Post-apartheid Literature Criticism: The Post-Apartheid Novel - Essay

Susan Vanzanten Gallagher (essay date fall 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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

Ever since Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth (1961) initiated analysis of the dynamics of decolonization, the postcolonial historical period has been recognized as having crucial links with culture. Fanon argues that the transformative process by which a colony becomes a nation is accompanied by, informed by, and perhaps even prompted by significant changes in culture. According to Fanon, this process has three phases: in the first, during the course of a colonial denial and suppression of the indigenous past, the native intellectual assimilates the literary tradition of the colonial country without qualification (writing sonnets, for example); secondly, the native intellectual “decides to remember what he is,” by looking to the past for indigenous forms and abandoned traditions (perhaps turning to tom-tom rhythms); finally, in “the fighting phase,” the nationalistic phase, the poet will “become the mouthpiece of a new reality in action.”1 This final phase is vague in Fanon's account, but it moves beyond an obsession with the past to participation in a present struggle and anticipation of a future as a nation: “We must not therefore be content with delving into the past of a people in order to find coherent elements which will counteract colonialism's attempts to falsify and harm. We must work and fight with the same rhythm as the people to construct the future … A national culture is not a folklore, nor an abstract populism that believes it can discover the people's true nature … A national culture is the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify, and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence” (p. 233, my emphasis). In the inevitable move to establish a new national culture, Fanon warns that attempting to return to a pre-colonial past is not enough. A national culture cannot be purely recuperative or static; it will draw on the past, look forward to the future, and participate in the present. As Fanon defines it, the postcolonial is never a specific moment but an ongoing struggle, a continual emergence, a “zone of occult instability” (p. 227).

Such a zone currently exists in South Africa, where, in the 1990s, a postcolonial period has come into being, as signaled by the demise of apartheid, the first national democratic election, and the 1994 formation of the Government of National Unity headed by President Nelson Mandela. South Africa's status as a postcolonial nation was problematic before 1990, as Annamaria Carusi and Anne McClintock, among others, have pointed out.2 For a minority of the country's population—those of Afrikaner descent—political, linguistic, and cultural freedom from colonial rule was achieved in the early part of the century through the Anglo-Boer Wars and the consolidation of an Afrikaner national identity, particularly following the move into power of the National Party in the 1948 elections. Nonetheless, with the subsequent institution and extension of apartheid, South Africa in many ways remained a colonial country, in that the vast majority of people were denied the rights of citizenship and were exploited economically as sources of cheap labor. For most South Africans, the country did not become postcolonial, politically speaking, until the historic elections of 1994, although numerous postcolonial resistance gestures had been taking place.3 Postcolonial South Africa in the nineties dramatically demonstrates Fanon's “occult instability.” In this uncertain time of national and cultural transition, as Fanon predicted, the relationship of history to the novel has become of increasing importance.

One of the more controversial assertions about history and the novel in South Africa was made by J. M. Coetzee during a 1987 Cape Town book fair talk called “The Novel Today,” in which he protested against the novel's supposed “colonization” by history. Commenting on the effects of apartheid on South African literature, Coetzee's essay suggests many of the key issues that arise in any discussion of history and the novel in South Africa. Speaking before the fall of the apartheid regime, Coetzee refers to “a powerful tendency, perhaps even dominant tendency, to subsume the novel under history, to read novels as what I will loosely call imaginative investigations of real historical forces and real historical circumstances; and conversely, to treat novels that do not perform this investigation of what are deemed to be real historical forces and circumstances as lacking in seriousness.” His analysis, he continues, does not refer to “historical novels,” those that set out to recreate in their own terms a given time in the past; rather, “we are talking about novels that engage with or respond to, or are said to engage with or respond to, the so-called historical present.”4 Such a novel, according to Coetzee, during “times of intense ideological pressure like the present … has only two options: supplementarity or rivalry” (p. 3). A supplementary novel, one that is colonized by the historical present, “aims to provide the reader with vicarious first-hand experience of living in a certain historical time, embodying contending forces in contending characters and filling our experience with a certain density of observation” (p. 3). This novel is documentary, reportorial, providing a camera-eye's view. The novel as rival, however, is one that “operates in terms of its own procedures and issues in its own conclusions, not one that operates in terms of the procedures of history and eventuates in conclusions that are checkable by history … [it] evolves its own paradigms and myths, in the process … perhaps going so far as to show up the mythic status of history” (p. 3). In arguing for storytelling over history, his primary point, Coetzee concludes, is “that history is not reality; that history is a kind of discourse … The categories of history … are a certain construction put upon reality” (p. 4).

