Dance with a Poor Man’s Daughter is of special interest to me because it was sent to me by family in South Africa, travelling from Cape Town to Paris in my mother’s suitcase – and like several close relatives of mine, its author, Pamela Jooste, grew up in Cape Town under Apartheid. Dance with a Poor Man’s Daughter was published in 1998, five years after the end of Apartheid and four years after the first multi-racial democratic elections in the history of the country had been won by Nelson Mandela. Garnering many awards both in South Africa and in the UK, it is a moving account of the injustice suffered by the “coloured” population of Cape Town under the Group Areas Act of 1950, which forcibly relocated tens of thousands of people to specific settlements for Non-Whites.
The story focuses on the Daniels family, who (ironically) live on Constitution Street, at the top of a hill in the Valley, a fictional neighbourhood based on District Six. It is told through the eyes of its youngest member, eleven-year-old Lily Daniels, who was brought up by her grandmother after her mother abandoned her to go to Johannesburg in search of a better life. The style of the novel imitates the chatter of a bright and curious child: untroubled by the need to draw breath, Lily’s sentences run into each other, eager to share anecdotes about her daily life, comically repeating expressions she has heard the grown-ups use, and frequently illustrating the commonly known fact that “little pitchers have big ears”. Though she knows more than a child her age should about gangster politics and Roeland Street Jail, Lily’s life is nevertheless a happy one. Besides her grandmother, the household is also made up of her widowed aunt Stella, who hops along in a leg brace because she caught polio as a child. Then there’s her uncle Gus-Seep, who is one of Lily’s favourite people: he sells fruit and vegetables off the back of a horse-drawn cart, but his real love is a race horse called Flora Dora, on whom he systematically bets all his earnings (and just as systematically loses). A little too fond of drinking, he is also a compulsive teller of tall tales, which he whispers into Lily’s delighted ears. Lily’s other favourite person is James, a neighbour and long-standing friend of the family (whom the reader suspects throughout the book of being Lily’s father).
Just as the first rumours of resettlement start to trickle into the Valley, who should return after an almost ten-year absence but Lily’s mother, Gloria. The neighbourhood immediately erupts with gossip – for Gloria is not merely unconventional, she is scandalous. Beautiful and outspoken, she is remembered as much for being an unmarried mother as for her rich singing voice and talent on the dance floor. Moreover, it is murmured that in Johannesburg she was a shebeen queen and hand in glove with gangsters. After the initial emotion of her homecoming, a familiar but long-forgotten frustration sets in: for Gloria cannot let things be, but must probe, question, and challenge. She is of the militant kind – and she has returned determined to fight against the injustice of the government’s new legislation. She is, everyone regretfully agrees, a troublemaker.
Indeed, Gloria seems more interested in sifting through piles of paperwork and haunting government offices than in getting to know her estranged daughter. Lily is quick to note this, and her hurt and resentment, instead of lessening, grow stronger with every passing day, all the more as Gloria monopolizes first Gus-Seep, and then James. She whose loyalty towards her beloved cousin Royston was undiminished by his becoming a gangster like his father, she who always smiles at Matilda, one of the young prostitutes who works nearby, and refuses to cross to the other side of the street when she sees her, as instructed by her grandmother, is capable of nothing but hostility when it comes to her mother. Blinded by resentment, she is incapable of appreciating her mother’s integrity and bravery, seeing in her only an attention-seeker and a cause of embarrassment to the family.
Meanwhile, Lily’s world is falling apart, as bulldozers make their way through the Valley, reducing houses and shops to piles of rubble and forcing whole families to relocate. When James is arrested for organizing a sit-in at the college where he teaches, and Gloria stands on the steps of Roeland Street Jail for two days and a night, holding a placard that says “Charge him or release him”, the Daniels family think they have had just about all they can handle. But worse is yet to come, for during a demonstration, Gloria is violently assaulted by a policeman and ends up in hospital with a broken jaw and stitches all down the side of her face. Despite pain, and the knowledge that her looks are ruined forever, Gloria’s spirit remains unbroken, and her determination to keep up the fight is unshaken. However, her concern for Lily’s future grows and, finally, she decides to send her away to England for a while, to live with her uncle Errol.
Lily receives the news like a knife-thrust to the heart. Too young to understand the long-term implications of the political changes that have been taking place, she sees only that she is being excluded, sent away from the house in which she grew up and the people she holds dearest, and prevented from sharing the family’s burden in their hour of need. Then comes the coup de grace: because of Gloria and James’s recent political activities, the government has denied Lily a normal passport. Instead, she is only allowed an exit permit, which means that once she has left the country, she will never be able to return. Though Lily cries and begs to be able to remain in South Africa with her family, her mother is inflexible. And when the day of her departure arrives and the man at passport control asks her if she has fully understood what her exit permit entails, Lily answers clearly and coldly that yes, she has understood: she has understood that she will never see her grandmother, Gus-Seep, James, or the loquat tree in her grandmother’s garden, ever again. Her grief and sense of exile become a symbol of the pain, the humiliation, and the sense of exile within their own country, suffered by all her fellow “coloured” compatriots under Apartheid. And though the end of the book shows us Lily slowly adjusting to life in England, it is obvious that the damage inflicted upon her is irreparable.
© Florence Berlioz 2011