BOOK REVIEW: Bare Ground mines themes of politics, pay-offs and plots
At "a critical time" is the phrase award-winning author Peter Harris uses to describe the periods in which he set his first two books. He employs it again for his latest — his first novel.
In a Different Time, about the 1980s trial of the Delmas Four ANC activists, won Harris one of SA’s top book prizes, the Alan Paton Award. His second book, Birth, described the dangerous and violent lead-up to SA’s first democratic election in 1994.
Harris has now ventured into new territory with a novel, Bare Ground, which he insists is set in an indeterminate time but clearly mirrors the past decade in SA. It’s a political and corporate thriller packed with intrigue. I read it in one sitting.
At the heart of the story is a huge empowerment mining deal that, due to its nature, needs government sanction. The president takes a close interest in the outcome.
Max Sinclair, ruthless, complex and flawed, heads the last big mining company to do an empowerment deal. He is Oxford-educated, wealthy and married to the beautiful and talented psychologist Julia. They seem to have the perfect marriage and life.
Julia is a close friend of another psychologist, Lerato, the wife of geologist Sifiso Lesibe. He works for Max and the mining magnate wants to build the deal around him and award him a 25% share.
So far, so generous.
But Julia knows her conniving husband well and worries he will somehow trap the apolitical Sifiso in some unpleasant way in the proposed consortium.
The geologist, who doesn’t have the political connections Max desires, turns to former human rights lawyer Musa Madondo for help.
The Cabinet is filled with Musa’s former struggle clients whom he fought to keep out of prison during apartheid. Musa is also an honest, straightforward man, albeit not averse to driving a fancy car. It does, however, weigh on his conscience as he manoeuvres it through Johannesburg’s beggar-lined streets.
Bare Ground is not all business and politics, death and devilment. It begins with an adored baby drowning slowly in a swimming pool, "bubbles from her perfect mouth, framed by strands of blonde hair, small crystals accelerate lopsided as they rise in a silver stream to the surface. And then stop."
Who is watching this tragedy and why? The mystery is threaded through the novel.
Business deals are negotiated in swish hotels and board rooms, stocked with whisky, wine and cigars. Businessmen and politicians drive up in flash cars worth millions. They barely notice the waste pickers groaning under their loads of recyclable goods in a country where jobs and money are scarce.
Truth is fiction
Harris says it is up to readers to decide on the era in which the novel takes place, "although it is definitely post-Mandela’s presidency". He decided to write a novel "because some of what happens here couldn’t make it into nonfiction. People would say it’s too far-fetched."
Harris is well-placed to portray SA’s contradictions — when he was doing his articles at law firm Webber Wentzel, he rubbed shoulders with legal luminaries such as Arthur Chaskalson, Sydney Kentridge, George Bizos and Johann Kriegler.
He helped to found activist law firm Cheadle, Thompson and Haysom, where he practised for 15 years.
Harris was involved in the Delmas trial in which four young anti-apartheid activists faced the death sentence.
"They refused to be represented at the trial as they saw themselves as soldiers and not criminals," he recalls.
His law firm represented Robben Island prisoners and had clients such as Cosatu and most political organisations campaigning for freedom during apartheid, including the United Democratic Front.
Many members of Nelson Mandela’s first cabinet were clients of the law firm and Harris was Chris Hani’s lawyer until he was murdered in 1993.
In the early 1990s Harris was seconded to the National Peace Accord, which aimed to end violence and establish a multiparty democracy. He then headed the monitoring directorate of the Independent Electoral Commission for the 1994 election.
Harris’s book, Birth, captured the dangerous, difficult and often unbelievable events leading up to and during the first demo-cratic election.
"I don’t think there was an appreciation of what was happening at the time," he says.
"Now there’s a tendency to criticise some of the constitutional settlements that were arrived at, and the processes that led to them.
"Even Nelson Mandela has been the subject of criticism from some quarters, which is completely outrageous."
Harris says the context and circumstances of the negotiations and the challenges "that we faced were quite extraordinary". He points out that all of SA’s security forces — from the police to the army — were controlled by generals loyal to the apartheid government "and had little interest in seeing a negotiated solution, losing power and their jobs. They had both the opportunity and the capacity to stop any settlement in its tracks."
Harris now works at another law firm he helped to found — Harris, Nupen and Molebatsi — and says he believes that "as a society, we went to sleep after 1994 because we had a great leader in Mandela".
"Now we’ve woken up and realised that we’ve been mugged. It threatens the very fabric of our democracy. And everyone in our society is culpable," he says.
The busy lawyer who writes on aircraft and at weekends, stealing time in the spaces of his life, has a character in Bare Ground who is depressive as a result of a postpartum psychosis. Not a person to do anything by half measures, he read a book on the topic, enabling him to write about it with authority.
He has also cleverly created a device, a mental library, in which Max reaches for a memory book when he needs one. This allows the author to track back into his characters’ lives.
The irony of someone with Harris’s life of commitment to SA now producing a book that is a snapshot of its corrupt, degenerate and failing government is inescapable.
No one who reads his thriller will be able to say they did not know what was happening.