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Carolyn Bassett reviews Pamela Jooste's book, Dance with a Poor Man's Daughter. "Who is Lily Daniels, the 11-year old narrator of Dance with a Poor Man's Daughter? Is she a simple fictional character, a wise innocent able to see the injustice of the racist laws and culture that reshaped the lives of all South Africans during the 1950s all the more clearly because she is free of any `political agenda'? Is she a crude representation of a secretly racist author? Is she that author's alter-ego, attempting to explain the damage wrought by the Population Registration Act, the Group Areas Act and other manifestations of apartheid, colonialism and racism and to portray these insights to a white South African population still deep in denial? ... (jbv)

vol 14 no 2

Review: Whose dance?
review by Carolyn Bassett

Printable Version

Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 2, March 1999
Page 31



Carolyn Bassett is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Toronto's York University. Her dissertation research is on trade unions and the transition in South Africa.

Pamela Jooste , Dance with a Poor Man's Daughter. Doubleday, London, 1998. 349 pp. ISBN 0385-409117

Who is Lily Daniels, the 11-year old narrator of Dance with a Poor Man's Daughter? Is she a simple fictional character, a wise innocent able to see the injustice of the racist laws and culture that reshaped the lives of all South Africans during the 1950s all the more clearly because she is free of any `political agenda'? Is she a crude representation of a secretly racist author? Is she that author's alter-ego, attempting to explain the damage wrought by the Population Registration Act, the Group Areas Act and other manifestations of apartheid, colonialism and racism and to portray these insights to a white South African population still deep in denial?

Pamela Jooste's first novel, Dance with a Poor Man's Daughter, won a Commonwealth Best First Book Prize for the Africa region in 1997. Controversy has swirled around the book in South Africa and the book's white author, however, as readers debate the authenticity of Jooste's characters, her use of `voice,' her presumed audience and her political agenda. Is Jooste offering yet another colonialist, racist depiction of `the other' or a stirring indictment of the ideology and practice of apartheid? I read more of the latter in her book, but Jooste made a very risky political choice to write in a `Coloured' voice. Some reviewers have argued that Jooste accepts and reinforces some of the very stereotypes that underpinned and legitimized racial segregation in the first place, therefore making her book's overall message far too ambiguous.

Lily's story

The story itself is straightforward. Lily Daniels is a young `Coloured' girl who shares the story of her family and her neighbourhood in the months immediately preceding their forced removal to the Cape Flats. Lily's vignettes explore the special relationship she has with each member of her flawed but loving family, with its strong, independent women and frequently weak and immoral men. Inevitably, their stories are intertwined with the political events of the 1950s, and illustrate the challenges that the various characters faced in these months, and the mounting tensions within the community.

Most striking is the way that author Pamela Jooste uses the naive voice of Lily to illustrate the cruelty of the apartheid state. In Chapter 6, "An Old Native is Dead," Lily struggles to understand her Aunt Stella's story about the removal of old Andries, the Xhosa caretaker of the local graveyard, to a "native location." Lily protests: " `Old Andries would never go anywhere,' I say. `He never leaves the graveyard. That's his place and that's where his things are. He keeps his things in his shed. If he wanted to go to the native location he would have gone a long time ago. He would never go now. He likes his job and he's too old.' " Old Andries chooses death under a train over a slower death in a desolate place he has never seen among people he has never met.

The forced removals will soon affect Lily's home as well. The stories of James, Lily's presumed father, and Gloria, her mother, show how lives were irrevocably transformed by merely speaking out against the forced removal of the Coloured community to the Cape Flats. Voicing the wrong ideas could make you visible and vulnerable. Yet these two pivotal characters reject the easier option of silence, even at risk to their livelihoods, personal security, and the love and respect of their families and friends.

For Lily also shares with us how fear silenced others, and how often community members would help to enforce apartheid laws and practices because to do otherwise would threaten the little bit of personal security and autonomy they did enjoy. Lily's loving grandmother, the centre of the family, fears the political activities of her daughter even as she supports her overall objectives. "My grandmother knows what's going on and when it's gone on long enough she gets hold of my mother and tells her she must stop what she's doing because she's causing trouble. `You're going around talking ideas into people's heads and if they listen to what you have to say, they're going to pay a price for it.' " Lily herself echoes these fears, and struggles to understand her mother's actions without fully comprehending the injustice done to herself and her community by the state. In Chapter 13, "A Blaze of Glory," Lily's mother successfully brings her community together - including Lily - in a dramatic peaceful protest of a removal, showing that their eventual compliance was not complicity.

Colourful characters

Not everyone has read Jooste's book as an unambiguous indictment of the apartheid state, however. In her much-read review in South Africa's Sunday Independent, Zimitri Erasmus labels Jooste as just another racist white writing another book for whites that mocks `Coloureds.' Erasmus is correct in my view to point out that Jooste's presumed audience is white, although she chooses not to make the further obvious connection between Lily and a young Jooste, who spent much of her childhood with friends from the Coloured community. Jooste, the author's note tells us, spent her formative years at the small Docklands hotel her parents managed, a hotel frequented by a Coloured clientele. "This," Jooste tells us, "is where we lived and this is where I learned some things about street life and dock life and bars and gangsters and Union Castle liners that come and go and colourful characters like Gus-Seep and Jack Hoxie and Mr. Asher. ... Mine was a special childhood largely because it was peopled by the same kind of characters I have tried to recreate on these pages."

