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Book Review : Oral History of a Black Family in South Africa

December 12, 1985|ELAINE KENDALL

Poppie Nongena by Elsa Joubert, foreword by Alan Paton (Norton: $15.95)

There's a rare authenticity to this story, unmatched even by the most passionately committed South African novelists. "Poppie Nongena" is oral history, organized and shaped by the clear, distinctive vision of Joubert, author of 10 books about her country. First published in Afrikaans, it is one of the few literary works to have had a perceptible impact upon the complacent South African government, which has always managed to ignore and disparage the work of writers in English. As told to Joubert by the Xhosa woman she calls Poppie Nongena, it is a tale of constant dislocation and disruption; a perpetual battle to create a stable family life in the bizarre and unnatural atmosphere produced by South African "pass laws," regulations determining on the basis of race along where people can live and work.

Cruel Irony

When South Africa was appropriated by the Dutch and English colonizers, a meager 13% of the land was grudgingly set aside for the then small indigenous population. With cruel irony, these reserves are called "homelands," though there is often no relationship between a black family's place of origin and the so-called homeland to which they're assigned. The wives and children of men permitted to work in the cities are expected to remain in these homelands, living on the allotments their men send them, a system with unique and frightful potential for abuse.

Once away in Capetown or Johannesburg, the men find it pathetically easy to neglect these responsibilities, forming new attachments or dissipating their pay in transient pleasures and consolations. Others, yearning for their wives and children, risk sheltering their families in their makeshift city quarters. When caught, both husbands and wives are punished and the offending family is shipped back to the designated homeland to begin another cycle of loneliness and deprivation.

Nomadic Life

Poppie Nongena and her children have been forced by government edict to live this nomadic life. Born into a family with permission to live in the Cape Province, she was personally unaffected by the pass laws until her marriage to a man from the Ciskei homeland, a barren and isolated stretch remote from anything she has known as a girl. Once married, she is told she must live in the Ciskei, a place she has never seen, inhabited by people whose customs and religion are alien and repugnant to her. With that disastrous marriage, she loses the privilege to remain where her own relatives have lived for generations.

Shipped Like Parcels

Though Poppie succeeds in getting a temporary work permit allowing her to remain in Capetown, her children are continually being sent about the country like parcels, shipped from one relation to another, torn away not only from their parents but from their brothers and sisters.

Family Life

Even this wretched travesty of family life is brought to an end when Poppie's evasion of the law comes to the attention of the authorities and she and the children are deported to the Ciskei reservation, left to shift for themselves without any opportunity for employment or education. Despairing, Poppie returns to Capetown, now embroiled in the widespread rioting of the mid-'70s. Her adolescent children are alienated from her, raging and furious at the restrictions limiting their ambitions and opportunities, inevitably blaming the passivity of their parents' generation for the capricious tyranny under which they continue to live.

Seemingly artless, the story is dense with incident, building to the violence prevailing in South Africa today. Subtly and skillfully organizing her material, Joubert has created an overwhelming indictment of an irrational system; a testimonial to the indomitable spirit of Poppie and the hundreds of thousands less articulate but equally determined. As the author, Joubert is self-effacing, allowing her protagonist to speak not only for herself but for her country. Having once heard that anguished voice, the fatuous apologies and feeble explanations for the present system make less sense than ever.

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