Writing the wrongs of racism Renowned author quizzes journo, moi, on state of the nation
IT WAS one of those deliciously ironic moments: a newspaper journalist being interviewed by a Nobel laureate for literature.
VS Naipaul had quietly sneaked into South Africa, and set about interviewing a cross section of locals for his next book, an ambitious tome focusing on African religions and African spirituality.
While Sir Vidia, the appropriate address since his knighthood, has written numerous texts about the continent, both fiction and nonfiction, his search for new material has taken him to Nigeria, Uganda and Gabon.
Friends vehemently tried to dissuade him and his wife Nadira, herself a writer, from coming to South Africa (‘Are you mad? Do you have death wishes? That is the crime beyond black and white. There are cultural identities (I am Zulu before I am South African), religious identities (I am Muslim before I am South African), sexual identities (I am gay before I am South African) and many others.
And overshadowing all of these identities is the obsession with race.
Sir Vidia set about identifying his targets, people he would speak to in an attempt to unravel the cultural/religious story of post-apartheid South Africa. At some stage he spoke to a kwaito artist, who told him Nelson Mandela had betrayed black people. He compromised too much.
In addition to the controversial kwaito artist, Sir Vidia decided to interview a journalist. Ignoring protestations from the journalist that journos are not good interviewing material, the world-renowned author and thinker insisted on meeting the journalist at his own house — “because he can only make a judgment on the character he is interviewing once he has seen him (the character) in his own environment”, his aide explained.
It’s always touching and amazing to look at one’s country through other people’s eyes. They see what your eyes skip past or what you subconsciously choose to ignore. Issues such as the race question.
The interaction between Sir Vidia, his wife and the journalist spread over three nights, during which they spoke over tea, enjoyed dinner and went to the theatre to watch a play that draws upon our immediate past in order to better understand the present.
Sir Vidia wanted to know: why the obsession with race when Mandela had already set the tone for a non-racial dispensation?
When a South African speaks about a fellow countryman he is bound to say something like: “I am talking about that Indian guy with a big beard” and so on.
Sir Vidia could not help remarking on how race is used descriptively. The journalist responded that 15 years is too short for us to shake off the yoke of race.
We come from a past where a white person with only a Std 4 education was deemed superior The Mystic Masseur (1957) (Film version: The Mystic Masseur (2001) The Suffrage of Elvira (1958) Miguel Street (1959) A House for Mr Biswas (1961) Mr Stone and the Knights Companion (1963) A Flag on the Island (1967) The Mimic Men (1967) to Dr Nthato Motlana or Dr A B Xuma with all their education and international exposure — by virtue of the colour of his skin. We come from a past where black people could not own houses in the cities and suburbs, even if they could afford them. That’s the racial crucible in which we were shaped.
Mandela and Tutu’s exhortation to the nation to embrace non-racialism after 1994 provided warm and