Post-apartheid Literature

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Susan Vanzanten Gallagher (essay date fall 1997)

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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...

(This entire section contains 8834 words.)

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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).

After the passage of only a few years, Sachs's manifesto no longer looks as controversial; in a 1993 interview, South African poet Mongane Wally Serote commented that the furor surrounding Sachs's pronouncements had “petered out” since “there are other issues on the table.”25 But history has proven Sachs correct in at least one respect: as the historical reality of South Africa changed, so did the functions of literature. Sachs still believes that culture has an important role to play in history, but that role has changed from resistance to reconstruction, from protest to construction, from anger to reconciliation. The documentary tendencies of earlier protest literature now appear in new cultural forms—particularly in television docu-drama and in the rapid establishment of a number of new museums chronicling the apartheid era, such as the Kwa Muhle Museum in Durban (explaining the Durban Pass System, which was used as a model for the national pass system that developed); the Police Museum in Pretoria (displaying instruments of torture used by police against detainees and prisoners), and the District Six Museum in Cape Town (depicting the once-thriving multicultural community in the heart of Cape Town that was bulldozed as part of the resettlement process).26 The literary spotlight, on the other hand, now has shifted to a concern with what Ndebele calls “the ordinary.”

In an influential essay called “The Rediscovery of the Ordinary,” Ndebele contrasts the spectacular with the ordinary. Black South African literature, he claims, has long been dominated by the former: “The spectacular documents; it indicts implicitly; it is demonstrative, preferring exteriority to interiority … It is the literature of the powerless identifying the key factor responsible for their powerlessness.”27 In “the rediscovery of the ordinary,” on the other hand, authors “break down the barriers of the obvious in order to reveal new possibilities of understanding and action”; they go beyond documentation to offer methods for oppression's “redemptive transformation” (pp. 50, 49); they present the reader with “the self in confrontation with itself,” undergoing change, learning to grow (p. 53). Ndebele's call for a move from exteriority to interiority is reminiscent of the evolution of the nineteenth-century British novel from the social realism of a Dickens or a Gaskell to the twentieth-century psychological realism of a Joyce or a Woolf. As historical reality changes, the means by which the writer engages it also changes. While Coetzee argues for other discursive strategies, especially those offered by metafictional techniques, as valid means of expanding the writer's repertoire for engaging with historical reality, Ndebele proposes a wider consideration of what the real might consist: embracing both the ordinary and the spectacular, oppression and competence, protest and celebration.

Such debates over realism, modernism, and metafiction will no doubt continue in postcolonial South Africa, but the general critical trend, which follows a similar political movement, is toward granting novelists greater latitude and freedom in choosing rhetorical and discursive strategies with which to engage the historical reality of the post-apartheid era. South Africa is presently experiencing the postcolonial drive to develop a national culture that Fanon chronicles so well. In South Africa's “fighting phase,” the call to build a national culture was an integral part of the political program of most wings of the liberation movement, including the ANC (African National Congress), the PAC (Pan African Congress), and the UDF (United Democratic Front). But currently, despite the danger inherent in the process of nation-building of creating a new form of imperialism through ethno-nationalism, South African writers, politicians, and media commentators enthusiastically speak in nationalistic rhetoric. As Karen Press notes, “The idea of creating a national culture must be seen as a political need, arising from a desire on the part of a government or the leadership of a liberation movement, to create an independent, unitary nation out of a diverse range of social groups that were previously seen (and saw themselves) as separate political entities.”28 Such a desire is manifested, for example, in the theme of the 1994 ANC national conference planning political strategies for the next three years: “From Resistance to Reconstruction and Nation Building.” Sachs's “Preparing Ourselves for Freedom,” in retrospect, marks the inauguration of this postcolonial nation-building impetus.


Because of its unique history, South Africa has not faced in its nation-building process the problem of what Appiah calls “nativism,” an attempt to return to an idealized, pre-colonial, indigenous culture, although certain impulses in the Inkatha movement are nods in that direction.29 Press points out at least two reasons for this historical divergence: first, South African industrialization is so extensive that it is not possible to project a revival of a peasant economy and culture; second, “any attempt to retrieve a typically African set of cultural practices in South Africa would be highly problematic, given the fact that the ruling National Party has built the entire structure of the apartheid system with the help of precisely such a retrieval.”30 South Africans realize the inevitability of their involvement in a modern, global world economy and culture. Even though the country is currently hearing many calls for “Africanization,” there are few attempts to return to a pre-modern past. Nonetheless, a new interest in history and historical fiction has emerged as one of the marks of the new South Africa.

Under apartheid and with the understanding of literature as a tool of the struggle, most fiction concerned itself with self-consciously representing, in vivid sensory (if not psychological) detail, the current moment. During the forty years that apartheid dominated South African life, writers often could not afford either the time or energy to examine the past. Speaking in 1979 about the prevalence of social realism and protest literature, Nkosi lamented the fact that “in South Africa the pressure of the future is so enormous that looking backwards seems a luxury.”31 The backward glance in South Africa is further hampered by the fact that colonialism frequently erases the traces of its own violence in its construction of historical discourse. A colonial culture, South African novelist Dan Jacobson says in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm, “is one which has no memory,” which represses the truth of its violent history.32 South African colonial historiography played a crucial role in constructing a particular kind of past for both the indigenous people and the first European visitors. In the process of conquest, according to Fanon, “Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding people in its grip and emptying the native's brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it.”33 Historical myths of the empty land, the innocent and childlike Bushman, the irrationally violent Zulu, the Afrikaner calling as a Chosen People have all dominated South African historical discourse. Postcolonialism involves a new writing of history, a recuperation of the past in new terms. Post-apartheid literature has begun this backwards glance, the recovery of memory necessary for the formation of a truly postcolonial society, the rivaling of historical discourse for which Coetzee called, without resorting to a native romanticism.

One of the most frequently commented-on phenomena of post-1990 South Africa literature is the new fictional interest in the past. In 1992, expatriate novelist Christopher Hope traveled across his homeland on behalf of the BBC, asking South African writers what kind of future they anticipated for “literary life after apartheid.” Hope notes the “growing desire for … tales and fictions from the badlands and backwaters of South African history.”34 E. Pereira, the co-editor of a forthcoming new edition of the Companion to South African English Literature, records “an upsurge of autobiographical writing,” “radical rewriting of history,” and “a revival of interest in the travel journals, letters, and memoirs of explorers, hunters and missionaries.”35 In commenting on the popularity of the historical novel in post-apartheid writing, André Brink provides a historical perspective: “In older South African literature, whether written by black or white authors, in English or in Afrikaans, 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.”36 The recent turn to history is not taking place out of a desire to “go native” and embrace an idealized tribal past. Rather, it is a recuperation that, as Fanon suggests, works in tandem with the present historical reality to form a future. Philosopher Johan Degenaar proposes that post-apartheid South African writing should include stories with historical resonance in order to work towards the future: “Events in the past have to be interpreted in an imaginative way. Storytelling is the most appropriate way of doing this. Stories about the past enable us to create and share a common future. They contribute to the production and consumption of an informed culture, for it is through the art of storytelling that a culture is enriched with intertextual significance.” In the postcolonial moment, as a new nation struggles to define itself, “the unfinished business of our collective history” needs to be addressed.37 As South Africa sheds the last political vestiges of colonialism and works to eliminate other social and economic legacies of colonialism, South African writers are practicing the backward glance. Representing an important stage in Fanon's evolution of a national consciousness, the renewed interest in historical writing is providing the documentation and narratives that dismantle and counter the myths propagated by official Afrikaner historical discourse, a strategy that Coetzee had begun some twenty years earlier.

In the backwards glance, South Africans are also insisting that the evils of the past not be suppressed and are decrying the readiness with which some of those who had been responsible for apartheid are forgetting their own culpability. Speaking at the “New Nation Writers Conference” in 1991, Ndebele asserted, “we have to cry out when the past is being deliberately forgotten in order to ensure that what was gained by it can now be enjoyed without compunction. It is crucial at this point that the past be seen as a legitimate point of departure for talking about the challenges of the present and the future. The past, no matter how horrible it has been, can redeem us. It can be the moral foundation on which to build the pillars of the future.”38 The riveting storytelling that occurred at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings on human rights abuses throughout 1996 provides one such ritual means of remembering the past; more formal remembrances through storytelling are appearing in novels and short fiction of the nineties.

Although Nadine Gordimer's first post-apartheid novel, None to Accompany Me (1994), continued to provide a realistic examination of a current situation in its account of life in post-apartheid South Africa, it is striking how many of the recent publications of some of the best known South African writers have been historical in nature. Coetzee's first post-apartheid novel, The Master of Petersburg (1994), is set in the nineteenth-century revolutionary turmoil of Dostoevsky's Russia; his next novel, Boyhood, scheduled to be published in the fall of 1996, is a wryly humorous autobiographical account of growing up in the Karoo that participates in the current nostalgia for the fifties in South Africa. Poet Chris van Wyk's first novel, The Year of the Tapeworm (1996), creates an alternative history for the early seventies, but also evokes the fifties and the Drum era in its satirical account of a black journalist who works for Black World, hangs out in shebeens, and reports on gangster violence. André Brink, who throughout his writing career had moved back and forth between fiction set in the present and historical fiction, took on a much more self-reflexive historicism in The First Life of Adamaster (1993), which attempts to rebut, from the “inside,” two key stories in African historiography: Camões's account of Europe's encounter with Africa personified as a black giant-monster, and the common European myth of black African sexual potency. Brink's On the Contrary (also published in 1993) returns to the seventeenth century for another reconsideration of South African colonial history, concentrating not so much on providing an alternative “inside” account, a revision of history, as on revealing the unreliability of historical documentation of any kind. Ostensibly narrated by one Estienne Barbier, a historical figure, the novel repeatedly gives varying and conflicting accounts of certain events. Barber has served as the official scribe during an exploration of the interior, but although he is careful to omit certain “less delicate” details from the record, he eventually falls into disfavor with the commanding Lieutenant, who turns the Journal over to one Otto Mentzel to be revised. “He can copy your early pages to cover our progress thus far, correcting whatever mistakes he encounters,” the Lieutenant tells Barber, “We shall submit to the Governor a narrative both correct and gratifying. Every page in this one, as he progresses, he shall dispose of.”39 This may be how the documents upon which we rely for our “true” accounts of history are constructed, according to Brink.

The various relationships of history and the novel that we have been discussing come together in a particularly exemplary fashion in one of the most controversial, highly praised, and frequently discussed recent novels from South Africa, Mark Behr's The Smell of Apples (published as Die reuk van apples in Afrikaans in 1993, in English in 1995). Immediately heralded as that oxymoronic entity in the publishing world—a new classic—The Smell of Apples won the South African Academy of Arts and Science's prestigious Eugene Marais Prize, the CNA Literary Debut Prize, the M-Net award for fiction, and the Betty Trask Award (presented annually to the best first novel published in England). Unquestionably, a great deal of the novel's notoriety stemmed from the fact that it included one of the first straightforward South African accounts of homosexuality, long a forbidden topic under the strict censorship laws, and was written by an openly gay author. What might have been presented as spectacular in Ndebele's terms, though, is rendered ordinary through the novel's point-of-view: it is narrated by an eleven-year-old Afrikaner boy named Marnus Erasmus. Marnus is undergoing the usual trials and tribulations of growing up—sibling rivalry, making friends, academic challenges. But his home and life are imbued with Afrikaner nationalism: he attends Voortrekkers every Friday afternoon, eats bobotie and rice with raisins, attends a Dutch Reformed Church, and idolizes his father, “the youngest major-general ever in the history of the South African Defence Force” (p. 14). In its winningly naive perspective and adolescent voice (reminiscent of Roddy Doyle's stunning accomplishment in Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha), and its unprecedented depiction of homosexuality, The Smell of Apples is more daringly realistic than many South African novels had been for some time.

Marnus's narrative also re-writes Afrikaner patriarchal discourse by evoking and subtly undermining the standard mythology supporting apartheid. In the first chapter, in what initially appears to be a typically rambling boyish story, Marnus unwittingly uncovers two equally self-serving but contradictory histories used to justify the Afrikaner occupation of the Southern Cape:

One afternoon we went into the National Museum to look at all the exhibitions. There's even a permanent exhibition of stuffed-up Bushmen. They're not real Bushmen and they're actually made of plastic, but they look like they're alive. Frikkie says his oupagrootjie used to get hunters to hunt the Bushmen on his farm in the Cedarberg. The hunters from Cape Town could come and they had to pay twenty pounds for each Bushman they shot … When we learned about the Bushmen in history class, Frikkie told the story of his oupagrootjie. Miss Engelbrecht said it wasn't true. It wasn't the Boers that killed off all the Bushmen, it was the Xhosas. She said the Xhosas are a terrible nation and that it was them that used to rob and terrorise the farmers on the Eastern frontier, long before the Zulus in Natal so cruelly murdered Boer women and little children.40

Tales of the great white hunter have been replaced by tales of the savage native, but both mythologies are used to dehumanize South Africa's indigenous people and to vindicate the European invasion. Lying behind Marnus's childish fascination with the “stuffed-up Bushmen” is a more mature perspective on European interactions with the San people, who were transformed from objects of the hunter's gaze into anthropological oddities on public display. The treatment of the so-called “Bushmen” both in history and by history is one of many controversial historical concerns emerging in South Africa in the nineties. In 1996, the National Gallery, only a short garden's walk away from the National Museum, hosted a disturbing exhibition called “Miscast” that exposed the systematic dehumanization and extermination of the San. “Miscast” included, among other items, the actual plaster molds formed on the living bodies of San people that were used to create the plastic replicas still on display in the National Museum. On another wall, a placard explained that the British Museum refused to loan out two of the “Bushmen trophy heads” in its permanent collection, apparently succumbing to a sudden concern for the lack of respect to a human being. The treatment of the San is only one of many ways in which Behr's novel participates in a reconsideration of historical discourse. Its Huckleberry-Finnesque perspective also extends to the political and social turmoil of the seventies, and in the unmasking of General Erasmus's moral, social, and political rigidity as a self-preserving cover for his own homosexual urges, Behr damns what he sees as the moral hypocrisy and sexual repression of Afrikaner ideology. As a coming-of-age novel, The Smell of Apples depicts Marnus's growing awareness of his family's self-delusions and corruption, but his initiation also exemplifies all Afrikaners' recent reconsideration of their history and heritage.

Finally, as many other novels of the nineties, The Smell of Apples is a historical novel set in two key crises of the South African past. The narrative proper, told by an eleven-year-old Marnus in the early seventies, is interspersed with italicized passages given in the cynical voice of his twenty-six-year-old self, fighting a hopeless and absurd war in Angola. Behr thus examines both the domestic oppression that eventually led to the Soweto uprising and, for white males of his generation, the emotionally wrought history of South Africa's Vietnam, the armed struggle against Angola into which the government poured vast resources and sacrificed many (conscripted) lives, while publicly lying about their incursions into neighboring territories. The dust, mayhem, terror, fragmentation, and absurdities of the Angolan passages embody a disillusionment that is familiar to American readers of the current spate of Vietnam novels. The Angolan war novel is one of many new historical genres that we can continue to expect from South African postcolonial writing.


As historical discourse and reality change, so do our readings of works from a previous era. The texts produced during apartheid have a different meaning for and are being understood in fresh ways by post-apartheid readers. For instance, apocalyptic novels, one popular genre of South African fiction in the seventies and eighties, take on entirely new resonances now that the long-expected period of political liberation has actually happened. As Nick Visser points out, the realities under which South Africans lived may not have changed dramatically, but the “possibilities under which people lived … had undergone an epochal shift.” Consequently the novels of what Visser calls “future projection” have also been modified, since “the future they project is no longer experienced as the future which South Africans confront.”41 In both July's People (1981) and A Sport of Nature (1987), Gordimer depicts the future destruction of apartheid as occurring through a brutal and chaotic revolution. Similarly, Karel Schoeman's Promised Land (1978) describes the misfortunes of a group of rural Afrikaners after a violent revolution. Coetzee's account of the end of South Africa is more obliquely rendered in Life & Times of Michael K (1983), but he also forecasts that change will occur in South Africa only at the point of a gun, as the novel's epitaph makes clear (“War is the father of all and king of all”). What do we make of such novels now that Mandela has been released, democratic elections have occurred, and the African National Congress is in political control of South Africa? Visser notes that for readers of the nineties, such texts are now “historically framed, no longer speaking with the same immediacy.”42 Rather than projecting a world to come, they now depict the anticipations and beliefs of a world that has passed.

Similar changes have occurred in our reading of novels of social realism. What had provided documentation in order to stir up outrage about the present now recounts a time past. Es'kia Mphahlele's Down Second Avenue (1959), for example, an autobiographical account structured much as a novel,43 chronicles in sharp detail the brutality of apartheid, the harsh physical realities of life in an urban location, and the oppressive conditions that eventually drove Mphahlele into exile. As documentary testimony, Down Second Avenue viscerally depicts location life as an urban jungle of malnutrition, squalid poverty, crowded communal water taps, and raw sewage in the streets. The random violence of tsotsis and police breeds terror; the humiliation of pass violations breeds shame. The narrative teems with the sights, smells, and sounds of South African life, chronicling the exact names of people, streets, and shops. Written while the banned Mphahlele was in exile in Nigeria, Down Second Avenue for many years informed American, European, and Asian readers about apartheid life, primarily serving as a testimonial to the world community. In this context, the novel was extremely popular; excerpts were frequently anthologized, and the entire book was translated into German, Hungarian, Czech, Serbo-Croat, Bulgarian, French, Swedish, and Japanese.44

Today, Down Second Avenue leads a new life. Along with many other narratives from the apartheid era, it has been transformed from a work of protest to a work of nostalgia. These novels and stories now teach young, contemporary South Africans about aspects of the past that they might not know—the pastoral life of a rural village before enforced relocations, the thriving vitality of the once-integrated urban centers such as Sophiatown, Alexandra, and District 6, before the bulldozers came in. Some South African teachers have even found themselves recently explaining the pass system to their black African students in an attempt to make sense of a work of literature. Originally read as a literature of protest, these works are now read as a literature of affirmation. For Down Second Avenue, along with its vivid depiction of the physical and social constraints of apartheid, also captures and celebrates the vitality of the location, the shared joys and sorrows of the people on Second Avenue. Its interior account of its protagonist's growth and development is often “ordinary,” in Ndebele's terms. In the new South Africa, Down Second Avenue is a frequently taught text; according to a survey conducted by Bernth Lindfors in 1992, it was on the prescribed reading list at ten different South African universities (and this was before the current push to “Africanize” the curriculum).45 What originally provided testimony about current events to the world and a call for change has become history, a chronicle of the past, for both the world and for South Africans.

Another significant work experiencing a renaissance is Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, first published in 1948 and often heralded as the first anti-apartheid South African novel. Enthusiastically received by many black South Africans in the fifties, Cry, the Beloved Country's critical stock fell throughout the seventies and the eighties with the advent of the Black Consciousness movement. Noted authors such as Mphahlele, Nkosi, and Dennis Brutus derided the novel's stereotyped African characters, naive political stance, and apparent paternalism. Mphahlele, for example, complained that “Kumalo … remains the same suffering, Christlike, childlike character from beginning to end. He is always trembling with humility.”46 Within the perspective of a political struggle that had grown increasingly violent, others wondered if Paton's liberalism provided any kind of solution to the problems of apartheid.47 As was vividly demonstrated in the apocalyptic novels, most South Africans believed that political change would occur only after a bloody civil war. Instead, a route of tenuous reconciliation was carefully negotiated, in large part because of Nelson Mandela. In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela recalls that even when the ANC established Umkhonto weSizwe (the MK), they deliberately rejected strategies of guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and open revolution in favor of sabotage for purposes of reconciliation: “because it did not involve loss of life it offered the best hope for reconciliation among the races afterward. We did not want to start a blood feud between white and black. Animosity between Afrikaner and Englishman was still sharp fifty years after the Anglo-Boer War; what would race relations be like between white and black if we provoked a civil war?”48 Mandela's longstanding commitment to reconciliation and political pragmatism has resulted in a post-liberation South Africa that can only be termed liberal, in a political sense.

In postcolonial South Africa, with a universal franchise, a democratically elected government, and an attempt at national rapprochement underway in the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, many of Paton's ideals appear to have been realized. One of the novel's most famous pronouncements takes on an entirely new resonance in the light of recent history—the Anglican pastor Msimangu predicts, “I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it.”49 The striking image broadcast around the world of Mandela and de Klerk standing side-by-side and shaking hands symbolizes such interracial cooperation, despite the fact that it is hard not to suspect the National Party leader of still desiring and striving after power. Nonetheless, the spirit of the times is such that a new appreciation for and reading of the novel is taking place, as is epitomized by the fact that the widely heralded first international movie production in the new South Africa was Anant Singh's remake of Cry, the Beloved Country in 1995. At the United States premiere in October, guest-of-honor Nelson Mandela praised the film's evocation of “such strong emotions about the terrible past” and declared it “a monument to the future.”50 President Mandela's enthusiastic support for the new film signals both a pragmatic interest in promoting the South African film industry and a political embrace of the film's ideology. Justin Pearce, writing in the Mail & Guardian notes, “Our own dear Y-fronted South African flag appears at the bottom of the ethno-abstract poster for Cry, the Beloved Country. This may seem odd considering that the film is set nearly 50 years before that flag was hoisted over the Union Buildings, but the message is clear enough: this is a film about the new South Africa. Or at least this is a film that points forward to the new South Africa.”51 Long-time Paton scholar Colin Gardner says, “in my judgement, Cry, the Beloved Country has become a far more generally acceptable and in several ways a distinctly inspiring text because it can now be largely stripped of the wrong sorts of political assumption and expectation.” In arguing for the new relevance of Paton's work Gardner continues, “Understanding and reconciliation and mutual recognition of the other's human feelings … have become central to the idea of a newly constituted South Africa.”52 From a daring protest against an ideology in its infancy to an outdated relic in its middle age, Cry, the Beloved Country has now become a postmodern symbol of the postcolonial South Africa.53


  1. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1963), pp. 222, 228. Subsequent references to this text will be given parenthetically.

  2. Annamaria Carusi, “Post, Post and Post, Or, Where is South African Literature in All This?” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 20.4 (1989): 79-95; Anne McClintock, “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term ‘Post-Colonialism,’” Social Text 31/32 (1992): 84-98.

  3. I am defining postcolonial as that historical period in which a people who were once colonized (politically, economically, and culturally) have achieved political independence and are attempting to establish a new national identity. The difficulties with the term have been frequently discussed; for example, see McClintock, or Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge, “What is post(-)colonialism?” Textual Practice 5 (1991): 399-414. Some have called post-1994 South Africa neocolonial, since many economic, educational, and social inequities remain to be solved.

  4. J. M. Coetzee, “The Novel Today,” Upstream 6.1 (1988): 2. Subsequent references to this essay will be noted parenthetically in the text.

  5. David Attwell, “The Problem of History in the Fiction of J. M. Coetzee,” in Rendering Things Visible: Essays on South African Literary Culture, ed. Martin Trump (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1990), p. 128.

  6. Attwell, p. 103, his emphasis.

  7. For readings along these lines, see David Attwell, J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing (Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press, 1993) and Susan VanZanten Gallagher, A Story of South Africa: J. M. Coetzee's Fiction in Context (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991).

  8. Georg Lukács, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, trans. John and Necke Mander (London: Merlin, 1963), p. 29.

  9. Michael Vaughan, “Literature and Politics: Currents in South African Writing in the Seventies,” Journal of Southern African Studies 9.1 (1982): 131.

