Hum if You Don’t Know the Words
By Bianca Marais
Read Dec 2019
June 16, 1976, Robin is a white nine-year old girl living in Boksburg, Johannesburg, South Africa with her parents and her imaginary twin sister. Her parents are killed that evening while (black) maid Mabel babysits. Police come to her home and take her and Mabel to the police station. Mabel is questioned by the police and leaves abruptly. Aunt Edith, her mother’s sister, picks her up from the police station. Both Robin and Edith’s lives are thrown into turmoil as they try to deal with the loss of Robin’s parents and how Edith, an international flight attendant with no intentions of being a parent, will care for her niece.
On June 14, 1976 Beauty Mbali, an educated black woman living in rural Transkei, South Africa (an area later set aside by South Africa as a homeland for Xhosa-speaking people, recognized as an independent country by South Africa then reabsorbed into South Africa), receives word from her brother that Beauty’s daughter, who is living with him in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa while going to high school, is in trouble. Beauty leaves her two sons at home to search for her daughter. On June 16, 1976, between 10,000 and 20,000 black students protest a recent decree requiring Afrikaans, versus their indigenous language, be the language used for teaching. Beauty learns her daughter is a leader from her school in this uprising. Her life is turned upside down as she seeks a means to find her daughter and take her home.
Through Marias’ novel the reader become acquainted with a number of apartheid laws under which black live during this period. Among them, the requirement that blacks carry passbooks, that they must have clearance to be in an area outside their home district, and that is illegal for a black person to sleep in a white person’s home. Robin has been raised with other aspects of this culture including the requirement that Mabel use only a designated toilet and that whites don’t eat or drink from dishes used by blacks.
The stories of their days just before the uprising through approximately a year later are told through chapters told by either Robin or Beauty. The author’s rendering of each character’s voice is convincing.
Of course these two characters are brought together to partly mitigate the turmoil in their lives. Beauty is hired to care for Robin (also not quite legal as she can only be a maid, not a caregiver, and certainly not one that sleeps in their apartment) while Aunt Edith is doing her job for the airline. Beauty gets a passbook and a stamp allowing her to be in Aunt Edith’s district and to travel to and from her home for visits. An organization supporting the demise of apartheid is a key component enabling this situation. The novel gives some perspective of the risks the organization’s member assume to press their beliefs of injustice of the system.
A few other characters, friends and neighbors of Aunt Edith, are needed for the story as they fill gaps for Robin’s care when neither Beauty nor Aunt Edit is available. The author uses this opportunity to inform the reader of the laws against homosexuality and that anti-Semitism is rampant. Robin is, of course, confused by these prejudices as the Goldmans and Victor and his friends seem completely normal and unworthy of any contempt by anyone. Again, Robin’s nine year-old voice is believable and can conveniently provide some teaching.
The story has a good amount of suspense as Beauty pursues many avenues to find her daughter. Robin gets in the investigative act as well since she’s enamored by a detective series she reads and can effectively plot with the Goldman boy to provide her cover. It is interesting that Robin is allowed to walk home from school and take care of herself until dinner-time, sometimes, when Beauty can’t be there while she’s following a thread that might lead her to her daughter. The complete helicopter parent routine of our current culture hadn’t fully invaded Robin’s neighborhood yet.
Beauty wonders “what quality of freedom be if it is won with blood.” She worries that violent uprising will poison its participants, eliminating their ability to do the difficult post-revolution work in a peaceful manner. She has a point.
The book is engaging. It gives the reader an opportunity to learn more about this period in South African history and provides some very useful perspective regarding the apartheid-era in South Africa. While we would like to think that the United States “got past” these kinds of irrational and abusive laws and customs through our own brutal Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, it does give readers pause as to whether or not that is truly the case. Similarly it’s not clear neither the United States nor any other political entity has evolved beyond the use of force to win its battles for what it sees as “right”.