Typical of Coetzee's dense thought, this brief statement uses at least three different meanings of history, obliquely and uncannily moving from one meaning to another. Despite some extreme postmodernist interpretations and charges of political evasion, Coetzee is not an anti-realist; he is not denying the existence of real historical forces, events, or people. History as reality, “the Real, the datum of the individual and collective experience of the past” does exist in Coetzee's paradigm.5 For example, Coetzee asks about the goals of novelists: “Are we trying to escape historical reality, or, on the contrary, are we engaging with historical reality in a particular way, a way that may require some explanation and some defence?” (p. 2). He clearly does acknowledge the existence of historical reality. David Attwell explains, “His emphasis on discursiveness is not necessarily an indication of the belief that history does not exist, so much as the conviction that since no discourse has unmediated access to history, any utterance, but the novel in particular, can claim a qualified freedom from it. But while the position Coetzee adopts might not necessarily deny the reality of historical forces, it is decidedly anti-political … Coetzee's polemics engage the politics of historical discourses; in order to preserve their rhetorical force, they are silent about the referents of these discourses. Elsewhere, he makes no apology when refering to the Real.”6 The issue for Coetzee is how to engage with historical reality as a writer, not whether such a reality exists. Coetzee's case against history refers to the discourse of history, a constructed text of what has happened, a myth, a metanarrative, which might be resisted, deconstructed, or even destroyed by a rival discourse of the novel. Much of Coetzee's own fiction operates in this fashion: rivaling historical discourse, revealing its mythic qualities, undercutting its authority, such as in Foe's revisionary account of Robinson Crusoe, Duskland's exposure of South African colonial history, and Age of Iron's deconstruction of both liberation and liberal rhetoric of the eighties. Coetzee's case against history addresses the text's linguistic and discursive strategies more than the contingent nature of reality.7 In his argument, Coetzee uses the term history to refer both to historical reality (events) and to historical discourse (historiography). Novels that represent historical reality can be further divided into those that engage the present moment and those that depict past events, suggesting a third meaning for the term. In South African criticism, as we shall see, this is also a crucial distinction. Although Coetzee appears to propose a simple binary opposition of rivalry between history and the novel, the subtleties of his diction suggest an elaborate complementary and interconnected dance occurring between “history” (in all three senses of the term) and the novel. This essay will examine some of the intricate steps in this dance as they take place in postcolonial South Africa by addressing 1) Coetzee's question of how writers should engage historical reality, 2) South African authors' recent Fanonian turn to the past for subject matter, and 3) recent, new postcolonial readings of old texts.


Coetzee's question about the way that writers should engage historical reality, the kind of technique that South African writers should use, has appeared perennially throughout South African literary history, re-emerging with new vigor in the current setting. During forty years of opposition to apartheid, solidarity criticism—advocating social realism and critiquing texts in terms of their adherence to a materialistic dialectic—was a major force in South African politics and art. Influenced by the Black Consciousness movement and concentrating on chronicling contemporary life in the black townships, neo-Marxists advocated that writing serve as “a cultural weapon” in the service of the political struggle. During Fanon's “fighting phase,” according to this perspective, novels best engage and contest historical reality by employing historical representation; by accurately and minutely detailing contemporary life in material, economic, and ideological depth. “In any protest against particular social conditions,” Lukács posits, “those conditions themselves must have the central place.”8 This kind of “populist realism” characterized the Staffrider school of black writers that emerged in the seventies, who, according to Michael Vaughan, attempted to express collective experiences rather than the liberal novel's “individualist modalities of experience” and dispensed with subtle, elaborate, and detailed characterization.9 Vaughan compares the fiction of populist realist Mtutuzeli Matshoba with that of Coetzee, who, according to Vaughan, usefully problematizes liberal realism in his self-reflexive metafiction but ends up privileging a self-questioning internal consciousness over material forces and historic consciousness.10 “Coetzee thus casts himself in the role of a diagnostician of the malady of Western culture who is unable to propose any cure for this malady … His work partakes of the doom of which he writes,” Vaughan concludes.11

