Writer Rehana Rossouw on Apartheid, Gay Clubs in Bo-Kaap, HIV, and South Africa’s Future

Rehana Rossouw opens her new novel New Times with that all too famous quote from Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . .” A quote oft used because it’s apt to fit most times but maybe none so much as Nelson Mandela’s first and only term as president—especially as South Africa celebrated his centenary in a series of year-long national events in 2018.

Like many other governments, the South African government is more adept in providing circuses than daily bread for its citizens. So it spends billions of Rand [South Africa’s currency] on sports events while children in Cape Town drown in feces in pit toilets at rural schools. The myth the first democratic government in South Africa spread was that we were a rainbow nation – united in our diversity. But saying that doesn’t make it true. The racial schisms during apartheid are alive, well and thriving today. There are also regular racist violent attacks, and our courts are imposing harsher sentences – people are going to jail.

Rossouw balks when I suggest that the book is really a reflection of what’s happening in South Africa now—that its protagonist Aliyah is in some way representative of South Africa’s body politicNew Times she says “has nothing to do with the Nelson Mandela centenary celebrations. “I started writing it in 2015 in a fit of anger with student  activists mobilizing protests for free education, following an interaction with some of them who advocated violence as a justifiable response to the government’s intransigence. At great personal cost, my generation had battled a violent state and established a democratic system that allows peaceful protest. I am still suffering the repercussions of the violence I witnessed from the 1970s to the 1990s – I have PTSD – and I wanted the student leaders to understand that they risked inflicting a lifetime of pain on their followers.”

Rossouw says she was responding to the newer, younger, political parties who believe that Mandela sold them out. And Rossouw agreed with them, and wanted to show how he shot down South Africa’s dreams for an equal society and chose policies that lead to the economic disaster South Africa is mired in today.

“I was a reporter covering Parliament during his presidency and saw how Mandela dismantled his party’s Reconstruction and Development Programme intended to ensure a decent life for all and replaced it with a policy that led to massive unemployment and astounding inequality. I saw how much effort he put into appeasing white South Africans; and how he largely ignored poverty, AIDS and corruption.”

We had a student uprising in 2015 and 2016 known as the #FeesMustFall Movement. I started writing the book in response to the students’ refrain that Mandela was a sellout.

While on the road in South Africa doing readings for Times, the rooms were more often than not, standing room only and fully packed. Or as Jacana magazine said “Apartheid, religion, homosexuality, Mandela The Sellout, politics of the newsroom, corruption in the UDF. Give them Rehana Rossouw, and they will come.”

Table Top Mountain with Rossouw in the foreground.

South Africa’s problems are myriad, and the news have reached U.S. shores. The New York Times has been covering the corruption within the African National Congress (ANC). During 2018’s Mandela centenary celebrations, Barack Obama and Trevor Noah’s visits were covered on major news outlets. There also have been many stories on the country’s escalating HIV rates, (nearly one in three citizens has been diagnosed), but what Rossouw masterfully elucidates is why that is and how it’s connected to Mandela.

New Times‘ titular protagonist [and stand in for the author] Aliyah Adams lives with her staunchly devout Muslim family in the largely Muslim Township of Bo-Kaap that is now a neighborhood of Cape Town. She’s just started a new job as a political reporter in Parliament. But as  Mandela begins his second year as president, she finds his party is sidestepping the promised path to freedom and upliftment as the new economic policy being drafted does not provide for the poor.

Ali is a unique character. She is a Muslim/LGBT/and a woman who truly lives at the intersections of her identity—I wonder if she’s reflective of what Rossouw sees as the archetypal face of the new South Africa. “My parents are Muslim,” says Rossouw, “but my father was born into a Christian family. They suffered the kind of intolerance Ali’s mother does, from some members of my mother’s family. My parents were amazingly tolerant – they exposed us to both religions, and were unfazed when their children chose one or neither. I am married to a white woman, and we would not have been able to live together in the same house during apartheid, let alone love each other. There were laws forbidding both practices.”

Ali is in love with a woman, but there are huge stumbling blocks to their relationship – the love of her life is planning to marry a man and there is widespread hypocrisy in the Muslim community.

There are LGBT-friendly mosques in Cape Town and imams who marry gay couples, but lesbians face far less acceptance than gay men. And there is deep-rooted misogyny in the Muslim community, which is tolerated by many Muslim women (I don’t know why, don’t ask). I hope Ali follows her heart and that her family accepts her choice, like mine did.

More importantly for Rossouw, in 1995 AIDS was killing far more people in the gay community than heterosexuals, “although that bomb was about to explode. So I had to have a gay activist exposing Mandela’s deafness to pleas for treatment. And the rainbow flag had gone up, loud and proud, soon after the rainbow nation arrived. Most of Cape Town’s best gay nightclubs were in and around Bo-Kaap – and South Africa’s first gay B&B was established in that conservative Muslim community!”

Rossouw is proud of their constitution and legislation on gay rights, “confirmed by the courts, provide and protect the equal rights of all, irrespective of sexual orientation. Gay couples can marry and adopt; use sperm banks and surrogates; get paid maternity and paternity leave; and have spousal inheritance and citizenship rights. We also grant refugee status to people who have been stigmatized and persecuted because of their sexual orientation. But there is stigma, fanned by Pentecostal churches and some traditional leaders. Gay people in South Africa face a particular form of violence: correctional rape, which often ends in their murder. Gay women are the majority of victims, but men are not exempt.”

