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...

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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...

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Criticism: Major Authors

J. M. Coetzee (essay date September 1971)

SOURCE: Coetzee, J. M. “Alex La Guma and the Responsibilities of the South African Writer.” Journal of the New African Literature and the Arts, nos. 9-10 (September 1971): 5-11.

[In the following essay, Coetzee, who in 2003 received the 2003 Nobel Prize in literature, defends Alex La Guma's A Walk in the Night against journalist, playwright, and critic Lewis Nkosi's contention that the fiction of Black South African writers provides an “inadequate imaginative response” to the problems of apartheid. Coetzee argues that La Guma's fiction is not simple journalistic naturalism, but rather a cogent analysis of the political weakness of urban South African society under...

(The entire section is 2654 words.)

Adetokunbo Pearse (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Pearse, Adetokunbo. “Apartheid and Madness: Bessie Head's A Question of Power.Kunapipi 5, no. 2 (1983): 81-93.

[In the following essay, Pearse offers a psychoanalytic reading of Bessie Head's quasi-autobiographical novel, A Question of Power, arguing that, for Head, the social system of apartheid creates psychological distortions through stigmatization and isolation.]

No work in the corpus of African literature dealing with the theme of madness, for example Achebe's Arrow of God, Kofi Awoonor's This Earth, My Brother, or Ayi Kwei Armah's Fragments, captures the complexity and intensity of the insane mind as does Bessie...

(The entire section is 5487 words.)

Richard Rive and Abraham H. de Vries (interview date October 1989)

SOURCE: de Vries, Abraham H. “An Interview with Richard Rive.” Current Writing 1, no. 1 (October 1989): 45-55.

[In the following interview, de Vries speaks with anti-apartheid activist and author Richard Rive a few weeks prior to his brutal murder on June 4, 1989. Rive shares his perspective on Black protest writing from the 1950s through the 1980s.]

[de Vries]: Drum of the 1950s and Staffrider in the late '70s seem to symbolise two epochs in black South African life and literature. You've been a witness to both.

[Rive]: Yes, Drum of the '50s was basically a kind of protest writing. I don't like the term. But what it...

(The entire section is 4619 words.)

Jean-Philippe Wade (essay date May 2001)

SOURCE: Wade, Jean-Philippe. “Radical Democracy and Literary Form: Alan Paton's Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful.English in Africa 28, no. 1 (May 2001): 91-103.

[In the following essay, Wade contrasts Alan Paton's first two novels, Cry, the Beloved Country and Too Late the Phalarope, with his last novel, Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful.]

J. M. Coetzee's critique (1974/1992) of Alan Paton's ‘Jim Comes to Jo'burg’ novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) briefly argued that it was a form of “religious tragedy” which, by suggesting that “the dispensation under which man suffers is unshakable” (348), was disablingly “apolitical or...

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Nahem Yousaf (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Yousaf, Nahem. “Resistance from Within the Prison of Apartheid: The Stone Country.” In Alex La Guma: Politics and Resistance, pp. 71-89. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2001.

[In the following essay, Yousaf explores the existential identity of the prisoners in La Guma's The Stone Country, arguing that the apartheid regime invades the most minute aspects of these characters' lives and examining the ways in which they try to resist the restrictions imposed by the apartheid state.]

The action of The Stone Country takes place in a prison. The novel tells the story of colored George Adams, a political agitator, who is arrested along with his...

(The entire section is 8401 words.)

Criticism: Anti-Apartheid Literature And The Liberal Tradition

Stephen Watson (essay date May 1982)

SOURCE: Watson, Stephen. “Cry, the Beloved Country and the Failure of Liberal Vision.” English in Africa 9, no. 1 (May 1982): 29-44.

[In the following essay, Watson examines the liberal vision articulated by Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, contending that the novel reveals a tension between Christian liberalism and materialism and that Paton's failure to address these ideological conflicts weakens the work and dates the author's contribution to anti-apartheid literature.]

In any discussion of Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) it is important to note that the writer grew up in an era before South African racial politics had...

(The entire section is 7320 words.)

Peter F. Alexander (essay date June 1989)

SOURCE: Alexander, Peter F. “An Archetypal Anti-Apartheid Novel: The Writing of Turbott Wolfe.Durham University Journal 81, no. 2 (June 1989): 281-87.

[In the following essay, Alexander suggests that William Plomer's novel Turbott Wolfe, which caused an antipathetic reaction among its white readership when it was first published in 1925, was prescient in its anti-segregationist attitudes and paved the way for such anti-apartheid novels as Doris Lessing's The Grass Is Singing, Alan Paton's Too Late the Phalarope, Nadine Gordimer's Occasion for Loving, and the first Afrikaans novel to be banned in South Africa, André Brink's Kennis van die Aand...

