Short review by Janet van Eeden
James Kilgore’s first novel, We are all Zimbabweans Now, was a look at Zimbabwe after the advent of democracy. Freedom Never Rests is his second novel and it’s a look at a different part of Africa under a new regime. It follows the journey of a newly empowered couple, Monwabisi and Constantia Radebe, in the newly democratic South Africa. Monwabisi is a former shop steward and a struggle stalwart, and Constantia was a nursery school teacher until the new democracy thrust her into the role as a councillor for her district, Sivuyile.
The story also tracks an American couple from the USA who fought for democracy. They have moved into the “new” South Africa and find their expectations of freedom severely challenged. Their former roles as anti-apartheid activists are now redundant. How do they adapt to the changes they see around them in their country? Peter Franklin and Joanna Ross, who were part of the foreign contingent who “put their lives on the line” during the anti-apartheid struggle, are a fascinating pair. They come to South Africa for the inauguration of Nelson Mandela and stay on to continue their service to the struggle. Neither of them is unaffected by the changes in the new regime. Joanna is especially disillusioned by the fat cat syndrome as she sees people at grassroots level being disregarded by the very politicians who promised to care for them. Her friend Slim, for example, could get medication to treat his HIV if the government rolled out ARVs.
Joanna sees her former lover, Peter, the American representative of the prepaid water meters, as someone who has sold out to the capitalists. He, on the other hand, sees the protesters trying to stop the prepaid implementation as “the Wild West, obstructing progress”. His friend the deputy minister agrees that the protesters are losing interest in the ANC as they believe the ANC is no longer socialist. These characters reflect the disillusionment of much of the world which watched in dismay as the new democracy didn’t turn out as perfectly as they’d hoped for.
In this novel it unfolds that the poorest of the poor remain in poverty largely through the greed of the new regime, and it is with dismay that those who are at the mercy of the new government realise that the more things change the more they remain the same. The catalyst to their dissatisfaction finally overflows because of the issue of prepaid water meters. The people in poverty-stricken areas such as Sivuyile refuse to pay for water, as they have grown accustomed to a culture of non-payment in defiance of the apartheid government. And they can’t afford the extra fees required to have water now. Finally they are forced to take matters into their own hands. Monwabisi helps them stage protests and becomes unpopular with the new regime, much to the embarrassment of his now councillor wife.
Constantia’s concerns change too. From being a contented teacher and mother, she finds herself in the company of ministers whose main concern is sipping Johnnie Walker Black or Glen Fiddich and eating the finest cuisine. For the first time in her life even she, who cares about her community, finds herself worrying about getting her nails done and finding a driver so that she doesn’t have to use public transport.
Added to the mix is the fact that Monwabisi also has the illness no one wants to speak about, and his pride as a man whose wife works is also at stake.
Freedom Never Rests portrays a complex picture of a country going through a transition and James Kilgore brings his vast experience of countries moving through change, violent or otherwise, to this novel. In the final analysis, Freedom Never Rests shows how solutions in a new country aren’t as simple as black and white. No transition is ever easy, but the exploration of how quickly democracy can turn into a near impossible dream is a fascinating read.
James, even though you are an American by birth, you spent eleven years in Africa in exile from your own country in a way. Are your novels inspired by Africa rather than America because you were here during a very volatile period in this continent’s history? If not, can you explain why Africa is such a strong source of inspiration and story to you?
Actually I spent eighteen years in Africa – seven in Zimbabwe and eleven in South Africa. So I guess it’s not surprising that Africa has inspired my work. But there are two other things as well. Firstly, the period of time I was in southern Africa was incredibly dynamic - the transition from white minority rule to some form of democracy. Secondly, in both countries I drew incredible inspiration from the ways people organised themselves and sacrificed for freedom, particularly how culture and tradition were integrated into a sort of class struggle model. Yet at the same time, that freedom never did rest, it was never a static thing, a singular destination. Rather freedom became more and more complicated and elusive once political power was gained. This process of hope and disillusionment was both triumph and tragedy, the essential ingredients of a novel.
