The Native Commissioner, by Shaun Johnson

Shaun Johnson, Nelson Mandela's closest associate and one of South Africa's leading political journalists, has written a compelling fictional account of the last gasp of the colonial era and the birth of apartheid, based on his father's papers
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First some background: Shaun Johnson was South Africa's leading political journalist and editor up to and after the end of the apartheid era. He was active in the "struggle" from his student days, and there are several members of today's South African cabinet who used his home as a safe house and who remain close friends. His columns - and they were as much political essays as they were commentaries - set the political agenda in the late-1980s and early 1990s, and compared favourably with the best of international columns. A book of his essays, Strange Days Indeed, with a foreword by Nelson Mandela, was published at the time of the 1994 election and caused a major stir.

From his earliest youth, Johnson knew about the apartheid system from both sides and, as a journalist, had some wonderful material to work on: the years of apartheid, particularly the final years, were laden with irony, absurdity and the seeds of the system's own self-destruction which even the most hardened Nationalist knew was not very far off. On the other side, there was Nelson Mandela, whom Johnson became close to, gaining a unique opportunity to observe at close hand perhaps the most remarkable man of our age. Today, Johnson runs Mandela's trusts, including the Rhodes-Mandela Trust, and indeed his life. Nothing happens in the old man's life (he was 88 last month) without Shaun's say-so.

This is necessary information to understand that Johnson's first novel, The Native Commissioner, is no ordinary novel written by no ordinary man. It is essentially a beautifully crafted and intensely intimate exploration of the character and the mind of George Jamieson, who is essentially modelled on Johnson's own father, and his journey from administering the colonial system to working for the apartheid system which he hated. He is a gentle, intelligent, honourable man, weighted down with an incipient depression which is exacerbated by having to carry out the inhumane diktats delivered from Pretoria.

He was born in 1916 in a village ringed by the Zulu battle fields and as a young man in the mid-1930s, which is when we get to know him, applies for a job in the Department of Native Affairs in the then Union of South Africa. His basic object is to get away from the family farm and his only skill is in his knowledge of Zulu. His gets the job as a second-grade clerk at a salary of £140 a year.

It is the age of the paternalistic Smuts government in South Africa, and the country is ruled in a patrician, self-satisfied and self-certain way. At first, George loves his work and he loves the Zulus he works with. Within a few years, he is doing so well that he is promoted to the rank of Native Commissioner, developing a reputation as a man to be trusted and turned to for help by the people he has almost total responsibility for. He builds a modest library of Zulu texts and a beautiful little garden, and has every expectation of further promotion when, out of the blue, Smuts is defeated and the National Party sweeps to power.

This moment in 1948 is a watershed in George's life, as indeed it was for every South African, white and black. He has always loved and admired the Afrikaner people, and speaks their language fluently, but now for the first time he sees the full enormity of the apartheid plan which will swamp him and his way of life. There will be no black South Africans - all his beloved blacks will belong to the homelands and South Africa will become a nation of whites only, immigrant black labour to be imported and exported only as needed. "I fear these Nationalists will want to treat the black man as an unperson. This could lead to terrible things," he writes home. "I don't know what it is going to mean for my job. Perhaps they will want to chuck all us English out?"

They don't chuck him out, but it might have much better for George and his family if they had. He stays in the service for another 20 years, sent first to the Kalahari Desert and eventually to the dreary coal-town of Witbank (which sheltered the young Winston Churchill after he escaped from a Boer prison in 1900), applying laws and regulations to his African charges, which horrify him. He continues to do his best, translating the unworkable legislation that pours out of Pretoria as humanely as he can. But it is all too much for his increasingly fragile psyche and, gradually, he sinks into a depression and an early grave at his own hand.

A few years ago, Shaun Johnson discovered in his cellar by the sea in Cape Town the collected papers of his own father, and the narrator in The Native Commissioner does the same. George kept every letter, every report, every scrap of paper, his whole life contained in one large cardboard box forgotten for 40 years. The places and towns described - Libode, the Transkei and Witbank - are places Shaun knew as a child. Shaun's father, like George Jamieson, was a Native Commissioner and, in the novel, George's son, coming upon this great treasure trove, pieces together his father's life, developing all the while a great affection and understanding of a man he barely knew. The Native Commissioner, which basically lets George's letters, reports and notes do the story-telling, works on all sorts of levels - as a picture of the last days of colonial rule, of the full awfulness of apartheid as practised on the ground, and of a voyage by a son almost entering his father's soul. But, in particular, it is the story of a decent, intelligent man trying to wrestle with the black depression which increasingly takes hold of him as he tries to make sense of a world turned upside down. In the end, it destroys him.