We had a special luck with the choosing of our last book for the spring term, as it was chosen by one of our book club members, who happened to live in the South Africa for several years. The works of André Brink are familiar to her, and she chose the book from his latest production, namely Philida (published in 2012, Brink himself died three years later). We were very happy to be reading him, as everybody knows him by the name, but we did not remember reading anything from him. André Brink and apartheid, yes, he was always the spokesperson against apartheid and brought the injustices of the society into sight through his writing. We came to learn that originally the author wrote in Africaans, but as the government abolished one of his books in the early 1970’s, he begun also writing in English and his texts become more known worldwide.
Philida is a story set near Cape Town, in 1832, the time when South Africa was on the verge of abolishing the slavery. The slave protector of a small town Stellenbosch gets a visit by Philida, a young slave woman who wants to make a complaint against her owner and the son of his. The complaint concerns the fact that Frans Baas did not buy her freedom although had promised. Instead, she will now be sold on auction to the upcountry.
”Here come shit. Just one look, and I can see it coming.” These ironic observations predict that we are reading the story of a woman who has strong wit and will power. Philida is determined to get justice for herself, even though she is well aware of the reality around her. The complaint needs to be done in English, instead of Africaans that is a language of common people.
Through Philida’s story we are reminded that slavery has been performed through many brutal ways. We also come to learn that there have been many different levels of slavery and slaves are treated differently by their masters. For example Chattel slavery is a specific servitude relationship where the slave is treated as the property of the owner, whereas domestic slaves work primarily in the house of the master but retain some freedom. In the story, Ma is an example of this – she is considered the part of the household. It is often a shock to find a reason for these kinds of arrangements.
We are also reminded that slavery has its root in colonial rule and their use of power over the place. This can be seen through words and the name of the places. Dutch names are part of the South African society, such as Oubaas, Ounooi, naai, riem, kierie. In the 19th century, the power was shifted to British Commonwealth.
The book is not the easiest book to read, due to the language and cruelties, but Brink spares the reader from the worst scenarios. Reader has high hopes on the survival of Philida, as she is a lovable person. Her ability to knit well and her care for the pet Kleinkat, become the symbol of her own independence.
The idea of slavery is an incomprehensible system to be explained or understood. The book is a great reminder of the system that was used in depriving the freedom of people and treating people as commodity of trading. There are still places in the world where slavery is practiced, said somebody. We were talking about the legacy of apartheid in South Africa of nowadays. How much of hatred and violence on the streets is there still left, how much echo of the past is still being heard, were the concerns that were left to our minds.