[The JRB Daily] ‘I wanted to release a story from a sealed box I had dragged around for decades’—Read an excerpt from Shaun Johnson’s award-winning novel The Native Commissioner

Award-winning author and renowned anti-apartheid journalist Shaun Johnson has died, aged sixty.

Read an excerpt from the opening chapter of Johnson’s novel The Native Commissioner, one of the most lauded literary debuts in South African history, courtesy of Penguin Random House SA.

The Native Commissioner
Shaun Johnson
Penguin Books, 2007

On the morning it all started, I woke and sat in one movement. I remember the feeling clearly; it was as if I’d been propelled upright by a forklift. The sunlight was bouncing gently off the sea and feeding through the gaps where we’d closed the bedroom curtains haphazardly the night before. Outside it was warm and still with wisps of mist burning themselves off the ocean surface as the sun spread over the hills.

The only sound in the room was soft breathing from the bed. I slipped to the floor, padded along the corridor and down the stairs past my son’s room, then made my way over our veranda to the gate that leads to the sea. It was one of those limpid days; the flatness of the blue-green water stretched far out into the distance of the bay and I could see the outlines of the big ships on the horizon, jostling for access to the port. The local fishing fleet was also at work, seabirds watching. I fiddled with the rusted padlock, then jogged barefoot around the front wall to the cellar whose decaying wooden door faced the full salt blast of the swell below. I told myself I needn’t be self-conscious about my tall barrelly frame, balding head, morning stubble and curious errand—there was no one to see me.

The cellar door opened easily. When my eyes had adjusted I saw that there, in the far corner in the dank half-light amongst gently rusting garden implements and the crowding flotsam of too many moves to too many homes in too many places, sat the box. It was propped up against a sodden wall on an ill-fashioned shelf comprising a broken plank resting on trestles from another time and purpose. The plank sagged in sympathy with the box of superannuated cardboard. It was a very long time since I had allowed myself to register that the box was still there, still unopened.

The privileged enclave in which we lived was motionless, the houses clinging to the slopes unroused, a pleasant surprise awaiting them when doors would be flung open to the dome of clear sky. The day had chosen itself well. There was not yet a sound to drown out the gulls’ caws; you would never have known that a city sprawled not half an hour’s drive away.

First I considered the box without touching it, respectful of its travel-weariness and fragility in this untended cavern. It was very large and, I allowed myself to remember, heavy. The tape that had sealed it for thirty-five years appeared to be holding, applied with vigour all that time ago as if to discourage any thought of reopening. On the sides were peeling stickers and smudged stamps, the insignia of removal companies, towns, countries, destinations; I had the sudden impression of a scuffed overused passport, no longer valid for travel.

I took the box in a fireman’s embrace, gingerly, spreading my legs wide for purchase but not taking the full weight; just tested to see if it would hold together. It shifted shape and seemed to yield under protest with a wet tearing sound.

I left the cellar door open and retraced my steps through the mixture of low bush and wild seaside grass. I went up to the garage and rummaged until I found what I was looking for: a folding metal trolley like a railway porter’s miniature and, from the toolbox, a clean sharp knife.

With the trolley wedged under the shelf in the cellar, it looked like there was a good chance of manoeuvring the box down slowly and I was pleased when this worked without any spillage. I could push it quite easily, and all that was needed was to keep it balanced because the sides protruded. I got safely through the gate and back to the bottom of the stone stairs leading up to the veranda. I turned the trolley around and heaved, bumping the small rubber wheels up each step, one by one. The slate flagstones of the veranda floor offered a wide flat expanse, like a giant’s operating table. I tipped the trolley forward to slide the box to its final resting place, where it settled and waited.

My mother had spoken to me only once about the box; a few sentences I could still recall to the word. That was all those years ago when she gave it over to my care. She had known already then that age, poor health and the life she had lived were rubbing their hands; that she would soon begin the modern middle-class downward death journey from small townhouse to retirement village, to frail care centre, to a bed somewhere not home from which one day she would not stir.

Those are your father’s papers, she had said to me, pointing at the box. I have decided that you should be the one to have them. Open it when you are ready.

There it was, older and more damaged like all of us who had touched it on its long elliptical journey to this shoreline. These African places had its contents passed along the way, the names a private family mantra: Babanango, Ingwavuma, Umbumbulu, Ndwedwe, Nkandhla, Tsumeb, Zoekmekaar, Kentani, Duiwels­kloof, Pretoria, Johannesburg, Libode, Witbank, and finally here, way down in the humid south again, overlooking the Indian Ocean, back close by to where it all began.

I took the knife, made four long incisions along the lines of sealing tape, and opened the box. Then I exclaimed without meaning to, and hoped I had not woken my son or my wife still in our bed with the baby.

Inside was a rotting, fused mound of carefully ordered paper and memory trinkets kept closed for an adult life, her magpie’s work, capable of calling back the unknown dead. Powerful smells of age, confinement, solitude, inattention. Resentful colours had run into one another, inks no longer manufactured, dyes not fastened. Some of what was inside was lost to decay, but most had survived. For me it was like the fantastical volcanic pipe of Tsomsoub, so virile with mineral wealth that it thrust itself through the crust of Africa’s earth, demanding to be mined.

Somewhere inside all of this: the family secret, not spoken of for nearly four decades now. I had an overpowering sense of something having been rescued arbitrarily, at the instant before its predestined oblivion.

Still I did not touch what was inside. I got up from the cross-legged position on the flagstones which I would have to resume on countless days and nights of reading and sorting to come, of solitary quarrying and tunnelling, and looked about me. I stood for a long time staring out from where I lived; stood peering over an ocean at the bottom of a continent.

Eventually I decided I should fetch more tools for this private archaeological, anthropological site. I needed more boxes, the modern and smaller types to help excavate and then codify the big box itself. And garbage bags because surely, surely, there would be much whose time had come at last to be discarded and buried forever.

I thought then that I knew at least one thing about what might be inside, though I had never read so much as a word of the contents of the box. Inside was the presence of absence which had shadowed my life. I thought I must surely be ready now, with more than half my days certainly done, to confront what had happened in a small suburban house on a summer’s morning in Witbank, South Africa, in 1968; something that changed everything in an instant and forever. I wanted to release a story from a sealed box I had dragged around for decades, and which had in its turn dragged me like a sinker. I wanted to hear the voices of my father and my mother.

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