NOT TO BE MISSED
"En attendant la pluie", a novel by Sheila GORDON
Paris: Gallimard, 1988. (304p.).
Translated into French by Tessa Brisac. Original title: "Waiting for the rain" 
Ce compte rendu en français
This novel by South-African author Sheila Gordon was published about a decade after the Soweto uprising, and a few years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison. It evokes the evil of racial segregation foisted on Tengo and Frikkie, two boys growing up, side by side, on a remote farm in the South African veld. Gross inequalities increasingly draw them apart and eventually pit them against each other. The story's dramatic ending somewhat prefigures the way post-apartheid South Africa would grapple with its grim legacy.
From an early age, Frikkie is spending all his holidays at his Uncle's farm. He loves the place, the vast expanse of land, the river, the animals, the culture and the feel that everything is just the way it has to be. Oom Koos has promised to bequeath the farmstead to him, and he grooms the young boy for the job. Frikkie's parents do not want him to drop out of school before he has graduated and completed his military duties, but his future is all mapped out and it involves nothing but a perpetuation of family traditions, Boer values and longstanding racial inequalities imposed on the black population.
Placid and practical, Frikkie hates school and city life. "He wants everything to stay the same ... nothing to change ..." (p.70) the narrator says, and there is no malice in his deportment. But his education and understanding of the world has been vitiated by his antecedents' reactionary attitudes, belief in white supremacy and segregated social intercourse. Thus his inability to imagine that the world around him could be any different from what it is; his incapacity to recognise that equality is in the order of things; that the Boers do not have a God-given right to the land; and that black labour would not be subdued by "white masters" forever.
His relationship with his friend Tengo shows his inability to perceive the fundamental flaws in people's relationships on the farm. Tengo, the son of the black foreman, is the first person he looks for each time he arrives. He spends hours playing with him, and he considers him as his best friend. But all the same, it does not bother him that Tengo should eat his afternoon tea in the courtyard while he is enjoying a slice of his favourite cake inside the house; that Tengo and his folk live in a crowded hovel while he has a room of his own; that all the black employees should call him Kleinbass little boss while he addresses them by their name, irrespective of their age or gender; or that his mate Tengo should be left alone with a twig to keep the flies away from the meat Oom Koos has just prepared next to the house when he goes inside for lunch with his uncle. Thus Frikkie's genuine surprise and sorrow when he learns that his friend Tengo has left the farm without even saying goodbye. At no point does he associate the estrangement of his childhood companion to his own attitude towards him, let alone his Uncle's backward thinking and society's ingrained prejudices. People's behaviour is following well-established practice, he thought, and even much later, as he looks back to his formative years, he is unable to take the measure of his own responsibilities: "How could I think it could be any different?", he tells Tengo when fate eventually reunites both men in tragic circumstances. "Everyone my ma, my pa, my uncle and aunt, my teachers, the dominee at our church they all taught me this is the way it is supposed to be. So why shouldn't I accept it then?" (p.196).
Convinced that Uncle Oom Koos and Tant Sannie were decent people who had done their best to help their black workers, he cannot comprehend Tengo turning his back on the farm. He is no closer to understanding his old childhood friend when the latter argues that one does not need to be a unscrupulous villain in order to wrong others. "You don't see, Tengo tells him, that the thing you did wrong was not to notice that anything was wrong. That's a sin even though your Boer dominees don't preach it in their sermons. And now that wrong has built up, and built up and now it's so big, so huge that it can't be held back anymore. And now this whole country is in terrible danger because of all the wrong that people like you couldn't see" (p.197).
As shown many a time in history, true believers guided by God to a promised land are quick to forget the crimes they perpetrated in invading someone else's country. The Boers' bloody occupation of Ndebele's land is but one example of such tribulations. And if their oppression of a significant Other in the name of God holds a lesson well highlighted in this novel: it is that in the fullness of time the distortions of history, engineered by zealots to boost social cohesion, and justify others' dispossession and enslavement, will always come back to bite the perpetrators' scions. The skewed vision of self and others imparted to Frikkie by his folk may well have been useful in galvanising the Voortrekkers in difficult times, but it has left the young man unable to comprehend the world in which he lives, to adapt, to make amends and to move forward. Confused by Tengo's analysis of the situation, "he wanted to understand, but it was all too baffling for him" (p.201).
