Books: Escape from Hell

Len Ashton reviews
Reports Before Daybreak (Umuzi – Random House Struik)
By Brent Meersman

Those who wish to forget may falter at the outset of Brent Meersman’s new novel. But stick with it: he turns out to be a useful story-teller.

Reports Before Daybreak twines the young lives of assorted characters into the historic archive of the South African revolution – from the dawn of the Republic in May 1961 to the release of Nelson Mandela. The device of culling actual headlines and quotations to provide chronological context for each chapter takes a bit of getting used to, but, once the rhythm is established, it works.

Daybreak is a timely reminder that the nation survived a high-wire escape from hell. For the present, anyway. Many of the privileged classes, blindfolded by the previous regime and social conditioning, had only a dim notion of the boiling fury of the workers.

Meersman supports his tale of Dickensian complexity with vivid insights into the lives of ordinary people, workers and other classes. As with Dickens, the writer seems aware that the upheaval of those years of change was not only political: in South Africa it echoed the Western experience of often-violent adaptation to industrial revolution. 

Today, the populace is impatient of self-seeking politicians’ reminders of The Struggle. The caravan has moved on, and tolerance of heroic rhetoric is fading. Delivery is the issue.

So it falls to this novelist (no axe to grind) to recall those extraordinary times, to refresh the memory and inform the ignorant of  the major dramas of the formative past. We may not yet have found paradise, but the horror that loomed before the previous regime collapsed needs remembrance.  As do the peace-makers. We owe them enormous gratitude. Things could so easily have gone totally pear-shaped.

Meersman traces the intricate links that bind individuals in this fragmented land, and uses those connections to prove the subtle interdependence of communities.

The superficial differences in this wildly disparate population would seem set to keep the tribes, of whatever colour, at arms’ length forever. The novel shows that, willy-nilly, we survive by  common human un­der­standing, despite profound misconceptions.

The adventurous young characters in Daybreak range from rural tribal folk to desperate shack dwellers, rich and poor whites, and a peppering of academics.

Young black freedom fighter and bewildered white troopie conscript must live by common consent, but they are totally uncomprehending of that fact, and of each other.

Today, politicians’ attempts to force gemutlichkeit between races and communities may have their successes, but in reality the issue is one of learning mutual respect for difference. Which takes a long time. And the world is not exactly brimming with examples of such successful accommodations. Meersman does not offer futurist prophecies. He is concerned to tell a tense tale of  survival.

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