Two black South Africans tell their stories and evoke places and eras long gone and now rich with the patina of recollection. Mattera's impressionistic picture of his life as an orphan and then a gangster in Sophiatown recalls the exuberant, teeming chaos of an early black township that grew, disorderly and individualistic, on the site of a white farm next to Johannesburg, until apartheid's bulldozers leveled it in 1962. Ramusi's is an extraordinary Horatio Alger tale, wherein a country boy from a penniless family endured years of humiliation toiling for abusive white employers but made his way to America for a degree in anthropology and then became a lawyer in South Africa. Unlike Alger's heroes though, Ramusi's success is ambiguous, confusing and ultimately bitter, as he becomes an employee of the white government while continuing to oppose apartheid, subsequently flees to the United States for eight years, and finally loses his son to police brutality. A contemporary of Nelson Mandela, and like the ANC leader a member of the early "black bourgeoisie," Ramusi's story tells us clearly why government cooptation of blacks won't work.
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