Rehana Rossouw’s debut novel, What Will People Say? (2015), was already on its seventh impression when I was reading it earlier this year. Being reprinted so often within a relatively short period of time is no small feat for a local novel. Even though I came late to the party, I immediately understood why it was so popular. Rossouw, a veteran journalist, succinctly captured an era and a community – the Cape Flats of the late eighties and early nineties – and made them come alive through a handful of characters belonging to the Fourie family. This was the time of volatile politics, raging gang wars and impossible choices. Decency and family values did not protect you from the evil of the system and the cruelties of the streets. Only the toughest survived to thrive.
Rossouw’s second novel takes up where What Will People Say? left off, but with an entirely different cast of characters. Set in 1995, just before the Rugby World Cup and Mandela’s world-famous reconciliatory gesture of wearing the Springbok jersey at the tournament, New Times tells the story of one woman trying to navigate the precarious early days of democracy, the constant swings between socio-political euphoria and despondency, and her personal rollercoaster ride between hope and despair.
Ali (Aaliyah) Adams, the narrator of New Times, grew up in the Bo-Kaap, but she is not as devout as her Muslim family and finds it difficult to conform to the expectations of her patriarchal and deeply religious community. She does not dare to reveal to anyone that she is gay. After the death of her father, Ali takes over his responsibilities as the breadwinner of the family and continues supporting her mother and grandmother. The family wrestles with the mother’s grief and her ensuing breakdown, hospitalisation and severe depression. She returns home, but she is a daunting presence who offers little support to the other women.
Ali is fighting her own demons. When the newspaper she works for closes down, she struggles to keep it all together. Eventually she is hired as a political reporter for a respected Cape Town weekly: “I am playing my part again in building a better society, back on the job.” After initial difficulties, her career stabilises, but it is only momentary relief. Preparations for her best friend’s wedding trigger memories of the passionate love the two women shared when they were younger. Reconnecting professionally with another friend, Lizo, a former political prisoner on Robben Island who now works for Madiba, brings with it its own challenges. And she has to cope with the fact that Munier, the one friend she always runs to for comfort, is in danger of dying of AIDS.
A fearless political reporter, Ali does not mind stepping on anybody’s toes in her quest for truth, but her unstable emotions are threatening to get the better of her and jeopardise her career. She understands the necessity of the upcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is already working on the kind of stories which will make headlines once the hearings begin. Interviewing a black woman fighter pilot in the Air Force for an article, she discovers that she was involved at Cuito Cuanavale where a young man Ali is also investigating died fighting for the apartheid government. Sinister forces would like to keep that particular chapter of history closed forever. Together with a colleague, Ali tries to get to the bottom of what happened to the soldier who never came home to his desperate parents.
The New South Africa is haunted by these ghosts. Ali herself is plagued by recurring nightmares and flashbacks which are caused by layers of trauma she experienced as a reporter before the transition, as a daughter when her father was dying, and as a woman unable to live out her sexual preferences. Her emotions are in overdrive. She finds it impossible to trust people. It is only a matter of time until something has to give. Feeling hopeless about the silences and tensions in their home, Ali’s grandmother takes things into her own hands and embarks on a mission to help the family. But are coconut ice and a traditional healer the answer?
Intimate, emotionally charged, New Times offers a fascinating glimpse into the birthing pains of a free South Africa. Reimagined from the perspective of more than two decades of democracy, it is a revealing take on what still needs to be faced in order for us to move towards and not away from those initial dreams of a “better life for all.” Rossouw’s insights shine a guiding light.
by Rehana Rossouw
Review first published in Afrikaans in Die Burger on 5 March 2018.