January 11, 2022
Halley’s Comet is a young adult book of fiction first published in the Afrikaans language in 2019. It is a story of three teenaged South Africans who develop a friendship despite the social norms of the time. The main protagonist is a white male; the female is a South African of Indian descent and the second male is a Black South African. These three characters seem designed to represent the general South African population in terms of race and age. The story takes place in Natal Province of South Africa in the 1980s, when apartheid was continually challenged within the country, but before South African independence in 1994. The plot depicts the fears and challenges of the three young people who deliberately break severe apartheid laws and customs governing race relations in South Africa.
The author is a white South African, and the story represents the attitudes and opinions of many in this community. Barnard also attempts to represent the Black and Indian communities hopes and fears during these years. Halley’s Comet is resplendent with vocabulary and images often heard in all three of these “racial” communities. White teenagers express egregiously racist comments about Africans and Indians; and Petrus, the Black teenager, uses stereotypical language. For example, Petrus uses the Afrikaans word, “baas” throughout the text. This word, “boss,” was a common and disrespectful noun of address expected from Black South Africans when speaking to Whites. Barnard captures the racist vocabulary and distance of the time, from all three perspectives.
Barnard’s writing tries to appeal to young adults, but it is clumsy and silly. When Pete, the white character, first meets Petrus, Pete didn’t know what to say. Bernard writes “Words spun around in Pete’s mind like a lost sock in a washing machine.” Examples of this sort of writing pepper the entire text.
It is disappointing that thirty some years after independence, a book of this nature would still find a robust audience. It addresses race relations in South Africa society as if they have changed little for the better. The story does give the reader some hope that racial fears can be overcome, although with the risk of great personal loss on the part of those who challenge the system. Halley’s Comet is a rare occurrence; the author aptly applies this title to his theme.