The Zebra Affaire by Mark Fine
This is a book that anyone should read, especially those of us who know little about the apartheid régime that formerly had a choke hold on the people, politics, and social structure of South Africa. One of the tasks of books that describe one of the many “holocausts” we have experienced around the world is to adequately convey the horror of living under a sadistic and morally bankrupt form of government. Mark Fine delivers this to his readers and much more.
Each story of this type is a critical cautionary tale to maintain our awareness that “it could happen here”, something that requires our vigilance. Though many Americans heard quite a bit about apartheid in the news much of it was comprised of sound bytes and “digestable” morsels of fact; that is the nature of news throughout the world when it comes to stories that don’t directly affect a particular nation’s well-being.
Through Mr. Fine’s book I was skillfully immersed in an entirely unexpected level of pure hell that shocked me. Through the experiences of Stanwell Marunda and Elsa Marais the disturbing structure of apartheid is revealed. Most basic to the story is fact that Stanwell is black and Elsa Marais is a white Afrikaner. Stanwell, who has come to find work in Johannesburg falls in love with Elsa who is a member of the dominant group in the country. The Afrikaners are the authors of apartheid and their “law” forbids relationships between blacks and whites, except those of master and servant.
We begin the story with a jarring revelation for those not familiar with apartheid. Stanwell has just experienced a potentially fatal car crash. Lying on the ground, feeling his life ebb, Stanwell is aided by Elsa and a British woman. While the outcome of the situation would be obvious to most of us, taking Stanwell to the hospital, in apartheid South Africa there is a draconian obstacle: Stanwell is black, making it impossible for him to be taken to a “whilte” hospital. The only legal alternative is for him to be brought to a substandard, brutal, “black” hospital where Stanwell is likely to die.
And so begins a chain of events that forces Stanwell, Elsa and their friends to consistently skirt the harsh laws of apartheid to allow them to stay together. Mark Fine creates a fascinating and compelling story, written on a broad canvas of South African history that includes the conflicts between tribes, the formation of apartheid and many small details of the nation’s cultural mosaic.
In many ways, though the characters and their experience affect the reader, “The Zebra Affaire” is a historical testament to the clash of cultures that characterizes world history. Not only does he describe the major players in apartheid but he includes, through his characters, Jewish emigres, Americans and British. The point at which all these groups come together is the focus of Mr. Fine’s book and the effect is moving.
The experience of his main characters is tragic. The book’s compelling nature comes from its sense of foreboding; early in the book I had a feeling that something bad was going to happen. Fine keeps you hooked as he builds up tension with incredible skill. But this is not a thriller, the characters are victims of real pain and sorrow. As a result, the reader feels far more personal association with the characters then you would find in a standard story.
I would recommend this book to anyone, especially those fascinated by history and diaspora. There are lessons in Mark Fine’s book for anyone who does not want history to repeat itself.