Rehana Rossow’s sophomore work of fiction; New Times might not be as exciting as her debut but it is a powerful enough work to warrant some reflection after the last page. New Times gets its name not just from the newspaper that the protagonist Aaliyah (Ali) works in but also as a reference to the times when the novel is set in. Set in 1995, just before and during the Rugby World Cup. and at the onset of the Mandela presidency. These are the new times when the old order of apartheid was being ushered out and new times were taking root. The underlying current is a puzzling look at how and if the new times were indeed beneficial.
Ali is a symbol of the new times not just in her struggles in the New Times newsroom as a new staff but a symbol in her bid to navigate the present while weighed down by the burden and trauma of the past. While at her previous news organisation, she had seen a lot of traumatic events while covering protests as a political reporter. This is not uncommon with South African journalists before 1994. Most of these traumas have gone undiscussed and probably unattended to. In the new times with the change that was promised not panning out as expected, Ali begins to unravel as she wonders if those deaths were futile and in vain. Like Ali rightly said, “sometimes it’s hard to understand the choices people make when they’re finally free“. 27 years into the new times of the rainbow nation, some of the choices of the free have been frankly head-scratching.
it is incredibly hard to pull off a novel that has political activism at its core as it often comes off as preachy and veers close to didacticism. New Times suffers from that defect but the difficulty is eased by Rossouw’s excellent prose and Ali’s life outside work that is so vividly described. The life of a young Muslim in the Cape-Malay’s Bo-Kaap community is vividly painted in words. Ali’s struggles with mental health, the sexual tension between herself and her best friend, Sumaya, the metamorphosis of Lizo her politician friend and the tenacious effort of her grandma Ragmat to keep the homefront steady in the face of multiple challenges, are all vividly told. They are vivid enough to keep the political themes in check and prevent them from elbowing the humanity of Aaliyah and the community that surrounds her out of the spotlight of this well-written work of fiction.