The late South African writer Alex la Guma (1925-1985) was a child of the black liberation movement in apartheid South Africa whose novels and short stories, including “The Lemon Orchard,” captured the essence of life for the severely repressed majority population in that country. As a foreign writer whose works are read today in U.S. and other Western schools, it is a fair question whether his use of vocabulary unique to the South Africa he knew should be retained in versions of his stories studied by non-South African students. As the question is subjective, this educator would argue that the original vocabulary should indeed be retained.
South Africa, ruled by a Western-oriented white minority government, appeared as the Western country its leaders envisioned it would be become. But, South Africa was not, and is not, a Western country in the sense of sharing the Anglo-Saxon historical heritage of the colonial powers that once held sway over it. It is a part of Africa. Its majority is overwhelmingly of African heritage, and its literature reflects African culture. The vocabulary employed by whites in Alex la Guma’s stories is unique to that culture and society, and is as important to the underlying meaning of the stories as Mark Twain’s use of language was to his writing. When a white in “The Lemon Orchard” utters the phrase, “It’s as dark as a kaffir’s soul here…,” his words penetrate to the core of the reader’s soul for their blatant and pervasive use of racist terminology. Similarly, the use of the word “hotnot” by another white in addressing “the colored man” is meant to be dehumanizing to both the character and to the reader to better illuminate the depth of racist sentiments in South Africa and the repressive atmosphere in which blacks and mixed-race “coloreds” were forced to live:
“The colored man’s wrists were tied behind him with a riem and the leader brought the muzzle of the shotgun down, pressing it hard into the small of the man’s back above where the wrists met. ‘Do you hear, hotnot? Answer me or I will shoot a hole through your spine’…I will shoot whatever hotnot or kaffir I desire, and see me get into trouble over it. I demand respect from these donders. Let them answer when they’re spoken to.”
Similarly, repeated reference to the “sjambok,” the heavy leather whip used by white South Africans in the same manner that white slave holders used whips in the United States, conveys, whether intended or not, the dehumanizing treatment of blacks by whites. Sjamboks were invented or created as a means of controlling animals; their use on blacks symbolized the way South African whites viewed the blacks. Again, the word could have been replaced with “whip” in “The Lemon Orchard” and suffered no loss in meaning. Its retention, however, is a reminder of the cultural heritage being portrayed, and its substitution would diminish the uniqueness of the South African story in deference to Western sensibilities.