Twenty years after the end of apartheid (1948-1994), South Africa is home to one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world. The fear of crime is reflected in everyday habits and interactions between people of different races, classes, and gender. In fact, it can take visitors awhile to get used to the fortress-like mentality in South Africa. Most families—lower middle class and above—live behind tall, electrified walls, with notices informing would-be criminals that an armed security company protects the property. Homes aren’t the only barricaded buildings. Hospitals are enclosed by barbed wire, their windows grated, with security guards who carefully record the names and license numbers of every visitor who drives onto the property. Urban churches have abandoned any kind of open door policy. On city street corners, a small army of workers hand out pamphlets to pedestrians and drivers, advertising traditional African healers whose list of services include protection from crime as well as the ability to make you invisible to your enemy (which, in some cases, may be the people you intend to rob).
This class war between the haves and have-nots is reflected in an undeniable reality that South African society is also still fractured along racial identities. Despite democratic elections that have ensured black governance for the past two decades, most white citizens still belong to the dominant class with its obvious privilege, power, and wealth, whereas black and mixed-race citizens still overwhelmingly occupy marginal positions on the edges of society.
Into this environment, the modern South African crime novel has emerged. Built with equal parts escapist impulse and social commentary, it critiques police and governmental corruption; examines the country’s unique social fault lines; and analyzes the peculiarities of South African identities. South African crime fiction not only provides a brutal, realistic vision of the present and the ways the past continues to influence it, but it also offers a blueprint for a more hopeful future. It reveals the intricate web of connections between South Africa, the global economy, and crime syndicates. And the best of South African crime fiction reveals the strong humanitarian impulse that beats in the hearts of millions of the country’s citizens.
Writer and literary critic Leon de Kock argues that crime fiction is “the only readable form of ‘political’ fiction” available in South Africa today. Ironically, the country’s new “political” novel is also an emerging genre. During the apartheid era, when the police’s main function was to protect entrenched rights of white citizens and prevent black citizens from exercising basic rights of citizenship, crime novels were virtually nonexistent. Instead, apartheid-era novelists wrote political novels that confronted and assessed the systemic violence of white supremacy. There were a few exceptions, notably James McClure who coupled an Afrikaner detective (Tromp Kramer) with a Zulu detective (Mickey Zondi) in a series of detective novels that exposed the realities of apartheid through their incisive partnership.
But 1994 brought democracy, a transition to black governance, and hope for the future of the “Rainbow Nation.” The heavy-handed political novels of the apartheid era were replaced with novels in every genre that, in some way, assessed the new world created through the country’s remarkable transition from white hegemony to democratic governance for all citizens. Crime novels are an effective genre to describe the dislocation that occurred as social, economic, and political norms changed. For white South Africans, the ground quite literally shifted under their feet: Previously protected from all real and imagined threats, now the police force’s ability to protect the entire population was stretched thin against the new social fabric. Alternatively, for many black and “colored” (mixed race) citizens, the police force would have to prove itself and gain legitimacy—a process still in effect and uncomfortably ineffective in most townships.
With the end of apartheid, the police force began its “incredible transformation from being a weapon of an appalling fascist state to being the watchdog of one of the world’s most progressive Constitutions,” says South African crime novelist Andrew Brown (Coldsleep Lullaby, Solace, Refuge, Street Blues, and Devil’s Harvest). Brown, an advocate and a police sergeant, notes that it is just about impossible to write a crime novel set in South Africa without exploring “the issue of race and the racial politics of the transforming South African Police Services.” His protagonist for Coldsleep Lullaby and Solace—police detective Eberard Februarie—is flawed, practically impotent in his personal life, sometimes dense and bumbling as he encounters new situations that require his professional attention, and ultimately brilliant when it comes to understanding the causes of criminal behavior. In both novels, Februarie must encounter the twin issues of racism and ethnocentrism, both within and outside of the police force. Coldsleep Lullaby traces historic lines of genetic succession between a slave girl and a post-apartheid advocate of white supremacy as Februarie seeks to solve the apparently senseless killing of a young woman who sought to break free from the race-based cultural demarcations of her Afrikaner family. Februarie falls in love with the black female officer who serves as his partner, a love that, regardless of whether it is mutual, offers him hope for his personal future. He realizes that he’s alive again, he feels something—a symbolic stand-in for the entire country.
