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Tuesday, 17 May 2016

An Alternate Modern South Africa: Nick Wood's 'Azanian Bridges'

On 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released after spending 27 years in prison for his engagement against apartheid. Following his release, the African National Congress (ANC) leader worked closely with President F.W. de Klerk's government - and numerous other political organisations - to draw up a new constitution for South Africa. After negotiations, concessions - and political violence - both sides eventually reached an agreement in 1993, which led to a new constitution for South Africa which took effect in 1994. The same year, the first non-racial elections were held, ANC won and this marked the official end of apartheid
1967: A taxi rank for white people. Source: Mashable.com
Well, in Nick Wood's, Azanian Bridges, Nelson Mandela was never released and 'died an old and broken man on Robben Island' (loc 2875 of 3124); apartheid never ended - indeed it is almost Christmas in 2014 and elections are taking place next year,  'but everyone knows AWB [Afrikaner Resistance Movement] will win hands down; De Klerk is still in prison for trying to dismantle apartheid from the inside and Terre'Blance [white supremacist] carefully ensures the safety of all ballot boxes' (627); and 'Obama and Osama [are] to meet the Soviet bloc in Peace Talks above the Berlin Wall, as the Soviet Union tires of thirty years of haemorrhaging men into their Afghan ulcer' (422).* 

This is the alternate  world where we find the two main protagonists of this story - Sibusiso Mchunu, a young amaZulu man about to start his first year at university and Dr. Martin van Denter, a white neuropsychologist. Their lives intertwine following Sibusiso suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and being sent to a mental health institution after seeing a friend of his shot by the security police during a peaceful protest. Dr. van Denter becomes his psychologist. 



Martin is one of the co-inventors (along with Dan, can't remember his surname) of  a new device - the Empathy Enhancer (EE) (a Feelings Box), which took years and 'carefully filtered research funds' (438) to create. The EE connects two humans together and 'amplifies ... brain waves' (458) enabling them to understand their experiences more easily. In a depressingly racist country such as the one in this story, in the right hands this device could do good - it could end apartheid, it could break down racial barriers as people begin to connect through feelings, thoughts and memories, it could enable people to empathise with each other. The problem is once it is discovered that it exists, everybody, and I mean everybody, wants it. This includes the secret police who could use it in terrible ways during their not-so-friendly interrogations, for instance. 

Interesting though the first time the EE is really used is on Sibusiso and I cannot help but think of the many levels of ethics that have been broken by testing this device on a human subject; but also the racial element as the subject is a black one, a black one currently suffering from PTSD, but then again Martin does not consider himself remotely racist. Martin is liberal, and thinks he does not see colour. And this subtle and not-so subtle racism embedded in the story, is one of the many really wonderful things about this novel. 

Indeed, beyond the amazing (but quite terrifying) alternate South Africa Wood's has created, what is also interesting about Azanian Bridges is that it is not just the state sanctioned violence that is in the novel, such as the security police shooting black students protesting. There is also the different ways in which the State aims to control the public - South Africa is extremely isolated from the rest of the world, which probably allows for apartheid to continue; there are State Firewalls that make it so that banned 'black' music such as Gil Scott-Heron's is very difficult to obtain, and they 'still wait for cam-phones, but they remain banned as a potentially easy source of troubling video' (627-8). There's also the subtle one: Martin being a 'little more racist than he thinks' (506) or later in the book when he reflects briefly that he has 'become more aware of a wider range of living places in the past couple of days that I have experienced in my entire life' (2158). So here we have a man who thinks he is colour blind testing out his device for the first time on a young black man. 

The device works, and no harm was done to Sibusiso, but the problem with the device working as I said is that everybody wants the EE - seriously people just be knowing about things even when you think it's all secret and what-not. The secret police find out and threaten Martin, but he smashes it before they can take it, and ends up making  a new one. He thinks it's safe (for someone so smart ...), but Sibusiso ends up stealing borrowing it for the other side, a radical anti-apartheid group

Indeed, Sibusiso is quite apolitical at the start but becomes more political and aware as the story goes on - in part due to him seeing his friend murdered right in front of him, but the people he begins to be surrounded by such as activists, Nombuso and Mama. He and one of the members of the group, Numbers, end up smuggling it outside of the country - to Zambia - where through the brilliance and mass production skills of the Chinese, it goes from the big, clunky EE to the smaller, portable EmPods - and it only took a few days.

Honestly, the world Nick Wood created is rather terrifying - one where apartheid never ended. What  happens when apartheid doesn't end - state firewalls, police brutality and the likes, but it seems no one is safe - black or white; as while black south Africans are overtly abused, discriminated, harmed and even murdered; white South Africans that might support the cause in any way are also affected. Still, in the words of old Kanye, not new Kanye, 'racism still alive' they just aren't concealing it in this alternate South Africa. 

Case in point towards the end of the story, when both Martin and Sibusiso are interrogated by the same person, the outcomes and treatment are different - with Martin getting the 'better' experience. We know they get different experiences because Azanian Bridges is told from a two person perspective, which allows us to know through words, thoughts, feelings and memories what apartheid South Africa is like for these men of different races, and I should say also economic backgrounds. 

This is also a really clever novel, weaving political history with technology and thriller and in very cunning ways. For instance, Room 619 where Sibusiso is interrogated in, tortured and kept at the end of the novel, is also where Steve Biko was taken for interrogation in 1977 and severely tortured. But as I read and then finished Azanian Bridges, for me the question really is can this EE that everyone wants so badly really bridge the divide between people of different races in this alternate South Africa? Or is it but one element that can help to end apartheid, or indeed any form of racial hatred, by getting people to look beyond skin colour (as but one element) and be open to different possibilities. 

A thoroughly enjoyable and intelligent read, that not only makes you think about technology, about ideas, about discrimination, about thoughts that we may never be comfortable enough to share with others; but also makes you glad for activism and the series of events that did take place in real life that ensured apartheid ended in 1994. 

*Read on my older generation kindle [yes the one with the keyboard :)] so these are the locations on mine, which might be slightly different for another e-reader. Will update with page numbers when I'm able to.

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