Michael Caine on the Cape Flats

The film "Zulu" - starring Forest Whitaker and Orlando Bloom - are getting lukewarm reviews. Is the novel, it's based on, any good?

Orlando Bloom in a still from "Zulu" (2013).

Caryl Férey’s 2008 crime novel Zulu won the French Grand Prix prize for best crime novel. The film version (trailer here), starring Forrest Whittaker and Orlando Bloom, closed the Cannes Film Festival. Originally, there was talk Djimon Hounsou would star.  The French-South African production received less than stellar reviews post-Cannes. “Zulu” is not yet out on general release in the U.S., France, South Africa or anywhere else, but I was surprised to find the English translation of the book in a local shop in small town, Michigan. So, is the book any better?

Like most who had heard about the novel and film, I was skeptical. But after reading, I’ve decided, one has to give Férey some credit. In the first forty pages he manages to weave nearly every violent crime and negative stereotype associated with South Africa. There are drugs, assaults, rapes, murders, robberies, incest, Dashiki-speaking Nigerian gangsters, HIV, and even a mutilation associated with the application of muthi. And this is just the first forty pages. The black chief of the homicide branch of the Cape Town Police must solve the violent murder of a young white woman, the daughter of a prominent Afrikaner rugby family, who had begun experimenting with drugs and sex (and not always with nice white boys). And so we wait with baited breath. Can South Africa solve its violent crime problems on the eve of the 2010 World Cup? Can South Africa become the rainbow nation envisaged?

The protagonist of the story is the isiZulu-speaking Ali Neumann. (What’s that you say, that doesn’t sound like a very Zulu name? It’s not. Ali changed his surname in an attempt to run from his ethnically violent childhood.) In Ali, Férey creates a new kind of “noble savage.” This gallant Zulu is not the awe-inspiring warrior of the 1964 Zulu film and countless other Zulu war stories—but he is a brave man on a mission. Ali is on the run from his Zulu past and the trauma he experienced as a child at the hands of Inkatha vigilantes. He guards his secret history and keeps to himself, despite his circle of (mostly white) close friends and colleagues. In his quest to conquer Cape Town’s crime, Férey’s character appears to be trying to shed his ethnicity, to overcome not only his experience of violence but an inherent tendency of his people to beat on the drums, perform war dances, and of course, act violently. (See, for instance, his interactions with the fiery and mysterious Zulu dancer Zina whose Inkatha past enables Ali to track down the culprits.) Férey wants you to pull for Ali. Can he triumph? Will he solve the murder(s) and ascend to the head of the Cape Town South African Police? Will he let the women in his life closer, be it his hidden mistress Maia in Manenberg, his mother’s close companion and nurse Miriam, or even Zina, who calls him her Zulu king?

While some crime thriller aficionados have interpreted Férey’s novel as a scathing social critique, the work employs gratuitous violence for the sake of violence and several scenes suggest the author tried too hard to ethnicize Ali. For instance, the portrayal of Ali’s torment. “You see what happens, little Zulu?” his Inkatha torturers taunted him as his father hung and his brother burnt. Most historical accounts of this transition era violence make it clear that Inkatha supporters saw their adversaries as lacking Zuluness. They were more likely to call Inkatha opponents such as Ali and his family “amaGula” (Koolies) or “amaIndiya,” referring to the Indian members of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal. This same scene leaves Ali impotent—the noble savage need not only overcome his violent ethnicity, but also his lack of manhood. While Férey has elsewhere commented that his outsider status enabled him to address the “taboo” transition-era violence more candidly, Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying and Sindiwe Magona’s Mother to Mother do so quite well.

As though the clichés and extreme violence were not enough, as Zulu progressed, it started to seem eerily familiar. SPOILER ALERT. As Férey reveals that the gangsters responsible have been working for a shadowy former “Third Force” Afrikaner operative now in cahoots with international big pharmaceuticals, one gets the feeling that they might have heard this story somewhere before. Perhaps in another crime thriller set in Africa? Perhaps in that one novel also made into a major motion picture? Ah, that’s it, John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener. If the parallels with the major pharmaceutical testing dangerous drugs on poor and unknowing Africans is not enough, Férey’s protagonist ends up dead in the desert, just like the reluctant hero of The Constant Gardener. For Férey, Ali the noble savage was unable to overcome, unable to resist the need for vengeance that ultimately leads to his death. But Férey’s verdict on South Africa is still out.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.