In contrast to Frikkie, Tengo wakes up early to the injustice of social mores. Of a curious nature, he resents the fact that no-one seems to be able to answer the many questions racing through his mind and, contrary to his friend who always complains about having to go to school, he is sure that the many things puzzling him would be explained if he had access to formal education. He dreams of discovering why mosquitos sting when butterflies do not; why the sea is salty; why the thunder growls after lightning ... Except for the Bible, a few magazines and a handful of tattered school manuals, there is no book on the farm, thus no way to tap the vast repository of knowledge lying between the pages of dictionaries and encyclopaedias.
This dearth of intellectual stimulus is somewhat remedied when Tengo's mother manages to get a box of old school books. That changes his life and provides some answers to his questions; but he soon realises that there are still many issues that even books cannot answer: the reason why his family suffers very poor living conditions compared to these of Master Oom Koos, for example. "Why can't you have your own farm?" (p.72), he asks his father; and to his mother who always arrives home very late and exhausted after her long day's work, he asks: "Why can't [the oubass' wife] serve the oubaas his supper and clear the table, so that you could leave earlier and come home and eat supper with us? (p.72). Of course, his parents have no satisfactory answer to offer him except to say that such is the lot of black farmhands; but Tengo is not prepared to admit that submissiveness and resignation are the sole and only lines of action. Little can be done with regard to Master Oom Koos' attitude, but when a visiting twelve year old white girl addresses rudely, a venerable black elder, his blood boils (p.62), and oblivious to the foreseeable consequences of his action, he tells a few home truths to the impertinent damsel; one has to stand for one's dignity, he thinks, and he understands intuitively that resistance and education are the means to escape one's condition. Thus his determination to go to school and to refuse the servile role ascribed to him by his friend Frikkie and his boss Oom Koos.
The gross inequalities Tengo has experienced on the farm also mar his pursuit of knowledge when he eventually reaches Johannesburg. There too, segregation is rife and the Government anxious to preserve whites' privileges. In education as in all matters, black and white teenagers are not in the same boat. The daughter of the white family sponsoring his studies only confirms what he knows when she denounces scornfully, the evil nature of officialdom upon hearing that, in their "wonderful country", he has to pay for school and school books, while she gets it all free. "How much longer can it go on like this?" (p.94), she asked, bewildered.
History shows that the days of institutionalised racial segregations were counted as she was uttering her dismay, but neither she nor Tengo nor Sheila Gordon when she wrote her novel in the mid 1980s were privy to twenty-first century knowledge; and to the young man's despair, the situation became much worse before getting better. The Government's bloody repression of the Soweto uprising and its repeated onslaught on black students led to lengthy strikes and college closures. Students' defiance of Government orders made it impossible to attend classes regularly and to pass exams. Activism and political engagement was the order of the day, and Tengo's dream of taking his final exams and furthering his study overseas was crushed.
Upon turning the last page of the novel, it is for the readers to envisage Tengo and Frikkie's fate. However, whatever their fortune, the society awaiting them would have been very different from the segregated and repressive regime put in place centuries earlier. Just before parting from his friend, Tengo tells Frikkie: "There is a better chance that your sister will be secretary to a black lawyer than that my sister will be a maid in your auntie's kitchen" (p.200). Twenty-five years on, and despite the many problems dogging contemporary South African society, Tengo's prediction has come true.
This novel deals with matter related to South African history, but some of the issues raised in Waiting for the rain are still very much alive in other parts of the world. Thus the novel being not only interesting from an historical point of view, but also as a thought-provoking mirror image of contemporary ills. The relevance of Tengo and Frikkie's story goes beyond its idiosyncrasy to illustrates the never-ending stream of noxious inequalities that divides whole societies, destabilises the world and leads to bloody confrontations today.
Distorting history; curtailing people's freedom of movement; preventing poor migrants from the South to reach rich megalopolises of the North by means of mandatory pass-books/passports; breaking-up families unable to meet administrative demands; tolerating disparity in children's access to education between the poorest countries of the world, where families with very little means are still required to pay fees to send their children to school, and the most affluent nations where public education is free for all; all that and more represent a blight on contemporary democratic ideals as much as they encapsulated the scourge of Apartheid. Waiting for the rain is thus far more than an entertaining and very good read: It is also a warning against the dire consequences of segregation in its many forms, and an invitation to reinvigorate the eternal ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity everywhere in the world and in every generation. Definitely a novel to read.
This review is based on the French translation of the novel but page numbers relate to the English original published by Bantam Books in 1987.
Editor ([email protected])
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities