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Political activism vs political activity


By the end of the 1980s, political activism as outlined in books such as A Long Walk to Freedom and continued in Dare not Linger had ended. Political activity had taken over. Activism in terms of theory and revolutionary practice as different from practical things like setting up political parties and its branches. Hindsight informs us that very little of the activism influenced the practical activity of the political players who were taking over the political terrain of South Africa. Placed against the novels of this period and of the 1990s such as Small Circles of Being and The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut, which would you rather read, Mandela or Galgut, at that time? It is likely that one would rather read Mandela than Galgut. Years later, faced with the same question, one might feel more comfortable asking to read the novels of Galgut that cover the same period. It is against this intellectual challenge and the failure of the political parties to run the country.

Corruption was pointed out as the enemy to watch out for. Yet, all the political parties especially the ruling African National Party did little to protect the country as well as its resources from the greed of those who insist that it was their turn to chop.

Small Circle of Beings was first published and with four other much shorter fiction. It is the story of a family – “that small circle of beings where love should flourish – can also be an arid and alienating territory where hatred and violence may ignite.”


The world that we encounter in Small Circle of Beings is tired and finished world of apartheid crying for change. There is the farm but the farm house is the Centre of the life. The grandmother is mad. Sammy, the grandfather is dead. David’s mother, her husband David’s father Stephen are the dominant personalities of the farm.

Moses and Salome are the black couple who have taken care of the house since the time of David’s grandparents.

Stephen is the head teacher at the school in town. David is sick. He is in fact dying. His mother is determined not to take him to the main hospital in town where better doctors and better equipment exist. Caring for David, sitting next to him on his bed takes her time. She has no time for the house, no time for the farm and no time for her husband. She reads to David and keeps his company. She makes his food and cleans his room. It is an occupation that permits no other pre-occupation.

Someone, a woman, with “muffled and high” voice, telephones David’s mother: ‘Do you know that your husband is having an affair?’

The details come later. That night she packs a suit case and drives home to confront Stephen. The pain of this betrayal does not go away. “I am suddenly weak. Shock falls over me like a blinding white dome in which I am moving, silent and bereft.”

The divorce goes through. On a number of occasions David’s mother tries to talk to her rival without success. She goes to her former husband and begs him to reconsider but he refuses. A few months later he goes to beg her to take him back. It is her revenge occasion and she refuses.

She takes Cedric, a sculptor as his lover. He moves in with them. First, it is David he begins. With claiming that they had been soft on the boy. Then it was David’s mother. What is almost unbearable is that Cedric apologizes each time, wonders what was wrong with him but he does not promise not to do it again.

Cedric then throws out David’s grandmother out of her cottage and uses the space to do his carving. Stephen breaks up with Gloria and goes to live in a small flat in the city.

The effect of these various developments on the house, the gardens, especially the rose garden, was neglect and abandonment. Dirt built up inside the house.

As soon as David is well and leaves the hospital, she calls Moses and Salome and they faced the house, inside and out, until it was restored to its old order.

One evening Moses and Salome requested to speak to David’s mother. Moses spoke on behalf of the couple. “He says that he and his wife are tired now. They have grown old in the service of this family, having worked for my mother before me. They would like, if it is not too much trouble, if I do not mind …”

“They have a son. He and his wife are looking for work, if I thought I needed somebody, perhaps I would consider …”


Nothing speaks of the excellence of the presentation of Damon Galgut of the apartheid old order and the expectation of the new order than this ‘natural’ fitting of their son and his wife taking their place at the service of David and his wife, when he gets a wife. This is what the apartheid educational system had arranged. And it is what the system has delivered.

As the introduction at the beginning of this column makes clear, Damon Galgut tells the story of the 1980s South Africa when political activism was sure, on one side, as well as on the other side that things will remain for ever more and that change was coming. Apartheid ended but did the labour relations change?

By the 1990s both sides of the political activity were already finding ways in which things will remain the same and how things will change. The transition institutions cleared the way for things to move forward. These transition institutions such as and most especially political parties could not cope. The political parties changed in many ways they still have not been able to deal with the needed transformation.

With the aid of Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor next week’s column looks at the failure of country to move forward. Will the country have to be re-configured in order to be re-created?


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