This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 18.1
The mother of my best friend growing up was a ballet dancer in South Africa before immigrating to Canada. The stories she told came back to life as I read Brenda Hammond’s Cape Town, so similar are the feelings the protagonist Renee has towards her art. But while dancing is Renee’s raison d’être, it is not the central theme of the novel, which spans the year between February 1989 and February 1990: a time when all nations’ eyes were on South African politics and the issue of apartheid. In September 1989, F.W. de Klerk was voted into power; on 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela was finally released from 27 years in prison; on 8 June 1990, the state of emergency was lifted; between 1990 and 1993, de Klerk’s government systematically ended over 40 years of legislated apartheid. The hope that Renee and her boyfriend Andrew feel in the new Prime Minister’s commitment “to creating a new South African free of oppression and discrimination” (323) resonates strongly at the conclusion of their story. We have lived through the struggle, seen through Renee’s naïve Afrikaans eyes. So carefully depicted is the balance between political struggle and Renee’s own internal struggles that even readers who did not live through that historical moment will understand both the horrors and the hope that surged through South Africa in the early 1990s.
Renee Pretorius is the ideal character to explore the issue of apartheid from a psychologically safe perspective, rendering the horrors of apartheid moderately accessible to a young adult audience. Renee is a young Afrikaans girl, from a traditional rural family, recently arrived in Cape Town to begin her studies at the School of Dance at the University of Cape Town. Her conservative religious and social attitudes sit uncomfortably with her innate humanism, and she soon finds herself not only communicating with, but befriending a Coloured student as well as falling in love with a young political activist of British descent. Renee and Andrew’s relationship is adeptly handled: their conflicts are based on a real social chasm, and the reader is never quite sure whether their feelings for one another will be enough to overcome the vast differences in their cultural backgrounds. Underlying all of her experiences and expressions of discomfort, though, are Renee’s strong feelings of social justice and philia, most powerfully expressed in her unquestioning love of her family’s Black servant, Kokodais.
While the dilemma Hammond creates for her characters is alleviated in the final pages, the providential political moment comes after Renee has made her decision regarding her path in life. We are thus left with both a happy ending and a firm belief that Renee has developed a strong social and political consciousness: she knows who she is, and who she wants to become.