Postcards of the past

Postcards from South Africa

by Rayda Jacobs

(Double Storey)

This collection of 20 short stories is divided into two sections, the first of which (The Beginning Years) is set in the period before the 1994 democratic election.

These 12 stories were originally published in Toronto during Rayda Jacobs’s 27-year exile from her own country (The Middle Children, 1994). As she mentions in the acknowledgements, they are “of especial significance because they are ‘fledgling stories’ — stories written while I was living in Canada, longing for home”.

These 12 pieces are loosely connected by the recurring figure of Sabah who is also a presence in the eight stories, grouped under the heading, The New South Africa. There is a strong autobiographical quality about Sabah whose abrupt deportation from her homeland is powerfully depicted in the title story of the 1994 collection.

The Middle Children recounts Sabah’s terrible shock when she is accused — correctly as it turns out — of having obtained a white identity card in order to attend a “whites only” business school that, as her lawyer emphasises, was the “only means to enhance her skills”.

The chilling dismissal of this reasoning and the curt instruction “to be gone within a month” or face criminal charges shock us back into an era whose appalling racial laws can seem almost inconceivable 10 years into the new democracy.

Jacobs captures the misery of that moment in simple yet effective language as “on a dismal day in May” Sabah is separated from her family and her beloved Cape Town “and cried into her hands”.

The racial tensions so characteristic of the apartheid era are captured in many of the stories, often in an understated way that somehow seems to reinforce the point. This is particularly true of I Count the Bullets Sometimes in which a Muslim boy brings an Afrikaans friend home, an event that sparks off all sorts of suspicions.

The last eight stories in the collection reflect changes that have occurred since 1994, but Jacobs does not attempt to present a sudden Utopia. Many old tensions persist and she demonstrates movingly the fact that no change of regime can solve the problems of personal relationships. Most poignant of all is the world of sorrow she sees as the lot of second wives.

Embedded in her stories — but never didactically — are such themes as unemployment and crime (The Guilt) and the desperate need for more housing (Number Nineteen). The title piece is not exactly a story but several telling sketches — literally postcard length — that highlight with amazing brevity the many problems that beset society.

This is a really worthwhile collection from a fine storyteller who is simultaneously compassionate and unsentimental.

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