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When democratic revolutions happen the world watches—applauds, rejoices, is inspired—and then we all carry on with our daily lives and forget that a momentous transformation has taken place. The further away the further apart—that is a normal human reaction—moreover, we know that the path of democratization is long and arduous. Whether the transition will be successfully completed is in the stars, and the odds are negative, more often than not.

The narrative is well-known: we witnessed it in Eastern Europe back in 1989, a couple of years later in Russia, then in South Africa—recently, throughout 2011, in North Africa. Those more inclined towards cynicism—or realism, they will claim—will argue that democracy is not possible everywhere: not only does it presuppose socio-economic conditions that do not obtain in most parts of the world; it is, furthermore, incompatible with specific cultural worldviews and ways of life—to state it crudely, citizenship is not every man’s or every woman’s concern, and it definitely is not in the interest of many of those in power.

It is easy to talk when one is miles apart from where it all happens—as easy as it is inconsequential.

The situation is different for those who have been part of the Struggle for bringing about change.

This is the subject of Nadine Gordimer’s book No Time Like the Present published earlier this year by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux—a remarkable book for its honesty, courage and insight. Not to forget Gordimer’s unique way of speaking to and about love and humanity in times of trial.

The book follows the life of Steve and Jabu, an interracial couple, during the first decade of the twenty-first century—politically through the presidency years of Thabo Mbeki and then the first of Jacob Zuma.

At the beginning of the story, Steve and Jabu are living in the inner-city but are considering moving to a middle-class suburb where it is both safer and more comfortable. This decision, like most others they will make in the following years, is burdened by feelings of doubt and guilt.

Is it ok to aim for a better life now that the Struggle has come to an end and life conditions are beginning to improve, at least for those with a good education? What about those one leaves behind? Once a comrade, always a comrade—and, still, it is different since not everyone is capable of keeping up with the demands of modern economic life, and many do not get a fair chance.

We are a long way from achieving equality of opportunity. There is racism. But that is not all. The persistent difficulties have also to do with the horrendous lack of infrastructures, physical as much as social. Steve, an industrial chemist, gets a position as assistant professor and is confronted with the sad reality that despite the improved access to university education, the majority of black students are weighed down by it because of the low standards of the (apartheid) schools they came from.

How to deal with that? Reduce the standards? Increase teaching? In the end, like so often, the solutions found are somewhere in-between and made on pragmatic grounds rather than on principle. In post-apartheid South Africa teachers are in short-supply, not least because of the exodus of the more qualified—whites are the first to go, but blacks will often follow.

The decisions facing Jabu are not less difficult but different. As a black educated woman from Swaziland, she is aware of her multiple, and, often, contradictory, identities, long before she joins the Struggle, meets Steve and marries him. But the end of the Struggle brings another set of new challenges, as if her way of being, defined from the outset in contrarian terms, would not have it any other way.

At the beginning of the book she works as a teacher and is mother to a young daughter, Sindi. Later, after she has begun legal training, she will bear a son, Gary Elias, because having a son is important for her ethnic community, and it is him she will bring to her father’s home for regular visits. Her natural sense of feminism, which will eventually bring her in conflict with her father when he sides Zuma despite the rape charges against him, co-exists with her traditional understanding of a woman’s role in a family—also the reason why she agrees to Steve’s decision to apply for academic posts in Australia with the prospect of emigrating.

At another level, her decisions are easier to make. She shares Steve’s and their friends’ disillusionment with what has become of the Struggle (and also the African National Congress), is upset about the rampant corruption, and angry at the mounting xenophobia vis-à-vis migrants. Yet she never really questions whether it all has a purpose and a meaning, however different that might be from what was anticipated at the beginning of the Struggle.

It is probably because of her work as a lawyer for a non-governmental organization, which daily confronts her with the brutality of contemporary South Africa but, also, the progress made in terms of representing the rights of the disavowed and the dispossessed. It has to do with how she maintains her connections to her home town and community in Swaziland; her unproblematic relation to religious difference—after all, South Africa is a mosaic of big and smaller religions, and religion is not the only dividing line; and her being mother to her children like her father was a parent to her—protective, reliable and, above all, encouraging their independent sense of self.

Steve’s identity crises are more taxing—and Gordirmer will often frame these, for him, and mirroring him, for Jabu, as crises regarding color. Is it Jabu’s color that makes the difference? Is it because Jabu is black and South Africa is—was—first and foremost black? Is that the reason Steve grows restless, asks whether he belongs, has an affair with a white woman while in London for a conference, to then begin to entertain thoughts about emigrating?

It is not wrong to want a different, easier, more comfortable life, one that is not continuously burdened by struggles, disappointments and political discussions.

But for people like Jabu and Steve, struggling for a better life—and not just for themselves—is part and parcel of who they are, as individuals and as a couple. Already before signing the papers for emigration they begin to familiarize themselves with Australian society, and that includes learning more about the Australian indigenous people and their struggle for justice.

In the end, after giving refuge to an illegal immigrant from Zimbabawe and being confronted with their daughter’s decision that she is not leaving South Africa without her surrogate grand-mother, Wehtu, Steve realizes emigration is not a real option. He might not be black, and his sense of home might be less rooted than Jabu’s, ambivalence more his way of being, but that doesn’t make him less of a South African.

No Time Like the Present is a poignant excursion into what it means to belong in post-national societies—and the intricate connections between public and private lives at times of transformation.

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