  10. Vaughan, p. 137.

  11. Vaughan, p. 134.

  12. Nadine Gordimer, “The Idea of Gardening,” New York Review of Books, 2 Feb. 1984: 6.

  13. Nadine Gordimer, The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places, ed. Stephen Clingman (New York: Knopf, 1988), p. 299.

  14. Stephen Clingman, The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside (London: Allen and Unwin, 1986).

  15. Nadine Gordimer, “Interview,” by Pat Schwartz, in New South African Writing (Hillbrow: Lorton Publications, 1977), p. 81.

  16. Lewis Nkosi, “Fiction by Black South Africans,” in Introduction to African Literature, ed. Ulli Beier (London: Longman, 1967), p. 222.

  17. Njabulo S. Ndebele, Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Essays on South African Literature and Culture (Johannesburg: COSAW, 1991), p. 23. Subsequent reference to Ndebele's essays are to this volume and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  18. The phrase is John F. Povey's description of social realism in South African fiction. See his “English-Language Fiction from South Africa,” in A History of Twentieth-Century African Literatures, ed. Lyekan Owomoyela (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1993), p. 89.

  19. Duncan Brown and Bruno van Dyke, “Introduction,” Exchanges: South African Writing in Transition, eds. Duncan Brown and Bruno van Dyke (Pietermaritzburg: Univ. of Natal Press, 1991), p. vii.

  20. Ingrid de Kok, “Introduction,” Spring Is Rebellious: Arguments about Cultural Freedom, eds. Ingrid de Kok and Karen Press (Cape Town: Buchu Books, 1990), p. 9.

  21. Albie Sachs, “Preparing Ourselves for Freedom,” in Spring Is Rebellious, p. 19. Subsequent references to this version of the essay will occur parenthetically in the text.

  22. In his introduction to the British edition of Ndebele's Rediscovery of the Ordinary, Graham Pechey, for example, calls Sachs's paper “a very much diluted version of the Ndebele argument,” lacking the relative depth and scope of the latter's analysis but conveniently bearing “a brand name” (that of the ANC). See his “Introduction,” South African Literature and Culture: Rediscovery of the Ordinary by Njabulo S. Ndebele (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1994), pp. 4-5.

  23. Spring, p. 52.

  24. Ibid.

  25. Wally Mongane Serote, “Black Man's Burden: A Conversation with Mongane Wally Serote and Andrew McCord,” Transition 61 (1993), p. 183.

  26. On the new prominence of television documentaries, see Mbulelo Vizikungo Mzamane, “From Resistance to Reconstruction: Culture and the New South Africa,” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 27 (1996): 11-18.

  27. Ndebele, p. 46.

  28. Karen Press, “Building a National Culture in South Africa,” in Rendering Things Visible: Essays on South African Literary Culture, ed. Martin Trump (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1990), p. 23.

  29. Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), p. 47.

  30. Press, p. 29.

  31. Lewis Nkosi, Tasks and Masks: Themes and Styles of African Literature (Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1981), p. 79.

  32. Dan Jacobson, “Introduction,” Story of an African Farm, by Olive Schreiner (New York: Penguin, 1984), p. 7.

  33. Fanon, p. 210.

  34. Christopher Hope, “Moving Targets,” The Guardian, 12 Feb. 1993: 4, 10.

  35. E. Pereira, “South African English Literature in the 1990s,” Unisa English Studies 31 (1993): 1.

  36. André Brink, “Reinventing a Continent (Revisiting History in the Literature of the New South Africa: A Personal Testimony),” World Literature Today 70 (1996): 17.

  37. Johan Degenaar, “How Texts and their Reception will Change in the Post-Apartheid Era,” Current Writing: Text and Reception in South Africa 4 (1992): 11.

  38. Ndebele, p. 155.

  39. Brink, On The Contrary: A novel, being the life of a famous rebel, soldier, traveller, explorer, reader, builder, scribe, latinist, lover and liar (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993), p. 40.

  40. Mark Behr, The Smell of Apples (New York: St. Martin's, 1995), p. 8.

  41. Nicholas Visser, “The Politics of Future Projection in South African Fiction,” Bucknell Review 37 (1993): 62.

  42. Visser, p. 62.

  43. Down Second Avenue is sometimes referred to as an autobiographical novel and sometimes called a novelistic autobiography. Its exact genre is less important to me than its continued relevance and new ways of being read.

  44. Ursula Barnett, A Vision of Order: A Study of Black South African Literature in English (1914-1980) (Amherst: Univ. of Mass. Press, 1983), p. 220.

  45. Bernth Lindfors, “African Literature Teaching in South African University English Departments,” Aternation 3, 1 (1996): 5-14.

  46. Ezekiel Mphahlele, The African Image (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), p. 157.

  47. See A. A. Monye, “‘Cry, the Beloved Country’: Should We Merely Cry?” Nigeria Magazine 144 (1983): 74-83; Stephen Watson, “Cry, the Beloved Country and the Failure of Liberal Vision,” English in Africa 9.1 (1982): 29-44.

  48. Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown, 1994), p. 246.

  49. Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country (New York: Scribner's, 1948), pp. 39-40.

  50. Mandela's speech is on the World-Wide Web at

  51. Justin Pearce, “Feel-Good Film of the Decade?” Mail & Guardian, 27 Oct. 1995: 1.

  52. Colin Gardner, “Paton in the 1990s,” Southern African Review of Books, Jan./Feb. 1996: p. 19.

  53. I'm very grateful for the support of the Pew Charitable Trust and the National Endowment for the Humanities in providing time and travel funds that assisted in the writing of this essay.

Phaswane Mpe (essay date 1999)

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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 Plaatje's endeavour to preserve Setswana oral traditions. This is done in a number of ways, one of which is the inclusion of some oral art forms in the novel. Another one is spelled out in his preface to the novel, namely to use financial profits from Mhudi “to collect and print (for Bantu Schools) Sechuana folk-tales, which, with the spread of European ideas, are fast being forgotten” (Plaatje 1978:21). His fear of the loss of the folktales also applies to proverbs. He states in an earlier book, Sechuana Proverbs with Literal Translations and Their European Equivalents, that “[w]ith the spread of European speech and thought in South Africa, these primitive saws are fast being forgotten” (Plaatje 1916:ix). The object of Sechuana Proverbs, and of course of his lost books of Setswana poetry and folktales1 as well as of Mhudi, is therefore “to save from oblivion, as far as this can be done, the proverbial expressions of the Bechuana people” (1). That Plaatje invested so much time in these art forms demonstrates the seriousness with which he viewed them. Despite his demonstrated seriousness, however, his critics have to date not undertaken an investigation into his mediation of Setswana oral traditions in written English.

This article undertakes a brief examination of Plaatje's perceptions of and attempts at preserving Setswana oral art forms. This is done in the light of Eileen Julien's argument that mediations of orality through written works are often deliberate, complex exercises that should not be taken at face value. The starting point of Julien's argument concerns the issue of what brought scholars to examine questions of orality in the African novel. The initial impulse, she argues, was the annexation, appropriation and colonisation of African texts by Eurocentric criticism (Julien 1992:4). In particular, the African novel was seen as an appendix to the Western novel. Very often this meant that the African novel was judged unfavorably by Eurocentric critics. As a response to this Eurocentrism, some critics endeavoured to repossess the African novel by showing that it was in significant ways continuous with African oral traditions.

Julien cites Leopold Senghor as one of the earliest critics “to signal [this] continuity of African verbal arts” (5). Writing of his and his contemporaries' works, Senghor suggests: “For those wanting to discover our mentors, they would do best to look toward Africa” (5). What this means is that the potential discoverers would benefit by acquainting themselves with African oral traditions. As Julien points out, even in his written poetry Senghor alludes to oral traditions in the titles of his poems, and in “parenthetical, italicized scripts that are the equivalent of musical directions” (5). Also, the rhythm in Senghor's poetry, as well as the “‘traditional’—that is to say, culturally specific and nature-based imagery” (5)—are often viewed as derivations from oral poetry. In this way, Julien argues, “Senghor … aims—with what might be called … ‘willed transparence’—to situate his poetic practice vis-à-vis oral traditions and to guide the reception of his poems” (5).

Hamadou Kane, too, seems to hold the view that the African novel is continuous with African oral traditions. Indeed, for him, it is such perceived continuity that determines its originality (in Julien 1992:5). Kane conflates originality with continuity, and continuity is in turn viewed as originating from oral traditions. The texts of Mbwil a Mpang Ngal take Kane's point further. For example, for one of Ngal's characters, “the novel is Western; by implication then, ‘Africanness’ is located in the oral universe of the tale. The novel will have been ‘tamed’ or domesticated when it will have been touched and modified by orality” (6). Accordingly, orality comes to be seen as both origin and authenticity (7), so that if there is any continuity, originality and authenticity in written arts, they must then be located in orality.

The problem with such an approach, according to Julien, is that, firstly, it confuses and equates “an accidental phenomenon (mode of language) with essence: writing is European, orality is African” (8). Because orality comes to be associated with Africanness, writing is accordingly assumed to be alien to Africans, and to be disjunctive in their arts. Secondly, the approach sets up an unnecessary binary opposition between orality and writing.2 Thus, besides being a failure to examine an interplay of cultural processes and aesthetics, this construction of the binary opposition between orality and writing is often accompanied by various connotations. Depending on the ideological standpoint of the critic, orality comes to be valorised at the expense of writing and vice versa. Thus there would be those critics who will conceive of orality in evolutionist terms, in which orality is associated with elementary stages in human civilisation. The stages will in turn be associated with an inability to think rationally, and sometimes, as Haggard's treatment of orality (according to Peter Esterhuysen 1988) does, with barbarism. Others will of course see such stages as being marked by innocence and closeness to nature. Orality here comes to be represented as an embodiment of purity and virtue (Julien 1992:12).

Given the problematic of orality in the African novel, Julien suggests that, as readers and critics, when we look at the interaction between orality and literacy, “it … should not be in an effort to prove or disprove cultural authenticity but rather to appreciate literature as a social and aesthetic act” (24). This means that we need to examine the interface of orality and literacy in written texts as a narrative strategy whose inclusion in respective genres is purposeful: it helps to address and solve certain ideological problems and to overcome aesthetic shortcomings.

The work of Julien suggests that mediation of orality in written texts is achieved through complex narrative layering. It is in this sense that it offers us more compelling ways of reading orality in written texts than most critics of Sol Plaatje and his novel have yet offered. According to this approach, orality is examined for the ideological and aesthetic ends that it serves, rather than as an agent of establishing authenticity (Africanness) and continuity (of the oral in the written) in African literature. Besides being a misleading venture, such an exercise, Julien shows, results in a mystification of both orality and tradition, as well as of the African past. In looking at orality in written texts, then, Julien requires us to move away from notions of continuity and simple reflection. Instead of seeing oral forms in written texts as an unproblematic mirroring of extant oral traditions, we need to ask how writers solve the manifest problems that come with this project. How, for example, does one deal with representing oral forms of one language in another? What are the aesthetic, ideological and political possibilities that are opened up by such representations of orality?

This article attempts to answer these questions in relation to Sol Plaatje. It begins this task by examining Plaatje's views on Setswana oral art forms. Deeply committed to their preservation, Plaatje took up the issue of recording and translating Setswana proverbs, poetry and folktales in book form to involving himself in orthographical debates on how Setswana was to be represented in print. Central to all of these endeavours was the concern of how oral forms were to be represented, circulated and made accessible to a wider audience. This preoccupation was in turn intimately associated with questions of translation and of finding cultural equivalents and correspondences through which oral forms could be disseminated to wider audiences. The article investigates how Plaatje negotiated his way around these questions of correspondence, equivalence and translation across language, medium and often continents. It argues that his perception and preservation of the art forms cannot be separated from the ideas that he gained about literature from colonial mission education. In particular Shakespeare and the Bible became major imaginative templates through which he recast Setswana oral forms in English. Indeed, the oral forms, biblical materials and some elements of Shakespeare's plays, in his opinion, possessed such affinities that there were virtually no boundaries between them. The affinities, especially in the case of Shakespeare, were such that, Plaatje felt, the playwright could easily be translated into written Setswana. Indeed, Plaatje's homage to Shakespeare shows that the playwright was also amenable to being oralised and indigenised, thus becoming part of the popular culture among some Batswana. The translation of Shakespeare's plays which Plaatje undertook, as well as the oralisation of Shakespeare, suggests that, for Plaatje, orality and literacy were interdependent. They suggest a dialectic of cross-referencing and complementarity.

The dialectic of cross-referencing and complementarity is also implied in Plaatje's preservation of Setswana poetry and folktales. The act of preservation often involved the writing down and translation of the art forms into English. In terms of translation, as Plaatje was aware, a measure of success could only be achieved by finding cultural equivalents of the material being translated. That was how he managed to translate Shakespeare's plays into Setswana (Couzens & Willan 1976:9).3 Also, as we suggest, that was how he translated Setswana poetry and folktales into English. Plaatje's translations display Shakespearean as well as general English—and, in the case of folktales, colonial mission—influences to an extent that he could be said to have reinvented them. Given the dialectic of cross-referencing and complementarity between orality and literacy it becomes imperative to investigate, rather than to take at face value, his concern to preserve Setswana oral art forms as well as the final product of his endeavour. Such an investigation reveals a creative act of invention of the Setswana traditions on the part of Plaatje.


Plaatje's homage to Shakespeare reveals that he often thought of Shakespeare in terms that foreground the playwright's relevance in challenging South African racial political practices in general, and in enriching Setswana cultural art forms, especially that of storytelling. Indeed, in his writings on the reception of Shakespeare by some educated sections of Batswana, Plaatje suggests that Shakespeare was revered for his oratory skills, which were also central to the cultural practices of the Batswana. Plaatje further adds that one other reason that made Shakespeare's works readily accessible and acceptable was that some of the beliefs and practices displayed in his plays find cultural equivalents in Setswana. Because of the two factors, Shakespeare was often appropriated by the Batswana. The process involved retelling, and translating his stories into Setswana. There were thus two processes at work simultaneously: one is that of Africanising Shakespeare, and the second one involves oralising his plays.

But the process worked the other way, too. When, for example, Plaatje wanted to translate some of the praise poems of the Batswana chiefs into English, he had to find English equivalents of the poems. Being well acquainted with Shakespeare, presumably Plaatje frequently drew on him. Indeed, his translation of chief Montsioa's praise displays this influence. Arguably, the Africanisation and oralisation of Shakespeare was accompanied by the “Shakespearisation” of Setswana art forms.

Writing in 1916 Plaatje said of intelligence in Africa that it was still disseminated by word of mouth. This was obviously true of historical as well as fictional forms of knowledge. In this context where oral skills were crucial, Plaatje found Shakespeare handy. Because of his reading of the playwright Plaatje “always had a good story to tell” (in Couzens & Willan 1976:7), a story often drawn from Shakespeare's plays. When it came to his reading of The Merchant of Venice, we are told, “[t]he characters were so real that I was asked more than once to which of certain speculators, then operating in Kimberley, Shakespeare referred as Shylock” (7). Being thus encouraged by his audience's interest in Shakespeare's characters, Plaatje furthered his reading of the playwright. He learnt from the exercise that “the current quotations used by educated natives to embellish their speeches, which [he] had always taken for English proverbs, were culled from Shakespeare's works” (7). This mistaking of Shakespeare quotations for English proverbs in itself suggests that the classification of written expression versus oral genres is a slippery, tricky process.

In retelling Shakespeare's stories orally, Plaatje presumably added or subtracted things from the originals, as it suited him. Whatever the case may be, one thing is clear: Shakespeare was oralised. The process involved the retelling of Shakespeare's written stories, giving them a voice or sound, with the audience participating by asking questions of the type mentioned above. Secondly, from the quotations of Shakespeare by Plaatje's educated contemporaries, we may reasonably deduce that they too found Shakespeare not only a source of embellishment of their speeches, but also a source of fresh oral stories. What is implicit in Plaatje's account of his acquaintance with Shakespeare and the way in which the playwright was received by Plaatje's educated contemporaries, is that his plays were not only oralised, but were also democratised. That is, the act of translating and circulating them orally, though perhaps in new forms, made his reception wider than would have been the case with the printed scripts only. There is a case to be made, then, that Shakespeare's stories became part of the popular tradition of storytelling.

In addition, Shakespeare's sayings influenced Plaatje's journalistic and other works. When King Edward II and two Batswana chiefs, Sebele and Bathoeng, died around 1910, the year that Halley's Comet crossed the skies, Plaatje opened his obituary with the words: “When beggars die there are no comets seen; / The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes” (in Couzens & Willan 1976:8). In Mhudi the defeat and humiliation of Mzilikazi is marked by the appearance of a comet, as predicted by his doctors. In fact, Halley's Comet was historically seen in 1835, within the historical temporal setting of the novel. There is a historical basis for associating comets with deaths of great leaders, and it is perhaps on this basis that the defeat and humiliation of Mzilikazi and his nation in Mhudi is also associated with them. The cultural beliefs of the Batswana surely also contributed something towards their appreciation of Shakespeare's works, as his plays contain some aspects of their cultural beliefs. The notion of ghosts in Hamlet or the witches in Macbeth, for example, would not have been alien to them, nor would the whole idea of kingship in Shakespeare's plays in general. Indeed, in Mhudi witchdoctors are after all sentenced to death by king Mzilikazi for attempting to incite fear in him instead of revealing the whereabouts of his exiled wife Umnandi. At least that is how he perceives their warning about the forthcoming comet and its accompanying destruction of his nation by the vengeful Barolong-Griqua-Voortrekker alliance.

Besides, Plaatje's account of the positive reception of Shakespeare within his society suggests an additional aspect of Setswana culture:

Besides being natural story-tellers, the Bechuana are good listeners, and legendary stories seldom fail to impress them. Thus, one morning, I visited the Chief s court at Mafeking and was asked for the name of ‘the white man who spoke so well’. An educated Chieftain promptly replied for me; he said: William Tsikinya-Chaka (William Shake-the-Sword). The translation, though perhaps more free than literal, is happy in its way considering how many of Shakespeare's characters met their death. Tsikinya-Chaka became noted among some of my readers as a reliable white oracle.


It was thus not enough to Africanise Shakespeare by translating him freely into Setswana and oralising him by giving his plays a human voice, but he also had to have a Setswana nickname. What is more, the words “oracle” and “the white man who spoke so well” emphasize Shakespeare's oral, rather than writing, skills, although the different skills clearly reinforce each other in this particular case. What Plaatje's homage to Shakespeare reveals is that literacy, of which the white oracle is an incarnation, was not wiping out orality. Rather, literacy was domesticated or appropriated, through oralisation, and thus made to add to and enrich oral practices like that of storytelling. In other words, Shakespeare was used as a remarkable cultural resource. In addition, he became, in part at least, a legend on the art of storytelling. Given this, it becomes clear that Plaatje's own view that European thinking was decimating Setswana oral art forms, a view which suggests that orality is vulnerable and at the mercy of literacy, is not unproblematic.

Plaatje's homage is in part a testimony to the tenacity of orality. This testimony is reinforced, among others, by Isabel Hofmeyr's research on orality and literacy on a Berlin Mission in the northern Transvaal. Hofmeyr argues that the effects of literacy, “like those of technology, are subordinated to their social setting” (1991:663).4 One instance of such subordination is indicated in the failure of the missionaries at the Berlin Mission Station to persuade their congregants to assume the missionaries' own understanding of literacy. Their understanding included the view of literacy as involving such ideals as “inner discipline” reinforced by “silent reading”:

However, for a long time the missionaries were simply unable to implement their understanding of literacy as congregants and visitors to the mission continued their selective appropriation. As regards church services, these were appropriated by popular taste which helped to dictate the form and style of holy worship and other mission activities. These almost invariably relied on orality, performance, festival, spectacle and image, or, in other words, the central resources of African culture.

(642—emphasis added)

Similarly, the oralisation and appropriation of Shakespeare, especially by Plaatje, constituted a rejection of packaged ideas about the relationship between literacy, race and human behaviour.

In an overview of the critical reception of Mhudi, David Johnson suggests that Shakespeare represented, in Plaatje's time, the example of what good literature was. Linked to this was of course the attempt by some British subjects to use the playwright as a symbol of their patriotism, which thrived on imposing itself on other cultures and portraying them negatively. But if this symbol of civilisation and patriotism could be oralised and appropriated, then surely those who could oralise and appropriate it did not consider their own culture to be any less important, nor can we dismiss their culture as unsophisticated. The oralisation and appropriation of Shakespeare was therefore a rejection of Eurocentrism and racism. As Plaatje said in reaction to the pictures advertising some cinematographic show of the Crucifixion in London, in which Judas was the only black character: “Shakespeare's dramas … show that nobility and valour, like depravity and cowardice, are not the monopoly of any colour” (in Couzens & Willan 1976:8). It is such pictures that made it necessary for Plaatje to indicate that in writing Native Life in South Africa he was not speaking for the cause of “hordes of cannibals” (1982:18). He was instead writing on behalf of oppressed, loyal British subjects who could benefit from British intervention. Although Britain failed to offer some form of political intervention, Plaatje was nevertheless making use of their (perhaps unintended) cultural offer in the person of Shakespeare. In the process this writer was seen through the eyes of a largely oral society which was sophisticated enough to be able to collapse assumed rigid boundaries between literacy and orality, and thus between British and Setswana civilisations that the modes of communication were thought to represent. Another fascinating development was that oral art forms were in turn perceived in Plaatje's case in relation to Shakespeare.

The oralisation of Shakespeare registers the incompleteness or inadequacy of literacy in a predominantly oral society. With Plaatje, oral art forms without literary influences seem to have been inconceivable. In his opinion, for example, through such things as translations, African literature in its mature form will benefit from “some at least of Shakespeare's works”: “That this could be done is suggested by the probability that some of the stories on which his dramas are based find equivalents in African folk lore” (in Couzens & Willan 1976:18).

What the question of equivalents raises is that it will not always be clear whether, in any given story, the African writer draws on his or her oral traditional art forms or on Shakespeare (or, indeed, another exogenous cultural influence). Similarly, keeping in mind that some oral art forms find equivalents in the Bible and vice versa, it will not always be clear whether a particular writer draws on the Bible or not. Indeed, Setswana beliefs, Shakespeare and the Bible are tellingly linked in Plaatje's statement on Halley's Comet and the deaths in and around 1910 of the three rulers mentioned earlier:

Those events gave the colour of truth to a native belief that such heavenly bodies never appear except as omens of wars or some great occurrences like the death of rulers. This belief finds corroboration in the records of civilised nations, as, for instance, the Bible story of the visit of the Magi, besides Shakespeare's writings, for the Bard of Avon wrote: ‘When beggars die there are no comets seen, but the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes’.


Further on, we read of missionaries' possible reinforcement of the African traditional beliefs in heavenly bodies:

In common with other Bantu tribes, the Bechuana attach many ominous traditions to stellar movements and the visitation of comets in particular. This superstition was by no means shaken by their contact with missionaries, and their perusal of the Bible story concerning the visit of the Magi. The appearance of Halley's Comet in April [1910] (which found them disconcerted by thoughts of the impending Union of South African Colonies, and the possible inclusion therein of their territories) supplied them with considerable material for discussion. All kinds of disasters were foreshadowed, it being freely stated that the country was heading for a year of sickness, drought and deaths, especially of chiefs, and nations by epidemics.


Some of the disasters foreshadowed might not have materialised. What did materialise was the establishment of the Union Government which was to pass the 1913 Land Act, thereby taking away lands from these disturbed people.