Rossouw confesses to having a having “an extremely tolerant family, circle of friends and colleagues. I live in a middle-class community patrolled by gun-toting employees of several security companies. I have panic buttons in my house. There is a police station nearby. But most South Africans don’t have this level of security. All of us – across race and class – are preyed upon by some men in our society. But the statistics show that violence against women is undoubtedly worse in poor communities; most of the corrective rapes have been in poor communities. Yet, Oscar Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend in a mansion in a gated community patrolled by armed security guards. All the women I know are scared and stressed.”

Despite that she says she has never had to disguise her love for wife Julia Grey in any place that she’s been in South Africa. “Julia is also a journalist, we were an office romance 19-years-ago. Our honeymoon was a year-long drive through Africa. We celebrated our anniversary in a lodge in Uganda, ranked as one of the most homophobic countries in the world. The staff set up a table for two above the forest and under the stars. The people we met in Uganda welcomed us, cared for us and fretted when they waved goodbye to two women driving through Africa with no men – and without their father’s permission!”

Legislation forbade LGBT love under apartheid, but Rossouw knew many couples who lived openly together by the 1980s, the last decade of apartheid. There were also apartheid laws that prohibited love across the colour bar, those laws applied to everybody. 

“Most of my teenaged dancing and pool playing were in gay clubs in Cape Town. I was a fag hag and a Madonna whore. I didn’t dress like my idol, strictly jeans and T-shirt with a slogan. My fondest desire is that Madonna spots me one day, decides I’m cute and adopts me.”

I ask Roussow about a common refrain from the book heard by Ali from many of her friends, “You can’t live like this Ali.” Is Ali, I wonder, a surrogate for the country? “Ali is not a surrogate for the country, but a victim of generational trauma. She is a descendant of slaves, was a member of an oppressed group during apartheid, witnessed violence as a reporter and is the daughter of a severely depressed and traumatized woman. We are never going to heal as a nation until we address the past honestly, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came nowhere near to doing all that work. It exposed some horrific events during apartheid, but there has been little redress for the victims since then. What this country needs badly are social workers, youth and women empowerment programs, therapists and psychiatrists – but they are in short supply.”

Because Rossouw, like her characters, suffers from PTSD—I wonder if she’s suggesting that South Africa—writ large—is suffering from this particular trauma, “I have no statistics to present, but I am sure the country’s brutal history and the present-day levels of violence are affecting most South Africans. The colonizers arrived in 1652 with boatloads of slaves (including some of my ancestors) – their economy was built on slavery. This was followed by land theft and the dislocation of families when black men were forced off their land to work for cash in the mines. The opposition to apartheid lead to a brutal response in a succession of states of emergency. Hundreds of thousands of people were detained without trial; many were executed, imprisoned, tortured and assassinated. Young white men were forced into military conscription and sent to the townships to shoot children armed with stones.”

Today South Africa has one of the highest murder rates in the world. “There are regular outbursts of xenophobic violence with foreigners burned and stabbed on the streets, horrific levels of abuse and rape of women and children, gang violence and more violent political protests than during apartheid.” Rossouw says, “Most of the time I feel that PTSD is an incredibly lonely condition, no one else seems so stuck in the past, although there must be millions of traumatized people in South Africa because the brutality hasn’t stopped. But we seldom talk about it; and when people we know are tied up inside their homes and pistol-whipped we celebrate because they weren’t also raped or murdered. Since my book was published I have had some brilliant interactions with white men who served in the army, who are ashamed of what they did and seldom talk about those days. Their symptoms are the same as mine, but I at least have the consolation of victory.”

Mandela apologized for his poor response to HIV/AIDS says Rossouw and “we loved him so much that at the time we were prepared to overlook all his shortcomings. But he made up for that, and did far more to combat the disease than his wacky AIDS denialist successor did!”

There are bigger problem plaguing Black South Africans.

“We are well aware that their prospects of employment and a living wage have fallen below what they could have enjoyed during apartheid. A mother who cannot feed her children knows that they cannot eat freedom.”

With LGBT stigma and the criminalization of LGBT sex in much of Africa driving HIV legislation in those regions—does Rossouw worry that that SA could take steps backwards?  “South Africa has regressed in many ways since democracy arrived in 1994. Our education outcomes are worse than during apartheid and our enormous pool of unemployed people is filled with millions who have no skills. Crime is soaring and the ability to bring perpetrators to book has been hobbled by political interference in the criminal justice system. So it would not be a surprise if our politicians attempted to remove the vow of equality for its LGBT citizens from the constitution.”

Rossouw pauses hopeful “South Africa has a brilliant constitution; it provided rights for gay people, for example, long before other long-time ‘democratic’ nations allowed such rights. We need to make the constitution a living document, and the best path to realizing that is to force change at the ballot box. This is slowly dawning on the electorate; polls showed that the party of liberation was facing a defeat in the next elections if it continued on its corrupt path and ignored the pleas for a better life of the poor and Black majority.”

Rehana Rossouw is currently a commissioning editor at Business Day newspaper in Johannesburg. She has been a journalist for more than three decades. She has also taught journalism and creative writing. Her first novel, What Will People Say?, was shortlisted for the Etisalat Prize and won an award for fiction from the National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences. New Times is her second novel.

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