‘The Mandela Plot’ Gives a Crash Course in South African Politics

This tale set in Apartheid South Africa aptly demonstrates the contours of political divisiveness, but unfortunately, the characters are flat.

The Mandela Plot
Kenneth Bonert
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
May 2018

The late ’80s was a turning point for South African history and the apartheid resistance movement. Among the maelstrom of protests and revolutions, the era bolstered government brutality and systematic oppression. It is during this era that Kenneth Bonert sets his recent novel The Mandela Plot. In the death throes of apartheid, the character Martin Helger must construct his own identity betwixt normalized violence and corruption. The novel’s depiction of the uncompromising oppression was luminous. Yet The Mandela Plot fails to fully capture the era’s intensity. Instead, the novel prioritizes Martin’s introspection over the nation’s politicality. The Mandela Plot is a laborious read that attempts to complicate the larger forces of history and politics but only succeeds in defining the character’s selfhood.

Feeling emotionally and socially adrift, Martin attempts to understand his privilege while navigating Johannesburg’s constantly shifting culture. His awareness of privilege amplifies after an illegal visit to a segregated township. His social consciousness is further extenuated by the specters of colonization. Bonert unabashedly questions societal acceptance of colonization and cultural thievery. As Martin realizes society’s reaction depends on the identity of the thief and “if [it] is the Queen of England, then nothing must happen” (76). Eventually, Martin learns to check his social privilege. However, this awareness only serves to extenuate his self-centeredness instead of understanding the collective.

Throughout the novel the characters are flat. Even though the novel markets itself as a coming-of-age story, Martin maintains an emotional standstill. When trauma targets his family, Martin copes by drugging himself into oblivion. His narrative consists of drifting in and out of consciousness while his emotional inventory is neglected. Martin never establishes any type of social awareness among his peers or with his involvement in the resistance movements. Seemingly, he develops the most cognizance of the novel’s primary antagonist, Captain Oberholzer. An anti-Semite and corrupt cop, Martin maturates enough to out maneuver Oberholzer’s bloodlust. As such, Bonert misses the opportunity to include emotional and social growth as markers of character development.

The Mandela Plot offers an interesting perspective into South Africa’s different political segments, including the Nationalist Party or the African National Congress, and their vies for power. Readers receive a crash course in South African politics and revolutions. Despite the title, however, Nelson Mandela is but a minor background character. The anti-apartheid revolutionary’s incarceration then ascent to the presidency are narrative devices used to contextualize the novel’s timeline. Undeterred by The Mandela Plot‘s overt connection to South African politics, Bonert diminishes instead of centralizes the State’s affairs.

Yet Bonert aptly demonstrates the contours of political divisiveness. This is often embodied by Martin, who serves as the crux between his conservative parents and Annie Goldberg, the radical American. She is an exceedingly contrived depiction of Western privilege and blind idealism. Nonetheless, Annie provokes Martin’s realization of his acceptance of internalized oppression and racial injustice. His apathy is rooted in the paradigm bolstering the South African military industrial complex and the chronic abuses of power. Martin’s introspection, however, drags down the narrative. Indeed, his self-absorption overpowers the novels politicality.

The novel’s language is comprised of local dialect and Yiddish. Bonert masterfully blends the two languages, thereby creating the text’s authentic voice. For example: “we walk cos you walk on shul on Shabbos… so it would be chutzpah deluxe to rock up at the shul in a car” (7). Difficult to maneuver through at first, readers eventually understand the phonetics and the narrative coherently flows. To ease the transition, a glossary of Yiddish and Afrikaans slang are provided at the end of the book. The glossary is not totally, though, necessary as Bonert situates enough context around the unfamiliar phraseology to enable comprehension.

As a whole, The Mandela Plot is categorically disordered. It’s story is tenuously spread over several genres, thereby feeling erratic. First, the novel strives to be a thriller then merges into historical fiction. The plot also flirts with the conventions of a coming-of-age story with a heavy dose of cultural identity questioning. Concurrently, Bonert squeezes in a history of Jews in South Africa that’s underdeveloped and worthy of more detail. Then, inexplicably, the last part becomes amnesia fiction. Martin is beaten into a coma and must recover all his memories. The real tragedy here is that all his tedious introspection is lost.

Bonert successfully depicts the pathways adolescents must transverse while his descriptions of the oppressive state are also astute. However, the novel is too ambitious in its scope. This results in a thin narrative that never truly engages the reader. Indeed, I only felt engaged around 300 pages into The Mandela Plot. Martin does forge an incredible journey through a terrifying social moment — but the saga is forgettable.