Tales of risk in Mzansi

Book: At Risk, Writing on and over the edge of South Africa

Book: At Risk, Writing on and over the edge of South Africa

Editors: Liz McGregor and Sarah Nuttall

Publisher: Jonathan Ball

Reviewer: Don Makatile

What do you do when you are roused in the middle of the night by someone in your yard, who should not be there in the first place? Reach for your gun? What if you don't own one?

This is a scene dreaded by many white South Africans, the so-called unpatriotic brigade whose first reaction to this would be to pack their bags for Australia.

Because it hardly ever happens to black people, or does it?

Justice Malala writes about the pain of being hounded out of his home by an apparition that walks past his bedroom window as he is making love to his wife. He shoots at Malala. Misses. Shoots at the wife. Misses.

This and many other horrible things that he's privy to, leave him cold . afraid.

But he writes: "The idea of leaving South Africa for blacks is an arid desert, an unknown place of complex emotions centering on scorn, patriotism and the feeling that one has failed. Every day now, I check the locks twice."

A week before the book was out, Malala's contribution was used in the Sunday Times Lifestyle section and, predictably, it whipped up a lot of emotion in some whites, grateful they aren't the only ones under fire.

The theme of the book is risk, and each of the dozen contributors tells stories aligned to this theme. The risk is not necessarily based on personal experience.

Jonny Steinberg, for example, whose book The Number still remains something of a Bible on prison gangs, writes about an inmate at the Pollsmoor prison, who runs the risk of being beaten to a pulp for lying about his position in the 27s gang hierarchy. Farouk Nali, the name Steinberg gives to this character, is an enigma that gives a glimpse into prison life.

Liz McGregor, who co-edited the book and is better known for writing the book on DJ Khabzela, paints a picture of what could have killed Rain Queen Makobo Modjadji. She tells the story mostly from the point of view of the commoner the queen was dating, David Mohale.

Makhosazana Xaba beautifully spins an everyday tale of friction that marks the landlord-tenant relationship.

It is a good read.

The gem for me is Tom Odhiambo's take on living in Johannesburg today. It is like the Lotto, says the Kenyan, you win or you lose. He knows people who have been robbed of their cellphones and wallets. Luckily this hasn't happened to him - he hasn't lost. On the verge of going back to Nairobi, the Wits academic feels he hasn't won either.

The book also features the works of Lara Allen, Achille Mbembe, Fred Khumalo and Jon Hyslop, among others.

A necessary discourse, this is.