What I admired very much about your first novel, and what I find is equally prevalent in this one, is the fact that you examine the new regime with the same excoriating scrutiny as you did their oppressive predecessors. In this novel you describe the many “fat cats” who sell out their own people for a BMW and a rise in pay within the first few months of democracy. You don’t spare any of the former so-called oppressors either, berating them for telling everyone they had never voted for the former regime. What is it about yourself that is so unflinching in the examination of others’ motivations?
Back in the 1970s I chose to be involved in small-group violence in the USA in the name of some form of liberation. That was a huge error in political judgement, with disastrous consequences. Perhaps that experience forced me to reflect on the gaps between what political leaders and activists say they are doing and what they actually do. So I guess that’s what I try to do in my fiction - interrogate that gap and tease out the contradictions between rhetoric and reality.
You describe how the poorest of the poor are kept in poverty through the greed of the new regime. In this case the catalyst to their dissatisfaction finally overflowing is the issue of prepaid water meters. This reminds me of a talk I attended by the legendary journalist John Pilger just a few years ago. He said that he is delighted to see protests in the “new” South Africa. He decries the economic apartheid which he says is in full play in our country and finds the fact that the poorest are finally saying it is enough through protesting is heartening. Do you agree with his point of view that protest is the only tool the poorest have at their disposal to express their disappointment?
First of all, I’m not really saying that the reason the poor are not prospering in Sivuyile is just a matter of greed. I’m trying to show that there were a lot of complex interests driving things in another direction. It wasn’t simply a character flaw in the new rulers. In the mid-1990s the global political economy was going against the grain of the RDP. The free market ideal was coming to the fore. For example, the World Trade Organisation was born in 1995. So some of the leaders actually believed there was no choice. Of course, over time such an attitude can change into promotion of naked self-interest. Leaders become very comfortable.
On the other hand, some leaders opt to improve the lot of their families. For example, Constantia is not a greedy character. As a local government councillor she tries to serve the poor while making sure her children are comfortable. She might buy a few clothes, a new watch and eventually a modest house in the suburbs, but she is not a ruthless, money-seeking person. She is just not willing, like her husband, to sacrifice everything for a revolutionary ideal.
In terms of how the poor respond to this, their problem is not a “culture of non-payment”. They are willing to pay what they can afford, but the charges being levied against them are beyond what they can afford. So their protesting, particularly in a politicised society like South Africa, is virtually inevitable. But protest for me is a subset of organisation. The only way to contest inequality is to organise. Building effective organisations is difficult, not simply a matter of grabbing some placards and marching to the municipal offices. There is always the risk that all the evils you are fighting against - lack of democracy, inequalities based on race, gender, class or ethnicity – can resurface in different forms in the organisation you are building to contest oppression. Trying to cope with all that and fighting against powerful people who don’t want you to succeed is a huge challenge. Not an impossible one, as the downfall of apartheid has shown, but difficult.
I’m not too sure whether the water meter motif you introduce in your story is based on fact as I wasn’t in South Africa during the transition from apartheid. I came back to this country in 1996 to be part of the dream I’d always longed for. I was disappointed with the way some of the dream of liberation had turned out, I have to say. Was the prepaid system a real introduction at that time, or was it a fictional invention? Why did you choose to make access to water the focus of the novel?
Unfortunately prepaid water meters were part of the new dispensation in many municipalities early in the post-1994 days. They remain in use in many places today. They are also an international phenomenon. They have just been introduced to Uganda last month. I chose to write about water for three reasons. Firstly, water is the most basic of necessities and the huge number of people without access to clean water was one of the major challenges of the new government in 1994.
Secondly, I did a lot of research on the water issue during my time in South Africa, so I was familiar with some of the complexities, particularly attempts to undermine the promise of free water with policies like prepaid meters. I find the whole idea of making profits from water repulsive and immoral and the global incursion of transnational corporations into this “industry” is a scary development that needs to be resisted.
