By Any Means by Kurt Ellis #40_2015

by any means

Oupa is illiterate yet he owns a shed full of books. He is adamant that his grandchildren will succeed and he impresses upon them that they must succeed, by any means necessary. Their education is of paramount importance to him. He instils the code into the boys at a young age telling them to always look after each other; to never back down when they are right; to destroy anyone who hurts one of their own. Kyle and Captain understand “the language and the rules of being a bruinou. An eye for an eye is the first and only amendment in the Coloured Constitution”. This philosophy clashes with the drive to become educated; violence answers violence and cuts down young lives. By Any Means exposes the trajectory of this cycle and its inevitable tragic consequences.

In 2000, Kyle lives with his cousins, Jimmy and Captain, in his aunt’s house in Sydenham, Durban. All Kyle wants is a contract with Liverpool FC; he is a talented footballer and has a coach/mentor who is sure he can make it. He is troubled by the violent break-up of his parents but he also believes he should “man up”. Given what had happened, he should have been receiving trauma counselling but instead he castigates himself for being a baby.

Captain also still attends school, when it suits him. His main goal is to make money to feed his family and ensure his cousins’ education is not disrupted. He swaggers through the township knowing he is respected, or rather feared. His gang, the Godfathers, all “came from poverty, and burned with the desire to escape it”. They sell drugs and act as a go-between for a bigger fish. Initially he was a member of another gang but when their leader, Tyson, was imprisoned for hijacking, Captain seized the opportunity and set up his own contract with the big fish, Lazarus. The Godfathers had been making good profits for a year and a half but Tyson was soon to be paroled and this will change everything.

Yet Captain is a complex guy; the school will not accept his donation to buy desks because they do not want to be complicit in his shady dealings. So he insists they all pitch in and help make the desks. He loves his girlfriend, Nazneen, yet she is also a possession, a territory over which he challenges any would-be trespassers. Kyle also meets a girl, Amia, who loves his intellectual side. She has issues though stemming from previous relationships and problems with her stepfather.

The dialogue is excellent in capturing the slang with its smattering of Afrikaans, Americanisms and big deal posturing. ‘Aight’ they say instead of ‘alright’, (reminding me of the gangsters in The Wire). The narrative moves from school to house party to night club to Addington Beach. As a Durbanite, I really enjoy the familiarity with the surrounds. When these guys walk down Sparks Rd, I know exactly where they are.

The action is mesmerising, driven by the dialogue and situations which will have you on the edge of your seat. Despite the inevitable tragedy that unfolds, the trajectory of events is far from predictable.

One cannot help but compare this novel to What Will People Say by Rehana Rossouw because they both deal with gangsterism and drugs in the Coloured communities. They are nevertheless very different as By Any Means adopts the perspective of the gangsters themselves and is set in Durban in 2000’s while What Will People Say explores the issue from a parental perspective in the eighties. Read both.

 

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What Will People Say? by Rehana Rossouw #38_2015

what will people say

What will people say when they find out…this is the dominant mantra in the Hanover Park community on the Cape Flats. This is where people live in blocks of flats that are known as ‘courts’, where the Fourie family are trying desperately to live a respectable life and give their children opportunities that they did not have. The shame of other people gossiping is the last thing parents need; their good name is so important in a community that lives in close quarters.

This novel depicts the struggle of the Fourie family, Neville, Magda and their three teenage children during the State of Emergency in 1986. To a certain degree, their struggle is a microcosm of the country’s struggle. Each member represents a different aspect of society with different aspirations, limitations and notions. Members of the community are also at different stages of development. Many still accept the status quo which oppresses them and limits their freedoms while there are others who are politically involved and fighting the system. Thrown into the mix are the ills of a marginalised society such as gangs, drugs, rape and crowded living.

Neville, the father, wants the best for his family and believes he is an involved, hands-on parent. He is involved with the neighbourhood watch that divides Hanover Park into blocks to patrol so they can keep an eye on the gangsters. There is a new gang, JFK, challenging the established gang, the Americans. Ougat is the leader, just out of prison, with a reputation for extreme violence. Neville and Ougat have a run-in early on that can only mean future disaster. Neville cares so much for his family and does his best but it is virtually impossible when the cards are so stacked against one.

Magda works in a clothing factory and she is very religious. This is a cause of disagreement between her and Neville as he refuses to get involved with the church. He has reasons that stem back to his childhood in an orphanage. When she has church meetings, the rest of the family are cooped up in one of the two bedrooms with no TV. To some degree, Magda’s focus on her church and Neville’s involvement with the neighbourhood watch, as well as the fact that the children will not split on each other, means that they are completely out of touch with their childrens’ activities, until it is too late. Suzette drops out of school and models for a lingerie factory. Nicky, the conscientious child is sucked into Kevin’s political activism and then bad things happen to her friend, Shirley. Anthony is caught in the boy’s toilet at school with a pornographic magazine and receives six of the best; things go downhill from there.

The Cape Coloured dialect is brilliant, capturing the particular turn of phrase perfectly without making it unreadable (like Trainspotting). The pace is excellent too; once you reach halfway, you will not be able to put it down. The inevitability of the course of events is heart-breaking; no-one knows the story of 13 year old Anthony and how he got involved with the gangs. Although this is fiction, there are many people with life experiences such as his and this speaks for all of them. One of my best reads of 2015