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Magenta Paperback – 30 Oct 2008
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'What a delight to read a book about post-1994 South Africa that explores its subject in such a rambunctious, hilarious, thoughtful and enthralling way. Magenta is Afroreality:an unflinching examination of our (both black and white) foibles, prejudices, stupidities and occasional touches of nobility.' William Saunderson-Meyer, Columnist
About the Author
Denis Beckett is widely recognised as 'that guy who was on television'. He was the editor of the prestigious Frontline magazine for many years and has been a columnist and commentator in print, on radio and TV. His long-running actuality TV series, 'Beckett's Trek', was a South African favourite. Magenta is his first novel.
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I picked up the novel while on holiday in South Africa to get a feel of the current mood and issues being discussed and the book definitely scores on that count. It's set in present day Johannesburg - the high-octane, financial capital of South Africa where crime is the number one topic and security fences rise ever upwards. Beckett's characters speak Seffricanese. It's the language spoken by the people of Josie or Joburg as the locals call their city - an exuberant mix of English peppered with popular phrases and slang words from Afrikaans, Zulu and other native languages like Xhosa and Sotho. Non-South Africans may find this a little difficult to negotiate even though he does provide a comprehensive alphabetically listed glossary but South Africans at home and abroad will enjoy the witty wordplay in their familiar lingo.
Magenta tells the story of journalist and business consultant Bart Dunn - a white, English-speaking South African (like Beckett himself) whose liberal values are sorely tested in a series of encounters with a number of characters that make up the multi-cultured rainbow nation of the country he loves and in which he hopes to live out his remaining days.
The story begins with news of the murder of Bart's long-forgotten old school chum, Roger McQueen - an unremarkable crime statistic among the many hundreds mentioned on the radio and in the newspapers. This event allows Bart to reminisce about the optimism of his and Roger's student activities in the 80's Reform era when being arrested quickly on a protest rally was a student's dream as `it bestowed on him that badge of honour - an anti-apartheid criminal record' and saved him from a worse fate; it also provides the focus around which all the other characters coalesce through their past association with the dead man.
Gert, the husband of Bart's efficient Afrikaans secretary Aletta was the arresting officer on that day in the 80's. Joyous Khumalo, the irrepressible black entrepreneur and somewhat dubious beneficiary of the current policy of affirmative action met Bart and Roger when they were guilt-tripped by a black female colleague into accepting an invitation to a township party in a tense Soweto. Kai McQueen, Roger's widow entrances Bart with her unadorned beauty and refusal to be protected from the outside world behind imprisoning burglar guards and security fences. Roger's son Lud has reacted to his parents' liberal values and his father's murder by joining an extreme right wing Afrikaner group who take Bart captive. Themba Ndlovu is the political sage and theorist living in the squatter camp down the road from Roger McQueen's house who persuades Bart to look at things in different way.
Bart's interaction with each of these characters sheds light on the political disenchantment with the new South Africa, the lack of accountability and opposing views, the moral vacuum and the consequent violence. Everyday heard concerns are voiced about failing education standards, puppet Black executives on fat cat salaries to fulfil BEE targets, government corruption, potholes on highways and byways, deteriorating services, the emigration of a skilled workforce and the crime and fear of crime that makes us all prisoners behind electric fences and alarms that go off inconveniently in the middle of the night. Beckett's background in documentaries and investigative journalism give real colour and authenticity to the work. A realistic car hijack scene in Zoo Lake, a popular beauty spot and meeting place in the heart of Joburg must be chillingly déjà vu to many a local. It is all done with ironic humour and warmth and his characters always ask us to see things from another point of view.
Up to the halfway point - page 251 - the novel is fast paced, enjoyable and easy reading but the second half disappoints somewhat.
He spends rather too long with the right wing Afrikaners and this section is clunky and difficult to read for those who are unfamiliar with the Afrikaans language. Beckett wants to show that there are good and bad people in all the race groups and we should not write off whole groups of people just because of their colour or ethnic grouping. He spends a great deal of time explaining their idea of `geregtigheid' or `rightness' - `pursuing honourable ends by honourable means' - and suggests they can be persuaded of more progressive policies by appealing to this instinct but he could have done it in fewer words.
Themba's drawn out explanations about his two phases of democracy - sounding uncomfortably like the failed two-stage theory of the Communist Party - elicit complaints of preachiness even from the characters themselves.
There are also some rather implausible escapades following the bombing attempt at the factory.
Despite this shortcoming, I would recommend it to all South Africans and anyone with an interest in the country and its future development. Beckett is after all `proudly South African' and even though he doesn't provide all the answers, his book should stimulate others to pursue the concerns and tentative solutions that he raises. A belief in the best of humanity and a trust in people, whatever their background is a good place to start putting the world to rights.
As a South AFrican born and bred I recognised so many people, and felt that I was right inside Beckett's head - seeing them and hearing them. Reading on I started to feel remote from the life he describes, because things were not as dramatic twenty years ago when I left SA and my life in England is very sheltered in comparison. The really big everyday questions don't face us here. At the same time reading made me feel completely South African and completely cut off from South Africa. Phrases I hadn't used for years kept finding their way into my thoughts and speech. I found all that cultural re-education fascinating and I am sure that even people without an intimate relationship with the country would soon become deeply involved in its rich mixture of characters and life philosophies.
It is at heart a deep and complex book, while remaining extremely funny and readable on the surface, and different people will find different levels at which to absorb it. The most interesting device for me was what I read to be Beckett's internal debate between the well-meaning, chaotic-ly human Bart with his slightly jaded expectations but hopeful optimism, and the visionary faith of the wonderful Themba. They are obviously both Beckett - just on different days and in different phases of his life. I love the fact that virtually everyone is really a good guy, down deep, under all the defence mechanisms and protective shells life has forced on them. It's a wonderful life philosophy that circumstances develop the dark and evil surface and the right password can penetrate even the most hideous shell. In other genre it would be the good fairy who wrought the transformation. Here it is real people - the practical no-nonsense post-apartheid Afrikaner Aletta and Fanus, the gentle giant with more than a touch of Schrek in him, were my favourties. So maybe this isn't actually a fairy story but it is a close relation - an aspirational allegory. Whatever the case, it is inspirational and I hope it shakes up doom and gloom pessimism and stirs up real debate around the possibilities of "nextphase". May yellow, green and blue become reality.