Deon Meyer’s recurring detective character, Benny Griessel, is an Afrikaner who worked as a policeman for the apartheid government. As a white man who benefited from apartheid, Griessel is still trying to work out his own personal demons as well as understand how he fits in the new South Africa, where his options for upward career mobility are limited. He feels washed up, washed out. Yet Griessel’s past experience of working within a broken system provides him with perspective that his newer colleagues lack. In Meyer’s most recent novel, Cobra, when Griessel and his colleagues are confronted with the corruption of the new government—a corruption that shocks and dismays his black colleagues—Griessel informs them that governmental corruption should not inform the police work they do:
“We don’t work for the president, or the minister, or the commissioner,” he said. “We work for the people who were killed ... and for their families. We are all they have. We are the police. We enforce the law, the law that says if you kill someone, you have to pay. That is what I want to do: catch them, and make them pay. It is the only thing I can do. It is the only difference I can make.”
Although Meyer’s Griessel and Brown’s Februarie work within the system, both occasionally stray outside of the system in order to serve the cause of justice or what they perceive to be the cause of justice. This aspect of crime novels, notes Izak de Vries, who works as a marketer for Lapa Books, a publisher of many Afrikaans-language crime novels, reflects the reoccurring problem of vigilantism as well as the need for citizens to hire private security forces for personal protection. Jassy Mackenzie’s heroine Jade de Jong reflects both of these realities. De Jong, a bodyguard for hire who sometimes works with her on-again, off-again detective boyfriend, is consistently pulled toward the world of vigilante crime as she responds to her own and clients’ needs for retribution when the police cannot or will not seek justice. She participates in more than one drive-by shooting, justifying it as a way to rid the world of evil men who otherwise would never be caught. But she feels uneasy, recognizing that a tacit acceptance of vigilante justice—even when it metes out just dues—skews her ability to justify her work within the confines of law. Although she publicly exemplifies the straight and narrow, she operates on a level that would destroy her personal life if revealed.
While it might seem intuitive to argue that the rampant criminality in South Africa leads to the popularity of the genre, the opposite may in fact be true. People who live in unstable communities, Andrew Brown argues, don’t read crime novels. “Life is too tenuous ... the institutional infrastructure is too debased for a crime novel to make any sense.” Instead, he argues, the reason crime novels have soared in post-apartheid South Africa is because finally the country has returned to a semblance of real law and order where people expect—and demand—accountability from public officials: “We have a very strong judicial system, a brilliant Constitution, a stable democracy, a police force that is beholden to the laws of the land,” he states. “This gives writers the freedom to write stories of criminality and resolution, something that would have been difficult, if not impossible, under apartheid.”
Yet even if South African law enforcement is trudging forward toward transparent, sustainable governance, it is undeniable that South Africans bear the burden of an inordinate number of violent crimes each year. For this reason, novelist Peter Church (Dark Video and Bitter Pill) also suggests that South African readers do not seek a replication of the kind of petty, everyday criminality they encounter. His impetus is to provide an escape: “We fear gang-related crime. We fear people bursting into our houses on tik [crystal meth]. We fear someone killing us for our cell phones. That’s the real bogeyman of South African crime.” Crime novels, he suggests, must transcend the everyday, ordinary crime in order to entice readers. In Dark Video, young men seek to film live videos of crimes in action, which are then sold at exorbitant rates to viewers around the world. Although Church’s novels could arguably have been set anywhere in the world, they still bear the marks of South African consciousness—that is, revealing the ways local criminal forces are inextricably intertwined with the global. Dark Video raises questions about what it means to be a “victim” of crime in a new age, where victimization can be broadcast around the world. Who prosecutes this type of crime, if the participants—the business owner, the video makers, those who purchase the videos—are based in different countries all over the world?
