Post-apartheid Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Post-apartheid Literature


Post-apartheid Literature

Prose, poetry, and dramas written by South African authors after the repeal of the nation's apartheid laws—rules governing the separation of black and white citizens—in 1990.

Post-apartheid literature comprises works written by South African authors, both black and white, in the last decade of the twentieth century and beyond. When the National Party took control of South Africa in 1948, the government enforced a strict code of racial segregation known as apartheid, which severely limited the freedoms of the nation's black citizens. The African National Congress (ANC) remained virulently opposed to apartheid and, after they were banned by the South African government in 1960, the ANC proposed establishing a military wing to combat their prejudicial treatment. In 1964 the president of the ANC, Nelson Mandela, was arrested for treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. During his incarceration, Mandela became the defining figure of the anti-apartheid movement, attracting international sympathy for his plight. Due to massive unemployment, a shrinking white minority, and international boycotts, the South African government began reassessing their apartheid policies during the late 1980s. In 1989 F. W. de Klerk was elected as the new South African president, promising a nonracist South Africa for the future. He lifted the country's ban of the ANC and released Mandela from prison in 1990. Together, Mandela and de Klerk negotiated the ending of South Africa's apartheid policies and drafted a new national constitution.

South Africa's literary community, including such authors as Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee, Athol Fugard, and Alan Paton, had been instrumental in bringing world attention to the legacy of colonialism and the unjust apartheid laws in their native country. The end of apartheid, however, ushered in a new transitional stage for South African authors. As author André Brink has commented, post-apartheid literature “can no longer slip so easily into the silences previously imposed by the government.” Writers who were once content to address polemic political themes in their prose are now challenged to explore original subject material and envision a new future for South African culture. Such authors are also confronted with the difficult task of neither ignoring nor dwelling in South Africa's racially-charged past.

Though they are still concerned with political and racial issues in South African society, post-apartheid writers have focused on such contemporary issues as violence, crime, homosexuality, and the spread of the AIDS virus in continental Africa. Additionally, their works offer meditations on poverty and unemployment, Western-influenced materialism, the task of building a national identity, and sociocultural changes in the South African population. For example, Phaswane Mpe deals with AIDS and tribal migration in his novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow (2001), while K. Sello Duiker examines class struggles within the South African black community in his two novels, Thirteen Cents (2000) and The Quiet Violence of Dreams (2001). In Disgrace (1999), Coetzee's Booker Prize-winning novel, the author describes the personal crisis of a man whose life is problematized by South Africa's shifting cultural norms. Several South African poets—Breyten Breytenbach and Lesego Rampolokeng, among others—have utilized unique verse formats to convey the transitory stage of the post-apartheid era and the encroachment of modern life in traditional African society. The end of apartheid has also inspired a flowering of activity in other genres, including drama, short stories, biographies, and historical nonfiction.

As writers and artists return to South Africa, after seeking exile from apartheid, they have emphasized the difficulties of reestablishing their lives in a culture far different than the one they originally left. These figures have also noted a certain degree of tension between the older and younger generations of post-apartheid writers. Zakes Mda, for example, who spent thirty-two years living outside South Africa, has chronicled the struggle of both South African citizens and expatriates in adjusting to the wealth of social changes in post-apartheid society. While the history of racial injustice remains a strong theme in post-apartheid literature, critics have identified a growing trend toward more personal and universal narratives by post-apartheid writers. Critic Mbulelo Vizikhango Mzamane has asserted that, “[t]he move from protest to challenge to reconstruction in South Africa has been accompanied at the literary level by a shift from the literature of surface meaning—dependent entirely upon spectacular events—to the literature of interiority with its concern with introspection and the inner life.” The post-apartheid environment has also inspired critical reexaminations and recontextualizations of several notable South African literary works, including Sol Plaatje's Mhudi: An Epic of Native Life a Hundred Years Ago (1930), Coetzee's July's People (1981), Fugard's Boesman and Lena (1969), Gordimer's Burger's Daughter (1979), and Mbongeni Ngema's Sarafina! (1986).

Representative Works

Tatamkhulu Afrika
Nine Lives (poetry) 1991
Dark Rider (poetry) 1992

Mark Behr
Die reuk van apples [The Smell of Apples] (novel) 1993

Hilary Blecher
Daughter of Nebo (play) 1993

Breyten Breytenbach
The Memory of Birds in Time of Revolution (prose) 1996

André Brink
An Act of Terror (novel) 1991
Cape of Storms: The First Life of Ademaster (novel) 1993
On the Contrary (novel) 1993

J. M. Coetzee
July's People (novel) 1981
Disgrace (novel) 1999

K. Sello Duiker
Thirteen Cents (novel) 2000
The Quiet Violence of Dreams (novel) 2001

Athol Fugard
Boesman and Lena (play) 1969
My Children! My Africa! (play) 1989
Playland (play) 1992

Damon Galgut
The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs (novel) 1991

Jeanne Goosen
Ons Is Nie Almal So Nie [Not All of Us] (novel) 1990

Nadine Gordimer
Burger's Daughter (novel) 1979
None to Accompany Me (novel) 1994

Esiaba Irobi
Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh (play) 1989

Elsa Joubert
Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena [The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena] (novel) 1978

