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.)

Criticism: The Post-Apartheid Novel

Susan Vanzanten Gallagher (essay date fall 1997)

SOURCE: Gallagher, Susan Vanzanten. “The Backward Glance: History and the Novel in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” Studies in the Novel 29, no. 3 (fall 1997): 377-95.

[In the following essay, Gallagher offers a critical perspective on how several realist and historical South African novels written before the 1990s are being reinterpreted and recontextualized in the post-apartheid culture.]

Ever since Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth (1961) initiated analysis of the dynamics of decolonization, the postcolonial historical period has been recognized as having crucial links with culture. Fanon argues that the transformative process by which a colony...

(The entire section is 8834 words.)

Phaswane Mpe (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Mpe, Phaswane. “Sol Plaatje, Orality, and the Politics of Cultural Representation.” Current Writing 11, no. 2 (1999): 75-91.

[In the following essay, Mpe explores Sol Plaatje's Mhudi—the first novel written by a black South African to be published in English—in terms of the relationship between the African tradition of orality and the Western novel. Mpe notes the influence of Mhudi on both pre- and post-apartheid South African literature.]

Besides being an allegorical indictment of the Natives' Land Act of 1913 as well as an interpretation of the history of South Africa in the early 1800s from a black perspective, Mhudi is also Sol...

(The entire section is 6993 words.)

Michiel Heyns (essay date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Heyns, Michiel. “The Whole Country's Truth: Confession and Narrative in Recent White South African Writing.” Modern Fiction Studies 46, no. 1 (spring 2000): 42-66.

[In the following essay, Heyns analyzes how white authors writing in the post-apartheid state deal with issues of culpability and their own roles in South Africa's history of oppression.]

On 4 July 1996, Mark Behr delivered the keynote address at a conference in Cape Town entitled “Faultlines—Inquiries around Truth and Reconciliation.” Speaking of his own novel, The Smell of Apples, Behr said, “as an act of creation The Smell of Apples represents, for me, the beginnings of a...

(The entire section is 9903 words.)

Grant Farred (essay date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Farred, Grant. “Mourning the Postapartheid State Already? The Poetics of Loss in Zakes Mda's Ways of Dying.Modern Fiction Studies 46, no. 1 (spring 2000): 183-206.

[In the following essay, Farred argues that Zakes Mda's Ways of Dying is “a flawed work” due to its focus on the transitory and loosely defined values of the post-apartheid era.]

What good can come of grief?

—Homer, The Odyssey

Despite their rehearsal of the gestures of resistance theatre, Mda's plays never subscribe to resistance theatre's central dogma, the vision of...

(The entire section is 9439 words.)

Sandra Chait (essay date summer 2000)

SOURCE: Chait, Sandra. “Mythology, Magic Realism, and White Writing after Apartheid.” Research in African Literatures 31, no. 2 (summer 2000): 17-28.

[In the following essay, Chait explores the use of mythology in two novels by white South African authors—André Brink's Cape of Storms and Mike Nicol's Horseman—in terms of how each author deals with the question of collective guilt in the post-apartheid era.]

The transfer of political power from oppressor to oppressed inevitably brings in its wake the appropriation and reworking of mythological material. As new governments rewrite their people's history, so too do their novelists and poets recover...

(The entire section is 6213 words.)

Criticism: Post-Apartheid Drama

Zakes Mda (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Mda, Zakes. “Theater and Reconciliation in South Africa.” Theater 25, no. 3 (1995): 38-45.

[In the following essay, Mda examines the characteristics of South Africa's “theater of reconciliation,” noting that to truly fulfill such a role, theater must neither ignore nor cling to the past.]

In South Africa, a society which has been, for centuries, characterized by racial segregation, political oppression, and economic exploitation, culture has always played a role both to reinforce these conditions and to challenge them. Here I shall attempt to show how the products of our culture, with particular emphasis on theater, have responded to these conditions,...

(The entire section is 5415 words.)

Michael Chapman (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Chapman, Michael. “The Black Theatre Model: Towards an Aesthetic of South African Theatre.” In Southern African Literatures, pp. 360-68. London, England: Longman, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Chapman traces the course of theater in South Africa from the 1960s through the 1990s, focusing on the works of Athol Fugard, Zakes Mda, and Mbongeni Ngema.]

An upsurge of black theatre in South Africa in the 1970s characterised political and cultural consciousness-raising and identified the Black Consciousness movement as a powerful source of resistance to apartheid. It was a theatre adaptable to both popular expression, as in the play Sarafina!, and to...

(The entire section is 3377 words.)

Donald M. Morales (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Morales, Donald M. “Post Apartheid Drama.” In African Visions: Literary Images, Political Change, and Social Struggle in Contemporary Africa, edited by Cheryl B. Mwaria, Silvia Federici, and Joseph McLaren, pp. 253-65. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Morales evaluates the influence of politics on post-apartheid drama, noting that political issues afford both artistic opportunities and thematic limitations.]

In Esiaba Irobi's play, Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh (1989), the Nigerian playwright turns the long-standing debate on Wole Soyinka's linguistic complexity into high comedy. The setting is an African Writers'...

(The entire section is 5925 words.)

Further Reading


Attridge, Derek. “Age of Bronze, State of Grace: Music and Dogs in Coetzee's Disgrace.Novel 34, no. 1 (fall 2000): 98-121.

Attridge explores J. M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace in the context of his portrayal of a post-apartheid society troubled by changing personal and social values.

Cook, Méira. “Metaphors for Suffering: Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull.Mosaic 34, no. 3 (September 2001): 73-89.

Cook discusses Antjie Krog's journalistic memoir, Country of My Skull, in terms of how post-apartheid writing can present victims' pain without appropriating their voice....

(The entire section is 455 words.)