Post-apartheid Literature

Start Free Trial

André Brink (essay date July 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 remains the context, not only as the institution “against” which culture may find itself in opposition, but also as a driving force within culture itself. If this is not always evident in sophisticated Western democracies, the situation in what used to be the Third World and what is now more commonly referred to as the South, continues to foreground the way in which politics permeates and informs every choice and every action of civic and even of private life. A “political novel” in the US or in Europe is a very specific kind of novel (i.e. one which overtly interrogates—or promotes—a given ideological system or stance); in South Africa all novels, whether so intended by the author or not, are “political”—because in that country, even as it moves out of the dark night of apartheid toward something new, every action, and utterance, and thought, every book and play and poem and song, carries a political load. In the mid-eighties, prompted by a French journalist who had asked me almost flippantly whether it was possible for me to write “a simple love story” if I wished, I tried to put it to the test: and in States of Emergency I used as my narrator a man who in a situation of siege tried to write (and live) a love story untainted by politics. Both he and I discovered, inevitably, that a country like South Africa does not allow it. (The difference between us was that, disheartened by the intersection of the private and the public, the narrator of my story abandoned the attempt; my novel, on the other hand, was written.)

The experience illuminated the immemorial debate between the “aesthetic” approach (“l'art pour l'art”) and that of littérature engagée. And I must confess that I more and more believe this dichotomy—like all dichotomies?—to be false. Rather than conceiving of “pure art” and “political art” as radical and mutually exclusive opposites, it seems to me, it would be more profitable to regard them as two extreme points on a sliding scale: and the kind of literature produced in any given situation, or by any given author, would be determined simply by the point on that scale where one happens to find oneself at that given moment and/or by the manner in which the tension between the two extremes on the connecting line is activated. (I am indebted to my wife for the image.)

In the kind of environment that obtains in South Africa, politics is not something which can be abstracted from “real life” as an ideology, a system, a theory, a philosophical “position,” but is, instead, a presence in the most ordinary and the most private moves across the chessboard of daily life: the food you eat and where you buy it, your means of transport, the suburb or township in which you live, the work you do, the school your children attend, the person you love and marry, the friends you associate with, everything has...

(This entire section contains 6267 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

a political implication. Even an option “out of” politics—in art as much as in life—is a political choice.

In such conditions culture also becomes charged in a different way. To avoid getting bogged down in endless preliminary definitions or redefinitions of politics and of culture, I wish to propose, as a rough working approach, a view of culture as, pre-eminently, that territory in the life of the polis where meaning is engendered and shaped—most specifically as a product (but also as a condition) of the interaction between individual and society. It involves society in the process not simply of “performing” or “undergoing” actions within the unfolding of history, but of reflecting on that process and that history, trying to make sense of it. In what we normally regard as a relatively stable society, these cultural processes surround and inform those of politics, i.e. those which most specifically concern the exercise of power in that society, in the attempt to play the game of the possible. But the moment the internal stability is disturbed, culture finds itself in a position of interrogating, opposing and contesting the workings and instruments of power. This becomes all the more precarious if one considers the basic drive within power politics toward co-option and appropriation: a régime under threat almost reflexively attempts to draw culture within the framework of its own operations.

South Africa provides a particularly dramatic illustration of this kind of historical process. Apartheid, from the very beginning, like Nazism and Stalinism before it, persuaded organized religion, education, even sports, to collaborate with it in its classical colonization of hearts and minds as an accompaniment to the extension of its more blatant political excesses. What made it particularly insidious is that the hegemony of Afrikanerdom itself had begun as a culture of opposition: opposition to the imperialism of Great Britain, but also to the religious and linguistic domination of Dutch which, toward the end of the nineteenth century, came to be perceived more and more as a foreign-based power threatening the evolution of a local culture. In this struggle for independence (within white South African society) there was something particularly attractive: and the flourishing of Afrikaans literature, especially after the Anglo-Boer War, made an appreciable contribution to indigenous white culture. Culture, in these circumstances, not only reinforced the struggle for political independence but to a large extent provided it with its moral raison d'être. During its long march toward political domination (finally confirmed in the fateful whites-only elections of 1948 that brought the National Party to power), it continually attempted to consolidate its base—by harnessing artists and writers to its cause. And while Afrikaners were in political opposition, i.e. while Afrikaner writers and artists could be persuaded to believe that they belonged to a culture threatened by awe-inspiring economic and political forces from abroad, as well as by a vast multitude of hostile “barbarians” in Africa, their literature remained firmly allied to the cause of what they passionately saw as their emancipation.

But soon after 1948 this began to change. As apartheid emerged as the great consolidating force within Afrikanerdom (and increasingly within the whole of the white community in South Africa), it also adopted more and more overtly the power strategies of the very imperialist establishment that had been dislodged. Instead of learning from their struggle against power the need to avoid the destructive and appropriative exercise of that power, Afrikaners showed themselves only too eager to do unto others what had been done to them. One of the results was that writers within this new establishment began to question the bases of the cause they had previously promoted: initially this was done very cautiously, hesitantly, tentatively—which was understandable, as what they did was regarded as backstabbing within a previously tightly knit family. But gradually they became bolder in their protests; and when as a result, in a move traumatic to both sides, they were ostracised by the new power establishment and ejected from the fortress of Afrikaner interests, they found outside that enclave a new culture of liberation among the black masses, directed against the very hegemony they had previously assisted in establishing. And so another culture of opposition was fostered by the abuses of power by the apartheid régime. Now we are witnessing the dismantling of that dispensation and the likelihood of another historical changeover.

It seems to be a moment that invites celebration. Yet as a writer, having witnessed what has happened before, I also approach it with caution, wondering whether, once again, a culture of opposition may in due course ossify into its own framework of repression. Certainly, one thing has already become clear: the enemy of the writer in South Africa has not been something as readily definable as apartheid, but a much larger and much more ominous force of which apartheid has been only one, localised, avatar. The real enemy is power: power which, whatever its form and shape and manifestation, always and ultimately means only one thing—and that is what Musil called “the power to kill.” And as long as human society is characterized by the organization of power there will be a need for a culture of opposition to it. In fact, unless there is space for oppositionality and otherness in a culture it cannot really, ever, flourish.

At the same time a cautionary note is appropriate: in opposing power, literature is not innocent of power. The very fact that as writers we believe in “the power of the word” suggests that the enemy, power, lurks in the heart of our very oppositionality. The enemy is also part of ourselves. Even as we use the word to empower ourselves we should acknowledge that this same liberating power is dangerous and may turn against ourselves. This means that, once again, the old forms of binary thinking have to be treated as suspect and we have to move toward more “lateral,” more “deconstructive,” more “sliding-scale” modes of thinking and of definition.

The question remains whether the power of the word can ever successfully confront that of the state. Are the two not so intrinsically different as to rule out any possibility of contest? (There is the old question whether an elephant and a whale can do battle.) A democratic government is to be contested, and if need be replaced, at the ballot box; the removal of a totalitarian régime requires a total strategy of resistance. Surely violence demands counter-violence, does it not? And if so, then how can one hope to oppose a political régime—most pertinently one that abuses its power and represses its citizens—with cultural means?

Is it at all possible for culture to respond effectively to a political challenge? I know it cannot be quantified: but that does not mean that it cannot happen. It is eminently sensible not to over-estimate what literature can effect. Undoubtedly it would be ludicrous to ascribe the present political changes in South Africa (or recent changes in Czechoslovakia, or the USSR, or Chile, or wherever) exclusively to the pressures of culture and the power of literature. And yet it remains an open question, I think, whether those changes would have been thinkable without the cultural onslaught. I know from my own experience, from many letters from black and white readers alike, that a novel or a poem or a play can work a sea-change in the mind and the perceptions of individuals: helping them to keep faith when all the “facts” appear to shout against it; helping them to discover solidarity in the reassurance that one is never entirely alone; helping them to acknowledge that the Other is no different from oneself. And in these ways, in one mind at a time, a climate has been prepared in South Africa—not only by literature, but by literature among many, many other experiences—in which change has become possible. The mere change of political or economic systems amounts to very little unless it is accompanied by a deeper, and more personal, change in attitudes, susceptibilities, and perceptions. And this, as I have argued so many times over so many years, is precisely the domain—inter alia—of literature.

In the play Sizwe Bansi Is Dead Athol Fugard demonstrates, in terms both moving and exquisitely funny, how a black man without any means of physical survival in a big city can endure by adopting the identity of a dead man whose passbook (known with terrible irony as the “Book of Life”) he has appropriated. What it means in ideological terms, is that he learns to “play the system,” to work within it; what it means existentially is that he accedes to an existence without authentic being; what it means in psychological terms is that he survives at the cost of his real identity and his dignity. In all respects a dismal ending. And yet I have seen audiences weep and shout and laugh and cheer as they watched Sizwe Bansi outwit the system. This play has inspired a generation of oppressed people to resume or reinforce their defiance of oppression. From the simple demonstration that—whatever the cost—survival is possible, they have derived the courage to resist in their own lives. And two decades later the system that once held Sizwe Bansi prison has now released him, a free man to the world. There have been many Sizwe Bansis over the years; many deaths too. And from all of those a resurrection has come about. Even in the midst of this process of resurrection Fugard's play has not become irrelevant: in changed circumstances the play serves a new purpose by reminding its spectators never to forget. In its own way, in South Africa and in many other societies, it will continue to correct the insidious silences of history. Kundera has shown all of us how power exercises the faculties of forgetting; surely one of the enduring functions of literature as an oppositional force is to make it impossible for us to forget.

There is little need still to argue that as human beings we not only have physical needs, but also spiritual needs; that the mind needs food as much as the body does; that caring for those who require to be fed, or sheltered, or rested, does not preclude, or exclude, the profound need for meaning in our lives. If we need political organization to cope with social and economic demands, we also need culture to help us make sense of what is happening to us.

In The Fixer Malamud paraphrases Spinoza: “If the State acts in ways that are abhorrent to human nature it's the lesser evil to destroy it.” But the question remains whether culture, per se, can offer an adequate response to political abuse or outrage on the level where such a response can be practically effective. What I am moving toward is the assertion that if culture in general or literature in particular is set up as a response to a political challenge, in at least one sense it may be seen to displace a different response, or a response on a different level. In other words: if we wish to avoid the use of force, i.e. violent confrontation, by resorting to literature, that text, in this situation, displaces more obvious forms of opposition. Most specifically, literature may then be seen to take the place of violence. What I'm arguing now is that if we do propose the “use” of literature (to the extent in which literature can ever be “used”) in these circumstances, it means that we see in literature at least the possibility of another kind of violence. And this, I think, is what literature as cultural opposition comes down to. In An Act of Terror I have tried to suggest that violence resides not only in the protagonists' attempt to blow up the State President, or in the moves of the security forces to destroy them in return, but in something as small, yet as momentous, as a heron lowering its foot into a pool of dark water to set in motion ripples of water and light that assault the eye of the beholder.

This view of violence may not be so far-fetched after all. All that is required is to acknowledge that violence, like power, need not be only destructive but that it can be a creative force in its own right; that, in fact, violence determines our being in the world. Not only rape and assault and death are acts of violence: the act of love itself is violent; the division of cells that results from it is a violent process, as is birth, growth, interacting with an environment or with others. Violence resides in our testing of limits, in all the processes of transgression through which we confront and interrogate our world in order to extend its frontiers. Every question we pose, to ourselves or to the world, affirms a species of violence without which we shall remain forever imprisoned in a very narrow space preordained, from outside ourselves, by a system of power: by custom or tradition, by the law, by others and by otherness. What concerns me at the moment, in the context of the familiar Sartrean equation, is to validate literature as a form of human—specifically cultural—involvement which goes beyond the gesture of the actor on his stage: it is that kind of “essential gesture” Gordimer has spoken about, which acquires the weight of an act—an act of (creative) violence to counter the (destructive) violence which is the hallmark of power. What I am appealing to is that mind-set which inspired Wallace Stevens to describe the mind as “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.”

In a relatively free and democratic society, as I have already intimated, this is not so obvious, as (state) power can be countered on a “purely” political level (in parliament, in public debate, in the press, in elections); but in a closed society like the one we are still in the process of dismantling in South Africa, overt political contestation may often be proscribed. The successive states of emergency proclaimed by the beleagured minority government of my country during the eighties imposed a distressing silence on community life: state-controlled radio and television broadcast only stunted, truncated, officially sanctioned versions of reality; most organisations in political opposition to the régime were banned and thousands of individuals jailed, exiled or silenced in other ways; newspapers, their functions controlled by over one hundred different laws, were not allowed to report freely on what was euphemistically called the “unrest” in the country—in fact, they were not even allowed to leave blanks which might alert the public to the machinations of censorship. In these circumstances culture was one of the only territories of public life left relatively free as a forum of opposition and contestation. Culture became, as Joyce says in Stoppard's Travesties, “the continuation of war by other means.” This happened precisely because the government, composed largely of culturally ignorant individuals, either did not take culture seriously or lacked the manpower effectively to continue controlling the arts as it had done in the seventies, the attention of the security police being required more urgently elsewhere, to contain the growing black trade union movement, contestation within education and religion and the mounting pressure exerted by the United Democratic Front.

In the seventies censorship had been a real menace to creativity, almost succeeding in stifling, among other things, a generation of young writers in Afrikaans (after an explosion of new talent in the sixties only two novelists of some significance emerged in Afrikaans during the entire decade of the seventies). Censorship created a stifling climate of fear in which the security police had their hands full keeping writers under surveillance. I was personally subjected to interrogations, house searches, the confiscation of books, manuscripts, notes, even of typewriters; attempts were made to sabotage my car and to set my house on fire, and there were endless threats to kill members of my family or myself. Even so this, it should be emphasised, was nothing compared to the indignities, the persecution, and the dangers black writers were subjected to. Many of them literally placed not only their freedom but their very lives at stake by continuing to write, and to read their stories, recite their poems, perform their plays.

At a time when the media were denied the possibility of performing their most basic duty, that of reporting, writers, actors, dancers, musicians, painters, sculptors were forced to assume much of this function—in order to ensure, quite simply, that people were informed about what was happening in the silences surrounding them.

In the process, the limits of culture were constantly tested, and expanded. Even in writing that was often reduced to reporting and to sloganeering there was a vital experience of giving and taking, of being enriched by the processes of cultural communication. Critics, especially from the outside, tend to see this as a process only of impoverishment and of reduction. Recently one of them (Vincent Crapanzano) wrote in an American newspaper:

Writers writing in South Africa are served, as one is served a summons, their subject matter: apartheid—its scandal; its moral and political consequences; the separation, the misunderstanding, the un-understanding it produces. Even when they have tried to refuse that summons they are caught by it, for whatever they write is read in terms of racial politics. The rift produced by apartheid limits the imagination.

I shall return to this remark. But for the moment I wish to pursue my image of the other side of the coin, the dark side of this moon: the important positive qualities of this experience of cultural opposition to a deadly system. Far beyond the needs of reporting, the kind of writing that emerged during the dark years of apartheid fostered a spirit of sharing, and of solidarity in the face of a defined and definable enemy. Black society, menaced by divisions into a multiplicity of language and culture groups, was inspired by the affirmation of what all its members had in common.

And white writers too—at least those of us who found our writing informed more and more by our experience with and among a community of black friends—began to function not only as “reporters,” but as “interpreters” of what we had been privileged to witness among those whose lives had been so effectively sealed off by apartheid from the eyes and the awareness of the white minority. Literature became indispensable to the many new processes of conscientising at work throughout the community. And we, too, as white writers, began to experience that solidarity, that heady intimation of a new South African identity beginning to announce and define itself behind the official definitions.

What apartheid effected, notably through the seventies and eighties, was an increasing interaction among writers from different cultural streams, a new sense of solidarity, a new perception—and a testing—of at least the possibility of an emerging common identity. Of course many differences still remain—and this need not be a negative perception at all, as the affirmation of cultural diversity may well be as important as that of solidarity—but the appreciation of such an interaction has already had significant consequences for an emergent culture.

This emergent culture is enriched by forms stimulated through the context of the struggle for liberation when access to traditional and formal means of production and distribution was fraught with many difficulties and threats. Many of these forms reached back to a long tradition of African orature: poets who could not risk publishing their verse, playwrights denied access to regular theatres, resorted to the reading and reciting, or the haphazard performance of their work at impromptu gatherings arranged at short notice and ready to disperse at the first warning of police approaching. Fugard, Mda, Ngema and others brought new meaning to the Grotowskian experience of “Poor Theatre” by fusing it with African traditions of improvisation; great poetry recitals drew the kind of crowds one would normally expect at a soccer match. Even today, when Mandela addresses a crowd, there is invariably a poet on the stage to combine the functions of the traditional mbongi or praise poet and the revolutionary poet of fiery contestation. Much of it may be demagogic, much of it remains on the level of sloganeering: but the surprising thing is that so much of it (witness Serote, Gwala, Dikeni and many others) is good by any standards, opening whole new ranges of possibilities to old established traditions.

Another aspect of the functioning of literature as a form of cultural opposition has been highlighted by the South African experience of the seventies and eighties: that is the dual nature of the writer's position in society.

There is, first, her or his text, the work, the written product of private and interactive battles, agonies, explorations and celebrations. Because of the nature of the textual challenges they pose, some of these, like the poems of Breyten Breytenbach or the novels of J. M. Coetzee, may be accessible only to a relatively small group of highly sophisticated readers; others, like the work of Struggle poets who would be horrified if anyone found their verse “beautiful” (as beauty, in their perception, would stand in the way of the political conscientisation and galvanization that is their stated aim), have the widest imaginable appeal. If in the West poetry has become perhaps the most reclusive of the literary arts, among South African blacks it has the audience of a TV soap opera.

But apart from, and in addition to, the texts produced by a given writer, that writer, by virtue of her or his notoriety, is empowered as an individual within the wide community. Thousands of people who have never read a poem by Breytenbach—thousands who cannot read at all—are inspired by the writer who has demonstrated, through his life, his solidarity with their cause. And because he is a writer, yet irrespective of what he has written, Breytenbach occupies a position of influence which charges cultural opposition with political force.

None of this necessarily means, as Crapanzano (quoted above) so readily jumps to conclude, that apartheid has curtailed the imagination—in the sense that during that period of threat and deprivation South African writers should have felt “obliged” (whether by external circumstances or by an inner compulsion) to produce overtly political texts. To begin with, as my reference to Breytenbach and Coetzee should have made clear (and any number of other names may be added to theirs) not all South African writers did write “Struggle literature”; and not all “Struggle literature” was facile sloganeering. At the very least the texts produced under those circumstances can only be read contextually. But, more importantly, I know of no South African writer who wrote “political literature” simply because he or she believed that it was “expected” of her or him. In the best of the texts that emerged from apartheid one cannot but discover the remarkable coincidence of what a given writer wanted and chose to write—and what circumstances expected her or him to write. In this respect there was no “summons” served on any writer. If it is a truism that one can only write about one's most urgent personal experience then apartheid was that experience, determining every waking and sleeping instant of one's life.

Culture, it is true, presents a space in which the writer confronts the real (i.e. whatever passes for “real” in any given context). But this does not mean that, working within the conditions and constraints of a closed society, some kind of social realism is the only dreary option. Even when the writer is involved in the real, as has been dictated to such a large extent by the apartheid experience, the writer's vocation—if one dare presume, if one dare generalise—has always been, not to report the real but to imagine the real.

When I was working on A Chain of Voices I came to know almost by heart the archival documentation about the slave revolt the novel attempted to re-present: the depositions, in the trial court, of all the accused and all the witnesses involved in the case; I familiarized myself with whatever I could lay hands or eyes on that had anything to do with that time and that place; I visited the region of the Bokkeveld where the action had taken place; the house in which slave and master confronted each other in that ultimate turbulent silence; the oven in which the wounded woman tried to stow away from the insurgents; the loft where the slave Galant and the white woman Hester hid—in an intriguing enclave of silence undisturbed by all the documents—while the others went on the rampage downstairs. But knowing all this was to no avail. It was only when I attempted that dangerous fire-leap from self to other, that history could become what it had always yearned to be, namely story: and for this it was necessary to try to imagine what it is like to be a slave who has been promised his freedom and sees that hope frustrated; to imagine what it is like to be a woman who has to sacrifice her independence to the inarticulate domination of a husband; to imagine what it means to be fierce patriarch or uncomprehending child or dour matron or protective mother or wild adventurer—slaves, all of them, locked in an inescapable chain of voices, sprung from earth, cleansed in water, seared in fire, wanton with wind. Only in the leap from history to story, and from world to word, does literature as a form of cultural opposition find its true voice: opposition to the lie, opposition to injustice, opposition to the unfreedom which in one form or another holds us all.

This is the freedom of writing, demonstrated most urgently in writing in the state of siege South Africa experienced under apartheid. But there can be danger even in this experience—and South African writers, like others throughout the erstwhile Second and Third Worlds, are beginning to make this discovery as they emerge from their many forms of oppression and try to map the new world unfolding around them. The very openness of this new space can be frightening, because it is so indefinite, so undefined. There can be something very reassuring about knowing your enemy very well: he is there (the enemy is always a “he”); he is visible, circumscribed, present, known. How disturbingly intimate the relationship between the oppressed and his or her oppressor, the self and the other. And when that other falls away, or begins to disintegrate and become diffuse, opaque, amorphous, inchoate, one is threatened, suddenly, by the discovery of a loss of something that has become indispensable to one's definition of oneself. This is when the danger of power—in this case, apartheid—becomes so distressingly evident: in the discovery that one has come to rely on that very enemy, power, to sustain oneself. A literature of opposition now becomes a questioning of the self.

It is a difficult thing to face, and a precarious experience: but it is, above all, necessary. Only now can one begin to establish the implications of that “summons” issued by apartheid which Crapanzano has referred to. But the problem was not a “limiting of the imagination” as he so confidently asserts. The imagination has always been active within the cage of apartheid: decorating and masking the bars or painting them in such stark colors that the awareness of their presence was dramatised; intensifying the exploration of the cramped space inside; reaching out into the limitless Beyond. The problem was, instead, that the functioning of that imagination remained predicated on the presence of prison bars. This favored a reliance on easy oppositions and binarities, on manichean models, and on predefined otherness (however understandable—and sometimes necessary—those reactions may have been at the time).

What I mean is this: that a culture of resistance can become a habit like any other. A literature which becomes used to asserting itself only in the face of a menacing opposition may in the long run dissipate all its energies in expressing what it is against rather than what it is for. To learn to define oneself only with reference to the other (that is, as the object of the other rather than as its own subject) is to deny a whole dimension of existence. And even before the darkness has entirely withdrawn from South Africa it was becoming obvious that it no longer sufficed to portray apartheid as evil or to take up a stance against it: everybody more or less in her or his right mind knew that, and was that. Perhaps, as Gordimer once pointed out, part of the South African sickness was precisely that people began to term “courageous” or “heroic” that which was only normal and natural. Even that may not be so bad (especially not if it involves at least an attempt to define the sickness, to recognise it as such): the problem arises when a whole literature threatens (and I mean this literally) to become oppositional and only oppositional in the most elementary sense of the word.

In the late nineteenth century many painters were so discouraged by the rise of photography as the medium par excellence in which to capture the “true likeness” they had been laboring to reproduce that they abandoned painting; this, it seems to me, is the kind of artistic and moral crisis many writers in recently liberated societies are experiencing at the moment. But does this malaise not result from an altogether too restricted, even fallacious, concept both of “writing” or of “the real”? There were painters at the end of the nineteenth century who made the exhilarating discovery that, in fact, painting had never had anything to do with the production of “true likenesses”: instead, it had everything to do with working in paint on canvas. And it seems to me that this is the true challenge of the newly evolving situation in writing: the (re)discovery of the fact that literature arises out of a peculiar relationship with language, and with that reality which can be made accessible only through language.

Part of the present problem faced by literature in South Africa is that it can no longer slip so easily into the silences previously imposed by the government and—literally—circumscribed by the media: in the present circumstances there is a frenzy of overcommentary and overexposure. Rather than articulating against silence the new literature has to make itself heard against the clamor of the media, the babble of too many other voices. And it is the function of the media both to globalise and to trivialise. More than ever before—acknowledging that there is no point in trying to make oneself heard by shouting more loudly than anyone else—literature has to find space for the private vision, the personal imagination, the individual small, still voice. This does not mean a return to nineteenth-century heroic individualism or early twentieth-century Freudian egoism, or mid-twentieth-century existentialist solitude, but the articulation of a personal space informed by an experience of suffering and witnessing with others.

It is not just a matter of freeing the imagination: it is changing the conditions of its operation. Much of it concerns history, as whole tracts of past experience silenced by apartheid, by over three centuries of colonialism, are now to be reclaimed, reinvented, reimagined into story. This may be a vital part of the real opposition embodied in South African literature of the future: constantly to oppose the present with a recovered past, in order to open more possibilities for the future.

When the young poet Sandile Dikeni was in prison he began to recite poems through the bars of his cell every night when the inmates bedded down: and at all the barred windows they would cluster, like grapes, like bats, to inhale these words in which their own anger and suffering and loss and loneliness and hope were given shape. They refused to go to sleep unless he had first offered them a poem. Sometimes he would use words they had never heard, strange and disquieting music in their ears. One morning a fellow prisoner accosted him. “This poem you recited last night,” he said, “had a word in it I don't know. This soliloquy: what does it mean?” Sandile gave him the meaning of the word and then promised he'd never use such strange words again. “Oh no,” said the other prisoner, “you must, you must: for now I know a new word.”

I come from a literature that still has many new words to learn: and with each new word new possibilities enter the realm of the imagination and extend the prison-house of our language. They offer us new means of contesting—of responding to—the challenges of the real.

And not only the real (the reality of political power; even the reality of democracy) has to be confronted in processes of cultural resistance: language itself, which is the condition of both our affirmations and our oppositions, is to be interrogated and contested. This may seem an impossible task.

And yet! Is this not what it really amounts to in the end?—the opposition posed by literature as an interface of the possible and the impossible. For too long we have concentrated, in South Africa and elsewhere, simply in order to survive, on the possible: this is what has made our lives impossible. Only by dreaming and writing the impossible can life be made possible once again.1


  1. Paper delivered at a seminar on “Literature as a Political Force,” Salzburg, July 1993.

André Brink (essay date winter 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 produced in postapartheid South Africa. The need to revisit history has both accompanied and characterised the literature of most of the great “thresholds of change,” as Kenneth Harrow has called them—those periods in which, as Santayana had it, “mankind starts dreaming in a different key.” This need speaks as much from the inventive historiography of Herodotus as from the Icelandic sagas, the heroic epics of the Renaissance, the flowering of the historical novel in the wake of the French Revolution, the writings of early modernism (from Kristin Lavransdatter to Finnegans Wake), or the postmodernisms of our fin de siècle, which cover the spectrum from One Hundred Years of Solitude to The Satanic Verses, from Terra Nostra to The Name of the Rose, from John Barth to Italo Calvino, from Milan Kundera to Peter Carey.

In South Africa the change of direction signaled by the dismantling of apartheid (against the backdrop of the larger watershed marked by the breakup of the former Second World) coincided with the revisions wrought in historical consciousness by postmodernism, which may well have an impact on a novelist's view of history. It is likely to form part of an intensive endeavour in postapartheid literature to address the silences of the past, and the forms this may assume cannot but be informed by the peculiar concept of history the authors concerned bring to it. In general terms it would involve a choice between two kinds of concepts, two ends on a sliding scale: namely, “history as fact” and “history as fiction.” I know that in my own work I have moved from one notion to the other, not necessarily in a clear linear development, but as part of a continuing dialectic; and it seems to me that this may hold true of the larger territory of the South African historical novel as a whole. This is what I propose to address in the present essay in order to present, at least tentatively, some personal and subjective comments within a larger perspective.

It is important to remember that within historiography itself there has been a move away from the approach of the past as a set of “data,” a “reality behind the text,” toward the open-ended perception of history itself as text and as narrative. This move has accompanied the shift in the novel, from the realism of the nineteenth century (which, by and large, persisted in South African literature until well after World War II) to the constructions and inventions of modernism and postmodernism. Throughout this movement its dynamic has been provided by the underlying tussle between Europe and Africa, and informed by the need to bring under words the invention of a new continent.


In older South African literature, whether written by black or white authors, in English or in Afrikaans,1 the historical novel occupied a very minor place; and as might be expected, the approach was largely traditional—in the form of attempts merely to personalise and dramatise accepted renderings of history. In English, Thomas MacIntosh McCombie wrote Adriaan van der Stel; or, Two Hundred Years After in 1885, retelling the struggle of Dutch and Huguenot colonists against an autocratic Cape governor during the early years of Dutch settlement; and the black writer Sol Plaatje presented in Mudhi (1930, but written much earlier) the first attempt to retell an epoch from the country's history from the point of view of black experience. For much historical writing in the twentieth century, the tone was set by the popular but ideologically suspect novels of Sarah Gertrude Millin (1889-1968), which took the supremacy of the white race as their point of departure. Several other writers, including Stuart Cloete (1897-1976), veered toward an even more sensationalist approach. In Afrikaans, where for the better part of this century the genre has enjoyed considerably more popularity, novels by authors as disparate as J. H. H. de Waal (1871-1937), Elizabeth Vermeulen (1897-1978), and the much more modern F. A. Venter (b. 1916) invariably revisited the great moments of the Afrikaner past—notably the Great Trek and the Anglo-Boer War—to rediscover a divine interest in the trials and tribulations of God's chosen people in darkest Africa. One of the few Afrikaans writers openly to challenge the Eurocentric approach has been Jan Rabie (b. 1920), who dramatically rewrote Afrikaner history from the point of view of “coloured” experience. But not one of these writers revealed any doubt about history as a collection of facts, objectively verifiable; not one of them challenged the underlying ideological assumptions of history as a representation of the real. Even if writers like Plaatje and Rabie do offer an alternative—black or “coloured”—view of the past, their acceptance of the status of history is identical to that of the other writers concerned; that is, the assumption that interpretations may differ but that behind the idiosyncrasies of personal perception, history exists as an acceptable record of an accessible reality. It is a map drawn of a real, existing land: the lines and contours and place-names may be refined and revised as we move toward ever greater precision, but given the right tools and the right experience, the map at the very least has the potential of becoming a wholly dependable representation of the thing itself.

The problem of this approach, as Hayden White (89) has so convincingly argued, is that it is erroneous for a theorist/critic/reader to presume that the “context” or “historical milieu” of a literary text “has a concreteness and an accessibility” which the text itself lacks, “as if it were easier to perceive the reality of a past world put together from a thousand historical documents than it is to probe the depths of a single literary work that is present to the critic studying it. But the presumed concreteness and accessibility of historical milieux, these contexts of the texts literary scholars study, are themselves products of the fictive capability of the historians who have studied those contexts” (my italics).


What is interesting, as a background to postmodernist forages into the historical novel in more recent South African literature, is a small clutch of early fictional writing in which a view of history-as-narrative, history-as-text, is already communicated. It may be significant for future development, as the evolving new South Africa tries to come to grips with its past, that the very first historical novel in the Afrikaans language, S. J. du Toit's Die Koningin van Skeba (The Queen of Sheba), first serialised in 1896-98, offered, in the guise of a factual account of a journey to Great Zimbabwe, a wildly imaginative invention about a distant African past, in the form of ancient documents “discovered” in the famous Zimbabwe ruins and allegedly translated by an expert in the group of travelers. So persuasive was the account that contemporary readers were horrified to learn subsequently that the respected clergyman du Toit had in fact “lied” to them. Inserting himself—unwittingly, quite probably—in a tradition of the textualisation of history at least as old as the Don Quixote, the Reverend du Toit may have unwittingly provided a model for much later postmodernist writing in South Africa.

Another significant forerunner of this trend may be A. C. Jordan's Imgqumbo Yeminyana (The Wrath of the Ancestors; 1940): although it cannot be regarded as a historical novel in any accepted sense of the term (it deals with a young man from the Mpondomise people who has to abandon his university studies in order to assume the kingship), the way in which the protagonist must reconcile his progressive ideas with the whole weight of his historical and traditional milieu does problematise the very notion of history. Of particular importance is the way in which any excessive or fanciful usage of history as an ideological tool in the community is persistently branded in the text as “Nongqawuse tales”—a reference to that key moment in Xhosa history when, in 1857, the young girl Nongqawuse played a Jeanne d'Arc role in persuading her people that mysterious voices had ordered the slaughtering of all the cattle and the burning of all the possessions of the Xhosa people in anticipation of an apocalypse in which the ancestors would rise from the dead to drive the white race into the sea. Jordan's skillful involution of myth and history, fiction and fact, paves the way for future revisitings of the past in order to evoke it, not as fact but as metaphor. In this way his text may be read as a dialectic between written history and oral tradition, producing a new form teeming with possibilities for future exploration.


South African fiction began to interrogate history—not just different versions of history, but the very notion of its ontology, status, and structure—well before the rigorous certainties of apartheid began to crumble. In Afrikaans literature the decisive marker of this change was Etienne Leroux's Magersfontein, o Magersfontein (1976; Eng. 1983), in which textualisation runs riot. The narrative concerns the attempts of a present-day film company from Britain to make a film based on the crucial battle of Magersfontein, fought during the Anglo-Boer War; in the process there is growing confusion between the historical personalities, their fictionalised counterparts in the script, the actors involved in playing these roles, and the “real-life” characters of the actors. One of the consequences for the narrative (which ends in a literal “send-up” in a hot-air balloon) is that all sense of identity is dissipated in the endless postponements and distancings of Derridean différance, and the very notion of “historical origins,” of an ur-text, of a reality behind the textualising processes of a self-inventing narrative is left open-ended.