Thirdly, in the introduction to the book I describe the actual event that made me write about all this. In 2003 I was taking a shower in the Federal Detention Center in Dublin, California. In the shower stall next to me a powerful stream of piping hot water was pouring out from a broken tap. It took them a month to come and stop this gigantic leak. Every time I saw that huge waste of water I thought of people in rural communities in South Africa having to pay for every drop of water or go without. If water is life, then their lives hung on a very thin thread. Yet the inequalities and madness of the global economy meant that as a person in prison in the US I had unlimited access to free water. Such momentous issues should be the subject of novels, so I ended up writing Freedom Never Rests.
The American couple, Peter Franklin and Joanna Ross, who were part of the foreign contingent who “put their lives on the line” during the anti-apartheid struggle, are a fascinating pair. Did you base these characters on people you know or even on your own experiences as a former anti-apartheid activist?
These characters are composites of a lot of my experiences, not really based on any particular people. Ultimately, this book is about what I call a failed revolution, and failed revolutions produce such characters. I’ve lived through three failed revolutions: the uprisings of the ‘60s and ‘70s in the US, post-independence Zimbabwe and post-1994 South Africa. When a revolution fails, people go in different directions. Some remain true to their ideals, others renounce their actions of the past as the naive musings of youth and opt for personal gain. Still others try to gain some modicum of personal security and comfort while still campaigning for social justice. This is the fallout after a period of momentous political struggle. Writers and the mainstream media tend to write only about the people who change sides, who abandon the ideals of their younger days for the BMWs, the Glenn Fiddich and houses with kidney-shaped swimming pools. But I wanted to write about other types of characters, particularly the “spirit of no surrender” sort of people like Joanna and Monwabisi. They are a key part of this narrative, and how they cope with the complexities of a partial victory is important and for me very interesting.
Lastly, here, it is crucial to note that I am not at all saying that such characters are flawless heroes. Nor am I arguing that these failed revolutions did not win amazing victories. In the case of the US movements we stopped the war in Vietnam and won major advances in human rights. But we did not transform society. Similarly, in South Africa the political system changed greatly for the better. Apartheid has disappeared in that legalistic form, but there is still a lot more to be done.
What has been the reaction from readers to this book? Is there a difference between the reactions of South Africans and those of Americans?
Since I am not in South Africa, this is a tough question to answer. I plan to visit in July of this year, so hopefully I’ll get a bit more feedback. The few reviews of the book have been positive. The people that I hear from like the book, but they are mostly my friends, so maybe they are just being polite. In terms of readers in the US, the book isn’t really available there. Reviewers don’t review books that are published only overseas. So I’d say in the US the book remains yet to be discovered.
Do you have a new book in the pipeline? Can you tell us about it? Will it also be set in Africa and deal with politics?
My latest book will be released in the next few weeks in the US. It is very different - a murder mystery set in Oakland, California entitled Prudence Couldn’t Swim. But the heroine (not the protagonist) is a South African woman living in California named Mandisa Jack. Prudence Couldn’t Swim deals with politics of a different type: the commonality between the marginalised in different parts of the world. I also focus on the racism in the US today, particularly in the prisons of California, where I spent six and a half years. In those state prisons there is a real-time apartheid system in place, where official regulations ban men of different “races” from sharing a cell or using the same phone. The system is reproduced by the internalised racial hatred of the incarcerated, primarily in the form of white supremacy. So in 2002 I left the land where apartheid was becoming ancient history and landed in an existing apartheid institution. It was quite a cultural shock, to say the least. I took a while to figure out how to piece these contradictions together and put them into fiction. I finally decided to use this genre of a murder mystery and to place a white ex-convict with a racist past at the centre. In doing this I’m trying to show how such attitudes work and also hint at how those white supremacists, who are really among the poorest of the poor in the US, might discover their humanity.