In April 1994, television screens around the world captured the spirit of those few nervous, heady days when millions of South Africans, in tortuously long queues, lined up together for the first time… waiting to vote. The images bore witness to momentous historical change. Shortly afterwards I received a batch of letters from a group of Year 7 students in Nottingham who’d been reading my novel, Journey to Jo’burg (Longman, 0 582 25402 7, £3.99). Their letters included strong statements revealing their feelings about characters and events in the book, about apartheid and racism. Most of them referred to apartheid as finished and past. ‘The apartheid is over, it has come to an End! And WE FEEL REALLY HAPPY!’ wrote one; ‘… all that has changed now thanks to Nelson Mandela,’ wrote another.
Their sentiments reflected what I’d begun to sense earlier during writer-in-school workshops on my South African fiction… the belief that once Nelson Mandela was ‘in charge’, everything would be fine. Replying to the Nottingham children, I wrote that I too was delighted about the elections but added: ‘It is going to be very difficult however for all the damage done by apartheid to be wiped out and for all South Africans to have equal chances in life. President Mandela doesn’t have a magic wand. I only wish he did!’
My reply was, of course, inadequate. I was still in the process then of writing a new novel to explore just what that damage might be for one young boy who inherits his personal legacy of apartheid at the same time as he inherits the hopes of a ‘new’ South Africa. No Turning Back (Viking, 0 670 85996 6, £10.99) will probably raise as many questions as it answers.
Its genesis was quite different from my previous South African work written under conditions of exile. Chain of Fire (Longman, 0 582 25403 5, £3.99) had been undertaken in the late 1980s like a work of historical fiction, despite the contemporary nature of its themes of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and youth resistance to apartheid. I had immersed myself in material collected by others who were inside the country – journalists, researchers, photographers – working frequently in secret and always at some risk.
In August 1991, the year Journey to Jo’burg was unbanned, I was able to return to South Africa for the first time freely after 26 years. I visited schools and projects, listening to the voices of young South Africans. I needed to gauge their sense of the past, the present, and their hopes for the future. I could now include these young people as potential future readers. Furthermore, I would be free to collect my own material.
The opportunity came in August 1993 when the British Council sponsored travel to South Africa for myself and theatre director-writer Olusola Oyeleye. In the UK we’d often worked together on drama and writing workshops, exploring issues of identity, diversity and equality with both children and teachers. Offering free workshops in South African schools, projects and teachers’ centres, we shared our active methodology and exchanged ideas. Using poems written by British children and photographs as stimuli, we listened closely to the responding voices.
This was Olusola’s first visit to South Africa and we arrived at a time of terrible pre-election violence with massacres on the trains and shootings in the black townships. Together we tried to make sense of what young people in particular were experiencing. There was also a group of children in whom I was especially interested: those living on the streets. What had led them to run away? How were they surviving? What were attitudes towards them? I had many questions. Perhaps most centrally, what would the ‘new’ South Africa mean to them?
Street-Wise, a non-governmental organisation working with street children, welcomed our interest. We ran workshops in their shelter in Hillbrow – a high-rise, high-density, high-crime area of Johannesburg which is a focal point for many young runaway boys. Runaways girls are not nearly so visible, quickly absorbed into a network of prostitution and cheap hotels. The dramas developed from our stimulus photographs revealed telling aspects of the children’s lives. As happened with our workshops in schools, some children stayed afterwards for individual interviews.
Other stories, reflecting the tensions in adult-child relations, emerged among the young adults on the Barefoot Teacher Training programme in Alexandra, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Their director, Martha Mokgoko, also shifted our focus to the pain of many mothers in this deeply pressurised society.
I came away with the sense that many young people felt that adults had let them down. The immensely sad eyes and angry voice of 11-year-old Shireen haunted me: ‘Why do they have children if they’re going to throw them away?’ Others conveyed their sense that the adults they loved were as powerless as themselves in the face of senseless violence. Yet still, those same children found room for hope. Shireen and her friends from Orange Grove Primary School came to a Youth Peace Rally in Johannesburg, wearing their badges ‘I’M COMMITTED TO PEACE, ARE YOU?’
Returning 6,000 miles back to Britain brought me both the problems and the challenge of ‘long distance writing’. I had to get to know 12-year-old Sipho who, at the beginning of my story, runs away from an abusive step-father onto Hillbrow’s dangerous streets. Streetchildren belong to cities across the world and while I wanted my story to be rooted in South Africa, I wanted its questions to resonate far more widely.
One year later, in August 1994, I revisited South Africa to gather responses to the final draft of my novel. It was four months after the elections and the country still seemed to be breathing sighs of relief. I approached young people and adults with whom Olusola and I had worked. Would my imaginative exploration of characters and situations ring true to those who were close to such experiences? The enquiry was daunting but necessary. I braced myself. Thankfully, responses were positive and I came back knowing just where I should do some more work.
Germinated during the horror of the pre-election violence and finalised during the fragile post-election peace, No Turning Back spins along the slippery twin axes of violence and peace. While the official ending of apartheid represents an historical milestone, the search for personal peace by young Sipho and many others is far from ended.
Beverley Naidoo works as an Adviser for Cultural Diversity and English in Dorset.