From Shanghai to Cape Town to Harlem, South African writer C. A. Davids’s new novel, How to Be a Revolutionary, explores connections among aging revolutionaries on three continents. Her characters need each other to make sense of complicity, disillusionment, and intimate betrayals. Being a confident young revolutionary is part of a collective experience. Being a confused older revolutionary, most of the time, is awfully lonely.
Davids writes from Cape Town, and her book is both deliciously internationalist and unmistakably South African. Nearly three decades after the formal end of apartheid, South Africa’s brutal system of racial discrimination, nobody can credibly say the beautiful future has arrived. By several measures, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. Unemployment is rampant — three in four young people are jobless. Meanwhile, the wealthy few (now less predominantly white than 30 years ago) shape their lives in vigilance and fear, given the unsurprising ubiquity of crime. Since South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, one party has dominated national politics: the African National Congress. Today, the ANC is riven by bitter and sometimes violent factional competition; it is unwilling or unable to stop members from looting the state in ways ranging from petty to grandiose and is increasingly unable to deliver basic public services. Davids’s book is haunted by the spectacle of ANC leaders, even and especially the most venal and corrupt, mouthing revolutionary slogans while behaving as an entrenched, parasitic elite. The novel gives us an intimate and empathetic investigation of the personal stakes of political disillusionment. How does a decent person assimilate into an indecent ruling order? What is a revolutionary, nurtured in the tradition of a particular party, to do in the face of its latter-day rot?
Davids’s narrative is composed of four loosely related perspectives. In 1953, a fictionalized version of Langston Hughes pens letters to a Cape Town writer, recounting his visit to Shanghai in 1933 and a recent congressional interrogation regarding his alleged communist sympathies. In the late 1980s, Beth, a South African teenager, follows her luminous friend Kay into the anti-apartheid struggle. In the present day, Beth is a diplomat working for the ANC government in China. In Shanghai, Huang Zhao, a retired journalist, reflects on his career writing news copy for the Chinese Communist Party. Once, he was loyal to the Maoist project, believing that “a better society was being shaped, and that all the sacrifice and blood and loathing would not be in vain.” Those days are long gone, and Zhao’s purpose as an old man is to tell the truth about the tragedies in revolutionary China’s past. With certain topics banned in mainland China, Zhao needs someone — a foreigner — to help him get the word out. He chooses Beth.
Only the sections set in Beth’s past are narrated in the third person. Youth is another country, told at a distance. Maintaining the first person across sections devoted to Hughes, Zhao, and present-day Beth has the effect of merging, to a degree, the stories and voices of older, disillusioned revolutionaries. Each narrative “I” for these three characters inhabits different contexts and is arrayed in a different relationship to party and state, but — Davids suggests — all confront similar conundrums. Hughes, Beth, and Zhao all find themselves called to testify. All of the venues are compromised as state power stages and distorts a relationship between speaker and ideal audience. Faced with Senator McCarthy’s investigative committee, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or a smuggled tamizdat manuscript, each speaker must account, in their own way, for the troubled and ambiguous life they managed to assemble under the revolutionary lodestar.
Beth is still in school when she meets Kay in the late 1980s. Both are from a fictionalized version of the Cape Flats, not so far from the “watercolour painted in azure oceans, golden sands, [and] dark emerald forests” of Cape Town — as white people and tourists experienced it. In an area reserved by the apartheid government for people it classified as “Coloured,” anger simmers and barricades burn.
Magnetic and enigmatic, Kay sets an example that demands Beth set aside the wrong friends, purge the wrong books, and learn to resent her parents’ complacency. Quickly, Beth realizes “only Kay knew the things she wanted to know”:
Like how to get more than three books out of the library right under Mrs. Adams’s portrait’s stare. Or how to light a new cigarette from a stompie. How to argue dialectical materialism. How to kiss a boy. How to apply lessons learned from Communist China to South Africa. How to flick a Zippo lighter with one hand. How to lead a toyi-toyi so it actually sounded and looked like a battle cry. How to do a fish plait. How to erect a barrier of burning tires across the main road. How to get the stupid cool boys to listen to you without them looking down your top. How to write a rhyming couplet. How to apply lessons from Communist Russia to South Africa. How to get the nerds to care about the Struggle as much as about their books. How to make Salie lose his temper so he started swearing like a bergie. How to lead a group of students to a mass rally. How to stay out past midnight. How to get the teachers to leave you alone. How to shout Amandla! without sounding sturvy. How to down a shot. How to be a revolutionary.