A further example of Plaatje's perception of Setswana oral traditions in Shakespearean terms is evident from the biographies of some of the leaders to whom he paid tribute. One such tribute was to Montsioa, chief Tauana's son who seems to have played a major historical role in the execution of Mzilikazi's tax collector, Bhoya, in 1830. In a biography Plaatje quotes some of Montsioa's praises. Oral praise poetry, as Ruth Finnegan shows, is a very complex phenomenon. In a discussion of its style, she points out that its use of language can be obscure due to “its figurative quality [as well as allusion to] historical events, places, and peoples” (Finnegan 1970:132). In addition, a “series of pictures is conveyed to the listeners through a number of laconic and often rather staccato sentences, a grouping of ideas which may on different occasions come in a different order” (135). Karin Barber captures the fluidity of oral praise poetry in a simile in her discussion of oriki and similar praise poetry from Africa: “The whole [in oriki] is like a string of beads, a long chain of interchangeable parts, which can be extended or broken off at will without significantly altering its form” (Barber 1995:23). Because of this lack of form, as critics steeped in the New Criticism approach would see it, “Oriki-type texts … offer … slippery and shifting ground [with no] sense of an ending” (22).

The above observations alert us to the difficulty one would encounter in trying to translate such poetry. Also, because the poetry is fluid in nature, it is difficult to pin down through definition. Defining the praise poem of Montsioa would accordingly have presented serious challenges to Plaatje. Plaatje nevertheless faces the challenge by attempting to find English equivalents to refer to both the praise and the praise poets. He calls the praise an “irregular verse” and the poets become “court jesters” (1976:19). “Irregular verse” here assumes that his readership will be acquainted with the British poetic conventions such as writing in iambic pentameters and rhyme scheme, while “court jesters” owes something to his reading of Shakespeare's plays. Having grappled with questions of what to call the praise, Plaatje still had to grapple with the actual process of translating it.

Duncan Brown raises important points about transcription and translation of oral poetry. “Like transcription,” he says, “translation involves an important process of mediation” (1994:169). The challenges of translation do not only stem from the fact that sometimes words and phrases in one language do not have equivalents in the language of the translation, a point of which Plaatje was keenly aware. “The difficulties of translating oral poetry,” Brown puts it, “are exacerbated by the fact that the structure of rhythm and rhyme often differ greatly between languages and language groups, something which is particularly marked between English and African languages” (169). Faced with such difficulties, Brown points out, translators often represent oral poems in writing by using “print conventions of short lines and stanzas, seeking to create an equivalence of effect between the source language and target language” (170). As he usefully reminds us a few lines later, equivalence and sameness are not identical, and as such translation actually involves invention. Not surprisingly, one encounters some notable stylistic as well as semantic differences between the original praise of Montsioa and Plaatje's translation of it.

Plaatje quotes the original and then translates it as follows:

Mogatsa Majang, tau ga di kalo!
Tau ga di kalo, moroa Mhenyana.
Ga di ke di bolaoa leroborobo,
Di ba di etsa dipholofolo tsa gopo,
Di ba di edioa pitse tsa gopo,
Lekau ja Gontse-a-Tauana!
Tau di bolaoa dile thataro,
Lefa dile pedi dia bo di ntse.
(That's not the way to kill lions,
O, husband of Majang!
That's not the way, O, offspring of M'Henyana!
Lions should not be butchered by the score
Nor like hunted animals at the chase;
Lions should not be slaughtered in such numbers,
To litter the field like carcasses of dead zebra,
O, descendant of Gontse, son of Tauana!
Six lions at a time are quite enough
For, even two at a time are not too few!)

(in Couzens & Willan 1976: 18-19)

Besides the fact that the translation comprises ten lines instead of eight as in the original, the translation deviates on a number of points. I offer my own word-for-word translation, as far as this can be done, in order to illustrate the deviations:

Spouse of Majang, lions are not that many!
Lions are not that many, son of Mhenyana.
They are not usually killed by the score,
Like animals at a chase,
Like zebras at a chase,
Lad of Gontse-of-Tauana!
Lions are killed six (at a time),
Even two (at a time) are still many.

In comparing my translation with Plaatje's, what stands out is that Plaatje invents sexual differentiation where it does not appear in the original and, where it does, he omits it (“spouse” becomes “husband”, “son” becomes “offspring”). Secondly, as in the last line of his translation, he puts the point in the negative while the original puts it in the positive. This tends to lessen the effectiveness that one finds in the original. Thirdly, the punctuation in his translation differs from the original. His translation, for example, has at least two more exclamation marks, Indeed, the exclamation mark appears in the translation in each line that has “O”, which does not appear in the original, and which seems to owe much to his acquaintance with particular archaic registers of English. For example, a quick reading of Othello, which is one of the Shakespeare plays he translated into Setswana, reveals that the play uses “O” a lot, often accompanied by an exclamation mark, either after the letter or, alternatively, at the end of a whole phrase or sentence within which “O” appears. Song of Songs, which Plaatje quotes often in his writings, also abounds with the use of this register. A further example of English register is evident in the fact that Mhenyana becomes M'Henyana in the translation. Arguably, this is to help with the pronunciation of the name in English. For had Plaatje not split the letters “M” and “H” with an apostrophe, the “H”-sound might have been omitted in English pronunciation. Other similar points can be raised about the dissimilarities between the original praise and Plaatje's translation, not just in this praise poem but also in another one that precedes it. What is clear is that Plaatje's translation is a search for English equivalents for Setswana oral genres.

This endeavour to find appropriate cultural equivalents of genres and words or phrases across different languages extends to his mediation of songs in Mhudi. For example, after Langa has reduced Kunana to ashes, Ndebele singers praise him:

Come, let us sing!
                    Mzilikazi has a son.
Come, let us sing!
                    Langa is the name of his son.
Come, let us dance!
                    Langa has a spear.
Come, let us prance!
                    His sword is a sharp pointed spear.
Go forth and summon the girls of Soduza
                    To the dance;
Go call the maidens to the Puza,
                    And the dance;
For Mzilikazi has a son!
Langa, the fighter, is his son!


As I have pointed out (Mpe 1996), Langa's attack on Kunana is shown by Gubuza, as well as the narrator, to be rash and therefore “unmanly”. Indeed, Gubuza is worried that Langa has created a fresh enemy in attacking the Barolong and looting their livestock. The narrator, on the other hand, foregrounds the insensitivity behind this and similar praises, because nobody seems to bother about the pain and grief of those fellow Ndebele who have died or lost relatives in the battle. At best, then, as I argue, the praise song is an expression of barbarism.

Stylistically, it is interesting to note, the presumably illiterate Ndebele in Mhudi are fairly well versed in literary forms. As I have suggested, the song is rather reminiscent of a sonnet in its structure:

The first three quatrains have the rhyme scheme ababcdcdefef, followed by a couplet with the rhyme scheme gg. The quatrains are not divided by line breaks. Rather, they are distinguished by what each emphasises. For example, the first emphasises the idea of singing and of genealogy (“Mzilikazi has a son”), naming (Langa) to suggest particularity. The second quatrain draws attention to fighting (“spear”), pride (suggested by “prance”) and dancing rather than simply singing, fascinatingly linking voice to body language in order to reinforce the worth of both Langa's genealogy and fighting skills. The third quatrain completes the process by pointing out that singing and dancing in praise of Langa falls short of recognising his worth. Accordingly, the singers recommend that maidens be summoned to join in the celebrations, possibly … suggesting that he deserves a wife. The couplet closes off the development of the idea that Langa is worth a lot by reasserting his identity both as a fighter and as Mzilikazi's son.

(Mpe 1996: 77-78)

Earlier on in the novel, Ra-Thaga has also shown himself to be surprisingly skilled in producing a rhyming song, or poem. As Stephen Gray (1977) points out, though in passing, Ra-Thaga's song is reminiscent of English lyrical poetry. Its rhyme scheme is different from the one just examined, although, like it, it provides a criticism of battles and laments the general social hardships that constantly separate Ra-Thaga from his wife Mhudi. The song, “Sweet Mhudi and I”, is a nostalgic expression of Ra-Thaga's memory of Re-Nosi, the forest home that the two established in their flight from Kunana. Because there were no people to bother them, and therefore no wars to fight, Ra-Thaga suggests, Re-Nosi was the best place he had ever occupied, and Mhudi possibly the best person he had lived with. Taken together, the two songs provide a criticism of Mzilikazi's expansionist tendencies, and of imperialism in general. There are a few more songs in Mhudi that display similar features to Ra-Thaga's and Langa's. In Mhudi, then, as in the praises of Montsioa, songs and poems, when encountered in English translation or equivalents, are not entirely the “free verse” that Plaatje makes us to anticipate when he discusses them elsewhere.

From the foregoing discussion, we can argue that the appropriation and indigenisation of Shakespeare underlined the extent to which the plays became, as Karin Barber might have put it, orality-saturated in the hands of the Batswana. In much the same way English versions of Setswana oral art forms in the hands of Plaatje became literacy-saturated. Orality, in other words, was mediated through literacy and vice versa. Mediating orality through literacy, as the above examples illustrate, sometimes involved not just a work of translation but also a creation of new meanings by adding words or phrases that did not appear in the original, or, as in Mhudi, a substitution of English formal structures for what would presumably be “free [Setswana or Ndebele] verse”. Put simply, if Plaatje was endeavouring to preserve orality, then that preservation involved, in part at least, a process of invention. Couzens notes that “Plaatje's Setswana was rich soil for Shakespearean seed” (1988:63). In turn, I would argue, Shakespeare, as well as English literature in general, was rich soil for Setswana. In particular, by translating some of Shakespeare's plays into Setswana, Plaatje was partly enriching written Setswana literature.

Tim Couzens says of Shakespeare and Plaatje that they “matured at the time of a great revolution—when oral culture was being largely transformed to a written one” (63). To the extent that in Plaatje's times, as shown above, there was a marked dialectic of cross-referencing and complementarity between orality and literacy, Couzens's assertion is perhaps a little overstated. The assertion does, however, in part agree with Plaatje's sometimes rather evolutionist perspective that tends to view literacy as being stronger than, and consequently decimating, orality. Yet, even Shakespeare's plays themselves were intended for oral delivery on the stage. That is, they were written down, but with the underlying assumption that they would be oralised. The dialectic of cross-referencing and complementarity was therefore often on display, if not always in the two writers' conception of orality and/or literacy, at least in the interaction or interface that they facilitated between the two phenomena.5


As I have argued, Plaatje was aware of the dialectic of cross-referencing and complementarity between orality and literacy. To the extent that his work on Setswana oral traditions points to such awareness, we can reasonably conclude that Plaatje anticipated some of the theorisation on orality and literacy, and simultaneously criticised, in anticipation, the binary model of orality and literacy that is today associated with Walter Ong. Yet, in so far as Plaatje also offered, at times, an evolutionist model, which suggests a gradual decimation of orality, his perception of orality tends to be ambiguous and at times even self-contradictory.

In short, then, an investigation of Plaatje's contribution to orality and literacy debates is a study not only of inventions of Setswana oral art forms through translations into English as well as the oralisation and Africanisation of written traditions, but also a study in ambiguities and contradictions. These inventions, ambiguities and contradictions must be foregrounded if we are to broaden significantly our understanding of Plaatje's contribution to the question of orality and cultural politics. In turn, it is in the context of such an understanding that, as critics, we will need to reconsider Mhudi's contribution to orality-literacy debates. It is sad that this—the first novel in English by a black South African, who, in addition, was one of the first black Africans to engage comprehensively and with sophistication with the question of orality in writing, even before it became a major item on the literary and critical agenda—should be consistently by-passed when issues of orality and the African novel are debated.


  1. According to his biographer, Brian Willan, these books got lost because Plaatje insisted on having them published in a phonetic script, which was regarded as weird by many people. Publishers were reluctant to publish books in a “strange spelling” (1984:342).

  2. For an overview and critique of models that set binary oppositions between orality and literacy, see Ruth Finnegan (1988) and Brian Street (1993). Walter Ong tends to view writing not only as replacing orality, but also as determining and structuring the way people think and conduct themselves. His own opinion is that writing develops thought in ways that the spoken word cannot, and, not surprisingly, his opposition of literacy to orality is at the same time an opposition of literate and oral societies (Finnegan 1988: 8-9). Communication technology, according to Ong, is what essentially shapes social structures and human conduct. Ong, like other writers who subscribe to what Street calls an “autonomous model of literacy”, “conceptualises literacy in technical terms, treating it as independent of social context, an autonomous variable whose consequences for society and cognition can be derived from its intrinsic character” (Street 1993:5). One of the major problems with the autonomous model of literacy is that it associates literacy “with crude and often ethnocentric stereotypes of ‘other cultures’ and represents a way of perpetuating the notion of a ‘great divide’ between ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ societies that is less acceptable when expressed in other terms” (7). In addition, because of its insistence on binary oppositions, this model often fails to examine the interaction between and interface of orality and literacy in human and social communication.

  3. When it was not possible to find equivalents in translation, Plaatje writes, he has “had to rely on the general sense of the whole passage to render the author's meaning in the vernacular, and that has been his difficulty” (1976:9).

  4. Hofmeyr returns to this point in her survey of oral historical studies in southern Africa, in “‘Wailing for Purity’: Oral Studies in Southern Africa” (1995). The selective nature in which black South Africans appropriated biblical scriptures and missionary teachings is also emphasised by Duncan Brown's study of the hymns of Isaiah Shembe and his church. Shembe sought to introduce Zulu cultural practices and traditional beliefs—like polygamous marriages, “first fruits” ceremonies, the “concept of the deity [that] … syncretised Christian and African cosmology”, ancestor worship and so on—into his Nazarite church, something which missionaries disapproved of (1995:78). For an investigation of the complex relationship between oral art forms, communication media and the construction of popular memory see Phaswane Mpe, “Orality and Literacy in an Electronic Era” (1999).

  5. Even in terms of orthography and representation of sound on paper he felt that five different spellings in Setswana, which were used by different missionaries and their students, did not augur well for the development of the language. Sometimes the different spellings made the Batswana literate in one form of spelling seem illiterate when confronted with a different form of spelling, and the pronunciation resulting from the confusion in spelling could be baffling. Thus, although he evidently appreciated the great efforts of Robert Moffat in putting Setswana on paper in his translation of the Bible in the 1840s, he seems to have revered more Doke's and Jones's representation of African languages using phonetic spelling. His reverence for the phoneticians stems from his conviction that phonetics helps a great deal in the pronunciation of words and their tones. Even non-native speakers can pronounce the words with appropriate tones accurately (in Couzens & Willan 1976:35, 45). It is in this sense that phonetics can be said to be of some importance in oralising the written. Not surprisingly, Plaatje maintains that the best option for representing African languages would be to use the “principle of International Phonetics, of ‘one sound, one letter’” (45). Indeed, the principle of “one sound, one letter” is a powerful indication that speaking and writing complement and reinforce each other.


Barber, Karin. 1991. I Could Speak until Tomorrow: Oriki, Women, and the Past in a Yoruba Town. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

———. 1995. “Literacy, Improvisation and the Public in Yoruba Popular Theatre”. In: Stewart Brown (ed). Pressures of the Text: Orality, Texts and the Telling of Tales. Birmingham: Birmingham University African Studies No. 4, Centre for West African Studies.

Brown, Duncan. 1994. “Oral Poetry and Literary History in South Africa”. Current Writing 6(2): 165-180.

———. 1995. “Orality and Christianity: The Hymns of Isaiah Shembe and the Church of the Nazarites”. Current Writing 7(2): 70-95.

Couzens, Tim. 1988. “A Moment in the Past: William Tsikinya-Chaka”. Shakespeare in Southern Africa 2: 60-66.

Couzens, Tim and Brian Willan (eds). 1976. “Sol T Plaatje”. English in Africa 3(2).

Esterhuysen, Peter J. 1988. Patterns of Confluence: Development in Selected Novels in English by Black South African Writers. MA Dissertation, University of the Witwatersrand.

Finnegan, Ruth. 1970. Oral Literature in Africa. Nairobi: Oxford University Press.

———. 1985. Literacy and Orality: Studies in the Technology of Communication. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Gray, Stephen. 1977. “Plaatje's Shakespeare”. English in Africa 4(1): 1-6.

Hofmeyr, Isabel. 1991. “Jonah and the Swallowing Monster: Orality and Literacy on a Berlin Mission Station in the Transvaal”. Journal of Southern African Studies 17(4): 633-653.

———. 1995. “‘Wailing for Purity’: Oral Studies in Southern African Studies”. African Studies 54(2): 16-32.

Johnson, David. (n.d.) “Plaatje and Shakespeare: Four Readings”. Unpublished paper.

Julien, Eileen. 1992. African Novels and the Question of Orality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kunene, Daniel P. 1989. Thomas Mofolo and the Emergence of Written Sesotho Prose. Johannesburg: Ravan.

Mpe, Phaswane. 1996. ‘Mine Is but a Sincere Narrative of a Melancholy Situation’: Sol Plaatje, Orality and the Politics of Culture. MA dissertation, University of the Witwatersrand.

———. 1999. “Orality and Literacy in an Electronic Era”. South African Society of Archivists Journal. (Forthcoming).

Plaatje, Sol T. 1916. Sechuana Proverbs with Literal Translations and European Equivalents. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

———. 1978. Mhudi. Stephen Gray (ed). London: Heinemann.

———. 1982. Native Life in South Africa before and since the European War and Boer Rebellion. Johannesburg: Ravan.

Plaatje, Sol T. and Daniel Jones. 1916. A Sechuana Reader in International Phonetic Orthography. London: University of London Press.

Willan, Brian. 1984. Sol Plaatje: A Biography. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.

Michiel Heyns (essay date spring 2000)

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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 showdown with myself for my own support of a system like apartheid. [… I]f the book's publication has assisted white people in coming to terms with their own culpability for what is wrong in South Africa, then it has been worthwhile” (1).

This formulation reveals, perhaps unintentionally, the ambivalence of what we might call confessional fiction, an ambivalence hinging on Behr's phrase “coming to terms with their own culpability.” He means, presumably, confronting that culpability; but his phrase could equally mean accommodating, establishing a comfortable relationship with it.1 No doubt one's reading of Behr's statement is conditioned by the knowledge that he was about to confess to having been for years, while a student leader in the left-wing student organization National Union of South African Students, a paid informer of the South African security establishment; but even in less pronounced instances of complicity with the apartheid regime, the same questions arise. In particular, for my present purpose, the question arises of whether and in what sense confessional fiction “comes to terms” with white South African culpability. A correlative question is whether confessional fiction differs significantly in this respect from non-fictional confession, and if so, how. André Brink has argued for the essential continuity of fiction and history: following Hayden White, he maintains that “in the process of textualizing the event it is also narrativized: that is, the representations of history repeat, in almost every detail, the processes of fiction” (“Stories” 32).

Taking actual confessions, then, to be, with whatever omissions and distortions, “representations of history,” I want to place them next to “the processes of fiction,” hoping thereby to learn something of the narrative principles underlying and shaping both. I shall use as my nonfictional examples some of the confessions and revelations emanating from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings (1996-98) and the concurrent Amnesty hearings. These have been absorbingly edited by Antjie Krog, who reported on the hearings for the South African Broadcasting Corporation; and not the least interesting aspect of her account is that it becomes, among other things, a rite of passage narrative of which Krog herself is the protagonist and author. Based on her daily attendance at these hearings, Country of My Skull, as the very title signals, is an intensely personal account of these hearings: the sufferings inflicted by one group of people (for the most part Krog's own people, the Afrikaners) on another are, for Krog, testimony to something in that country which is an inalienable part of her: “Week after week, from one faceless building to another, from one dusty, god-forsaken town to another, the arteries of our past bleed their own peculiar rhythm, tone and image. One cannot get rid of it. Ever” (37).

But Krog is a writer—admittedly better known as a poet than as a prose writer, but still acutely aware of the nature and capacity of narrative. And in the process of reporting, she also consciously shapes other people's narratives as part of her own:

“Hey Antjie, but this is not quite what happened at the workshop,” says Patrick.

“Yes, I know, it's a new story that I constructed from all the other information I picked up over the months about people's reactions and psychologists' advice. I'm not reporting or keeping minutes. I'm telling. […] I cut and paste the upper layer, in order to get the second layer told, which is actually the story I want to tell. […]”

“But then you're not busy with the truth?”

“I am busy with the truth … my truth. Of course, it's quilted together from hundreds of stories that we've experienced or heard about in the past two years. Seen from my perspective, shaped by my state of mind at the time and now also by the audience I'm telling the story to. In every story there is hearsay, there is a grouping together of things that didn't necessarily happen together, there are assumptions, there are exaggerations to bring home the enormities of situations, there is downplaying to confirm innocence. All of this together makes up the whole country's truth. So also the lies. And the stories that date from earlier times.”

“[…] What gives a story its real character is the need to entertain—to make the listener hang on your lips.”


“My truth” thus modulates into “the whole country's truth” by what one might call an act of narrative appropriation—not, I think, in any opportunistic sense, but in that sense that the teller necessarily shapes the tale. And that tale was, for Krog, clearly also a personal rite of passage from the relatively secure world of the liberal Afrikaner to the frightening sense of complicity with the perpetrators of the horrors recounted at the hearings: “what do I have in common with the men I hate the most?” (92) she asks herself as she listens to the testimony of the murderers of the apartheid regime.

Krog's book presents, in itself and in the narratives that it reports, absorbing instances of the process envisaged, at an early stage of the hearings, by Njabulo Ndebele: “And so it is that the stories of the TRC seem poised to result in one major spin-off, among others: the restoration of narrative. In few countries in the contemporary world do we have a living example of people reinventing themselves through narrative” (27). But in a sense possibly not foreseen by Ndebele, narrative also serves as a means of reinvention for those people who inflicted the sufferings of which the victims speak. The perpetrators have their own stories, the dreadful complement to the narratives of suffering and loss, what Krog calls the “second narrative”: “After six months or so, at last the second narrative breaks into relief from its background of silence—unfocused, splintered in intention and degrees of desperation. But it is there. And it is white. And male” (56).

As Krog implies, these confessions are more artless than her own—“unfocused, splintered in intention.” Emanating for the most part not from a sense of remorse but from the need for “full and honest disclosure” which was a condition of amnesty, these accounts are “reinventions” also in the sense that they strive to cast the perpetrators of innumerable brutalities as themselves victims, misled into unthinking allegiance to a political system which they now recognize as evil. Most of these narratives are structured towards self-revelation only as a means of exoneration. By, say, J. M. Coetzee's definition, the accounts of these men may not even qualify as confessions: “A certain looseness is inevitable when one transposes the term confession from a religious to a secular context. Nevertheless, we can demarcate a mode of autobiographical writing that we can call the confession, as distinct from the memoir and the apology, on the basis of an underlying motive to tell an essential truth about the self” (“Confession” 252).

The motive of most of the men testifying to their own deeds before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is manifestly not “to tell an essential truth about the self”: it is to gain amnesty for themselves. As Jacques Pauw says: “They show little remorse and their only regret seems to be the fact that they have been forced to the TRC's confession table. They may say how sorry they are, but with few exceptions the only emotion they show is their feeling of desperation about their situation, which forces them to face their victims” (19).