Once again, as Hayden White (91) formulates it, history itself becomes no more than an extended metaphor: “It tells us in what direction to think about the events and charges our thought about events with different emotional valences. The historical narrative does not image the things it indicates; it calls to mind images of the things it indicates, in the same way that a metaphor does.”2

In English South African fiction this process has been demonstrated in quite a variety of novels, including The Arrowing of the Cane (1986) and The Desecration of the Graves (1990) by John Conyngham, in both of which “real” or “imagined” texts from the past are reinvented in the present. In the narrative world of the first novel (by far the more convincing of the two) the narrator renounces the possibility of physical and emotional fulfillment in a love relationship with his fiancée to withdraw into a private world where sex is simulated by inserting a manuscript scroll (which represents his own biography and the written record of his white tribe) in a vaginal fissure in the cellar; from which it can be retrieved only in a postapocalyptic world. By reducing, in this way, his private and collective history to a written text, the narrator reminds the reader that, as a character in a novel, he is no more than text.

Likewise, the driving force behind Mike Nicols's three novels to date is the fictionalisation of history: in The Powers That Be (1989) the entire apartheid experience is reduced emblematically to the fantastic story of a small village in the iron grip of Captain Nunes (who, as a construct, is reminiscent of Brecht's Arturo Ui); in This Day and Age (1992) crucial battles from the history of the South African racial conflict are reinvented in a curious synchronic relationship (occasionally with a certain strained urge to allegorise) in which disparate incidents are retextualised to foreground the pervasiveness of evil; in the most allegorical and least successful of the three, Horseman (1994), an apocalyptic rider charges through a frightening world that ranges, in time and space, from medieval Europe to present-day Southern Africa to sow terror and confusion. The point is that by turning everything into story and thereby “dehistoricising”—and defamiliarising—known events and patterns from European and African tradition, Nicol restores an original violence to the reader's awareness of history. Precisely by shattering the perception of history as “something out there,” a record of distant times, people, and events, and drawing into the textual here-and-now of a story that exists within the physicality of a book held in the reader's hands, it assumes a new immediacy and in fact a new urgent “reality.”

The most impressive demonstration of the textualisation of history in recent South African fiction has been the novels of J. M. Coetzee, in which it assumes a dazzling variety of forms. It involves the literal rewriting—and reimagining—of a specific historical sequence of events in The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee (in the diptych novel Dusklands, 1974); it also embraces the delineation of the patterns of power in Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), in which the experience of empire acquires a heightened urgency precisely because the Empire of the text is not identified exclusively with any historical epoch (ranging from the Roman to the apartheid state) but spans and crystallises them all; elsewhere the process ranges from the recovery of a history already fictionalised by Defoe (Foe, 1986), to a history of a possible future already perceptible within the present (Life and Times of Michael K, 1983), to the diarising of a personal history in the process of unfolding (Age of Iron, 1990), to a reimagined and intensely fictionalised life of Dostoevsky (The Master of Petersburg, 1994).

Apropos of Foe, Malvern van Wyk Smith (128) comments on the text and the writing of Robinson Crusoe as “the archetypal text of the colonizing myth … capable of generating endless texts and readings … all re-inscriptions of the history of conquest which have powerful ‘meanings’ but no substance in a reality identifiable outside the discourse itself” (my italics). This, it seems to me, is precisely the point of the endless array of revisitations of history now opening up to the writer of the new South Africa. For a very long time (for eminently understandable reasons, and perhaps not without effect) South African fiction has been intimately tied up with the need to record, to witness, to represent, and to interpret the unfolding of a historical process and its effects on the lives of women, men, and children caught up in it. At a time when the media were prevented from fulfilling their basic function of reportage, fiction writers had to assume this burden. But as the Russian writer Victor Erofeyev once said, this activity could be compared to the uses to which furniture might be put in time of war, whether as barricades against the enemy, or as firewood in a winter of deprivation, or as blunt weapons of defence and attack; yet when peace returns, furniture is set free to become once again no more—and no less—than “mere” furniture. Similarly, if in a state of emergency writing assumes functions of representation and persuasion, its “true” function ultimately, always, and already lies in being what it is: a text and a process of textualisation, a narrative and a process of narrativisation. And when it turns to history, as it may feel inspired to do in a time when the processes of history are themselves highlighted, it can explore the kinship of story and history precisely by recognising the story nature of history itself—that is, its textual status, and its recourse to the forms and processes of storytelling, emplotment, characterisation, et cetera. Hayden White once again: “In general there has been a reluctance to consider historical narratives as what they most manifestly are: verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences” (82).


In looking, with the advantage of hindsight, at a few moments in my own writing as a new kind of historical consciousness surfaced, I do not presume to attempt anything more than to clarify for myself, après coup, certain issues of which I may not even have been conscious at the time (which is why I am intrigued enough to look at them now) and which may or may not illustrate, in one concrete example, the development of this consciousness at a time when a “threshold of change”—in contemporary South African history, and in the possibility of a new kind of literature emerging within it—is being crossed.

Returning reluctantly to South Africa in 1961 after two years of study in Paris and still enthralled by the world I'd discovered abroad, I found that the last subject that interested me as a writer was this country; my centre of gravity was elsewhere. But after another year in France, the watershed year of 1968, my second return was different in every respect from the first: this time I wanted to come home to “know the place for the first time.” What fired my writing was no longer what I had in common with writers in Europe, but what tied me to Africa. For the first time I was possessed by the passionate need to define my roots and invent my subcontinent. And the first form this took was Looking on Darkness (1974; first published in Afrikaans in 1973), in which the “coloured” narrator attempts to reconstruct his own history (an exercise which, in one way or another, appears to obsess all my other narrators). His sources are twofold: the oral tradition passed on to him by his mother, in which at least some of the original “voices” attempt to find an articulation within Joseph Malan's reconstructions; and external materials, written documentation in books and archives. He inevitably finds that sources are suspect, and so his preoccupation is not primarily with an “accurate” or “objective” report (although at times his conditioning by traditional mind-sets is still evident) but with the appropriation of a personal history through the imagination. (In later novels like An Act of Terror [1991] the writing of a personal or tribal history would be extended to involve the gradual transition from mythology to historiography.) The suspect nature of the verbal construct is signaled to the “objective” spectator/reader—personified by Joseph's jailers, who survey his every move and scrutinise his every word—by the thirteen Shakespeare sonnets he leaves behind as his disguised written testimony. (Whatever else he writes he flushes down the toilet, which means that the text that meets the reader's eye is quite literally an impossible text which cannot exist except in the narrator's mind—and he, of course, is dead by the time any outsider can enter the narrative world.) These sonnets are Joseph's “purest” testimony, into which his whole life history has been distilled; and they are literally the words of “someone else” (Shakespeare). Furthermore, even as quotations they are not dependable, as there are errors of transcription in each of them. As an actor, Joseph has a trained memory; it is his only certainty in a world of endless shifts and changes. But the actor's profession is notorious, not only for its “secondhand” quality, but also for the futility and unreliability of its sound and fury. And if the sole dimension of existence in which Joseph presents himself as reliable—his ability to memorise the texts of others—is revealed to be dubious, then everything else in his confession, including most notably his narration of his history, is open to question. But this ambiguity remains vested in the role of the narrator, rather than the perception of history as such—except if the interposition of the narrator between reader and story is to be read as a demonstration of the opacity of language, which presents language not as an access toward history but as a displacement of it—i.e., language not as a transparent sheet of glass but as a stained-glass window (which still requires the light from the “real” world to bring it to life, but which focuses the attention on its intrinsic colours and patterns).

Unreliable narrators of one kind or another recur in Rumours of Rain (1978) and A Dry White Season (1979). In the first, Martin Mynhardt demonstrates the apartheid mind at work, as he desperately tries to impose a rigorous separation on the different clusters of data that constitute his life, one set surrounding his son, another his best friend, or his father, or his mistress; and this severe ordering of his various worlds—until they are all swept away by a more fluid and chaotic course of events—must inevitably raise questions about his presentation of history as well. In A Dry White Season the narrator, a hack writer, is let loose upon an assortment of notes, diaries, press cuttings, et cetera, and the tension between the attempt to “do justice” to the documents and his professional inclination to sensationalise his material coincides with the tussle between different perceptions of history, even though the novel as a whole, geared toward representation-as-protest, does not radically question the status of history.

An altogether different situation obtains in An Instant in the Wind (1976; Afrikaans edition 1975), in which the illusion is created of a “true story” based on authentic archival documents. These documents do not exist, however, at least not in the Cape Archives; inasmuch as the story has an original source, it is Sidney Nolan's account of the famous Australian history of Mrs Frazer, which also formed the ur-text of Patrick White's novel A Fringe of Leaves, published—by a curious coincidence—simultaneously with the English edition of An Instant in the Wind. The novel is presented explicitly as a modern reconstruction and a reimagination of an “original”; but the point is, of course, that this “original” is transposed to a different century and a different continent, which effectively deauthenticates it as a history (even though most of the historical information about the Cape of Good Hope in the eighteenth century is based on travel documents from that time and place).

The differs from A Chain of Voices (1982), in which the narrative of a slave revolt in the Cold Bokkeveld in 1825 is indeed inspired by existing documents (the 2,000-odd pages of documents surrounding the trial of the slave rebels). What struck me at the time was the way in which the depositions of all the witnesses and accused in the trial had been transcribed by court officials (and, in fact, the scribe[s] had occasionally left more than one version of his/their transcriptions behind, in various stages of legibility and stylistic competence). Only occasionally, in unguarded moments as it were, one could hear, in an unexpected or ungrammatical turn of phrase, the “original” voice of the speaker sounding through the palimpsest of transcriptions. (And even in these cases it was a mere hunch, a personal opinion, a “feeling”; there was no external proof in the documents themselves.) So here I was exposed to history itself; it was the most direct access to “what really happened” I could ever have hoped for. Yet even in these circumstances my most painful discovery was the unreliability of historical documentation. (Even on “basic facts” like the ages or names or family relationships of some deponents the documents turned out to be fairly unreliable.) Moreover, on one absolutely crucial issue the documents were conspicuously silent: toward the end of the proceedings the judge referred to “certain rumours” surrounding the relationship between the slave Galant and the white woman Hester and ordered an in camera hearing of evidence in this respect. Nothing further was recorded about the enquiry—which was enough stimulation for the dirty mind of the novelist to take over.

But what is really at issue is that the archival material demonstrated at this point quite dramatically that history, even in the most traditional sense of the word, is not only composed of texts (written and otherwise), but is also strung together from silences. And this, it seems to me, is what primarily attracts the novelist (as it originally attracted the historiographer?). Throughout the apartheid years whole territories of silence were created by the nature of the power structures that ordered the country and defined the limits of its articulated experience. Some of these silences were deliberately imposed, whether by decree or by the operations of censorship and the security police; but in many cases the silences arose because the urgencies of the situation presented priorities among which certain experiences simply did not figure very highly. (In crude terms, if at a given moment I had to choose between writing a love story and the story of a life disrupted by the machinations of apartheid, I would opt for the latter—not because it was “expected” of me or “imposed” on me, but because in those circumstances I would choose to.) In yet other cases the silences had to be discovered below the clamour that filled certain gaps: the clamour of “official versions” and “dominant discourses,” which caused such a din that one often did not even realise the noise existed, not for its own sake but purely as a cover-up for the silences below. It is the inverse of what George Eliot intimated in that wonderful line from Middlemarch, “There is a great roar at the other side of silence.”

A completely different relationship with history informs The First Life of Adamastor (1993), originally intended as the first of thirteen chapters in a novel to be entitled The Lives of Adamastor (and which was eventually reshaped into Thomas Landman's invention of a family history in An Act of Terror, 1991). This was, explicitly, an attempt to counter, from the “inside,” two key myths of the dominant historical and ethnographic discourse about Africa: Camões's version of Europe's early encounter with Africa, personified as a monstrous black giant who resists all attempts to be conquered from abroad and who is finally punished by Zeus, the god of European patriarchy, for having dared to love the (white) nymph coveted by the Father himself; and second, the persistent European myth about black African sexual potency. In both cases a “send-up” technique of gross exaggeration is used, deliberately couched in the shape of early European narratives but incorporating stories and story forms from various African oral traditions. This, I hoped, would result in something more complex than a simple refutation of the prevalent discourse, or the positing of a simple alternative: because part of the narrative wealth of Africa lies in moving beyond the simple dichotomies of either/or, to arrive at more syncretic and holistic patterns of narrative thinking. (And “narrative thinking” is, of course, what writing is about: discovering for the novel, and rediscovering in each new novel, that which, as Kundera said, can be articulated only by the novel and not by any other form of discourse.)

In yet another way my involvement with history expressed itself in On the Contrary (1983), where the mendacious and imaginative nature of the historical character Estienne Barbier prompted a continuation, in the novel, of the self-inventions in which Barbier indulged through the writing of his letters (still available in the Archives) to successive governors at the Cape of Good Hope. Accompanied by the fictional character of Don Quixote and by a Jeanne d'Arc as much imagined by Barbier as drawn from the popular mythologies surrounding her historical role, the new hidalgo sets out on several journeys (all three of them imagined, by the writer or by the narrator or by both) into the African interior, an interior whose geography is as suspect as its history; it is, in fact, an interior composed not so much of landscapes and climatological conditions as by the texts of numerous eighteenth-century travelers through the Cape hinterland. The key figure among them, whose voice is often allowed to speak for itself in the text, is a German of whose very name we are not quite sure: he might be Peter Kolb, or Kolbe, or Kolben, and he apparently spent some time at the Cape at the beginning of that century—but considerable doubt exists about his veracity. Some commentators have even suggested that he wrote his extensive travelogues without ever setting foot beyond the immediate environs of Cape Town. (And yet, in his imaginative reconstruction of an African Other without which the self could not come to know itself, Kolb[e][n] might have ventured closer to grasping an elusive truth about the continent than many others who observed, named, and recorded, in meticulous detail, every little plant, insect, animal, or human being encountered on their journeys of exploration.)

One step further, and one would not even require the pretext (in the most literal sense of a pre-text) of historical “sources” to reinvent the past in order to valorise—and validate—it for the narrative in which the writer is personally implicated. In Imaginings of Sand (due for publication in 1996) the compulsively narrating grandmother, mouthpiece of a long line of silent and/or silenced women in South African history, no longer relies on “evidence” or “references” of any kind: her narratives are their own raîson d'être and derive from the individual's need to insert her/himself, through storytelling, within the larger contexts of space and (historical) continuity. Where sources are used in recognisable form, they function on at least three levels: sometimes they are “informal” by nature, like the Great Trek diaries of Susanna Smit; on other occasions they are subjected to transference, as happens in the case of the well-known seventeenth-century figure of Krotoa (known as Eva to the Dutch), who acted as interpreter between the Dutch and the indigenous Khoikhoin until she became the victim of both groups. This chapter from history is transposed in the novel to the fictitious character of the woman Kamma,3 whose involvement in the story is based on a particularly illuminating feminist reading of the Adamastor myth (cf. Driver, 455-57). In other words, the concern of the narrative here is not the “facts” but the patterns of already-narrativised history. A third level on which “historical sources” function in the narrative involves the complete abandonment of that “reality identifiable outside the discourse itself” to which van Wyk Smith referred: for instance, one of the instigators of a crucial episode in the grandmother's family history is borrowed, not from historiography, but from another novel, An Act of Terror.

In all these instances the importance lies in the recognition of the need to storify, not in the specifics of the remedies each individual may bring to the situation. Passing beyond the intertextualities of separate documents, and relying more on images and metaphors than on the grammars of language, the grandmother reverts to pure invention—as an acknowledgment of that primal urge described by Russell Hoban in his famous dictum, “We make fiction because we ARE fiction.


And this is, ultimately, the only answer one can give to the inevitable question, “Why?” Why resort to fiction? Why reduce history to storytelling? Why confront a demanding and turbulent “real” world with the inventions and fabrications of narrative? Why, at a time when South Africans are expected to be preparing to face present and future, should one waste time by an invention, rather than a strict discovery, of the past? We are moving toward the persistent objection against all postmodernist writing, but most pertinently against its practices within the dimensions of history and of morality. For surely, if anything may be invented, why should any one particular invention carry more weight than another? If all is text and there is nothing outside the text, how can anything be morally or historically valorised?

The answer, I have already suggested, lies in that leap of the imagination (and, it should be added, of reason) that prompted Hoban to say, “We make fiction because we are fiction.” Whether one composes a c.v. for a job application, or reviews a day or week or year or a life traversed, or relates a crucial experience to someone else, or writes a letter, or describes an event—however one sets about it, it is inevitably turned into narrative, within what Brian Wicker called a “story-shaped world.” This, as Hayden White (87) argues, provides a key to psychological analysis as well: “The therapist's problem … is not to hold up before the patient the ‘real facts’ of the matter, the ‘truth’ as against the ‘fantasy’ that obsesses him. … The problem is to get the patient to ‘reemplot’ his whole life history in such a way as to change the meaning of those events for him and the significance for the economy of the whole set of events that make up his life.” The same process, he indicates, occurs in historiography: “Historians seek to refamiliarize us with events which have been forgotten through either accident, neglect, or repression.”