Beth’s conversion experience is immersive and intoxicating: “You weren’t supposed to say it, it was profane to think it, but it was a mad rush being in the Struggle.” Hurling profanities at authority figures. Unlearning deference and intergenerational respect. Tearing back the layers of bullshit and staring at the naked, ugly truth. Going places she isn’t supposed to go, places poor and violent enough to give her a thrill: “There was always room to go one floor closer to hell in this city.”
And then Kay is murdered.
Kay’s story is spun out of the real and unresolved deaths in 1989 of two young anti-apartheid activists, Coline Williams and Robert Waterwitch. Williams and Waterwitch, tasked with setting limpet mines, were killed when one detonated prematurely. Perhaps the state security services tampered with the mines; as yet, nobody knows for sure. Testifying before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Beth pays loving tribute to Kay’s memory, unspooling along the way the tangles of deceit that made possible a young revolutionary’s murder. Kay was in deeper than Beth, and Beth has her guesses about who was close enough to Kay to betray her. But it isn’t easy to tame the toxic whirl of accusation and doubt.
Only the young die good. Kay is never tempted, her purity never jostled by proximity to power. Not so for the revolutionaries who survive and take over the state. As Beth takes up a position in the new government, she notices the signs of corruption “like a layer of grease” settling upon everything, and how could she not? “A colleague I’d known since the early days of our careers, on the same salary scale, stepped out of a new Land Rover and began alternating a rainbow collection of Ozwald Boateng suits.” But Beth continues a kind of passive fidelity to the ANC, infuriating her husband whose rigid moralism makes no room for such compromises: “Andrew condemned the man to whomever would listen, while for me — yes, yes, I confess — it felt like a greater betrayal to turn on him.” Compromised and uncompromising, Beth and Andrew cannot coexist. Andrew cheats. Beth flees.
Zhao is a young student when he loses his mother. It is 1958, the Chinese Revolution is nearing a decade old, and the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong, has announced the Great Leap Forward. Agriculture will be collectivized, industry brought to rural areas, rightist errors uprooted, and steel production doubled through the construction of backyard furnaces. Historians debate the reasons why, but the Great Leap Forward is an utter catastrophe. Peasants starve in the millions (or tens of millions, depending on whose estimate you adopt) as state functionaries requisition more grain. Nobody can impress upon the Party leadership the scope of the crisis, and anyone who tries to speak up is dismissed as a deviationist, harassed, beaten, or worse.
The last time Zhao saw his mother was in his home village, when together they tended to a relative dying of starvation. When Zhao goes looking for her, he visits a cousin, a grotesque spectacle of a Party official growing fat off special privileges and hearty denial. Cousin (he never gets a name) has food, while around him hunger drives people to desperation. He subjects Zhao to a lecture, “all the while stuffing food into the hole in his face”:
Surely you know, this is about the struggle between the two paths, capitalism and socialism, and it is the landlords and the capitalists, motherfucking pigs, that store and hide grain. […] They report falsely on what has been collected, to keep some for themselves, and this is why others have to give more and go hungry. The people starve because of the motherfucking pig capitalists. We must not for even one minute tolerate this. We must subject them to struggle, motherfuckers, we must tear them limb from limb. He wiped his mouth gingerly with a cloth, smiled and invited me to take tea.
South Africans know that sort of vulgarity all too well: the fabulously wealthy cosplay revolutionaries, and the politically connected insulate themselves from human suffering. A few months ago, horrific flooding in the province of KwaZulu-Natal swept away homes and left nearly 500 dead. While communities were stranded without clean water, provincial premier Sihle Zikalala routed a municipal water tanker to his private residence for his household’s personal use. If Kay is one moral pole in the novel, Cousin is the other.
