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.’’
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.
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.
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...
(The entire section is 2,200 words.)