Review: Vivien Horler
A Man of Good Hope (Jonathan Ball Publishers) 2014
There’s a cooldrink stall on St George’s Mall outside our office, where cans of Coke and Fanta lie in zinc baths full of ice. Cigarettes are also sold there, and people light them from a lighter hanging on a string.
The Somalis who run the stall are busy with customers; I rarely buy from them and for me the stall is simply an obstacle when crossing the mall.
Until I read A Man of Good Hope. Now I wonder how much of their story is mirrored in this book. All around us there are people living their lives, trying to make enough money to support themselves and their families, and most of us have no idea where they have come from, how they got here, and what perils they survived on the way.
Not only that: what perils many face every day in South Africa, where they are seen as other, mkwerekwere, people who are useful when it comes to buying a litre of milk or a couple of cigarettes, but who are resented and often attacked.
One of them was Asad Abdullahi, born in Mogadishu where he spent his first eight years. Then in January 1991militias hostile to President Mohamed Siad Barre, a Daarood, came into the city to attack Daarood men. As a result, Daarood men gathered at night for safety in government buildings, secure in the knowledge that their wives and children at home were safe, as Islamic soldiers do not attack women and children.
But this time they did, bursting into Asad’s home and shooting his mother. Within 24 hours Asad was on the road, a journey that took around 10 years to see him in Blikkiesdorp, Cape Town, via Nairobi, Addis Ababa, and Sterkstroom in the Eastern Cape. He crossed innumerable borders with no papers, or false papers that proved no help, at the mercy of people smugglers who might be genuine or who might be out for what they could get.
Over the years he found various protectors, double-crossers and some friends. He also found a wife.
You might think South Africa provided something of a haven, and at first Asad thought it did. He traced an uncle in Uitenhage, who ran a spaza shop in a township, and who got him work in Kirkwood.
Five days after he arrived in Uitenhage a Somali shopkeeper in Motherwell was killed. Asad tells Steinberg: “I had not heard about this at all before I came to South Africa. The people passing through Addis, who showed all the dollars they had earned down south, they said nothing about Somalis dying in townships.”
Not long after that his uncle was shot dead in his shop.
The danger followed Asad to Sterkstroom, where yet another Somali shopkeeper was killed. At this stage Asad’s pregnant Somali wife Foosiya took their small child and went home.
By 2008, when the xenophobic violence broke out in Gauteng, Asad had a spaza shop in Mew Way in Khayelitsha. He and his business partner hoped the violence would not come to Cape Town, but it did. Their shop was looted and destroyed, and he fled, first to a marquee at Youngsfield, and later to Soetwater, the holiday camp near Kommetjie.
By the time he met Jonny Steinberg in 2010, Asad, now 27, had remarried, and was running a spaza shop in Blikkiesdorp. They would sit in Steinberg’s car for two mornings a week, while Asad told his life story. Asad preferred to do the interviews in the car to his shack: that way he could see danger coming. “In the shack,” he says, “you can see nothing. First you see of them is the gun in your face.”
Steinberg realises: apart from the royalties he has offered Asad, he provides another advantage for the Somali. “I am… a person from the other side, a person who travels within the orbit of law. Who knows when he may need such a person to come to his aid? Perhaps tonight.”
And so they sit in Steinberg’s car, outside the spaza shop. And Steinberg says: “While his internal eye peers into his childhood, the eyes on either side of his nose scan the street.”
This book has been acclaimed and described as a masterpiece, and it is without doubt a work of quality. The writing is spare, controlled and unemotional, even when events of great drama and emotion are being recorded.
I resisted reading it for a long time – it was published in 2014 – because I knew that, while Steinberg is a brilliant writer, his work was not going to cheer me up.
But this book, like his others, including Midlands, The Number, Thin Blue and Three Letter Plague, do give you an insight into an aspect of this country that you might otherwise have missed.
And that has to be a good thing.