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Thursday, January 28, 2010

A black man can be friends with a white man

Title: Mine Boy
Author: Peter Abrahams
Reviewer:Dennis D. Muhumuza

It’s an African classic. The solidity of its subject matter in itself will blow your mind, if not the verdant prose! Mine Boy is the story of love and not, of injustice, struggle and the hurt of the black individual in apartheid South Africa.

It’s a story of men who are powerless to influence the events that bring constant hopelessness in their lives and are forced to hide their misery in drink. It’s a story of Xuma and his friends, toiling on in the mines; where many return coughing blood and die young.

The first time I read about the liberation struggle of Elias Tekwane in Alex La Guma’s In the Fog of the Season’s End, I thought no other work of fiction could depict the dilemma of colonised South Africans better. Peter Abrahams changes my stance when suddenly I catch myself repeating the questions that trouble the solitary mind of his protagonist. Can a black man be friends with a white man? Should a black woman desire the things of white people? Must a man run who has done nothing?

I stop reading momentarily and turn to peer once again at that front cover shot of the helmet-wearing mine boy staring pensively ahead as if afraid of a looming darkness. There’s a restless pounding in my heart as I get deeper into the author’s scrutiny of Malay Camp. Meet Leah – the fearless Skokiaan Queen, soft and hard, with a grip like a vice, a deep rich voice, and “sharp dark eyes that can see right through a man.”

Meet Xuma from the north, boss boy, afraid of no man, the underground master, respected and much loved by fellow mine boys, does not say “baas” to his white master. Meet drunken daddy and his cackling laugh, piddles in his sleep, no longer moneyed – or kind – or strong – or feared – or respected a man he once was. Meet the all-seeing Ma Plank, who sometimes winks roguishly and her leathery old face creases in a naughty smile.

Meet the beautiful, bright and complicated Eliza who wants the things of the white man. Meet “My name is J.P. Williamson and I’ll crush any sonofabitch!” J.P, afraid of being sober. J.P, tall and big and strong and dangerous (but not stupid) like John Steinbeck’s Lennie of Of Mice and Men. Meet Dladla and his glistening knife.

“Listen! The city of gold is cold. If you live here you must be hard like stone. If you are soft everyone will spit in your face, they will rob you and cheat you and betray you...”

The novel teaches you that it’s not enough to destroy, you must build as well. That a man’s a man to the extent he asserts himself and that only those who are free inside can help free those around them. The aggressor wantonly destroys without building. Xuma has asserted himself to an admirable extent but is not man enough to comprehend the politics that drive the perilous Johannesburg. But after an outburst with his boss, he sees the light and dreams a symbolic dream in which a man without colour is surrounded by laughter. Oh yes, a black man can be friends with a white man after all!

--Sunday Monitor, January 17, 2010