(First published 1963)
In the name of slum clearance they had brought the bulldozers and gored into her body, and for a brief moment, looking down Good Street, Sophiatown was like one of its own many victims; a man gored by the knives of Sophiatown lying in the open gutters, a raisin in the smelling drains, dying of multiple stab wounds, gaping wells gushing forth blood; the look of shock and bewilderment, of horror and incredulity, on the face of the dying man. (5)
The book begins at the end with a description of the razing of Sophiatown and an evocation of the life that was lived there. It is a symbolic reference to the end of Bloke Modisane’s life as an African in South Africa. He was living in angst and he could bear no more. He had to leave and was about to do so when Sophiatown was bulldozed and confirmed him in his desire to escape an existence of tremendous mental torture in a country which so thoroughly dehumanised African people.
Though I lived in South Africa at about the same time as Modisane and he describes living under apartheid in terms with which I can identify because I too lived under restrictions – there is a tremendous difference in degree. What I experienced, similar feelings of alienation, ambivalence, humiliation, self-doubt and pain cannot be compared with the agony of his existence.
In the final chapter, Modisane describes his escape from South Africa and creates the tension of his flight, not by describing his journey but by laying out all the laws under which, if caught, he could be punished for daring to leave the country. Laws which commodified Africans and made them available at the behest of white society for all kinds of menial labour and subjected them to harsh treatment, penalties and punishment, were spelled out in the Reference Book that all Africans were compelled to carry.
Modisane, despite the times, had a wide circle of white friends some of whom became very close, but their references to their way of life, especially the theatrical performances that were denied to him, and were, therefore, enticing forbidden fruit, emphasised his standing as an outsider in that circle. In the final chapter, he points out to them that they had no understanding of what Africans were experiencing. Their references to the rule of law which they took for granted as ensuring civilized values, indicated that they had no understanding of what it meant for Africans – enslavement, dehumanisation and suffering. It is extraordinary that African people still accept the rule of law when under apartheid they were conditioned to it as cruel, inhumane and barbarously uncivilized.
Modisane gives us a realistic look at political movements of the time. He clarified for me the difference between the multi-racialism that was adopted by the ANC and the non-racialism of the PAC. Multi-racialism would perpetuate apartheid in a less malevolent form but would not really change the power relations between race groups. Non-racialism, however, would place emphasis on the individual and thus bring about real equality before the law.
In his personal suffering, he describes the pain with which he tries to negotiate between affirmations of pride and courage and the need to survive. This struggle led to spiritual and psychological trauma and self-destructive behaviour. Modisane is an introspective man and subjects all his actions to minute scrutiny and because he cannot be himself under racist domination, he is filled with doubts about himself and his value as a human being. He concludes:
The individual has been rendered unimportant, the attitudes of society transcend the individual. The white man has laboured earnestly, sincerely and consciously to deface blacks, with the result that the black man has ceased to be an individual, but the representative of a despised race; they hate me, not as an individual, but as a collective symbol. (242)
This is a most heinous form of torture – the elimination of identity and the reduction of a human being to a cipher.
Bloke Modisane’s book is beautifully written and ranks with the best that has been produced in South African literature.