One of the few exceptions is a young constable, William Harrington, who at eighteen, a week after graduating from the Police Training College, had been sent out to track African National Congress combatants at night. After this frightening initiation, he had gone on, inspired by the fatherly encouragement of his major, to assault more than a thousand people in less than three years:

I stand before you—naked and humble. I have decided to stop apologizing for Apartheid and to tell the truth. With this I will betray my people and I will betray myself. But I have to tell the truth. I have made peace with God and the time has come to make peace with the people of KwaZulu-Natal. To make peace with myself. It is this audience which haunts me in the back of my head. Maybe amongst you are those whom I assaulted, whom I left behind for dead in the field.

(Krog 70)

Despite a sense of “self” that is too incoherent and contradictory (“I will betray myself. […] To make peace with myself”) to constitute Coetzee's “essential truth about the self,” the young police officer's account does grope towards that reassessment, that reinvention through narrative that Ndebele hoped would be made possible by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings: for all its artlessness, the man's confession has about it the saving confusion of a nature taken unawares by emotions it has not been trained to deal with, something like Coriolanus regarding his yielding to his mother as a defeat of his soldierly virtues.

But Constable Harrington is, as I've said, something of an exception. Other confessions seem more opportunistic, the remorse out of character with the persona revealed by the facts of the narrative.2 What Sarah Nuttall has said about Behr's confession applies to these “confessions” as well:

Behr's text raises questions about the purpose of confession and who its beneficiaries are. Confession typically presupposes a constellation of notions about the private self tormented by guilt and the private conscience exposed to self-criticism. However, the fact that people confess to their crimes does not necessarily imply a compulsion to confess as an escapee from a burden of guilt. For Behr, the conscience of memory may be less at stake than the fear of exposure before the TRC in the present.

(“Telling” 87)

Potentially the most interesting of the confessions to emanate from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that of Eugene de Kock, one-time commander of Vlakplaas, the notorious base of one of the most active of the police death squads operating with impunity under the apartheid government. Nicknamed “Prime Evil” by his admiring henchmen, De Kock killed a literally uncountable number of people in pursuit of what he saw as the cause of country and nation. His appeal to the imagination seems to lie in the fact that, unlike many of his henchmen and his subordinates, he does not appear to be an ordinary thug: like Joseph Conrad's Kurtz, he strikes people as “equipped with moral ideas of some sort” (Conrad 88). Apart from his presence in Krog's and Pauw's accounts, De Kock's story, as told to Jeremy Gordin, has been published in book form; here, one imagines, will be an answer to the question that recurs in all accounts of the hearings: what could induce apparently ordinary people to commit deeds of such gratuitous cruelty? How does such a person account for himself to himself and others?

But De Kock's account fails to answer the questions that it prompts, because it is a non-narrative, in Krog's sense of narrative: “We make sense of things by fitting them into stories. When events fall into a pattern which we can describe in a way that is satisfying as narrative then we think that we have some grasp of why they occurred” (196-97). De Kock's narrative is simply an account of one ghastly murder after another, with no reflection on its human significance, only here and there a perfunctory attempt to suggest that there were, after all, certain constraints, that the killing was subject to a certain code. Having set fire to Khanya House in Pretoria, the headquarters of the South African Bishops' Conference, De Kock recounts: “After the fire started raging, we were watching the building when we realised, for the first time, that there were people in it. We saw clergymen helped down ladders by the fire department. It was a huge shock” (De Kock and Gordin 145).

And yet, of course, De Kock and his helpers often enough quite knowingly killed innocent people, and he reports it dispassionately enough to make the “huge shock” here utterly implausible. But this is not just to complain that this is an uninteresting book or even to remark once again on the banality of evil. Rather, it is to reflect on the nature of narrative and confession: without some recognition, some development, confession seems pointless, and the protagonist seems hardly human; the “facts” pure and simple explain nothing, understand nothing. For ultimately that is what we feel: that De Kock himself does not understand what made him into a monster, cannot even know that he is a monster. As far as he is concerned, the moral of his story, the story of his story, is that he was betrayed by his superiors—and whereas it is of course true that he was used by his superiors and then left to take the rap, it is more striking that he was so ready to be used. Pauw makes the same point by implication when he says that “[t]his system [the apartheid regime and its security network] made a killer like Eugene de Kock one of apartheid's most decorated policemen” (16)—in other words, to split a distinction Pauw may not intend, the system did not make him a killer, it merely decorated him for being one. When De Kock does express remorse it is when he is applying for amnesty, or pleading in mitigation, as Pauw comments, “after being convicted of six murders and when he faced a life behind bars” (19): “I cannot say how dirty one feels. Whatever we attempted in the interests of the country did not work. All that we did was to injure people, to leave people with unforgivable pain. To leave behind children who will never know their parents. I sympathise with the victims as if they were my own children” (De Kock and Gordin 274-75).

Pauw speculates, somewhat charitably: “At the time, though, he had already been incarcerated for more than two years, and maybe the loneliness of being locked away in a solitary cell has compelled him to come to terms with his evil deeds and the futility of his dirty war” (19). Again the ambiguous term “come to terms with” raises the issue of the function of confession: to make the perpetrator feel more comfortable with his “evil deeds,” or to bring him to some understanding of their significance? De Kock's account has its ironies—in pleading for amnesty he is appealing to qualities he utterly denied in the execution of his duties, and the system he regards as having betrayed him is in fact being entirely consistent in sacrificing him to what it perceives as its own best interests—but he is too concerned with his grievances for such reflections. De Kock is no Macbeth. He has been compared to Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (Pauw 296) for the sheer lack of restraint that characterized his total surrender to the seductions of his own power. But what distinguishes Kurtz as “a remarkable man” is exactly the self-knowledge that De Kock seems to lack: “He had summed up—he had judged. ‘The horror!’ He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candour, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth—the strange commingling of desire and hate” (Conrad 151).

But if many of the confessions before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission lack what we might call the narrative shape of fiction, that which gives significance to experience, what of fiction itself in its dealings with white South African guilt? It seems to me that in this respect white South African fiction arranges itself in relation to two poles, what we might call confessional fiction on one end and heroic romance on the other. The latter category deals with white South African complicity by declaring an exception, creating, in Nadine Gordimer's phrase and title, a “Sport of Nature,” the white person who miraculously escapes complicity and heroically opposes the regime, often through union, sexual or otherwise, with a black protagonist. Gordimer's Hillela is a strange and unconvincing creation—in Michael Chapman's phrase, she, “in utter disregard of all bourgeois convention, sleeps (screws) her way up the African high command” (394). Although marginally less hopeful of the political efficacy of sexual intercourse, Brink's An Act of Terror is also in this tradition; and Etienne van Heerden's Casspirs and Camparis partly uses, partly satirizes, the tradition.3 A late example is Jann Turner's Heartland, which, though set in postdemocratic South Africa, replays most of the old plot devices: the farm background, the black playmate, the racist father, the generational divide, the conservative community, the rebellious daughter, the choice between duty to Afrikanerdom and the sexual allure of the young black revolutionary, the thuggish police, the Security Branch killer. Turner justifies all these plot devices by setting her story in a community so backward as to have escaped such changes as were wrought by the change of government. In this respect her novel is reminiscent of Brink's Imaginings of Sand, which also tries to create a heroine at odds with the racist society in which she finds herself: in this instance the conservative town of Oudtshoorn, on the eve of the 1994 election—itself something of a recurring trope in South African fiction of the era. It may be no coincidence that both these novels should strike us as dated: their heroic paradigms don't fit the new dispensation, and they are too stereotyped to survive their topicality.

The heroic tradition is a profoundly uncomfortable one in white South African fiction in that it tries to find in the spirit of an individual a redemptive resistance to the malaise of a nation. As executed in the works I have mentioned, the tradition produces stereotype and cliché of an order that should have been impossible to authors like Brink and Gordimer (as Heartland is Turner's first novel, it is impossible to tell what, if anything, she could do if liberated from the stereotypes of struggle she deploys so mechanically).4

If the heroic mode is simply too remote to the experience of most white South Africans to provide a believable basis for fiction, the confessional mode has produced a wide and varied body of literature. Of this kind of fiction, Ndebele, interestingly confining himself to Afrikaans literature, has said:

In fact, there may be an informal truth and reconciliation process under way among the Afrikaners. Its contours are taking shape in the form of such novels as Mark Behr's The Smell of Apples. Karel Schoeman's Promised Land anticipated it some years back. Jeanne Goosen's Not All of Us gave it further impetus. I am certain that there are more such narratives which have not yet been translated. Their distinguishing feature is their focus on ordinary social details which pile up into major, disturbing statements. The ordinary Afrikaner family, lost in the illusion of the historic heroism of the group, has to find its moral identity within a national community in which it is freed from the burden of being special.


The comparison with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission suggests, of course, that these novels are in the nature of confessions made before the tribunal of history, in seeking to account for the guilt of “the ordinary Afrikaner family.” But if we assume, with Coetzee, “an underlying motive to tell an essential truth about the self” in confession (“Confession” 252), then there may be something contradictory in the very notion of confessional fiction, in that it is in the nature of fiction to explain, to contextualize that “essential truth,” to provide motives, and, if not to absolve, then at least to make that truth intelligible, and hence perhaps less reprehensible. The novel form tends to privilege the protagonist, especially where, as is often the case in the confessional novel, the narration is in the first person, frequently with a child or young person as narrator or focalizer.

Behr explains his own choice of child narrator as follows:

The child's voice could, I felt, succeed in accusing the abusers while at the same time holding up the mirrors. I hoped, and doubted, that the text would show how one is born into, loved into, violated into discrimination and how none of us were, or are, free from it. But to do so I needed a voice that would seem not to seek pardon or excuse, in a language different from the adult's which invariably contains in it whether it wants or not, a corrupt and corrupting formula, always an attempt to justify or frequently to demand absolution

(“Living” 2)

Behr is saying that the child is more likely to render without “attempt to justify” the guilt of white South Africa, thus to be more truly confessional; but the child's voice may have the advantage exactly in not needing “to demand absolution” in that it is granted absolution through the legal fiction that the child is not accountable, and the related fictional convention that children are “innocent” in a generally unspecified sense. There is, in short, a kind of absolution of form in the rite of passage novel, in its characteristic presupposition of the myth of prelapsarian innocence.

In Jo-Anne Richards's The Innocence of Roast Chicken, the farm is consciously used as an image of Eden before the fall. The narrator, Kati, recalls her childhood visits to her grandparents' farm: “Everyone should have a farm like that in their childhood—too idyllic to be real outside the tangible world of a child's imagining. And it really was like that, the perfect background for a charmed and untouched childhood. The farm itself was untouched: by ugliness, unpleasantness, poverty, politics” (1). The innocence of roast chicken is the innocence of the child who has as yet no inkling of the complex power relations of the “ugliness, unpleasantness, poverty, [and] politics” that are needed to raise and slaughter and roast the chicken and bring it to her table. It's one measure of white South African guilt that it feels uncomfortable about eating.5 We don't dare protest that we must eat in order to live, because we know we eat rather better than is strictly necessary, and we know that quite often the food is prepared for us by people who don't eat it themselves. It is only as children that we are untroubled alike by thoughts of the animals that are killed for us or by consciousness of the labor involved in the killing and preparation.

Thus, like Richards's Kati, Patrick Winter, the protagonist of Damon Galgut's The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, also recalls his childhood visits to the farm as a time of innocence. Speaking of the screaming of pigs being slaughtered, Patrick says: “When I was younger, I have to confess, their screams were beautiful to me. On those occasions I holidayed at the farm, I was up at six on Tuesday. I waited down at the bare patch of earth, ringed by little black children. With the first rays of sun coming down to the ground, wrapped in a thin silver mist, I watched pigs being carefully stuck” (28). Paradoxically, what Patrick has “to confess” to is an innocence that does not register the terror of the dying pigs. But here, too, the childhood perspective is lost; the beautiful screaming of pigs becomes a harbinger of death: “But now,” says Patrick, returning to the farm after his experiences in the Border war, “the noise was hideous” (28).

And in Behr's The Smell of Apples, the eponymic apples are obviously the apples before the fall: “Even the apples we brought to this country,” the young Marnus's father tells him, as proof of the white contribution to Africa. Like the chickens, these apples are taken for granted as white produce; to the child they are associated with the idyll of a landscape created and maintained by God. Looking out over the beauty of False Bay, Marnus's father passes on to his son the myth of the empty landscape: “And this country was empty before our people arrived. Everything, everything you see, we built up from nothing. This is our place, given to us by God and we will look after it. Whatever the cost” (124). The cost is, of course, horrendous, as the book demonstrates through its flashes forward to the Angolan war. But for the young Marnus himself the loss of innocence is registered through the changed perception of the childhood memory: “These apples are rotten or something,” says Frikkie (179), Marnus's best friend, after he has been raped by Marnus's father, the general in the South African Defence Force.

In a related pattern, Coetzee's clearly autobiographical work, Boyhood, also evokes the farm as center of a lost freedom: “Farms are places of freedom, of life” (22), the young John says; and yet later on he reflects on his own uncertain tenure in that place of freedom and life: “He may visit the farm but he will never live there. The farm is not his home; he will never be more than a guest, an uneasy guest” (79). As I shall argue more fully later on, what distinguishes Coetzee's memoir from the other works discussed here is that the child is from the start outcast from paradise, and thus never innocent.

What concerns me here are the consequences of this mythical pattern for the act of writing itself. Writing from outside paradise, whom does one blame for the expulsion? By the teaching of postlapsarian theology, we are conceived and born in sin; but by the logic of Eden, we fall into sin through being tempted by an outside agency. None of these novels is so naïve as to seek merely to shift the blame to some stereotypical racist villain. Indeed, in The Innocence of Roast Chicken Richards gives the young Kati just such a simplistic perspective in order to dissociate the novel itself from its naiveté: “I knew that if we had our way, and got those damned Afrikaners out of power, everything would be OK” (15). Against this is placed the statement by Neil, her teenaged brother, who has clearly developed a political conscience: “Maybe it's all our faults […] for letting things happen. […] We're to blame, me and you” (104).

Kati conscientiously cultivates this sense of communal guilt; so much so that she appropriates responsibility for the novel's climactic incident, in which a young black man, who has had to go to work for the neighboring Afrikaans farmer, is goaded through extreme humiliation to rape the mother of the farmer and in retaliation is forced to castrate himself. It is very difficult to see how the eight-year-old Kati could in any sense be held responsible for this event; but it's part of Richards's point that white South African guilt is not necessarily a matter of the actual commitment of atrocities as much as being part of a system that makes those atrocities possible and even necessary to its own survival.

At some near-allegorical level one wants to grant Richards her point, that the black man is forced to emasculate himself because of the abdication of those who should be preventing it; but at a primary level the novel still reads as an indictment of stereotypical Afrikaner racism: the drunken farmer who beats his laborers with a sjambok (riding whip) for pulling up flowers by mistake is just more accessible to blame than the terrified little girl. His very physical make-up testifies against him: “He was wearing gumboots, belted khaki shorts and a shirt. Large-bellied, he was dark and, I suppose, handsome in a big-boned way. He had piercing blue eyes under startling brows, but his hair was shorn to bristles, back and sides” (102). Given the ideological implications of a beer-belly and a short-back-and-sides, Kati's neighbor is so obviously the villain of the piece that the assumption of guilt on her part comes to seem like noble scrupulousness.

Although Richards's novel, like Behr's, insists that the child is implicated in the structures which guarantee the privileged childhood, both depend for their effect on an implicit amnesty accorded the child-as-victim. Richards's Kati becomes, in fact, almost heroic in her assumption of guilt: “And for many years I carried the full guilt of that year. I lugged the intense, silent burden of having caused everything that happened by doing something very bad, or not standing in the way of bad things—to field and divert them from us, from my farm” (1). The implication seems to be that guilt, like luggage, is something that you can carry for somebody else. The narrator's insistence, too, that she has been emotionally warped by the experience (and she is certainly unusually crabby) somehow turns her into the main victim of the affair (as for the castrated black man, he goes to prison and, we are told, “got plump” there [248]).

As far as Behr's actual confession of collaboration is concerned, Sarah Nuttall and Carli Coetzee have suggested that one of the consequences, by implication not wholly unplanned, may be that Behr has earned “praise for the fact that he had made this admission, and therefore turned himself into a victim-hero: his bad consciousness as a student and his subsequent silence is denied, and he enters history as one of the ‘good’ white South Africans, entitled to membership of the new nation by means of his confession” (Introduction 2-3). And indeed, in Behr's own formulation, he was relatively passive in the process that turned him into a spy: he says that he hoped his novel “would show how one is born into, loved into, violated into discrimination and how none of us were, or are, free from it” (“Living” 1). One of the incidental effects of this perspective is to subsume individual agency in communal guilt and to efface the difference between unconscious complicity and deliberate collaboration. And the novel itself dramatizes the process by which a young boy is co-opted into the system to the extent that he eventually tacitly condones his father's rape of his little friend. Here the specifics of literature work against the general thesis: the universal guilt, when particularized in the form of an affecting account of how the young Marnus is drawn into an evil system largely through love, comes to seem like a theoretical abstraction against the boy's dilemma.

In Galgut's The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, the protagonist has a nervous breakdown while fighting in the border war against the South West African People's Organisation, after and presumably as a consequence of shooting a young SWAPO soldier. A year later, partly recovered and attending the independence celebrations of the new Namibia, he identifies with the assassinated white SWAPO activist Andrew Lovell (fairly clearly modeled on the actual Anton Lubowski) and ponders his own relation to the dead man and the dead man's killer:

Can one be what one kills?

The possibility blinded me. Was I that murderer (whose name now escaped me) whose face I had seen on the screen? Were there two selves in my round, tiny skull: Andrew Lovell and the man who had shot him?

Turning to his mother, he says:

“I didn't mean it. […] I was just defending myself.”


“I didn't know what I was doing.”


This interchange with his mother has Patrick on the verge of another breakdown as he contemplates his own part in the struggle. Once again we are aware mainly of the conflict in the young protagonist, and his guilt comes to seem like war neurosis, inflicted upon him by others.

The rite of passage novel characteristically privileges its protagonist and sees him or her as interacting with a coercive society in which guilt is incurred through entry into a culpability always already there and thus in a sense externalized and de-individualized. To this pattern Coetzee's Boyhood is an exception in its refusal to grant the protagonist a sense of remorse, an occasion for confession. Perhaps this is because he does not split his character in two according to the pattern outlined by Nuttall and Coetzee:

One typical mode of autobiographical writing practised in South Africa at the moment is to write life-stories that proclaim one's liberation from the bonds of the past. Another, perhaps produced more often by white writers, is the adoption of the mode of the confessional [which …] is constructed around the narration of a self which is in some ways “split.” The narrating self in these texts typically aims to effect a distance from an earlier, politically less enlightened or in other ways unacceptable, version of the self.

(Introduction 4)

By contrast with the novels discussed so far, which do try to create this distance, Coetzee's memoir is perfectly cold blooded about his own complicity in the events and structures he describes and does not seek to establish moral distance by implying or even encouraging horror or revulsion. (This may be one reason why he avoids the first-person narrative with its confessional bias.) He tells the story of Eddie, a seven-year-old “Coloured” boy who came to work for Coetzee's family but who ran away and had to be punished; the punishment was meted out enthusiastically by Trevelyan, their young English lodger: “So Trevelyan, who was English, was the one to beat Eddie. […] How does Trevelyan, then, fit into his theory that the English are good?” (74). More interestingly, how does the young Coetzee, ambivalent even about his own Englishness, fit into his own theory? It is one of the strengths of the memoir that Coetzee does not try to do so. The young boy does indeed register some human loss in the punishment and expulsion of Eddie, but it is not a loss that turns the boy into either a victim of his own guilt or a perpetrator of Eddie's pain; his complicity is a simple fact, as is Eddie's resentment of him: the young John “knows that Eddie is thinking of him. In the dark Eddie's eyes are two yellow slits. One thing he knows for sure: Eddie will have no pity on him” (77).

Coetzee records dispassionately the boy's involvement in his own little world and doesn't ignore what is unattractive about it. His treatment of little Eddie is of a piece with his treatment of his parents and his brother; Coetzee knows that the child is never innocent. There is no self-absolution here. The price Coetzee pays for this is that his persona is a self-absorbed little creature whom it is quite difficult to pity. The description of the young John gloating over his father's hangover is chilling in its repudiation of the man:

He steps closer. His eyes are growing accustomed to the light. His father is wearing pyjama pants and a cotton singlet. There is a red V at his throat where sunburn gives way to the pallor of his chest. Beside the bed is a chamber-pot in which cigarette-stubs float in brownish urine. He has not seen anything uglier in his life. […] Since the day his father came back from the War they have fought, in a second war in which his father stood no chance of winning because he could never have foreseen how pitiless, how tenacious his enemy would be. For seven years that war has ground on; today he has triumphed.


To Coetzee, then, this war, which he calls in The Master of Petersburg a war of “the old against the young, the young against the old” (247), precedes and possibly supersedes the war between white and black, and this makes the child as much a perpetrator as a victim, a sharer of as well as a contender for the privilege of the father. There is little mercy or compassion here, and no self-pity. There is not even the guilt that would prompt to confession; there is only the implication that innocence is always already fraught with experience.

If the farm as trope has come to be ironical in the modern South African novel, it can never unambiguously signify even the qualified pastoralism of Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm (1883) or Pauline Smith's The Beadle (1926). The irony is particularly strong in Afrikaans fiction, with its tradition of the farm novel as the bearer of the rural values that Coetzee has called “patriarchal capitalism” (“Farm” 69). Indeed, part of the horror of the revelation of the existence of the death squad at Vlakplaas and other similar farms was in the fact that these were farms, once productive agricultural units, that had come to be used exclusively for the business of killing and burying human beings. De Kock himself provides us with a useful corrective to the farm-as-idyll stereotype in his recollection of his own childhood holidays on the farm: “We seldom had school holidays in the true sense of the word; I started working on farms when I was 12 […]. We worked from dusk to dawn because mechanisation had not yet reached the farm where I spent my time” (47).

Van Heerden, after his own masterly farm novel, Toorberg (1986), opens his Kikoejoe on an ironic modulation of Karen Blixen's opening to Out of Africa: “Ver in Afrika, aan die voet van die berg, lê 'n vakansieplaas” (Far in Africa, at the foot of a mountain, there is a guest farm [1]).6 The story is set in 1960 on a guest farm in the Karoo, the Hotel Halesowen: the farm, being no longer self-sustaining, has to take paying guests to survive. The inheritance, as part of a family trust, weighs heavily on the recipient, the narrator's father, who feels trapped on the farm, while his brother pursues a successful Broederbond-driven career in the Civil Service, and his sister travels the world researching genealogies. The narrator/focalizer, the ten-year-old Fabian, is for much of the time merely an observer, indeed a spy, venturing out at night to eavesdrop on the guests and residents of the farm, recording dispassionately the events and attitudes he encounters. His main contribution to the action is in smuggling books to Reuben, the chief steward and main support of Fabian's distraught mother, who finds comfort in her endless tots of brandy. The family's racist attitudes—the father's white supremacist views, the mother's amiable patronizing of Reuben—are simply registered, neither approved of nor condemned, but we have a sense of a dispensation that is doomed, of a community that is clinging to its own bankrupt values with no alternative other than exile. Fabian's aunt, the cosmopolitan lesbian Geert, tells him: “Fabiantjie, jy moet uit, uit hierdie verstokte, verstikkende Karoo, uit hierdie stowwerige land, uit Afrika” (Little Fabian, you must get out, out of this stultified, stifling Karoo, out of this dusty country, out of Africa [127]).

