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The Good Doctor:

Post-apartheid life in SA

In this week’s column I would like to explore how Damon Galgut’s masterpiece The Good Doctor portrays the life in post-apartheid South Africa. Among other things, the novel codifies the volatile political set up in post-apartheid South Africa and how the past would shape the present and future.

The novel The Good Doctor is set in a dilapidated and largely neglected, ill-supplied rural hospital. The hospital is in the predominately poor area, black section of post-apartheid South Africa which was previously called the homelands. The book opens with the arrival of Dr. Laurence Waters who is a recent medical school graduate with high ideals and a need to “make a difference.” The initial and prophetic pronouncement made upon him by Dr. Frank Eloff a disillusioned veteran physician is that Dr. Waters won't last.

Brigadier’s house

One of the potent image that reminds the dark days is the imposing presence of Brigadier’s house which in a way, symbolises the short spell of military dictatorship and military dictator brigadier who once ruled the boarder township. Dr. France Eloff reminds a close encounter he had with the dictator and his personality which sports fear.

“The brown black led me to a tiny room with brick walls and a concrete floor. No windows. A low zinc roof, from which one raw light bulb is suspended on a length of flex. There are four soldiers here, two of them are officers. One is Commandant Moller. He is wearing his brown army pants and boots and a white T-shirt. He is on a stool, relaxed and informal.

On the floor is a black man, naked. He is splattered with blood and lying still, except for the painful rise and fall of his ribcage as he breathes. At the periphery of my vision I see quirts and other objects, strange shapes that I don’t recognise. But I know the scene, although I have never been in it before; it’s an old tableau, in which my place is immediately clear.”

“The memory of this event was suddenly strong again: the tiny shirtless man on the edge of the bed, holding his military cap in his hands. He was very stiff and upright, very neat.

‘were you afraind?’

I had to think for a moment. ‘Yes, I suppose I was. I tend to be afraid of what can kill me, even if it’s not likely to happen”

“ The ground was big, an acre or two, and elaborate but as we moved closer to the light I could see the garden, although they were ragged and turning brown in places, were not completely neglected. The shape in the topiary were blurred but still visible and lawn was not overly long. Somebody was keeping an eye. The brigadier wasn’t a brigadier. Until he staged a coup he was just an ordinary captain in the homeland defence force. Nobody had heard of him before. And it could only have been with the help of the bigger, unseen friends that he had emerged from the shadows with sudden support and power. After he had appointed himself chief minister he had heaped numerous honours on his own shoulders, including his rank and a handful of medals. He was wearing the rank and the medals now, although officially both uniform and army it belonged to didn’t exist anymore...”

The author stresses through insightful descriptions of the past and the bearing of the turbulent past on the present and future that the military presence is pervasive and that the brigadier emerges out of the blue.

Idealist

Although the novel The Good Doctor is about an idealist young intern who sacrificed his life for the ideals he stood for, the subtext of the novel is the politically volatile border village in post-apartheid South Africa. The violence touches upon everybody even the rural hospital. Tehogo, who was a man-Friday in the hospital, became a victim to the violence. Ironically, he became a captive at the same time. “To keep him from tearing out the tubes, I tied him to the bed with pieces of soft cloth. But these restraining bonds-on his legs and free arm-mimicked and mocked the real chain on his wrist. He was a patient and a captive…”

The agent of the violence remained a mystery. Tehogo’s affair ended in the same tragic way as of many against the backdrop of highly militarised milieu. One fine morning, Tehogo, ‘Good doctor and the soldier who was to protect Tehogo were disappeared. “And in the morning he was gone. So was the soldier, so was Tehogo. And to get around the little problem of the handcuffs, they had taken the bed too” “Everybody was in shock. It seemed astonishing that three human beings and a hospital bed could have vanished in the night. So silently, so completely without trace. As if a huge hand had reached down to sweep them all away.

How did it happen? How many of them were there, what weapons did they have? Did they drive in through the main gate, like visitors, or did they slip in over the wall like assassins? I didn’t know; I could never know the answer to these questions, because it happened in another country, while I slept.

Disappearance

And Laurence-why had they taken him, what did he do to make his disappearance necessary? I could almost gust at this, although I hadn’t seen it: he would have stood in their way, he would have inserted himself between Tehogo and the enemy. I’am sorry you cannot take him, he is my patient. I have a duty to protect him. Duty, honour, obligation-Laurence lived for words like these, and in the end he died for them too.” What is significant is that the author conveys the idea that anybody irrespective of good or bad is susceptible to violence and whoever stands in its way would be removed by the unknown agent.

Galgut maintains that agents of violence are always hidden and implied in diverse contexts. “It felt to me that he was still out there somewhere close by, alive. Laurence with his ideals and his sense of duty. Of course maybe he wasn’t; he may already have been lying in a ditch or a shallow grave, with his throat cut or bullet in his head-whatever happened to him in the end. Being murdered and thrown away like a piece of rubbish: that was something that happened to other people, people one didn’t know, not to Laurence. ”

 

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