July 06, 2012

Cape Town

by Brenda Hammond
Great Plains Teen Fiction
326 pp.
Ages 14+

In 1989, Cape Town, South Africa is a place of life-changing dreams.  For Renee Pretorius, just 17, this big city, so different from her home on a sheep farm, holds the dream of becoming a ballerina with her attendance at the ballet school of the University of Cape Town (UCT).  But, for many of the millions of residents of Cape Town, their dream is for an end to apartheid, the laws enacted by the National Party (of the minority, Dutch-descendant Afrikaners) fifty years earlier, which had racially segregated the Blacks and Coloureds (a term for the mixed race of African, English and Malaysian) from the Whites. 

To keep her safe from the "dangerous left-wing students with their Marxist ideas" (pg. 12), Renee's family has found her residency at the Huis Marta hostel for Afrikaans meisies, White girls of Afrikaner heritage.  But, even ensconced at Huis Marta, Renee makes the acquaintance of several young people whose lives and backgrounds expose her to different perspectives of life in Cape Town.

A fellow hosteller Nicolette (Nic) Dupreez, a medical student, may be Afrikaner but she does not follow the strict expectations of Afrikaans meisies, regularly breaking rules at the hostel and enjoying a more contemporary lifestyle of jeans, dating and non-White interactions.  Whenever Renee is unfamiliar with the nuances of life in Cape Town, she often finds Nic to be a valuable, albeit less inhibited, resource and caring ally.

Dion October, a second year dance student and Coloured, is one of the first students at UCT to make Renee feel welcome, although her strict upbringing and fears of the Immorality Act cause her some trepidation about interacting with him and his family.  Though Dion and his family continue to suffer the consequences of apartheid (e.g., relocation, violence, restrictions), Dion is essentially apolitical, providing Renee with the perspective of the oppressed majority but without pressing her to abandon her family's politics.

However, it is Andy Miller, a fifth year architecture student at UCT, who has the greatest impact on Renee.  After Andy helps Renee with some research at the library where he works, and she recalls seeing him at a protest in the streets, their paths continue to cross.  When they begin dating, fiercely attracted to each other, Renee begins to wonder whether their differences are insurmountable, as Andy is English (and there is much animosity between the English and the Afrikaners), actively political in the anti-apartheid movement, and critical of the injustices perpetrated by the Afrikaner National Party.

As Andy and Renee's relationship becomes more serious and intimate, Renee finds herself questioning her family's politics and her Calvinist upbringing, deceiving her brother Etienne who works with military intelligence, and becoming both stronger and more vulnerable with her new-found freedom and knowledge.  Andy's mother, a member of the Black Sash (a white women's resistance group) astutely recognizes that, "Freedom always comes at the price of sacrifice." (pg. 289)

While Brenda Hammond leads the reader through the escalating strife marking the end of apartheid, Cape Town's narrative is never heavy-handed or brutally-worded.  It's a reality that is incidental for some and pivotal for others, and occasionally dragged from the periphery to the forefront, as happens for Renee.  But this metamorphosis is so gradual and hesitant here (with the occasional regression) that Renee becomes the embodiment of an eye-opening, guided from blindness to sight.  By tying that eye-opening with Renee's and Andy's powerful love, Cape Town persuasively takes a monumental issue and packages it in a story of undeniable passion.

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