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Jacana

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

“I have PTSD and this novel was my outlet” – Rehana Rossouw at the launch of New Times

Apartheid, religion, homosexuality, Mandela The Sellout, politics of the newsroom, corruption in the UDF – Rehana Rossouw and Heather Robertson discussed the contents of Rehana Rossouw’s new novel (yes – it’s a novel!) in all its gritty detail at the recent Love Books launch of New Times.

As Kate Rogan, co-owner of Love Books, rightly stated – “it’s fantastic to see such a turnout for a work of fiction.” And a turnout it was.

Give them Rehana Rossouw, and they will come.

Robertson, previous editor of The Herald, and Rossouw’s personal and professional relationship spans over 30 odd years, when they met in the newsroom of anti-apartheid newspaper, South.

The 1980s was marked with terrible violence, Roberston stated.

“We attended far too many funerals…”

Robertson described Rossouw’s protagonist, a young, “shit hot reporter” Aaliyah – who goes by Ali in the newsroom – as a “fantastic character.

“You’ve created universal characters we can all relate to. They’re people we’ve all met.”

Robertson also lauded Rossouw for the beautiful prose, which “touches on humanity and what it means to be human.”

Two characters in the novel, including Ali, suffer from PTSD. Robertson commented that 1995 (the year in which New Times is set) was a year devoted to the ideals of the rainbow nation and reconciliation, yet those who bore the brunt of apartheid were inherently damaged.

“I have PTSD,” Rossouw replied. “This novel was an outlet for what I was going through. I’ve seen too many things that have had lasting effects.”

Rossouw’s PTSD manifested as flashbacks to bomb blasts, during which “I’ll be pulled out the present and taken into the past.

“I’ve witnessed too much and I can’t live with those memories.”

There was no time to process the violent acts she witnessed; “tomorrow we’ll bury another body, tomorrow there’ll be another shooting.”

She mentioned how an SADF member confessed to her how traumatised he was by the crimes he perpetrated.

“Trauma was experienced on both sides of the struggle, yet the SADF had little support. At least we had the comfort of victory… The SADF were left alone with the their memories. Nobody talks about it.”

Rossouw’s engagements with students committed to the FeesMustFall movement also influenced the contents of New Times.

“They were arguing for violence. That’s a dangerous thing; it has repercussions.” Furthermore, the Fallists perpetuated the idea of Mandela as a sellout; “I had to look at that.”

Tymon Smith, features writer at the Sunday Times, commented in a review of Rossouw’s novel that 1995 was the ‘beginning of our demise’.

“Do you agree?” Roberston enquired.

“Absolutely,” Rossouw forthrightly stated. She attributes South Africa’s demise to the lack of communication between the country’s political parties, a reluctance to accept democracy (“People were still waving the old flag”) and tender corruption, among others.

When asked to elaborate on her personal encounters with Mandela, Rossouw responded that she was tasked with covering the first year of his presidency, but added that he was hardly ever in the country. “I was so bored!”

Not only did she critique his absence from the country, but also his lack of engagement with people in the townships, adding that he was too focused on pacifying Afrikaners.

Robertson’s next remark on the substantial amount of sex scenes (“There’s a lot of sex in the book!”) elicited hearty laughter from the audience.

And not only in the newsroom (think editors, journalists, and office tables), but out of it as well.

Another pivotal part of the novel is that Ali is a lesbian. A Muslim lesbian.

When she goes home – the Bo-Kaap, where both Rossouw’s grandmothers were born – she’s “a different person.

“She finds it comforting – the culture, her home, her religion,” Rossouw explained, adding that there’s “no space for that [lesbianism] at all” in a community like the Bo-Kaap. She even (semi) joked that, although it’s 2017, you’ll still find people in the Bo-Kaap community who’ll claim to not know any gays or lesbians. The burden of this “hidden shame” from the community is a “stumbling block and a cause of her breakdown,” says Rossouw.

Robertson elaborated on the “unspoken shame” faced by lesbians, yet moffies are regarded as fun, flamboyant and accepted into society. Homosexual women still have to conceal their sexuality; why bring this up? “The moffies and the letties?”

Not only was the Nelson Mandela Foundation an invaluable source of material on Mandela for her book, Rossouw responded, but their South African history archive proved to be equally informative.

“AIDS was another big thing in 1995,” Rossouw said. “It was the year when the heterosexual community started to be affected by the virus, but those that were dying were gay.

“Thus the character campaigning for AIDS had to be gay.”

And her views on the current state of journalism, as compared to the ’80s / 90s?

Rossouw is of opinion that the sense of camaraderie doesn’t exist anymore; the stories are the same – “we’re still reporting on poor black South Africans, the government still doesn’t care”; those in charge don’t provide essentials such as transport, or expect journalists to pay for their own data when forced to work from home when, say, the internet’s down; and – this she emphasised more than once – “PEOPLE DON’T READ. They’re not bad journalists, but THEY DON’T READ.”

An audience member was curious as to whether we can expect an autobiography or memoir from Rossouw…

A definite ‘no’ substantiated with “I’m not interesting enough!” had the whole audience unanimously respond with what can only be described as an onomatopoeic version of ‘Ja, right, Rehana.’

Oh, how she blushed.

New Times

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