Jonathan Ball Publishers
REVIEW: Bongani Kona
The xenophobic attacks which swept through South Africa in May 2008, leaving scores of foreign immigrants dead and thousands of others stranded in make-shift refugee camps, is the central event around which Jonny Steinberg’s sixth book, A Man of Good Hope, pivots. Part sociological and part ethnographic, the book chronicles the journey a young man from war-torn to Somalia to South Africa at a time when tensions between foreigners and locals are simmering beneath the surface.
In October 2010, when Steinberg was still employed by the Institute for Humanities in Africa at the University of Cape Town and round about the time he started working on A Man of Good Hope, the institute hosted a public dialogue at the Mowbray Town Hall titled ‘To whom does Cape Town belong?’ The event caught the interest of a large cross-section of the public, from high ranking academics, radio DJs to Somali refugees.
As the different speakers took turns to talk about the meaning of their lives in this city, some said they felt a strong sense of belonging and others said they did not. Among the latter group was a Somali shopkeeper. “We [Somalis] don’t belong in Cape Town; we’re victims of Cape Town,” he said, in reference to his own experience of trying to build a life wedged between hostile forces: an antagonistic local community on the one hand and a placid police force on the other.
I mention this because the central question the xenophobic attacks asked is an extension of the one posed at the public dialogue: ‘To whom does South Africa belong?’ Who is deemed not to belong and why? These questions lie at the heart of A Man Good Hope.
The eponymous man of good hope is Asad Abudllahi, a Somalian living in Blikkiesdorp (‘Tin Town’), an abject informal settlement housing located some 30 kilometers away from Cape Town. His story begins in January 1991. The civil war which had ravaged much of the country finally reached the capital Mogadishu that summer and five militia men showed up at his mother’s door step at dawn.
“Three of them came up to the door and knocked very hard. My mother did not want to let them in,” he says, but the men persisted. Eventually they won out against his mother and broke the door down.
“My mother just stood there…she held me to her leg. The first militiaman just stared at her. She stared back. Then the second militiaman pushed the first one out of the way and shot my mother in the chest.”
Asad watched as she collapsed onto the floor, dead. From that moment he became a refugee proper, someone sailing through the world without anchor.
“We walked out of Mogadishu and kept walking,” he says. There was no time to weep. The war had caught up with them and to avoid being swept up by the great tide of violence, Asad had to keep moving. And with such hasty departures, to borrow a phrase from Damon Galgut’s eloquent novel In a Strange Room, “travel isn’t celebration but a kind of mourning.”
Enticed by the promise of a life without constant upheavals,Asad makes his way to South Africa. It’s a treacherous journey which costs thousands of American dollars. Smugglers have to be paid at every turn and the palms of immigration officials have to be greased to ensure safe passage. In the end, Asad manages to cross into South Africa with hardly any money to his name and without the requisite documentation.
“A refugee,” Steinberg writes, “has lost control. Great historical forces have upended him and he no longer has a place in the world. He has become an in-between sort of being, suspended between a past which he belonged somewhere and a future in which he might belong somewhere once more. But for now he is in abeyance; he is swept this way and that, like a flotsam in a tide.”
Asad is precisely that kind of man, swept this way and that by great historical forces. A Man of Good Hope traces his quest for stability in South Africa but it seems he is doomed to suffer. “There was no such place in South Africa…One could run from province to province, from town to town. South African violence would find you.”
Of all Steinberg’s thoroughly researched books, A Man of Good Hope is the most discomfiting to read, primarily because the 2008 xenophobic attacks have somehow become repressed in our collective memory. Through the story of one man’s many loses, Steinberg revisits that chapter, one of the darkest in South Africa’s post-apartheid history, and asks many troubling questions about the nature of our society. – Kona is a Cape Town writer
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in October 2014.
- The featured Map of Africa pic is by Michael Tompsett