Electioneering promises! It was said that during the elections after the independence of what is now Namibia, one political party promised, “Vote for us – and it will rain.” What a hope for a drought-ridden land!
Africa has seen a number of recent national elections and South Africa will endure one next year. All political agendas are based on a vision of an improved society. The promises of politicians are as piffle before the wind. But supposing that some embittered and rejected politician were to forecast a South Africa in which all privately owned property would be seized by the new government? A time in the near future when power to the people would be better than power in the hands of an army or a police force which was distrusted? The stuff of futuristic fiction, perhaps.
‘Dystopia’ is not a word I use in polite conversation. Mainly because I have trouble in remembering what it means. For my benefit, I will remind myself that it is the opposite of ‘utopia’ and it refers to a possible future society after political or environmental disaster. I remember the depictions of a totalitarian super state in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. Books offer warnings. Thankfully, 1984 was upon us without Big Brother invading our lives, though by 2014 will another Big Brother control our country’s media?
Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but I have recently encountered two new young adult books about a future Britain. After Tomorrow by Gillian Cross pictures a bankrupt country where marauding gangs break into normal households and steal all the food. So those who can, escape to France and live in refugee camps. A bit like the many stories of Jews escaping Nazi-occupied Europe, only in reverse. Nowhere by Jon Robinson envisages a clever consortium which arranges that a hundred selected bright youngsters are abducted and put inside a prison in remote Scotland. There, they are systematically brainwashed to believe they are guilty of something, with an eye to ‘using’ such compliant creatures in the future. Probably much like The Trial by Kafka, though I never managed more than a few pages of that. I read all of Nowhere – and I shudder to think what is coming in the sequel, to be called Anywhere. Both books are based on the concept of a country that has swept out of control and is ungovernable. We have heard plenty of threats locally to make parts of South Africa ‘ungovernable’.
Other areas of the world threatened by future dystopia have been North America where once-rebellious states pay for their disobedience in the recently filmed youth novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and the invasion of Australia by an unnamed enemy in Tomorrow When the War Began by John Marsden.
Our own South African authors have also been giving thought to the future – and they don’t pull their punches. The Denials of Kow-Ten by Jenny Robson described city life inside gated communities – with the bulk of ‘them’ outside. Such sections of society already exist. Remembering Green by Lesley Beake considered environmental collapse: a future time when Table Mountain is an island, also inhabited by a power-hungry minority. Every year the flooding on the Cape Flats seems worse and Arctic ice melts inexorably.
There is so far no South African youth novel about national highways blocked by protests about sewage, no books about suburbs dominated by gang warfare, no stories about policemen shot in cold blood. Perhaps our authors are scared to write about such things, in case they might be thought of as fiction.
One suspects that our blinkered education department would studiously avoid allowing such writing into our schools, as it might be subversive. (Good children’s literature is subversive! Think no further than Pippi Longstocking.) Over-truthful books were banned in the 1980s: Journey to Jo’burg by Beverley Naidoo described police brutality and families separated by apartheid; The Sound of the Gora by Ann Harries mentioned the Cape Town student riots and hinted that Afrikaners might have mixed blood in their veins. They don’t ‘ban’ books nowadays: they merely fail to recommend them for educational use.
The latest South African youth novels are unflinchingly about the present, though they tend to focus in on personal lives rather than countrywide insurrection. There are many strong stories in the ‘Harmony High’ series with such details as shop-lifting, drugs, male circumcision and even train surfing. Jane Bauling takes us underground into dangerous illegal mines in Dreaming of Light. With Gogo’s Song, David Donald looks at child-headed families. This Book Betrays My Brother by Kagiso Lesego Molope features tough township life and love affairs. In Back to Villa Park, Jenny Robson depicts a ‘poor white’ which is surely breaking new ground in our youth literature. She warns us: ‘This world is not a fair place.’
Why do we bother about books when there is so much unfair reality around us? Because in the pages of youth novels, our future voters can become immersed in what the world might turn into – and what they would, hopefully, wish to avoid.
Heale works independently in the field of youth literature. He publishes his thoughts and reviews on www.bookchat.co.za and in the book programme of Fine Music Radio.
By Jay Heale