I read Azanian Bridges by Nick Wood very early in 2016. I thought then, and continue to think now, that it was one of the best novels of the year. I wrote about it as part of the Shadow Clarke project, but this was my earlier review for Vector 284, Summer 2016:
Authoritarian regimes tend to be very fragile. They are sustained mostly by fear and oppression, but such states are inherently unstable, since they naturally generate resistance from within and opposition from without, requiring ever more extreme efforts to keep the lid on. When such regimes do fall, therefore, a mass of fault lines often going back many years are usually revealed, so that the immediate cause of the collapse may actually be quite small. In apartheid South Africa, for instance, the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990 was not the first step towards dismantling the regime, but very nearly the last. Appalling economic conditions, largely dependent upon an oppressed and unwilling labour force; increasing internal resistance to the heavy-handed enforcement of the country’s repressive laws; tentative moves to appease critics (the reform of pass laws, the creation of homelands); the ending of sympathetic white regimes in neighbouring states; growing international pressure; all had weakened the regime to such a degree that the release of Mandela, no doubt intended to shore up the status quo, was all it took to trigger the final collapse. It would be four more years before Mandela became the first President of South Africa elected by universal suffrage, but by then the end of the regime was inevitable.
The various pressures on the South African government, economic, political and diplomatic, had sapped the will to redouble the repression, the only way the genie might conceivably have been kept in the bottle. But what if someone with that will, Eugene Terreblanche, leader of the extremist AWB, had staged a coup (something he came very close to doing during the negotiations to end minority rule)? That is the scenario explored in Nick Wood’s first novel, Azanian Bridges.
The time is the present. Mandela has died in prison, and Terreblanche remains president at the cost of more extreme repression than ever before. Constantly, in the background of the novel we glimpse a succession of images that suggest a country on the point of falling apart. The country’s economic failure is shown in the way everyday technology, such as mobile phones, lags a long way behind the rest of the world. This is partly due to the fact that access to the internet is rigidly censored, though adept hackers are easily able to break through the national firewall. Meanwhile heavily armed and brutal militarised police man so many roadblocks that any movement within the country is severely limited. Even though the white population has little or no awareness of the world their black and coloured compatriots inhabit, they are inconvenienced to the extent that mutterings against the government are growing in intensity. The situation is clearly reaching the point where the gentlest of touches will demolish the entire house of cards, and that touch is about to come from the unlikeliest of characters: a young black activist suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and the overweight white psychiatrist who is treating him.
Sibusiso is clever enough to have left his rural home for an all-black school, where he starts to be introduced to the politics of protest. At one protest, that quickly turns violent, he sees his best friend shot and killed by the security forces. It’s an experience that unhinges him for a time, and he is committed to a mental hospital where he comes under the care of a white neuropsychologist, Dr Martin Van Deventer. An Afrikaaner, estranged from his conservative parents just as Sibusiso is, Martin thinks of himself as a liberal though he has no actual experience of the daily lives of the country’s black population; late in the novel, when he finds himself drawn into black neighbourhoods, it is a strange and subtly terrifying experience. Together with an old friend, he has invented a device, an “Empathy Enhancer”, that allows people to share the thoughts and feelings of others. They have had a prototype built, which has been smuggled into the country, one of the petty illegalities that helps to put a white Afrikaaner at odds with his own government, and Martin decides to try it on Sibusiso.
For Martin this is a therapeutic device, but others see it differently. For the security services, it is an ideal tool for use in interrogations; for the ANC, it is a weapon in their war against white power. It is unclear how news of this device has spread so rapidly; but the point is that in a police state such as this, a place of spies and rumours and gossip, there is no such thing as secrecy. As a consequence, Martin becomes an object of the security service’s attention. He destroys his prototype to stop it falling into their hands, then secretly has a new model made, but this is stolen by Sibusiso at the urging of ANC radicals. Martin’s efforts to recover his device lead him ever deeper into radical black activism and into ever greater danger from the security services. Meanwhile, Sibusiso has to undertake a journey unlike any he has experienced in his life before, smuggling the Empathy Enhancer out of the country where Chinese technicians (the Chinese are the major international allies of black Africa) turn Martin’s clunky device into a slick mobile app, a neat illustration of South Africa’s technical backwardness. But though a new weapon likely to undermine any sense of white superiority is now in the hands of the ANC, this does not lessen the immediate danger that Sibusiso faces upon his return to South Africa.
There are moments of awkwardness in the novel when the evil of the apartheid regime is laid on with perhaps too broad a brush, but there are equally moments of great subtlety when a tiny detail instantly illuminates the reality of this crude regime. On the whole, however, this is a powerful work of political science fiction that well lives up to the advance praise it has already received.