This book is about the psychological trauma of the early apartheid days as experienced by a gentle, white civil servant required to enforce racist laws. George Jameson loves his fellow black South Africans, speaks their languages fluently, and deeply admires their culture – not in a paternalistic or colonial way, as was so common back then, but with knowledge and respect.
He was a Native Commissioner when the National Party came to power in 1948 and his fear that black people would soon be treated as “unpersons” is so painful for him that it’s almost impossible to handle. The trauma of being forced to implement degrading laws pushes him into a depression from which he never recovers. At one point the book was so hard to read that I had to put it down for weeks. I felt his confusion. I felt his despair. I felt the terrible unjustness of what went down in South Africa in the late 1940s.
Johnson is restrained in his writing. There’s never an “overtell” or info download. Instead we quietly experience the brokenness and dehumanising horror of apartheid through George Jameson’s terrible struggle to get out of the situation he’s in. He applies for new jobs but is never able to escape, and bit by bit, this breaks him.
Shaun Johnson’s father was a Native Commissioner during the birth of apartheid and a compulsive keeper of letters, doctor’s reports, newspaper clippings, tape recordings. For decades, Johnson kept a sealed box of his squirreled-away history in his cellar and The Native Commissioner is the result of him finally opening that box. It’s one of the most important and saddest books I’ve read.
I will never forget George Jameson/Johnson.