Post-apartheid Literature Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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).