Growing up Jewish in South Africa


Another Year in Africa
By Rose Zwi
Spinifex Press, 1995. $16.95
Reviewed by Vivienne Porzsolt

Rose Zwi's novel constructs a vibrant picture of life in a Jewish working-class suburb of a mining town in the shadow of World War II. Looking back to pogroms and exile and forward to the home-grown version of fascism, apartheid, the novel portrays the various responses of working-class Jews to their persecution in Europe and its settler colonial offshoots: socialism, Zionism and religious devotion and observance.

Jewish life, with its food, festivals and humour, is well drawn. The narrow confines of a close-knit community are also exposed. Jewish irony is everywhere, whether for humorous or critical effect. For example, "'I shall die in Jerusalem', Hershl predicted, when he argued about Zionism with Berka. 'That I can believe', Berka would reply. 'To live there is another matter.'"

Of the conditions for black miners, Zwi writes: "For two shillings a day, a pot of mealie meal and kaffir beer, they travelled hundreds of miles from their kraals and their families to live in crowded mine compounds and to do the hardest work underground. When their nine months contract was up, they might be a few pounds richer, wear trousers and a shirt and carry away with them, under their gay blankets, a lung disease."

Descriptions of the South African sky and veldt are haunting.

Yet for all these qualities, I found the book unsubstantial and less than satisfying. The strong themes Zwi writes of — South African racism, anti-Semitism, workers' rights, Jewish life — are only lightly touched on. They need a stronger, more substantial treatment than this slight novel offers. Stronger and more complex plot development would have allowed for more in-depth consideration.

There is an unfortunate tendency, too, to persistently draw misogynist stereotypes. Wives are portrayed as nagging and controlling, and either failing in their duty to keep a clean house or being too strict in their housekeeping for family members to feel at home in the product of their labours. Daughters, on the other hand, are sweet and obliging, the way women should be, and the way daughters can be, free from the responsibilities thrust on their mothers by the sexist pattern of home-making. In so far as these social patterns do in fact exist, today one expects a feminist critique to subvert such portraits.