“You know, the trouble with us Afrikaners isn’t that we are living in the past, but that we are so bladdy frightened of it we haven’t got time for anything else. The past scares the hell out of us. It brings us to our knees. We pray, yes, we pray to the past. To the God we have made of it. To the God who will allow no questions. No second thoughts.”
In A Duty of Memory, Botha writes about the burdens of the past, and how they impact the Hartzenbergs – the family at the center of the story. Andries Hartzenberg, a budding rugby player marries Caroline, a white woman he meets while on tour in the UK, after it turns out she’s pregnant. His family and the ‘volk’, as the community was referred to, do not take to Caroline, who is seen as an outsider. The ‘volk’ believe Andries has betrayed them. He is constantly overlooked for promotion, and his rugby career flounders. As a result, Andries becomes bitter, for rugby is the only passion in his life. He gradually becomes an alcoholic. His wife Caroline, on the other hand, is cut off from her own family for marrying an Afrikaner.
The couple have two children, Johanna and Eeben. Johanna grows up detesting both of her parents, and only finds joy in the company of their maid and her son, Mafimane. Eeben, meanwhile, is soft and malleable, a frailty he pays for eventually, when he is lured to join three other boys who are involved in crimes ranging from gay bashing to setting up dummy companies for eliminating political opponents in the name of fighting for the people.
Along the line Johanna is sent away to her maternal grandparents in the United Kingdom when her mother notices that the constant bickering between her and her father is getting out of hand. Andries becomes progressively more violent, and picks on his wife and servants for any reason. This and the lack of communication with her parents ultimately drive Caroline mad, and she is taken to an asylum. Andries also eventually passes on, and the house is left in the hands of the servants.
Years later, after the death of her brother Eeben, his wife and their children, in what appears to be a murder-suicide, Johanna returns to South Africa. She is left to pick up the pieces, and to revisit her own bitter past.
A Duty of Memory is ultimately about the effects of violence and intolerance on a people and a country as a whole. In the end, the Hartzenbergs are the tragic victims of society’s refusal to let go of the past. Their lives and family are torn apart as a result.