Whether this occurs in therapy, in historiography, or in literature, the powerful act of appropriating the past through imaginative understanding—that is, through the devices of metaphor rather than through a “scientific objectivity” which tries to mask its own uncertainties—is necessary for the sanity of the whole community. And this is not a random act at all. It is not a matter, as critics of postmodernist discourse often pretend, of “any invention will do.” What this kind of invention effects is to open a door to comparative reading. The new text has to be evaluated against the whole spectrum or palimpsest of available texts, and so a polylogue is opened through which versions of the past are drawn into the present, confronting the reader with the need—and above all with the responsibility—to choose.

Since we experience our own lives as a compilation of narrative texts, this approach to historiography within the novel introduces (a) history into the whole collection of narratives that constitute us, both as individuals and as a community. And because the text is not offered as definitive, final, absolute, but as the exploration of a possibility among others, it invites the reader to keep her/his critical faculties alive by pursuing the processes of imagination in order to arrive at whatever proves more relevant, more meaningful, or simply more useful in any given context. It intensifies the relationship between the individual and her/his spatial and temporal environment. And learning to inhabit the continent of our invention may well be one of the most rewarding challenges facing South Africans—readers and writers alike—in this time of change, knowing that neither its history nor its moral boundaries are fixed and final, but remain constantly to be reinvented and, in the process, revalorised.


  1. For equivalents of “historical novels” in Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, and other indigenous literatures, one would have to explore oral tradition. The influence of this tradition on a novel like A. C. Jordan's Ingqumbo Yeminyanya (The Wrath of the Ancestors) is discussed elsewhere in this essay.

  2. This functioning of metaphor White explains by referring to the familiar metaphorical equation of “my love” and “rose”: it does not suggest, he points out, that the beloved is actually a rose; nor does it suggest that the loved one has the specific attributes of a rose—i.e., that s/he is red, or yellow, is a plant, has thorns, needs sunlight, “should be sprayed regularly with insecticide,” et cetera: “It is meant to be understood as indicating that the beloved shares the qualities which the rose has come to symbolize in the customary linguistic usages of Western culture. … The metaphor does not image the thing it seeks to characterize, it gives directions for finding the set of images that are intended to be associated with that thing” (91).

  3. The Khoikhoin word kamma means “water,” which refers to a creation myth in which the first woman (in Africa) emerged from water; in Afrikaans it refers to the realm of the imagination, of illusion, and of fiction.


Driver, Dorothy. “Women and Nature, Women as Objects of Exchange: Towards a Feminist Analysis of South African Literature.” In Michael Chapman et al. Perspectives on South African English Literature. Parklands (Johannesburg). Donker. 1992.

Harrow, Kenneth W. Thresholds of Change in African Literature: The Emergence of a Tradition. Portsmouth, N.H. Heinemann. 1994.

Smith, Malvern van Wyk. Grounds of Conquest: A Survey of South African English Literature. Kenwyn (Cape Town). Jutalit. 1990.

White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins University Press. 1978.

Kelwyn Sole (essay date winter 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 confront the country's changed political and social circumstances than in these other forms of expression. When critics discuss the output of South African writers today, what is striking is the degree to which it is established literary figures—Gordimer, Coetzee, Ndebele, Brink—who are praised. Moreover, those new writing talents who have attracted attention, such as Behr and Vladislavić, have been primarily individuals working in the genre of fiction.

Yet there has been a fascinating, if quiet, upwelling of new expression in a genre to which little attention is usually given by literary commentators: poetry. Beginning a number of years before liberation, poets using oral and written means have started to emerge in South Africa who have a purpose beyond the confines of both (on the one hand) the ungainly platitudes and sloganizing of a certain amount of previous political poetry, and (on the other) the sterile aestheticism and mimicking provincialism of a dated, predominantly Eurocentric, liberal poetic tradition.

For those poets who use the written word, relatively few venues for publication have until recently offered themselves. During the early years of the 1990s, when avenues for publishing seemed to be in particularly short supply, there were at best two or three literary journals prepared to give space to poetry; while mainstream publishers showed a waning interest in putting out all but a bare handful of collections per year. More promisingly at the moment, though, a number of small journals and magazines, often hand—or DTP-produced, are making an appearance. This, as one commentator remarks, can only have positive effects for the future of the genre.

Many of the new initiatives … acknowledge that there's little or nothing to expect from mainstream publishers in the way of support for new poetry, and that poets had better take control of the means of production themselves if they want to reach any audience at all.

There is … a sense of liberation in these pamphlets and booklets: an air of having given themselves permission to publish on themes that don't have any pedigree of political relevance in the narrowly defined sense that has influenced so many poets during the last decade. For some of these journals, this means more than reclaiming individual artistic freedom; it is part of the process of growing the new cultural energy we've always known must be lying somewhere.1

It is noteworthy that most of the poets who are active in forging this new poetry wish to combine sociopolitical commitment with a concern for appropriate poetic style. Some of them, such as Tatamkhulu Afrika, have been political activists who were harassed and imprisoned for their trouble. Yet even with the least immediately political of them—such as Ian Tromp, whose work combines a delight in, and careful delineation of, the play of light and texture across surfaces with a concern for social meanings and artifacts—there is a recognition that the realities of contemporary South Africa are too complex to allow for a retreat into either a blinkered public, or private, poetry.

It is in the last years of the 1980s that this pattern can be first observed. The publication of Farouk Asvat's Celebration of Flames in 1986 in particular put before readers an overtly political poetry which (despite Asvat's obvious commitment to the struggle against apartheid) was not content with superficial moralizing or two-dimensional political descriptions and utterances of support for anti-apartheid initiatives. Condemning in the harshest terms the fratricide taking place at the time between supporters of the United Democratic Front and the Black Consciousness organizations, Asvat's volume subjects the actions of his political compeers to as close an ethical scrutiny as those they were opposing. This opened the way for other poets to feel less constrained about adopting a critical role in their social utterances, rather than feeling compelled to demonstrate an unnuanced, routine solidarity with the organizations and political programmes with which they identified.2

This emancipatory example coexisted with a number of other poets—such as Donald Parenzee, Ingrid de Kok, Achmat Dangor, and Robert Berold—who not only demonstrated a concern for the political issues of the day, but also attempted to juxtapose these with, and often filter them through, a delineation of the contradictory, paradoxical, bitter, and even amusing ways in which people experienced their everyday lives in the midst of political strife. Such poets first gave an example, in their poems, of how private and intimate experience is ineluctably tinged by the wider political struggles taking place. Moreover, they sought simultaneously to work on technical aspects of poetic craft and search for an aesthetic and a viewpoint more personally adequate to the fragmented and fragmenting world in which South Africans find themselves. Thus, in a letter to the literary journal Contrast in 1989, John Charlton, a poet who writes under the pseudonym of Tatamkhulu Afrika, criticized previous South African poetry for still containing “much of the imperial drawing room, dressed up in African motifs and blurred with accidental obscurities”; arguing instead for a poetry which could reach the ordinary men and women of South Africa while avoiding the “charlatan, the purveyor under the guise of ‘people's art’ of the slogan and the cliche.”3 Added to this new orientation, the shock waves caused inside the country by Albie Sachs's 1989 position paper on culture4 and, after 1990, by the influx of political returnees enriched local debate and acted as a source of influence. Here especially, the figure and work of Keorapetse Kgositsile provided inspiration to many of the younger poets in the townships.

This renewed emphasis on skill is now everywhere apparent. Afrika is merely one of a number of poets who have made the same point since, such as the Gauteng-based poet Kaizer Nyatsumba in his poem “Words.”

on their own
they look like
lost sheep
on a precipice:
and vulnerable
but shepherd them
cull them carefully
adorn and string them
and they will sing.

Among some poets, there has been a willingness to explore new usages of description and imagery. The Cape Town poet Karen Press gives voice to this growing preoccupation when she speaks of her attraction for “powerfully imagistic poetry because it provokes energies in me that I find really exciting.”5 A general tendency, again, is to wish to explore political experiences and predicaments as they are filtered through the human psyche. In other words, several of these poets undertake a spiritual orientation which includes, rather than negates, politics. With such an approach, the personal and the political cease to be viewed as opposite and antagonistic poles. Rather, poets such as Press give voice to powerfully political themes in a manner which does not preclude the private, the dissonant, and the bewildered space of individual life and consciousness. There have been few more compelling recollections of the “days of struggle” than Press's “Tiresias in the City of Heroes.”

What do I remember? Standing in the sun for hours listening to speeches while my feet burned on the ground. Walking along streets where women stood at every door crying. Hacked bodies. A little man who followed me for three kilometres and when I finally tried to grab him he begged me to teach him to sing, but I thought he was lying and killed him. A baby with its stomach carved out and a policeman standing next to it, vomiting …

In Boipatong your eyes died.
In Katlehong and Bekkersdal and Empangeni you died
          and you died and you died.
That's what I remember.
In Pretoria your fingernails became joint chiefs of staff.
In Pretoria your teeth ran the central bank.
In Pretoria your hair was the president.
That's what I remember.

This exploration in imagery sometimes borders on the surrealistic, a formal influence oddly little in evidence previously in a country where social reality often borders on the surreal. But in a recent poem, for instance, the Durban-based activist and academic Ari Sitas sees fit to describe his home city as a place where “mechanical bullfrogs and cicadas grind away / and sometimes wounded cars cough by pierced by assegais / and sometimes surfers emerge from the mouths / of microwave ovens / and always / life continues like the sound of splintering glass” (“Ethekwini”), while Khulile Nxumalo can remember the April 1994 elections as a time when “canned frog toes in telkom wrappings were / served to the newcomers we taught them how to / vote they taught us how to wait / in mamba long queues / it rained glass and cadbury eclairs that year” (“Xstacy”).

Such formal experimentation can also result in a “leaping poetry” reminiscent of that advocated by the U.S. poet Robert Bly. The result is often truly memorable juxtapositions of imagery and meaning, as in Lisa Combrinck's “Ghazal”:

The eye of the penis is always round and howling
ever eager for release from its hydrocephalic head.
The red cherries on your plate
are both intensely sour and deeply sweet.
No-one at the cafe knows why we speak so much and
          eat so little,
nor why every satisfying sex act is recalled as a small

A stylistic inclination to mix conversational language and street slang with more heightened, “poetic” speech is also apparent among a number of these poets. Others favour enjambment as a way of alluding to the characteristic cadences, modulations, and slurrings of sentences in South African English, as well as a means of inducing more complicated rhythmic patterns in their poems.

There is a general willingness to borrow from a variety of traditions and styles. For example, the Soweto-born Lesego Rampolokeng (“rapmaster supreme”), perhaps the best known of the new generation of poets, speaks of the mixed influence of Sotho song styles, traditional praise poetry, rap, and metropolitan writers such as William Burroughs in his work. Rampolokeng makes manifest another stylistic point of departure of much of the best recent poetry: a desire to emphasize the musical underpinnings of poetry. Rampolokeng and one or two others, such as Sitas and Heather Robertson, perform as well as publish their poetry, while others give notice of the influence of jazz, reggae, and rap music and musicians in their work. Whatever the case, a recognition of the music inherent in poetry is recognizable in the expression of many of the more exciting poets.

Although the poets who are emerging in the 1990s to some extent show a diversity of styles, backgrounds, influences, and goals, there are other similarities which are so striking as to reflect a great deal more than idiosyncrasies of personal biography and interest. The first is a desire to explore the contradictory nature of the “hidden corners” of South African experience—those which were flattened out by previous writers by either being ignored or elevated into objects of an easy pity. Such a preoccupation has been the overwhelming concern of Tatamkhulu Afrika. By far the oldest of the poets who have begun to publish recently, Afrika was born of Egyptian and Turkish parents in 1920 and came to South Africa (and was orphaned) at an early age. Brought up as “white” by foster parents, Afrika had, by his midtwenties, published one novel and seen another destroyed by a Nazi guard in a POW camp during World War II. A devout Muslim, by the 1980s Afrika found himself involved in political activities; and while detained in 1987, he began writing poetry seriously again. Since the beginning of the 1990s he has published five volumes of verse.

Afrika's poetry conjoins a focus on the fragile, insistent, ignored beauty of the natural world to an uncompromising concern with the textures and conditions of the life of those who inhabit the wastelands and hidden margins of city life in Cape Town. Typically, his poems are narratives, written from the position of an interlocutor who lives close to and describes the harsh lives of those, marginalized and forgotten, whom political change has affected not at all. This point of view allows Afrika to be implicitly, and at times explicitly, scathing about the lack of significant social or economic improvements since 1990 for society's social detritus. His desire to transpose newspaper headlines and economic statistics into breathing, suffering human beings, and his emphasis on the urgent need for psychological and spiritual as well as social change among all the country's people, allow him to critique the manner in which South Africa's public affairs have been, and are still being, conducted. At bottom there remains the conviction that South Africa will, one day, truly belong to all its inhabitants. Marching in a political rally shortly after the relaxing of restrictions on social gatherings, Afrika writes:

they have kept their promise:
they have left us
to dance, and sing, and flaunt our banners,
but my feet move heavily on the dull, blue tarmac:
I have been too long away from the once beloved
          city …
But then I see her:
the little, yellow, dancing woman,
the rapt yet graven, shrivelled features,
generous San buttocks rolling
with a gentle, rhythmic, effortless abandon,
small feet skittering,
lightly as a water-bug on dust-glazed water …
And my feet move on again, knowing
that under them,
lies still a soil forever Africa,
and it is not I that am the alien,
but they that stand here, streetside,
watching me
dancing in my city.

(“Dancing in My City”)

The other better-known poet among those already mentioned, Rampolokeng, uses oral and written media of a completely different vintage to mainstream “struggle” poets such as Mzwakhe Mbuli.6 He combines the ethical role of the traditional imbongi with a profound suspicion of all forms of authority, recently noting that

… holding our scars up is no solution. When somebody can shout to the world that … they suffered in that or this way—it means that we actually have some gratitude towards the evils of the world—where we actually owe a lot to apartheid for having made us. All that has actually made me start questioning myself even more, questioning all the values I embraced, and everything I stood for: I've realized that the rot exists at every step of the ladder—at all levels of society.7

In the poem “Maze Generation” he further declaims, “i search through my faeces / for praises gone rusted / on the tongue / pushing daisies up / with their sheer bad breath.” This penchant for saying exactly what he thinks, along with a laid-back, sarcastic oral delivery style and stance, has occasionally brought Rampolokeng into conflict with the post-1990 powers-that-be.8 Nevertheless, his work displays a serious intention, laying bare the machinations of all forms of what he calls “political expediency” and sycophancy.

Rampolokeng's contemporary Seitlhamo Motsapi, a teacher and academic living in the Northern Province, displays along with Rampolokeng a tendency little apparent among earlier South African poets to whom English is not a first language: an ability to manipulate, play with, and subvert its forms and expressions “from the inside.” Both are poets who rely on a verse of compression and energy, and use wordplay and puns to create multiple levels of meaning filled with political irony. Thus, Motsapi characterizes the slide of the continent into the embrace of colonialism and capitalism as “ancestor maasai / melting into the purple nikon pose / of tourorist disca / dence” (“the sun used to be white”)—a degeneration assisted by “hell / meted mishinari” (“ityopia phase-in”). Both draw attention to the vulnerability of ordinary people to an official language that appears to espouse democracy but can become overburdened by the rhetorical claims and glib phraseology of smooth-talking politicians and intellectuals, where, in Rampolokeng's phrase, “gods of dialogue talk the wind to silence” (“Dawn of a Dying Time”). The latter denounces both “negotiation-table manners / fuck-ademics unrolling scrotals of fartastic words / to ennighten the illiterate” (“In Transition”) and “toyi-toyi boys,” while Motsapi points out the continuing problems people face in a world of “politricks,” “politishams,” “non-retiefable thievings of land,” “conputers,” and so on. Rampolokeng goes one further, often employing the end-stopped line and the rhyming couplet of the English canon as simultaneously a rhythmic and a satiric device.

i want to give you beautiful lines
poems deeper richer than south africa's mines
but those mines have broken many bones …
still i come like a flood
my words are wine & rose
a lover's perfume in a progressive nose
my words gush rush in a storm
lacking all poetic form
soft-nosed-bullet-words tearing minds apart
infernal winds bending the stubborn heart …
i'm no william shakespeare
i write in the flight of the nation's spear

(“rap century 1”)

The syncretism of influence on black and white poets alike shows that the identities and cultural traditions people have grown up with in South Africa, the foundations from which they are attempting to build a new sense of place and being, are immeasurably fractured and dissonant.

