By Anote Ajeluorou
How do families react to scandals? Why do families fear scandals? Importantly, how do families avoid scandals from breaking among their ranks? Indeed, what armour should families wield against the possibility of scandals breaking? The fear of a scandal tainting the Fouries family seems the beginning of wisdom, and particularly for the mother, Magda, who, fueled by her religious obsession, drives her family to the brink. Her one obsession is ‘what will people say?’ Ironically, things, bad things, happen right under her nose.
This is the story of the Fouries family in a Cape Town, South African, housing estate for coloured, poor community, Hanover Park where gang wars and drug problems are rife. Rehana Rossouw’s What Will People Say? (Jacana Media Pty Ltd, Cape Town; 2015) is one of the three shortlisted novels for the Etisalat Prize for (African) Literature 2015 that will be awarded sometime in next month. Rossouw delicately maps the lives of the Fouries – the father, Neville, the mother, Magda, the elder daughter, Suzette, the second, Nickky and the only son, Anthony. Neville was raised in an orphanage and saw firsthand how the priests molested the boys and he vows to raise a proper family. Magda lost her parents early and had to cater for herself and her only sister, Violet. Both parents bear the ugly imprint of childhood; they fear their past and determine to steer their children away from its ugliness.
But herein lies their error. Neville is liberal enough and would give the children some space provided they study hard to realize the dreams the parents had lined up for them. But the mother, Magda, is a different proposition. Unlike her husband who abhors church because of what he saw of the white priests that handled his orphanage, Magda is sold completely to her religion and rules her home with the sternness of a puritan. She overrules her husband in almost every aspect.
As the children grow older, they begin to find ways to circumvent their parents’ rules and steer different courses for themselves that soon bring them in collision with their parents and then lands the entire family deeply into the scandal the mother desperately wants to avoid. First is the big sister for whom school is a struggle; she wants to drop out and find work. Her mother’s condemnation of half naked girls modeling in the factory where she works provides further incentive although she knows she’d be in real trouble if she should voice her ambition to her parents. Suzette wants to be a model, but she knows her mother would raise hell.
Anthony, just 13, has attracted the attention of a gang in the neighbourhood, Junky Funky Kids (JFK) led by Ougat and his minions. His sheben (beer parlour) is the meeting point; he deals drugs of all types. When Anthony finally shows up at Ougat’s sheben, the 13-year old, bored with school, does not know he has walked into the lion’s den much against his father’s warning. He takes the gang leader as the older brother he does not have. Anthony becomes Ougat’s drug carrier, delivering drugs strapped in his school bag to avoid suspicion. When it’s time for him to be inducted properly into the gang, Anthony finds it’s not the sort of life he wants to live. But it’s too late.
Nicky is the star in the family, but who is burdened by the secrets of her two siblings – Suzette and Anthony. Suzette drops out of school, but Nicky does not tell her parents; although Anthony does not return home directly from school Nicky does not tell her parents. And when the hurricane of Suzette and Anthony’s actions hits the family, Nicky is blamed for keeping a sealed lip. When Suzette’s school report comes and her parents find out she didn’t take the exams, hell breaks loose. Her mother throws her out for modeling under-wears for strangers to stare at her naked body. She sees her daughter as a whore. Suzette is unrepentant and leaves home. She has hit a white boyfriend and things happen fast for her. Her dream of being a supermodel isn’t long off.
Although Anthony does not want to belong to any gang, Ougat and his JFK gang aren’t the sort of guys to mess with. Anthony has no say in the matter; he has earned his place in Ougat’s schemes. At the initiation, JFK is branded on his arm; Nicky’s friend is dragged in for him and the gang to rape to complete his initiation. After the dastardly act, 13-year old Anthony can’t seem to live with the enormity of the abomination he has been made to commit. He loses his power of speech until Ougat supervises his murder for failing to live up as a JFK member.
His murder breaks the family into pieces, and Hanover park as well. Even Suzette comes back home to grieve with her family. Neville and Magda feel acute sense of failure as parents; they get at each other for the tragedy, and take it out on poor Nicky. At Anthony’s funeral, things fall apart, as Pastor Williams condemns gangs in the neighbourhood and Anthony’s parents for their failure to provide proper guidance for their children. Indeed, the very scandal that Magda fears is blown open in church to the entire world. She has nowhere to hide her head; she sleepwalks through it all.
At the end, things turn a fine bend for Magda’s two daughters, Nicky and Suzette, even as Magda divorces her husband…
What Will People Say? is an intense piece of writing and Rossouw invests an incredibly believable nuance in the narrative. Magnolia Courts and its gang- and drug-infested neighbourhood comes alive in this magnificent story that sheds light in Apartheid South Africa shortly before Nelson Mandela is elected as first democratic president. Gang wars, drugs, the country’s struggling poor and the liberation ferment and freedom fighters’ clashes with the police and the law pepper the atmosphere of Rossouw’s narrative. Her story gives a rare insider glimpse into the life of South Africa in the throes of political change. The Fouries family also provides a stark backdrop on which Rossouw paints an incredible tale of a country in ferment.