The liberation of South Africa was a fundamental aspiration for people in the 1960s through the 1980s. In No Time Like the Present, Nadine Gordimer, the preeminent South African writer, brings us into the lives of Steve and Jabu, children of the struggle and travellers into the present. They married when it was illegal for a mixed-race couple, they moved to a suburb with their comrades from the struggle, they had children, and they developed “ordinary” careers. Is this not the life they desired?
The present has been disillusioning for Steve and Jabu. As the novel evolves they have to overlook many compromises, for everyone must understand that reality is never as good as the country of their dreams. Yes, voting is a right for all, and it was well exercised. But after Mandela, Mbeki was a disappointment. And after him, Zuma is frightening. Or are they being too demanding of their politicians. Are these leaders worse than those in other countries?
Social problems abound. Jabu is a lawyer in the Justice Centre. Daily she sees the destitute suffer from lack of services, work and family. AIDS is a scourge. The increasing number of refugees from Zimbabwe is blamed for much disorder, a blame made violent by impoverished locals who seek a focus for their frustration. Steve is a university instructor who seeks to interpret and implement the principles of freedom in the classes of his institution. He recognizes that young people taught so poorly under apartheid cannot quickly become viable university students. Unfortunately, education is one of the lower priorities of successive governments with too many priorities; thus, educational standards are not improving. When will they, if ever?
Rising above this litany of disasters is the loving marriage of Steve and Jabu. Nadine Gordimer has accomplished one of the most difficult feats in literature – evoking the steady, warm, supportive joy of a good marriage.
Their children are anchored by a good family life, allowing them to pursue their individual interests and friends. However, as their children grow through their teen years, Steve and Jabu are forced to confront the staggering difference between the society they wanted for their family and the society outside the doors of their home.