Dr Leonard Suransky is (Emeritus) Head of Department, International Relations, and co-founder of Webster University, Ghana, Accra.
As someone who lived through the Johannesburg of the 1950s and 60s, I recommend Jack Hoffmann’s novel, He Does Not Die a Death of Shame, to anyone from that era. Why? The author has a remarkable memory for the fine details of those heady days of our youth. The early chapters will take you back to your teenage years – and even to those of your infancy with your nanny. You may want to relive the thrills and traumas of high school, of afternoon cheder barmitzvah lessons, or more pleasantly, of Saturday morning bioscope escapades and comic swops. He does capture how hermetically segregated we Whiteys were from our Black peers.
The author’s research is particularly impressive in two sections of the book. In the early chapters he explores the lives of the grandparent generation. Here he has arduously reconstructed the late 19th and early 20th Century history of the Jews in Lithuania. He writes graphically of both the pogroms, the advent of the Nazi beast, and of the merciless slaughter in Naishtot.
The second striking area of research relates to the recreation of exile camp life and the harsh trials of the African liberation protagonist, Mpande Gumede. We witness his training as an African National Congress cadre in the USSR, and then read of his grueling clandestine journey across Africa to infiltrate South Africa. There are chilling insights into the obstacles laid by ruthless but effective police once his team eventually arrives ‘home’.
The other striking thing about this novel is the window it gives us, through the eyes of Zak Ginsberg, the white protagonist, into the training of a medical generation at the University of the Witwatersrand in the 60s under great professors like Tobias and Du Plessis. They produced a superior medical cohort that was sought after and praised wherever they landed in the world. The novel has - for a non-expert - a bewildering sprinkling of medical terminology at critical moments in the narrative, befitting a doctor-author.
Zak has his eyes opened to the iniquities of apartheid by a beautiful female Indian medical colleague. His first overt act against the regime comes with a futile attempt at correcting a twenty percent gap in the salaries of his non-white colleagues.
The author subtly hints at Zak’s seeming lack of courage, through his earlier life, in taking any action against apartheid’s cruelties and indignities. Did this unfair salary gap incident eventually persuade him to act; to take the ominous plunge of support for his childhood playmate, the son of his nanny now turned Umkhonto we Sizwe saboteur? I commend this novel as a gripping, easily flowing and informative roller coaster read. It leaves the reader with memorable insights into a shameful century of European and South African history, an era many of us lived through and an eye-opener for those who did not.
He Does Not Die a Death of Shame by Jack Hoffman, New Generation Publishing, 2019, 482pp