In A Sport of Nature (1987), Nadine Gordimer imagined an almost magically peaceful end to South Africa’s years of racial and political turmoil. In that novel, she concluded with a massive rally and celebration as power was transferred from whites to blacks, and a freely elected majority president took his oath of office. This was a poetic fancy, not a political prediction, but perhaps it was not far off the mark after all. In spite of last-minute terrorism, brutal intertribal violence, and grisly “necklacing” of “traitors,” the transition to majority rule in South Africa has been surprisingly peaceful and orderly. At a time when North Americans are nastily cynical about politicians and the system they represent, the images of South African blacks waiting patiently in line for hours to cast their ballots in free elections remain a potent reminder of the power of democracy.
None to Accompany Me takes a step backward in time, to the transition between the release of Nelson Mandela and the elections that brought him to power. It is a difficult period, marred by wrenching changes and punctuated by senseless violence—a time when exiled leaders and guerrilla fighters are returning to claim their place in the new regime, when new political alliances are forming and former enemies are learning to trust or at least live with one another. Above all, it is the triumphant time of the diplomat, bureaucrat, and lawyer, those gray and unexciting figures who must actually effect the transition from hostility to peace. Vera Stark, Didymus and Sibongile Maqoma, Oupa Segake, and Zeph Rapulana are among them. Through them, Gordimer once again explores the relationship between the personal and the political, between sexual politics and power politics.
Vera is the novel’s center of consciousness and chief protagonist, the character through whom most events are filtered. When the story begins, she has just found an old photograph, presumed lost, that she had sent to her husband in Egypt during World War II. On it she has circled Bennet Stark’s face, in an attempt to tell her husband that she has found a new man. The reader later learns that she divorced her first husband because he was inept in bed. Ironically, when he returned two years later to reclaim some possessions, they consummated not their marriage, but their divorce, and thus conceived Ivan, the child whom Ben always assumed was his.
Now a respected lawyer and administrator at the Legal Foundation, Vera has found her life’s work in helping blacks reclaim land taken from them by whites. Bennet, in a significant role reversal, has sacrificed his artistic and academic ambitions so that she might pursue her calling. In an attempt to provide for her future, he enters a luggage business. Ben and Vera’s lives are paralleled by those of Didymus and Sibongile Maqoma, returned exiles. Didymus has spent his life abroad and underground, fighting against apartheid and its government, but in the new political alignment it is Sibongile who wins a seat on the board of the Movement; Didymus is passed over, relegated to history, his only role now being to write his memoirs and take over his wife’s chores at home.
The parallels extend to domestic dramas. Ben and Vera are troubled by Ivan’s disintegrating marriage and their daughter Annick’s unmarried state, which they slowly realize is the result of lesbianism. Meanwhile, Mpho upsets her family by becoming pregnant by Oupa—a fact that the Maqomas irrationally blame on Vera, since Oupa is her assistant. Mpho reluctantly agrees to an abortion, recovers from the incident, and accepts a scholarship to New York University. Ivan’s marriage breaks up; his son Adam comes to live with Vera and Ben; Annick openly “marries” Lou, and they adopt a black baby girl.
The paths of the two families diverge, however, in more important ways than they converge. In spite of domestic trials and the strains caused by Sibongile’s spectacular rise to political prominence,...