In response to the trauma he witnesses, Zhao numbs himself: “[T]here comes a time when empathy is more a burden than an emotion.” His awakening comes decades later, in May 1989, when as a reporter he spends several days among student protestors at Tiananmen Square. Zhao’s first reaction is a neat paraphrasing of South African struggle veterans’ contempt for the so-called “Born-Free” post-apartheid generation: “These spoiled brats who had been born too late to have experienced the wrath of the Red Guards, who had never had to eat bark or bitterness, and who had not forgone an education as many millions had when schools were shut during the Cultural Revolution, dared to ask for more?” Awed by the brutal state crackdown in which hundreds or thousands are killed, Zhao’s sentiments shift dramatically and permanently: “Either my life began or ended that day. I do not know which.”
Like Kay’s, Zhao’s story draws from the life of a real figure: Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng. Yang joined the Communist Party in his twenties and worked for several decades as an official mouthpiece for Xinhua News Agency. The events of 1989 broke Yang’s faith, as they did for the fictional Zhao. In subsequent years, Yang began visiting archives and collecting interviews to document the famine. The resulting book, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, appeared in Hong Kong in 2008 and in English translation in 2012. Yang dedicated it to his father, who starved to death in 1959.
For Davids, China’s famine of 1958–62 is a symbol of bureaucratic incompetence and indifference, Party privilege and arrogance. Echoes of popular South African laments about the ANC are strong. Notably muted in her book is any discussion of Maoist China’s second great catastrophe, the Cultural Revolution. Fearful of enemies within and without, Mao tried to activate the masses — and especially young people — to destroy the Party, the bourgeoisie, elite institutions, any survivors of the old order. Nurturing youth rebellion in an especially destructive and brutal key had devastating consequences, as documented in Yang’s follow-up book, The World Turned Upside Down.
Davids chooses not to find an echo of the Cultural Revolution in the wave of student protests that engulfed South African universities from 2015 to 2017. Under the banners of #RhodesMustFall at the University of Cape Town and #FeesMustFall at other institutions across the country, students mobilized in inchoate but powerful formations to demand a more substantive repudiation of apartheid’s legacies of racial exclusion and Eurocentrism at South African universities. Another writer, with different political sensibilities, might have played up the Cultural Revolution to create a frightening portrait of angry young people gone mad. It is to Davids’s credit, I think, that that is not the book she chose to write.
Some people ask their neighbors for butter or sugar. In a tall Shanghai apartment block, a Chinese man asks his South African neighbor for a word. In English: Something like sadness, but not exactly. Once, they were revolutionaries as we like our revolutionaries to be — young, romantic, confident. Now, they are no longer young. The romance is gone, and in its place is something like sadness, but not exactly. Before one of them disappears, they agree on a word: melancholy.
By the time Zhao meets his neighbor, Beth, he feels contempt for his former “spinelessness.” For decades, he has been working on a very different sort of project: a manuscript documenting the horrors of the famine that wiped out his mother and the village of his birth. As a foreigner, Beth does not feel the weight of taboo against mentioning prohibited aspects of China’s past. A distinct though difficult-to-name unease draws Zhao and Beth together. They offer each other help in seeing their own situation more clearly and resolve to act more boldly against it. “His patriotic pride perplexed me,” Beth observes of Zhao, “because he espoused it as much as he undercut it, and I couldn’t tell where he truly stood.” The same might be said of her.
Zhao disappears, and all Beth has left of him is his manuscript, delivered to her in secret. His purpose becomes hers: getting Zhao’s words out of mainland China, to a publisher, and into the world. Beth begins to take risks as she has not since the struggle days, but this time, instead of a community of action, she works in fear and near isolation. Feeling agency in a crowd is a rush; fear falls away in the company of others. Exercising agency alone offers only the bitterest satisfaction; it is terrifying.
