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Tuesday, November 5, 2019


The novel, which blurs the lines between fiction and reality (see Q&A with Maughan Brown), moves briskly and is a stark reminder, should one be needed, of where we have come from. (Review by Margaret von Klemperer, courtesy of The Witness)

Set in Pietermaritzburg in the dark days of the 1980s when white South Africans who did not buy into the apartheid ideology of the Nationalist government were feeling increasingly desperate, David Maughan Brown’s Despite the Darkness skilfully captures the pervasive sense of fear and hopelessness that characterised those years and that we are inclined to forget in the dramas of the present.

The novel is largely set around the university campus, which the author obviously knew well. The plot concerns a History professor, Cameron Beaumont, already under surveillance by the Special Branch for his left wing views, who is approached for help one night by Mirambo, an SRC member on the run. Mirambo may or may not have been involved in a bombing that killed an innocent security guard. Beaumont helps him to escape, albeit a little reluctantly, but eventually the student vanishes and, of course, the fear is that the Special Branch have dealt with him, to say nothing of the fact that he may have been made to reveal who has helped him.

As the Special Branch step up their harassment of Beaumont in a number of creatively evil ways that target not only him but also his wife and young children, he becomes increasingly concerned for Mirambo. And his own life, both academic and personal, begins to unravel and he finds himself more and more isolated. Under pressure, he makes several spectacularly unwise decisions.

The novel, which blurs the lines between fiction and reality (see Q&A with Maughan Brown), moves briskly and is a stark reminder, should one be needed, of where we have come from. - Margaret von Klemperer.

Despite the Darkness is published by Troubador Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1838599312, 9781838599317


David Maughan Brown lectured in the English department at the then University of Natal in the 1970s and 1980s before becoming Deputy Vice chancellor and Principal on the Pietermaritzburg campus. In 2002 he moved to the UK where he continued his academic career at York St John University until his retirement.  Margaret von Klemperer, who was taught by him in the 1980s, asked him some questions about Despite the Darkness.

MvK:  Who did you see as your intended audience while writing? South Africans or an overseas readership? I ask because a lot of the notes would not be needed for local readers.
DMB:  Both. The notes and the few pages of historical context were requested by my literary agent with a view to UK and US audiences. Having spent a couple of dispiriting years trying to interest literary agents in taking the novel on I felt the need to comply. But I thought the notes could be useful to some SA readers too, given that even by the time we left SA in 2002 it was already clear that many students, from all backgrounds, had very little knowledge about the details of apartheid history – including, astonishingly, the Soweto uprising (never mind Sharpeville).

MvK: Why tell this story now, 35 years after the events took place?
DMB: Several reasons:
I am currently the Chair of the Board for the Centre of Applied Human Rights at the University of York which offers a number of six month ‘protective fellowships’ to Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) ‘at risk’ from around the world every year. This involves reading through applications from 30 to 40 HRDs every year, many of whom are experiencing what all too many black anti-apartheid activists experienced under apartheid. One of the recurrent themes in their applications is the often irreconcilable conflict between commitment to the struggle against tyranny and oppression on the one hand, and their commitment to, and love for, their partners and children. So the novel was attempting to explore that conflict.

Similarly, the novel was trying to explore, or at least flag, other contemporary issues. The most obvious and relevant of these – certainly in the UK right now – is the “you can’t prove a negative” trope, with particular reference to paedophilia. Just ask Cliff Richard, among many others. Another issue it touches on is the creeping managerialism in Higher Education world-wide.

Another reason for telling the story was that given the evidence I could glean from this distance of the increasing disillusionment with post-apartheid government in South Africa, it seemed to me timely to remind people just how awful those years were, even for privileged white people who opposed apartheid.

MvK: At the end, not all loose ends are tied up. Does this mean a sequel, taking Cameron’s story forward to post 1994?
DMB: The sequel has already been written and awaits publication – depending on whether or not Despite the Darkness crashes and burns, as my son Brendan would put it. Cameron Beaumont is living in self-imposed exile in Sheffield twenty years later, getting up the nose of the local constabulary among others (old habits die hard.) The novel does tie up the loose ends and, among other things, tells the story of what happened when Cameron went back to SA to try to carry on the struggle. 

MvK: Pietermaritzburg readers in particular will want to know – how much of David Maughan Brown is in Cameron Beaumont and to what extent are you blurring the lines between fiction and a lived reality? Were you subjected to the same level of harassment as Cameron?