Like Coetzee's John, Fabian is not an overtly confessional figure. He accepts his complicity in this system as he accepts everything else about his childhood, as something that he was born to, that he played his own part in, according to his opportunities and the guidance given him: “Die volgende jaar sal Verwoerd uit die Statebond wegbreek, en ek sal—soos al die ander kinders in ons skool—'n goue Republiekmedalje en 'n klein Republiekvlaggie by die skool kry” (The following year Verwoerd will break away from the Commonwealth, and—like all the children in our school—I'll be given a golden Republic medal and small Republic flag at school [36]). If there is guilt here, it is, like the golden medal, something that is bestowed upon him, not as an individual but as a member of a particular community. Indeed, the most strongly registered guilt is that of the adult narrator for judging his own childhood:

Want om vanuit vandag, soos ek hier sit, die gebeure van daardie jare te rangskik, is om 'n meerdere posisie in te neem.

Jy kyk terug, jy beoordeel met die insig van latere jare, jy veroordeel so maklik, jy kan die deernis so vinnig deur die vingers laat glip en jou mense niks meer maak as figurante of marionette nie.


For to arrange the events of those years from the perspective of today is to assume a position of superiority.

You look back, you judge with the insight of later years, you judge too easily. You can let the compassion slip through your fingers so quickly and make your characters nothing but walk-on figures or puppets.

This judgement is, of course, in the first place a literary judgement, a writer assessing his own treatment of his characters, but it is precisely in this respect that narrative is evaluative of experience and ultimately of itself: “Dit is tog waarin die geheue uitmunt: verraad teenoor die verlede en húlle met wie jy die verlede gedeel het” (After all, that is what memory is best at: betrayal of the past and of those with whom you shared the past [133]). Oddly, what this most recalls is Constable William Harrington at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission grieving for his betrayal of his past in declaring his guilt in the present.

For, like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, what contemporary South African fiction is most concerned with is the past, that past with which all white writers have such a troubled relation.7 An early example of such a fiction-as-exorcism is Jeanne Goosen's Ons Is Nie Almal So Nie (1990), the very title of which (We're Not All Like That) establishes, albeit ironically, the urge to dissociate oneself from the injustices of apartheid. Set in the early years of the Malan regime, the novel recounts, through the unblinking eyes of its child narrator, Gertie, the effects on a white working-class family of the Group Areas Act (1950) and the Separate Amenities Act (1953). The child registers these events only as they impinge on her small world, circumscribed by her mother's job as an “usherette” in a cinema and her father's asthma: she has no opinions, serving only as reflector of the adult attitudes around her. Recounting the invasion of the “white” section of a train by a group of blacks protesting the Separate Amenities Act, she simply renders the vocabulary and attitudes of the adults around her, the conscience-stricken mother as well as the unrepentantly racist father:

Toe die trein by Kaapstasie instroom, was die poelies reg vir hulle. Soos die kaffers afklim, is hulle een vir een deur die poelies gevang en met die Black Meraai tronk toe geneem. Daar was baie poeliese en die kaffers kon niks doen nie, want die poelies het rewolwers gehad.

“Eintlik is dit darem 'n disgrace, Piet,” het my ma gesê toe sy klaar gelees het.

“Vir wat 'n disgrace!” het my pa uitgeroep. “Dis kaffers en die goed word by die dag astranter. Hulle moet hulle op hul plek hou. Maar Malan sal hulle én die hotnots vasvat.”


When the train steamed into Cape Town, the police were ready for them. As the kaffirs got off, they were caught one by one by the police and taken to prison in the Black Maria. There were lots of police and the kaffirs couldn't do anything, because the police had revolvers.

“Actually it really is a disgrace, Piet,” my mother said when she'd finished reading.

“Disgrace, what!” my father exclaimed. “They're kaffirs and the creatures are getting more forward by the day. They have to be kept in their place. But Malan will sort them out, them and the hotnots.”

The child, not capable of discriminating between the attitudes expressed, serves merely as an impassive recorder; the narrative relies on the reader's own moral responses—but a response conditioned in a complex way by the narrative as a whole, which establishes a much closer rapport with the mother than with the father and the racial attitudes he represents. By the same token, the reader comes to be identified with the mother's clumsy attempt to reach across the barrier of race; as their next-door “Coloured” neighbors move out as directed by the Group Areas Act, she tries to present them with a cake she has baked:

My ma stap om na Gregory se ma se kant toe met die koek. “Ek het net gou gekom om vir julle ietsie te gee om julle nuwe plek mee te vier,” sê my ma en hou die bord met die koek na die vrou.

Gregory se ma kyk na haar en sê: “Ons het niks nodig nie, dankie, Mevrou.” Toe draai sy haar gesig en kyk voor haar by die venster uit.

Die man bly net so sit agter die steering.

Sy vrou sê vir hom: “In godsnaam, ry net dat ons hier kan uit!”

Hy sit die enjin in reverse.

My ma hardloop agterna met die koek en skree: “Ons is nie almal so nie!” maar die vrou draai die venster in haar gesig toe. Hulle ry weg sonder om een maal na ons te kyk, Gregory en sy ma en pa.


My mother walks around to Gregory's mother's side with the cake. “I've just come to give you a little something to celebrate your new place,” says my mother and holds out the plate with the cake to the woman.

Gregory's mother looks at her and says: “We don't need anything, thank you, Mrs. van Greunen.” Then she turns her face and looks out of the window in front of her.

The man stays sitting just like that behind the steering wheel.

His wife says to him: “For god's sake, just drive so that we can get out of here!”

He puts the engine in reverse.

My mother runs after them with the cake and shouts: “We're not all like that!” but the woman closes the window in her face. They drive off without looking at us once, Gregory and his mother and father.

The mother's desperate repudiation of her share in her group's guilt is also, by implication, an attempt at exoneration extended to the author and reader: the act of writing the book, and also of reading it, establishes author and reader at a distance from the attitudes voiced by the father—but then also shut out behind the window contemptuously closed by Gregory's mother. The tableau of the mother desperately trying to present a cake to an ex-neighbor who contemptuously spurns it works at one level as a metaphor of the ineffectual remorse of the Afrikaner, helplessly enmeshed in spite of herself in her people's guilt; on another, tougher level, it satirizes, by implication, all remorse as an empty gesture in the face of the dispossessed, “a little something to celebrate your new place”—their new place miles out in the newly created group areas.

Ons Is Nie Almal So Nie (Not All of Us) owes something of its originality to the fact that it is a very urban novel, with a working-class cast: traditionally, the Afrikaans novel deals either with the urban middle class or with the rural farming class. Goosen shows the reader a disinherited Afrikaner milieu in which the traditional values have been replaced by, on the one hand, the popular culture of Hollywood musicals, and on the other hand the paranoid racism of the newly empowered National Party. The much-vaunted religious values of the Afrikaner yield to the spiritualists, clairvoyants, and charismatic charlatanism to which the mother is driven for consolation and support after the death of her husband; the novel ends on the terrifying spectacle of the mother babbling in tongues at a religious revival, adrift, searching to recover the certainty of the old values that have become contaminated.

Marlene van Niekerks's Triomf is in a sense a continuation of this record of decline, in that the degeneration of the Afrikaner is here even further advanced: the “child” is the epileptic forty-year-old Lambert, the son of one or another of his mother's two brothers, whose sexual experience has been limited to his own mother. This close but hardly loving family, the inbred triumph of Afrikaner nationalism, face the year 1994: Lambert is turning 40 on April 26, the day of the first democratic election. Treppie and Pop, his two fathers/uncles have promised him a woman—his first outside the family—to celebrate the occasion. Triomf is thus a parodic rite of passage novel, Lambert's belated initiation doubling the country's painful accession to democracy. Lambert achieves some kind of anagnorisis in discovering who his real father is or might be; but instead of bringing about insight and maturity in the protagonist, the discovery produces only catastrophe in that Lambert kills Pop by accident, wounds his mother and sometime sexual partner with a knife, breaks all of Treppie's fingers, and breaks his own leg in kicking at the dog—all this on the day that their house is painted a glorious and pristine white through a misunderstanding of the marketing methods of the paint company.

Here, too, the characters have no innocence: they are living on the ruins and shards of the dispossessed black township, Sophiatown, that dispossession constituting the triumph of statecraft after which the new white housing estate and the novel are named.8 But nor do they have any sense of guilt: the confession is positioned, as it were, outside the narrative: these are the children of apartheid, conceived and born in a sin that nobody wants to take responsibility for, though the visits of the National Party canvassers signal an anxiety on the part of the about-to-be-displaced ruling party that they once again need this vote fodder. For the rest, the Jehovah's Witnesses visit in a futile attempt to convert these lost souls to some form of spiritual awareness (Lambert ogles the female Witness, his erection disconcertingly visible to all).

Van Niekerk draws on some powerful Afrikaans myths: the reenactment of the Great Trek, here paralleled by the trek to the city, the urbanization and disinheritance of the Afrikaner working class. The dignity of poverty is here mercilessly satirized, in a family that is as undecorative as it is indecorous, immoral, and feckless. The diet of Coke, Klipdrift brandy, polony, and white bread is deliberately set against the meat-eating neighbors who can afford T-bone steaks, and by implication against that glorification of meat that is such a strong element in Afrikaner tradition (Eben Venter's wonderful satire on the farm novel is called Foxtrot van die Vleiseters [Foxtrot of the Meat-eaters]). Lambert's birthday gift, a “coloured” prostitute, delivers a devastating judgement on him and his clan: “You bastard! Look at you! Look at this place! Who the hell do you think you are, hey? You're not even white, man, you're a fuckin' backward piece of low class shit, that's what you are. Useless fuckin' white trash!” (382).

Triomf is a tentatively transitional novel in that it traces the transition from the “old” South Africa to the “new” in terms of a family that is clearly not going to change radically, although there is some resigned, hardly voluntary, acceptance of the changes around them. Pop, the bone-weary mother-sister-mistress of the family, reflects on their new neighbors, now that the previous occupants, a culturally more advanced lesbian couple, have moved out:

Oorkant woon mos ok nou swart mense. En hulle is okay, wat. Plant net mielies daar op die sypaadjie. Treppies sê dis 'n baie goeie ontwikkeling. Hy sê hy wens daai twee dilly dykes wil 'n slag kom kyk by hulle ou huis en 'n voorbeeld vat. Want in hierdie tye kan 'n mens nie bekostig om kunsmis te koop vir sweet peas nie.


We have black people across the way now. And they're okay, what. It's just that they plant mealies there on the pavement. Treppies says it's a very good development. He says he wishes those two dilly dykes would come and have a look at their old house and take an example. Because in these times you can't afford to buy fertilizer for sweet peas.

The whole novel is a mordant recognition of the flimsiness of the fabric of Afrikaner nationalism, the weak base on which it is built. And the presence—and eventual departure—of the “dilly dykes” (presumably an ironical reference to the author and her companion) across the way, with their plants and their music, reminds us of the abdication of “culture” as social and political force in the face of such destitution.

It would seem, then, that the problem for the white South African writer is how to find a perspective on South Africa that is not merely abject. The lugubrious “confessional” mode of The Innocence of Roast Chicken, even the more thoughtfully handled moral paralysis of The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, and the hopelessly compromised ironies of The Smell of Apples represent one stage of “coming to terms” with the past. A more robust assessment of the past, a tougher kind of confession, is embodied in the works by Coetzee, Van Heerden, Goosen, and Van Niekerk discussed here. It is possible that this latter mode, with its surprising element of comedy and farce, will liberate these writers from the past.9 Essential as it has been to “come to terms” with that past, the challenge for literature, as for the rest of non-literary South Africa, will be to erect habitable structures on the foundations of remorse.


  1. But compare André Brink's use of the same term: “One might even say that unless the enquiries of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are extended, complicated and intensified in the imaginings of literature, society cannot sufficiently come to terms with its past to face the future” (“Stories” 30).

  2. Even more blatant are the “confessions” which, because they are not made to the TRC and are not intended to achieve amnesty for the confessant, are simple boasts—such as that of Ferdi Barnard, paid killer for the Civil Co-operation Bureau: “It's true, I killed him […] David Webster. […] He flew through the air and landed on the pavement. I saw it, because I shot him. I did it. […] It was all the tea parties and shit. That's why we killed him. I pulled the trigger, I shot him” (Pauw 9).

  3. For a comparison of Brink and Van Heerden, see Heyns, “Overtaken by History?”

  4. See Hunter, “Moms and Moral Midgets,” for the argument, from a feminist perspective, that fiction needs to render, “instead of stereotyped images, visions both particularised and wide-ranging enough to create a more authentic view of white, English-speaking women under apartheid” (37). She cites, as examples of the relatively few such novels, Gordimer's postapartheid novel, None to Accompany Me (1994), Alison Lowry's Natural Rhythm (1993), E. M. Macphail's Phoebe and Nio (1987), and Jane Rosenthal's Uncertain Consolations (1993).

  5. Damon Galgut's early story, “Small Circle of Beings,” also places its narrator in troubled relation to an environment in which some people must be exploited so that other people may eat, and in which one's view of the landscape is conditioned by one's possession of it: “Our territory ends here and the neighbouring farm begins. It's a pleasant place to stand, giving a view of cultivated lands arranged in patterns discernible only from here, so high. Labourers work there among the trees, picking the fruit as if to feed an endless hunger. But it isn't theirs” (Small 7).

  6. All translations in this essay are my own.

  7. Two recent novels by Brink, Imaginings of Sand and Devil's Valley, both entail an uncovering of the past; Anne Landsman's The Devil's Chimney is similarly based on a dialogue between past and present.

  8. Van Niekerk has said about her characters: “I don't think one of those people in the book is portrayed as innocent. […] Neither in their political consciousness nor in their sexual activity. They are all guilty. Because they have all, for various personal reasons, contributed to their fate. These people bought into the weak romanticism of Afrikaner nationalism, just as they buy into the weak romanticism of TV ads” (qtd. in de Waal 5).

  9. This statement is problematic insofar as it seeks to pronounce on Coetzee, whose Disgrace, which appeared since the writing of this essay, hardly enacts a “liberation from the past.” However, it could be argued that, for all its bleakness, Disgrace deliberately avoids a confessional mode, seeking instead to come to terms with the diminished possibilities bequeathed by history and one's own part in that history.

Works Cited

Behr, Mark. “Living in the Faultlines.” Address given to the Faultlines Conference, Cape Town, 4 July 1994.

———. The Smell of Apples. 1993. London: Abacus, 1996.

Blixen, Karen. Out of Africa. London: Putnam, 1937.

Brink André. An Act of Terror: A Novel. London: Secker and Warburg, 1991.

———. Devil's Valley. London: Secker and Warburg, 1998.

———. Imaginings of Sand. London: Secker and Warburg, 1996.

———. “Stories of History: Re-imagining the Past in Post-apartheid Narrative.” Nuttall and Coetzee 29-42.

Chapman, Michael. Southern African Literatures. London: Longman, 1996.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1899. Youth, Heart of Darkness, The End of the Tether. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984.

Coetzee, J. M. Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life. London: Secker and Warburg, 1997.

———. “Confession and Double Thought.” Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews. Ed. David Attwell. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992. 251-93.

———. Disgrace. London: Secker and Warburg, 1999.

———. “Farm Novel and Plaasroman.” White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988. 63-81.

———. The Master of Petersburg. London: Secker and Warburg, 1994.

De Kock, Eugene, and Jeremy Gordin. A Long Night's Damage: Working for the Apartheid State. Saxonwold: Contra, 1998.

De Waal, Shaun. “A Novel that Finds Adversity in Triomf.” Mail and Guardian [Johannesburg] 20 Apr. 1999. 30 Aug. 1999.

Galgut, Damon. The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs. 1991. London: Abacus, 1992.

———. Small Circle of Beings. Braamfontein: Lowry, 1988.

Goosen, Jeanne. Ons Is Nie Almal So Nie. Pretoria: HAUM-Literêr, 1990.

———. Not All of Us. Trans. André Brink. Strand: Quellerie, 1992.

Gordimer, Nadine. None to Accompany Me. Cape Town: David Philip, 1994.

———. A Sport of Nature. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Heyns, Michiel. “Overtaken by History? Obsolescence-anxiety in André Brink's An Act of Terror and Etienne van Heerden's Casspirs en Campari's.English Academy Review 11 (1994): 62-72.

Hunter, Eva. “Moms and Moral Midgets: South African Feminisms and Characterisation in Novels by White Women.” Current Writing 11 (1999): 36-54.

Krog, Antjie. Country of My Skull. Johannesburg: Random House, 1998.

Landsman, Anne. The Devil's Chimney. Johannesburg: Ball, 1998.

Lowry, Alison. Natural Rhythm. London: William Heinemann, 1993.

Macphail, E. M. Phoebe and Nio. Johannesburg: Hippogrif, 1987.

Ndebele, Njabulo. “Memory, Metaphor, and the Triumph of Narrative.” Nuttall and Coetzee 9-28.

Nutttall, Sarah. “Telling ‘Free’ Stories? Memory and Democracy in South African Autobiography since 1994.” Nuttall and Coetzee 75-88.

Nuttall, Sarah, and Carli Coetzee, eds. Negotiating the Past: The Making of Memory in South Africa. Cape Town: Oxford UP, 1997.

Nuttall, Sarah, and Carli Coetzee. Introduction. Nuttall and Coetzee 1-15.

Pauw, Jacques. Into the Heart of Darkness: Confessions of Apartheid's Assassins. Johannesburg: Ball, 1997.

Richards, Jo-Anne. The Innocence of Roast Chicken. London: Hodder Headline, 1996.

Rosenthal, Jane. Uncertain Consolations. Cape Town: Snailpress, 1993.

Schreiner, Olive. The Story of an African Farm. 1883. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.

Smith, Pauline. The Beadle. 1926. Cape Town: A. A. Balkema, 1972.

Turner, Jann. Heartland. London: Orion, 1997.

Van Heerden, Etienne. Casspirs and Camparis. Trans. Catherine Knox. New York: Viking, 1993.

———. Casspirs en Campari's. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1991.

———. Kikoejoe. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1996.

———. Kikuyu. Trans. Catherine Knox. Cape Town: Kwela and Johannesburg: Random, 1998.

———. Toorberg. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1986.

Van Niekerk, Marlene. Triomf. Cape Town and Pretoria: Quellerie, 1994.

———. Triomf. Trans. Leon de Kock. London: Little, 1999.

Venter, Eben. Foxtrot van die Vleiseters. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1993.

Grant Farred (essay date spring 2000)

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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 revolution that will transform utterly the lives of those audacious enough to prosecute it. In the spirit of the doubting anarchists he describes as his lasting influences, Mda leaves the stage with few positive commitments. With its thoroughgoing suspicion of systems of every sort, his drama comes closer to the theatre of the absurd than the theatre of commitment.

—Jan Gorak, “Nothing to Root For: Zakes Mda and South African Resistance Theatre”

Zakes Mda's first novel, Ways of Dying, is a flawed work that is, in part because of its shortcomings, symptomatic of the condition of postapartheid South Africa. Resonating with the rich uncertainty of the political transition from the repressions of National Party (NP) rule to the democratic government of the African National Congress (ANC), Mda has produced a work that is located in an indistinct, contradictory historical moment. Set in an era that appears to belong in equal measure to the past, present, and future, Ways of Dying captures the entangled and uncertain tenor of an historic(al) era—a moment in which these different epochs are difficult to distinguish, complexly bound up in each other. In this novel the anticipations of the democratic future coexist awkwardly with the memories of past injustice. The poverty of the apartheid era, for instance, is sometimes indistinguishable from the current deprivations of the squatter camps, a ghetto that one Mda protagonist tersely refers to as the “informal settlement, as the place is politely called” (42).

However, while Mda's chief protagonists, the rural transplants Toloki and Noria, struggle to negotiate their pasts and map their futures, the immediacy of their moment is their chief concern. The present, both for the characters and for the “new” nation, functions as a barometer of change. Years after Toloki and Noria have moved from the nondescript South African countryside to the unnamed metropolis, five years after the first democratic elections, a few short months since the retirement of an iconic president (Nelson Mandela) and the inauguration of his successor, and almost a full decade after the release of political prisoners and the unbanning of the black liberation movements (1990), this is the point at which to take stock—personally for Toloki and Noria, and historically for the nation. It is at this fin-de-siècle conjuncture, which finds Noria in a crisis (having just buried a second child) and the postapartheid nation celebrating itself, that the present has to display its difference from the past: it has to offer more than a hint of chronological and ideological separateness—the postapartheid moment as opposed to the apartheid past. The present, Ways of Dying shows, bears the (often onerous) weight of both history and the expectations of the future. In order for the postapartheid future to be manifestly different, the novel suggests, it has to distance itself from the political atrocities and the (anti-apartheid) radicalism of the past. Although the novel's antipathy to the repressions of the past are explicable, Mda opposes (however mutedly) any recourse to earlier modes of political resistance: it is precisely because Ways of Dying implicitly rejects anti-apartheid radicalism that this essay will engage the problematics of this postapartheid position. Why is anti-apartheid opposition so untenable to Mda? What fears does the radicalism of the past hold for the present and the future?

A writer with a complex sense of historical process, Mda aims his critiques less at the excesses of the apartheid regime (though the apartheid security forces are by no means exonerated) than at the phenomenon known as “black-on-black” violence.1 These ethnic-based clashes, which have in general pitted the migrant hostel Zulus against the urbanized Xhosas have, in some regions, wracked disenfranchised communities from the mid-1980s right up to the present. A writer with a strong affinity for the voiceless and the disempowered, and cautious about a black elite he has dubbed the “new gatekeeping class” (“Learning” 142), Mda conceives Ways of Dying from the perspective of an urban black underclass that understands itself as post-tribal and post-ethnic—ghetto dwellers united not by loyalty to a rural chief, but by poverty. In a moment that is at once telling and didactic, Shadrack (one of Noria's neighbors), inveighs against an expedient tribalism which sets urban hostel residents against the “informal settlement” community: “And you know, what is worse is that I am of the same ethnic group as those hostel dwellers. The tribal chief who has formed them into armies that harass innocent residents merely uses ethnicity as an excuse for his own hunger for power. I am from the same clan as this blood-soaked chief” (47). For Shadrack, tribal affiliation represents little but a “hunger for power,” a transparent rationalization for sponsoring and fuelling intra-black community violence.

While both Noria and Toloki are from the same rural area, their responses to the “ethnic,” state-sponsored violence (“sometimes [the migrant workers] were even helped by the police” [18]) reveals a distinct political difference between Mda's main protagonists. An integral member of the “settlement” (“they do not like to be called squatters” [42]), Noria is a feminist figure actively involved in improving life in the community. Toloki, on the other hand, takes up a unique position on the fringes of the settlement. After years of itinerant labor and homelessness, Toloki has improbably—if not unastutely—fashioned himself as a Professional Mourner, a man who attends funerals, mostly of people with whom he has no relation, in order to lead and orchestrate the public display of grieving: “Throughout the funeral, orator after orator, [Toloki] sat on the mound and made groaning sounds of agony that were so harrowing that they affected all those who were within earshot, filling their eyes with tears” (12).

