The Ultimate Safari

by Nadine Gordimer

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Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 674

South African Apartheid
It is impossible to understand Nadine Gordimer’s fiction without having an understanding of the system of racial segregation, known as apartheid, under which South Africans lived between 1948 and 1992. Gordimer’s work, perhaps more than the work of any other South African writer (including fellow white writers André Brink and J. M. Coetzee), is inextricably linked to her political views and lifelong resistance to apartheid. With the lone exception of an early autobiographical work, all of Gordimer’s work addresses the effect of apartheid on South Africans of all classes and races, so much so that the Vice President of International PEN Per Wästberg, writing on the official Nobel Prize web site, calls Gordimer ‘‘the Geiger counter of apartheid.’’

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Briefly, apartheid was a system of laws set up by the South African government designed to control the movements of the majority, non-white population. The laws dictated where blacks, Indians, and so-called ‘‘coloreds’’ could live and work and who they could marry. The purpose of apartheid was to allow the minority white population, which comprised less than 20 percent of the population, to consolidate political power and control over the majority population.

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As liberation movements during the 1960s and 1970s spread through Africa, many colonial powers lost control of their power bases and were forced to cede power to blacks. South Africa remained the lone exception, and until civil unrest began to spread through the country in the late 1980s and effectively undermine the government’s control over the black population, the South African government continued to exert its political hold. However, the liberation movements throughout the continent spread to the South African borders, with Mozambique and Zimbabwe being transformed into black-controlled, leftist governments. As a defensive mechanism designed to keep the ideas of liberation and equality from being spread through its own black population, South Africa financially and militarily supported rebel groups in the border areas of Mozambique and Zimbabwe; throughout the late 1970s and 1980s the rural populations of those countries suffered through the effects of guerilla warfare. Entire villages were uprooted, and refugee camps made up of civilians fleeing the war were established along the South African borders.

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Latest answer posted November 29, 2010, 8:13 pm (UTC)

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This is the political and military background to ‘‘The Ultimate Safari.’’ The narrator’s family are, by all accounts, nonpolitical rural peasants who are forced into the war. The father is presumably killed in combat, and though the mother’s fate is less clear, it is presumed that she was kidnapped or killed by the rebel forces. After a series of rebel raids that have left the villages destitute, the narrator’s family, along with other members of their village, are forced to make the long trek through Kruger Park to one of the South African refugee camps.

Censorship and the Works of Nadine Gordimer
As part of the efforts to control its black population, the South African government strictly controlled the news and dissemination of information during much of Gordimer’s writing career. The press was either state-run or state-controlled, and severe measures of censorship were taken to control the information coming into and going out of the country. An outspoken critic of censorship, Gordimer saw several of her works banned upon publication, including her novel Burger’s Daughter, which was banned as a result of the Soweto uprisings. Because of this publishing climate, many of Gordimer’s novels and stories, including ‘‘The Ultimate Safari’’ and several other of the stories that make up the collection Jump and Other Stories, were published in Great Britain and the United States before being published in her native South Africa.

Ironically, for several years following the demise of apartheid in 1992, Gordimer’s 1981 novel July’s People was banned in a South Africa school district for being ‘‘deeply racist, superior and patronising. . . .’’ The ban, which also affected several other notable works, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet, was eventually lifted after hundreds of writers from around the world protested, but not before Gordimer publicly compared the school board to the censors of the old apartheid regime.

Literary Style

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Throughout the telling of her story, the narrator of ‘‘The Ultimate Safari’’ employs a simple, colloquial diction with sentences that are sparse and stripped of all ornamentation. In fact, the diction that Gordimer has given the narrator contributes to the surprise readers may experience upon learning that the narrator is a black Mozambique refugee. While the story she tells is consistent with a refugee’s experience, her diction hints at her being a young white English-speaking girl. There are no idiomatic expressions, slang phrases, or sentence constructions that hint at the narrator‘s being black or Mozambican. One effect the girl’s diction has is to break down the barrier between the non-African white readers and the narrator: by portraying the girl as being more like her largely white American and European readers, Gordimer has succeed in creating a more sympathetic character than would have otherwise been possible.

