I received a free copy of this ebook in an online giveaway. These are my honest views of this novel.
Jo Robinson’s novel, African Me and Satellite TV, is a most compelling and powerful novel, with a wide range of characters drawn with deep emotions, and a message some may find uncomfortable. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Jo’s main character, Suzette Hertzog, is caring, artistic, somewhat emotional, and extremely inhibited. She has lived with pushing down her abhorrence of the way whites treat blacks in Zimbabwe ever since she saw “her father punch their driver in the face. Her 10-year-old heart had frozen in her chest, and over the next few days of listening to her parent’s vicious racist rants over his suspected, but unproven, theft of five litres of fuel, and watching him sobbing, denying it, begging them not to make him go, she finally decided to stop looking.”
This scene was so vivid and moving (as were many others throughout the book), I became curious as to how much of the main character, Suzette, was based on Jo’s own life growing up in South Africa, and then working in Zimbabwe. So, I contacted her, and she graciously answered all of my questions. I asked “Is there something in your personal past that made you write about this subject matter? Is there something of yourself in your main character — Suzette?”
Here is her response:
Definitely. I grew up in apartheid South Africa. I was born in Port Elizabeth but lived in Johannesburg from the age of six until I was nineteen when I moved to Cape Town. Growing up I spent a lot of time with the black people that worked for my mother. They were really good people, funny, generous with what little they had, and always kind to me. They shared their meals with me, as well as their stories. This was severely frowned on by the adults in my life, and I soon learned that I had to keep these friendships secret. If friendships is what they truly were. They had no rights then, and had been forced into an appalling situation where they were expected to treat any white person as their superior – their master. Even a small one like me. At that time they weren’t considered “real” people. They were mostly treated really, really badly. Beating them or killing them was fine back then. It was beyond appalling, even to my small self, and I hurt for them with every indignity or atrocity I saw inflicted on them. I saw many, many of these things. I was in Cape Town when Nelson Mandela was released – had the pleasure of shaking his hand once shortly afterwards. When the ANC was voted in, I was amazed to hear most of the white people I knew suddenly come out with the “fact” that they had always been against apartheid, and had been staunch supporters of the idea of a truly democratic South Africa all along. I laughed and laughed. Apartheid held a whole nation of people hostage, made them work like dogs for pittance, with no rights to their own land at all, they were housed in small dingy rooms or given the “opportunity” to live in places considered unfit for whites. They were tortured mind, body, and soul for the betterment of their oppressors.
When I moved up to Zimbabwe in 1995 I fell in love with that place. It’s hard to describe. Everywhere you saw happy, smiling faces. People were happily employed, well fed, and received education on par with the best anywhere in the world. When Robert Mugabe came to power he promised to do something about the unequal ownership of land between black and white people. I believe that there was funding promised to help with this by the UK. I haven’t actually researched whether or not this was done. All that changed very suddenly. Land was forcefully taken from white owners by way of land invasions. “War Veterans” (most of whom must have fought as foetuses apparently) were given free reign by the government and stormed onto farms beating and killing. Farmers were lucky to escape with their lives, and lost everything. I’ve seen footage of eighty year old men and women so physically damaged from being beaten that I’ve been physically sick. People were beaten to death – both black and white people. Many, many good black men, women, and children have lost their lives purely for not following the “correct” political party. We lived out in the bush on farms, so I saw much of this first hand – lived it. Still, with all the evil going on, there were always those black people who I loved – my friends, who were just people going about their lives. Racism is very much alive and well in Zimbabwe. Both from black people and from white people. The type that affected me the most was the kind where the victims couldn’t fight back, mainly due to the fact that they were poor. An incident in town once where I witnessed a white person screaming filth and abuse at a black person, who merely stood there, head bowed in shame, until the white person made a loud exit, tires squealing and engine roaring. In the embarrassed silence that followed, I realized that all of us bystanders should have stepped in. We should have said something in defence – we should have told that rotten sod to shut up. We never did though. That, I think, more than anything was the inspiration for African Me & Satellite TV. I think that there’s a little bit of me in most of the characters in this book – sort of spread around, rather than only in Suzette.
Suzette feels badly about the way she has been treating her husband, basically vegging in front of the TV, and not taking care of her personal appearance. At least, part of her feels that way. Part of her isn’t quite prepared to do anything about it until the arrival of a pushy, arrogant, crass, racist couple who force themselves on Suzette and her friends. When this couple beats their maid and throws her out into the road along with her belongings, Suzette’s gardener brings her home, and something inside Suzette snaps: life will never be the same again. It will be better.
Suzette begins to pick up her life and art where she left off. She goes to her studio and uncovers the last unfinished painting. I was haunted by the mental image of it — of the Afrikaan children, and the story of how she spent time walking through town seeking out and sketching children in an attempt to bring authenticity to her work, and to show the devastating effects of the social upheaval on the innocent. It was instantly understandable that this shy, sensitive artist would shut out her career, her life, her loves, in despair of ever, on her own, bringing about change. And so, she sat in front of the satellite TV, immersing herself in the banal. I asked Jo about this painting.
Q: The painting Suzette was working on — is there a painting you’ve seen that inspired it?
A: Actually I can see that painting only in my head, but very vividly, so at some point in the future I might have a bash at bringing it to life – although mine could never be as good as Suzette’s.
But Suzette does more than just pick up where she left off — she begins to stretch, to do things she used to be afraid of doing, to say things she used to tamp down silently within herself, to stand up for the weak and powerless. She becomes determined and protective of others. With this new beginning, Suzette sees with new insight into her family, friends, and servants. Apparently, she and her gardener had much more in common than she could ever have imagined.
The ending is pure inspiration. ( I’m not going to give it away.) The moral here seems to be that many people give up and walk away, trying to pretend the problems aren’t there, not only in Africa, but here in the west, as well, where we have our own brand of racism and hatred. But we cannot become like the ostrich and bury our heads in the sand. African Me & Satellite TV is historical fiction at its finest. I had a fair knowledge before of South Africa and apartheid, and something about Rhodesia’s history, and also, Rwanda. But I knew very little about Zimbabwe. I know that I have had my eyes opened by Jo’s story and, hopefully, I will never be the same. I will be better. * * * * *