Similar comparisons were drawn between Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer throughout the apartheid era. Gordimer herself in an unflinching review of Life & Times of Michael K in the New York Review of Books critically speaks of Coetzee's fictional “revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions.”12 Although her works have more psychological depth than most of the Staffrider school as she attempts to embody in her characters the social forces of her current historical situation, Gordimer repeatedly has affirmed that “the essential gesture” of the novelist is to be socially responsible by accurately depicting the truth of historical reality. She cites approvingly “the integrity Chekhov demanded: ‘to describe a situation so truthfully … that the reader can no longer evade it.’”13 As Stephen Clingman has traced, Gordimer's own narrative strategy moved from a liberal humanism in the late forties and early fifties to a somewhat uneven post-liberal, radical historicism in the sixties and seventies.14 Novels such as Burger's Daughter (1979) and July's People (1981) function as Coetzee's “supplements” to history: they contain detailed, realistic representations of apartheid's harsh realities as a form of political protest. Gordimer diligently attempted to avoid agitprop and overt didactic judgments, but she believed that “If you write honestly about life in South Africa, apartheid damns itself.”15

Throughout the apartheid era, however, a few voices questioned the prescribed narrative (and political) strategy. Lewis Nkosi was one of the first critics to contest the aesthetics of social realism, claiming in 1967 that black fiction was filled with “journalistic fact parading outrageously as imaginative literature” and lacked artistic integrity.16 Njabulo Ndebele picked up Nkosi's argument in 1984 in a book review that subsequently became a frequently discussed critical statement, “Turkish Tales and Some Thoughts on South African Fiction.” Much like Nkosi, Ndebele argued that South African writers had become so concerned with political relevance that they had neglected “the demands of the artistic medium.”17 Too many African writers, he said, are obsessed solely with imparting information, with exposing the horrors of social evil, and so resort to “an art of anticipated surfaces,” an easy stereotyping of good and evil, rather than an art of process, in either character development or social change. Surface realism, Ndebele continues, does not result in the reader's consciousness being transformed, for it only produces recognition: “Recognition does not necessarily lead to transformation: it simply confirms. Beyond that confirmation, it may even reinforce the frustration produced by the reader's now further consolidated perception of an overwhelmingly negative social reality” (p. 27). Ndebele's position accords with Coetzee's: both complain that the oppressive historical reality, rendered in “an exact and pungent description of the atrocities that make up the daily circumstances of [the writers'] lives,”18 was dominating the literary landscape to such an extent that the novel appeared only as a supplement.

The ongoing debate over the novel's employment of documentary social realism as a means of commenting on and affecting historical reality came to a climax in the nineties, with the publication of a paper by Albie Sachs, a white ANC lawyer and autobiographer who had lived in exile for many years. In 1989, Sachs wrote “Preparing Ourselves for Freedom” for an in-house ANC discussion in Lusaka, and the essay was later published in the Johannesburg Weekly Mail in February 1990 on the very same day that F. W. de Klerk stood up in Parliament and shocked the world by announcing the beginning of the end of apartheid. The tumultuous response to this brief essay was unprecedented, revealing the volatile interconnections between culture and politics during the decolonization process that Fanon outlined. As one observer commented, “Albie Sachs's paper … evoked a response unrivaled in our recent cultural history. It was energetically debated at cultural locals, COSAW meetings, academic seminars, and even by Members of Parliament.”19 Sachs returned to South Africa later in 1990 to participate in a series of public forums on the essay. A South African poet notes, “The responses drew a wide range of cultural organisations into an extensive, self-critical and reflective debate. It was also a freer and more public airing of positions and differences than had been heard for decades.”20 Within a year of the essay's publication, two books were produced that chronicled and continued the debate. Spring Is Rebellious (1990), edited by Ingrid de Kok and Karen Press, includes Sachs's original paper, twenty-two responses that appeared in the first four months after the essay's initial publication, and an “Afterword” with Sachs's response to the controversy he had generated. The second book, Exchanges: South African Writing in Transition (1991), edited by Duncan Brown and Bruno van Dyk, contains a collection of interviews with South African writers, cultural workers, and academics about the issues raised in Sachs's paper. References to the Albie Sachs debate soon spread to international forums, appearing in such American publications as PMLA, diacritics, and Transition.

