James McClure’s The Steam Pig (first published by Victor Gollancz 1971; Penguin 1973, 22 p.) is the first Kramer and Zondi collaboration in a series of eight police procedural novels set in Apartheid’s South Africa. The Steam Pig is a powerful crime novel that through the strict application of police procedural unveils the perverse ways in which South Africa’s long-lived racist system of Apartheid aimed to separate people according to skin colour and legally keep them apart in the racially-assigned locations of the urban centres, townships and homelands. Officially enacted between 1948 and 1994, this racist framework pervaded all layers of South-African society and predetermined and ‘coloured’ the contact between different ethnic groups, and allocated access to, and control of economic resources to the white minority. The Steam Pig locates the seeds of oppression through the practice of passing, the possibility for South Africans of mixed white and non-white descent to assume a white role in society, and the institutional efforts to curb such ‘playing white’, but the novel also maps this across gender. The novel shows how Apartheid legislation ends up working against itself when the passing Theresa La Roux works as a prostitute for well-situated white Afrikaners and blackmails them by threatening to report them within the liabilities of the Immorality Act, which forbade sexual contact between the ‘races’. The elusive clue to her gang-warfare-style murder with a bike spoke, “steam pig”, results being the nickname given to her for the way she engaged in sexual intercourse with her high-ranked clients. Though plot is arguably the main vehicle for narrative in crime fiction, a lot of the development of the story hinges on the way the Afrikaner Lieutenant Tromp Kramer and his Banthu aid Mickey Zondi have established an efficient working relationship and friendship that allows them to trespass in all tiers of South African society and covertly contest its racism.
In the early 1970s, James McClure developed one of the most successful detective partnerships in South African crime fiction in a series which features 8 novels unveiling to national and international readership the harsh realities of Apartheid—the institutionalised social, political, economic and geographical segregation of ethnic groups according to artificial racial definition. The personal and professional dynamics between the Afrikaner Lieutenant Tromp Kramer and the Zulu detective sergeant Mickey Zondi play out in the limits of the socially admissible under Apartheid, but they are, as investigation after investigation proves, the key to the successful resolution of a wide range of murder cases. As Kramer states in The Caterpillar Cop, “Our job requires us not to make any assumptions based on class, color or religious belief” (1972: 22), thus confirming that, though self-critical, theirs is definitely a male world. The dry humour that permeates their disentangling of all sorts of criminal plots and ploys provides the necessary distance for the reader to recognise the structural ambiguities in McClure’s description of Apartheid, and to wonder to what extent it confirms or subverts racism.