Thursday, April 4, 2013

Apartheid and James McClure

James McClure
In retrospect it seems strange that the wave of good crime fiction that we have in South Africa now almost all developed after the apartheid era.  It seems a natural genre to use to display the rigid behaviors and eventual breakdown of an artificial system, a context that would display the excesses as well as the successes of the police.  It was also an era when some great writing talent was focused on the country – Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, JM Coetzee.  Writers at that level choose their own subject matter, of course, and may have felt the crime genre too superficial for the sort of issues they wanted to address.  Certainly many of their books revolve around violence but not in the context of a mystery.  

South African writer Wessel Ebersohn wrote three thrillers at the time, exposing the security police and exploring the nature of evil.  His books were initially banned in South Africa.  He moved “up” to a fictional study of Adolf Hitler (although he’s returned his focus to South Africa in recent years).  Only one writer took a serious look at the nature of apartheid through crime fiction and that was a writer living outside South Africa.

James McClure was born in Johannesburg in 1939.  He became a teacher and then a journalist in Natal until in 1965 he immigrated with his family to England.   In 1971 he published his first novel set in South Africa – THE STEAM PIG – in which he introduced his detective duo, the white Afrikaans Lieutenant Tromp Kramer and the black Bantu Detective Sergeant Mickey Zondi.  He set them up in a conservative fictional town, Trekkersburg, and let the South African context generate the stories.  The relationship between the two detectives and the artificial structures in which they live and which they largely accept, provide a clear illustration of the apartheid set up of the time and of the way it twisted the lives of ordinary people.  If you are interested in South African crime fiction (as we hope you are!) then these are excellent books to read.  Even now as historical fiction, they are very revealing and very good.  The whole series was recently reissued by Soho Crime.

I’m interested in what McClure thought about his own writing and what he was trying to achieve with it.  His books were never banned in South Africa as ‘subversive’ – as many were – and he was accused of being an apologist for apartheid for not explicitly condemning it in his books.  Then, again, is that what being a novelist is about?  So I was pleased to discover that in 1988 he was interviewed by Don Wall, Professor of English at Eastern Washington University.  It was published in a book titled “Mysteries of Africa” edited by Eugene Schleh.

When asked why he had chosen the mystery genre, this was McClure’s reply: “Because crime is something I knew quite a lot about, and because I wanted to write about South Africa in a context which would allow South Africa to become incidental to the story.  Which doesn’t mean it isn’t very much part of the story.  Unlike some other writers about South Africa, I try to make sure that the action is peculiar to that environment and arises out of it.”  He went on to compare the audience he was trying to reach to that of the Big Name authors: “I chose this genre also because it allowed me to reach a much greater audience than it would if I wrote about South Africa in a straight novel.  That way, you preach to nobody but the converted, usually – or to the so-called intellectual reader.  You’re not reaching the ordinary guy at all.”

In fact, he didn’t enjoy the Big Names’ work that much (except for Herman Charles Bosman – see my post about him  here.) questioning – among other issues – their lack of humor.  “It’s all as deadly serious as a political meeting.  I always hear laughter as well as sobbing when I recall life in Africa.”

On the issue of apartheid he was quite outspoken, pointing out that a novel is about people not about systems.  Speaking of black security policemen, he said: “But I know they’re not all monsters – far from it.  What fascinates me is the man who isn’t a monster who works as a monster.  I find that much more interesting than monsters.  There’s no insight into these people – a form of literary apartheid.”  He continued that he couldn’t stand stereotyping and found it repulsive whether in a novel or “as the outright fascism and racialism of the more rabid Nationalist Party member.” 

Don Wall summed up McClure’s views as follows (and McClure agreed with him): “You’re not an apologist for (apartheid) and you certainly don’t defend it, it’s an abhorrent policy to you, but, on the other hand, you understand the people who live under that system, and you see that good men can live under a bad policy and do good things, too.”

A moral as true today as it was twenty-five years ago.

Michael - Thursday.


  1. I should have mentioned that Wessel Ebersohn's books WERE banned in South Africa at the time.

  2. The moral is right on. The piece "write on," as in more please, Michael.

  3. James McClure was my first introduction to African Crime writers and I cherished and reread all of his stories. Glad that Michael and Stanley are continuing to bring us all back to Africa. Bill Gottfried