Antjie Krog
Country of My Skull (memoir) 1998

Ellen Kuzwayo
Call Me Woman (autobiography) 1985

Sindiwe Magona
Forced to Grow (autobiography) 1992

Zakes Mda
*The Plays of Zakes Mda (plays) 1990
And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses: Four Works (plays) 1993
Ways of Dying (novel) 1995
She Plays with the Darkness (novel) 1996
The Heart of Redness (novel) 2000

Joan Metelerkamp
Towing the Line in Signs: Three Collections of Poetry (poetry) 1992
Stone No More (poetry) 1995

Seitlhamo Motsapi
earthstepper / the ocean is very shallow (poetry) 1995

Phaswane Mpe
Welcome to Our Hillbrow (novel) 2001

Njabulo Ndebele
Fools and Other Stories (short stories) 1983
Death of a Son (novel) 1996

Mbongeni Ngema
Sarafina! (play) 1986
Sheila's Day (play) 1993

Mike Nicol
The Powers That Be (novel) 1989
This Day and Age (novel) 1992
Horseman (novel) 1995

Sol Plaatje
Mhudi: An Epic of Native Life a Hundred Years Ago (novel) 1930

Karen Press
bird heart stoning the sea (poetry) 1990

Lesego Rampolokeng
Horns for Hondo (poetry) 1990
Talking Rain (poetry) 1993

Jo-Anne Richards
The Innocence of Roast Chicken (novel) 1996

Jann Turner
Heartland (novel) 1997

Marlene van Niekerks
Triomf (novel) 1994

Tug Yourgrau
The Song of Jacob Zulu (play) 1992

*Includes Dead End, We Shall Sing for the Fatherland, Dark Voices Ring, The Hill, and The Road.

†Includes And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses, The Final Dance, Banned, and Joys of War.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

André Brink (essay date July 1993)

SOURCE: Brink, André. “Literature as Cultural Opposition.” In Reinventing a Continent: Writing and Politics in South Africa, pp. 185-202. Cambridge, Mass.: Zoland Books, 1998.

[In the following essay, based on a lecture originally delivered in July 1993, Brink comments on the role of writers and literature in opposition to political and social realities in South Africa, both during and after the era of apartheid.]

Within the general framework of this seminar, Literature as a Political Force, I have been invited to focus more specifically on literature as a form of cultural opposition. In other words—and this is an important preliminary caution—politics...

(The entire section is 6267 words.)

André Brink (essay date winter 1996)

SOURCE: Brink, André. “Reinventing a Continent (Revisiting History in the Literature of the New South Africa: A Personal Testimony).” World Literature Today 70, no. 1 (winter 1996): 17-23.

[In the following essay, Brink discusses how fiction plays a vital part in describing and interpreting the past in post-apartheid South Africa.]


“Our continent has just invented another,” wrote Montaigne about the discovery of the New World. At the time, of course, to invent was a synonym for to discover; yet both readings of the word are relevant to a procedure which may well become, increasingly, a preoccupation of the literature...

(The entire section is 6111 words.)

Kelwyn Sole (essay date winter 1996)

SOURCE: Sole, Kelwyn. “Bird Hearts Taking Wing: Trends in Contemporary South African Poetry Written in English.” World Literature Today 70, no. 1 (winter 1996): 25-31.

[In the following essay, Sole presents an overview of South African poetry since the end of apartheid in 1990, noting how contemporary South African poets “attempt to embrace and represent a world in transition.”]

In the half a decade since 1990 a plethora of new South African art has become visible to the outside world, especially in such areas as the fine arts, music, theatre, and film. In recent written literature, however, there is less evidence of a revitalized consciousness seeking to...

(The entire section is 5494 words.)

Sarah Ruden (essay date summer-fall 1998)

SOURCE: Ruden, Sarah. “Thoughts on Mda, Ndebele, and Black South African Writing at the Millennium.” Iowa Review 28, no. 2 (summer-fall 1998): 155-66.

[In the following essay, Ruden explores some of the difficulties faced by black post-apartheid writers in their critical assessments by both Western scholars and past generations of South African authors.]

It is a frequent complaint in South African literary circles that the West is not giving black African literature a chance, because of racial prejudice. Given the adoption of white anti-apartheid writers into the Western canon, the neglect of black writers, both anti—and post-apartheid, is supposed to be a...

(The entire section is 4906 words.)

Margaret Lenta (essay date October 1998)

SOURCE: Lenta, Margaret. “Goodbye Lena, Goodbye Poppie: Post-Apartheid Black Women's Writing.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 29, no. 4 (October 1998): 101-18.

[In the following essay, Lenta describes how the works of black women writers in post-apartheid South Africa have evolved from stories primarily told through an intermediary to stories told by the protagonists themselves.]

“For me, the question ‘Who should speak?’ is less crucial than ‘Who will listen?’” says Gayatri Spivak, in a discussion of the rights of the oppressed to produce literary texts (59). Both questions are crucial for South Africa as a post-Apartheid country,...

(The entire section is 6687 words.)