Understanding silent bystanders

Visiting Nadine Gordimer in her South African home, Jenni Frazer discovers how the Nobel Prize-winning author has adjusted her views in the aftermath of apartheid

By Jenni Frazer, April 24, 1998
Nadine Gordimer (Photo: Bengt Oberger)

Nadine Gordimer (Photo: Bengt Oberger)

Laurence Olivier said that he went into his characters from the feet up. Fellow actors, he advised, should look at feet and shoes to understand how someone lived.

The feet of literature Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer come as a surprise. These are not the feet of a 74-year-old woman: they are almost child-like, soft-skinned, without the usual gnarls and knobbles of age. Ms Gordimer's mind remains as razor-sharp as her feet are soft. She once said that she was not a liberal, but preferred to be described as a white, radical, South African. She barks a laugh and, referring to the former Nationalist premier, remarks: "Well, Mr De Klerk's a liberal now!"

We are sitting in the peaceful, book-and-picture-lined living-room of Gordimer's Johannesburg home,in one of the comfortable northern suburbs of the city. En route to the interview, I was listening to a radio talk show debating the morality of the now notorious Page Four of The Citizen newspaper.

This is not a Page Three, as in the British tabloids, but the crime-sheet of the day, with rapes and murders as daily appetisers. It is almost Dickensian in flavour. There is little sense of Page Four in the well-ordered Gordimer household.

She is emerging — one senses with some reluctance — from a round of interviews to publicise her latest novel, "The House Gun" (reviewed in the JC on March 20), which is coloured by violence.

She has well-practised things to say about apartheid and its collapse, but is perhaps on less sure ground when talking about her Jewish background.

She was born in Springs, a small mining town in the Transvaal, the daughter of a strange mesalliance between an immigrant jeweller and watchmender from a Lithuanian shtetl. Isidore Gordimer, and an educated woman from London, Nancy Myers. Her father, she has said, was not encouraged to talk about his background, and now she wishes she had asked him more about himself.

In a book of interviews with South African Jewish activists published last year, "Cutting Through the Mountain," Gordimer paints a wistful picture of her family's attitude towards religion. Neither she nor her sister had any Jewish education and, on Yom Kippur, when her father would make his solitary way to synagogue, she, her mother and sister, barefoot and dressed in shirts and shorts, would go to pick him up in the car.

"We realised later how embarrassing it must have been for him," she said. "We just used it as a holiday and I think it must have been quite humiliating for him... He wasn't allowed to have any Jewishness."

Her relationship with the mainstream Jewish community before the end of apartheid was prickly. She avoided contact with organised Jewry, despite having been married twice — almost by accident — to Jewish men.

Her first husband was a dentist. Then, in 1954, she married German-Jewish art dealer Reinhold Cassirer, a refugee from the Nazis. He, like her, became a member of the ANC, but her husband, she said in a newspaper interview,"has never been as involved as me...

"He left Germany for ever in 1934 because he was Jewish. The [extreme] right-wing in South Africa, with their neo-Nazi flag, frightens him more than me. He has always been aware that the lunatic fringe can soon escalate."

What the lunatic fringe, and many more mainstream South Africans, did during the apartheid period is becoming horribly apparent in the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, many sessions of which Gordimer has attended.

"You will never find anyone today who supported apartheid. The nearest that the Nationalists have got to apologising is in De Klerk saying that apartheid was a mistake.

"Now a mistake is something that you do without volition — you make a mistake, you didn't mean to. But the fact is that they believed thoroughly in the principles of apartheid, so this is an apology which does not express true remorse."

But the focus of the hearings, she believes, is not to provide a forum for the proponents of apartheid to express remorse: "It is for the victims to feel they have learned the truth: what happened to the people who disappeared, what happened to the people they know were killed and are lying in unknown graves.

"For me, it is really about looking towards restitution for the victirns, in the sense that you get those who did the deed to your loved one,and that person confesses that he or she did it. Whether there's real remorse there or not, they have now told the truth."

