This gem for which I have written a review came as a recommendation by a close intimate in Argentina. And although short in its duration, the book contains powerful messages about our concepts of love, sex, race, class and justice. The story is of Ndi Sibiya, a young man from a town called Mzimba in the continent of Africa, who is condemned to death after being convicted of the rape of an English woman in the “whites only” section at the local beach. At the beginning, Sibiya informs that he is to die but at first we do not know the exact crime he has been charged with. As the pieces of the puzzle come together, we learn that each day for the past several weeks, he has had a wordless encounter with an English woman who sun bathes naked on the beach. She initially caught him watching her but did not report him and according to Sibiya, continues to show him her body. One day the tension proves to be too much and the two engage each other intimately. Sibiya is arrested and charged with violation of the Immorality Act and rape, both of which carry the death penalty.
The details of the encounters with the girl who is known as Veronica Slater, are relayed by Sibiya to his assigned therapist, Dr. Emile Dufre, originally from Switzerland. The doctor probes at Sibiya repeatedly asking questions about his childhood and any experiences that might have led to him being unable to control his sexual urges. The doctor is supported in his endeavor by the commander of the jail, C. Van Rooyen who sees the natives as nothing more than “savages”. Sibiya is represented by max Siegfried Muller, whose efforts in his client’s defense serve as one of the few logical parts of the subsequent trial. In the book, Sibiya remarks that the end often lies in the beginning. He began by telling us that he’s condemned to death and there is no last minute appeal to speak of. His conviction and sentence to death combine with the actions of the court, Rooyne and Dufre to reveal the barbaric nature of the system of Apartheid in South Africa and the irrational fear of “miscegenation” and defilement of white women. The English colonizers and their presence is eerily similar to the Belgium occupation of the Congo which resulted in the tragic death of Patrice Lumumba in 1961. The system of oppression reinforced by a belief of racial superiority, established a society in which the impossibility of reason becomes a domineering factor forming what could be for some, a hell on earth.
The novel makes an even bigger statement regarding the tragic history of the continent of Africa, the land ravaged by colonization. The beliefs, customs and traditions of the native populations were often ridiculed and in some case forbidden breeding a climate of mistrust by the local residents against their Anglo rulers. Suppression of pride, strength and in this case physical attraction, became facets of daily life and hallmarks of a system based on nefarious ideology.
White Veronica Slater is a fictional character, her actions in the novel have been played out over time repeatedly. Her actions and the rage the reader feels are the disastrous effects of a society constructed on racial division. Sibiya points out that there are no winners in the book, he accepts his fate and acknowledges his actions. His background and uncanny stoicism in the faith of death directly refute the perverse notion of unrestrained sexual aggression and violence by black males, myths that have been used to instill fear and suspicion. The judge, spectators and prosecution form a bloodthirsty commission encompassing the widespread rage at the very idea that such indignation could occur. Similar to lynchings of Black Americans in the southeastern United States, the quest for vengeance nearly erupts in the courtroom. The unfounded and perpetuated myths formed a nexus of a mob mentality determined to get their pound of flesh at all costs, even at the expense of a young man who is most likely innocent of his crime. These ideas are still being refuted today, almost thirty years since Nkosi wrote this masterpiece.
The system of apartheid is now gone but the remnants remain and still affect South African society. Africa continues to go through a rejuvenation, transforming itself from the continent populated by third-world nations to a land of economical and technical development. Sadly, the issues we examine in the book are still believed by many today. But if we are to continue to break down the walls that divide us and refute the myths that continue desecrate our values, then it necessary that we embrace stories such as Sibiya’s so that we can truly move forward, living in harmony and embracing each other like mating birds.