Laugh the Beloved Country

An African comedy of cattle prophecies and cell-phone chieftains

Zakes Mda
The Heart of Redness
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Perhaps the saddest, and most heartening, development of the past decade has been the growth of post-dictatorial fiction. Saddest in that the woeful stories of this genre remind us that while the new boss may not be exactly the same as the old boss, bosses will be with us always. Most heartening in that formerly oppositional writers have refused to defend onetime comrades whose entry into the halls of power has made them forget their promises. While European post-Communist fabulists such as Ivan Klíma and Victor Pelevin tour capitalism's wildest frontier, black South Africans have been comparatively slow to teach us what happens after you dismantle the world's most unpopular regime.

Zakes Mda's cannily sophisticated comedy of underdevelopment, The Heart of Redness, refuses easy answers to a pressing dilemma: How can you choose between a primitivism that aids the system that oppressed you and a modernization that leaves you (literally) in the dust? What if you've spent years sure of the answer, only to hesitate when you face the lived realities on each side? Mda poses these questions by telling two stories at once. In the present day, we meet Camagu, who gained a doctorate and extensive consulting experience during three decades in America, yet can't get a low-level job in the new South Africa because he cannot convincingly perform the protest dance called toyi-toyi. Despite talk of "black empowerment," a new elite has simply appropriated the good positions for itself. (In exile for 32 years, Mda taught at Yale and the University of Vermont. Surely some of Camagu's wonder at his country's present-day state reflects the author's own culture shock on his return.)

Mda interweaves this story with a tale from the 1850s, in a style that slyly mocks the folk idiom even while adoring it. A prophecy movement sweeps the area, calling on residents to kill their cattle in order that new, healthier ones be born and the ancestors arise. Part of the town, the Believers, follows the prophecy; an equal portion, the Unbelievers, refuses its truth and is triumphant when it fails. Exploited by a British governor looking for any excuse to displace native landholdings, the prophecy produces mass famine and forces many Believers into desperate thievery.

Frustrated by his failure to get anywhere in the city, Camagu is sent by a chance encounter to the village where the prophecy arose. "Filled with a searing longing for an imagined blissfulness of his youth...[he] remembers the fruit trees and the graves of long-departed relatives," Mda writes. "So many things bring back long-forgotten images." But the village is, if anything, less serene than the city. "What puts you into this godforsaken place?" one villager wonders.

The endless quarrel over the prophecy has translated into bickering between Unbelieving advocates of an enormous casino and waterpark (to be developed by a white-run company fronted by a black man--standard operating procedure since the fall of apartheid) and its Believing opponents, who want their village to remain as it has been--with, perhaps, a few more televisions.

Camagu stumbles into these ridiculous age-old battles (village elders trade insults over the conduct of their grandparents a century ago), conducting clumsy love affairs without grasping how his every action entangles him in small-town politics. By nature sympathetic to modernity, Camagu organizes a co-op in which the town's women sell crafts to city folk--and in the process, he rediscovers his traditional clan identity. In linking the two centuries, Mda connects colonialism and globalization, but without simply equating the phenomena. Rather, he suggests, the ways of the past are sometimes a source of value and meaning--and just as often a form of stagnation, yoking modern-day Africans to pointless rituals that have never served them well.

Now, affluent whites can bribe the chief with telecommunications equipment to build cottages on the supposedly protected seashore (and he, in turn, names children NoCellphone and Satellite). But this graft also brings work to villagers to wash cars and tend gardens. In Mda's South Africa, telling right from wrong has become far more difficult than anyone would have guessed a decade ago.

 
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