November 2014

Julian Murphy


Black Diamond by Zakes Mda

For those not living on the African continent, the title of Zakes Mda's most recent book, Black Diamond, might not conjure up anything in particular beyond a vague allusion to the term "blood diamond." A black diamond is not, despite the homonymic similarity, anything like a blood diamond. As those who have seen the film of the same name will know, blood diamonds are a morally dubious mineral commodity extracted from mines in war-ravaged African countries. Pulled from the ground by exploited local labourers, the diamonds are then strategically released into the legitimate market by means that render their provenance unknowable. Blood diamonds burst back into the global consciousness in 2010 after supermodel Naomi Campbell gave evidence to a war crimes tribunal that she had accepted a gift of such rocks from Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. Though the blood diamond industry is only peripherally present in Zakes Mda's new book it serves as a useful introduction to the novel's concerns: the new African hunger for status and wealth and a willingness to secure these prizes at all costs.

Black diamonds are part of a quite different phenomenon, though they raise similar questions and no doubt this is why Mda has chosen the neatly referential name. "Black diamond" is a label attached to black South Africans who, since the first democratic elections in 1994 have rose to prestigious and remunerative public and corporate positions. The dismantling of the apartheid state in the mid '90s opened up not just new civil liberties for non-whites but also new economic prospects and opportunities. Sadly this potential for financial betterment remained for many just that, a potential. Amongst a select few though, there ensued a scramble to fill the power vacuum left by the outgoing officials. The radical benefits enjoyed by these lucky few, the black diamonds, kept the flame of hope alive for the remainder of the population. The black diamond then, is a permutation of the American Dream -- though modified to the context of post-apartheid South Africa -- ostensibly available to all, but enjoyed by few.

What better setting, then, than the satellite town of Roodeport, which lies partway between the stark poverty of the Southern Western Townships (Soweto) and Africa's most vital economic organ, the pulsing heart of South Africa's business capital, Johannesburg? Don Mateza, the novel's chief character, works in middling Roodeport as a security guard. Having grown up in nearby Soweto and then joined the guerrillas fighting against apartheid from Mozambique and Botswana, Mateza now finds himself back near where he began. The reader cannot help but feel for Mateza as he wonders how far he, and the nation, has really come.

Trying to lead a normal life in the decade or two after apartheid, Mateza is unimpressed to see many of his colleagues from the freedom struggle underappreciated and unemployed while sideline figures from the war are showered with public recognition and respect. It dawns on Mateza that in the New South Africa, the drive for wealth has replaced the drive for equal rights. Wealth rather than freedom is the final goal that citizens ruthlessly strive for. At one juncture Mateza reflects:

In this brave new world, accumulation of personal wealth is dressed up in militarism, as if capitalism is the continuation of the guerrilla warfare that was fought during apartheid.... Or perhaps it is compensation for the fact that the actual war itself was a very limited one and the liberation movement was denied the glory of an outright military victory.

This is an astute summation of a common sentiment amongst commentators on post-apartheid South Africa who say that whilst the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did good things, it also deprived the aggrieved population the delivery of a deathblow. There is a sense amongst many that a desire for retribution still simmers under the surface of South Africa, and that until this boils over, the state of tension will prevail.

With some prodding from his ambitious girlfriend, Tumi, Mateza reluctantly resolves to follow his compatriots to the privileges that his parents could only have dreamed on in Soweto. Mateza's shot at black diamond status is afforded when he is nominated for an urgent job providing twenty-four-seven personal security for the Afrikaner magistrate, who has got on the wrong side of some local thugs. The security guard then begins shouldering his way into the upper echelons of South African society -- dining at country clubs and closing deals with a handshake.

Mateza's career trajectory in the novel captures the finely balanced moral compromise of "making it" in the new South Africa. Would-be black diamonds must engage with and pander to the still-influential white elite, the same people who were their oppressors less than two decades earlier. When one successful black diamond in the novel marries an Afrikaner, the suggestion is that he did so to make himself more palatable to the ruling classes.

Furthermore, ambitious young black men and women must be prepared to use their race to their advantage -- applying for jobs that have guaranteed quotas of black recruits. This is especially true in the business field, where the Black Economic Empowerment policy has seen the top wage bracket of black earners soar since the end of apartheid. The governmental legislation of positive-discrimination, or affirmative action, is treated with a surprising scepticism in this novel. Mda, it seems, would have preferred a policy that saw opportunities offered to disadvantaged people on the basis of merits and means, rather than political connections and capital.

The formulaic précis of the novel provided above is unfortunately somewhat representative of the novel itself. Mda originally wrote this story as a film script, and Black Diamond certainly bears the imprint of the big screen in an attenuated plot, generic characters, and liberal lashings of sex, lies, and crime. For readers uninterested in such things, the novel is saved by the many fantastic asides canvasing everything South African, from Soweto jazz to barbecued meat to political corruption and chicanery. The most evocative of these rewarding moments is Mda's portrayal of a Sunday afternoon in Soweto as young and successful men and women come from Johannesburg and surrounds to eat and drink and talk. There is a fantastic and true-to-life image of exorbitantly priced European luxury vehicles crawling over the uneven dirt streets of the townships so as not to dent their impracticably lowered undercarriage. But disembarking their showy vehicles, the glamorous prodigal sons and daughters re-enter their childhood homes to eat humble meals in humble rooms full of laughter and memories.

As a whole, the novel's strength is not its narrative but its illustration of this new phenomenon of the socially divisive push for wealth and status. Personal wealth, Mda seems to be saying, is the new arbiter of class and privilege. One character puts it bluntly: "[I]t's no different from the days of apartheid. Only now it's black discriminating against black." Whilst undeniably reductive, it is still an interesting comment on the prejudices that came with the new freedoms of South Africa.

Black Diamond by Zakes Mda
Seagull Books
ISBN: 978-0857422224
312 pages