DMB: There was a very deliberate intention from the outset to blur the lines between fiction and a lived reality – hence the precision of the historical chronology and the citing of the names of historical victims of apartheid. Perhaps the most glaring example is the use of the Victims Index afterword finally to disclose what happened to Mirambo. At the personal level, we did experience much of the harassment that Cameron and Jules go through: the relatively frequent dead-of-night death threats – some transcribed word for word in the novel. The most disconcerting phone-call was the one that simply said “Albie Sachs sends his regards”  – I hadn’t a clue what that was about until we heard on the morning news that Albie had been blown up the previous day. I was regularly followed during the 1970s and we did have Special Branch agents sitting in cars outside the house strewing stompies over the pavement. Our telephone was bugged for the better part of 15 years  I did arrive home one day to find a wreath on our front door-handle; I intercepted people sent to cut down all the trees in our garden; and on one occasion I left the house to go to work just in time to stop a ton of chicken manure being dumped on our lawn.

The germ of the idea for the novel came from an occasion when one of the Pietermaritzburg SRC members on the run from the Special Branch knocked on our door at midnight and asked for a bed for the night, and Sue and I made up a bed behind a sofa in the lounge. He subsequently became the Director–General of one of the departments in Pretoria. So some of the experience was real but the relationships, the characters, and the way the story goes forward are entirely fictional.

MvK: You capture the sense of fear and hopelessness of the 1980s. How hard was it for you to relive that time, even through fiction?
DMB: The process of writing the novel was cathartic. One of the programmes that the HRDs at York follow involves their being encouraged, and helped by an established author, to write fiction or create artworks arising out of their experience. This is apparently a recognised way of addressing PTSD. I haven’t ever experienced anything that could be clinically identified as PTSD but it seemed like a good idea to try to write out of the harassment experience. My experience was absolutely minimal compared to that of so many others. Paradoxically, the difficulty involved in revisiting the awfulness of those years may well have stemmed from a guilty feeling of not having done enough to try to end apartheid, of having committed myself more to the family than the struggle, that haunted me as much as the memory of the harassment. So reliving that time was difficult.

MvK: In the 1980s, many people on the local university campus were involved in the struggle against apartheid. You present your fictional campus as generally unsympathetic and Beaumont’s colleagues in the main as supporters, to a greater or lesser extent, of the status quo. Although “Despite the Darkness” is fiction and you deal with this issue in the acknowledgements, do you anticipate criticism from your former colleagues?
DMB: This could be a bit of a worry. In the context of there being so many, sometimes surprising, people whom one needs to be wary of in such environments, I could perhaps be accused of translating a more general HRD experience rather too directly onto the Pmb.campus. But the dominant ideology of the Faculty was definitely Liberal, and those of us who accepted and endorsed the need for an armed struggle, in so far as endorsement was possible, were a very small minority. However, Cameron’s colleagues in the Facuilty are generally supportive. Other members of staff, who don’t know him, are unsympathetic, but the novel doesn’t dwell much on them. Again I don’t want to conflate Cameron’s experience with my own but I, and my published views on apartheid, tended to be written off as ‘Marxist’ by many colleagues in other faculties in the 1970s and 1980s, and many were horrified when I was appointed Principal of the campus.

MvK: For someone who has spent your working life in academia, you are pretty hard on fellow academics, both in South Africa and abroad. They appear ready to believe any rumours that are spread about one of their own, without interrogation of the facts. Is this an accurate view of what was experienced in the 1980s?
DMB:  As I’ve said, the colleagues in SA who know Cameron don’t believe the rumours; given the prevailing atmosphere of suspicion, the ones who don’t know him reasonably well have no particular reason not to believe the rumours. “You can’t disprove a negative.” Going by my personal experience (although, again, I wouldn’t want to be conflated with Cameron) I did experience a degree of overt hostility from some delegates at the international conferences I presented at in the 1970s and 1980s.  Because whites were privileged in so many ways in comparison with everyone else under apartheid there was an assumption among many people who didn’t know better that all white people who stayed in SA must have been sympathetic towards apartheid. This belief was no doubt reinforced by the fact that the vast majority of academics who broke the academic boycott in the other direction – mainly academics from Israel and the US – were, in fact, uncritical of apartheid. Unsurprisingly, I suppose, I’ve encountered academics and university managers since coming to work in York who have given the impression of still having residual doubts on that score.