Spiritualists say that if you stand on the fork of a road you will be transported into the spirit world and the stories of your soul’s many past lives will be recounted. In other words, you will meet the ghosts of your past.

André Brink in A Fork in the Road does exactly this: he meets the ghosts of his past.  And the ghosts of his country’s past.

The South African author quotes Yogi Berra, the American baseball great: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Anyone who reads Brink’s memoir will enjoy the journey that lies beyond his fork in the road.

His opening line is, “If I close my eyes and silently mouth the word dorp [Afrikaans for town], what I conjure up now, sixty or more years later, is an image of wide dusty streets, the pavements overgrown with thorns (which we called, with good reason, duwweltjies, little devils), in a predictable grid around the tall spire of the Dutch Reformed church, that sat brooding over the surrounding house like a large and somewhat unwieldy hen with outstretched wings protecting her chickens.”

Whether you know South Africa or not, reading those words should evoke a sense of the hot African sun against your skin, and a lovely aroma filling your nostrils. Eucalyptus? Fig? Is it the clear watery smell of the watermelon fruit? Or just the dust on the road which Brink has invited you to walk with him?

Brink’s father was a magistrate, his mother a school teacher. Daniel and Aletta Brink were “educated”, and they would have had no doubts that André too would do well at school, that his teachers would say that he was “slim” – clever – and maybe one day when he'd grown up he would teach school too.

Brink did teach – he still does, as professor of English at Cape Town University – but fortunately for fans in the 30-plus countries where his books have been published, he also chose to write.

In A Fork in the Road Brink tells us what it means to have been born in a country which was for decades a pariah among nations and peoples. He was born in 1935 when Apartheid was practised but was not yet law. The laws came in 1948 when the Protestant-Fundamentalist Afrikaans-speaking whites took power. 

Brink writes of white farmers flogging their black or coloured labourers.  One such incident he recounts is particularly shocking. An affluent white man had forcibly taken a black boy from his mother to work for him as domestic servant in his household. After the child had run away for a third time, the white man and his friends beat him for six hours.  The instrument of punishment was a hosepipe.

Brink writes of the power of the police, the Special Branch which South Africans called “BOSS” – its official name was Bureau of State Security (“boss” (baas in Afrikaans) was also the form of address a “non-white” had to use when in conversation with a white man). The Special Branch used “systematic and universal torture and state-sponsored murder and explosions introduced by P.W. Botha and his successor” writes Brink.  Pieter Willem Botha (1916-2006) led South Africa from 1978-1989, first as prime minister and then as president. His successor was Frederik Willem de Klerk (1936-), Nobel Peace Prize laureate of 1993 (he shared the prize with Nelson Mandela).

But Brink is not blind, not even blinkered, to the fact that all is not well in the new South Africa, the “Rainbow Nation”. In the memoir’s final chapter, “Still Black and White” he writes: “I hesitate to return  in this final chapter to the theme of black and white. One would have liked to think that at the very heart of the shift in South Africa since the transition that began in the early nineties would have been a move away from race.” He observes that the basic social divisions that had existed in Apartheid South Africa have not changed all that much. He blames both the ultra right-winger whites who won't accept change, and the ruling ANC (African National Congress) Party who today favour blacks when it comes to employment. He names government ministers who are betraying the values that the anti-apartheid warriors fought for and in some cases died for, having been thrown from high windows by Special Branch agents or blown to pieces by time bombs in foreign cities.

But a flaw in Brink's memoir is that he does not go into what this betrayal means.

It means that crime is soaring in South Africa. Latest SAPS (South African Police Service) statistics ranks the country globally as fourth in robbery, second in murder and number one for rape. Fifty-one people are murdered daily and 100 rapes are committed each day. And in 2008, 5.2 million South Africans lived with HIV and AIDS; there were 250,000 AIDS fatalities that year.

One government minister Brink mentions is Charles Nqakula, Minister of Safety and Security. In 2006, responding to criticism in parliament of his ministry’s failure to halt the escalation in crime, he said that any dissatisfied MP should leave the country. Nqakula's remark left a bitter taste in the mouth, because in the Apartheid years many had felt forced to leave the country.

I will therefore end with another Yogi Berra quote: “It's like deja-vu, all over again.” To stop the deja-vu, A Fork in the Road should be made compulsory reading in all of South Africa's schools. Come to think of it, not only in South Africa's schools, but wherever in the world people are struggling for freedom, equality and brotherhood.


Other Reviews

The Independent:  This is a fascinating book, of enormous interest to anyone who understands the important role of South African writers in the past 60 years

The Observer: André Brink may have battled against apartheid, but his memoir finds him still in thrall to his racist father

The Guardian:  André Brink's A Fork in the Road is not only timely, it is also a small act of rebellion. It declines to forget the granite years of apartheid, and it looks with alarm at what has happened to the ideals and illusions of those who imagined new freedoms would exorcise old demons.