Since 1990 South Africans have lived in a society they know the rest of the world holds up as an example of how peace and concordance can be achieved between people with the most irreconcilable of differences. Along with the pride that is felt in this is a knowledge that endemic violence, crime, and distrust have not significantly abated around them. This phenomenon has caused a further dislocation in consciousness. A concomitant double vision therefore exists in the poetry: a need to analyze and try to come to terms with death and destruction, alongside an urge to keep faith in the promises and gains of the new society which is struggling toward birth. This is palpable in poems such as “Music from the Rain,” by Mamelodi-based Lance Nawa.

… we walked with pride, knowing that a day
would come when a rainbow flag would unfurl
humanity into a single golden pot …
I knew then as I do now that beautiful ones
have long been born, save that I first have to
release them from the barbs around my heart
for me to hold and the world to see

The difficult endeavour to reorientate personal attitudes and behaviour in a deracialised society is visible in many of the poets. Mzi Mahola, an ANC activist brought up in the rural Ciskei and currently working in Port Elizabeth, articulates this:

I was born an automaton
Guided by signs
All my life conditioned,
Now I'm adjusting
On my own
Measuring each step
Like a chameleon.
How will I trust my ears?
I've been hurt
Physically and mentally
Seen things
Not fit for mortal eyes …
But I bear no grudge
Only struggling to adjust.
How will I trust their tongues? …
As I savour dawn
Testing the ground
Like a newborn calf
The leopard might strike,
How will I trust their word?

(“How will I trust”)

Meanwhile, Motsapi asserts:

i have one eye full of dreams and hintentions
the other is full of broken mirrors
& cracked churchbells …
& a hope that corrodes the convulsions
we bless the long rough road
we bless the inscrutable darkness
where our names are rent into spirit
we bless the splinters & the air
full of asphyxiations and amnesia
we bless our lacerations & our deformities
we bless the belligerent strangers
who stay on in our throats

(“river robert”)

Most of the poets mentioned here spurn any easy “forgetting” of South Africa's history, or any turning away from its persistent social problems. Rather, the subcontinent's bloody past of colonial incursion and social deprivation is constantly invoked, remembered, and analyzed inter alia as a means of understanding the present. Thus, Sitas has more recently begun an epic poem, “Slave Trades,” using a number of voices speaking from different social positions—colonizer and colonized—to examine the onset and workings of colonialism in Ethiopia, while Press's long poem “Krotoa's Story” fleshes out the tale of the Khoi woman who was ordered by her chief Oedasoa to live in van Riebeeck's settlement in the Cape in the 1650s. In a stunning mixture of narrative and lyric, Press embodies the doubts, fears, and courage of a woman who has too often in the past merely been dismissed as one of South Africa's first “sell-outs.” Instead, the poem examines (and forces the reader to meditate on) the conflicting interests which place Krotoa between contending and uncaring historical forces which, eventually, destroy her. This is actualized in the admixture of historical statement and lyrical imagery one comes to associate with Press's work.

What is generally striking is that few of these poets share the unproblematic immediate optimism about the future that washes through official pronouncements and the media. A number of poems have emerged which deal with the phenomenon of leaders who seem to have turned their back on the ideals for which their supporters fought—poems such as Afrika's “Tamed,” Robertson's “Mr Mandela,” Sitas's “Motto,” and Mahola's “Forget the Past—Forget Yourselves.” Condemnations of the superficial money-grubbing and love of spectacle without substance of a new society “dazzled by the judas coins of commerce” (in Rampolokeng's words from “Broederbondage”), where—to quote in turn from Motsapi—“our diviners talk of new gods / while the shrines gather dust” (“maasai dreadbeat”), are a frequent source of focus and censure. In one such scenario Joan Metelerkamp witheringly invokes the ambience of Musgrave Road in Durban.

… this macabre mirror-sharp everyday
mall of getting and spending, where nothing
is authentic nothing is worth knowing
nothing is admissible, uncivil
centre, aetiolation of friendlessness,
glossy women from another climate
made-up for combatting the elements
as well as each other, people this place
invites me to despise, barely veneered
back-fangs of capital, you gangrenous
Musgrave, severed from the life-line of trees …


The loss of some of the positive aspects of the anti-apartheid struggle—its initial attempts, in the 1970s and early 1980s, to achieve a sense of community and fraternity—and the fratricide and lack of tolerance for dissent found even among the anti-apartheid fighters in the late 1980s and early 1990s are frequently employed themes. Motsapi, concerned as he is with a pan-Africanism that maintains, and promotes, spiritual identity and growth, reiterates his dislike for the new class of nouveaux riches in the country and shows (along with Rampolokeng) an awareness of the danger South Africa faces in accepting the punishing round of foreign loans and resulting debt its neighbours know all too well. “Run clear,” suggests Rampolokeng, “it's an ecological alert / the i.m.f. has opened its wallet” (“Broederbondage”). While generally aware that the ironclad certainties and Manichaean polarities of the anti-apartheid struggle have gone for good (Sitas remarks, “I was told that— / From the hill my dear on a clear day you can see the class struggle forever / on the hill my dear / lives get caught in these damp afternoons / and it's too hot my dear to read Frantz Fanon / you are condemned to consume / to suffer the melancholy stalking of shopping malls” [“Our Little Tropical Scars”]), many of the poets—here Motsapi—address the schism that has opened between ordinary people and a new black middle class.

i offer him
the deep dizzying water of respects
from the hills & the herds
but he barks into the wearying puddle
of offich inglish & boss shittish
so now
the purple of his rubber stabs
grows into a wall
but the drums won't fall asleep
               the drums won't fall asleep

(“missa joe”)

The desire to explore the “hidden corners” of people's emotions and lives during a time of social flux and upheaval has allowed poets to move into realms once frowned upon. No aspect of experience is regarded as an unfitting subject for the poems that are emerging. Poets like Metelerkamp, Combrinck, and Robertson have published intimate, erotic poems, none more beautiful perhaps than Combrinck's “In the Moonlight,” here quoted in full:

As I came in the moonlight
I saw your ribs
suddenly stand out of your skin
and glow in the dark
like the long strands
of a string instrument.
So I ran my fingers down your chest
and plucked the strings,
my curling lips clicking and singing
sucking the sap of your bone,
slowly honing into the song of your soul,
that bursts its whiteness into my womb.

In Press's “Heart's Hunger” the ability to interweave the personal and political in familiar and chilling ways is made superbly manifest, as she explores the consciousness of a woman whose lover has been lost to migrant labour, investing her psychic anguish with a precision of metaphor and image.

I stored you against my eyelids
my treasure, more precious than water.
                    Then they stole my home, my land,
                    the possibility of my hands, my last dress.
I saw them, and when my eyes closed
I could not remember you.
                              Hunger has eaten my dreams.
                              You are a scarecrow in a field
                              the birds have plundered—useless love.
                              Send money; I cannot eat your pink words.

As chillingly, Metelerkamp explores the dissonance between the personal and political in a different way: the human wreckage that has resulted from a society where the personal was regarded as simply an adjunct of political programmes and orientation. In a poem to her grandmother, who committed suicide in 1950 after being “listed” as a member of the Communist Party, she demonstrates the inability of her grandmother's comrades to offer human sympathy and support: “Image of community severed at the core: / where were you espousing freedom community / solidarity, did you turn your backs to her / bleeding on the floor?” (“Joan”).

The movement of a younger generation of South Africans to see the requirements and rhetoric of overtly political issues, national construction, and the fault lines of class and racial issues as not the only valid arenas of poetic utterance and commentary can be perceived in the appearance of poems dealing much more immediately and explicitly with forms of politics and experience less valued by the anti-apartheid, national, and trade-union struggles in the past, such as gay rights and women's rights.9 Press, Combrinck, and Metelerkamp, for example, perceive as a necessary part of their oeuvre poems which highlight women's issues. Elsewhere, the poems of Kenneth John allow the reader an insight into the fraught experiences of those who are HIV-positive.

A new certainty prevails in women's poetry: as Sizakhele Nkosi observes, “No one will call me / his little girl again” (“No Man Will Ever Control Me Again”). Metelerkamp in particular has focused, in her poems and published interviews, on gender relationships and women's issues, establishing her need to move both “out of the realm of men [and] … also into the realm of the brilliance of men, but on my own terms.”10 Using a variety of poetic voices—philosophical, angry, critical, sensuous—she reveals, predominantly through a first-person narrator, a woman's attitudes and experiences in relation not only to men but also to the weft of social and emotional bonds, ties of family and kinship, and intellectual and artistic traditions with which she lives as feminist and mother in Durban. She focuses often on the contradictory richness of such a life, the “day- / to-day process of tasks of love and / repetition of the preparing, / like fields for sowing, the repairing, / like blades for cutting—food and sleep and / work for food and sleep and sometimes, like / a breeze, a breath of home-made holy / spirit” (“Ripped like the ragged piece of paper”). One of the most arresting of her poems is “Jeremy Cronin (from inside) calls,” a searing indictment of women's historical complicity in the universe of swaggering heroics, rhetoric, and murder that has been bred into South African men.

                                                                                          All over South
Africa, black and white
                                                                      women are spilling boys' blood
and holding buckets and watering-cans to catch it
again with their falling tears to cultivate
                                                                                                                                                      heroes. …
                                                                                          Loving them, women
kindle what men have ignited; we bear it, support
it, give it growth. But some time! This time! Now—
                    when, god knows
when will we labour to bring forth
                                                                                                                                  this killing,
still born?
(Listen, when there is bleeding
                                                                                                    it means death,
                                                                                                                        where there is
                              it means no life, know
                                                                                               that blood flowing is death.)
When will we pull it out by its bloody roots, this myth
planted in us (for Christ's sake)
                                                                                                    new life
                                                                                                                                            through death.

Focusing on the need to change these attitudes from a different perspective, Combrinck voices a hope that the next generation will instead be able to discover a sense of shared purpose and identity in a society where

You will speak in greeting
Agee, Lekae, Hello, Hoesit Broer,
and everyone wena will surely understand …
This is your birthright, my son.
This poem is not a bandage.
It does not hide wounds.
It is not a rope.
It does not hang the reader.
This poem simply warms you to the future.
It is a blanket covering the back.
Your birthright is the backbone.
So clasp it with both hands
grip it with both thighs
and on the back,
you ride, my son,
you ride.

(“For My Firstborn”)

The task of confronting the negative in a society which has only recently emerged from the cruelty of its political nightmare has at heart a utopian impulse—a profoundly moral attempt to render society in all its paradoxes and complexity, and to reveal its social processes and outcomes more truthfully than has happened before. Never is the aspiration that South Africans should fashion a meaningful future together negated, despite the burden of their heritage. This simultaneously uncompromising and gentle stance is indeed difficult to muster and maintain. Yet it is this attitude which strikes the reader of these new poets again and again, as they attempt to embrace and represent a world in transition, uncertain as to its identity and the outcome of the processes so bravely initiated in 1990. Phedi Tlhobolo, a poet from Atteridgeville, perhaps sums it up best:

It takes a great love
to walk in the shade of peace
darkness is our trouble
not just sorrow,
with its million teeth it devours
every bit of life …
you have to speak in tongues
tongues of gods, angels and birds
dance the morning samba
to be the victor
of this fierce war

(“Morning Samba”)


  1. Karen Press, “Poetry Journals in South Africa, 1994,” New Coin (Grahamstown), 30:2 (1994), p. 58. The recent history of the publication of poetry requires a great deal more attention than can be given here. For informative summaries of trends in the late 1980s and 1990s, see Press's article and also (despite its unfortunate tone) Andries Oliphant, “Forums and Forces: Recent Trends in South African Literary Journals,” in On Shifting Sands: New Art and Literature from South Africa, eds. Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford, Portsmouth (N.H.), Heinemann, 1992.

  2. For an overview of trends in South African political poetry in the 1980s, see Peter Horn, “A Radical Rethinking of the Art of Poetry in an Apartheid Society,” Journal of Commonwealth Literature (London), 29:1 (1993).

  3. Tatamkhulu Afrika (John Charlton), “Open Letter,” Contrast (Cape Town), 67 (1989), pp. 94-95.

  4. Details of Sachs's intervention, and a number of responses, can be found in Spring Is Rebellious: Arguments about Cultural Freedom, eds. Ingrid de Kok and Karen Press, Cape Town, Buchu, 1990, and Exchanges: South African Writing in Transition, eds. D. Brown and B. van Dyk, Pietermaritzburg, University of Natal Press, 1991.

  5. “Karen Press: Interview,” New Coin, 29:1 (1993) p. 22.

  6. “Rampolokeng is South Africa's resident authentic raging young man poet, now that Mzwakhe Mbuli's symbols of black oppression have become the Afristocracy and he a favoured member of this inner circle” (B. Khumalo, “Cutting Edge of the African Axe,” Weekly Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], 8-14 July 1994). It is interesting to note the ease with which Mbuli has been transformed, principally via the medium of the music video, from the best-known poet of the liberation struggle to the most anodyne of popular entertainers.

  7. “Lesego Rampolokeng: Interview,” New Coin, 29:2 (1993), p. 26.

  8. Rampolokeng mentions one occasion when he was “cautioned” for the poetry he read at an ANC official's birthday party. See “Lesego Rampolokeng: Interview,” p. 24.

  9. In the first years of the 1990s, for instance, COSAW produced anthologies dedicated to women's and gay writing. See respectively Like a House on Fire, ed. A. Horn et al., Johannesburg, COSAW, 1994, and The Invisible Ghetto, ed. M. Krouse et al., Johannesburg, COSAW, 1992.

  10. “Joan Metelerkamp: Interview,” New Coin, 28:2 (1992), p. 24.

Select Bibliography

Afrika, Tatamkhulu. Nine Lives. Cape Town. Carrefour/Hippogriff. 1991.

———. Dark Rider. Cape Town. Snailpress/Mayibuye. 1992.

Metelerkamp, Joan. Towing the Line in Signs: Three Collections of Poetry. Douglas Reid Skinner, ed. Cape Town. Carrefour. 1992.

———. Stone No More. Durban. Gecko. 1995.

Motsapi, Seitlhamo. earthstepper / the ocean is very shallow. Grahamstown. Deep South. 1995.

Press, Karen. bird heart stoning the sea. Cape Town. Buchu. 1990.

Rampolokeng, Lesego. Horns for Hondo. Johannesburg. COSAW. 1990.

———. Talking Rain. Johannesburg. COSAW. 1993.

Sitas, Ari. Tropical Scars. Johannesburg. COSAW. 1989.

Sarah Ruden (essay date summer-fall 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 glaringly bigoted slight. As usual, claims about racism oversimplify. There are vast cultural differences that make black African authors—even the black authors writing in English in relatively cosmopolitan South Africa—hard for Americans and Europeans to appreciate. But the danger is that “cultural differences” will become the new cop-out. Critics should really fight this one. With a demography of the arts like the one that emerged during the late Roman Empire—original talent coming from everywhere but the political center—becoming clearer and clearer, there are reasons to bother about African literature. The cultural differences themselves are a reason; unlike anything conveyed by “multiculturalism” (a strange name for a movement promoting the works of American minority writers in a state of the most harmless, theme-park acculturation), they are startling and interesting, worth going through some at first uncongenial books to get at. Or this is how I found it, to the extent that the playwright Zakes Mda and the fiction writer Njabulo Ndebele became subversive pleasures of mine during the three years I spent behind battlements of Western culture, teaching in the Classics Department at the University of Cape Town.

But now I am hesitating, looking back at that first paragraph and feeling dubious about the direction in which I am taking this essay. I seem to be about to show myself as a bringer of American openness to a benighted, colonized land, a discoverer and sharer of the fascinating texts of an oppressed culture. But the truth is much cruder. I came to African literature out of guilt and fear. I was uncomfortable teaching Plato and Juvenal to tiny numbers of well-to-do white students, the only students I could attract. Whenever I became engrossed in a course or in a research problem, my Quaker activities (I became a “convinced Friend,” or Quaker convert, in Boston while I was finishing my doctorate at Harvard, the year before I moved to South Africa) would interrupt and remind me how little I was giving to the country through my job, and yet how well I got paid compared to those South Africans who could not vote until 1994. It was hard for me to believe what I was getting away with. I thought that, any day, some person of integrity would investigate and pillory me, and it was my panic that in the end made me (absurdly, of course) resign from a tenure-track post. In the meantime, I began reading Ndebele and Mda, planning in the back of my head to use my new knowledge—somehow—to defend myself when I got caught.

I did not expect to admire these authors' work, and I still have reservations. What kept me reading it, even after I left the University of Cape Town, and even after I returned to the United States, was the opportunity to experience another world—and, to some extent, to experience it more vividly through the resistances its literature evoked in me. It is these resistances—partly characterizing me as a typical Westerner, partly, I am sure, just mine—I will concentrate on in writing about Ndebele and Mda. Though this is an unusual critical mode, I value it in having come to it the hard way.

