Margaret von Klemperer
2 minute read
30 Jan 2008

‘Food for thought’

Margaret von Klemperer

Margaret von Klemperer review the book of the week: Fine Lines from the Box by Njabulo S. Ndebele. Published by Umuzi.

THE title of this collection of essays comes from the author’s discovery, in his father’s garage when he was a schoolboy, of a box of books, many of them banned by the government of the time. He describes the books as starting him off on his lifetime journey of reading and writing — the two sides of what he sees as “the art of the fine line”.

The current book consists of essays on South African society between 1987 and 2006, though there are more dealing with the earlier period. Ndebele never looks for the quick soundbite, but repeatedly digs below the surface of events, raising issues and ideas that may not make for comfortable reading. He has a clear view of us and our condition, free from — and even anti — spin.

He tackles the old white liberal universities, and the reasons why those he calls the white settlers of South Africa have insisted on being the human point of reference for everyone in the country — what he sees as an insistence on drawing people into a sterile culture. There are also essays on Aids, the DA, the SABC, the TRC, Brenda Fassie and more.

Throughout the book, Ndebele stresses the vulnerability of South Africa that comes from its newness as a society and its lack of a national consciousness that relates to, and involves all its people. He sees the interests and concerns of the majority as being the driving force in national life, but not as a simple equation of race and numbers. Ndebele is often provocative and can be irritating and even pedantic, but he takes care not to offer ideas and thoughts that can be easily dismissed — he has thought deeply, and he expects the reader to do the same.

I would have liked more from the later part of the period covered by these essays. Although he does deal to some extent with corruption and disenchantment — his own and that of others — I was left feeling that a mind as incisive as his could have offered more to an alarmed country at this juncture. But no doubt he is still pondering and writing.

It is hard to do this kind of book justice in a short review. But for those wanting a bit more than the political spin and invective that so often rule our discourse, Ndebele offers food for thought.