Rehana Rossouw captures the heady days when SA seemed a beacon of hope
Get a copy of this beautifully written novel, writes Tymon Smith
Rehana Rossouw's debut novel What Will People Say? was rightly acclaimed for its intimate, heartfelt and carefully observed portrait of life on the Cape Flats during late apartheid.
Her new novel New Times draws on Rossouw's experiences as a journalist in the heady days of the Rainbow Nation moment - focusing on the life and times of a young, idealistic, enthusiastic political reporter, Ali Adams, who works for a newspaper from which the book takes its title.
A Bo-Kaap resident living with her depressed mother and her irrepressible but often worrying grandmother, Adams is, like South Africa in the year of the Rugby World Cup, struggling to negotiate her identity and navigate the politics of a nation faced with the realities of globalisation and the high expectation placed on it by its own citizens and the world at large.
Her childhood friend Sumaya is about to get married to a good Muslim Bo-Kaap man; her other friend Munier, gay and HIV-positive is rabble-rousing Mandela's government to do something about the epidemic that's killing his friends; and then there's Lizo, a former Robben Islander whom the Adams family regard as their adopted son and whose life is a series of visits to far-flung corners of the world as an adviser to the president.
Like her debut novel, Rossouw's second book displays her talent for observing small details and celebrating cultural nuances that bring her characters and their lives beautifully off the page in a heady mix of Cape Malay aromas, sounds and linguistic inflection, and her affection for them is infectious.
Between the New Times newsroom with its cast of old, beaten white hacks and young, enthusiastic multiracial young interns, and the cobbled, steep streets of the Bo-Kaap, Ali tries to make herself useful and balance the demands of her job with those of her home life.
As she pursues stories about the government's economic turnaround, rumours of corruption in the cabinet and the skeletons of apartheid waiting to be revealed by the TRC, Ali must confront her own past, her own fears and the disturbing realities of a country in flux, which will drag her, her friends and her family kicking, screaming and sometimes laughing into a new world which will not always meet their expectations.
As a journalist it's easy to relate to the world of the New Times with its recognisable types and its quaintly old-fashioned early internet days of faxes and paper archives; and as a child of the 1980s it's easy to relate to Rossouw's portrait of those mid-1990s days when, following the euphoria of the elections and SA's Rugby World Cup victory, everything seemed possible.
It's a testament to Rossouw's skills that the book, like the very human and complex characters and times it deals with, is funny, sad, true and fascinating. It also has plenty of intrigue to keep you turning the pages as we become embroiled in Ali's journey towards discovering uncomfortable truths about herself and her society.
Ali's "new times" are also reflected through the lens of the times we are in now, and they're all the more nostalgic and heartbreaking in that light.
The novel is a bittersweet reflection of a fraught, partly hopeful, sometimes dismaying moment that most who lived through never realised would be the beginning of a sickening descent. However, as Rossouw reminds us, it's those whom we live, love, laugh and fight with who make it possible to live through uncertain times with hope and belief in the possibility of better days ahead, no matter how hard things may get.
• 'New Times' by Rehana Rossouw is published by Jacana Media and is available for R250
• This article was originally published in The Times