Beth’s first gift to Zhao is a book of letters from Langston Hughes to South African writers, mailed across the Atlantic in the 1950s. That book is real: a 2010 collection co-edited by Shane Graham and John Walters, Langston Hughes and the South African Drum Generation, so named after a beloved magazine that depicted urban African life in groundbreaking ways. From 1953 to his death in 1967, Hughes built relationships with South African literary figures like Bloke Modisane, Es’kia Mphahlele, and Richard Rive, whose eventual international prominence owed something to Hughes’s sponsorship. Hughes’s historical correspondence provides loose inspiration for his presence in Davids’s novel, and he appears here in chatty epistolary reminiscences addressed to a Cape Town–based writer (presumably Rive). Hughes is the most lightly fictionalized of Davids’s lead characters. His role in the triptych is also the most difficult to parse — I changed my mind several times about whether he belongs at all.
In the 1920s, Langston Hughes made a name for himself as a young poet in the Harlem Renaissance. In 1932, he spent a year journeying in the Soviet Union, and, in 1933, he traveled to China. Hughes did not join the Communist Party, but, especially in the 1930s, he did write glowingly of the communist romance. “Put one more S in the U.S.A. / To make it Soviet,” he wrote. “One more S in the U.S.A. / Oh, we’ll live to see it yet.” Amid early Cold War paranoia about communist subversion, Hughes testified in 1953 before red-baiter-in-chief, Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Like the other narratives, the imagined Hughes correspondence straddles two time periods. Writing in 1953, Hughes looks back on a prior version of himself, traveling and mingling with revolutionary notables. The young Hughes is propelled around the world by leftist internationalism of a classic vintage: “We found we were not so different […] We resolved that the struggles for liberation between the Negro (and indeed all black men and women), the Chinese and the Indian were one and that together if only we could cooperate, we might all know freedom one day.” Hughes recounts impressions of Shanghai, a colonial city on the cusp of enormous change, and he recalls his meeting with Soong Ching-ling, famed Chinese socialist and widow of founding statesman Sun Yat-sen.
Hughes’s recent experiences cast his earlier revolutionary adventures in a different light. In her rendering of Hughes’s testimony, Davids gives us revolutionary spinelessness of a different sort. Called to account by the state, Hughes steps into a carefully apolitical gray zone, hoping to avoid further persecution. His critics see him as overly willing to cooperate, prepared to disavow his earlier revolutionary writings as reflecting viewpoints other than his own. Hughes’s actions weighed on his relationships with prominent Black leftists like W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, and they bought him no sympathy with a younger generation of Black American readers gravitating to defiant voices like Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin. “I think my fall is complete, for I hear their chatter,” the fictional Hughes writes to his friend in Cape Town. “The young ones call me out of touch behind my back; say my politics and racial pride belong to another era. Maybe they have a point.” Reflecting on his recent humiliating congressional appearance, Hughes wonders who to be next. Davids hints at an answer not in the content of Hughes’s letters, but in their bare existence.
The timing of Hughes’s first contact with the South African literary scene is so extraordinary that a novelist could never get away with it: just two weeks after his McCarthy interrogation, Hughes received a letter from the editor of Drum asking him to judge a short story contest. Though his first trip to the African continent (a tour of West Africa) was as a young man, the older Hughes leapt at this chance to engage African writers and writing in a more substantial way. In the ensuing years, his role expanded — or perhaps matured — from prophet of Black letters to patron. Hughes nurtured connections with African — especially South African — authors and poets; he offered them encouragement, edited their writing, published an anthology of their work, connected them with audiences in the Global North, sent them money. Some, particularly South African writer Bloke Modisane, became intimate friends. Perhaps Hughes unduly accommodated himself to state power. Perhaps his run-in with McCarthy accelerated his turn to Pan-Africanism, to other ways of engaging people far away.
The South African writers who admired Hughes knew about the bite of repression. Richard Rive told Hughes that the manuscript he enclosed might cost him his job. Rive observed that, under his banning orders, it would be illegal for him to possess a copy of his own book.