Although the narrator summarizes conversations she overhears or is a part of, there is no dialogue to speak of in the story until the final scene when a filmmaker interviews the grandmother. This technique offers perhaps a truer representation of how a girl of the narrator’s age would recall conversations, and it also has the effect of giving the story more of a dream-like or mythic atmosphere. By not engaging us directly in the conversations as they happened, the narrator effectively keeps the entire story in her head, presenting it to us entirely from memory. And even with the small amount of dialogue at the story’s conclusion, Gordimer chooses not to use quotation marks to set the dialogue off, giving the story the continued dream-like effect.

Gordimer uses stark, often-violent imagery to help set the tone of the story and to help us understand the grim circumstances the girl and her family are facing. The narrator, for instance, begins her description of entering Kruger Park by telling of a man in her village who lost his legs to crocodiles, reminding the reader of the dangers lurking before them and adding to the story’s menacing tone. Once in the park, she describes the animals surrounding them as being continually on the prowl for food while she and her family have nothing to eat. ‘‘We had passed [the vultures] often where they were feeding on the bones of dead animals, nothing was ever left there for us to eat,’’ she tells readers.

By giving the story the title, ‘‘The Ultimate Safari,’’ and by prefacing it with an epigraph from a London travel advertisement luring rich tourists to Africa for the ‘‘ultimate safari,’’ Gordimer is employing irony to underscore the vast differences between the wealthy, foreign whites and the poor, black refugees that populate southern Africa. For many people from the narrator’s village who were forced out of their homes and into Kruger Park for the arduous journey to the refugee camps, this would certainly be their ‘‘ultimate,’’ or last, ‘‘safari.’’ Many, such as the narrator’s grandfather, would die in the park itself, and many would ultimately die in the refugee camp, never able to see their homes again. Meanwhile, as the group travels through the game reserve that rich European tourists spend thousands of dollars to visit, the roasting meats of the tourists waft by, and the refugee children grow hungrier and hungrier, with less even to eat than the buzzards.

Point of View
By employing the first person point of view, and using a young black refugee girl as the story’s narrator, Gordimer is able to imagine for herself and for us what it is to be ‘‘the other.’’ Since the story is not told from a third-person omniscient point of view, the experience of being a refugee fleeing war is personalized, and the reader is able to experience not only the facts of the journey, but also, in a limited way, the emotions and personal experiences of the girl herself.

Gordimer effectively sets the tone of the story with the first two sentences: ‘‘That night our mother went to the shop and she didn’t come back. Ever.’’ In a quiet, dispassionate, almost distant tone of voice, without a hint of sentiment or pity, the narrator has just reported the presumed death of her mother. The remainder of the story is told in a similar, matter-of-fact way: regardless of how despairing her circumstances are, there is a profound sense of acceptance and fatalism hinted at in the girl’s voice. At the same time, the sentences introduce the continual sense of loss that the narrator will experience throughout the course of the story, as well as a menacing aspect. This will be a stark story, one filled with loss and foreboding, and the telling of it will offer very little in the way of analysis or description. One purpose of using this tone to tell the story is to help underscore the girl’s overall sense of optimism. At the end of the story she continues to dream of a day she can be reunited, in her home, with her mother, father, and grandfather. The girl, despite her hardships and her bleak surroundings, never gives up hope, however illusory that hope may be.

Compare and Contrast

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1980s: Apartheid laws are still in effect in South Africa, with the majority population unable to vote or move about freely.

Today: Apartheid has been abolished, and blacks are allowed to vote in local and national elections.

1980s: Many important works of literature, including works by Nadine Gordimer, are banned in South Africa.