Although Toloki learns from Noria how to situate himself within the settlement community after he moves in and shares her shack with her, he is never fully committed to integrating himself into the squatters' struggle. His politics is of the removed, abstinent variety, paying lip service to Noria's investment but never adopting her causes as his own. Toloki's political reticence is captured succinctly in his description of his job: “The work of the Professional Mourner was to mourn, and not to intervene in any of the proceedings of the funeral. It would lower the dignity of the profession to be involved in human quarrels” (18). Lacking a sense of irony, Toloki does not pause to reflect that professional mourning is an occupation created by (and practiced only by) him; he has, in his thespian-like garb, single-handedly colonized the territory of the black squatters' grief. At the same time, however, he remains unaffected by the cause of death or its social consequences. (The hollowness of his grieving is registered by the theatricality of his self-representation; Toloki performs his professional duties in a “particularly beautiful outfit all in black comprising a tall shiny top hot, lustrous tight-fitting pants […] and a knee-length velvety black cape buckled with a hand-sized gold-coloured brooch with tassels of yellow, red, and green” [20].)2

Because Toloki is a protagonist with a muted sense of politics, Mda has had to assign the function of sociopolitical interpreter, funeral orator, and community spokesperson/activist to another of his literary creations, the “Nurse.” “What qualified her to be the Nurse,” Mda writes, “was not that she was the last person to see him alive; she was the only one who went out of her way to seek the truth about his death, and to hunt his corpse down when everyone else had given up” (13). The novel itself has largely given up social intervention, repeatedly demonstrating a reluctance to account for the several deaths that mark settlement life. Determined as the Nurse is to “seek the truth,” hers—or his—is only a cameo role. More than Noria, however, the Nurse functions as the narrative antithesis of Toloki: her activism (and Noria's) stands in stark contrast to his non-involvement. It is in part because both these protagonists are historically and politically conscious women that the issue of gender emerges as the novel's most salient critique of the postapartheid state.

More tellingly, however, it is not the activist women but the Professional Mourner with his political remove who functions as a metaphor for postapartheid discourse. This essay argues that Toloki's retreat from a radical politics, articulated here as the refusal to “intervene in the proceedings of the funeral,” represents an unacknowledged, poorly disguised, and disturbing political neutrality. Toloki's position is, however, a complex one; so much so, in fact, that he simultaneously manages neither to give offence to the settlement dwellers nor to mobilize disenfranchised communities to popular dissent. What preoccupies Toloki is constructed as less the itinerant modernist than as formalist literary figure: the creative individual who transcends context and political strife even as he or she is surrounded by the tumultuous workings of history. Ways of Dying's artist represents Mda's attempts to carve out a new space for black writers in postapartheid South Africa, a mode liberated from the incessant political demands placed upon disenfranchised authors in the anti-apartheid struggle. However, such a conception of the black artist is problematic because it is founded upon the fallacious commensurability between the achievement of the postapartheid state and the upliftment of the historically disenfranchised black underclass. The end of apartheid may have created new possibilities for black literature, but it did not signal the onset of economic equality in South African society, and the ongoing inequity that affects every aspect of settlement life. Much as sub-Saharan anticolonial literature found itself confronted with both new and disturbingly familiar challenges in the postcolonial era, so postapartheid writing will have to (re)negotiate its relationship to a black underclass whose living conditions resemble the historical disenfranchisements of the apartheid past.

Finally, this essay offers a critique of Mda's regressive attempt to cast internecine black strife (a mode that belongs mostly, though not exclusively, to the apartheid past) as the most disruptive political enemy. Mda's position is not only problematic in this regard, but it is also disingenuous because it is unclear as to whom these migrants threaten. While the postethnic settlement communities are certainly vulnerable to the “urban(ized) tribesmen,” Ways of Dying shows that the source of violence against this community is as likely to be internal as external. The war-mongering, displaced “tribesmen” may disrupt certain sites in the new nation, but they do not endanger it in any substantial way. This, of course, begs the vital question: why does Ways of Dying configure “tribesmen” as ideologically antagonistic? Why is this collective anonymous straw figure, representative more of a residual, racially divided past than a democratic future, infused with such political import? What issues are deflected, or not engaged, by Mda's choice of antagonist?


After eighteen years of living as a homeless man in an unspecified South African coastal city,3 Toloki crafts a social role for himself as Professional Mourner that is modeled on “monks of eastern religions” (10). Imagining himself as the only member of a “sacred order” (11) that demands spiritual and physical “austerity,” Toloki has sworn off sexual intimacy (10). On the first night that he and Noria spend together in the shack he has helped her build and decorate, Toloki finds himself sorely tempted:

There is nothing that he wants more in the world than to wake her up, and hold her in his arms, and tell her how much he admires her, and assure her that everything will be alright. But of course he cannot do such a thing. He can't look at her sleeping posture for too long either. That would be tantamount to raping her. It would be like doing dirty things to a goddess.


That Toloki “can't look at her sleeping posture for too long” because it “would be tantamount to raping” Noria is a revealing instance of “monastic hubris” (143). In maintaining his purity, Toloki compels himself to abstain from any substantive contact with the world. Unable to contemplate, let alone countenance, physical contact with Noria, Toloki situates himself as the perpetual observer, the spiritually esoteric and devout outsider looking in and at the settlement community—as well, of course, as gazing fondly on its “goddess.” Although the final scene in the novel is a moving one, with he and Noria sharing a sparse meal with the children of the neighborhood on New Year's Eve, Toloki remains aloof from everyone in the community—and their struggles—but Noria. Toloki the ascetic, the creative individual who decorates Noria's shack with pictures and advertisements from Home and Garden magazine, is only vicariously and partially affiliated with the settlement, in it but not truly part of it.

Toloki's role as Professional Mourner represents, because of his resilient (though disguised) isolation, contradictory social functions. In his eccentric black costume, Toloki demonstrates at once the creativity and dignity of the impoverished black underclass (the capacity to create aesthetically in the face of material deprivation) as well as the purely decorative role he fulfills when he mourns on demand. Professional mourning does not require its practitioner to understand the pain, the sense of loss, and the anguish experienced by the “genuine” mourners. Unlike the “amateurs,” the Professional simply performs the act of bereavement, without being in any way an empathetic participant in the funeral ceremony: it is the Professional Mourner's job to produce tears, not to comprehend the profundity of the loss. Toloki stands, even as the pivotal figure at the funeral, removed from the event: he is an individualist who melds a community together for a brief period, but his singular alterity is never in question. He acts at the funeral, producing affect, but he himself is never affected by the event, never acted upon—which is to say, even though he is surrounded by trauma, he is not really changed, transformed, or moved to rethink his removed position within the community. For all Toloki's wailing, there is a solipsism in his role in the funeral. Clad in a strange costume performing a unique task, Toloki undermines the communal element so central to the burial ceremony by drawing attention to himself. It is the “I,” the artist and creator of appropriate tragic behavior, who takes narrative precedence over the larger social (and personal) losses incurred by the other mourners.

Commenting on the significance of the shared experience at black funerals, Margaret Mervis writes in her critique of Ways of Dying, “Death lives with the black communities of the townships and the squatter camps, so that their ways of dying are intertwined with their ways of living and funerals are still important community occasions during the transitional period” (44). In Toloki's case, however, he provides an almost stereotypical instance of the tortured artist (the Professional Mourner who is, in addition to his decorating skills, also gifted at drawing with crayons), a protagonist who overshadows both the event itself and the narratives of death that are such vital sources of explication—to say nothing of the political, social, and spiritual sustenance they offer. In Mda's novel the community functions only as a backdrop, a canvas against which Toloki can work out his relationship with Noria (a figure from his rural past who has reemerged with an erotically tinged spiritual force in his urban present) and his deceased father, Jwara.

These two protagonists, the father and the sister/lover, are closely connected in Toloki's psyche; they both belong, in different ways and measures, to Toloki's past and his future. His future, Mda suggests, can only be achieved by negotiating the pain of the past; this moment, Toloki knows, is deeply bound up in his relationships with Jwara and Noria. Inspired by the schoolgirl Noria, his father, Jwara, was a village blacksmith who would occasionally “create figurines of iron and brass” (23).

Toloki's greater sensitivity, as opposed to that of his neglectful father, is displayed through the medium of his art. While the hard, unfeeling Jwara worked in iron and brass, the always malleable son prefers the softer, childlike crayons. Unlike the monochrome character of Jwara, cast as stereotypically masculinist in his inability to connect to anyone other than his muse Noria, his son has a greater, more colorful range of social expression. Both father and son, however, produce their best art in—and because of—her presence. Appropriately, it is only once Toloki decides to sell his father's art that he comes to a kind of psychological closure with Jwara. The future can then be confronted because the past has been addressed; difficulties have been negotiated, emotional debts have been settled; the past can be laid to rest in the ways that Toloki officiates at funerals. It is, however, precisely this settling of past accounts that does not take place at a national level, and it is for this reason that the deprived conditions of the black past is so persistently present, both in the (dis)guise of Zulu migrant violence and in the form of unrelenting, inescapable settlement poverty. The postapartheid nation lives, much like Toloki (except in his posthumous relationship with Jwara), at a remove from its own psyche and the complicated history which produced it.

Toloki's emotional abstinence is demonstrated most obviously in his preoccupation with his own asceticism. He is so intent on denying his own physicality that he cannot admit to an attraction to Noria because his “profession” does not countenance “love: he made up his mind a long time ago that he was not capable of such feelings. They are common feelings for common people. They are taboo in his vocation, since he has cast himself in the mould of holy men in remote mountain monasteries” (44). Unable to acknowledge his desire, to confront the ambivalence of striving for spiritual purity even as he is physically drawn to the attractive Noria, Toloki resorts to an empty denial: love and sexuality are taboo in his profession; the black male body is evacuated of its physicality because of an adherence to an ill-defined, abstract system of belief. There is something inoffensively Orientalist (insofar as Orientalism can be inoffensive) about Toloki's fascination with monks in “remote mountain monasteries”; the answer to the artist's dilemma in postapartheid South Africa, Ways of Dying suggests, can be found in the mysteries (and mysticism) of the Orient, much as the “East” fulfilled the fantasies of colonialist Occidental explorers. Toloki's attraction to these vaguely conceived “monks” reveals nothing so much as his need to find a meaningful social role for himself, one which will gainsay his homelessness, his unemployment, and the hopelessness that characterizes his life. Toloki is trying to overcome the ostracism that he experienced as a boy, when his father labeled him “ugly,” by deriving a self-worth through this imagined affiliation with the Orient.

Ways of Dying constructs a complicated oedipal scenario in which the son wants to gain the approval of the woman who was, as a young girl, his father's artistic inspiration. “[O]h, how eager he is to hear at least one word of approval from this powerful woman who killed his father,” Toloki confesses as he reflects upon the village rumor that Jwara died because his muse Noria would no longer visit his blacksmith's shed (101). Having overcome the debilitations of his relationship with Jwara (rather than the metaphoric slaying of the father), Toloki recognizes that he can only win Noria's assent by being emotionally different from his father, but artistically similar—in terms of talent, and not temperament, that is. In order to overcome that haunting rejection, Toloki has willed himself to be an adult who does not need emotional nourishment or physical intimacy because he considers it too “common.” Although Toloki's sense of spiritual superiority is false and misplaced, his desire to represent himself as “different”—from both the settlement dwellers and his father—is not. He is trying to compensate for several lacks that marked (and marred) his life by importing a persona for himself that will emphatically register his spiritual Otherness. Toloki is, more than anything, committed to orchestrating his own social and psychic redemption, compensating for the rejection he suffered as a child by winning the supposedly pure love of his father's muse. Economically impoverished but spiritually “elevated,” the son believes he has bested the father by gaining Noria's respect: unlike his father, he has survived; unlike his father, he has taken up (albeit celibate) house with Noria, and the two childhood friends from that far off village produce in their urban maturity what Shadrack describes as a “creative partnership” (189).

A vaguely Christlike figure in adopted mannerisms, Toloki is physically more akin to a latter-day Saint Christopher—he is “stockily built, and his shoulders are wide enough to comfortably bear all the woes of bereavement” (7). Toloki, however, is in charge of tears, not saving the world or bearing its multitude of sins. Abstinent, determined to maintain his spiritual cleanliness, Toloki is—unlike Saint Christopher—not overly concerned with global salvation. He is a generous protagonist (he pays Shadrack to transport material for Noria's shack from the city's docks to the settlement, and he buys paper and crayons for the squatter children), but hardly a self-sacrificing or historically conscious one. A figure who has survived apartheid without truly being affected by (much less critical of) its machinations, Toloki seems more at ease in the postapartheid moment. Toloki is a man who has correctly taken the pulse of his era. In this new dispensation the artist is ostensibly relieved of the anti-apartheid burden, and the importance of community is less pressing to him, though that is clearly not the case for Noria and her neighbors; all of this demonstrates how the opportunity to give full expression to black individuality is on the rise.

Toloki the artist represents the benign face of postapartheid society's preference for the upwardly mobile black individual rather than the demands of the township masses; he is a character obsessed with creative expression and spiritual self-improvement rather than the increasing materialism of the small, but growing, black middle class. However, like that postcolonial constituency Frantz Fanon dubbed the “national bourgeoisie” in Wretched of the Earth, Toloki is focused mainly on himself and his interests, esoteric though they be. It is for this reason that Toloki's remove from his “congregation(s)” at the funerals locates him as a mainstream postapartheid artist of the formalist variety—focused on the exceptionalism and singularity of the individual subject, preoccupied with art (and spirituality) for its own sake. He has crafted a social role, one determined by a strange admixture of economic necessity and an idiosyncratic monasticism that is decidedly different from that of the “Praise Poets”—or the imbongi, as they are colloquially known—of the 1980s. At the height of the insurrection in the mid- to late-1980s, a number of poets, such as Alfred Temba Qabula and Nise Malanga, adapted the centuries-old African tradition of “praise poetry” (usually reserved for honoring kings, chiefs, or great warriors—such as Shaka) to the landscape of a highly militant and organized South African proletariat. The imbongi produced work mainly for public performance at political rallies, community meetings, and funerals.4 A poet such as Qabula, arguably the leading imbongi, wrote verse to capture the experiences of the exploited factory worker, the squatters, and the township residents. In his most well-known verse, “Praise Poem to FOSATU,” Qabula writes:

Your moving forest of Africa.
When I arrived the children were crying,
These were the workers, the industrial workers

(qtd. in Chapman, “From” 36)

The imbongi's poetry was of the heroic variety, singing the praises of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) or the United Democratic Front (UDF) in its struggle to overcome the apartheid regime. The Praise Poets lauded ANC icons such as the then-incarcerated Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, the movement's president in exile, trade union activists, and grassroots organizers in equal measure.

While performance was a critical element for the Praise Poets, the event did not turn solely on their work. Their izibongo (praise poem) contributed to the spirit of the rally, gave the meeting a dramatic focus, or enabled the mourners to understand the sacrifices made to the struggle by the deceased; their reading, however, was in itself not the point of the event for them. In Toloki's case, however, the choreographed mourning is his only link to the funeral, it is his only reason for being there. For the Praise Poets there was a real bond between performer and audience, a sense of community and shared political vision created out of the apartheid experience. (For Qabula, a trade union activist himself, the poetry functioned as a narrative vehicle to mobilize, inform, and radicalize the workforce.) The funeral was, for Toloki's predecessors (if they can be called that) Qabula and Malanga, theirs. Unlike Toloki, the imbongi had a stake in the death (they understood its resonances, they were empathetic, they shared the grief) and in the rally or the meeting's success. The Praise Poets understood, to invoke Homer's provocative inquiry, “what good can come of grief”; the imbongi recognized how “praises proved and continue to provide a focus of communal identity and solidarity” (Chapman 35). In Ways of Dying this relationship between ideological proximity and psychic investment does not exist; there is nothing but the most spurious connection between Toloki and the mourners. Funerals enable Toloki to earn a living and to live out his Orientalist fantasy. Toloki's self-imposed solitude means that he always constitutes, apart from some moments with Noria, a community of one. (Inverting Karl Marx's famous dictum, Toloki shows how “religion is the opiate” of the individual who wants to distinguish himself from the masses.) Toloki does not understand that mourning is founded upon the public recognition of absence: the end of a life and its impact upon the survivors. It also signals, in this instance, the end of a political era, the transition from black (mainly working-class) oppositionality to the orchestrated absence of that constituency from public view. The now unseen and invalidated struggles of the black underclass, instead of being implicitly mourned, are what should be revitalized by a radical literature in a moment when an oppositional politics (which is to say, one that is critical of the ANC government) is so difficult to sustain. As the now-unemployed shop steward Qabula reflects in “It Has Been Such a Long Road,” a recent poem about his ex-colleagues (or “comrades”) in the struggle:

It has been a long road here
With me, marking the same rhythms
Gentlemen, pass me by
Ladies, pass me by


The bard of the 1980s oral poets, the voice of the decade's literary resistance, has remained constant, “marking the same rhythm,” but his one-time allies have been transformed into “gentlemen” and “ladies” who easily “pass him by.” Qabula has been succeeded by Toloki—individual idiosyncrasy has triumphed over the politics of commitment.

For the Praise Poets the struggle of the 1980s was a very different ideological moment, an era when South African politics was decidedly unambiguous, the disenfranchised black masses against the white apartheid regime, Qabula's “worker's” against the white bosses, an epoch in which the society was highly and insistently politicized. Set in a more ambivalent moment, Ways of Dying is no less preoccupied with politics or aware of historical inequity, but it lacks the radical, transformative vision of the earlier mode. (The role of the artist, however, has been substantively transformed.) Jan Gorak's remark about Mda's theatrical predilections—“Mda's plays never subscribe to […] the vision of revolution that will transform utterly the lives of those audacious enough to prosecute it”—makes clear that even when the South African dramatist changes literary genres his work is averse, and sometimes even strongly opposed, to a “vision of revolution” and ideological “commitment.” Mda's work is given to taking the idiosyncratic view of politics as spectacle, not as a vehicle of social transformation; the theatre of the absurd is transformed in Ways of Dying into the novel of the abstinent.

The Praise Poets, on the other hand, openly championed a communal cause. They advocated the complete reorganization of their society, and often the triumph and ascendance of the proletariat. Through their verse the imbongi were fighting for, inter alia, the unification of the entire black community, the eradication of racism, the release of political prisoners, and the redistribution of the nation's wealth.5 However much Toloki is committed to the settlement's struggle, his vision—and even Noria's, to a significant extent—is clearly limited, in no small measure because of the rise to power of the “gentlemen” and “ladies.” The road traveled, the struggles of the past, has been narratively superceded, rendering the cause of the Praise Poets anachronistic. Toloki's political scope is so impaired that the novel demonstrates how difficult it is for the Professional Mourner to see the funeral orations as an articulation of black public resistance, even when he is familiar with these events. It is only through Noria's prodding and “conscientization” that he comes to conceive of the squatters' fight against the hostel dwellers and their own organizations' complicity (in the violence committed against settlement residents) as a legitimate battle for political rights. By acting as the literary voice of black opposition and aspiration (the latter is almost always contained in the former), the Praise Poets were educating the black populace at these various gatherings. Toloki, on the other hand, is educated—if not politicized or moved to activism—through his relationship to Noria. In the postapartheid moment, the self-styled artist can be blithely oblivious to or retreat from politics even when he is in its midst; in the apartheid moment such disengagement was unimaginable.

The postapartheid moment, Ways of Dying implies, signals the end of a need for a radical politics. None of the crucial issues—why the violence is contained to the black ghetto, why it is still permitted (we know who spawned and sponsored it), and what its implications are for the black underclass in the postapartheid society—are interrogated. The very fact, it would seem, that the squatters' “enemy” is black ethnicity of the Zulu hostel dweller variety insulates the postapartheid ANC government, the one-time champion of Noria and her community, from criticism or responsibility for the condition of the settlement residents. In this instance, a regressive ethnicity works to the advantage of the postapartheid government because the Zulu antagonists can easily be vilified and identified as the problem—not as symptomatic of other (continuing) structural inequities or ideological concerns. Ethnicity provides a ready explanation, a rationalization for the conditions of settlement life that requires no further public engagement or state intervention; nor does it, Mda implies, need any societal redress.

Through privileging the experience (the spiritual experiment, if you will) and narrative of its singular protagonist, Ways of Dying deliberately constricts the ideological focus. The postapartheid state is so entirely absent in this novel that the issue of broader social accountability to its settlement constituency does not even arise. In Ways of Dying the local may be political, but it is a politics that is only locally resonant. The encompassing vision, the expansive sense of politics (“An Injury to One Is an Injury to All,” as the COSATU motto proclaims) has been sacrificed. “The struggle,” that grand narrative and rallying cry of the 1980s, has been abandoned, replaced by Toloki's elliptical search for “spirituality.”

The redemption of the eccentric individual takes precedence over the community's struggle for material uplift. The political has not, in this ideological substitution, been evacuated so much as it has been undermined: the local struggle has been severed from its national context, reduced to the microcosmic, out of the national purview (such as the death of Noria's son, which the leadership is determined to keep away from the “newspaper people”), rendered visible but not equal to the shamanistic (162). The title of Mda's novel signifies multivalently. In its most “personal instantiation,” the Professional Mourner's asceticism does not only represent his abstinence but also a “way of dying”—a symbolic rejection, “burial,” and denial of the old Toloki through his reincarnation as the orchestrator of grief at settlement funerals. However, Mda's focus on the metaphoric death of the oedipally-immobilized son (and the birth of the monkish artist) relegates the actual deaths of the settlement dwellers to narrative insignificance. Ways of Dying configures these deaths as allegories of its main protagonist's psychological state rather than the differentiated, distinct substances of a community's loss; the funerals do not signify ideologically beyond their poetic resonance for Toloki's psychic condition. The Professional Mourner refracts the communal loss and absorbs it as an emblem of his own spiritual metamorphosis.

The title also marks the slow, uneven dying of the apartheid structure, the difficult process of black (re)generation, the literal deaths of settlement dwellers. Most importantly, Mda's novel may be said to enunciate the death of radical politics, of the commitment to transforming and materially improving the lives of the black underclass. That is the death this novel heralds but does not—or will not—acknowledge. Noria's adept verbal play with the novel's title, “[O]ur ways of dying are our ways of living. Or should I say our ways of living are our ways of dying?” speaks of the settlement community's resilience, but it does not recognize how its political commitments are increasingly isolated, how its modes of struggle are dying in postapartheid South Africa (89). In significant ways, Toloki's narrative prominence is afforded him because his emergent individualism equips him to officiate at the funeral of a radical postapartheid politics. Settlement dwellers will continue to die, but their deaths will register with increasing insignificance on the ideological radar and television screens of the postapartheid state. The new, as Antonio Gramsci's famous enunciation about the interregnum goes, might not be fully born, but the old has certainly been ushered out—never to return, all overseen by a character in ludicrous garb.


Unlike the aloof Toloki, Noria is a protagonist who, after undergoing a major transformation from sexually promiscuous young woman to abstinent widow and mother, understands the community and its workings. However, like Toloki, Noria has herself taken a vow of celibacy: “when she learnt of the death of her son […] she lost all interest in men, and her body had not, to this very day, touched that of a man. The cruelty of the world killed not only her uplifting laughter, but all human desires of the flesh” (139). Because Noria shares with Toloki a purity obtained through loss, pain, and rejection, it is appropriate that Toloki comes to comprehend the social import of the events in which he is participating through his association with her. In an instructive conversation between Noria and Shadrack (one of her suitors) about the violence perpetrated by the amagoduka, migrant workers “whose roots are in the rural areas and who return there after their contracts in the city are finished” (49), the Professional Mourner's political ignorance is revealed: Toloki is out of his depth in this discussion. “He knows there is a war in the land, and has mourned at many of the funerals of war casualties. But Noria seems to know more details about this whole matter than he thought possible. She talks with authority, and the man under the van [Shadrack] seems to take her views seriously” (49). Paradoxically, the Professional Mourner who benefits from death understands neither its causes nor its consequences. However, Noria's familiarity with politics, not just the affairs of the settlement, signals a crucial element of Mda's novel. As Mervis argues, “Just as Noria has evolved into a proud individual who values her independence, life is changing for all the women in the transitional period in South Africa as they move from the old deference towards a new authority” (54). As important as the current and future roles of women in the postapartheid states will be, Ways of Dying has a keen sense of a black feminist past. Noria the urban activist is the daughter of “That Mountain Woman,” an interloper from another village who had “no respect for our ways, and talked with men anyhow she liked” (29). However, the main difference between the aggressive, “disrespectful” Mountain Woman—where the imposing physicality of the metaphor used to describe the woman betrays the male fear of being dominated—and her daughter is their mode of politics: the mother works through offense and transgression, the daughter through cooperation, an astute reading of the black male psychic landscape, and a conversion of black men that is inflected by the power of seduction. (Toloki and Shadrack are, in their different ways, attracted to Noria. Patriarchy is often, as Noria shows, vulnerable to desire—spoken, as in Shadrack's case, or unspoken and almost spiritually unspeakable, as with Toloki.)