Those attending the hearings are "mostly humble people, blacks living in obscure rural areas or in the townships. When their son or daughter disappeared or their house was attacked, no one took any notice. Their names were not in the papers. Now, there they are before an assembly of august people: Archbishop Tutu, judges, people that they would never ever meet. And these people are listening to them, attentively."

Not the least of the pain for Nadine Gordimer, in listening to the testimony at the hearings, is the recognition that even those committed to the struggle, like herself, simply did not know the half of the wickedness of apartheid.

"I can't believe it," she says. *Tm having to rethink my attitude towards Germans and others who were living near the camps and who said they did not know what was going on.

"I'm living here. Pretoria isn't all that far away. Not far from Pretoria was the notorious Vlakplaas, and that was where the hit squads and murderers were trained — sadistic people, who, on being told to eliminate someone, cut them into pieces, burned their bodies and. while the bodies were burning, they were drinking brandy and beer.

"Even more troubling than what they did is what the system did to them. It made monsters out of them. On the other side of Pretoria. We knew that people were disappearing, that they were being killed by the police and by the army. But we did not know that they were being tortured in this way.

"This senseless brutality — it's certainly akin to what happened in the camps. Of course, there were no Germans who were ever Nazis, we knflw that — but the fact is, I have to admit, that there may have indeed been people living quite close . by camps, who did not know."

Nadine Gordimer speaks with easy fluency about the collapse of apartheid and its meaning for the white community today.

"I'm not a good example," she says, "because I haven't lived the average white life — I have always had close contacts with blacks. My personal life hasn't changed all that much."

What she does find "unbelievable" is to see children mixing and playing together at local schools, a phenomenon happening "much more quickly than I had thought."

On the day of our meeting, the papers, radio and TV are awash with stories of how apartheid has, apparently, returned to a local Afrikaner school in Vryburg, with white parents objecting to the presence of black pupils at the high school.

Feelings were running high and the police had surrounded the school with barbed wire while both sides demonstrated. It is, remarks Gordimer, a "miracle" that such incidents are as infrequent as they are.

We move on to Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, for whom she has considerable admiration. Joe Slovo, the leading Jew in the ANC, and a well known Communist, died of cancer in 1995 and was Minister of Housing at the time of his death. Rabbi Harris gave a memorable address at the Slovo funeral, saying, in essence, that he had been a better Jew than many more traditionally inclined — "which was marvellous, not an easy thing for a rabbi to say to the conservative Jewish community round here."

Although she was given an honorary doctorate by the local friends of Ben-Gurion University a couple of years ago, she has a detached, dispassionate view of the Jewish community in South Africa: "The majority kept, as they would say, completely out of politics. They simply led their comfortable lives, conducted their businesses.

"But, if you look at the people, among whites, who sacrificed careers, freedom, everything, there are overwhelming numbers of very active Jews, from real revolutionaries to others who risked to a certain extent, and extending to the genuine liberals like Helen Suzman. There was the same thing in the Indian community — except, of course, the Indians were a persecuted minority.

"One has to remember, too, that the whites in the Communist Party, the core of them, were Jews — people who came from Tsarist oppression and, in 1921, helped to create the Communist Party in Africa, and their descendants.

"My relationship was with Jews who, to one extent or another, threw in their lot with liberation. There is a sort of religious barrier. I am a Jew and I wouldn't want to be thought of as anything but a Jew, but to me it's like being black. You simply are: nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be particularly proud of. You're a human being.

"I have never allowed any antisemitic remark, or even slightly snide reference, in my company, to pass unchallenged. But I have often been asked, do you think your identification with the black struggle comes about because you come from an oppressed people?

"I would hope not. I would like to think that you don't have to be a Jew, to be appalled, as long as there is a living memory, by the Holocaust. And that you don't have to be black in order to be appalled by apartheid."

Last updated: 2:02pm, August 28 2014