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Saturday, 20 July 2013

Crime, Race and Politics - SOUTH AFRICA

‘7 Days’, published in 2011, is the third book by Deon Meyer in which detective Benny Griessel is the lead character. The other two are Thirteen Hours (2009) and Devil's Peak (2004) – although Benny had made a first cameo appearance in Dead Before Dying (1996). The base character was created very quickly by Meyer as Benny was not a main protagonist in ‘Dead Before Dying’ – and this very possibly explains the cliché of yet another alcoholic detective in the mould of those who have been so popular with crime writers over recent literary history (perhaps Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole is the best known current example…).

‘7 Days’ is a very well written fast moving detective thriller. Good characters, good characterisation, and a great plot. Deon writes in Afrikaans, and the book is excellently translated into English by K.L. Seegers  - though it would have been good to have advance notice of the Glossary at the very end of the book…might have saved some guessing :). The literary quality is clear to see – perhaps a little simpler in construct that some of Meyer’s earlier novels, but that does not detract at all from the read. It is a page turner, but it is a literary page turner. The story has twists, turns, and false leads – just as you would expect. It is, as with all Meyer’s books, extremely well and thoroughly researched – and you can, for example, easily appreciate the respect he has for the elite HAWKS detectives with whom he spent time in Cape Town before he started to write the book – his appreciation of their dedication and professionalism comes through very clearly. Meyer, too, very precisely researches locations in which to set his characters – Hanneke’s apartment and van Eeden’s mansion are based on real properties in Cape Town.

The geographical setting of ‘7 Days’ in South Africa is not a key factor in developing the storyline – although, for me, the comment that the completion of the NI highway had not been a priority once the World Cup was over (a criticism made of more than one delayed infrastructure project…) – and the passing reference to the Radisson Blu in Sandton - both rang true. I have driven down the first – and visited the second – quite recently.

But the post-apartheid reality of South African business and politics is very certainly a key part of the storyline. Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) drives the plot of ‘7Days’…The BEE Act was brought in during 2003 to speed the move in South Africa to greater black representation in what had been (and still is) a predominantly white business society. By general consent, BEE has worked – up to a point. But it has also imposed an enormous administrative and logistic burden on small business – quite often it is hard to hire the best person for a position if that person is not black. BEE has also made a significant number of people, such as van Eeden in the book, seriously rich. The deals to set up major BEE compliant enterprises are extremely complex (and, again, extremely well researched by Meyer). The fixers, the merchant banks, the lawyers, and the advisors all make money – often to the tune of millions of rand. As do the number of elite black businessmen who ‘front’ some of the purchasing organisations (in the book there are those with ANC, Communist, and Trade Union backgrounds – this is not unusual). Greed often finds ways round both the letter and spirit of commercial law. South Africa has developed a new business and political elite who have great wealth. But that wealth does not filter down either to the general black population or to the increasingly unemployed and rejected Afrikaans’ working class. I am sure that is what Meyer was hoping to communicate to an audience both in South Africa and beyond.

All in all ‘7 Days’ is an excellent and thought provoking book. An exciting and well told story line – and also an eye-opener for anyone whose view of the new South Africa is limited to Cape wines, safaris in the Kruger National Park, or lazing on the beaches of the Eastern Cape. Apartheid may be long since dead – but it has not been replaced by nirvana.

If you want to read more books set in and evocative of Cape Town, then click here 

Tony and the TripFiction Team

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