The Pragashini-Smuts Affair
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Agnes Sam’s long-awaited debut novel ‘The Pragashini-Smuts Affair’ (Paloma Books, 2009) highlights the author’s expertise in crafting compelling narratives and engaging characters. Drawing upon her South African roots (Sam was born, raised and educated in the country) she introduces readers to the young Pragashini Dev – an Indian schoolgirl, whose relationship with an African boy threatens to erupt into a scandal that will have severe consequences for all those involved.
A wayward schoolgirl is forced to confront the harsh realities of a divided nation, as politics, cultures and families collide in this stirring tale of love, loss and betrayal. Set against the backdrop of South Africa’s notorious apartheid regime. ‘The Pragashini-Smuts Affair’ reveals one girl’s battle to lead a life less ordinary, amid a turbulent struggle that pitches the forces of good against evil as the dark clouds of oppression begin to slowly gather.
Until this affair people abroad had scant interest in Africa except as the recipient of charity. Of course they were touched by Africa’s plight. But they had little opportunity to connect with the hearts, minds, and souls of Africa’s people. It is hardly surprising therefore, that in 1985 when the real Africa was in revolutionary turmoil and it’s people suffering famine and drought, Hollywood chose to release ‘Out of Africa’. It rekindled memories of beautiful actresses, wild game hunters, and bottle-fed lions. Film buffs around the globe naturally, queued up to see it.
How were they to know that for Africans, 1985 began with South Africa’s grand old men Piet Willem Botha – offering – and Nelson Mandela – rejecting, a conditional release from imprisonment? That event precipitated the eruption of limpet mines, bombs, shoot outs at police road blocks, and grenade attacks on buses, fuel depots, courts, buildings, hotels, police stations and the homes of policemen and others in South Africa. Nor did they know that in Namibia, South Africa had installed a multiracial government that SWAPO rejected. While in Mozambique – engaged in a guerrilla war led by Renamo, and with a drought approaching, – South Africa was desperately resuscitating its non-aggression pact. Meanwhile the Front Line States despatched their leaders – Sam Nujoma, Samora Machel, and Robert Mugabe, to meet with Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia for a crucial indaba.
In 1985 Zimbabwe could boast of five years since the end of its war of independence. South Africa on the other hand, looked back on nine bloody years since Soweto’s children marched in peaceful protest against their education. Outside Africa people at the time knew only of the films they just had to see which were on release that year.
Notwithstanding the portrait of Africa from western eyes, and the blacking out of its reality, Africa’s people went about their daily lives, surrounded by terrors, the way people in conflict situations do, hidden from the world’s scrutiny. They went to work; to school; to play; to the job spots looking for piecework. They loitered on the streets; hung about traffic lights; set up stalls in the market place; picked a pocket; burgled a house; smoked dagga ; drank ship sherry; knifed someone here; raped another there; held up a bank and made a fast get away. When they paused it was to bury their dead.
They loved putting on a show of bravado when all they had were sticks and stones and empty pockets and stomachs. Where there was food bakers baked bread; farmers milked cows and delivered milk; butchers carved carcasses of meat. Taxi drivers drove their taxis, bus drivers their buses. Few trains ran the length and breadth of Africa.
To ordinary people the decisions in their daily lives, their looking for work, dreaming about a plate of food, wondering if the water was safe to drink, if it was wise to open the door to the knocker, or to venture out of the house, were as momentous as those taking place in the great indabas. These flowers bloomed unseen in hidden places. The world did not see them, nor did the world look for them.
To outsiders and onlookers the conflict in South Africa was a simple black and white issue. What could they possibly know about the tensions between ethnic groups? No one told them the Japanese who brought in pig-iron were called ‘honorary white men’; that the Chinese were allowed to attend white cinemas, eat in white restaurants, and sometimes attend white schools; or that ‘Coloureds’ were a special category that successive governments could not decide about because they were descended from intermarriage between ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ races. So how could they know that it seemed a tradition, every few years, for a violent clash between those uneasy bedfellows, Indians and Africans?
Those clashes, between entire communities became a secret tussle between three families on the southernmost tip of the African continent. There in a bustling industrial sea port, an Indian schoolgirl, her African teacher and his son, believing their lives were without political significance, lived out their dreams, as if their survival depended on it. They were in Port Elizabeth a city in the fairest Cape. The only significance Port Elizabeth holds for outsiders, is that a couple of thousand English settlers landed there in 1820, making it an English speaking place.
In oppressed regions of the world children rarely if ever, halt their play to consider, comprehend, or contend with the past and present that are woven together to form the shrouds folded in readiness for their early death, or the death of their childhood. Each child is innocent of its world. So too are South African children. Every child who grew up in South Africa is innocent of apartheid. Apartheid, like all oppressions, reached out tendrils to clutch, entwine, and draw them in, in rhythm with their growing awareness, like the waves rippling on the golden beaches around South Africa’s coast.
The background of the girl in these documents, introduced Asian elements into the design of the African shroud awaiting the death of her childhood. Could she have prevented it if she knew how or when it would occur?
© Agnes Sam