Toloki's relationship with Noria is, as has been shown, produced out of an admixture of desire, denial, and the imagined dictates of an invented spirituality. In the patriarchal culture of the township (and the movement), Toloki's naivete creates the space for a feminist activism: Toloki learns of politics—it would be overstating the case to say that he fully comprehends historical events or acquires a politics—from Noria. As she introduces him to the underclass community, he comes to appreciate that the “salvation of the settlement lies in the hands of the women” (165). There is, because of her political authority, a deference to Noria on Toloki's part—a status confirmed for him, albeit in an obliquely patriarchal fashion, by Shadrack's “taking her views seriously” (49) In this instance the politically unlettered man accepts the woman's credentials because another (worldly wise) man respects her opinions.

Toloki and Shadrack, however, are the exceptional male figures, protagonists who respect female political leadership because their views are informed and affected—to different degrees—by their relationship (or the desire for a relationship, on the latter's part) with Noria. As she herself is quick to point out to Toloki, there is as much of a “glass ceiling” in politics for South African women as there is for, say, American women in business: “All over the country, in what politicians call grassroots communities, women take the lead. But very few women reach executive level. Or even the regional or branch committee levels. I don't know why it is like this, Toloki” (165). Contrary to Mervis's claim about the expansion of women's political horizons, the structural non-recognition of women renders the postapartheid state indistinct from its predecessor. Much like in the anti-apartheid struggle, the patriarchal system ghettoizes women's ambitions by restricting their influence to those arenas—the settlements, euphemistically referred to here as the “grassroots communities”—where the most labor is required and the least reward is offered. The ceiling for female advancement, in the postapartheid case, is both significantly lower—women need not aspire beyond branch level—and of a baser material—the tin roof of a shack rather than the glass of the corporate office.

However, female disenfranchisement extends beyond a circumscription on women's ambition. It includes a male-imposed silence on matters of personal and political consequence, demonstrated in Ways of Dying when Noria is silenced in the aftermath of her son's gruesome “necklacing.” The five-year-old Vutha is killed when an automobile tire is hung around his neck, soaked in gasoline (“petrol” in the South African parlance), and set alight. Accused of providing information about the settlement community's political plans to the hostel (and hostile) migrants by the Young Tigers, a group of young activists who protect the squatters from the amagoduka, the young Vutha is sentenced to die in a kangaroo court. Vutha's is a more reprehensible and cowardly murder because the Young Tigers make another five-year-old, his playmate Danisa, set the young boy and his friend alight: “They put a tire around Vutha's small neck, and around his friend's. They filled both tires with petrol. Then they gave boxes of matches to Danisa and to a boy roughly the same age” (177). Confronted with this awful specter and convinced of her son's innocence, Noria takes her complaints to the community leadership who side with the (mostly male) Young Tigers and demand from her “that she should not condemn the perpetrators in any public forum, as this would give ammunition to the enemy” (166). Caught between powerfully conflicting loyalties, to the community and to the memory of her son, and afraid that she will victimized by the Young Tigers if she breaks her silence (her shack was burned down as a warning to her), Noria reluctantly agrees to abide by this decision. She promises to “fight to the end to see that justice is done” but it seems like a battle she is unlikely to win.

The violence of the Young Tigers and the public support they receive from the political leadership reveal to Noria how the structure of the “people's movement”—in whose cause she has so diligently labored—resembles that of their opponents: “You see, they say they are fighting for freedom, yet they are no different from the tribal chief and his followers. They commit atrocities as well” (167). That the “atrocities” committed against Vutha are of a particularly heinous nature emphasizes both how endemic violence is to a political struggle and how easy it is for patriarchal organizations to silence the voices of women (a voice that belongs, ironically in this case, to the activist mother of the victim). Because women's power is contained, they are powerless to protect even their children—they are denied even their capacity to nurture, that quality presumed innate to women in patriarchal discourse.

In its most pointed critique of the postapartheid condition, Ways of Dying shows how resilient patriarchal authority is: Noria is compelled to hold her tongue because the men in power decree it. The end of the racism of the apartheid era has not meant the end of the patriarchy; the race of the men in political control has changed, but the ideology of female subservience has not. Toloki and Shadrack are feminist aberrations, men who respect women's rights to public voice and to increased authority. But to the postapartheid patriarchy, Vutha's “guilt” and his death matter less than the public display of (female) subjugation to authority. Noria must be kept in line by disenfranchising her: she is the activist who is not allowed to act on her own behalf, rendered inefficacious by her political allies, not her enemies. Noria is positioned, through this disempowerment, as the anti-Winnie Mandela figure. Unlike the ex-Mrs. Mandela, who was acquitted on charges of murdering a young township activist who belonged to her football club, Noria has no direct access to even mid-level party bureaucrats. Neither Vutha nor his mother enjoys the privilege or prestige of Winnie Mandela, the “Mother of the Nation” who is widely believed to have participated in violence against pre-adolescent liberation fighters. Regardless of her indiscretions, the “Mother of the Nation” can be repeatedly recuperated, while all the mother of an unjustly necklaced boy can expect is to be silenced. Without Mrs. Mandela's special status, the young settlement dweller and his mother are simply the casualties of their own anonymity and organizational indifference, victims of both internecine strife and a lack of political will. The postapartheid society is founded upon democratic principles, but that has not translated into equality of status—some black mothers are more equal than others.

Noria's rights, interests, and emotional losses are deemed inconsequential in comparison to the public costs of breaking ranks. The movement, Mrs. Mandela's violations aside, must be seen as beyond reproach even when it is not; the death of a five-year-old is implicitly sanctioned because to address it publicly would be to admit tacitly that the postapartheid government has the same propensity for violence as the apartheid regime. It is because of an uncritical notion of party loyalty that the atrocities of the Young Tigers can be pardoned, but Noria's critique—or worse, her public indictment—of the movement she fought for cannot be tolerated. In his discussion of gender, Mda's work is at its most reflective and critically incisive. It demonstrates that the greatest threat to feminist activists and grassroots organizers (to say nothing of the settlement community itself) emanates not from the hostel dwellers, but from within—or more precisely phrased, from the upper levels—of the movement itself.


Mda's capacity for interrogating the postapartheid state is uneven and even retrograde in those moments when Ways of Dying misidentifies the real object of critique. Instead of subjecting the failures, the excesses, and the successes of the postapartheid state to scrutiny, he offers an ideological dialectic that is—if not outmoded—politically anachronistic. When Ways of Dying was published in 1995, it was clear that the political dynamic had changed—or was, at the very least, in the process of doing so. Black South Africa was moving from ethnic-based strife between Zulus and Xhosas (to describe this conflict metonymically) to a struggle between the black underclass and the black bourgeoisie, the latter aided (if not created) by local white and multinational capital. Incapable of taking, or reluctant to take, the postapartheid government to task for the appalling condition of life in the settlements and the townships, Ways of Dying resorts to a notion of internecine violence—hostel dwellers versus settlement residents—to explain the material deprivations and insecurities that constitute life for Noria and her neighbors.

That the amagoduka belong to a specific ethnic community is, of course, not coincidental because it reveals the novel's ideological affiliations. The political leader of the hostel dwellers is described as insistently xenophobic and “anti-nationalist”: “Whereas other leaders are trying very hard to build one free and united nation out of various ethnic groups and races, he thinks he will reach a position of national importance by exploiting ethnicity, and by telling people of his ethnic group that if they don't fight they will be overwhelmed by other groups which are bent on dominating them, or even exterminating them” (48). The narrow-minded and bigoted leader being pilloried here is, of course, a dead ringer for Mangosuthu Buthulezi of the Inkatha Federal Party (IFP), an organization that has long championed the cause of the Zulu community.6 For much of the 1980s the most aggressive and recalcitrant hostel dwellers were Zulus, a community that took its ethnic identity more seriously and utilized it more self-consciously than any other disenfranchised South African constituency.

Although they comprise the largest single ethnic community in South African (some seven million out of a population of forty million), the Inkatha-identified Zulus understand themselves as being anti-hegemonic: they are against the ANC, the nation's dominant political movement with the longest anticolonialist and anti-apartheid history in black South Africa. From its deep roots in the Xhosa community, the ANC has long since transformed itself into the ruling political organization through building coalitions across ethnic and racial boundaries. Modeling itself as a postethnic (and increasingly, though with questionable success, as a postracial) movement and as the champion of the black underclass regardless of tribal affiliation, the ANC has been able to appeal to the township and settlement dwellers in an expansive, politically progressive fashion. Under the apartheid regime, the ANC argued that blacks constituted a single nation, divided only by the racism of NP laws; on the cusp of the postapartheid dispensation, the ANC avers, the larger black community is being threatened by a destructive and intolerant Zulu xenophobia.

Impoverished, itinerant, unemployed (and often unemployable, much as Toloki is), with poor living conditions, “migrants” from an assortment of ethnic backgrounds, the settlement dwellers are bound by their various (and shared) disenfranchisements, not by their tribal identity. The Zulu hostel residents, on the other hand, are employed, housed (if not spaciously then at least adequately in their “tribally” defined compounds), and in possession of a shared ethnic identity. The amagoduka's sense of political affinity is intensified by their physical proximity and their alienation—enforced, imagined, or real—from the settlements. For much of the 1980s the tensions between these two communities played themselves out with bloody consequences the mainly in the Johannesburg area, the primary location for the mining compounds.

In addition to demonizing the IFP leader Buthulezi, the novel also caricatures the contemporary expression of Zulu cultural identity. While Zulus celebrate their descent from Shaka, one of the continent's most astute political and military leaders, Mda belittles that proud martial history by characterizing the Zulus as

[a] chosen people with a history of greatness in warfare and conquest. They have internalised the version of their own identity that depicts them as having inherent aggression. When they attack the residents of squatter camps and townships or commuters on the trains, they see themselves in the image of great warriors of the past, of whom they are descendants. Indeed the tribal chief, in his rousing speeches has charged them with what he calls a history of responsibility to their warrior ancestors.


The violence committed by the Zulu hostel residents is, needless to say, unacceptable and fuels a sense of identity that is especially explosive in a society as divided as South Africa. Intent on maintaining a powerful political profile in a moment when ethnicity is becoming an increasingly inefficacious (which is not to say that it does not have strategic uses or cannot be invoked as a mobilizing, essentialist discourse), fearful of being dominated, the IFP employs a rhetoric that reaches back into a glorious past to find a new sense of purpose and prominence in the present. The consequences of this recidivism, what Michael Chapman describes as the “contemporaneous marshalings of the Zulu heroic memory” (34), is dangerous, but it is no less retrograde than Ways of Dying's reluctance to recognize that Inkatha is not the primary enemy.

For this reason, there is a striking incommensurability and an underlying tension between the particularity of the novel's purported enemy (Zulu nationalism) and the unfocused nature of the Professional Mourner's grief. In his role as self-appointed “mourner-in-chief,” Toloki releases affect in the form of an unhistoricized grief: all loss is completely divorced from the political causes and consequences of the death being mourned. Deaths caused by political violence are regrettable, not historically explicable—death is unmoored from its context, experienced only as an affect, not as an emotional response that has an ideological dimension, or even any content, for that matter. If all mothers are not equal, then death is a democratic experience in the novel. Within the landscape Mda has created in Ways of Dying, death caused by cancer is, implicitly, no more socially loaded than Vutha's necklacing: they are simply, because of the novel's reductive rendering, different “ways of dying.” Within Toloki's politically undifferentiated paradigm of grieving, the message is tautological: death is death, irrespective of its causes.

However, the rage, anger, disillusionment, and sense of political loss not expressed through staged mourning are not so much repressed or depoliticized as they are displaced onto the Zulu hostel dwellers. This is the “enemy of the (postapartheid) state,” a constituency that is discursively attacked and repeatedly vilified. Ironically, much like their antagonists the Nurses, those midwives to oppositional history, the amagoduka have no voice. However, because the Zulu migrants are caricatured and undermined, they increasingly come to resemble the funerals for which they are reputedly responsible. Like the spectacle of Toloki at work, their demonization appears staged and contrived—they are the enemy that has to be invented because the novel is so shallowly rooted in the soil of its own creation. In trying to have it both ways, to give credence to the grief and to vilify the amagoduka,Ways of Dying undoes itself because neither phenomenon has any narrative substance. Preoccupied with the staging of spectacle(s), the novel evacuates itself of historical meaning. This is a text unable to speak for the mourners, incapable of comprehending or explaining the settlement dweller's grief, too politically facile to grasp that ideological enmity is only plausible when the tale has narrative depth.

Paradoxically, the death of the settlement dwellers only impacts when the political stakes are clearly delineated, when the differences between the amagoduka and Noria's community is fully developed. Ways of Dying is, along with the demise of a radical politics, the victim of its own propensity for spectacle: in staging grief and conflict, it upstages itself. Representing the dilemmas, tensions, and demands of the postapartheid future requires a more profound familiarity with the apartheid past, a deeper grounding in the uncertainties of the present, and a more critical imagining of the future. In part because it is so taken with the performance of death, Ways of Dying is unable to fully understand how impacted, resonant, and disruptive a social process death truly is; surrounded everywhere by death, the novelist seems unable to identify the actual bodies of the corpses—the charred but eccentrically adorned body of a radical politics, a community on the defensive, a settlement where death is a fact of life, but an experience never without political consequence.


  1. For a critique of this phenomenon, see, among other accounts, Lou Turner and Moe Seager.

  2. Toloki's “theatricality,” his conversion of the funeral into a spectacle—and spectacular—event, derives from Mda's work as a dramatist, his primary literary field. (Mda is also a journalist and does a regular column on television for a local South African Sunday paper, The Sunday Times.) See Mda's We Shall See for the Fatherland and Other Plays,Bits of Debris, and his critical work on drama, When People Play: Development Communication through Theatre.

  3. Critics such as Margaret Mervis have identified the city as Cape Town. I would argue, however, that this is not the case. Cape Town does not have a substantial migrant worker population, housed in tribalized hostels, in the way that an inland city such as Johannesburg does. Also, the racial dynamic in Cape Town is different: the major tensions there are between “coloureds” and blacks, not between Zulus and detribalized Xhosas.

  4. See Ari Sitas's collection for an overview of the imbongi movement. In addition, Sitas himself is an academic and activist who has performed “praise poetry.” See also Jeff Opland.

  5. In the postapartheid dispensation the poet who has kept the tradition of his 1980s predecessors such as Qabula and Malanga alive more vibrantly than any other is Lesego Rampolokeng. In Horns for Hondo (1990), Talking Rain (1993), and culminating in The Bavino Sermons (1999), Rampolokeng has been insistently critical of the ANC regime. He has committed himself to live performances, often interspersed with stinging indictments of the Mandela government. For a critical perspective on Rampolokeng's contribution to current South African poetry and cultural activism, see Kelwyn Sole and “Lesego.”

  6. See Adam Ashforth for a discussion about the relationship between the cultural nationalism advocated by Buthulezi and the “black-on-black” violence that has pitted Zulu hostel residents against urban settlement dwellers.

    This essay benefited from the astute critical insights offered by Geoff Sanborn. Thanks to Shelley Arendse for providing much of the secondary material. Finally, I am grateful to Rebecca Ohm-Spencer of the Williams College library for her assistance in finding material about the Praise Poets.

Works Cited

Ashforth, Adam. “War Party: Buthulezi and Apartheid.” Transition 52 (1991): 56-69.

Chapman, Michael. “From Shaka's Court to the Trade Union Rally: Praise in a Usable Past.” Research in African Literatures 30:1 (1999): 34-43.

Gorak, Jan. Theatre Journal 41 (1989): 478-91.

“Lesego Rampolokeng: Interview.” New Coin 29.2 (1993).

Mda, Zakes. Bits of Debris. Lesotho: Thapama Books, 1986.

———. “Learning from the Ancient Wisdom of Africa: In the Creation and Distribution of Messages.” Current Writing 6.2: 139-50.

———. Ways of Dying. Cape Town: Oxford UP, 1995.

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

———. When People Play: Development Communication through Theatre. London: Zed, 1993.

Mervis, Margaret. “Fiction for Development: Zakes Mda's Ways of Dying.Current Writing 10:1: 39-56.

Opland, Jeff. Xhosa Oral Poetry: Aspects of a Black South African Tradition. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1983.

Qabala, Alfred Temba. “It Has Been Such a Long Road.” World Literature Today. 70:1 (1996): 115.

Seager, Moe. “Part One: At the Abyss in South Africa.” Z Magazine Oct. 1991: 29-38.

Sita, Ari, ed. Black Mamba Rising: South African Worker Poets in Struggle: Alfred Temba Qabula, Mi s' Dumo Hlatswayo and Nise Malanga. Durban: Culture and Working Life Project, 1986.

Sole, Kelwyn. “Birds Taking Wings: Trends in Contemporary South African Poetry Written in English.” World Literature Today 70 (1996): 25-31.

Turner, Lou. “Southern Africa in a Crucible of Western-Backed Barbarism.” News & Letters 36.6.

Sandra Chait (essay date summer 2000)

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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 and re-vision the cultural identity embedded in their people's myths. For erstwhile oppressors, however, the change in self-perception may take somewhat longer to materialize. Shock, sorrow, anger at the chaos of upheaval take precedence. Only then are such perpetrators of oppression able to confront their culpability and their authors plumb the mythological depths for signs and symptoms to explain what went wrong. In the case of white South African writers, however, the changeover to black rule has been gradual enough to have allowed a gestation period in which to ponder collective guilt and, as in Germany, to search the past for answers to that inevitable question, “How could it have happened?”

In postapartheid South Africa, this recourse to myth in the works of two white writers, André Brink's Cape of Storms and Mike Nicol's Horseman, serves also as historical catharsis. Myth offers a way out, a means of saving cultural face in spite of evidence of almost a half century of white discrimination, oppression, and atrocity carried out against the indigenous people. That these two authors are able to do so, albeit unwittingly, derives from the nature of mythology itself, which, as a second-order semiological system, allows them to use signifiers as if these carry no associative weight. Brink and Nicol, through the appropriation in their texts of Greek and Christian myths respectively, achieve exoneration for white South Africa by purifying the signifiers to make them seem innocent, normal, or universal and, in so doing, fill their texts with ideological content. For, as Roland Barthes points out in “Myth Today,” mythology is part-ideology, being an historical science, and as such it moves at all levels from “the real to the ideological” (112, 142). It operates “an inversion of anti-physis to pseudo-physis,” thus making the constructed images of Cape of Storms and Horseman,with all their various embedded semiotic codes, appear natural to their readers (142). For Brink and Nicol, these codes are predominantly cultural, incorporating as they do for the South African authors, the discourses of race, politics, and religion. But the very form of their texts, as I shall show, renders real their ideologically constituted signifiers and makes their magic realism, prophesy, and the supernatural the work of the physical world and ultimately that of the very God their postmodernism denies. In myth, therefore, lies ideological contradiction and in mythopoeia, i.e., the appropriation and reworking of mythical material, the potential for absence made present.

Both writers, of course, have a long history of textual opposition to apartheid and this paper's deconstruction of their mythological texts should in no way detract from the very real contributions both novelists have made in exposing the historical excesses of the colonial and postcolonial apartheid regimes. In these two texts, however, in the process of exposing one evil, each writer succeeds also in offering inadvertently yet another—namely, the notion that essential human nature, that which the gods themselves have created, bears ultimate responsibility for the crimes of South Africa. Humans simply act out their “natural” destinies, unable to alter the “natural” order of their predetermined roles in the universe. As Barthes reminds us, “nothing prevents [myth] from being a perpetual alibi,” for it is a value, rather than a reality, and is not guaranteed by truth (123).

In Cape of Storms: The First Life of Adamastor, Brink provides an ur-text for the myth of Adamastor, one of the Titans of Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, and the colossus of canto 5 of Luiz de Camões's great 1572 Portuguese epic, The Lusiads.1 In the latter, which recounts the journey of Vasco Da Gama around the Cape of Storms, the enormous Adamastor falls in love with the nymph of the sea, Thetis. Since he “knew't impossible to gain her Love / By reason of his great deformitie,” he tries to take her by force (14: 53). For his presumption in aspiring to a member of a more advanced society of gods, Adamastor is transmogrified by Zeus into the rocky promontory which is the Cape (15: 56).

Brink's 420-year-later recreation of these events from the perspective of the giant concentrates Adamastor's colossal measurements onto one part of his anatomy. In Brink's novel, the African chief T'Kama, whose life supposedly represents the source material for Camões's Adamastor, possesses a member that expands to ludicrous proportions every time he approaches the white shipwoman he so desires. Much as he loves her whom he names Khois, meaning woman in the Khoi language, he is unable to consummate his passions. He is too large, so large in fact that he must “wrap [his penis] round [his] waist in four or five large loops, and tuck the angry head in under them for fear of becoming the cause of stumbling to others” (Cape 106-07). In reconstructing the epic account of the giant's tragedy in terms so totally sexual, Brink has reduced all difference to that single signifier, “penis,” alone.2 What is more, he has presented it supposedly free of, because prior to, the connotations the reader familiar with colonial discourse knows it to carry, namely, the European fear of the sexual prowess of the black man. Both author and reader share the cultural code, however, and understand, without the signifier saying so, the semantic content that fills the empty word and makes of the black man's reproductive organ his essential being.

