Set in Cape Town, South Africa, in the early 1990s, against a backdrop of de Klerk’s rise to power and around the time of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the story unfolds through the eyes of a young Jewish lawyer, Jeremy Spielman, a sympathiser of the African National Congress, (ANC) Mandela’s party that fought for an end to apartheid, and for an independent South Africa. Perhaps, it is as a reflection of this leanings, that Jeremy defends, as a pro deo a Xhosa (Black) man David Tsabalala, accused of the murder of his wife and attempted murder of his father-in-law.
A prologue describes the murder of Gloria Tsabalala and the near murder of her father by a disturbed and frustrated David, who cannot come to terms with the desertion of his wife at the instigation of the father-in-law. A responsible man, but given to bouts of drinking, he is unable to accept the degrading treatment meted out to him by Gloria’s father who mocks his very manhood and ego through the People’s Courts set up by the Blacks themselves in a bid to get the justice that they think the white settlers had denied them.
Against this background, Jeremy struggles to accept and even cope with his girlfriend’s racial hatred and fear of the Blacks. Elmarie, an Afrikaner feels deeply that with the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, the Blacks will take over the land and the White settlers (Afrikaners) would have no future; she mares an otherwise lovely and deeply sexual relationship with her constant snide racist comments and ill humour. Polarised further, Jeremy’s relationship with his mother, Esta, is also not smooth. Esta wants him to marry a nice Jewish girl who understands their ways.
“They’re different from us, …they take what they can when the going gets tough, they call us bloody Jews…”
Her racism is towards the Blacks and the Afrikaners as well; Jeremy is not able to make up his mind about marrying Elmarie without his mother’s approval. In the end, her death, through a heart attack, gives him a sort of release, though a painful one.
“…..He grinned because in that moment, he recognised the killer’s face, clearly through the cracked mirror that divided them; the killer was Jeremy Spielman, his host who with the death of his mother, has been able to murder the weakness in him.” (p184)
The tensions generated by these love-hate relationship force Jeremy to confront his own stance with the anti-apartheid struggle, racism, anti-Semitism, and his faith in an unjust legal system. The boiling cauldron of hatred, unease, tension, fear and crime that was the era of de Klerk, Blacks against Blacks, Afrikaners against Blacks, Afrikaners against Jews, Blacks against Jews were aptly and finely portrayed by Steve Jacobs in the confused and insecure lives of Jeremy and those whom he loved. Jeremy Spielman is pro-ANC and pro-Mandela, but many of those around him – including his mother and girlfriend – either hate or fear the Blacks, and are scared of what democracy might mean for them and the country. For some of these people, like his colleague at the Law Office, Lewis, the only way out is to emigrate to Australia, a route that Jeremy may just have to consider too if he is to remain sane.
The author Steve Jacobs is brutal with his descriptions of the people, the hot and relentless climate and the political atmosphere; again a reflection of the times that leaves nothing to the imagination. Amidst this all, the protagonist, Spielman consider the deeper problems faced by South Africa’s Black people beyond the immediate strictures of apartheid. The dark, intense mood of the book reflects the state of the country at the time, but one may ask whether the post apartheid era and freedom, have seen any significant change in the lives of the people of South Africa.
I found The Enemy Within enlightening and informative. Though I’m an African, I must admit that I know little about South Africa during those turbulent years. I never even knew that Jews were living in South Africa. (probably some of them stayed behind and were not part of the Aliya Bet to Israel in 1948 and afterwards) I would recommend this book to anyone interested in knowing about South Africa and her struggles in the apartheid era.
About the Author: Steve Jacobs was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1955. He studied Law at the University of Cape Town, and after a year spent working on a kibbutz in Israel he worked as an Advocate in Johannesburg. He left the legal profession to concentrate on his writing. A collection of his short stories, Light in a Stark Age, was published in 1984 (Ravan Press). This was followed by two novellas, published as Diary of an Exile (Ad. Donker, 1986).