Marguerite Poland details the blindness of the colonial enterprise

New novel has a gut-wrenching power

25 November 2019 - 12:39 By Margaret von Klemperer
'A Sin of Omission' by Marguerite Poland.
'A Sin of Omission' by Marguerite Poland.
Image: Penguin Random House

Published in the Witness: 25/11/2019

A new novel from Marguerite Poland, one of South Africa’s most accomplished and consistent writers, is cause for celebration.

Poland’s meticulous research gives this novel, set mainly in the Eastern Cape in the second half of the 19th century, gravitas and importance.

Her central character is Stephen Malusi Mzamane, who, as a child, is taken in by Anglican missionaries following the cattle killing in the area and the resulting famine. But though he is saved from physical starvation, he is thrown into an emotional minefield.

He and his older brother are bright, capable children and are dispatched to the Native College in Grahamstown, from where the most promising students will be sent to be trained at the Missionary College in Canterbury, England. The elder Mzamane blots his copybook,  so it is Stephen who gets the coveted prize.

He is trained to be a black Englishman, playing chess and at increasing ease in drawing rooms, even though he is seen as an exotic, someone to be subtly patronised.

But when he returns to the Eastern Cape, he is met by the full might of colonial prejudice, both within and beyond the church.

He is sent off to a remote, impoverished mission where the true extent of his dislocation from both his colonial masters and his own amaNgqika people is brutally exposed. A deeply moral and thoughtful man, he is forced into a position where something will have to give.

Poland has said the inspiration for her protagonist came from a real Anglican deacon, whose moving life story is mirrored in Stephen’s. The very few white people who could even see how his identity had been shattered, bringing with it insurmountable problems, were either too naive or not in a position to help him as he struggled, in the words of the novel, with “the expectations which were given him and then denied”.

It is a brutal and tragic story, redeemed by Poland’s sympathetic and skilled telling. And by exposing much of the agony and blindness of the colonial enterprise without the ranting and name-calling that so often accompanies it, A Sin of Omission has a gut-wrenching power.