Today: With the exception of some school districts occasionally calling for the censorship of certain works, South Africans can read and write without fear of official, state-sanctioned censorship.

1980s: Mozambique and Zimbabwe villagers living along the South African borders are frequently displaced because of the guerilla warfare supported by the South African government.

Today: South Africa has long stopped its incursions into neighboring countries, and villagers are no longer forced away from their homes by guerilla raids.

1980s: The African National Congress, of which Gordimer is a long-standing member, is considered illegal by the government, and its members are considered outlaws.

Today: The African National Congress, which Gordimer continues to support, is the majority political party in South Africa.

Media Adaptations

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The Nobel Prize committee maintains a Gordimer web page at 1991/ with a link to her Nobel Prize speech and other related sites.

In a separate section of the Nobel Prize web site, at wastberg/index.html, writer and vice president of International PEN Per Wästberg offers an extensive overview of Gordimer’s career.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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‘‘Anti-Apartheid Author Branded Racist,’’ BBC News Online at

Banville, John, ‘‘Winners,’’ Review of Jump and Other Stories, in the New York Review of Books, Vol. 38, No. 19, November 21, 1991, pp. 27–29.

Colleran, Jeanne, ‘‘Archive of Apartheid: Nadine Gordimer’s Short Fiction at the End of the Interregnum,’’ in The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer, edited by Bruce King, St. Martin’s Press, 1993, pp. 237–45.

Cryer, Dan, ‘‘Tales of Racial Turmoil and Other Tempests,’’ Review of Jump and Other Stories, in Newsday, September 23, 1991, p. 50.

Donnelly, Jerome, ‘‘Summer Fiction—Jump and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer,’’ in America, Vol. 166, No. 20, June 6, 1992, pp. 518–19.

Gordimer, Nadine, ‘‘Living in the Interregnum,’’ in The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places, edited by Stephen Clingman, Jonathan Cape, 1988, pp. 261–84.

Jeyifo, Biodun, ‘‘An Interview with Nadine Gordimer: Harare, February 14, 1992,’’ in Callaloo, Vol. 16, No. 4, Fall 1993, pp. 922–30.

Lazar, Karen, ‘‘‘A Feeling of Realistic Optimism’: An Interview with Nadine Gordimer,’’ in Salmagundi, No. 113, Winter 1997, pp. 150–65.

———, ‘‘Jump and Other Stories: Gordimer’s Leap into the 1990s: Gender and Politics in Her Latest Short Fiction,’’ in Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, December 1992, pp. 783–802.

Mantel, Hilary, ‘‘Irrecoverably Dark, Without All Hope of Day: Jump and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer,’’ in the Spectator, Vol. 267, No. 8519, October 19, 1991, pp. 43–44.

Wästberg, Per, ‘‘Nadine Gordimer and the South African Experience,’’ at wastberg/index.html#2 (on the official Nobel Prize Web Site)

Further Reading
Brink, André, Reinventing a Continent: Writing and Politics in South Africa, 1982–1995, Secker & Warburg, 1996. One of South Africa’s foremost novelists and opponents of apartheid brings together this collection of essays about the role of the writer in South Africa.

Davis, Geoffrey V., Voices of Justice and Reason: Apartheid and Beyond in South African Literature, Amsterdam, 2003. Davis provides a detailed overview, with an extensive bibliography, of South African writing under apartheid, with a focus on black writers.

Finnegan, William, A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique, University of California Press, 1992. A Complicated War is an eyewitness journalistic account of the civil war in Mozambique that was sponsored by South Africa and ultimately killed over a million Mozambicans.

Karodia, Farida, A Shattering of Silence, Heinemann, 1993. Karodia gives a fictionalized account of the adventures of a young Mozambican girl who loses her family to the civil war in her country.

Vines, Alex, Renamo: Terrorism in Mozambique, Indiana University Press, 1991. Vines provides an historical overview of Renamo, the rebel movement supported by South Africa that fueled the civil war in Mozambique.

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