Erasmus takes issue with these `colourful characters' - specifically the "useless, worthless, drunken, gambling beings" who characterize the range of Coloured male characters in the book. These characters - particularly her gambling uncle Gus-Seep and her gangster cousin Royston/Domingo - are nonetheless portrayed sympathetically by Lily. She loves them despite their flaws. Jooste appears to be trying to assert the fundamental humanity of the gangsters and gamblers, to explain how the `Coloured community' has produced and incorporated such characters. Erasmus' point, however, if I understand it, is `yes, but they are still drunks and gamblers. What you are offering once again is a stereotype of the Coloured man, all the more insidious for its liberal trappings, and its expression in the voice of a little Coloured girl.'

In fact, not all the male characters are portrayed in such terms. Neither James, Mr. Asher, nor Errol could be described as useless or worthless, much less drunken or gamblers, although Erasmus might disagree (one is in all likelihood Lily's father, who keeps her mother's secret while nonetheless developing a special bond with Lily; one is a gruff Jewish storekeeper with a secret heart of gold; and one her gay uncle who willingly takes in the child in Britain when her mother decides that it would be best for her to leave South Africa). All present, in their way, strong and positive male figures in her life.

Inauthentic voice?

Erasmus also raises her concerns about the author's use of `voice.' Erasmus notes that "though I recognise myself in the picture on the cover, I do not recognise myself in Lily's voice." Lily lacks `authenticity,' Erasmus seems to say, and therefore cannot and should not serve as a source of knowledge of Coloured hopes and aspirations to the presumed white reader. One question is how serious this problem is to the artistic and political integrity of the book. As numerous critics of post-colonial literature have noted, authenticity in voice is seldom absolute even among those who share ethnic, class and other characteristics with the characters they create, and imagination is central to the creative, artistic aspect of writing. It is not necessarily invalid, I would argue, for a white South African to imagine how it might have felt for a Coloured girl, similar to herself as a child in many other ways, to have had her neighbourhood destroyed by the Group Areas Act. One can further imagine Jooste attempting to reconcile her childhood friends and companions with the demonized stereotypes that the white community has constructed to legitimize their own privilege. Jooste may have continually revisited these events and attempted to come to terms with them as an adult.

But Erasmus claims that Lily's voice itself has been distorted with racist metaphors likening black people to pack donkeys and mongrel dogs, associating them with madness and misplaced humour. "Jooste would, of course, not allow thoughts like these to escape from her own lips," Erasmus posits. "But, how comforting for white people to hear their own secret thoughts articulated in the voice of a coloured child."

What is Jooste up to? Is she further illustrating the extent to which the Coloured people of South Africa had internalized South Africa's racist discourse? Is it a sign of the extent to which Jooste had internalized such discourse as a child, while nonetheless objecting to the laws and culture that was made possible to some extent by the discourse? Or is it Jooste's deepest, darkest, secret racist thoughts, as Erasmus suggests?

It is difficult to escape Erasmus' concerns to a point, although I think it important to note that the references likening people of colour to animals are very few, and similar references are made to whites. Just as importantly, the specific words and phrases must be interpreted in the context of the book. The references to `madness,' for example, usually describe characters who go against the `natural order' of gender relations or of state authority. Anyone who challenges these relations is seen as `mad' by Lily in that their behaviour is risky, but it is this risky behaviour that Jooste values above all else. The broader political message that Jooste puts forward is unwavering and unambiguous in its condemnation of the laws of apartheid, even as the book tries to grapple with the complex ways in which individuals attempted to make their peace with the state's overwhelming capacity to enforce its will.

Political book

Dance with a Poor Man's Daughter must be seen as a political intervention, and I believe that Jooste does herself and her book a disservice with her claim that "Lily is apolitical, so this is not a political book." It is political at a number of levels. Most immediately, it is political in its opposition to the policies and practices of the apartheid state. "It's like bleeding to death little by little my grandmother says. At first you don't notice it and even if you do, it doesn't seem important because there are other things going on at the same time and when at last you wake up, it's too late to do anything about it and the shame of it is that people outside will think people in the Valley don't care. They'll think we're just the same as anyone else and willing to let our Valley die without a murmur." The book may deliver a powerful message to a white audience, too many of whom cling to the idea that apartheid was justified, was moral, was better than majority rule is today, despite the revelations of the Truth Commission.

The fact that Jooste was able to write it, had access to time (she quit her job to write full time while her husband supported her), to a publisher, and to the type of language and constructions that would permit the book to be published are all measures of her white privilege: this is also political. It seems to typify the post-apartheid order - no longer formally racially structured, but nonetheless racialized. That a white woman took it upon herself to explain to other whites what apartheid `really' meant to the Coloured community was also a political act, and a very risky one. Perhaps my own reaction will simply reinforce Erasmus' critique, but I have to acknowledge the book's power to shape my own ideas about the events it describes. I was riveted by the book and recommend it to others.

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Printable Version

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