Fiction or factumentary?


Bare Ground, by Peter Harris (Picador Africa)

bare ground peter harris

Peter Harris seems to have an instinctive ability to tell a good story.

The lawyer turned writer has produced three books: two non-fiction titles – In a Different Time, and Birth – which read like thrillers, and the new novel, Bare Ground, which reads like a documentary. It’s made up, and yet the tale he tells is so plausible in the current South African context that it feels true, just one you haven’t read in the newspaper yet.

Bare Ground was launched at the Book Lounge recently, and Harris told proprietor Mervyn Sloman he felt this was a novel that needed to be published now, given the pace at which things move in South Africa.

“Some stuff lies beyond fiction, quite frankly. I wanted it to come out during the Zuma presidency – it’s important to tell this story now in our history.”

The story is of a mining company that needs to set up a consortium to give effect to a BEE deal. The boss is wealthy, urbane Max Sinclair, and his right-hand man is one Sifiso Lesibe, a geologist now working in head office.

The way the deal is structured is critical, Max realises. Do they go internally and give it to senior black employees in the company, with some going to black staff, or do they go to an outside consortium. Or should it be a mixture of both?

It’s vital to have the government on board, given the power it has to grant mining rights and licences, and that may take a bit of negotiation. But Max is instinctively wary of the mining minister and the presidency, and their closeness to a family called Pradesh.

Sifiso is tasked with talking to his old varsity mate Gugu, who now works in the presidency. He’s also discussing matters with Musa, a lawyer and arbiter who likes the good things in life, but not, as he tells Sifiso firmly, at any cost.

And then there’s Walter, who works for a construction company with which Max has links. Walter has uncovered evidence of serious collusion in the building trade.

Sound familiar?

It’s a gripping read, set against a backdrop of life in Johannesburg, of  board meetings and discreet meals in plush restaurants, of greed and wealth and sudden, shocking crime.

Harris’s first book was about the trial of the men who came to be known as the Delmas Four, while the second was about efforts to stop the 1994 elections. This one is about what our society has become since then, he tells Sloman: “It details a significant loss of moral compass in SA.”

Being a novel, Harris did not have to stick to basic facts as he did with the first two books.

“I enjoyed the creative latitude that writing fiction gave me. Sometimes I wondered if I was stretching the bounds of what the country and political situation could bear, and then when you read the papers you know it can bear an enormous amount.”

Sloman said the city of Johannesburg itself was a character in its own right.

Harris responded that the city was still very much a mining town. Or as he puts it in the book: “Joburg is a brash golden jukebox where the music plays – if you have the money to feed it.”

Harris says while Joburg is a place where people go to make money, there is an underclass too. “It’s all right in your face, part of the society, and one of the questions the book tries to address is, how sustainable is that?

“Everyone wants a slice of the pie, and what they do to get it is sometimes honorable and sometimes dishonorable. The other thing about living in Joburg is that your life can change in an instant. You can walk out of a restaurant and be thrust into a life-changing situation, something that happens with a frequency that is alarming.

“Whatever social class you’re from there is little you can do to protect yourself, because violence is part of the tapestry of South African society.”

There is also the corruption that goes way beyond what President Jacob Zuma gets up to, he says. “Corruption is endemic in this society and needs to be addressed.”

So is there anything that makes Harris feel positive about South Africa?

“There are some remarkable people doing remarkable things,, and they deserve our support. Organisations are keeping up a constant pressure, like Corruption Watch and Business Leadership SA.

“We need to re-engage with society – it’s almost as though after 1994 we all went to sleep and then woke up to realise we’d been mugged. It’s time to get active again, as in the 1970s and 80s.”

Sloman decribes the book as bleak, but Harris counters this: “It’s a South African narrative. I think there is redemption at certain levels. It may be like looking in the mirror – you like some of what you see and some you don’t. I concede it is a hard look.”

I found the women characters were perhaps a little less convincing that the men. Some of the dilemmas faced by people like Sifiso were moving: he’s a man who has great riches waiting for him, if he can successfully negotiate the minefield ahead. And then there is Musa, who likes the good life and goes out on something of a financial limb to get it, and yet is not prepared to sacrifice his integrity.

So if reading this novel is like reading the papers, is there any point to it? Well, yes. You’ll recognise a lot, you’ll get drawn in, and you’ll find that it’s a cracking good read.

*This review also appears in Weekend Argus on Sunday (October 22)


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