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.

News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate