EXTRACT | ‘The Comrade’s Wife’ by Barbara Boswell explores the complex interplay between the public and the private in post-apartheid SA

07 May 2024 - 18:01
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'The Comrade's Wife' explores the lies and betrayals of love and party politics.
'The Comrade's Wife' explores the lies and betrayals of love and party politics.
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Claire is less cynical. “Fall in love, if you must. But do your research. And meet his people early on. They’ll give you a sense of who he is.” Solid advice. And ultimately, this is how I found myself on a flight to Bloemfontein one Friday afternoon.

An instant classic, the lies and betrayals of love and party politics are told in gorgeous prose with an ear for our time’s intimate and public language. Comrade’s Wife follows a turbulent marriage between a rising politician and an academic, told from her perspective.

“Tender, delightful, frightening. A testimony to Boswell’s inexhaustible vision.” — Pumla Dineo Gqola, author of Female Fear Factory

“Wonderfully plotted, emotionally rich, clever, and full of intrigue ... Find a quiet, comfortable corner and settle in because you won’t want to leave Anita’s superb company until she’s finished her story.” — Nadia Davids, author of An Imperfect Blessing

“What a thrilling read! I could not put it down. Some politicians are as immoral at home as they are in the halls of government. The Comrade’s Wife is a wonderful account of the political made personal.” — Rehana Rossouw, author of New Times and What Will People Say?


Yes, I met the love of my life at age 45 on a generic dating site. Yes, we married less than a year later, despite our respective fears of commitment and much-vaunted love of independence. Yes, the past nearly two years together have been mostly bliss. We have merged our lives — his mother and siblings love me, and his children have started to accept me, once the frost that greeted my arrival thawed.

My own mother loves him — I never thought I would hear her utter the words “the son I never had”, and my friends adore him, adore our sweet love story. When we are together, driving, hiking, talking, or making love, I look at my life and wonder if it truly is real. How could I get so lucky?

And yet the moment he leaves, the static in my stomach starts. There are times like tonight when he has delayed his return home for no good reason. When plans I have made are cast aside without a thought or apology. When I have spent a perfect spring day waiting and waiting for him to arrive, while he’s barely acknowledged the texts I’ve been sending to get an idea of when to expect him. These are the times when, alone and feeling abandoned, I seethe.

But then he walks in, all smiles, smelling delicious, scoops me up in his arms, and I melt. I breathe a sigh of relief: he is back — we can resume our golden life together. His presence, his gaze, the sound of his voice, his skin against mine — that’s what I need. That’s what settles me.

In bed, he lifts my chin and whispers, “I missed you. Won’t you kiss me?”

Despite my earlier resolve not to pick at it, I find myself asking about the delay. “What happened today, though?”

“Don’t start. Not this again. You know how it is. I can’t always predict things. I can’t just brush people off. I work for them. I work for the people.”

He rests one palm on the nape of my neck while tracing the contours of my lips with the thumb of his other hand. “Don’t start a fight now, my precious. I’m here now. Don’t spoil it.”

Let it go, I will myself and shut my eyes. He kisses me — a long, slow kiss that wipes away the words still lingering on my tongue. I pull him towards me, into me, unleashing all the emotions I have swallowed with my body as I offer it to him. Sex with him, as always, induces somnolence — a blessed relief.

We wake the next morning, balance restored. He’s up early, cheerful as always, while I linger half-asleep in bed, where he brings me his usual morning gift, a cup of coffee. I am still sleepy as he bends down, suited and tied, impeccably dressed in a black suit, white shirt and black tie. He kisses me goodbye. It’s 6.30am and he is off into the world to change it.

I languish for another half an hour, can afford to go slow this morning; I have no classes to teach, just one committee meeting at the university at noon. My thoughts turn to a proposal I need to submit for a huge grant, the type that can be career-changing, and I berate myself for not yet having set up a suitable office space in Neill’s home. Our home.

I’ve been living here for almost a year, but sometimes I still feel alien. Writing, the lifeblood of an academic — the most necessary thing I need to do if I want to go any further on my chosen path — has fled my life. It is so difficult to write, and there is something about this house, and our merged lives, that conspires against it.

It is not for lack of time — God knows, Neill is gone for a lot of it. Nor is it for lack of trying: I scribble down words at the kitchen counter, the huge oak dining-room table, the patio table next to the swimming pool, or at a dresser in the spare bedroom. I manage in this way, but I am aware that to take myself seriously as a writer, I need a dedicated space where I can focus, uninterrupted by chores, visitors, or Neill’s comings and goings.

It is not that there isn’t enough space — most days, the two of us rattle around in this house at the foot of the mountain. I just haven’t made it a priority — the carving out of a designated space to think and write. The thing I swore to myself I would not allow when we started to get serious, has crept in — my tendency to put my work last, to focus on his needs, to make sure he is taken care of before all else.

Love has made a bit of a mess of me. It bothers me, this neglect of my intellectual life. But it is still early days, I placate myself, still the adjustment phase of the marriage — I’ll find my stride again, eventually.

I arrive at my university office at the Department of Social Studies around 9am, winding my way around a throng of students in the quad to enter the building that has become my second home.

I feel lucky still to be working in a beautiful, older building — all wood-panelled corridors and Oregon pine floors — not one of the more modern monstrosities that have sprung up as the university has grown. My footsteps reverberate, announcing my presence to everyone in the corridor. I unlock the door to my office, settle at my desk, and turn on my PC. My usual open-door policy, adopted so that students and colleagues can drop in for a chat when they see me, will not do for today. The door will remain firmly shut as I try to finish this albatross of a proposal.

I have lived in this office every weekday, and often weekends too, for the past eight years. Over time, I have decorated the shell presented to me on my first day with pleasurable comforts — a small couch draped with bright fabric, an earth-toned kelim, a beautiful ceramic teapot, and mismatched hand-painted mugs. On the wall facing my desk hangs a poster for a Mary Sibande exhibition, the first thing I stuck up with Prestik after tossing out the Irma Stern print left by my predecessor. I have since framed the poster and had it properly hung, along with various other prints and photographs.

The Sibande poster, featuring the artist in a billowing worker’s overall overlaid with a white apron, reminds me daily where I come from as the child of a domestic worker; and what I too could have become, were it not for the sacrifices made by that domestic worker, who pushed me to escape the prison in which apartheid had trapped her. Yes, there are quite a few of us here; PhDs and professors, respected, and esteemed, who come from such beginnings. But we won’t tell you that, not unless we’ve known you for years; and even then, it will be cautiously, once we have proven to you, over and over, that we belong here.

It took a while for me to feel at home in this office, but gradually I’ve made it my own. I burn incense, aromatherapy oils, and when necessary, imphepho — which got me a lot of funny looks at first, and into a bit of trouble with “Buildings and Safety”, the department charged with upkeep. I argued that this was my cultural practice, and that not allowing me to burn my smudges and incense discriminated against me. Now they just steer clear when they smell the pungent aroma of smouldering herbs wafting through the hallways. Thandiswa makes a special smudge stick of imphepho for me, adding lavender, geranium and her secret fynbos blend — meant to bring my ancestors into the office with me, while protecting me from people with bad intentions.

My PC takes forever to start. I need an upgrade, but we’re entitled to one only every eight years, and I am due for mine in December. While I wait for the computer to reach full wakefulness, I dream a little bit about my hopes for this proposal — my version of putting my intention out into the universe, something Thandiswa is always telling me to do. I am that nebulous creature known as the mid-career academic, having languished at the senior lecturer level for seven of my eight years here. I’ve carved out a small niche for myself at the intersection of sociology and psychology, an interdisciplinary field of my own making. I tried for ad hominem promotion to Associate Professor in my fourth year, and was turned down. When I appealed the decision, I was told that my research agenda was not considered rigorous, my output paltry, and my methods not suitably scientific.

The proposal I’m working on now envisions a national study on high school learners’ perceptions of race and racial identity. I have gone to great lengths in the methodology section to describe a grounded research approach, which views participants as just that — participants, not subjects from whom data will be extracted. A grounded approach will see me presenting my findings to the students, inviting their input, and amending my findings to consider and include the ways participants respond to my analysis. It is their perception I am studying, after all.

The way my project is structured builds in time to deliver feedback to the participants. This is why my research takes longer than that done by many others in my department — it centres participants’ voices, not my own as the “expert”. I could abandon this topic and do something easier and less time-intensive; work with a less vulnerable population, and not give participants the opportunity to give input into the process of analysis. I could churn out work at a rate that pleases the university, bringing in the all-important government subsidy for every article published. But this population — adolescents — is important, understudied, and in need of advocacy research that will translate into policy that could change their lives, or the lives of those who will come after them in a few years.

If I receive this grant, it will allow me to travel around the country for a year, visiting schools in both rural and urban areas. I have good contacts in high schools, but need money to make this study a reality. My proposal budget has a line item for doctoral students who will be trained in participatory methods, which hold the potential for transformation in the next generation of scholars.

Transformation. How I detest that word! Yet I pepper it throughout the proposal, knowing the assessors who evaluate grant proposals score each proposal using a points system. I will literally lose points if I do not show how my proposed study contributes to transforming South African higher education. I am part of that transformation, was hired eight years ago with a special vice-chancellor’s fund established to fast-track transformation at our university, which had remained stubbornly un-melanated in the teaching demographic.

Brian, then the head of department, welcomed me stoically on my first day, leading me through the department to introduce me to my colleagues. “Meet Dr Anita Fredericks. Our new transformation appointee,” he said.

My new colleagues smiled and told me to “just ask” if I needed anything.

I was hired on the strength of the designated boxes I ticked in the “race” and “gender” categories of the HR form submitted as part of my application. No-one really cared what my research specialisation was, or how it might “transform” things, and one year after my appointment, at the mid-probation mark, it was noted that I had not yet published anything. I’ve been lagging ever since. My colleagues frown upon this, I know — I found the minutes of one research committee meeting on our shared departmental hard drive, in which they had commiserated about the inevitable attrition of publication that goes with the lowering of standards. That was when I stopped caring what they thought of me.

I might not care about my colleagues’ opinion of me any more, but I do care deeply about my research. I need to do it properly, include the subjects in an ethical way — or it would feel like stealing from people. Because knowledge can be stolen, too. They’ve built entire disciplines and universities on stolen knowledge. I refuse to be part of that.

My proposal will be done tomorrow, and I will send it off to the current head of department for his feedback, and his all-important signature, the stamp of approval that will launch it on to the research office for a final decision. Getting the head of my department on board is the first hurdle I need to clear if this project is ever to get off the ground.

The writing sweeps me up, and it is hours later when my phone pings. There is still that frisson of excitement when his name pops up.

“Quick chat?”

I reply with a thumbs up.

Neill calls and we discuss dinner plans. This has been one of the adjustments of marriage — I have never had a fixed time for supper, sometimes even forgetting to eat when absorbed in work. We decided early on that we’d try, as much as we were able, to eat one meal a day together, setting aside space to connect and share our days. Never again wanting to see the inside of a divorce court, we sat down and talked about how we would make time, despite our busy lives.

We settle on a time for tonight’s dinner. The duty of choosing a venue and making a booking falls to me. I don’t like it, but he’s busy, busier than me, and he flatters me when I complain that this is gendered labour: “But you’re so good at it!” His job is incredibly stressful, and I remind myself to be the good helpmeet I promised I would be. After speaking to him, I make a reservation at a new restaurant we’ve both been wanting to try, and forward the details to him.

I’m fully absorbed in the proposal for the rest of the day. When I arrive at the appointed restaurant, he is already there, absorbed with reading something on his phone. His face lights up as I walk towards him. I feel that warm sun inside of me, the same as that first day we met. It is that rarest and most beautiful of feelings: pure joy.

Extract provided by Jacana Media

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