Being in Cape Town has allowed me to rediscover one of my first loves: reading. The hustle and bustle of my first year at Duke made making time to feed my literary obsession quite hard and as a result I just never had time to read any of the books I wanted to. Cape Town is different. Maybe it is that I am surrounded by others who love to read as much as I do and Michaela trades book recommendations with me like they’re water (I appreciate it so much) or maybe it is the fact that I have a lot more time on my hands. Cape Town is feeding my passions.
So of course when we were assigned the prompt to consume some aspect of South African literature, I chose a novel and was pleasantly surprised. I don’t know what I expected of South African literature. Being a fairly young democracy, 25 years in, I definitely expected more conservative ideas and writing. However as I stood in the Book Lounge – a book cafe near my work place – I was surrounded by books written in praise of femininity, books in praise of the strength of a woman. There were books denouncing the white Afrikaner power structure and uplifting the plight of the average South African. I was in a literary heaven. My own idealist paradise.
The Black Widow Society by Angela Makholwa does exactly that; it praises all that is woman. Set in Johannesburg, the novel takes you on a journey of the woman scorned. Yet, these women scorned refuse to stay angry and see to matters the only viable and fool-proof way, they murder their husbands. Every last man that caused any of their sisters pain. Killed. Problem solved right? Well, the ending is not that simple. In short, a man goes crazy and kills them, and the leaders are forced into hiding far, far away. The fluff and details are not what drew me in, but what the novel represents. Women taking control, taking charge of the lives that were stolen from them or put on pause for the sake of a man. Women refusing to shy away from their sensuality. Women who were embarrassed, shamed, and scorned for the actions of another. Women who exist in every society today. This book is for all of them.
Despite the warm fuzzy feelings that the progressiveness of South African literature gave me, it also jolted me. How can a country be so enlightened in its literature, media, constitution (being revered in all of the world), views on the LGBTQ+ community, yet there are so many things that contradict it’s progress. As I write this, current President Cyril Ramaphosa is wrestling corruption charges of some 450 million ZAR despite his campaign promise of fighting the corruption Zuma left for South Africa to mop up.
I had the chance to visit a land occupation with Ndifuna Ukwazi, the partner site that some of the other interns here are working at, and I was floored at not only the conditions of the occupation (these people were doing the best they could with what they had), but the circumstances surrounding their attempt to merely survive in Cape Town. Just the night before, the occupation was raided by the army and Cape Town Police. Doors were broken and ripped off hinges, personal belongings stolen and strewn, children and elderly traumatized from being woken from their slumber to the barks and bangs of others who had no concern for their lives. It was tragic. These people are forced to live in an occupation because Cape Town still operates under the legacy of Apartheid and has not given the people the land that truly and rightly belongs to them.
I purchased the book from an independent book store across the street from NU, down the road from District Six, and a 2 minute walk from Scalabrini Refuge Center, and do not doubt that the proximity to like-minded and progressive thinkers affected the types of literature that the book store sells. Am I in a perfectly reformist bubble, one that does not reflect the views of the rest of South Africa? Has Duke managed to find the most Duke-like space in this sprawling country?
Despite falling in love with this piece of literature, and for all intensive purposes, the Cape Town I’ve seen, I cannot help but feel as though my trip has been orchestrated to keep me surrounded by people who think just like me.