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Book Review : A Fine Parable Says More Than a Polemic on Apartheid

September 05, 1986|ELAINE KENDALL

Waiting to Live by Mewa Ramgobin (Random House/Aventura: $7.95, paperback)

The author is a black South African activist who wrote this novel in prison while awaiting trial on charges of treason for political resistance to apartheid. Finally acquitted and released in October, 1985, after spending most of his adult life either under house arrest or in jail, Ramgobin is still not free to travel outside South Africa, though his case has been taken up by Amnesty International and other organizations concerned with civil rights. Under such circumstances, one would expect "Waiting to Live" to be a passionate and bitter polemic, but instead, the novel seems carefully designed to arouse empathy rather than fury.

The story begins gently with the pastoral romance of Elias and Nomsa, both living in the Eden-like innocence of Umzinyathi, a tribal region still virtually untouched by colonialism. The missionaries arrive, beguiling the villagers with a feast and then with their religion of hope and promise, "a world not only new but replete with wisdom and worldly goods" in which all people live together in peace and harmony. Since this vision is so close to the beliefs of the tribe, the conversion is smooth and easy; the people of Umzinyathi simply added the tenets of Christianity to their usual practices.

Eager Volunteers

When the missionaries are followed in short order by a crew of white men recruiting labor for the railroad, the young men of the village eagerly volunteer, Elias among the first. The missionaries had brought only a dream; the recruiters were offering the means to turn the fantasy into reality. All this is told in a simple conversational tone, as if a patient adult were entertaining and instructing a restless child.

Elias adapts quickly to the new life, convincing himself that the pick-and-shovel work, the lonely nights in the fetid noisy dormitory, are merely a brief interlude in his transformation from simple tribesman to successful city dweller. After a visit to his village with money for his parents and gifts for Nomsa, he returns willingly to the labor camp. In the course of a disastrous fire, his heroic behavior attracts the attention and respect of the white architect Peter Evenmore, who not only befriends Elias but takes him home to meet his wife Mary, an illicit encounter even in this uncomplicated past. When the white couple learn that Elias has left his betrothed in the village, they arrange a wedding and offer to hire her as a domestic so she'll be closer to Elias. Nomsa eagerly accepts and despite the fact that she and Elias cannot live together in Durban, they're both sustained by thoughts of the wonderful life they'll be able to provide for their child.

The Idyll Ends

The idyll ends abruptly with Nomsa's death in childbirth, a tragedy caused, the author takes pains to assure us, not by mistreatment or neglect but by eclampsia. Since the Evenmore's other maid, Lucy, has borne a stillborn child on that same day, she becomes the wet-nurse for Elias' son, and eventually, Elias' common-law wife. Neither the help and support of the Evenmores nor the devotion of Lucy to Elias and the baby can prevent a second disaster. Crippled in a railroad accident, Elias loses his job; the little family is evicted from their house and forced to move to a wretched shantytown. There conditions are so miserable that they can no longer keep the child with them, and must send the boy to live with more fortunate relatives. Lucy's employers, the Evenmores, become disillusioned with South Africa and decide to leave the country. With Lucy jobless and Elias able to work only as a day laborer, the fortunes of the couple deteriorate drastically and inexorably.

In plain language, by means of a barely serviceable plot and characters developed only far enough to show how conditions in South Africa conspire to turn its best citizens--black and white--into victims of an irrational system, "Waiting to Live" makes its tragic, urgent point. For those still unconvinced by impassioned arguments or incontrovertible logic, this direct human parable may finally do the job the author so clearly intended.

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