‘Does being a politician have to be a dealbreaker?’—Read an excerpt from Barbara Boswell’s new novel, The Comrade’s Wife

The JRB presents an excerpt from The Comrade’s Wife, the new novel from Barbara Boswell.

The Comrade’s Wife
Barbara Boswell
Jacana Media, 2024

On our third date, I learned what he did for a living. He had been an attorney who built up a thriving practice over many years in Bloemfontein. But having been part of the movement since his teenage years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and later, the political party that came out of that movement, the time had come for him to take up formal leadership.

The movement was his life. He had always been involved in its structures: a disciplined branch member, he had worked as a legal advisor, sometimes formally, at other times, behind the scenes, more of a strategist. In the late 2000s, he decided to step fully into the leadership role he was already covertly taking. Reluctantly, of course, after being deployed by the leadership. Because of his acumen as a lawyer and businessman, he was placed on the party’s provincial list and became a member of the provincial legislature of the Free State. Later he was deployed to the national legislature, which accounted for his last few years in Cape Town. He is a backbencher who shuns the limelight; not at all a political grandstander or populist. He has grown to love it—the work, the city—what was not to love?—and it has become, more or less, home. I wonder, out loud, how he has remained below the radar. He is hardly in the news, hardly makes headlines, nor is he photographed at political events.

‘Well, I’ve applied my work philosophy from practising law to my work as a politician.’

‘Oh? What is that?’ I ask.

‘I prefer to work behind the scenes. Exercise power softly, quietly, if you will. I don’t want to be known as a political player. Sometimes that stands in the way of doing the real work.’

I nod.

‘There are benefits to remaining in the background. In politics, I’ve learned, you can be a street-fighter, or a strategist—a chess player.’

‘And you are … which one of those two?’

I am teasing, flirting with him. The tone of our conversation is light, convivial.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he smiles. ‘Let’s just say, I hope, for your sake, you never have to find out.’

The smile is meant to signal lighthearted banter, but his answer chills me.

I look at him, so calm and relaxed, a study in ease and confidence. What lies beneath that polished exterior?

‘Oh, don’t look so serious. It was a joke—or a poor attempt at one, it seems.’

I plaster a smile across my face, take another sip of my gin and tonic. Getting to know people in the age of the fourth industrial revolution is a strange pursuit. Were I to Google him, there’d be a multitude of snippets and news items all over the internet. There might be social media profiles, showing how affable and friendly he has been; I might be led through a string of ex-wives or ex-girlfriends. I could know, within a few keystrokes, how much he earns, the properties he owns, the number of children he has, the names of his relatives. You can get so many insights, slivers of light, into a person’s life, freely and publicly available, but so often these are the shells of their lives; carefully crafted personas declaring: Look at me! I’m so rich, so clever, so productive, so kind, so compassionate. I love my family, love God, the church—whatever currency they need to trade in.

Transparency and hypervisibility have, paradoxically, made it even more difficult to know people. Lives are curated, managed, manicured like lawns. You think you are getting to know someone; yet it’s possible to know everything and nothing about them at the same time.

I Google him as soon as I get home, and am impressed with what I find. A solid cadre, committed to the cause of freedom from a young age. Being a backbencher does not mean that he snores away his days in the plush leather seats of the House of Assembly. He is active in a number of portfolio committees. Most strikingly, he chairs the Portfolio Committee on Women and Children, where he has put in a great deal of work. Within no time, I’ve pulled up Hansards in which he is named or cited, and find he has been a tireless advocate for the introduction of a Basic Income Grant. His argument supporting the grant rests on the idea that poverty in this country is gendered; that providing such a grant is a step towards lifting women, who are increasingly heading households, out of poverty. I read his addresses in Parliament, where he maps out the potential the grant has to diminish the abject poverty and food insecurity many children live with, stunting their opportunities almost from the cradle. His speeches are passionate denunciations of the feminisation of poverty, but his attempts to codify the Basic Income Grant into law have been thwarted numerous times. I trawl through the parliamentary record until the early hours of the morning, and when I am done, go to bed satisfied that my new suitor is one of the good ones—if ‘good’ is ever a word that can be applied to a politician.

A few days later, Neill’s profession is the main item on the agenda of our monthly sister meeting—or the coven gathering, as we like to call it. Thandiswa and Claire are hungry for more details of this budding affair—and my aversion to his job.

‘I really like this man. There is something very special about him. But a politician? One from that party, no less? We know what a mess they are. Should I get further into this?’

I myself was once a card-carrying member of the party, years ago, when things were new and bright and full of optimism, hope and gratitude. A better life for all, we were promised. And had the party not delivered that? Hadn’t it liberated us, ushered us into a new era where we could at last stand proudly as full citizens, cast off the yoke and indignity of poverty and oppression? How else could a girl like me, having grown up in a wendyhouse in someone’s backyard in Athlone, have made this leap into the life of the mind, this life I love?

