Review: London Cape Town Joburg

Published Jun 4, 2014


by Zukiswa Wanner

What does black British-born Martin O’Malley, a witty, intelligent and good-looking investment banker, know about his mother’s country, South Africa? It’s a land he has grown up with but never seen.

Author and journalist Zukiswa Wanner explores the multicultural identities of exiles’ children and their experiences of returning to post-democracy South Africa in her latest novel, London Cape Town Joburg.

“Child care would be cheaper, Zuko would be able to grow up with his uncle and grandmother. It was a no-brainer really. Or so we thought,” says Martin.

“Money shields you from a lot of things but at some point in time, Zuko was going to have to realise that he was a young black man and he needed to grow up among people who looked more like him.”

As a dual citizen entering South Africa in 1998, Martin is presented with endless possibilities, especially with his experience in international banking and companies bent on BEE compliance.

But, as he later observes as vice-president of a Cape Town investment bank: “The one place where I’ve been made to feel my race the most is the place where the majority of the population looks like me.”

He has never had to play the race card in his life and suddenly has to keep it “in his back pocket”.

“When are you signing up for a party card, there’s money to be made?” his wily brother asks as he listens to his tales of tokenism.

The politics of opportunism and expediency follow. “You need a damn party card because at some point in time those white overlords will want to know what else you’re bringing to the table apart from your blackness,” says his brother.

The justification for self-enrichment is clear.

“Why should we be told to forget apartheid four years later, and we haven’t even got reparations? How do you forgive someone who hasn’t apologised? How do you forgive someone who hasn’t acknowledged wrongdoing?”

And how can Martin’s white and feminist wife, Germaine Spencer, fit into the political equation?

Even an internationally acclaimed ceramicist with a women’s co-operative in Gugulethu married to a Xhosa banker can’t overcome the dominant racial stereotypes.

“I thought I was cosmopolitan enough to hack anything but it was not as easy as I thought,” she says.

“I wish someone would give me a manual on how to deal with domestic workers.”

By anyone’s book, Germaine is cool. She picks up Xhosa culture quickly and tries hard “not to come across as a patronising white woman”.

“I wasn’t familiar with being an mlungu (white person) in a black neighbourhood,” she says.

Yet here is the indictment of the rainbow nation. In London people were “either cool or uncool, the colour of their skin was irrelevant… In South Africa race is everything”.

This is a shocking tale of racism and opportunism in the new South Africa written through the eyes of a multicultural, second-generation exile in search of “home” and an identity.

“If we’d known what we would experience as we disembarked from SAA 370 from London upon landing in Cape Town, I wonder whether we would have made a U-turn?” says Martin.

A sad and painful novel of love, life and loss as well as the humbling realisation that with hindsight, the grass is always greener.

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