Amandla vividly portrays the story of the struggle in South Africa with the iconic Nelson Mandela as its shadowy fulcrum.
By Rachel M. Anderson (contributing writer)
Ask any author where they get their ideas, and they are likely to answer the same: either from personal experience or an event in history. When author Alix Jans of St. Paul decided to pen a novel as a legacy to his daughters, he had a wealth of personal experiences to draw upon.
Jans was born and raised in South Africa, and with degrees in history, theology and the law, he knows a lot about the country and its history. On the other hand, he has practiced law in the U.S. for nearly 30 years.
Mindful of the conventional wisdom to write about a subject you know something about, he immediately ruled out the law.
“I didn’t want to write about the law and lawyers,” says Jans. “John Grisham and Scott Turow, among others, have cornered that market. South Africa was my other area of specialized knowledge,” he says.
“John Grisham and Scott Turow, among others, have cornered that market. South Africa was my other area of specialized knowledge,” he says.
The next challenge was to come up with a credible plot, but he didn’t have any idea what to write about until he experienced an “Eureka moment” in 2006.
I was reading a BBC article about Nelson Mandela walking through the grounds of the former Liliesleaf Farm in a northern suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. The farm had been used by Mandela as a hideout to plan the militant phase of the struggle against the South African regime in the early 1960s.
The BBC article described how Mandela had asked a caretaker if the gun he had buried on the farm’s property in the early 1960s had ever been found. The answer was no, but the Makarov pistol and ammunition that Mandela had buried after receiving guerrilla training in Ethiopia provided the hook the author was seeking to propel the story forward. Jans’ historic novel titled Amandla was released in June 2020. The word “amandla” means power in Nguni, one of the native languages spoken in South Africa.
The story begins with a prologue in which Nelson Mandela is woken by a would-be assassin, whose motives are both personal and political. The story then flashes back to a seminal battle between the Zulus and the Afrikaner Boers (farmers), and the genesis of a multi-generational saga between two families inextricably entangled in a deadly feud. Their fictional forebears fight an historic battle that turns a river red with the blood of warriors, and in a war between an army of farmers and the might of the British Empire. Both families face the horrors of segregated genocide in black and white concentration camps, as well as enduring destitution as manual laborers on farms and in goldmines, while on the national stage their antipathies are fueled by the rise of apartheid.
In the drama that unfolds, a tragic misunderstanding leads to a personal vendetta that mirrors the prejudices at the heart of each group’s inability to comprehend the aspirations of the other, culminating in an attempt to assassinate Mandela – with his own gun!
“The only aspects of the Mandela family that are based on the historical record are the life of Nelson Mandela himself and the fact that his father, Henry, served as counselor to a tribal King.
“I was not able to find a record of Henry’s earlier life, or that of his father, the fictional Gadla – that thread of the story is pure fiction,” says Jans.
As for the Afrikaner protagonists, the De Beer family story is entirely fictional, although it does intersect with the true story of two De Beer brothers who found diamonds on a farm they later sold, and which became the site of the legendary “Big Hole” open pit mine and of the famous De Beers mine owned by Cecil Rhodes.
Jans says the book took 13 years to write, and that he visited most of the historic sites he writes about. “I was determined to be as faithful to the historic record in the context of a fictional narrative as possible, and to weave my characters into the historical record without doing a disservice or injustice to that record,” says Jans, who hopes those who read the book will be entertained, informed and left just a little breathless as they turn the last page.
The book was released on June 16, 2020, Youth Day in South Africa, a day on which South Africans pay tribute to the Soweto school children killed in their 1976 uprising that proved to be a turning point in the struggle to liberate South Africa from the apartheid regime. Jans adds that, “Unfortunately, the plague of racism still afflicts civil society in all parts of the world. But, unlike the current COVID-19 pandemic, there will never be a vaccine or antibody capable of resisting its virulence. It will require (as it always has) men and women of courage and integrity, for we have not yet reached the promised land Martin Luther King saw from the mountaintop—we have not yet overcome—and it continues to be true, as Nelson Mandela once said, that there is no easy walk to freedom, anywhere.”