It all depends where you look

NOT YET HOME: A South African Journey by Justin Cartwright, 4th Estate pounds 12.99

South Africa is the litmus test for liberal democracy. If it can survive and thrive, the optimists who talk of the end of history will be vindicated. If it fractures into a mess of warring factions, the pessimists who insist that clan allegiances will always trump larger identities will have been proved right. And that would have wider implications: South Africa, 85 per cent poor to 15 per cent rich, is an uneasy model in miniature of the world as a whole. If this country cannot hold, how long can the planet?

Two years after the elections may seem early for an audit, but if change is coming, the seeds ought to be visible now. Justin Cartwright, a Dickensian novelist (in both the complimentary and not-so-complimentary senses of the adjective) returns to the South Africa of his childhood to look for them. He travels under a variety of guises: rugby reporter, political hanger-on, BBC documentarist. But his aim, it becomes apparent, is to find out what happened both to his homeland and to his home.

It becomes clear to him, lost among the post-modernism of contemporary Johannesburg, that he will never be able to see South Africa as home, that for him landscape (he is reading Simon Schama), family and belief must be united and that in this country they never can be. But can South Africa be home for anyone? The ANC slogan "one nation, many cultures" disquiets Cartwright: his book resolves into a protracted meditation as to whether this is even possible.

There are three set-pieces in the book, one each for 1994, 1995 and 1996. The first is the Presidential Inauguration, coordinated by the impresario Welcome Msomi. Cartwright hangs out with the artists involved, including Nadine Gordimer, and probes the controversy over political control of the arts in the new South Africa. The second is the Rugby World Cup, hijacked by Nelson Mandela, as Cartwright reads it, into an impish piece of nation building. Everyone now knows how this turned out, which robs the story of some of its interest for Cartwright. (South African Rugby, today, has turned fractious again, with the Springbok side once again all-white, one of its players convicted of beating a farm labourer to death, the old flag flying at matches and Trevor Manuel, the finance minister, publicly supporting the All Blacks. It takes a longer spoon even than Mandela's to stir up a cultural symbol as well-entrenched as this sport.) The third, more sombrely, is a meeting of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in New Brighton, a township of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. Cartwright listens in on the now-familiar litany of police torture and comtsotsi necklacings. His reaction is to remember Hannah Arendt's dictum about the banality of evil, no more an adequate response here than in its original context.

Cartwright's is conspicuously a novelist's account, rather than a journalist's. ("History," he approvingly quotes Nadine Gordimer as saying, "is often far better portrayed by novelists than by historians.") He gets big things right, while getting little things sometimes spectacularly wrong. He can read like a news editor's worst nightmare. In 1994, for example, he ducks out before the inauguration happens; reporting on the World Cup, he gets bored enough to go home; most unforgivably of all, he sits in on Bantu Holomisa's evidence at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but entirely misses the main event, the General lighting a fuse under the ANC that has led to his dismissal and the credibility of the party and its president being, for the first time, badly tarnished.

Nonetheless, he reads the feel of the country perfectly. Johannesburg is "a jumpy city with hostility and lawlessness breathing ever more closely on the neck of the white suburbanites". The streets of Soweto he finds frightening "not because they loom over you, or crowd in, but because of their endlessness and anonymity", which is unexpected but precisely accurate.

On its own terms, Not Yet Home is a success, oddly amusing and with shards of original insight. But the politics of arts funding can only take the reader so far towards the heart of the South African story, just as thespian dudgeon over theatre funding in the UK could not fully encapsulate the state we're in. Black and White South Africans meet, the great majority of the time, in the workplace. It is in companies, in government departments and in universities that the battle for transformation is being quietly fought and won or lost. Sport and art are important components in the national mind, but in this context they are nonetheless a sideshow. Coming back to South Africa in 1995 Cartwright finds that "everything had changed but nothing had changed". Ja-nee, as they say round here: it depends where you look.

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz