Anti-Apartheid Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Anti-Apartheid Literature


Anti-Apartheid Literature

Apartheid, which in the Afrikaans language means “apart-ness” or “separateness,” was the system of racial discrimination and white political domination adopted by the South African National Party when it came to power in 1948. Historically, apartheid had emerged from policies of racial segregation which had been practiced since the first Europeans—the Dutch, followed by the British—settled in South Africa in the seventeenth century. The official justification underlying apartheid was that each race—rigidly divided into “Whites” (all Europeans), Bantus or “Blacks,” “Coloureds” (people of mixed race), and “Asians” (Indians and Pakistanis who had been brought to South Africa as laborers)—would prosper and live in harmony with one another if allowed to develop separately, while tension would result from the races living together and competing for the same resources. What the apartheid system did, of course, was ensure the political and economic supremacy of the white minority, which comprised less than twenty percent of South Africa's total population in 1948 and less than thirteen percent of the population in 1994, the year that Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa and apartheid was finally abolished.

The apartheid system deployed a series of laws to keep nonwhite people disenfranchised, poor, uneducated, and separate. The 1950 Population Registration Act compelled nonwhites to carry a pass to identify their racial group and to authorize their presence in restricted white areas. The Group Areas Act of 1950 assigned racial designations to residential and business sections in urban areas, while the Land Acts of 1954 and 1955 restricted nonwhite residence to specific areas. In 1951 the Bantu Authorities Act designated areas called Bantustans, where Blacks were to required live so that they would not intrude on white neighborhoods. The 1952 Native Law Amendment Act established the close control of the movement of urban Blacks in particular. The Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act of 1970 made every nonwhite South African a citizen of one of the homelands, thereby excluding Blacks from South African politics. These laws, which effectively reserved over eighty percent of South African land for a mere twenty percent of the population, along with the laws that prevented nonwhites from voting or holding office, were called “grand” apartheid, as opposed to “petty” apartheid, which referred to the racist laws affecting daily routine, including which hospitals, schools, colleges, and theaters people of different races could attend. The 1953 Bantu Education Act gave the state total control over education for Blacks. This petty apartheid law prohibited most social contact between the races, enforced the segregation of public facilities and the separation of educational standards, created race-specific job categories, restricted the powers of nonwhite unions, and curbed nonwhite participation in government.

Although the apartheid government was quick to suppress any opposition, resistance to apartheid within South Africa was ongoing. A number of political groups, such as the African National Congress (ANC) and Steve Biko's South African Students' Organization (SASO), opposed apartheid using a variety of tactics—both nonviolent and violent—that resulted in activists being severely punished by the government. In 1955 over 150 activists, Nelson Mandela among them, were imprisoned on charges of treason for signing the Freedom Charter, a document that called for civil rights and government “based on the will of the people.” In 1960, in the Sharpeville township, fifty miles south of Johannesburg, police killed 69 people and wounded 180 when 5,000 demonstrators staged a nonviolent protest against the pass laws by flooding the police stations without passes. In 1976 police in the Soweto township opened fire on 15,000 secondary school students who were marching to protest a ruling that they be taught in Afrikaans, a language that neither they nor their teachers knew. Steve Biko, the leader of the protest, was beaten to death in prison, and a period of massive violent protest and increasingly repressive government response ensued. Confronted with economic sanctions and international pressure, in the late 1980s and early 1990s South Africans began to take steps to end apartheid, culminating in the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela as president.

Although South African writers raised their voices in protest against apartheid, censorship precluded most of them from being read in South Africa. Anti-apartheid writers such as Nadine Gordimer, André Brink, Mary Benson, Richard Rive, Bessie Head, Peter Abrahams, Dan Jacobson, C. J. Driver, and J. M. Coetzee had their works banned in South Africa. Many writers, such as Rive, Alex La Guma, Dennis Brutus, Breyten Breytenbach, and D. M. Zwelonke were imprisoned on Robben Island for their writing and political activities. Many other writers of anti-apartheid literature, particularly Black and mixed-race writers such as Rive, Abrahams, La Guma, Head, Arthur Nortje, Lewis Nkosi, and Ezekiel Es'kia Mphahlale were exiled or went into self-exile to escape political oppression, as did some white South Africans, such as Breytenbach, Brink, and Athol Fugard. Prior to the official establishment of the apartheid regime, South African writers such as Olive Schreiner and Sol Plaatje decried the injustice of racial segregation and unfair economic policies that were in effect before the South African National Party institutionalized such practices. Although anti-apartheid literature is multi-faceted and addresses many aspects of human experience, generally speaking there have been two major traditions—the white, liberal tradition begun by Schreiner and continued, in varying degrees, by Alan Paton, Gordimer, and Coetzee, and a more radicalized, protest tradition that originated in the Black townships, out of which came the fiction of Abrahams, Rive, and LaGuma, and the poetry of Mphahlele, Mongane Wally Serote, and Oswald Mtshali.

Representative Works

Peter Abrahams
Mine Boy (novel) 1946

Mary Benson
At the Still Point (novel) 1970
Nelson Mandela (biography) 1970

Breyten Breytenbach
And Death White as Words: An Anthology of the Poetry of Breyten Breytenbach (poetry) 1978
True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (memoir) 1984

André Brink
Kennis van die aand [Looking on Darkness] (novel) 1973
'n Droe wit seisoen [A Dry White Season] (novel) 1979

J. M. Coetzee
Dusklands (novel) 1974
Waiting for the Barbarians (novel) 1980
The Life and Times of Michael K. (novel) 1983

Achmat Dangor
Waiting for Leila (short stories) 1981
Bulldozer (poetry) 1983
The Z-Town Trilogy (novel) 1990
Private Voices (novel) 1992

Athol Fugard
The Cell (play) 1957
The Blood Knot (play) 1961
Boesman and Lena (play) 1965
Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (play) 1973
The Island (play) 1974
Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act (play) 1974
“Master Harold” … and the Boys (play) 1982

Nadine Gordimer
The Lying Days (novel) 1953
A World of Strangers (novel) 1958
Occasion for Loving (short stories) 1963
The Late Bourgeois World (novel) 1966
A Guest...

(The entire section is 508 words.)

Criticism: Overviews

Nadine Gordimer (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Gordimer, Nadine. “English-Language Literature and Politics in South Africa.” In Aspects of South African Literature, edited by Christopher Heywood, pp. 99-120. London: Heinemann, 1976.

[Gordimer, who in 1991 received the Nobel Prize in literature, was a seminal literary figure in the anti-apartheid movement. Throughout her career, her novels and short stories have emphasized the dehumanizing effects of the apartheid system. In addition, she is also known for her many polemical and scholarly essays on censorship and the relationship between literature and politics. In the following essay, Gordimer provides an overview of Anglophone South African writing, focusing on literature...

(The entire section is 9698 words.)

Robert Mshengu Kavanagh (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Kavanagh, Robert Mshengu. “The Development of Theatre in South Africa up to 1976.” In Theatre and Cultural Struggle in South Africa, pp. 43-58. London: Zed Books, 1985.

[In the following essay, Kavanagh provides a history of the theater in South Africa from the inception of apartheid through the uprisings in Soweto and other black urban areas in 1976. He traces multiracial collaborations before and during the entertainment segregation laws of the 1960s, the influence of Bantu and Zulu oral traditions as well as European models, and the emergence of the Black Consciousness movement in the early 1970s. The early careers and influence of Ezekiel Mphahlele and Athol Fugard are...

(The entire section is 7932 words.)

Kenneth Parker (essay date December 1986)

SOURCE: Parker, Kenneth. “Apartheid and the Politics of Literature.” Red Letters 20 (December 1986): 12-33.

[In the following essay, Parker discusses liberal and Marxist resistance to the apartheid state as represented in the writings of Alex La Guma, Bessie Head, Athol Fugard, Nadine Gordimer, and Nelson Mandela, among others.]

All recent evidence—the events themselves, the pronouncements about them, the speculations about outcomes, the re-adjustments by the main actors—point inexorably to one inescapable future: that the apartheid state which has existed in more or less its present form since 1948 (and has its antecedents in policies of domination based on...

(The entire section is 6462 words.)

Anne McClintock (essay date spring 1987)

SOURCE: McClintock, Anne. “‘Azikwelwa’ (We Will Not Ride): Politics and Value in Black South African Poetry.” Critical Inquiry 13, no. 3 (spring 1987): 597-623.

[In the following essay, McClintock provides a history of protest poetry under apartheid and examines what she calls the “new forms of artistic creation” that emerged out of the Soweto uprisings of 1976. She pays particular attention to the relationship between the collective oral poetry produced in the black townships and Staffrider magazine, which was founded in 1978 to publish these poems, and, in so doing, challenge white South African cultural values.]

In the colonial...

(The entire section is 11142 words.)