By Anne Murphy
For his new novel, Alix Jans found wisdom in the words of acclaimed author Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
“That’s exactly what I did, and I hope others will want to read it too,” said Jans of his book, Amandla.
Amandla means “power” in South Africa, where Jans was born and raised during the time of apartheid, the sociopolitical system that for decades separated the races in that country and ended largely through the efforts of Nelson Mandela.
For the novel, Jans used a pen name rather than his given name: Anton van der Merwe. The pen name honors his forebears who left France for South Africa. “It’s a French Huguenot name,” he said, referring to the Protestants who fled religious persecution by the Catholic Church in 17th-century France. “My ancestors on my mother’s side were among 200 French Huguenots who fled to South Africa.”
Jans, a longtime resident of Highland Park, followed a friend to the U.S. “We’d graduated law school in South Africa together,” he said. “We both went to the U.K. for post-grad studies. He met his future wife, a student from Saint Paul, while at Oxford. We both later attended William Mitchell (now Mitchell Hamline) College of Law on Summit Avenue and then joined Twin Cities law firms. I met my wife on a skyway in downtown Minneapolis.”
The inspiration for Amandla came at the beginning of the millennium, Jans said. “It was Y2K, the world as we knew it was about to end,” he said, recalling the widespread concern that the turnover to the year 2000 would wreak havoc with computers around the world. Though Jans did not expect the world to end, he remembers thinking, “‘What would I leave behind?’ So I made a New Year’s resolution to write a book about my country of origin as a legacy for my daughters.”
It took six years for Jans to find an entry point into the book he wanted to write. That was followed by another 13 years of writing at night and whenever else he could find the time in his busy family life.
Jans’ epiphany came while reading a newspaper article about a gun Mandela had hidden on a farm near Johannesburg. The farm was Mandela’s hideout in the early 1960s while planning the overthrow of the South African regime. However, the pistol was never found, according to the article.
“The story of apartheid could not be told without telling the story of the Afrikaaner people—the descendants of the Dutch, German and French immigrants who landed on the southern tip of Africa in the 17th century and headed out into the unknown interior of South Africa where they encountered the various native peoples like the Zulu and the Xhosa.”
Mandela, who led the armed struggle against apartheid, was subsequently arrested and imprisoned for 27 years. On his release, he continued to work for social justice, was elected president of South Africa and was eventually awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Jans was among the thousands who welcomed Mandela in Cape Town when he was freed in 1990.
“Once I had the idea of Mandela’s buried gun from a 2006 BBC interview he gave, the broad outline of the book began to form,” Jans said. It would have to include Mandela, and that meant it would have to include the story of apartheid. And the story of apartheid could not be told without telling the story of the Afrikaaner people—the descendants of the Dutch, German and French immigrants who landed on the southern tip of Africa in the 17th century and headed out into the unknown interior of South Africa where they encountered the various native peoples like the Zulu and the Xhosa.
“It’s a story much like the early American settlers from Europe who headed west into the vast interior where they encountered the various indigenous American peoples,” Jans said. “I relied on the historical narrative to guide my plot, inserting fictional characters to make the story accessible and hopefully compelling and entertaining.
“The most difficult part of the writing was the fact that half of my protagonists were from the Mandela family, and Nelson Mandela is not only a non-fictional character but an international icon, his story well-known and documented. I was careful to treat his life with the greatest respect and do no injustice to his legacy. The challenge was not only to weave my fiction into Mandela’s life, but to create fictional lives for his father and grandfather that were credible despite my having no record of his grandfather’s life and finding only passing references to his father’s.
In his three-generation saga, Jans’ characters engage in historical battles, witness genocide in both Black and Afrikaaner concentration camps, and experience the perils of laboring in gold mines, the rise of apartheid and the tragic misunderstanding that leads to an assassination attempt on Mandela with his once hidden gun.
“Mandela’s Gun was the working title of the book for the longest time,” Jans said. “But the novel became broader in scope and ultimately morphed into a saga of power, freedom and the rise of apartheid. ‘Amandla: Ngawethu’ is the signature political-resistance chant of the ANC (African National Congress), used frequently by Mandela himself. It means, ‘Power: It shall be ours.’
“The most joyous part of the writing process was when I visited South Africa in December 2019 as part of my research, and took my college-age daughter with me for her first visit,” Jans said. “It was a special time for both of us, and a delight to have her experience firsthand many of the sites I write about.
“It’s my hope that those for whom the story of South Africa begins and ends with Nelson Mandela and apartheid will read Amandla and discover a more complex and nuanced story of the struggle for freedom and power,” Jans said. “Whether on an individual or national level, the quest for freedom and self-determination, while fraught with sacrifice, is universal and transcends all boundaries. But the quest for power, while no less universal, is fraught with danger, for power tends to corrupt and all too often leads to a desire for absolute power, which corrupts absolutely, as (British historian) Lord Acton once said.”
Amandla is available in paperback, eBook and audiobook. For more information, visit alixjans.com.
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