Yielding Bitter Fruit:The Legacy of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Dangor's Bitter Fruit

Achmat Dangor was a South African writer whose work explored racial identity in post-apartheid South Africa. In America, the term “colored” is derogatory and offensive. In Southern Africa, and South Africa more specifically, the term “coloured” refers to the ethnic group of mixed-race peoples who are caught in the racial divide between white and black. In an article published in 1985 in the New York Times, “coloureds” are described as,

“South Africa's people of mixed descent [who] are torn between white and black, but embraced totally by neither, a racial group of complexities and stratifications defined, in law, only by negatives.

To be 'colored' is to be neither black nor white, more privileged than blacks but less privileged than whites, living a segregated life drawn from roots that deny segregation, labelled 'colored' by the authorities, as if that denoted a homogeneous group, yet drawn from disparate roots. The label of 'colored' is one of convenience, lumping together those who do not fit elsewhere in apartheid's great racial divisions.”

Achmat Dangor was himself coloured, when asked about his racial identity he said, “I am an African with Asian and Dutch blood in me. I don’t know what race I am, and I don’t care.” Bitter Fruit might prove the contrary is far truer. It’s clear Dangor was not entirely satisfied with not knowing, if not in his racial identity, he was certainly interested in holding a space for the experiences of South Africa’s people of mixed descent. In Bitter Fruit, his exploration of the ambiguity of his racial identity extends to an interrogation of the ambiguity of justice and the ambiguity of right and wrong in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Achmat Dangor

Bitter Fruit, Dangor’s most acclaimed book, is a story about a coloured family living in Johannesburg. The father, Silas is a government lawyer who was involved with the anti-apartheid movement and now works for the Ministry of Justice. Lydia, his wife, is a nurse who was sexually assaulted by an Afrikaner policeman which resulted in the birth of Mikey, a son Silas claims as his own. A chance encounter between Silas and the man who raped his wife, years later, triggers a series of events that expose the casualties of a family born of an invisible war. Incest and predatory relationships are a major theme in the novel. I am not sure what part these incestual and predatory relationships play in telling this story. I think this book should come with several content warnings. A part of me feels that Dangor should have denounced certain behaviours and relationships. The novel was also uneventful and forgettable in its ending although it displayed great potential in the beginning, nevertheless ambiguity as a theme is bound to spark important and necessary conversations about the legacy of the TRC in South Africa.

Achmat Dangor with Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela Foundation.

Rating 3.3/5