Hughes’s correspondents in South Africa knew, also, about the impossibility of a pure existence in a poisoned system. After nearly two decades in exile (Nigeria, France, Kenya, United States), the dissident writer Es’kia Mphahlele could find no other way to come home than to enlist the help of a deeply compromised man: Cedric Phatudi, leader of an apartheid statelet called Lebowa. Phatudi interceded with the white government to get Mphahlele removed from the banning list, and when Mphahlele couldn’t get the university position he wanted, Phatudi’s Lebowa government employed the author as a school inspector. Nobody remembers that now. In death, Mphahlele, like Hughes, is an unsullied giant.
Before Yang Jisheng, there was Lev Kopelev. Kopelev was born in Kyiv in 1912, too young to participate in the Russian Revolution in 1917, but old enough to witness forced collectivization in Ukraine as a radio correspondent in 1932. A loyal member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Kopelev studied German and became a propaganda officer during World War II. For protesting the behavior of Red Army soldiers towards German civilians, Kopelev was sent to a prison camp and rehabilitated only after Stalin’s death, in 1954. In the 1960s and ’70s, disillusionment set in as Kopelev came to reevaluate not only the terrible things that had happened in the pursuit of building socialism, but also his own complicity in those horrors. In response to his hardening dissident stance, the state in 1977 stripped Kopelev of his ability to teach or publish and in 1980 withdrew his citizenship. That year, Kopelev published a memoir of his younger years, The Education of a True Believer, that climaxed in a searing account of forced collectivization, dekulakization, and famine. “How could all this have happened?” Kopelev asked himself. “How could I have participated in it?”
Zhao and Beth are reluctant Kopelevs, asking themselves the same questions: How could all this have happened? How could I have participated in it? The relevant scale here is not societal but personal. Davids writes about her lead characters’ ambivalence with the sadness of a radical facing up to painful realities, not the boastful sneer of a conservative who says, I told you so.
There are no American Kopelevs. American revolutionaries are like Kay, pure and righteous because they have never tasted power. Sometimes I think American leftists like their revolutionaries that way, all confidence and clarity. Grappling seriously with the moral conundrums of Davids’s book is not a particularly strong habit among them. My grandfather, a radical historian, discouraged me from focusing on either Russia or South Africa in my doctoral studies because, though they may have had moments of hope in 1917 or 1994, both Russia and South Africa subsequently strayed from the beautiful path and therefore have little to teach us. Now I live in Johannesburg, and postrevolutionary decay — its hypocrisy, absurdity, and sadness — is the stuff of life.
In her brilliant recent memoir Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History (2021), Lea Ypi recalls her adolescence on the cusp of Albania’s transition from socialism to capitalism. Her father, she writes, could only trust a revolutionary who had died; his favorite revolution was the one that had not happened yet. He habitually warmed to incipient stirrings against the existing order; nevertheless, “as soon as that movement became concrete, as soon as it had its own leaders, its own set of constraints and conventions, as soon as it became something as opposed to the rejection of something else, he lost faith.” In Western Europe, Ypi found radicals who mostly shared her father’s sensibilities: “My friends’ socialism was clear, bright, and in the future. Mine was messy, bloody, and of the past.” Ypi excavates a peculiar kind of arrogance that sustains the incurious optimism of Western socialists who “believed there was little for them to learn.”
Everything that went wrong on my side of the world could be explained by the cruelty of our leaders or the uniquely backward nature of our institutions. […] There was no risk of repeating the same mistakes, no reason to ponder what had been achieved, and why it had been destroyed. Their socialism was characterized by the triumph of freedom and justice; mine by the failure of these ideas to be realized. Their socialism would be brought about by the right people, with the right motives, under the right circumstances, with the right combination of theory and practice. There was only one thing to do about mine: forget it.
Davids brings her battered older revolutionaries out of their atomization and into a new kind of fellowship with one another that no longer rings with the confidence of youth. Their internationalism is an echo of earlier forms, but quieter, more private. Looking back, they trace a crooked path to where they have come. Looking to each other, to others like and unlike themselves, they figure out where to go next.
Hilary Lynd is a historian and writer whose work focuses on South Africa, the Soviet Union, and the many lives and afterlives of global communism. She is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley and lives in Johannesburg.