Writing for the little man

2007-12-31 00:00

BACK in 2004, Brent Meersman took time off from his job as performing arts critic at the Mail & Guardian to run Patricia de Lille’s election campaign and be the chief of staff in her parliamentary office. Now he has written a novel — Primary Coloured — which tells the story of a new party, with minimal funding and a feisty, charismatic coloured woman leader (Charlene Kennedy), struggling to get a toehold into South African politics in an election campaign. The central character is Joel Moritz, her campaign manager who has come to the new party from an arts background.

The title, the cover and the subtitle — A Novel of Politics — recall the 1996 American novel, Primary Colors, which was published anonymously but was later revealed to have been written by journalist Joe Klein. It is a lightly fictionalised account of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. Meersman is doing something similar — giving a behind the scenes glimpse of a South African election, with plots, scandals and recognisable characters, disguised in a fictional package.

Margaret von Klemperer spoke to the author.

Q. Was the idea of writing about the campaign there all the time you were involved?

A. No. We would joke in the office when crazy things happened and say “somebody has got to write a book about this”. But I only started plotting the book around six months after I left. This kind of book is uncharted territory in South Africa.

Q. Why fiction rather than a factual account?

A. A factual account wouldn’t make for a good story. A lot of the content is close to the truth, but I developed it dramatically, in a thriller format. We’re inundated with heavy political books here, and we need a good read, not to wade through 800 pages.

Q. There are spy scandals and attempted assassinations. How much is invention, how much real?

A. It’s a pretty accurate account of what goes on in opposition parties — it’s not just my political views couched as fiction. It reflects things through a wide range of people.

There’s a certain generation of us — the people who were involved in the party at the election. In the book they are represented by Joel and Terrance. They can’t identify with the official opposition and can’t support the government now that it is behaving badly. They’re looking for something else. But I don’t think the Independent Democrats have pulled it off. It’s clear it’s not working.

As for the spy scandals — well, things like this happened and do happen. When it comes to the plot to kill the president — that one had real people and is coming to court. I had to be quite careful initially when I was writing it, so it was a relief when it came out into the open.

And nasty things did happen to Patricia. She had a couple of spooky experiences.

Q. Has Patricia de Lille read the book? And has she taken offence?

A. Apparently she has dipped into it and says it brought back a lot of memories, and that she will read it in the holidays. You never know with politicians, how they will react. She might get upset with comments about her hair or whatever. Last time I checked, she was reading Rudy Guliani’s Leadership — and so was Helen Zille. Now, that’s more worrying.”

Q. The book seems to take a cynical view of South African politics. But to sign up for the ID’s campaign, you must have been an idealist.

A. Yes, I suppose I was an idealist, at least initially. I never did military service — I was a member of the End Conscription Campaign. So in a way I considered this my duty to the country.

I feel we need a vibrant democracy and a black liberal left opposition. The problem is that the ANC is such a broad church that there’s no room for anyone outside, and debates have to go on inside the party — and that means they come without checks and balances.

Debates should be between the government and opposition in Parliament. Parliament should be the conscience of the country, but the ANC is working out the future of the country within the party. That is part of the point of the book.

I’m careful about the word “cynical” — I hope the book has a sardonic tone rather than a cynical one. And I also hope it’s clearly on the side of the little man, the people the team in the book meet on the campaign trail. The book is sympathetic to the bamboozled public and contains the ironies that come with that. And if I lost my innocence, I also found out a lot about how things function.

Q. Do all political parties sell out? Is their idealism doomed?

A. The only art that politics can practice is the art of the possible — and a lot of horsetrading goes on. It has to. One forgets that politics everywhere is a job and the fights are about money, position and salary. There are lots of freeloaders, even in the small opposition parties.

Starting a new party is like opening a new pub — every drunk thrown out of every bar in town comes along.

Q. Would you consider another foray into politics?

A. I think I’m done with it — but politics is an addictive sport, and a wonderful environment. There’s a special kind of honesty there — no-one pulls any punches. But I don’t see another party I would work for at the moment.

• Primary Coloured by Brent Meersman is published by Human & Rousseau.

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