In the mid-19th Century, a teenage prophetess named Nongqawuse preached salvation for the Xhosa people. If the people would slaughter all of their cattle and burn all of their crops, the spirits of their ancestors would rise and drive their oppressors (the English colonizers) into the sea. The ancestors would also resurrect the cattle and restore the crops. A large percentage of the Xhosa ("Believers") adopted this new religion, destroyed their livelihood, and initiated many years of disease and starvation. The Xhosa nation might well have been wiped out, but for the fact that some of the people ("Unbelievers") rejected these prophecies and did not destroy their crops and cattle.

These historical events serve as the cornerstone of The Heart of Redness, which presents two intertwined fictional narratives: one that occurs in the time of Nongqawuse and a second narrative that takes place in Qolorha, a Xhosa village in present-day South Africa. In the novel the conflict between Believers and Unbelievers has persisted through the "Middle Generations" and continues to the present. Believers claim that the prophecies of Nongqawuse would have come true, if only all of the Xhosa people had destroyed their farms and cattle. The ancestors failed to return because of the unbelief of a portion of the people.

Unbelievers argue that the folly of the original Believers led to decades of suffering and a strengthening of the English colonizers. This traditional conflict is reflected today in their attitudes toward economic development. Developers want to build a large casino and resort complex near the village. Unbelievers support the proposal because it will bring jobs and money to the region. Believers are dead set against the proposal because it will destroy their way of life.

Meanwhile, Camagu, who has a Ph.D. in economic development and who returned from exile in 1994 to help build the new South Africa, has moldered for years in Johannesburg, unable to find a job appropriate to his skills. When he meets a young woman who says she is returning home to Qolorha, he spontaneously follows her there. Camagu decides to remain in the village and, against his will, becomes embroiled in the battle between Believers and Unbelievers, as well as love affairs with two women, one from each side of the conflict.


Heart of Redness is a beautifully written novel that probes the deep spiritual divisions in post-Apartheid South Africa: traditional values versus Western economic development, community empowerment versus exploitation, and the burden of history versus freedom to create their own future. Though the novel portrays conflicting beliefs and values, its focus is on individual persons --vibrant characters whose stories engage the reader--rather than ideas as such.

One of the most interesting features of the book is the valence given to Nongqawuse and her Believers. How can "traditional values" be desirable if they are represented by spirits who demand destruction? There is no simple answer. While the Believers look exclusively into the past for direction, the Unbelievers have very little insight into the social damage and disorganization that a resort complex will cause. In the end the moral life is an individual matter. It involves living with integrity and respecting others, as Camagu learns to do in his new life in Qolorha.


Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York



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