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THE MADONNA OF EXCELSIOR (article first published : 2002-11-15)

Thirty years ago South Africans in the grip of apartheid legislation were shocked or surprised or just amused to learn about happenings in the little Free State town of Excelsior, where 19 of the white citizens were charged with contravening the Immorality Act, which forbade sex between black and white.

It is an almost forgotten episode today, but the novelist Zakes Mda, former professor of literature and drama at Wits and Yale universities, has revived the story in a brilliant piece of reconstructive fiction.

He uses the paintings of the artist/priest Frans Claerhout as a link between past and present, black and white, and he himself draws characters that are memorable, sad (in the case of the black girls who were the victims of white lust), deplorable and comical (in the case of the white farmers and officials who indulged in loveless and almost savage sexual activity).

Zakes Mda combines a brutal realism with a lyrical quality in his writing. One would expect the black personae in this melancholy tale to be well understood and well portrayed, but the white characters too are drawn with great dexterity and with a certain grim humour.

The story takes us from the events of 30 years ago to the present time and gives a clearly defined picture of life in a small platteland town over that period, and how it has changed. This paperback is strongly recommended to readers looking for something different. Published by Oxford University Press, it retails at R130. - Michael Green




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