Thoughts in a Makeshift Mortuary, by Jenny Hobbs

Thoughts in a Makeshift Mortuary (New edition, 2014)

Thoughts in a Makeshift Mortuary (Michael Joseph London, 1989; Grafton, 1990, Umuzi 2014) deals with the tragic effects of apartheid violence and hatred on young South Africans, and is also a double love story spanning thirty years. Thoughts was a finalist for the 1989 CNA Literary Award, and was published by Econ Verlag in Germany under the title Tief im Süden.

What the back cover says:

“The date is December 1985; the place a village in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, the independent black country surrounded by white South Africa.  Hooded gunmen have come in the night and shot dead a young couple: Rose, a South African teacher, and her coloured husband Jake, a poet turned ANC activist with whom she had been living in exile.  Her mother grieves over the torn bodies while her father rages round the village in a fury of loss. In a series of flashbacks, Rose’s life and her parents’ stormy marriage unfold against the background of the turmoil and agony of recent events in South Africa, dominated by the urgent need to identify with those set apart for their colour.  But, as the local people prepare for the funeral, a ray of hope shines through the darkness.  The white girl and her husband did not die in vain.  There was a survivor of the shooting…  A pulsating first novel from South Africa, Thoughts in a Makeshift Mortuary is the tragic account of a forbidden love between two people of different races and a lament for the young lives being laid waste in an unhappy country.  Above all, it is a praise song to the South Africans of all races who are trying to build bridges rather than blow them up.”  

The background to Thoughts in a Makeshift Mortuary

The profoundly tragic photograph which propelled me into writing this first novel appeared on the front page of the Sunday Times on 22 December 1985: Jacqui Quin and her husband Leon Meyer lying dead on a floor, side by side under a bloody sheet.

Tens of thousands of young people were being caught up in our country’s raging turmoil. At that time our older daughters were university students and the youngest had spent her first high school year in one of South Africa’s only two non-segregated schools. I was so appalled by the vision of a young woman like them assassinated in her home, that I kept the cutting and subsequent articles about the funeral in Lesotho. Two weeks later I sat down one evening and started writing this fiction.

My characters are imagined, not based on the people involved, and this is a fictional village. It was the horror of the cross-border raids being planned and executed by shadowy men sent by the Nationalist government, and the terrible toll that monstrous policy was taking on innocent people, that drove me on.

The ANC was still banned and newspapers were censored, though if you read them carefully you could pick up information that slipped through. As a freelance journalist, I knew journalists and writers who told me things they couldn’t write about; I also had friends with connections to the struggle. Nobody at that time could say for certain who was involved in the raids.

As I wrote, the stories of the fictional young couple, Rose and Jake, and Rose’s parents, Sarah and Gordon, became intertwined over the decades between the 50s and the 80s in South Africa. I could not have written them without my experiences as a journalist, particularly working and writing for Thandi, then part of Bona magazine, during the years 1978 to 1982, which took me into the lives and traumas of many black women.

The book took nearly two years to write between other assignments. Michael Joseph published it in 1989, followed by Grafton with the paperback edition in 1990 and translated in Germany in two 1995 editions.

What shook me most about readers’ reactions was the almost universal, ‘But I didn’t know all this was happening in our country!’ It was too easy during those decades not to know, to blind oneself to the realities and not to listen to the voices being raised against injustices.

But we know now. Information about the cross-border raids began to emerge during the 1990s. Here are the details of the killing which inspired Thoughts in a Makeshift Mortuary as they appeared in newspaper reports, and I give them for two reasons: to tell the story of what really happened, and because atrocities like this must never, never happen again.

The man who led the squad of assassins was Eugene de Kock. A cutting about his trial in the Pretoria Supreme Court dated 17 September 1996 reads:

‘De Kock yesterday gave … vital new evidence about the planning and execution of the raid, launched after then president PW Botha became convinced that Lesotho was harbouring ANC terrorists…

‘Six members of the Vlakplaas unit, led by De Kock, were chosen to attack houses occupied by members of an ANC cell believed to have been involved in the murder of  a policeman in Cape Town… While he and a Warrant-Officer … were attacking one house, two other operatives hit the house in which Jacqui Quin and Leon Meyer lived… When the operative knocked on the front door, Quin opened it and grabbed the barrel of his gun. “He fired the weapon, killing Quin,” De Kock said. They then entered the house and shot Meyer.’

They claimed to have locked the child in a room with a child-minder. De Kock said that on returning to base he phoned the Maseru police to tell them about her. Later news reports are conflicting: one that neighbours found her safe in her cot, and another that, ‘They left the child, still being breastfed, unharmed to crawl in the blood of her parents before she was rescued four hours later.’

Seven people were murdered in the first house: Lulamile Dantile, Nomkhosi Mini, Vivian Mathee, Joseph Mayoli, Makaelane Mohatle, Boemo Tau and Amelia Lesenyeho.

Jacqui Quin’s mother is quoted in a cutting dated 9 May 1996 as asking the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for a memorial “so that their story is not forgotten. I want people to remember why they died.”

I hope this book dedicated to Jacqui, while fiction, reminds readers of the sacrifices she and many others made, and of their bravery. Remember.

> Podcast

Reading Matters: 10 Apr 2014: @SueGrantMarshal with Jenny Hobbs @FranLitFest @RandomStruik @JonathanBallPub
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Sue Grant-Marshall interviewed author Jenny Hobbs about her first book, Thoughts in a Makeshift Mortuary, which has just been re-published by Umuzi.
They also discussed the Franchhoek Literary Festival, which takes place from 16 to 18 May 2014.

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