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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

HOME AFFAIRS (article first published : 2008-03-9)

All is not well in the small Underberg town of Hillman on May 12, 2006. There is much controversy about a proposed name-change for the town and a cold war rages for the position of Mayor.

This is the setting for former Durban actress Bree (Bridget) O’Mara’s first novel. It won The Citizen Book Prize in association with 30° South Publishers, the first book prize in South Africa to be chosen by the reading public.

If this is the level of her first novel, I can’t wait for the rest to follow. It’s a delight from start to finish: deliciously irreverent, highly topical, completely un-PC and cleverly written.

You won’t find Hillman on the map anywhere, she assures the reader, but its geography is based on Hogsback in the mountainous region of the Eastern Cape. There’s not a lot of reason to visit Hillman unless you live there. The town is rendered more isolated because of its notorious approach through the Valleikloof Pass which has seen many incautious motorists plunge to their death. The Hillman inhabitants – English, Afrikaans and Zulu - have peacefully co-existed for many years, the only friction appearing at the regular darts competitions at the Hillman Ale & Arms.

The residents even decided on the year of the town’s establishment through a democratic process, with only one dissenting vote: that of young Doffie who felt it should have been founded in 1981 because that was the year he turned ten and also the year Michael Jackson’s Thriller was released.

The mayor of Hillman is Dewaldt “Pompies” van Niekerk, who is singly responsible for the incorrect population statistics of Hillman as being 237. He wasn’t at home at the time of the census as he was tending to the urgent needs of one of the town’s single ladies at the time. “Pompies” has held his position for just over 20 years since he had called foul over a play by his arch-rival Kobus (Dominee) van Vouw who turned round and challenged his decision, asking “Who died and made you mayor?”

Pompies thought “Why not?” and, before he knew it, he was swearing allegiance to the town on a used copy of Personality magazine and the rest of the boozy pub regulars had swept him to victory. Thereafter, every four years the “election” took place in the pub - after the rugby match, naturally - and so life ambled along in Hillman.

Now it’s election time again. Alpheus Mthethwa, back in his home town after some nefarious dealings in Durban from which he needs to distance himself, gets wind of the “election” and races home to urge his grandfather, Oubaas Mthethwa, to stand for mayor. After all, the Mthethwas have been in the area for longer than anyone else. Oubaas figures: “Why not?” and heads for the post office to request the application form for the mayor’s position. Whereupon the town goes ballistic as the news spreads through every form of communication network.

“Pompies” thinks that by changing the name of Hillman to something more politically correct will position himself in the winning seat. However, at the public meeting, the name he puts forward is rejected as highly unsuitable by the Zulu residents who, after all, make up the majority of Hillman’s population. In calm Mandela-style, Oubaas suggests that everyone goes away and thinks about suitable names, to return to the negotiating table a few weeks hence. Whoever gets the most votes on the issue of name-changing becomes mayor.

That’s when the fun really starts!

Bree O’Mara takes bureaucracy by the scruff of its neck and stands it on its head. Her characters are all clearly drawn, her years in the theatre providing her with the skills to create believable people through her humorous descriptions. Do the acid test: pick any page, choose a paragraph and then a sentence at random. Undoubtedly something in that section - or immediately before or after it - will make you smile. I thoroughly enjoyed Home Affairs. In fact, I’m reading it for a second time!

Home Affairs by Bree O’Mara is published in softback by 30° South Publishers and retails at R135. ISBN 978-1-920143-19-0. – Caroline Smart




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