In Search of the Great South African Hero

By Susan Roberts

People often ask me why I write foreign heroes as the love interest in my novels. An awkward question, and one that I have to answer carefully. I mean, I don’t want to insult my South African male friends, do I? So without beating too much about the old shrubbery, let’s unpack this question and see what we can find.

As a romance writer, I have a pattern that I am obliged to follow. Tall, dark and handsome male? Check. Not a problem to find any number of those here. A man who will love his woman and protect her to the death, no matter what? Check. Plenty of those too, but in real South African life that protection frequently does end in death, which doesn’t go down too well in a romance. But hey – it worked for Romeo and Juliet, so let’s look at our choices.

We can have death by hijacking, mugging or the more adventurous gang of house-breakers who crash in after ripping out the burglar bars with the winch on their 4×4 and hold up the entire household at gun point. Exciting stuff, but not for the faint-hearted. Wait – there’s more! Then we have them biting off fingers for rings, violating the women while forcing the men to watch, and then shooting the men in cold blood while they are still tied to a chair.

No, this is not some sadistic plot for a future novel of mine. Each of the above incidents has occurred – sometimes daily – in certain parts of my lovely country, but few get to hear about it because it has become so commonplace as to be no longer newsworthy.

Back to my hero list: A man with a private source of wealth and/or good job prospects? Hmm, not so easy to check this one. If he’s a politician, then he probably has unlimited wealth as well as access to a number of funds, but not necessarily his own. However, who can honestly see any politician as a romantic lead in a novel? Unless you’re writing a romantic fantasy about Nelson Mandela himself, it’s a kind of no-go area because of the sour taste most politicians leave in our mouths. Anyway, somebody already made a romantic film about Mandela.

We’ve had other wonderful films about Mandela, Steve Biko and Donald Woods, but these are actual historical stories, taken from a past in which those heroes, being the plight-of-the-underdog types, became the epitome of the South African hero. Somehow the same thing doesn’t work when today’s rulers from that formerly underdog party abuse their power a few decades later. Show me a successful politician in South Africa today, and I’ll show you someone who bends the rules in order to keep playing ball with his equally corrupt buddies – like Bob over the border.

Talking of playing ball, what about sporting heroes? Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter which country they live in, sportsmen have a limited shelf life, so they’re not the best long-term prospects. Some of them are great actors though (and much better paid than normal actors!), and particularly convincing when it comes to showing the ref that they have been mortally wounded in an unfair tackle. Whoosh! There goes all my respect for their sporting prowess – out the window!

Then there was that track star with bionic legs, whose last girlfriend… Okay, let’s not go there; the court case is still on.
What other males are successful in South Africa today? I prefer to steer clear of the big corporate mining types and businessmen who make their millions on the backs of the downtrodden masses, so let’s avoid those. In fact, in view of the storm still raging over the Marikana massacre, it’s best if we don’t go there at all.

How about minibus-taxi drivers? There’s an enterprising group of normal, hot-blooded men. If it weren’t for their fearsome reputation of clocking up a road death toll almost daily, they’d be quite dashing. Dashing here, dashing there and generally swashbuckling about everywhere in their precarious clapped out and barely held together vehicles, reminiscent of Han Solo’s infamous Millennium Falcon spaceship. (Okay, we did the Han Solo thing in the last blog; stick to the South Africans, please – Ed)
If we’re supposed to write about what we know, or what we’re passionate about, then I can’t write about a taxi driver, a corporate mining big-wig, a wimpy soccer star, a politician or a daring housebreaker. Sorry, but there’s just no inspiration coming from those channels.

Looking back at my boyfriends over the years, I see a string of youths who earned their living working as lighting technicians, sound engineers and stage managers. Oh, did I ever mention that they nearly all came from other countries? Yes, one of my friends gleefully pointed that out to me (and to everyone else within earshot, dammit). What does this tell you about how I went for South African lads even when I was young and they still had decent job prospects? Yup, I guess I just didn’t.

And if I didn’t go for them way back then, why would I now when those prospects are even leaner? I’m not sure I could get excited about a hero who’s lost his job because he’s now too pale to fit in with his progressive, forward-looking company’s stance on BEE. I’m not saying that such a guy doesn’t have the right credentials; I’m saying that those credentials only work when that guy goes to another country and bravely starts to make a new life for himself.

Wait, that reminds me: my new novel has a minor character who was born in Australia and goes back there in his forties with his South African wife and daughter. This is taken from real life – my brother-in-law took my sister back to the land of his birth when he could no longer make a decent living in South Africa thanks to BEE and the horrors of an escalating crime rate. A brave move on his part, but hang on – he’s not South African either!

How about a character who doesn’t go to another country? Perhaps I could write about a hero who loses his job, his money, his house and then his family, and bravely stays here to face the consequences? Perhaps he could end up on the street in true South African style, living in Joubert Park, or some slum in central Johannesburg, fighting hardships thrown at him by the harshness of street life. Now there’s a rite of passage guaranteed to bring out the survival instincts in a true hero!

However, I don’t think my readers would enjoy it. I certainly wouldn’t enjoy writing it. Such a character may be a great hero in a dystopian novel, but not in romantic fiction. The very idea of Mr Darcy losing his estate, money and family influence, to become a beggar on the streets of London, Bath or some village in Sussex isn’t going to get Lizzie Bennett’s hormones raging, or mine, or indeed any hormones belonging to the reader of such a tragedy.

So, getting back to the original question: why do I choose foreign heroes? Because they work as romantic ideals of the perfect male, untainted by the realities amongst which we are forced to live every day.

Let’s not forget that the statistics (which we are not supposed to know) point to the fact that two women are raped every minute in this unfair, fair land. Is it any wonder that I want my beleaguered South African heroines to be rescued from their plight by a man who really can spirit them away from this violent land to another country – a place where they have a reasonable shot at living happily ever after?


Picture from stockimages of

Picture from stockimages of


14 thoughts on “In Search of the Great South African Hero

  1. jacky says:

    Very well thought out Susan and I have to agree with your sentiments. Who needs blood and gore as bedtime reading, there’s enough of that on the television. Imagine being a woman in the Middle East? I’m currently reading yet another novel set in today’s global turmoil, the hero hovers between being a pure Muslim (depending on where he’s fighting) and a total life-extinguisher. Juicy and terribly uncomfortable but necessary in order to keep one’s eyes open. Ah – politicians – any thoughts on the dabblings of JFK and Clinton as desirable hunks? Ah again, the grapevine has it that a dynasty is being formed to the north and we/they will sometime no longer have bad Bob, but ghastly Grace to stir the bubbling pot.

    Perhaps your next hero could be a composite of all that’s good and desirable in a man (!) with more than just a touch of the super factor, and a mere whisper of possible corruption, which will site him right on today’s global doorstep…and probably over the threshold too.

    • Susan says:

      Perhaps you’re right, Jacky. I like my heroes to be flawed, but up till now I’ve made those failings more personal grievances that can be overcome when coupled with the love of the right (also flawed) heroine. Maybe I need to dig deeper and make the men corrupt and unprincipled too. What if the next heroine I write chooses the bad guy over the good one? Now there’s a thought…

      • jacky says:

        It’s certainly a thought Susan. This gory story I’m reading is set in the Middle East and the women are getting a tad edgy about their non-lives under the bhurka…any good?

  2. Charon says:

    Then he leaves her for another man

  3. Your blog is sadly full of truths. For the first time in 25 years, I am beginning to feel I am not happy here in my adopted country. The challenges are too great, the rewards too few for this one short life time, even though I have found my real-life hero here! But then, he is not properly South African, but a refugee from bad Bob. More grist to your mill, Sue!

    • Susan says:

      Thank you, Allison. Yes, bad Bob sent many people this way, and many of them have now moved on again to other countries. You are lucky yours stayed and found you!

      • jacky says:

        Susan, here’s a truly jellied eel of an idea – mea culpa. Since we’ve seriously not come up with anything vaguely romantic on offer locally, and in office – how about setting the Waters of Bath bubbling by transporting the likes of Bad Bob, his kith and kin, Idi Amin and various other unmentionables into the grace and favour of Jane A’s Bath and see what happens? They would be foreign in a way, totally out of their depth, and they’d have to speak and act proper too! and imagine the meeting between them and Mr Darcy?! just a thought…

  4. Sue says:

    Well while I have to agree that there is nothing romantic about fear, and I can fully empathise with your difficulty in setting a novel there I have to disagree with your views on the ‘moneyed-man’. It’s difficult to tell today who is wealthy and who is not, but trust me if you looked into the some professions or people who own their own businesses or have family money (and there are more than you’d think) you’ll find a lot of politics-free moola in that little town you call home!

    • Susan says:

      Aha, Sue – you obviously have contacts that I don’t know about! Clearly I will have to dig deeper. Some of the “politics-free moola” that I came across in Joburg years ago seemed innocent enough until I found out that many families’ money had come from mining back in the bad old days. That just leaves a nasty taste in my mouth now because I am too cynical about this country’s history. However, if I create a wealthy man in another country, I don’t know (and neither does my heroine) all the ins and outs and possible shady dealings that went into his getting it, so we can both ignore another country’s history but I can’t justifiably ignore my own. My novels are frivolous enough as it is!

  5. Susan says:

    Jacky, I’ll leave the story of Bob visiting Bath and meeting Mr Darcy to your wittier, more Austen-like pen!

    • Sort of a twist on Merchant of Venice?

      • jacky says:

        But who would require the pound of flesh? Perhaps a hero along the lines of The Quality of Mercy … and having an honestly founded wealth, which means excluding much of the S Cape coast! I really fancy the happily muddled plot of Much Ado. There you go Susan, lots of food for thought among the comments- good luck.

  6. Susan says:

    Allison and Jacky, I think I’ll stick to my usual fare, thanks – I don’t want to go putting my foot in my mouth with counter-suggestions that are on the tip of my tongue here, so to speak…

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