By claiming the crime novel as a site of political analysis, literary critics and crime novelists touch on something pivotal to the popularity of the genre. Crime novels have the opportunity to expand readers’ understanding of their own country while revealing the ways it is implicated in the global economic, social, and political sphere, all while escaping the problem of didacticism that “political” and/or protest novels may fall prey to when the immediate need for them is no longer urgent. And, even if gratification lasts only as long as the novel itself, it satisfies readers when justice—even a flawed and limited and fleeting justice—prevails.
The crime novel’s exalted position as the new “political” novel in South Africa masks an undeniable facet of the post-apartheid literary world: that primarily white writers produce the classic “detective” novels, which explore the world of law and order; alternatively, black writers frequently portray protagonists embarking on lives of crime. Sifiso Mzobe’s character in Young Blood is a secondary school dropout, growing up in a Durban township where young men excel at stealing cars. Niq Mhlongo’s protagonist in After Tears gains fake credentials on the black market and begins to operate as an advocate illegally after failing in his pursuit of a law degree. K. Sello Duiker’s protagonist in Thirteen Cents is a street kid mired in the underbelly of Cape Town gangsterism, prostitution, and drugs. Masande Ntshanga’s recent Reactive depicts a young, relatively well-educated HIV-positive black man who sells his anti-retroviral medicine on the black market to other HIV-positive people who can’t afford or access the medicine.
So why do white writers embody the classic “detective” novel while black writers spin tales of crime and intrigue from the criminal perspective? One could understand this as a social impetus that subconsciously equates white citizens with law and order and black citizens with lives of crime—an overly simplistic understanding but with some basis in reality, given South Africa’s past and present. Masande Ntshanga, however, suggests the dichotomy is between an empowered side, “backed by the state, and ... certain of its rightful place in society” and another side that “speaks more to uncertainty, deprivation and exclusion, all of which aren’t rare features in the black South African experience.” Crime offers novelists like Mzobe, Mhlongo, Duiker, and Ntshanga “an entry point into marginalized communities.” Instead of merely observing crime from the perspective of law and order, or from the outsider perspective, these novelists reveal the complex social realities that propel young black men toward crime. That these black protagonists range from high school dropouts to relatively educated young men yet still find themselves on the wrong side of the law suggests something important about what it means to be a young black man in South Africa. For those who are economically and culturally deprived, Ntshanga insists, “Crime can act as an alternative path towards agency, and this ranges from strict survival all the way to nursing a desire to cash in on the promises made to us all by late capitalism, promises seldom ever brought to life for the marginalized.” Ntshanga’s astute observations suggest that these crime novels provide important balances to the law-and-order perspective offered by the classic detective novel.
It is certainly possible to find pure slash-and-thrill crime novels written by South African novelists, or crime novels that end on a note so depressing, you can walk away feeling as though the country—not to mention humanity overall—is doomed. In general, however, the genre is dominated by a positive consciousness, a desire to examine South Africa’s social problems in order to lift the country up and make it a better place. We can see that in Benny Griessel’s speech to his co-workers (quoted earlier). Although he is nervous they will mock him, their instantaneous response is to cheer for the sentiment he expresses. Likewise, we observe this hopeful lifeblood that beats in many South African hearts in novels that examine the life of crime from the inside. Sipho, the protagonist of Young Blood, concludes his life of crime with these optimistic words: “My mind never again drifted in class. They teach about things of interest to me, I told myself. But, in retrospect, I know that I concentrated in class because of everything I saw in the year that I turned 17.” Like the country itself, Sipho’s past is behind him. But he cannot forget what changed him and he will take it with him as he goes forward, forging a better, brighter future for himself—and for South Africa.
J.L. Powers teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at Skyline College in San Bruno, California. Reprinted from World Literature Today (March/April 2015), a bimonthly magazine devoted to international literature and published by the University of Oklahoma.