Joseph Diescho’s Troubled Waters (published in 1993 by Gamsberg Macmillan) is a tale of the dilemmas thrown up by the Aparthied system. Diescho delves deeply into the minds of both Afrikaner and black to emerge with a picture of people who are both clever and discerning, but helpless to alter the system they find themselves in. Instead they must tread carefully and stealthily.
Set in 1974, the story is based mainly in South West Africa (now Namibia) at the time of South African control. The story is told to some extent through Andries, an Afrikaner who has been brought up in the true Afrikaner tradition of patriotism, extreme religious fervour and the certainty that non-whites were “given to the Afrikaners as labourers by God Almighty”.
The story begins with Andries and six other promising Afrikaner school mates going into ‘camp’ as a prelude to joining the South African army – regarded as the highest representation of the Afrikaner ideals of courage and patriotism. But at camp, Andries is forced to interact on an equal footing with the few black children there – an experience both he and the blacks concerned find uncomfortable but insightful.
When he joins the army, Andries does not become a “fighting man” as expected. Instead, he’s to be a soldier-teacher at a rural black school where he’s to teach – with gun on hip – unquestioning obedience to the Apartheid system.
Once Andries settles down to teaching, we follow his increasingly troubled mind as he wrestles with the enquiring minds of the children around him, and the unheroic stories of soldiers from his barracks who’ve been “to the front”. He finds himself drawn to the oldest white teacher, who has a rapport with the black children, and to Lucia, the only black teacher and the other central character in the book. She too has her troubles. She’s university educated but increasingly isolated from her community. She’s a teacher but must sneak into the “whites only staffroom” to better prepare her work, and she can’t part take in the “whites only” staff meetings. She also feels the burden of expectation from the school children when their rights are violated and they need a champion. As the two embark on their affair – illegal in Apartheid terms – I can’t help the growing feeling of dread.
The author does a good job of showing how the central characters, school children and the community around them, strive to survive in a system they are helpless to change. And how they must operate in an increasingly diminished space as the South African government – mindful of the influence of the liberation movement, SWAPO – extends its ‘homelands’ system to South West.
The book is a brilliant insight into the workings of the Afrikaner mind and of the Namibian culture, from an African author both educated in South Africa, and born and bred in the very part of Namibia where the story is focussed. The ending, I felt, left room for a sequel. I eagerly await it.