite formidable and controlled in her lawyers' office, and quite wild and uncertain when she's out of it.

AS: She seems to be the kind of tough-minded heroine you've always liked, the great survivor?

NG: Yes, she's rather like Hillela in A Sport of Nature - though Vera is more serious, and more political.

AS: The title None to Accompany Me refers both to the uncharted seas facing South Africa, and to the situation of the heroine, Vera?

NG: Yes, I was thinking of Vera in the quotation from Proust, at the beginning: 'We must never be afraid to go too far, for truth lies beyond.'

Nadine Gordimer will be in conversation with Anthony Sampson today at 6pm, at the ICA, The Mall, London SW1. pounds 5.50 ( pounds 4.50). 071-930 3647.

'None to Accompany Me' is published on Thursday by Bloomsbury, price pounds 15.99.