This critical commotion was caused by Sachs's suggestion that South Africans abandon a long cherished belief: ANC members, he began, “should be banned from saying that culture is a weapon of struggle.”21 Sachs makes such a radical proposal, he says, because this approach has resulted in a diminished art. Themes are narrow, characters are stereotyped, and ambiguity and contradiction are missing. “Instead of getting real criticism,” Sachs continues, “we get solidarity criticism. Our artists are not pushed to improve the quality of their work, it is enough that it be politically correct” (p. 20). Literature has become a slave of the dialectic of apartheid: “if you look at most of our art and literature you would think we were living in the greyest and most sombre of all worlds, completely shut in by apartheid. It is as though our rulers stalk every page and haunt every picture; everything is obsessed by the oppressors and the trauma they have imposed, nothing is about us and the new consciousness we are developing” (p. 21). Trapped in a sterile rendition of the past and present, artists were not looking forward to the future.

Although he was writing before the fall of apartheid, Sachs already was anticipating a changed historical reality: “What we have to ask ourselves now,” Sachs says, “is whether we have an artistic and cultural vision that corresponds to this current phase in which a new South African nation is emerging?” (p. 19). As the new South Africa struggles “to give birth to itself,” what role should culture play? Sachs does not want South African artists and writers to become trapped in either the present or the past; he is urging that literature—which he admits played an important role in the liberation struggle—take on a new, but vital, role in the postcolonial process of rebuilding. In the movement from “the fighting phase” to the construction phase, the identity of a new nation will be built through culture, as Fanon projected. Consequently, rather than functioning as a weapon, literature should become a tool: culture should play a significant role in “building national unity and encouraging the development of a common patriotism, while fully recognising the linguistic and cultural diversity of the country” (p. 24). This last phrase demonstrates Sachs's careful attempt to avoid ethno-nationalism and to build a nation that supports ethnic variety. The example of the Balkans looms large before every South African. He insists, “this is not to call for a homogenised South Africa made up of identikit citizens. The objective is not to create a model culture into which everyone has to assimilate, but to acknowledge and take pride in the cultural variety of our people” (p. 24).

The vociferous debate over Sachs's paper, which in many ways did nothing more than repeat an argument that had been made before,22 dramatically reveals Fanon's “occult instability” at work in the process of nation building. As Sachs himself realizes, “Preparing Ourselves for Freedom” represents a significant change in his own position; he describes himself as “someone who has for many years been arguing precisely that art should be seen as an instrument of struggle” (p. 20). Some respondents felt that Sachs was repudiating his former position, admitting in retrospect that critics like Nkosi had always been correct, but Brenda Cooper argues, “he is by no means returning, penitent and reformed, as some would have us believe to the old and deceptive bourgeois fold.”23 Cooper is correct: despite a degree of mea culpa in his tone, Sachs is not simply adopting a position previously endorsed by less revolutionary critics. Rather, he is responding to (or rather anticipating with some prescience) a new situation, “pointing to a new space.”24 Sachs appears to hold that one's view of culture will always be under re-formation as historical reality changes: “A conversa continua—may the debate continue,” he says in the final sentence of Spring Is Rebellious (p. 148).


(The entire section is 8834 words.)

Phaswane Mpe (essay date 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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

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

(The entire section is 6993 words.)

Michiel Heyns (essay date spring 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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

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

(The entire section is 9903 words.)

Grant Farred (essay date spring 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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

What good can come of grief?

—Homer, The Odyssey

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

(The entire section is 9439 words.)

Sandra Chait (essay date summer 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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

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

(The entire section is 6213 words.)