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Egypt calls South Africa: "A Vision from the South"

Updated: Nov 21, 2021

I thank Dr. Marwa Mamdouh-Salem for sharing with us her foreword to the Arabic translation of my novel The Afrikaner, which she titled "A Vision from the South"


"A Vision from the South"

I owe to technology my success in translating into Arabic Arianna Dagnino’s great novel The Afrikaner. I rarely follow my LinkedIn account and even forget to check its inbox for months; fortunately enough, I opened it on September 11, 2019, only to find a message from Arianna. We had never met before; she was looking for an Arabic translator and publisher for her post-apartheid novel. I instantly looked for the definition of “Afrikaner” in my electronic dictionary. The Afrikaners are the descendants of those very first Dutch and German colonists in southern Africa who generated a paradox between construction and destruction. They wreaked havoc on its land. Over decades of slavery and abuse, they cultivated vines in the soil and spread their genes in the wombs of African virgins and married women, the daughters of the ancestral owners of the land.

I was haunted by Arianna’s novel, which reminded me of Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and Give Back my Heart by Yusuf Sibai.

I would even go further and think of Sinuhe the Egyptian by Mika Waltari. The Afrikaner falls into the same kind of literature that delves into history and nationhood. It depicts South African life and characters in the year 1996, two years after the fall of apartheid and the general election in which Nelson Mandela was sworn in as President.

Dario, the absent Italian geologist and Arianna’s alter ego, is nonetheless present with his thoughts, feelings and research methodology in the mind and heart of his Afrikaner lover and colleague, the young paleontologist Zoe de Plessis, the protagonist of the story. Zoe’s family seems to be trapped by an ancient curse; its women see their men die in violent circumstances in apparent retribution for their forefathers’ iniquities and brutalities against the African people.

Zoe is torn between two worldviews ­– the Western and the African – which at first sight might seem in contradiction with each other, while in fact they work in synchrony – like the moon and the sun.

Mourning the tragic death of her lover in a hijacking (a common daily crime in post-apartheid Johannesburg), Zoe seeks refuge in the Kalahari Desert in Namibia. The dry land of scorching sands and Bushmen magic has a healing effect on our heroine. When Zoe goes back to Cape Town, a sequence of unexpected events catches the reader’s attention along the roaring waves of the Indian and Atlantic oceans. The novel’s exquisite plot and multiple thematic threads keep us engaged till the end. The author braids the past with the present, mixing the memories of Zoe’s aunts with recollections brought about by a final swimming scene in Zanzibar waters.

Reflecting on our African life, The Afrikaner exposes the reasons for our pain. Those human rights that we deem undisputable and untouchable may instead suddenly and brutally be taken away. Injustice and corruption are recurring plights in Africa, if one cares to delve deep enough into its historical archives.

Africa remains a hotspot of struggle, conflict, plunder, poverty and disease. However, it is also a fascinating continent pulsating with vitality.

We Africans are looking forward to a real uprising against neo-colonialism. Wars ravage, corruption strikes, the continent’s resources are plundered by international powers. In these turbulent waters, The Afrikaner rises to heal the wounds and inspire us with renewed hope. As Zoe ponders in her solitary night in the desert, “Africa, she feels, has betrayed her. Yet only Africa, she knows, can redeem her.”

No doubt, the Afrikaner will remain deep in my soul. It inspired the conversations I had with my dear father Mamdouh Salem, my mentor in the world of culture, politics and literature, just a few days before his death in early 2021. Being an intellectual, father thought of The Afrikaner as a creative expression of soft power, as we call it in international relations and foreign policy. He was also convinced that South Africa has the potential to reintroduce itself to the world and the rest of Africa.

By overcoming its dark side, the stigma of its human rights abuses and the instability it once caused in neighbouring countries, it could lead the region into a more promising future – politically, socially and economically.

South Africa is a melting pot of many tribes with a black majority and white minority. After the fall of apartheid it has witnessed the successful establishment of democratic institutions and elections. It has also enjoyed effective economic growth as a leading and well-established member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), positively affecting the whole region. Moreover, it plays a prominent international role, as reflected in its BRICS membership together with influential powers such as Russia, China, India and Brazil.

Having his country always in mind, father used Egypt’s interests as a benchmark and roadmap in his geopolitical analyses. He explained the implications of having South African Pitso Mosimane as the coach of the Egyptian Al Ahli soccer team; through him the new South Africa would wittily manage to win the hearts of millions of Egyptian Al Ahli fans. Even the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa congratulated Mosimane on this delicate diplomatic task.

South Africa has become a real competitor to Egypt in Africa, although coordination of intents and cooperation between the two countries remain imperative.

Despite the challenges it constantly faces, Egypt, my father believed, will keep drawing international attention. It will maintain its vital role in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and will remain, as the intellectual Gamal Hamdan once said, a safe haven from strife and human plights. Africa cannot do without Egypt’s effective and influential role as a defender of African rights and in all matters concerning the continent’s geopolitical stability. The governments of Egypt and South Africa must regard Africa’s interests as preeminent, on top of any other considerations. My father acknowledged that South Africa had made a big leap forward on the right track, paving the way for future successes. This leads us to think that, more than ever, both countries need to draw a strategy for mutual cooperation and coordination.

I dedicate this translation of The Afrikaner to my father’s soul. I also dedicate it to the Arab reader as the first step stone on the road from Cairo to Cape Town and as a bridge from North to South Africa.

Cairo, February 3, 2021

* Dr. Marwa Mamdouh-Salem is the official translator of the Afrikaner into Arabic.

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