(The entire section is 5706 words.)

David Medalie (essay date October 1998)

SOURCE: Medalie, David. 'A Corridor Shut at Both Ends': Admonition and Impasse in Van der Post's In a Province and Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country.English in Africa 25, no. 2 (October 1998): 93-110.

[In the following essay, Medalie compares Laurens van der Post's In a Province and Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, two novels that attack apartheid from a liberal, white perspective.]

Laurens van der Post's In a Province (1934) and Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) are both Jim-Goes-to-Jo'burg stories: the many differences between the two novels notwithstanding, the basic pattern of the unsophisticated young...

(The entire section is 7891 words.)

Ode Ogede (essay date December 2000)

SOURCE: Ogede, Ode. “An Early Image of Apartheid and Post-Apartheid Society: Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm.Journal of African Cultural Studies 13, no. 2 (December 2000): 251-56.

[In the following essay, Ogede argues that Schreiner's 1883 novel anticipates a tradition of African protest writing that includes the works of Bessie Head, Alex La Guma, and Nadine Gordimer, and that therefore Schreiner should be considered an anti-apartheid writer.]

If we had to identify one work which indubitably envisaged the collapse of apartheid long before it made any sense to entertain such an idea, it would be The Story of an African Farm, an...

(The entire section is 3494 words.)

Criticism: Writing Under Apartheid: Historical Views

Alex La Guma (essay date January-March 1975)

SOURCE: La Guma, Alex. “South African Writing under Apartheid.” Lotus: Afro-Asian Writings, no. 23 (January-March 1975): 11-21.

[La Guma is considered one of South Africa's most prominent writers of anti-apartheid literature. A member of the South African Communist Party who helped draft the Freedom Charter—a declaration of rights—he was imprisoned in early 1961 for helping to organize a strike. He is the author of several critically acclaimed works, all of which were banned in South Africa during his lifetime. In the following essay, La Guma, who left South Africa for a self-imposed exile in London and then Cuba, describes the effect of apartheid laws on black South African...

(The entire section is 4448 words.)

Richard Rive (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Rive, Richard. “Black Poets of the Seventies.” English in Africa 4, no. 1 (1977): 47-54.

[In the following essay, Rive—a South African fiction writer and playwright—argues that the urban Black and Colored South African protest poets occupied a different political and literary position than that of their predecessors in the 1950s and 1960s. The essay pays particular attention to the early work of Oswald Mtshali, Mongane Wally Serote, and Sipho Sepamla, examining the influence of American writers from the Harlem Renaissance, the white South African liberal literary tradition exemplified by the works of Alan Paton, and the extra-literary concerns of censorship, exile, and the...

(The entire section is 3188 words.)

Bessie Head (essay date April 1979)

SOURCE: Head, Bessie. “Social and Political Pressures That Shape Literature in Southern Africa.” World Literature Written in English 18, no. 1 (April 1979): 20-6.

[In the following autobiographical essay, Head describes the ways in which her works reflect “the whole spectrum of Southern African preoccupations—refugeeism, racialism, patterns of evil, and the ancient Southern African historical dialogue.” Denied a passport to return to South Africa, the exiled writer settled in neighboring Botswana, where she lived and wrote until her death in 1986.]

In some inexplicable way the South American writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, captured the whole soul of ancient...

(The entire section is 2841 words.)

Jan Bekker (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Bekker, Jan. “Poets' Reactions to Apartheid Laws.” In Conscience, Consensus, and Crossroads in Law: Eighth Round Table on Law and Semiotics, edited by Roberta Kevelson, pp. 27-44. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

[In the following essay, Bekker provides an overview of apartheid legislation and cites poetry by writers such as Mongane Wally Serote, Oswald Mtshali, Sipho Sepamla, Modikwe Dikobe, and Can Themba as responses to unjust laws and descriptions of life under apartheid.]


This paper compares and contrasts concepts created by apartheid laws with the language in which African poets expressed themselves about the effects of these...

(The entire section is 5697 words.)

Further Reading


Barnard, Rita. “Speaking Places: Prison, Poetry, and the South African Nation.” Research in African Literatures 32, no. 3 (fall 2001): 155-76.

Considers the ways in which poetry written in prisons helped define a South African identity.

Chapman, Michael. “More Than Telling a Story: Drum and Its Significance in Black South African Writing.” In The “Drum” Decade: Stories from the 1950s, edited by Michael Chapman, pp. 183-227. Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of Natal Press, 1989.

Recounts the history and significance of Drum, which provided a venue for Black and mixed-race...

(The entire section is 628 words.)