/ 29 July 2011

Too much artifice and too little Solomon

Solomon’s Story by Judy Froman

If Andile Mngxitama was sniffy about Anton Harber’s ‘intrusion into black spaces”, how would he react to this biographical novel?

Solomon’s Story goes well beyond sociology or social history by trying to see through the eyes of ANC struggle martyr Solomon Mahlangu, his mother Martha, a domestic servant, and Transkei-born fellow exile William Sethunya (aka advocate Patric Mtshaulana), as well as Mahlangu’s trial advocate, the first post-1994 chief justice, Ismail Mahomed.

Their thoughts and feelings are described not in the third person by an all-seeing author, but in the first person, in separate short chapters under their names.

One does not have to endorse Mngxitama’s racial gatekeeping to see that this is an extremely tough enterprise. However well intentioned, Solomon’s Story doesn’t really work as a fictional account.

Alien climate
According to the publisher’s bumf, Froman is a lawyer with degrees from Wits and Harvard universities who was a young child at the time of Mahlangu’s trial in 1977. And she is white.

Language, culture, education, social class, the unimaginably alien climate of high apartheid — the imaginative leap required for her to inhabit
Mahlangu’s skin is simply enormous. And the risk of mere political identification with what he represents is that of cardboard characters and a descent into sloganeering.

The closing pages of the novel highlight the pitfalls: they treat us to Mahomed’s observations that ‘it is always darkest before dawn”; ‘the rich, red soil of Mother Africa as it soaked up the blood of those who were sacrificed in freedom’s name”; and ‘the whites and blacks and coloureds and Indian — the Rainbow Nation — waiting to vote”.

The first-person format has the additional drawback that it confines Froman to what her characters see and hear and what she considers to be their appropriate voice, diction and descriptive powers.

Inevitably, the tone of the internal monologues tends towards the faux naïf. ‘My mother had no education, but she was wise and strong,” confides the young Sethunya. And there is a certain narrative thinness: Solomon’s Story feels shorter than its 170-odd pages.

Actual testimony
Froman is clearly a good-hearted person and it does race relations no harm for her to identify in such a public way with the ANC’s armed struggle.

Most whites have sublimated the apartheid years, but if pressed would probably still say that Umkhonto we Sizwe was a terrorist gang.

And once she moves away from the first-person stuff — particularly to Mahlangu’s trial, which relies heavily on actual testimony — she has interesting and important things to say.

It is perhaps not well known that Mahlangu was hanged for murder without having killed anyone; indeed, that he was disarmed without ever firing his gun with intent to harm. A poignant detail to emerge from the trial was that after his and Mondy Motloung’s wild flight from the police through central Johannesburg, he tried to offer his civilian captor money not to turn him in.

The state’s difficulty was that Motloung, who did kill two whites in the John Orr’s warehouse in Goch Street, was so badly hurt during his arrest that he was mentally unfit to stand trial.

Yet amid the aftershocks of South Africa’s 1976 student rebellion, the trial judge and the monstrous chief justice of the time, Frans Rumpff, had clearly decided that an example must be made.

So it was that despite the chaotic and unplanned nature of the murders, committed on the spur of the moment by his panic-stricken unit chief, Mahlangu was convicted and executed under the doctrine of ­common purpose.

Muddled by literary artifice
The tragedy of Solomon Mahlangu is that he seems to have been an intelligent and sensitive young man with little aptitude for the insurrectionary violence to which white South Africa drove him.

To some extent Froman’s book conveys this. But one cannot help thinking that a straightforward historical account, without the literary artifice, would have done a clearer and more rounded job.