Brink explains his purpose in characterizing the black man in this way as an attempt to explore the historical roots of racism (Graeber, interview).3 However, the comic aspects combined with the magic realism sail rather close to the racist wind. For though the narrative unfolds through the perspective of T'Kama, the gaze in which he is held remains very much that of the white male. Neither the European woman nor Da Gama's Portuguese sailors are made to look as ridiculous. The tragicomic scene in which the naked white woman scrambles over the rocks away from T'Kama's erect “bird,” for example, registers with the Western reader—and more importantly with T'Kama himself—as fearful terror. None of the humor and absurdity of the misunderstanding adheres to her; the burlesque attaches itself entirely to the black man. When on his first night with the woman, in an attempt to impress her, he greases his body, interweaves red petals in his pubic hair, ties a white ostrich feather to his erect penis, and pulls a Portuguese plumed hat over his head, his beloved collapses into uncontrollable laughter (54). His cultural mistakes humiliate him and make him an object of ridicule, while hers—tramping on a mantis or killing a hare for food—confer power, in that the Khoi people believe her to be the carrier of death and fear her presence among them. To be fair, Brink, a self-conscious postmodernist, does attempt to control for his own white perceptions. He chooses as narrator the “spirit” of the unknown Adamastor, who looks back from the present on his first incarnation as T'Kama. Since the reader is not privy to the color of this “spirit” or his/her present incarnation or situation, accusations of bias assume slippery contours. Brink, by displacing the supposed origin in Western mythology of Camões's and Rabelais's Adamastor, reserves a caveat for himself.4 However, since his recreation derives from Camões's recreation of the Greek titan, the Western Adamastor inevitably casts his large European shadow on the writer's interpretation of southern African events. In any case, this ploy does not work consistently across the board. For example, it does not explain the narrator's selective interpretation of the same signifiers. For instance, the narrator wastes no time in informing the reader that T'Kama, meaning Big Bird (ostrich), refers also to his member, since “bird” in the Khoi language translates as slang for penis (19). When, however, the narrator refers to Da Gama's enormous sailing boats as “birds” as well, he makes no similar connection to male genitalia. In fact, the boat/birds are seen more as wondrous female deities who give birth to “eggs” (dinghies) from beneath their wings (16). The eggs hatch “feathered” people, who strut about the shore “stiff-legged like ostriches” (16).5

Ultimately, language speaks and it speaks the white author's constructedness, his Afrikaner conditioning in matters of white, male supremacy, even as he represents the black man with compassion and understanding. T'Kama, sitting next to his beloved Khois, dismisses language as just words, “sounds shaped by a throat and mouth and disappearing into silence … a chasm, an abyss” (103-04). But those words, put into his mouth and thoughts by the author, betray him as surely as they reveal Brink himself. “I was simply too big for her,” the hero admits, implying his acknowledgment of that which was clear for all to see, that they simply did not fit (62). For all their attempts at accommodation and with the best will in the world, the black man and white woman could no more consummate their love than could a lion and a kitten. Their attempts at mating, the text implies, flew in the face of nature. It was unnatural, hence the tribe's misfortunes and tribulations, its wandering through the shadows of the Valley of Death pursued by the spirits of the evil god of darkness, the terrifying Gaunab. Brink's use of magic realism further emphasizes the upending of the natural order by the pursuit of interracial jouissance. Rivers boil, thorn bushes sprout overnight, trees burst into flames (80, 59, 93). “This may be a thing of blood and years,” the tribe's medicine man warns the lovestruck T'Kama (39). It is no coincidence that this prediction comes from the mouth of one of whom the author says “there was nothing he did not know” (39). Old Khamab's familiarity with the world of the gods and ancestors makes his presaging of events like that of a Greek chorus and, together with T'Kama's own admission that “something in [him] knew old Khamab had been right” inevitably turns their struggles into a battle between the forces of good and evil, of light and dark (41). The love between Khois and T'Kama thus transcends the individual, making their passion contradictory to the will of God and therefore to nature. For in the grand tradition of the epic, which is the prose structure of Cape of Storms, god and nature are one, mankind's unity with the world a guarantee of human destiny and of humans' inability to change the path of their future. The end is foretold and, as in the epics of Homer and Virgil, structure dictates action.6

No matter how our noble hero tempts and tests his fate, the epic form demands that the will of the gods should prevail. And the gods, Brink implies by the contortions of nature in his text, remain hostile to the mixing of black and white. Such bodies simply do not fit, the first item in the mytheme of miscegenation registers; they are purposefully ill-matched by nature, the second notes; and nature, claims the third, is but an expression of the gods' own will. What is more, the gods who control the Khoi chief's destiny are those of his own people and by representing the divinity as that of the original black population, rather than the Catholic God of the Portuguese, Brink suggests the equal culpability of both black and white in the spiritual and social realms. In fact, in The New York Times Book Review interview in which Brink talks of his concern with the origins of racial animosities in South Africa, he places the blame on both white and black characters in the book and goes on to suggest that the same holds true in the real South Africa (23). The universality of the miscegenation taboo would appear to be Brink's ideology, but when the white Portuguese sailors disappear into the trees with the Khoi women, they appease their own gods merely by baptizing the black females before ravishing them. No sign of physical mismatch registers textually in the mating of white men and black women, revealing perhaps that Brink's biases are phallocentric as well.

Epic and magic realism thus combine in Brink's mythopoeia to undercut his ostensible narrative purpose. For despite his intention of being even-handed, of allowing both sides to speak together, as he claims in his New York Times Book Review interview, he seems also to say that only by sacrificing his enormous sexuality can the black man live in harmony with the white woman (23). Only by replacing his own “T'Kama” with a more modest clay prosthesis can the Khoi hero consummate his marriage with his wife, Khois. Understanding between those of different ancestry then requires sacrifice, but the sacrifice lies only on the side of the black man. He must carry full responsibility for going against so-called nature by becoming himself the sport-of-nature that is neither one thing nor another, neither male nor female. Only then can the black man be said to “fit.”

Brink writes, of course, with the knowledge of hindsight. Historically, black South Africans have needed to deny parts of their identity in order to be seen by white South Africans as “fitting.” Scrunched up in cultural straightjackets, they have adapted and accommodated themselves to white norms. They also, however, have frequently burst out at the seams or stumbled when their own steps have proved too much for the amount of movement the jackets allowed. Brink's mythological epic offers a point of origin for such history, but by representing his interracial lovers as being physically mismatched and thereby providing a convincing physiological reason for miscegenation taboos, his text offers readers no hope for the future. Nature prevails, and though political power has shifted in the new South Africa, Brink's mythopoeia predicts only more of the same. Black and white may ultimately free themselves from interracial hatred and learn to like and even love each other in a platonic way, as did the white Khois her black husband at the height of their sexual difficulties. But the sexual act, the miscegenation, the text suggests, will remain forever the antecedent to destruction. The author's choice of T. S. Eliot's words for his epigraph would seem to corroborate his view. Eliot writes in the third movement of “Little Gidding” in Four Quartets:

This is the use of memory:
For liberation—not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past.

Only by eschewing sexual desire between black and white, Brink seems to say, can South Africans liberate themselves from future destruction and thus achieve a harmonious relationship. Every interracial sexual indulgence that produces offspring, he implies, leaves its trail of tears and misunderstandings. The child who is the product of Khois and T'Kama's prosthesis remains as evidence of their physical love and of the sorrow such love leaves in its wake. So, too, the reader may infer from the text, does the very existence of the “Coloured” people, of which the boy is the first representative, affirm the occurrence of interracial sex and its subsequent fallout. Brink's epic ends with T'Kama tied to a great boulder and dying. He has been beaten and tortured, his new prosthetic penis and that which remained of his original “bird” destroyed by the avenging seamen who shout, “That will teach you to consort with our white women!” (135). They cannot kill the black man, for he lives on in his child. His very consolation, however, in the context of the ideology that suffuses Brink's mythopoeia, reads also as warning to the reader about future calamity.

One could say about Brink's postapartheid promise as revealed through this deconstruction of his mythological text that plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. For when reduced to its bare bones, his perhaps unconscious message has little to distinguish it from that of his colonial forbears. But even on the level of the intended, his categorization of both sides as bearing equal responsibility for the sexual misunderstandings would seem in the face of historical facts about sexual power in the context of white supremacy an attempt to spread the blame. If both sides are equally to blame, whites are relieved of the terrible burden of having to face alone their children's question, “How could this thing have happened?”

Mike Nicol, too, resorts to spreading the blame. In his attempt to explain the inexplicable, however, he looks to Christian myth, to the Book of Revelation itself, and implies that South Africa's apartheid history, which he assumes the reader knows, constitutes a playing out of the Apocalyptic myth itself. Nothing else, he implies, can make sense of man's inhumanity to man, human cruelty that, in the face of difference and need, confronts the reader with the inscrutability of the shadow self. Apartheid South Africa itself does not feature; it is an absence made present, a future already told in the Scriptures. In effect, Horseman merely sets the scene for this prophecy fulfillment, crossing continents and generations that bring the action only so far as the latter part of the nineteenth century. What is important in this build-up to Armageddon, however, is that everyone is implicated. No one escapes condemnation in the perpetuation of evil and violence that precipitates the heavenly showdown. Even the church stands accused. The author points the finger at the Christian church, which he suggests exported from a superstitious Europe to southern Africa its notions of sanctioned cruelty and punishment in pursuit of a pure soul. An angry and vengeful God, responding to such violence thus sends forth his emissary, his horseman, Death, as he vouchsafed to do according to the writings of the author of the Fourth Gospel, John (Revelation 6: 7). His avenging horseman, around which Nicol reworks the biblical myth, is no more than a brutalized youth who, having assumed unwillingly the mantle of Daupus, meaning death, carries his slaughter to Africa, to that one-quarter of the world apportioned to him as the Fourth Horseman by the Christian God himself. “Kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts,” the youth speaks the words of his destiny and in so doing echoes the prophesy said to have been God's words revealed to John.7 He believes he cannot escape his fate, though he tries, even going so far as to attempt suicide by throwing himself from the high tower window of the monastery in which he is imprisoned (53). But “there can be no undoing” of the heavenly contract, the cowled overseer tells the boy, “no other way” for him to be in this life (49). His destiny is set.

The myth of the Apocalyptic Horseman has long attracted ideologues, most of them in countries far removed from the Hill of Megiddo, site of the promised Armageddon, in Palestine (Revelation 16). The myth's appeal lies in the figurative language and nonspecificity that makes it malleable and open to interpretations not only of place and time, but also of the nature of evil itself. In the very polysemy of myth, however, lies also its danger. For even as the language of myth conveys the intended ideology, it also betrays those ideologies of which the writer is constructed and which may even contradict those intended. Nicol's Horseman, as interpreted above, offers the author's personal reply to his own anguished questions about man's inhumanity to man, which he expressed in his contribution to André Brink's SA 27 April 1994, an anthology of writers' responses to the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as President. In his entry, entitled “Voting at Camel Rock,” Nicol asked, “Why did history always have to be so bloody? Why did it take corpses to get to a day like today? And when you got there, why did it all seem so inevitable?” (96). He repudiates in that essay what he claims is the usual answer, “Just because,” but, in fact, in his reworked Revelation myth, he ultimately offers its equivalent. For what is “just because” in the light of Revelation if not “God's will”? Ultimately, for Nicol, fate, which in the context of his mythopoeia he interprets as “God's will,” holds the only possible explanation for the crimes of South Africa. Anything else is too painful to imagine. Against the background of atrocities revealed through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Nicol's appropriation of the Apocalypse offers South Africans an acceptable answer, one in keeping with the religion whose interpretation led them astray in the first place.

To the question with no acceptable answer, the realization of the prophecy serves two interrelated functions. In the first place, Daupus as the Fourth Horseman, God's tool of revenge bringing down death and destruction on southern Africa, acts in response to past misdeeds, not present. The bloody years of mayhem that follow this avenging messenger constitute the actualization of the deity's punishment for past breaking of his rules and betrayal of his trust. Since the culprits responsible for causing his fury predate apartheid South Africa, the blame for the materialization of the strife at the southern tip of the continent can be attributed to previous generations (superstitious hordes, Christian clerics, and profiteering schemers). It is they, and not the creators and perpetuators of apartheid themselves, who bear ultimate responsibility for the horror that follows. The latter simply pay the price of their predecessors' sins, thus in effect becoming victims themselves, a position Afrikaners and their Dutch Reformed Church long have claimed in the face of world condemnation. What is more, in reaping the wages of others' sins, they acquire sacrificial status in that they transcend their victimhood, becoming noble and, like Jesus Christ, suffering for the sins of mankind. In the second place, since the apartheid apocalypse is predetermined, in other words, it is the actualization of the will of God and the realization of His revenge made flesh, South Africa's white oppressors cannot be held responsible for the state of the country, for they simply act out their fate. It is “god's will,” as their form of Calvinism long has maintained in defense of that country's racial inequity. Nicol's encoded signifiers thus ironically reinforce earlier Afrikaner mythology that claims the “white tribe” as a chosen people following God's will, in this case even as they play out his revenge.

In his narrative incorporation of the will of the gods into the horrifying Hades-like destruction that follows in the horseman's wake, Nicol thus removes accountability from the hands of contemporary murderers, plunderers, and rapists. In his representation of the myth, he implies that all the perpetrators of the violence that follows merely do the work of God and fulfill the Apocalyptic promise, for they and the one chosen by the “cowled overseer” purge the world in preparation for the Second Coming and the founding of the Kingdom of God on earth. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was kill,” the death-dealing horseman, Daupus, misquotes the Scriptures. Thus, Nicol unwittingly frees violence' perpetrators of personal responsibility for their crimes so that they seem merely to play out fate over which they have no control. Actors in a tragedy, their destiny is preordained and no matter their good intentions, they can no more alter events than can Daupus.

But mythopoeia allows an even further corollary to white freedom's removal from blame. The trail of devastation Daupus creates invites retaliation, retribution, and vengeance. The brutalized youth brutalizes others who brutalize in return so that, in the final analysis, everyone is in on the act, doing the “work of God” and maiming and killing in Daupus's place. Madach explains to Daupus the trickiness of the signifier “vengeance,” pointing out how “it goads, it irritates, it won't be put aside until the deed is done. And then instantly it is an illusion, an emptiness, a nothingness” that “carries no satisfaction, no triumph,” but instead makes you feel that once again you've been betrayed and again must have vengeance (15). Thus does revenge beget revenge, betrayals further betrayals. The notion, suggestive of the universality of evil and thus the very banality of South Africa's particular white brand of horror, further relieves whites of responsibility for their apartheid crimes. European savagery thus becomes merely a “natural” human response to brutalization by the dark other, and vice versa, making violence “normal,” and cruelty, rape, and bloodshed the “natural” reactions of humans. What is more, since black violence also constitutes merely a “human” response to white aggression, all South Africans, both black and white, are thus liberated from the consequences of their acts. Taken to its logical conclusion, Nicol's ideology suggests that everyone is responsible, and therefore nobody is. Such revenge is merely “natural”; in other words, it derives from the source of nature itself, that ultimate avenger, the betrayed God who seeks to wreak His revenge. Nicol, in taking revenge's reading from nature, thus makes God his touchstone for universalizing the particular. Revenge both starts and ends with God, thus laying the rap for the violence of South Africa on Christianity's heavenly Father Himself. It is He who, according to the vouchsafed word, starts the vicious circle in which an empty eye-socket demands the eye of someone else in reparation. In killing not only His enemies but his own son, God sets the precedent for physical violence and His creatures take from Him their cue. In this closed circle, the will of God sets the tone, and however much humans may struggle to change the direction of their fate, they are doomed.

Like Brink in The Cape of Storms, Nicol uses the epic form to involve the gods as endorsement of fate, and hence of South African history. Just as Brink's redrawing of the classic epic Adamastor allows him to equate the will of the gods with the tragedy that befalls T'Kama, so too docs Nicol's mythopoeia work to the same effect on his characters. A totality exists within the enclosed world of gods and men, as it did in the Greek world, and within that enclosed circle, as Lukács points out in his The Theory of the Novel, everything “ripens to its own perfection and by attaining itself, submits to limitation” (34). Thus does Daupus ultimately succumb to his fate and fulfill his predetermined role. His few attempts at decency—for example, his rescue of Lizzie's “daughter” Fanny from sodomization, his sacrifice of his only possession, his gun, for his friend Madach's surgery (87, 110)—count for nothing in the bigger plan. His ontological path restricts him within its preordained limits.

But how does Daupus know this? How does he know his future is inescapable? And how can Nicol read such predetermination into his own narrative? After all, the closed world of the Greek gods remains only in the poetry books, that totality with its transcendental essence long ago replaced by our twentieth-century immanence. Today, the circle is broken and a chasm exists between the world and self that now places us in charge of our own destinies. But in the time period between the classical world and ours, the church with its paradoxical notion of irredeemable sin and impossible, yet certain redemption recreated the closed circle of a predestined future. Lukács points to the integrated world of Giotto, St. Francis, and Dante as example of a world once again made round by the church (37). Thus, in Horseman, we find the old monk in the monastery, “tormented by lust and the desires of sodomy” as he watches the youth at his toilet, praying expectantly to God for mercy even as he shuffles “for a better view when the youth obscure[s] his parts” (43). It is the church, Nicol implies, that usurps God's position on earth and acts on His behalf. It speaks for the deity, becoming itself the Word. This is the same European church that in the chronologically compressed life-span of Nicol's protagonist jumps centuries to become the many evangelical houses of God removed to the dark continent to save the souls of “heathens” even as their bodies are sold into slavery. From one of these houses develops the Dutch Reformed Church whose relationship to the Afrikaner mimics that same totality of being experienced by the Greeks. For those of the Calvinist persuasion, the church transforms the structure of the transcendental loci, assuming its authoritative arm and drawing its puppet-like control of its creatures into the realms of ecclesiastical power.

While Nicol's depiction of the cruelties inflicted by the church and in its name places the burden of guilt on religion, it is language itself, he suggests, that provides the means by which myth is both constructed and realized. Until the youth is recruited to fulfill the mythical words of Revelation and is named Daupus, he goes without a name and is simply what we today would see as the problematic product of a brutalized background. Only “words, those we speak and those we write […] make us real,” the school-teacher tells him: “without them we would be nothing” (31). But if the church controls the words, including the words of God, the text suggests, it has the power to create not only reality to its own benefit, but our notion of God's reality as well. As itself “the Word” because the keeper of the Word, the church rather than any god controls human life and destiny. For that reason, Nicol implies, the church ultimately carries also the responsibility for whatever havoc its words may reap. And what it reaps at the southern tip of Africa is its words made flesh. Language has run away with religion. It has become a victim of its own language and language speaks it.

It also, of course, speaks the author. In any deconstruction of a text the author can be complicit and Nicol bears this out. In his mythopoeiac deconstruction of Revelation, even as he blames the church for its betrayal of a quarter of the world's population, he uses it to make sense of mankind's violent excesses. The Apocalypse in mankind's hands becomes South Africa's excuse. The horror and tragedy of this century justify the biblical words as self-fulfilling prophecy and reconfirm the church in its position as keeper of the true Word. Yet Nicol's text suggests the prophecy as literary construction and the church as perpetrator, if not instigator of history. In his thematic emphasis on betrayal that elicits further betrayal, he implies through the youth's dream of his own death at the hands of his father that the primary betrayal is that of the original father, God Himself. Death, the ultimate betrayal, represents both “a triumph and a revenge” for God, the hooded presence tells the young Daupus as the youth cowers in the bowels of the monastery (49). God revenges himself on us for our sins while simultaneously rejoicing in the triumph of our return to the original oneness, beyond language, that He represents. With death, “language ends,” the hooded presence reminds him, “[…] there are no words” (46). However, the oneness or nothingness beyond language on which the author bases his criticism of the church and his attribution of the Apocalypse is itself the product of the church's words. Yet when he writes of betrayal begetting betrayal, revenge begetting revenge, his implication of the “natural” and therefore the universal once again plays on the notion of an Ultimate or God. It is the way we are made, our “essential nature,” that makes us react in like way. As part of the original betrayer, made in his image, we too betray. Our “essence” is His, God's, Nicol unwittingly perhaps assumes, if we follow his reasoning to its ultimate end.

Thus, the circle returns to its beginning, for the human mind, even that of the postmodern author, cannot escape its own linguistic enclosure. Ultimately, we are all complicit. We are also, Horseman suggests, all guilty. As Madach tells the youth about the man he bayonetted to death, even if his victim did not personally bear responsibility for the murder for which Madach killed him, he was nevertheless guilty because he lived at the same time of the crime and didn't say anything (18). Nicol, like Brink, of course, did say something. In fact, each author, but especially the older writer Brink, has written voluminously on the subject of violence and oppression in South Africa. By turning to the gods, however, and enlisting their aid in their individual reworkings of the mythical texts, they have unwittingly undercut their own criticism, exposing one evil while concealing society's real evil by making it seem “natural.”


  1. Adamastor barely rates a mention in the first chapter of Pantagruel as one of a long genealogy of giants who begat one another. However, his appearance in the Portuguese national epic, Os Lusíadas (The Lusitanians), by Luiz de Camões, allows him more status, for Camões places him as one of the titans who rebel against Zeus. This Renaissance epic, published in Lisbon in 1572, consists of 10 cantos that recount the exploits and achievements of the short-lived Portuguese empire. Canto 5 describes the journey of Camões's relative, Vasco Da Gama, whose flotilla of ships stops at the Cape of Storms on its way to the Indies. Here, Da Gama meets the natives and also “the ugly Monster,” Adamastor, who tells his tragic love story and his metamorphosis into the rock of the Cape and throws a curse on ships sailing the waters around him.

  2. In a July 1993 New York Times Book Review interview, Brink claims that in Cape of Storms he explores the historical roots of racism through two myths. So excessive and overpowering is his treatment of the sexual one, however, that the second, that of Africa as the “heart of darkness,” barely registers.

  3. Although Camões's Adamastor is not specifically described as black, his epic has been interpreted by white South Africans as inferring color. For South African poet Roy Campbell, for example, Adamastor represented the black other. In his poem “Rounding the Cape,” he wrote of the indignities and atrocities heaped upon Adamastor's back by the white population, “heedless of the blood [they'd] spilled.” The ultimate line of the poem reads “And night, the Negro, murmurs in his sleep.”

  4. Lawrence Lipking, in his insightful article on the collaboration between poetry and nationalism, “The Genius of the Shore: Lycidas, Adamastor, and the Poetics of Nationalism,” points out that by recreating Rabelais's Adamastor as part of the Zeus mythology of the Western world, Camões makes his story understandable to Portuguese readers and “affirms the inevitable logic that underlies history” (217). The gods of the Western world are in charge even of the southern tip of Africa and Tsui-Goab, Gaunab, and Heitsi-Eibib don't have a chance, especially since, as Lipking notes, the Portuguese “also hold in reserve a more powerful god, who has always kept pagans in their place” (217).

  5. This simile would seem itself a strange choice, as if Brink had forgotten that he had informed the reader previously of the Khoi word for ostrich (Big Bird) being “T'Kama,” which in turn, in slang, connotes “penis.” From the context of the description of the Portuguese sailors in their Renaissance frills, like feathers, and their stockinged legs, the narrator intended to signify by “ostriches” the feathered birds alone. Had he meant to imply “big penis,” the simile would suggest that they only walked as if they possessed such attributes, but since T'Kama views them completely clothed, he cannot have any idea of their genital size.

  6. Like epics, both Cape of Storms and Horseman begin each chapter with summaries of the narrative action. The latter also begins with drawings.

  7. In Revelation 6.7 of the Holy Bible, Revised Standard Edition, John's text reads: “When he [the Lamb] opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I saw, and behold, a pale horse, and its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him; and they were given power over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.”

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “Myth Today.” Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. 109-59.

Brink, André. Cape of Storms: The First Life of Adamastor. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

———. Interview. “Let Everyone Speak at Once.” New York Times Book Review 15 July 1993: 23.

Camões, Luiz de. “The Lusiads, Canto V.” Trans. Sir Richard Fanshaw. Southern African Verse. Ed. Stephen Gray. London: Penguin, 1989. 1-26.

Campbell, Roy. “Rounding the Cape.” The Penguin Book of South African Verse. Comp. Jack Cope and Uys Krige. Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1968, 26.

Graeber, Laurel. “Let Everyone Speak at Once.” New York Times Book Review 25 July 1993: 23.

Likping, Lawrence. “The Genius of the Shore: Lycidas, Adamastor, and the Poetics of Nationalism.” PMLA 111 (1996): 205-21.

Lukács, Georg. The Theory of the Novel. Trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge: MIT P, 1971.

Nicol, Mike. Horseman. New York: Knopf, 1995.

———. “Voting at the Camel Rock Café.” SA 27 April 1994. Comp. André Brink. Cape Town: Queillerie, 1994. 96-98.


Criticism: Overviews And General Studies


Criticism: Post-Apartheid Drama