Black South African literature, like the literature of sub-Saharan Africa in general, is founded on group experience. The African ideal of social life, now frequently voiced by Mandela's government, is that “a person is a person because of other people.” Africans never sought to live by any principle that conflicts with this one, so that it is stubborn of Americans not to accept the failures of liberal individualism in Africa. Africans reject or mangle institutions like independent courts, salaried jobs, the nuclear family, and achievement-oriented education, because by making the individual free but responsible these conflict with Africans' deepest values. (I know I must seem condescending or even disingenuous when I describe striking differences between Africa and the West. Years ago, I sniffed at a missionary's account of how extraordinarily prone Africans are to twisted bowels. Now that I have lived in Africa I believe him—physically, Africans are really not like us. But I don't expect my own assertions about African culture to be believed by any Americans but those who have lived overseas; the undiluted American environment is too bland to foster any notion of real difference.) A literature of individual experience does not grow from African values, so that we Westerners, peering nervously out of our own experience (decades if not centuries ago, we stopped worrying about the self-abnegating Proverbs and turned wholly to the self-expressive Psalms), find it difficult to see any sympathetic values at all in African literature. Powerful group values are there, but to us these are anti-values.

Zakes Mda (b. 1948; his full name is Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni Mda, but nobody uses it) is the leading South African black playwright. One of his long-standing literary involvements is strikingly African: “development theatre,” or the acting out of useful messages for the illiterate. Here, group dynamics are key. In Mda's book When People Play People (1993), there is as much emphasis on the collective reactions of villagers as on the content of plays like Migrant Labour and Vaccination that he and his university colleagues produced. The audiences were vitally part of the plays, as is the case whenever development projects use drama. By now, many non-governmental organizations have found it expedient to let clients do all of the actual play-acting: Africans are that devoted to performance. Even if they are not performing in the strict sense themselves at a given presentation, their attention is intense, and they create a sort of counter-performance of their own. There is a clear contrast between an African child or young woman, whose status at home is low and who does not normally have what we would call a “voice,” in an individual interview and the same person on or facing a stage. Mda's novel She Plays with the Darkness (1996) forms a good illustration of the African ideology of performance: a young Lesotho girl's refusal to dance leads to her withdrawing into a dark hut for many years and ceasing to age; she effectively stops living as a human being.

In his published, commercial plays, Mda makes many concessions to Western expectations of theater—naturally, as Western curricula have been, until very recently, the only official ones available in Africa. Mda's main models are European and American classics. In the most academic of his plays, however, the author's deep and particularly African solidarity with the live audience is plain. The characters speak in such general terms (complaint, resignation, hope) of such common experiences (poverty, corruption, violence, racial and class divisions) that they seem to be a cross-section of the public talking. A veteran miner in The Hill (1980) says:

What is not degrading in this land of gold? The medical examinations through which you'll go, are they not degrading? When all the recruits stand naked irrespective of age and relationship, only to have the heartbeat examined, is that not degrading …? Are all these things not meant to humiliate us, to make us feel inadequate as men and fathers of our children, and to deprive us of human dignity, so that we may dig the gold of the white man with utmost submission.

There are no quirky characters here, no one with a special fault or gift, and conflicts come only from people having generally different experiences and political views. This makes the endings of the plays, from a Western point of view, especially odd. Personal revelation is what we expect a main character to undergo: like Oedipus, he or she should find out, or do, or be subject to, something that changes everything. In twentieth-century Western theater, the negation of such a change, as in Death of a Salesman, is as dramatic as its occurrence: the personal in any case contains most of the excitement of dramatic story-telling. In African drama like Mda's, Western influences work eerily with the demands of a culture that could not care less about the inner and individual lives of the characters. In And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses (1988), which is set in an unnamed post-colonial African country, a prostitute and an exiled woman anti-apartheid activist become friends while waiting several days for a distribution of free rice. In the end, drawing strength from each other, they refuse the hand-out from careless and questionably motivated international donors working through a corrupt and sadistic local bureaucracy. To some degree, a Western-style coming-of-age theme is visible: the prostitute, inspired by the activist's idealism and endurance, elects to go away without the food meant to degrade her and make her dependent; the activist joyfully joins her in this assertion of dignity. But their decision is more like a political affiliation than an act of personal growth. The two women are now made available for building a new, just society, in defiance of black tyrannies, the white police state, and the whole manipulative West. Their motivation comes largely from without; while they acknowledge that they have had far more than their share of suffering (much of it inflicted by those closest to them) because they are women, they decline to make an issue of their gender identity or interests, but merely dedicate themselves to the larger struggle.

It is now time for us to change things. To liberate not only ourselves, but the men themselves, for we are all in bondage … ! When mothers whose sons have been ripped to pieces by bullets are able to say “My son's death is a victory for the people. His wasn't just mine. He belonged to the people!” Then you know that victory is indeed certain, and liberation is just around the corner.

The similarities to Soviet thinking are of course rather overt, but communists in Africa did not have to foster collectivist sentiment: there was actually too much of it, even for them. Post-colonial socialist African states failed not because of people looking after themselves at the expense of their civic duty, but because of them devoting their energies to their extended families and tribes. Leftist African authors like Mda sometimes try to show that traditional and revolutionary loyalties can be combined. The Joys of War (1989) is a somewhat Brechtian meditation on war, but the ending goes far beyond Brecht in prescriptiveness. A hysterical little girl (in repeated frenzies of mourning for a doll she is convinced dies again and again) has been dragged across the country by her grandmother, in a forced search for the father who abandoned her to join a rebel underground. The girl finds him moments before he is to blow up an army base—and insists on joining him though warned of the danger. This ending and that of And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses resonate with the African idea of initiation. In most sub-Saharan African tribes, a person is held to grow into maturity in the moment of sacrifice to the group, a sacrifice so radical as to be symbolized by physical trauma: male circumcision or female genital mutilation, facial scarring or other painful decoration; at the least, a fast or a period of exile in the wilderness. Africans think that it is absurd to honor as mature a person who has defied the group because of private convictions or ambitions or needs.

It is partly allegiance to a large group that keeps Mda's plays short, their language and plots simple, and their ideas cut and dried, so that the stories in themselves do not take over and rampage through the audience in what Westerners have thought, since Aristotle, is a highly desirable manner. Interpersonal conflict is haphazard and unconvincing in Mda, because the characters are not persons but general types, as in a medieval morality play. They do not usually have names, but are designated as “man” or “Young Man” or the like. Sometimes Mda seems to be keeping a broad, impersonal message on the stage at any cost to probability. In The Road (1982), a white farmer struts his brutality (“I say love your enemy, but shoot him all the same”) before a stranger he at first thinks is a liberal white, but then discovers to be black; even after this, he confesses the sexual nature of his hatred and includes an account of bestiality.

As an American reading Mda, I used to think of the skits American high school students write and perform, so that their parents and friends can learn in one act that drug abuse is dangerous or that popularity isn't everything. But in Africa dramatic didacticism has a far different social resonance, that of modesty and respect, not of shallowness. Mda is talking to his people (or putatively to his people; whites have probably outnumbered blacks in his commercial audiences, merely because of economics) only about their general experience, and only in general terms, but, unlike Americans, Africans would not want him to think and speak for himself.

But what does a Western audience make of it all? Probably not a great deal: some of Mda's plays debuted in America and Europe, but they apparently did not take hold like Athol Fugard's drama, which has been causing great excitement since the seventies—and which did not come to look narrowly topical after apartheid ended. In America, I never heard of Mda, and in Africa his politics have a certain staleness. In South Africa, whites, still the main theater-goers, tend to treat Mda as a phrase (“the black playwright Zakes Mda”) rather than a cultural resource. He seems also to have sacrificed some post-apartheid black establishment patronage by his—in this case, Western-style—political engagement, particularly by his outspokenness about the African National Congress government's tendency to award jobs literally “to the family” and the consequent emigration of unemployed though highly qualified black professionals. While there is plenty of Fugard produced every season, I did not have a chance to see a Mda play during more than three years in the country.

This I really regret. Mda is superb in ritual—almost literal ritual. In We Will Sing for the Fatherland (1979), two derelict veterans of a war of liberation conduct what will turn out to be their own funeral. At the end, they are grudgingly buried in paupers' graves by the bribe-taking policeman who helped cause their death by allowing them to stay overnight in a public park, where they froze. But on the day before, they mourn themselves in detail, in parallel to the mendacious ceremonies the government is preparing for foreign dignitaries, for whose sake the derelicts are supposed to be removed from the park; and later, their ghosts look on and comment as the bodies are buried.

Sub-Saharan African funerals are usually events of vast importance, lasting several days and wiping out bank accounts. Family ghosts, or “ancestors,” are the guiding and judging inhabitants of the spiritual world; fertility and continuity are their mandate. The irony in the case of the bereft veterans is skillfully crafted—especially in their mock-heroic presentation of themselves (still living biologically, but dead in the ways that count in Africa), which parodies funeral “praise-singing”; dead warriors are particularly entitled to praise, particularly from their relatives. In this connection, the play's title looks brilliantly creepy. The nation-state has stolen the praise the men earned from society—but perhaps not?—by helping to create that very nation-state.

Njabulo Ndebele is the best-established South African prose fiction writer; his short stories in the collection Fools (1983) are required reading in many secondary schools. This is not a strange fate for the book, as Ndebele's involvement with education has been long and devoted. His most recent book is Death of a Son (1996), an adult literacy training text anachronistically about the shooting of a little boy by apartheid security forces in a black township. Turning the poor and illiterate into an audience, as Mda also has done, must be in part a matter of African pragmatism. But, like Tolstoy with his peasants' schools and his primer, Mda and Ndebele have an unfakable earnestness. Ndebele's chiefly concerns the young, and it is in depicting their integration into society that he expresses the typical African regard for the group. His emphasis on growing up is in general not about achievement and independence but about fitting in. In “Uncle,” a fatherless boy in a black township finds advice and inspiration in his jazz musician relative. The climactic scene is a street fight in which the opinion of the township—especially of its leading figures—is in the boy's mind at every shift, as the uncle outwits his rival. There are also monologues from the uncle about history and politics, manhood and survival. In the end, the uncle rescues his sister and nephew from a mob, although he fails to help a young thief who is being kicked and beaten. The maternal uncle, a traditionally special figure to an African child, in this depiction totters between the freedoms that success among whites have conferred on him—he can disappear for days at a time on mysterious business, and he has money to spend on a prostitute, whom his nephew encounters by dismaying accident—and the demands and abuses of a community near collapse. But there is little narrative movement in the story, probably because the uncle's status and authority cannot change: they are built in. Westerners (like myself) sometimes find Ndebele callow, reminding them of teenage-authored fiction in which a grown-up advisor is the deus ex machina, or in which the protagonist achieves happiness by doing what is expected. Again, a completely different view of human development is part of the reason for the appreciation gap, which there has been no easy way to mend. Ndebele is all but ignored abroad.

But Ndebele's little boy characters escape from narratives of indoctrination and create some flawless evocations of childhood. In “Uncle,” the unnamed nephew walks home after school with his friends, the value of each of whom is carefully nuanced in his mind according to private criteria. The boys are playing a hypnotic game of kicking objects, but the game suddenly tips them into the terrifying if familiar world of thuggish older boys—their own neighbors and brothers. In “The Test,” Thoba, caught with other boys in a complicated, unvoiced dare, runs through the neighborhood without a shirt in the pouring rain, exhilarated at first but finally humiliated by the matriarchs at the bus stop. The unnamed protagonist in “The Prophetess” spills the “blessed” water he is fetching for his ailing mother; after some soul-searching he fills the bottle at a nearby tap, and is satisfied when the deception works. Fools is full of children's secrets, small dodges that bring a temporary privilege into the hardship and upheaval of the townships. It is almost as if, in his memories of childhood, customarily the time before initiation when a person is half outside society and not quite human (full humanity being conferred by incorporation into the tribe), Ndebele re-lives the freedom of inward revelation, and in this sense the stories can go somewhere. This is particularly true of “The Music of the Violin,” in which Vukani savors his apartheid-promoting homework, the neat puzzle of leading questions that he is good at answering and that give him an excuse to hide in his room from his bullying, social-climbing parents and their guests; but he finally gives up the appearance of conformity because of the sheer pressure placed on him. While the adults are political stick figures, markers of “the co-option of the black middle class” and “what allowed apartheid to go on for so long,” Vukani is real and intriguing. In a book of essays, South African Literature and Culture: The Rediscovery of the Ordinary (1991), Ndebele describes the intimate writing possible somewhere beyond the imperatives of the fight against political oppression. He has achieved this intimacy in large segments of his own work.

It is chiefly the boys of Fools who inspire affection for Ndebele among whites, an affection that has great practical importance. Despite more power for blacks in cultural spheres, it is still mostly whites who are making the decisions—most crucially about required school texts. These decisions have a weight almost unimaginable in the West, where the average pupil owns a number of books and can visit a library to indulge his curiosity and dilute the school authorities' tastes. In South Africa and beyond, in spite of more opportunity for blacks than before, everything comes back to the judgment of the West, and this situation is not likely to change until black Africa has independent political and economic power.

Mda and Ndebele have contributed to the first-generation commercial literature of black Africa, making inescapably large concessions to Western genre, media and sentiment. This may not be such a calamity: it is through Western influence that Mda explores political ambivalence and Ndebele explores inner life. But I do not wish to speak here except in the most cautious and divided way. What do I want from African literature? What is it right to want? The long-term, big question is whether anybody will do it, invent one of those far-reaching forms that are the means for a marginal culture to achieve status and influence: forms like jazz, in music. The deficit in literature is partly due to the problem of language, but only partly.

The post-apartheid generation of authors might be expected to get a clearer view of what in Africa has universal appeal. In some ways, these authors are more cosmopolitan. Their predecessors, Mda and Ndebele among them, had an international education through exile, but constantly directed their attention back home to the “struggle,” so that they were less objective and even had a tendency to emphasize defiantly what they knew outsiders would not like, such as assertion over story-telling. Their insistence on their difference would have been more useful—to themselves and to the next generation—had they not overlooked those features of African literary culture which are better on aesthetic grounds than what the West has now, even according to the West's own standards. Current American and European literature can be tiresome in its neglect of common sense, common tastes, and common use. Most of a century ago, Virginia Woolf defended the rights of the common reader (meaning an old-fashioned seeker after pleasure and enlightenment in books) both explicitly and—this is more important—through her style. Now, during the post-modern era, she must be spinning in her grave. Ordinary Africans—never separated from their own most vital literary traditions—in their communication create a sharp contrast to us. At a conference of rural medical practitioners, a group of nurses gets up on the platform and dances to a chant composed on the spot: “Girl, if you go with many men, / Be wise, use a condom.” African joy in words has not found a means of wide commercial propagation in today's circumstances, however, and remains trapped in obscurity. I am sorry to take up the cliché about the gift of “rhythm,” but it is a cliché substantiated by the strong custom of group singing and dancing. (Swaying, flouncing choirs seem to be the only unkillable institution in all of South African society; “massed” choir events draw audiences of thousands.) Rhythm is linked to performance. In putting aside performance, Western literature has cut off a main food supply. If there is no performance, sound is unimportant. Poetry and rhetoric fall apart; literature, if you can call it that, can be presented any old way—as Ndebele and Mda, unchallenged by present Western standards, present it in their frequently awkward, unattractive phrasing. As their ancestors (or ours either) never would have done, they concentrate on what they say, not on how they say it. They have missed the big party.

It is necessary to be at the same time closer to and farther away from an indigenous culture than these authors are in order to make it communicate. But the older generation of black politicians, if not of writers (Mda and Ndebele are innocent), seems to be keeping younger black authors from occupying that fertile place, by turning polarizations into loyalty tests. There is pressure on young writers to use their home languages—pressure empty of respect for the fact that a professional writer composing in Sotho, for example, not only cannot fulfill his ambitions but will not even eat bread. Most Sotho speakers, even most of those who can read, cannot afford to buy a book. This is only one blockage—among so many that I could not even find a successful young black writer whose work I could quote as an example of rising talent. (There is a great deal of talent around, but it is all underdeveloped, little-known, frustrated talent.) In general, blockages take the form of discouragement from reconciliation with white culture. The elders studied Shakespeare at mission schools (which apartheid later stamped out) and foreign universities, but now are insisting that, for blacks, the study of Shakespeare is oppression.

Sharing and reconciliation are common desires that come up against the common objection that their fulfillment is not possible when one side is much more powerful; it is a corollary of this objection that the imbalance necessarily weights cultural relations, which are ideally about free communication, down to the level of political relations dependent on power. But if this is true, there is never any way out. The artists in the less powerful group can react only after a revolution, through authoritarian impositions, which do nothing to the general situation but turn it around. The developing new South African cultural establishment is not yet powerful enough to effect this program, but its attempts to have been as repellent as such attempts generally are, and as powerfully against the interests of those who have the gift of expression and want to develop it, and of those waiting to hear them. I hope that in the long term interaction gets a chance, with the West on its side having learned to be more fair.

