University of Cape Town students during the #FeesMustFall protests in 2016. Picture: JACO MARAIS/FOTO24/GALLO IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES
University of Cape Town students during the #FeesMustFall protests in 2016. Picture: JACO MARAIS/FOTO24/GALLO IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES

Acclaimed poet and novelist Finuala Dowling’s employment at the University of Cape Town over the last several tumultuous years has provided fertile material for her captivating fifth work of fiction, Okay, Okay, Okay.

At its core are two shocking deaths. Siphokazi Nonjinge, a young student at the fictional University of Adamastor (very obviously inspired by UCT) is driven, through exploitation and abuse, to commit suicide. Then there is the academic Miriam Landor, who dies, at 30, of a heart attack — her symptoms having been dismissed by her ambitious, career-focused husband, Simon. While the circumstances differ widely, these are both women who died scandalously young as a result of being ignored by those who should’ve listened and offered support. And both deaths have far-reaching effects. Siphokazi’s will ignite campus-wide protests (reminiscent of those that gripped UCT in 2015 and 2016) while Miriam’s will force a reckoning between the daughter she left behind, Cecily, and her widower, Simon.

Simon is a particularly greasy cog high up in a gargantuan bureaucratic machine and activity of any kind tends to be hampered by copious form-filling and thickets of red tape — a state of affairs Dowling frequently spins into pure satirical gold. As the handsomely remunerated head of the centre of effective communication, the slick-talking sycophant acts as spokesperson and general dogsbody for an appearances-obsessed vice-chancellor. The former English lecturer uses his literary nous to dissemble, obfuscate and embellish. In addition to e-mails, circulars and forms, his tedious workday might include, for example, an attempt “to write up a report on the VC’s visit to Paris so that it did not sound like a junket”.

A chance encounter with a former student while shopping reminds him of the joys of teaching. Dowling writes: “Should he have stayed in the tutorial rooms, inspiring the young to lead good lives? But teaching assistants and lecturers earned a pittance. No grilled artichokes for them.”

OKay, Okay, Okay by Finuala Dowling. Picture: SUPPLIED
OKay, Okay, Okay by Finuala Dowling. Picture: SUPPLIED

All the while, his fellow administrative apparatchiks “earned huge salaries for finding new ways to squeeze as much work as possible out of their academic colleagues”.

A sizeable and diverse cast of characters, representing just about every shade of the Rainbow Nation, vividly bursts onto the page — including charismatic Bruno Viljoen (a drama lecturer forever flirting with scandal), the imperious Africanist Professor Sitoba and the workaholic medical researcher Rhoda Cupido. Providing comedic, common-sense ballast to counterweight the novel’s dystopian absurdities is Vida, a vivacious, huge-hearted, no-nonsense sound engineer who is roped in to help at an alumni fundraising event. Often touring the world with musicals, she wouldn’t normally have stooped to such an insignificant job (being asked to assist with this is like “phoning JM Coetzee and asking him to write your child’s sick note”) but a worrying career lull means she needs the money.

At the event, she meets Simon’s grieving, sprite-like daughter, Cecily, and the two quickly bond. Cecily, a drama student, has been working on a theatre piece about her late mom and Olive Schreiner, the subject of her mother’s unfinished thesis. As the friendship between Cecily and Vida grows, Dowling asks us why women continue to be ignored or so easily dismissed?

Like Schreiner, whose prescient observations and evergreen wisdom are peppered throughout, it is clear Dowling cares deeply about the powerless and overlooked. With aching subtlety, she shows us the spiralling conditions — met largely with oblivious indifference by the university — that led to Siphokazi’s suicide. Dowling shows great empathy, particularly for students whose inadequate schooling and meagre finances leave them struggling with the rigours and cost of university life. She observes that these struggles are only worsened by an uncaring administration that pays scarcely more than lip service to the idea of helping its most vulnerable students.

Dowling shows great empathy, particularly for students whose inadequate schooling and meagre finances leave them struggling with the rigours and cost of university life.
Alexander Matthews

But while a keen understanding of student frustrations is evident, Dowling is also unsparing in her observations of the chaos caused by the protests they trigger, as well as the multiplying, evermore unrealistic demands that accompany them. Amid violent occupation, vandalism and the disruption and cancellation of classes (sound familiar?), the university comes to a grinding halt, jeopardising the futures of students and researchers in the process. Genuine grievances are quickly hijacked by racial nationalists whose contempt for both people and scholarship deemed “un-African” results in a pervasive, thuggish intolerance that the university’s pusillanimous bigwigs simply kowtow to.

With excoriating wit, Dowling depicts “transformation” as the white-anting of the university; a process in which box-ticking and binaries trump nuance and complexity and in which appearances and identity take precedence over the fundamentals essential to meaningful transformation — teaching, learning, research and academic freedom. Far from deifying white academics or sentimentalising the inequalities of the past, the novel instead exposes the risk of purging those who offer valuable skills, experience and knowledge but who are no longer in fashion.

Simon observes his university ditching the plot of George Orwell’s Animal Farm to follow that of The Crucible instead: “Apart from the witch-hunting and the hangings, Simon remembered how in Arthur Miller’s play the old man, Giles Corey, is slowly crushed to death by stones placed on his chest.”

The scorched-earth policy unleashed on these “superannuated white men”, as the vice-chancellor dismissively labels them, is particularly egregious given SA’s shortage of experienced lecturers.

Okay, Okay, Okay is a stunning achievement. Bristling with elegant humour, exquisite descriptions and nuanced insights, it powerfully captures the tragicomic complexities of a university — and country — grappling with change. It should be required reading at UCT and, indeed, all our other beleaguered institutions of higher learning.