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They Didn’t Die, by Lauretta Ngcobo.

June 22, 2012

They Didn’t Die, by Lauretta Ngcobo. Brzaziller, 1991. (Also available from Feminist Press.)

A powerful, distrubing novel about a young Bantu mother and her family living under apartheid in South Africa.

I thought I knew about apartheid.  I supported the international boycott and watched the news of the riots and injustice. But now Ngcobo has given me a different view of the conflict in her story of a rural village located on a government reserve.  Pressures on the people of the village are tightening and resistance is beginning to organize.  A young wife, Jezile,  her family and community are squeezed into a tiny area worn-out by overuse.  No water is available to raise vegetables and cattle.  Her husband, like those of the other women, works in city and is able to visit her only once a year.   As the government exercises increased control, resentment and rebellion begin.  With the men usually absent from the village, Jezile and the other women gather to protest changes.  In the face of government repression, her life becomes a struggle for the survival of herself and her children.

Jezile and the other village women are the focus of this novel.  They are strong, closely bonded, and alternately controlling and supportive of each other.  Much of what they suffer, they suffer because they are women.  When Jezile is forced to raise her children alone, other women without husbands reach out to her.  But I do not see this as a feminist novel.  These women are not seeking individual goals, even when they are forced into new responsibilities by the absence of the men.  Instead, they are focused on familial or communal goals.  Despite their obvious disadvantages and exclusions in traditional society, they are not challenging its gender definitions.  Ngcobo writes sensitively of Bantu men, especially of Siyalo, Jezile’s husband. Only men who abandon their wives and aggressive white men are described negatively.

The problems which Jezile and the others face are caused by racial apartheid and its accompanying economic inequality.  Next door to the reservation are the farms of whites with plush fields, clean living conditions, and abundant water, all protected by the government.   When Jezile works as a maid in the city for a year, the contrasts between what is available to the different races is even more stark.  In addition she ia vulnerable in new personal ways to racism directed at her from individuals with whom she must live in constant contact.

Ngcobo writes with real, page-turning urgency, keeping readers anxious about what will happen next to Jezile and her family.  There is also the urgency of moral questions.   What is it right for a man or a woman to do when your baby is starving or your daughter is being raped?   Jezile and Siyalo are forced to respond to such questions at a personal level, but as the black doctor in the novel explains the situations which created the problems are political, based on the refusal to view blacks as human beings.

As I read this book I was haunted by the depths of poverty it described.  Here in the USA economic inequality is increasing at disturbing rates.  Some of the impoverished are whites, but more are Hispanic and African American.  What do  moral responsibility do we have to ensure that all people have enough to eat and the protection from assault?

I strongly recommend this book, especially for readers interested in Africa and willing to become distribed and uncomfortable by moral questions.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2012 7:52 am

    A fine reivew indeed. I should like to read this book. Though an African, I could never grasp apartheid until I had read Steve Jacob’s The Enemy Within. (reviewed on my blog) Now I intend to read as much on the subject as I possible can. Thanks for sharing

    • June 25, 2012 8:54 am

      Thanks. I think you would really like this one. I found it very powerful. It is less about the actual violence conflicts of apartheid and more about its impact on women and children on reservations.

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