I'm stupid, aren't I? Africans laugh heartily at the idea of the West ever being fair, even when the West is trying. But how am I supposed to conclude this essay?

Well, how would a good Quaker do it? If Quakers were critics, they would probably show the literary version of an attitude Africans would recognize from their tribal cultures: that the aim of judgment should not be reward or punishment, but peace, the reintegration and growth of the community. The goal of criticism would be, according to Quakers—and Africans—not to be right, not to put an author in his place according to his deserts, but to help the community of readers and writers to thrive. In practice, this would mean not a rejection of discrimination, but rather the opposite, the development of a more acute clarity. As a tool in an important process, judgment tends to get more care and respect than as an end in itself; to this, Quaker Meetings for Worship with a Concern for Business bear witness: in disputes, Quakers concentrate on the practical value of the disputed object to individuals—a topic open to precise investigation and thus attractive to consensus—and not on such vague and divisive topics as the ethics and intelligence of opponents. In talking about literature, Quakers concentrate on whether a particular work “speaks to their [individual] conditions,” and why or why not, questions that avoid the validating or rejecting pose of the mainline reader and critic, yet affirm the right to seek personal meaning and to communicate an experience of that seeking. Africans will probably never express their strong impulses toward community-building through the attention to the individual evident in “Quaker process”; but it would be narrow-minded of me to believe that Africans will not work out other ways to build communities, including literary communities, in the modern world.

I come back with confidence to Quaker phrasing: African literature, in many ways, speaks to my condition. This is the model for criticism I arrived at after teaching Classics in South Africa—but also after publishing a number of sarcastic, condescending reviews, which separated me from my own experience as well as from other people. Pray for me now.

Works Cited

Mda, Zakes. She Plays with the Darkness. Florida Hills, South Africa: Vivlia Books, 1995.

———. And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1993.

———. The Plays of Zakes Mda. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1990.

———. When People Play People: Development Communication through Theatre. London: Zed Books, 1983.

———. We Shall Sing for the Fatherland and Other Plays. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1980.

Ndebele, Njabulo. Death of a Son. Cape Town: Johannesburg: Viva Books, 1996.

———. South African Literature and Culture: Rediscovery of the Ordinary. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

———. Fools and Other Stories. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1983.

Margaret Lenta (essay date October 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, where the rights and wrongs of “speaking for,” as opposed to attending to the efforts of the oppressed to speak, have in the past been obscured by the insistence of the authorities that we listen only to members of our own group. In the 1990s, however, memories of the Apartheid era are fading fast, and charges of appropriation are being brought against South Africans who have imagined and represented the “voices” of other groups.

In 1992, the magazine Staffrider published a polemical piece by Desiree Lewis, in which she gives an account of a conference on “Women and Gender” held in January 1991, at the University of Natal. Lewis attacks the tendency, as she sees it, of white academics to establish “restrictively normative boundaries for interpreting ‘women and gender in Southern Africa.’” Black women, she claims, are constructed “primarily as subject matter,” while “a large representation of a very small group of the women of Southern Africa as well as a sizeable contingent of women from abroad were unproblematically speaking for … the majority of women of the region” (16-17). She argues that white women academics, themselves insecure because they only recently have been accredited, have a vested interest in the silence of black women, but that black and white experience differs to the extent that the commentary of a group member on the experience of that group cannot be substituted by that of an outsider.

Lewis observes that whilst black expression of experience is cultivated, black analysis and interpretation is discredited. Her statement belongs discernibly to the early 1990s, when a considerable number of black women had already published autobiographies, but there were few established black women academics in South Africa to offer critiques. Her intention to claim for black women the right to analyze and comment on the texts of other black women marks her as standing close to the end of a long struggle to claim the right to “voice.” The enormous achievement of black women who have already, in the seventies and eighties, written their lives is not her subject. The phrase “speaking for,” used in a pejorative sense, is common throughout the piece.

Dated as it is by reference to the 1991 conference, Lewis no doubt feels that her article requires no qualification related to history. But because I believe that the history of “speaking for” is more complex than she recognized, I shall attempt here to offer an account and an evaluation of the decision to and process of “speaking for” under Apartheid. I shall argue that it was a flawed but essentially honourable literary process, and will show that it was gradually and properly superseded by the subject's speaking for herself. The division between “interpretation and expression” (20) which Lewis deplores is one I shall argue against: the woman who voices her own experience in an autobiography has interpreted it, though the question of whether black academics are available to examine and accredit that analysis is another matter, and one with which I shall not here concern myself—and which I believe was proper for Lewis to take up.

“Speaking for” is the term which is often applied to a mediation in which the intervener has not only the power to record and the access to the publishing process denied to the autobiographical subject, but also where he or she acquires a degree of authority over the text. A “speaking for” which is devoid of the kind of guilt which Lewis implies is a political mediation in circumstances where custom, or the law, denies a particular group a hearing. In the period from 1948 until the 1970s, the use of an intermediary for the oppressed obtained a hearing in South Africa, or at least for that version of their plight which was offered by the intermediary. “Speaking for” has however a number of possibilities of meaning, or rather of emphasis, since the dominance of one meaning in a literary act is unlikely totally to exclude others. “Speaking for” must be representation: that is to say, it must present an individual other than the intermediary as the subject of a text. Representation, on the other hand, is not necessarily “speaking for,” which implies that the intermediary author's text supplies a lack resulting from the subject's inability or failure to offer her own text.

It is likely that some degree of cultural translation will be involved, so that the imagined audience may be offered, by a process of linguistic and/or cultural transformation of what is incomprehensible to it—access to individuals previously unknown. The degree of distortion in this process of cultural translation will vary according to the circumstances of the subject relative to those of the imagined audience, and the degree of coincidence between the purposes of the autobiographical subject and the intermediary. Moreover, when an intermediary converts a spoken and episodic narrative into a text, he or she is likely to embed in that text principles of order and selection which will relate to its new status as a written document as well as to the process of cultural translation for an imagined audience. For the greater part of the period of which I am writing, the 1960s until the present day, that audience, especially for a text published in English, was largely composed of whites.

The two writers whom I shall consider as representative in the 1960s and 1970s—in their different ways—of the intermediaries for the silent are Athol Fugard and Elsa Joubert. Their two texts, Boesman and Lena, first produced in South Africa in 1969, and The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena, published in Afrikaans in 1978 and translated by the author into English in 1980, suggest the changing meaning of, and the limitations on the value of “speaking for.” My choice of texts has been determined by the fact that the former belongs to the most silent period—in a literary sense—of Apartheid, and the latter to the post-Black Consciousness period, immediately before writing by black women began to appear in sufficient volume to render their texts considerable as a body. Neither of the texts is biographical, though several of the black women's texts that I shall discuss in the latter part of this essay are autobiographical. Both offer (with a different emphasis on authenticity of utterance) the fictional figure of a woman speaking in her own voice, and the authors of both have made it clear that their purpose was to supply literary speech to individuals who were forced to remain in a public sense silent.

A text which claims to offer an authentic story of another's life may, if that other is unable or forbidden to tell her own story, be seen as a substitute for an autobiography. Both Fugard's Notebooks and Joubert's published statements about Poppie Nongena show that they wished their work to function as substitute testimony. In Fugard's case, the emphasis nevertheless is on the imaginative process of literary creation; in Joubert's, it is on the authenticity of the record of which, she claims, she is only the mediator.

Unsatisfactory though it may be to compare fiction, dramatic or narrative, with autobiography, it is likely to be a necessary condition of any comparison between “speaking for” another and speaking for oneself. The creation of the voice of the silent other is in itself a fiction-making process; in response (when the response eventually comes) the individual who speaks for herself will be likely to produce autobiography, where the understanding between writer and reader is that the text is offered as authentic record.

In 1965, when he was planning to write Boesman and Lena, Fugard recorded in his Notebooks several encounters with destitute or extremely poor coloured women, most of whom, though their circumstances were obviously extreme, could not, he believed, tell their stories to him. He writes of an old woman on the road from Cradock whom he picks up in a car. She has “been chased off a farm after her husband's death about three days previously” and is walking to another farm, far away. She plans to sleep the night in a stormwater drain. She cries frequently, he writes; when she indicates where the car must stop, he helps her out and puts her bundle on her head. “I suppose she stopped to cry a little and then went on, cried again later and went on, went on and on” (124).

The encounter is followed by others: “Fishing on the banks of the Swartkops River: saw her as we were leaving our spot on the canal wall. Lena … Barefoot … A face shrivelled and distorted by dissipation, resentment, regrets. Bloated stomach” (Notebooks 166). He later recalls the “young Boesman and Lena who passed in front of the car one night when I was waiting at a traffic light. A shared life in the beginning—at the end each other's jailer” (167). He recollects a woman who had worked for his family two years previously, and who “might have been Lena” who feels a “sense of appalling physical and spiritual destitution, of servility. Did the housework without a word or sound, without the slightest flicker of her ‘self’” (166).

In all these cases, Fugard's efforts to “read” the faces and behaviour of the women, who cannot, he believes, convey the experience of their miserable lives, are what strike one. At one stage he refers to the play as Lena and Boesman, and it was presumably iron custom which fixed its title as Boesman and Lena, since it is largely on the predicament of coloured women that he meditates. He has already, in The Blood Knot (first produced in 1962), investigated an area of coloured men's suffering, and in this later period he is intrigued by the deeper silence of coloured women. He is responding to what is later to be called the triple oppression of race, class, and gender.

The literary act which created Lena can be seen as a complex one: there can be no doubt that Fugard saw the play as political mediation, as indeed the laws and social customs of the Apartheid era compelled him to. Related to this intention to mediate was the obligation of translation: to reach the audience which Fugard envisaged, Lena had not only to speak some form of English, which must nevertheless indicate that she spoke a dialect of Afrikaans, but since the models which he cites in the Notebooks were characteristically silent, Fugard had imaginatively to create a view of life and a related pattern of action for her. It is notable that not one of the women whom he mentions shows the aggression, the bawdiness or, obviously, the powers of self-analysis which distinguish Lena. Of the self-analysis, we might say cynically that the man must have a play: Lena must learn something of herself if we are to know her. To say this, however, is to admit that the literary act of “speaking for” may breach, not only the politically-imposed silence of the oppressed, but the elected reticence of the individual, which in the eighties and nineties had been perceived as important areas of the autobiographical selves offered by black South African women. Further, the Lena who says, “Jou moer” to the seagull, who dances the vastrap on the mudflats, who calls herself “a Hotnot meid”—these facets of Lena do not derive from Fugard's recorded observations, but from his knowledge of the stereotype of the “coloured” woman, and ultimately from the tradition which produced Katje Kekkelbek (Chapman 51-2).1 Fugard has used what is generally assumed by whites to be the truth of silent individuals to lead them to what he believes to be a deeper truth. His act is therefore only in a political sense intermediary; its mimetic element is much less than the Notebooks suggest.

He writes of his sense that Boesman and Lena is the third part of a trilogy, which might be called The Family, and of which The Blood Knot and Hello and Goodbye are the other parts. “In biographical terms, myself and Royal; myself and father (or mother); myself and Sheila” (Notebooks 174). This is only one of the reminders of the effects of “speaking for,” that the speaker has his own interests to serve in the speech which he believes to be an articulation of the position of another. R. L. Amato has pointed out that the play, as well as being “a model in little of the specific relationships of modern South African racist and sexist capitalism,” is Every-couple (qtd. in Daymond 209). Amato has further indicated that Fugard was strongly influenced by Camus in his conception of the play; Beckett's is another influence which is evident. None of this is to the discredit of either Fugard or his play, but it indicates that “speaking for” others, a highly moral activity when silence is forced onto sufferers, must always and simultaneously involve speaking for oneself.

By the time The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena appeared at the end of the 1970s, its author felt it necessary to precede the narrative with a notice “To the Reader”:

This novel is based on the actual life story of a black woman living in South Africa today. Only her name, Poppie Rachel Nongena, born Matati, is invented. The facts were related to me not only by Poppie herself, but by members of her immediate family and her extended family or clan, and they cover one family's experience over the past forty years.

(N. pag.)

Joubert describes her own role in the writing of the novel as that of “a tape recorder, a mouthpiece” (Grutter)—a description strangely at odds with the term “novel” which she uses—and after the novel's first publication in Afrikaans, gave an account of her experiments in narrative whilst she was working on the book. The scrupulousness with which she explains the origins of the text and its relationship to the actual words of a black woman, tells its own story of the change in attitudes to the activity of “speaking for,” so long unproblematically seen as empowering to the silenced. There is in Poppie Nongena a narrator who uses the same register of Afrikaans as does Poppie herself, but who must nevertheless function for the reader as a reminder that if this is autobiography, it is mediated and finally another's version of a black woman's life. Boesman and Lena contains no such reminder, no visible, dramatized narrator, and the difference is one related to period, not to genre, since there have been plenty of plays which identified the characters within them as mediated representations. But genre is important, no doubt: a theatre, whatever its nature, serves a comparable function to the “says Poppie” of Joubert's narrator, in that both are reminders of literariness, of the author and the artefact.

Reviewers of Poppie Nongena pointed out that this particular form of Afrikaans had never previously been used in print (Brink; du Plessis), and identified the writing of a text in the language of “the brown Afrikaner” as a valid political act.2 But as early as 1979, there was a voice which dissented from the general sense of the value of Joubert's novel: Ampie Coetzee asked (with a telling confusion of gender) whether it was “possible for a white Afrikaans writer … to write significant revolutionary literature about the struggle of a suppressed people, whom he doesn't really know?” (29).

The answer to this question is one which must alter over time. As I have already suggested in Fugard's case in the sixties, and which I reaffirm with less confidence about Joubert at the end of the seventies, when the alternative for the subject to her case's being imperfectly articulated by another is silence and oblivion, there can be little doubt about the value of the act of “speaking for.” Boesman and Lena and The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena reached not only thousands of South Africans but a large number of residents of other lands.

I must at this point bring up a short passage from a work of the same period as Poppie Nongena which focuses mainly on the plight of whites:

Remember our crippled brothers and sisters who have been disabled deliberately by people who have been trained to disrespect and disregard a black man as a human being? Remember the blood that flowed continuously caused by the wounds inflicted by Vorster's gangsters upon the innocent mass demonstrating peacefully? What about the bodies of our dead colleagues which were dragged into those monstrous and horrible looking riot squad vehicles called hippos? We the students shall continue to shoulder the wagon of liberation irrespective of these racist manoeuvres to delay the inevitable liberation of the Black masses. June the 16th will never be erased in our minds.

(Gordimer, Burger's Daughter 346-47)

The statement by the Soweto Students Council of which this is a part, quoted by Nadine Gordimer in Burger's Daughter, has the function in the novel of showing the extent to which leadership of the revolutionary movement has passed out of the hands of whites into those of blacks. It may well serve at the same time as an indicator of Gordimer's understanding that she must not drown out the literary speech of blacks. She does not claim that whites ought not to represent blacks or vice versa, nor even that they may not speculate on the inner life of blacks: she has indicated in interviews since the publication of Burger's Daughter that she has reached no final answer on this matter. In 1982, she explained, implicitly, the presence in Burger's Daughter of the statement above: “Take the Soweto Riots of 1976, the uprising of young blacks. If I were to sit down tomorrow and write a novel from the point of view of a 15- or 16-year-old boy or girl who lived through that experience, it would be false … I know I couldn't write about those particular children because they experienced the kind of childhood and adolescence I haven't experienced” (Bazin 211). Later, in 1983, she told of “a young black playwright called Moise Maponya” who spoke bitterly of how “whites take our lives and make their books out of them, and these books are published and everybody reads them and nobody wants to publish my play” (Bazin 222). Gordimer's answer to this is that blacks can also write about whites, that they know about whites what whites do not know about themselves. Despite the diffidence she has expressed, she has explored the consciousness of a man of mixed race in her novel My Son's Story (1990), and in several of her short stories, notably “A City of the Dead, A City of the Living” (1984), where the attempt to portray the physical conditions of black life and the way in which they shape mental processes may be compared to that of Poppie Nongena.

There is a sense in which almost all imaginative writing may be regarded as a “speaking for.” Yet the assumption behind the act must be that the silent subject cannot be empowered to speak in her own voice, at least to the audience imagined by the writer. And the value of the mediation must be conditional on the usefulness and acceptability of the cultural translation to the subject “spoken for,” as well as to the imagined audience. It is for this reason that the cultural translation involved in editing the work of a second-language autobiographer can produce a text which is authentic in the sense that Boesman and Lena can never be: the version of the autobiographer's self produced by the editor is one to which the autobiographer has assented; it represents, unless the editor is irresponsible, the version of the autobiographical self desired by the author.

It follows, therefore, that the answer to the question of the adequacy and usefulness of “speaking for” others is one which is likely to change over time, as the subject approaches the possibility of speaking for herself. Brink's and du Plessis's praise for Poppie Nongena was closely related to the fact that the text's version of Afrikaans brought into literature a group of people whose existence readers had formerly been able to deny. Coetzee's challenge to the work came from his knowledge that Black Consciousness had become a political, and therefore a literary force within this country to the extent of rendering questionable any act of “speaking for.” He denied, in fact, the morality in his period of mediated autobiography.

History was on Coetzee's side: the slogan “Black man, you are on your own,” was already acquiring literary, as well as political meaning. Yet although the Black Consciousness movement insisted that blacks must speak for themselves, it also advocated a kind of unity—a unanimity—which assumed that the black man, always referred to as such, and represented by masculine pronouns, could speak for all the people, who were equally, if not identically oppressed. It cannot therefore be claimed that Black Consciousness deliberately provided a sympathetic climate for black women who wish to “speak for” themselves. Black “tradition,” although usually, in the context of urban life in the 1970s and 1980s, a reconstruction rather than a continuously observed set of precedents, has been invoked to insist that women ought to be silent and ancillary to men. The answer of women writers to this has frequently, especially in the case of Ellen Kuzwayo, been to emphasize the traditional authority of the mother, and to point to the fact that the term is used in black society to mean women of the age and group of biological mothers. The debate about the value and limitations of the “mother” image is not one which I wish to enter: Driver, Hunter, and Christensen have pursued it elsewhere.3 The traditional figure of the woman storyteller has also been evoked to legitimize the literary voices of women, and texts like Kuzwayo's Sit Down and Listen (1990) and Magona's Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night (1991) draw on the traditional respect for the narrating voice of a woman.

It is nevertheless significant that the line of black women's writing in this country, from Tlali's Muriel at Metropolitan (1975) down through Kuzwayo and Mashinini to Magona and Mhlope, has only become traceable in the mid to late 1980s, in the wake of the Black Consciousness movement.4 Paradoxically, women authors have been empowered by Black Consciousness, despite its cultural conservatism. Dorothy Driver has commented on it this way:

Feminism and Black Consciousness have each felt the need, then, for a community which will not consciously make them “other” with all the negativities that term implies, and which will let them speak in the absence of the constraining and degrading hand of patriarchy, in one situation, or of white domination on the other.

(Trump 232)

It was perhaps a decade before the principles which insisted on the unique value of an individual's analysing and articulating his own position were successfully applied by black women to their own case. Ellen Kuzwayo's Call Me Woman (1985) owes much of its inspiration to Black Consciousness, in the immediate sense that she advocates the unity of the people; its feminism may be seen as indirectly related to Black Consciousness in the way which Driver has suggested.

It is probably because of this complex relationship to a movement which at once empowered the black and insisted on the ancillary position of the woman that an important and recurrent feature of black women's writing in the eighties is the “severance scene” in which the woman author/narrator/protagonist separates herself from her husband and moves towards autonomy. The woman head of a family where there is no longer a male parent has of course been an observable phenomenon in South Africa for many decades, and from early in urban black writing, an almost untheorized observation has recurred that the position of black women in townships is not ancillary, but central: they are forced into decision-making and authoritative speech. Mphahlele's Down Second Avenue (1973 [1959]), as has been remarked (Manganyi 11-12), presents a family pattern of strong women in control of children, whilst fathers are shadowy or absent. Mphahlele offers at some length a painful scene of marital conflict, in which his parents become permanently estranged (28). From this point his mother and her female relatives take complete responsibility for the children of her marriage (28). Significantly, the conflict between husband and wife ends with Mphahlele's mother speaking in court against his father. Mphahlele records the recurrence of this pattern in the life of his sister.

In the writings of black women of the 1980s (although Kuzwayo and Mashinini especially are reticent about their sufferings at the hands of irresponsible men) a similar scene recurs. Kuzwayo, in Call Me Woman, explains that her first marriage was to some extent motivated by her longing for “a home my mind could turn to” (122), and says that she “sincerely looked forward to a peaceful, loving, family life” (123). The reality was different: “Day by day I realised I was being humiliated and degraded” (124). After six years of unhappiness, and the birth of two children, she leaves in secret for Johannesburg, to save her life, she believes. Autonomy does not come to her at once, nor does she feel guiltless as she moves towards it, and it is clear that she is torn between her attachment to a “traditional” past, in her case the lifestyle of a Christian middle-class black rural family, and her recognition of the necessities of her circumstances. Her behaviour in the negotiations surrounding her divorce shows the conflict in her, still to an extent unresolved in her account written decades later. She asks her (white) lawyer to arrange an out-of-court settlement “for in spite of all the hurt and humiliation I had suffered at his [her husband's] hands, I was determined never to wash my dirty linen in public” (140). The lawyer to whom she has spoken does not turn up on the day of the divorce, but sends a shabby substitute: “I looked at him once, and immediately lost confidence in him. I there and then told myself, ‘Ellen, take charge of this boat, whether you sink or swim’” (140). And she completes the negotiations herself. This crucial occasion of “speaking for” herself is also, and typically, a compromise: she does not contend for custody of her sons, but only for access to them.

Emma Mashinini records, with typical generosity, a similar breakdown of her first marriage: “I know that Roger felt very moody sometimes after work because they may have screamed and shouted at him for some mistake that anyone could have made” (11). But the family was poor, and he spent irresponsibly, and beat his wife. Like Kuzwayo, she uses the phrase “dirty linen” as a euphemism for testimony about marital abuse—she may even derive it from this earlier female text. Mashinini offers a scene which is one of recognition, of a personal emancipation, and of her understanding that the past will not immediately relinquish its hold on her.

I would say to the doctors, “I fell,” or “I tripped myself.” And his mother would be furious, and even when he'd calmed down and wanted me to come back she'd say, “No,” but she didn't mention divorce. That wasn't the language we spoke. For her, the way to get away from him was to stay with her.

But one day we started arguing and I said to my husband, “I'm going to leave you. I'm going home.”

And this man knew I cared about my family, my family unit, and he thought I would never leave him. So he just said, “If you want to go, why don't you?”

I took my bag—no clothes or suitcases—and I left. I walked to the bus stop and took a bus all the way to my father's place, and that's the last time I walked away from my husband.

My children came afterwards. My people had to go and fetch them. It was not possible to do it any other way.


In the next chapter Mashinini discusses her married life as a full-time worker, a wife and the mother of young children: “I would get home about seven—and in winter, you know, that was pretty dark. When I got home I'd start making a fire on my coal stove. … My husband would not be rushing to come home” (15). Since this passage follows the scene in which she leaves her husband, the inference is that their separation was a necessary preliminary to her embarking on an analysis of their relationship. So was the acquisition of a new kind of language: when she says of her sympathetic mother-in-law's inability to contemplate divorce, “That wasn't the language we spoke,” she is remembering a reticence, which implied a refusal of the action that she herself had to take.

Kuzwayo, after writing of her “Lost Birthright, a traditional country life” (Call Me Woman 75), goes on to describe how this lifestyle was lost to her. Apartheid was undoubtedly a force: the farm where she grew up was declared a “black spot,” but the more immediate cause was family breakdown: tradition deserted her, not she it. Her parents had divorced when she was an infant, though significantly, she says nothing about the reasons for their divorce—had she, perhaps, not the language for it in childhood? Did the act of writing in English significantly extend the subject matter available to Kuzwayo and Mashinini?

In the cases of both Kuzwayo and Mashinini, autonomous action—the one as a social worker and the other as a labour leader—preceded the decision to write, but as they commemorate the moment when they emerged from male dominance, the reader knows that they have understood that it was crucial to their whole career as well as to the autobiographical activity in which they are engaged. Both women feel pride in their lives: they intend them to be, as Daymond has shown that they are in fact, indications to other black women of their possibilities (Daymond 32).

Sindiwe Magona's account of her emancipation from patriarchy contains more overt anger than the accounts of Kuzwayo and Mashinini. Her husband, knowing her to be pregnant with their third child, arranges for her to be dismissed from her job—“speaks for her” for the last time—and then leaves for a visit, which, as she says bitterly, lasts more than twenty years, to his parents in Transkei. No money comes via the post, and she is reduced to begging from a distant relative: “That is the day I divorced my husband. In my heart” (175).

Magona's anger and bitterness are increased by the arrival at the nursing home, the day after her son is born, of an enormous bunch of flowers, her husband's only sign of concern for his family. In the next volume of her autobiography, Forced to Grow (1992) she can, having painfully worked her way towards security for her family and autonomy for herself, eventually begin to understand that he was reacting to a terrible sense of powerlessness and inadequacy. But even this understanding is accompanied by the knowledge that his collapse as a father and a husband showed a weakness that she could not afford. Kuzwayo and Mashinini, also, whilst extending compassion to the broken men of their community, recognize that they themselves, under more than equal pressure, have not been broken.

Miriam Tlali's autobiographical fiction, Muriel at Metropolitan (1975), published long before the other black women writers began to write, and written before Black Consciousness became a force in this country, contains no such scene in which male authority is openly repudiated. It is, however, the account of a woman who faces the workaday world alone, without male support, and in this sense contains its author's recognition that women must address the world without intermediaries. In her stories written in the 1980s, however, the scene in which a woman identifies and speaks out against male oppression has figured: “Mm'a-Lithoto” (12-26) and “Masechaba's Erring Child” (Footprints 138-62) both contain such scenes.

The mediator's own sense of the possibilities of his subject now appear to have determined his representation. The conflicts between Boesman and Lena, for example, end in a new stasis, not in any real emergence for Lena from gender-related oppression, and her protests are heard only by her husband, because Fugard, rather than his subject, believes that they are in their context insoluble. Like Cry, the Beloved Country, the text now appears elegiac, rather than revolutionary. And Poppie Nongena is fixed as a victim, forever unable to fight back.

A new note enters writing about women when it becomes writing by and not for, black women. Bessie Head, in praise of Khama the Great, speaks of his reform of the law to improve the condition of women, and she especially values the fact that he allowed them to speak in public:

But what was important was that he first gave women a feeling for the fact that they could talk for themselves. … [Previously if] beaten or ill-treated, the woman approached an uncle and said: “I can endure it no more, do something on my behalf.” It depended on how the man was influenced. But now the woman no longer needed an intermediary. … This was a kind of beginning of independence for women.

(Qtd. in Mackenzie and Clayton 16)

Head has put her finger on the essential limitation of “speaking for.” However great the knowledge and sympathy of the intermediary, he can only offer to the woman whose words are interpreted and relayed the censored experience of speaking with permission. Where the intermediary regards his subject's statements as untrue, inadequate, or unjustified (and this judgement must to an extent be influenced by the intermediary's own experience and interests) there will be additions, corrections, and suppressions. What the intermediary must find most difficult to convey—even unbearable, since it brings into doubt the whole project of “speaking for”—is the distance that must exist between himself and his subject, and the ambivalence, to put it at its best, in the feelings of the silent subject for her intermediary.

This ambivalence will necessarily turn to anger if, as Lewis has alleged, the intermediary attempts, when it is no longer necessary, to continue in that role or to extend it. Her charge that the area of analysis and criticism is one from which black women continue to be excluded implies a legitimizing of a single, exclusively white viewpoint from which judgements may alone be made. Whilst seeing her essay as an extreme claim, I must agree that in 1991-92, there was too little awareness of the absence from criticism of the voices of black South African women critics. In the late 1990s, though, inequalities in education and economic pressures of other kinds are making the process a slow one, but the number of black academics in South Africa is growing.

The intermediary's speech in the 1960s and 1970s on behalf of the black subject was flawed. To discard mediated representations on these grounds, to allow them to drop out of the list of texts in which black women are represented, would however be to leave a gap in South African history as well as in literature. Lena and Poppie in the 1960s and 1970s could only speak to us through intermediaries; the distortions now evident in this mediated speech are also part of the history of textual production in South Africa.


  1. “Kaatje Kekkelbek” is the title of a poem written by the settler poet Andrew Geddes Bain in 1838. In it the eponymous speaker, a woman of mixed race, confesses to, and revels in, her drunkenness, thefts, and promiscuity. She has become the type of the licentious woman of colour.

  2. On June 9, 1993, Connie Mulder of the South African Conservative Party was still denying, on the television programme Agenda, that such an identity as that of “the brown Afrikaner” existed.

  3. See Sharon Christensen, Eva Hunter, and Martin Trump (for Dorothy Driver's comments on the subject).

  4. Though a small number of South African black women's autobiographies already existed at this time, they did not substantially change the picture. It is difficult to argue that Bessie Head's literary success directly inspired black South African women to write, since it took place outside this country, and since she is so strongly associated by most of her readers with Botswana. She herself has claimed, however, of Maru (1971) and A Question of Power (1974) that they derive as much from her experiences in South Africa as from her life in Botswana (Mackenzie and Clayton 26-29). Similarly, because Noni Jabavu wrote from Britain and with the advantage of a high degree of formal education, The Ochre People (1963) though it may well have influenced Kuzwayo in her account of her youth in Call Me Woman is unlikely to have been a strong influence on South African black women. Lauretta Ngcobo, whose work is also missing from this essay, is another case of a woman who wrote and published outside of this country.

Works Cited

Amato, R. L. “Fugard's Confessional Analysis: Master Harold … and the Boys.” Ed. M. J. Daymond, J. U. Jacobs, and Margaret Lenta. Momentum: On Recent South African Writing. Pietermaritzburg: U of Natal P, 1984. 198-214.

Bazin, Nancy Topping, and Marilyn Daliman Seymour. Conversations with Nadine Gordimer. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1990.

Brink, Andre P. “Oor die stil pyn van die ander Afrikaner.” Rapport. 3 Dec. 1978. [Trans. J. U. Jacobs for author. N. pag].

Chapman, Michael, ed. A Century of South African Poetry. Johannesburg: Ad Donker, 1981.

Christensen, Sharon. “Women Write Back: The Literary Responses of Miriam Tlali and Ellen Kuzwayo to Black Consciousness.” MA Thesis, University of Natal, 1992.

Coetzee, Ampie. Review of Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena.Speak 6 (1979): 28-30.

Daymond, M. J. “On Retaining and Recognising Changes in the Genre ‘Autobiography.’” Current Writing 3 (1991): 31-41.

Driver, Dorothy. “M'a-Ngoana O Tsoare Thipa ka Bohaleng—The Child's Mother Grabs the Sharp End of the Knife: Women as Mothers, Women as Writers.” Rendering Things Visible. Ed. Martin Trump. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1990.

Du Plessis, Phil. “Die Passie van 'n swart Afrikanervrou.” Buurman Dec. 1978. [Trans. J. U. Jacobs for author. N. pag].

Fugard, Athol. Boesman and Lena.Three Port Elizabeth Plays. Cape Town: Oxford UP, 1980. 165-222.

———. The Blood Knot.Three Port Elizabeth Plays. Cape Town: Oxford UP, 1980. 1-98.

———. Hello and Goodbye.Three Port Elizabeth Plays. Cape Town: Oxford UP, 1980. 99-164.

———. Notebooks. Johannesburg: Ad Donker, 1983.

Gordimer, Nadine. Burger's Daughter. 1979. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.

———. “A City of the Dead, A City of the Living.” Something Out There. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1984. 9-26.

———. My Son's Story. Claremont: David Philip, 1990.

Grutter, Petra. “Wie Is Poppie?” Sarie. Nov. 1978. [Trans. J. U. Jacobs for author. N. pag].

Head, Bessie. Maru. 1971. London: Heinemann, 1972.

———. A Question of Power. London: Heinemann, 1974.

Hunter, Eva. “A Mother Is Nothing but a Backbone: Women, Tradition and Change in Miriam Tlali's Footprints in the Quag.Current Writing 5.1 (1993): 60-75.

Jabavu, Noni. The Ochre People. London: John Murray, 1963.

Joubert, Elsa. The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena. [Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena (1978)] Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1980.

Kuzwayo, Ellen. Call Me Woman. Johannesburg: Raven, 1985.

———. Sit Down and Listen. Cape Town: David Philip, 1990.

Lewis, Desiree. “The Politics of Feminism in South Africa.” Staffrider 10.3 (1992): 15-34.

Mackenzie, Craig, and Cherry Clayton, eds. Between the Lines: Interviews with Bessie Head, Sheila Roberts, Ellen Kuzwayo and Miriam Tlali. Grahamstown: NELM, 1989.

Magona, Sindiwe. To My Children's Children. Cape Town: David Philip, 1990.

———. Forced to Grow. Cape Town: David Philip, 1992.

Manganyi, N. Chabani. Looking through the Keyhole: Dissenting Essays on Black Experience. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1981.

Mashinini, Emma. Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life. London: The Woman's Press, 1989.

Mphahlele, Ezekiel (Es'kia). Down Second Avenue. 1959. London: Faber, 1973.

Spivak, Gayatri. “The Postcolonial Critic.” The Postcolonial Critic. Ed. Sarah Harasym. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Tlali, Miriam. Muriel at Metropolitan. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1975.

———. Footprints in the Quag. Claremont: David Philip, 1989.

Trump, Martin. Rendering Things Visible. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1990.


Representative Works


Criticism: The Post-Apartheid Novel