Yes, I am clinging to that coveted black middle-class status by the very tips of my unmanicured fingernails. But I have a job, and more than that, a career; I own my own modest home, have food to eat, access to medical care when I need it. Yes, I pay black tax to several relatives in my extended family and friend circles – school fees, petrol money, chipping in for the rent—but I have it better than 90 per cent of this country. And there are legions of us—not the disaffected ‘born frees’, but the ones who came of age at just the right time, when universities and technikons were affordable and you could pay your own fees by working one part-time job; when we were actively headhunted and absorbed into the professional force, before the youth unemployment rate skyrocketed to 47 per cent.

We are the generation that has done well out of this transition. Yes, we criticise the party for selling out, for the negotiated settlement that didn’t return the land, for the naked corruption that has festered over the last decade or so. But where would a woman like me be without the party? Still scrubbing some white woman’s floors. Still living in a ghetto for people who look like me. Still forced to go through the back door of the post office. Isn’t that why we continue to vote for it, years after the rainbow-magic has faded, to be replaced by rot, graft, and a hollowed-out public purse?

I take pride in my academic work, which I often describe as critiquing power. And there is a great deal to critique about the ways in which the liberation movement has moved into power – the corruption, the cronyism, the leap to embrace neoliberal market forces after coming to power on a socialist manifesto. But, let’s face it, I am a beneficiary of that power system, over and over again. That fact rankles, but remains true. I have eschewed traditional forms of power while lurking at the margins, happy to benefit from the large systemic changes brought about by the movement. Am I a hypocrite to turn my nose up at someone who has not been uncomfortable with power; who has actively sought it and fully inhabits it; who is not afraid to wield it?

Thandiswa and Claire unpack the issues with me over mojitos.

‘Does being a politician have to be a dealbreaker? What’s his overall vibe? I mean, his aura, his light. Do you get good vibes, is what I would ask myself.’

‘Oh my god, Thandiswa!’ I enthuse. ‘He’s attractive, intelligent, witty, charming—a little bit on the suave side, but all in all, a great package. Of course, I’m getting good vibes! They’re called pheromones! You of all people should know this. Take a look at his picture again, my friend. Who wouldn’t be getting good vibes being around this man? I am positively vibrating!’

Thandiswa spits a bit of her drink as she erupts in laughter.

Claire pretends to disapprove: ‘You two are gonna get us kicked out of yet another fine establishment! Seriously though, Anita …’ she shifts into analysis mode. ‘I know a politician is not your dream man. But it doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker. Not all politicians are corrupt. Given his credentials and the portfolio committee work, he probably isn’t. Maybe he’s one of those idealistic souls who believes he can change things from the inside.’

Claire leans forward: ‘Him being a politician actually works in your favour—there are probably lots more ways for you to check his bona fides than just your regular Joe. There’s a lot of information in the public domain. Never mind Hansard—check his annual parliamentary declaration of interests. He’s got to list all business interests and gifts there. You could learn a lot about him through those channels, at least professionally.’

‘Oh, you have got to be kidding!’ I scream, imagining myself turning into a detective, sniffing out his business on the internet. Quite a romantic start to a relationship.

Claire reads my mind: ‘And it’s not snooping. You need to do due diligence if you are seriously thinking about letting this man into your life. If you want to have a short fling with him, by all means, go ahead and enjoy! But I haven’t seen that look in your eyes for years—you’re smitten!

I laugh, but it’s true. 



Publisher information

Claire is less cynical. ‘Fall in love, if you must. But do your research. And meet his people early on. They’ll give you a sense of who he is.’ Solid advice. And ultimately, this is how I found myself on a flight to Bloemfontein one Friday afternoon.

An instant classic, the lies and betrayals of love and party politics are told in gorgeous prose with an ear for our time’s intimate and public language. The Comrade’s Wife follows a turbulent marriage between a rising politician and an academic, told through her life and lens.

‘Tender, delightful, frightening. A testimony to Boswell’s inexhaustible vision.’—Pumla Dineo Gqola, author of Female Fear Factory

‘Wonderfully plotted, emotionally rich, clever, and full of intrigue… Find a quiet, comfortable corner and settle in because you won’t want to leave Anita’s superb company until she’s finished her story.’—Nadia Davids, author of An Imperfect Blessing

‘What a thrilling read! I could not put it down.’—Terry-Ann Adams, author of White Chalk and Those Who Live in Cages

‘Some politicians are as immoral at home as they are in the halls of government. The Comrade’s Wife is a wonderful account of the political made personal.’—Rehana Rossouw, author of New Times and What Will People Say

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