Apartheid was always going to take longer to die in South Africa’s small towns than in the big cities. In the early magical years of Nelson Mandela’s presidency, every few months I would drive an hour and a half south-west of Johannesburg to a farming dorp (small town) called Koppies to chronicle the dismantling of white rule.
For the first year or so of the “new” South Africa, change was in the air. A fledgling black middle class moved from the satellite township into town. I saw the election of the first black mayor. But reform slowed and the can-do spirit curdled. It would be wrong to say there was no progress, but fundamentally the two communities remained divided — by economics, history and race.
I was taken straight back to those initially uplifting but ultimately dispiriting trips on reading Andrew Harding’s remarkable new book. Set in the small town of Parys, 25 miles or so north-west of Koppies, it is billed on the dust jacket as “the trial that broke a South African town”. It is indeed the story of a community riven by a horrific crime, but it is also far more than that: it is one of the finest, starkest and most minutely observed accounts of race relations in post-apartheid South Africa to date.
These Are Not Gentle People is focused on the terrible events of a January evening in 2016, in a field just outside Parys, a pretty platteland (flatland) town where the politics are as parched as the surrounding terrain. A crowd of white farmers had cornered two black men after being alerted that an elderly nearby farmer had been attacked.
Their accounts of what happened next vary dramatically. What is not in dispute, however, is that many of the crowd subjected the two men to a brutal assault, and that the two victims died in hospital within 24 hours. It is in the immediate aftermath of this hideous saga that Harding, the BBC’s veteran Africa correspondent, picks up his story.
At its heart, Harding’s is a vintage crime story. His narrative is of the tortuous and flawed investigation and trial, which only reached its close in May this year. It is an extraordinary tale in its own right. Harding introduces us to a kaleidoscopic cast of characters: defence lawyers, prosecutors, magistrates, police, activists and farmers.
They are neither caricatures nor archetypes. They are all confronting the same dilemmas shared by people everywhere, every day over family, career, ambition, loyalty and more — only in South Africa they take place against a backdrop of a poisoned history, entrenched racism, populist politics and murderous crime.
Harding’s depiction of these support roles is striking enough. Who could not be moved by the story of the young Indian female magistrate in the small town facing prejudice on all sides in the very province where under apartheid Indians were banned from residing?
But it’s Harding’s telling of the victims’ and perpetrators’ stories that lifts this account into the top rank. His lead characters are the relatives of one of the victims, Samuel Tjixa, and the Van der Westhuizens, an Afrikaner farming family that spans generations, income groups and farms — and which split when some of them accepted a plea bargain and co-operated with the police. Somehow he persuaded them all to let him listen to them and present their perspective. Somehow also he managed to do this without allowing judgment to enter into his account.
His depiction of Parys and the feudal ways, casual authoritarianism and racism of many farmers is not pretty. But he has allowed the locals to tell their stories and leaves readers to draw their own conclusions. At a time when the BBC faces criticism over the pointed social media activity of some of its stars, it is all the more inspiring to read an old-style BBC non-interventionist story where the narrator lets the lead characters do the telling.
This is not to suggest it is a bloodless account. Justice Malala, one of South Africa’s foremost commentators, has rightly cited the book as a blend of In Cold Blood and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It is written as a drama, part thriller, part tragedy. Its narrative does not stint in laying bare the prejudices and mistrust that still underpin race and politics in modern South Africa. But there is a critical difference between Harding and Capote. The latter stood accused of that old writerly sin of betraying his confidants’ trust. Harding seems innocent of that charge.
It would be wrong to imply that race relations haven’t improved since the end of white rule — far from it, even in small towns. On my first visit to Koppies in 1993, the whites had barricaded the township to “teach the blacks a lesson”. But away from the big urban centres many of the old economic imbalances and attitudes have unsurprisingly proved deep-rooted.
Two years after I started visiting Koppies my zest waned for what had become a foray into a cancerous past; my trips drew to a close. Some 20 years later Harding began making his journeys to a small town south-west of Jo’burg. Readers should be grateful that he too did not lose heart.
These Are Not Gentle People, by Andrew Harding, MacLehose Press, RRP£16.99, 288 pages
Alec Russell is the FT Weekend editor and former southern Africa correspondent
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