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Over the Rainbow: Sheldon Baverstock looks back to South Africa’s rebirth

Novelist Sheldon Baverstock has seen his homeland change beyond recognition – but warns of trouble ahead as his new novel revisits the early years of the new South Africa

Many years ago, in the pub at Lords after a match between England and South Africa, a friend from Johannesburg whom I had not seen for ages presented me with a tie.

Neatly held in plastic, it was a splash of colour similar to the ‘rainbow nation’ new flag. Not something you would wear to a wedding but the pride and optimism that shone in his eyes brought tears to mine, and ensured that I would wear it many times in the years that followed.

What I felt that late afternoon was much like the emotion I felt when my brother, who lives in Durban, told me he and his wife had stood for hours in a line around the block with newly enfranchised South Africans waiting to cast their vote for the first time in their country.

In some ways One Black Ear has been a vehicle for me to go back in history and be part of those times

For someone who had moved away from the land of his birth, but left his heart behind, I felt saddened to not be there, to be involved in the hope and optimism of a reborn nation. To be part of the rebuilding process. I was left to watch the start of the rebirthing process on a TV screen.

Perhaps in some ways One Black Ear has been a vehicle for me to go back in history and be part of those times. A salve to the nostalgia that seldom leaves me. A way to jump into a ‘time machine’ and be there; feel the hope, feel the regret for times passed, offer an opinion on what I saw was going on around me through the eyes of the book’s narrator, Roger.

In many ways the new South Africa has been in catch-up mode. A burgeoning middle class has put huge demands on infrastructure, influenced in its initial design by the needs of a much smaller market during the apartheid era.

Now, all those people who can afford a car need roads for them; all those people in townships who, through electrification of their neighbourhoods can now own appliances need electricity to power them. The symptoms of this huge, growing demand manifest themselves in unprecedented congestion and regular power outages.

On the one hand, one could shrug and say the country is a victim of its own success: it will get there in the end, that’s positive isn’t it? On the other hand, this growing middle class has, without intending to, left a huge number of destitute people in its wake.

One Black Ear examines some of the causes and consequences of these social issues, scrutiny I have used as layers in the book’s plot, influenced in no small way by LIV Village.

LIV is an organization just north of Durban on the KwaZulu-Natal coast, founded by a couple whom I know well. LIV virtually snatches orphans from a path to hell and gives them new hope through nurturing and education. I have visited LIV; it sits on a hill surrounded by cane fields and distant vistas of the coastal region, the work done there is miraculous.

Readers of One Black Ear will discover that not everyone was pleased to see democracy arrive in their country. Some despised the fact that there was change. Many who were ‘entitled’ by default have found themselves struggling alongside the previously disenfranchised, feeling the pain of not having social services available. Many have fallen even further, resorting to crime to allay their poverty.

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I visit my beautiful home country often as I have many friends and family there. I love the friendliness of everyone, the openness, the cheerfulness, the optimism. One of my favourites is picking up my grandsons from school. When I was a young boy and then a young man in South Africa the young black people one met did not speak much English, and if they did it was with the heavy accent of their tribal language. Now when the kids come streaming out of the gates the faces streaming by are multicoloured but the youthful chatter all sounds exactly the same.

In the first chapter Roger implies that patience will be required to reach the goals people would like to see achieved. “Not just jobs, electricity and education. A huge challenge in itself, the African National Congress having to catch up years lost through apartheid. After the initial euphoria, the need for everyone to be realistic.”

Because of the timing of the book, it does not allude anywhere to a nuance which, sadly, moving forward many years from the time One Black Ear was set in I have noticed starting to emerge in the comments of my many friends in South Africa.

Where, notwithstanding frustration with the government (different in any other country?) I have only heard a positive tone in past discussions, recently I have noticed a level of inevitability starting to creep into our conversations. I hope this will pass.

Sheldon Baverstock’s One Black Ear is out now (Cranthorpe Milner, £10.99)

Illustration: Joseph Joyce