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SOUTH AFRICAN LITERATURE

New boundaries

The new post-apartheid literature of South Africa reflects the problems and moral issues apartheid has left in its wake, writes ANURADHA KUMAR.


POST-COLONIAL literature written in Apartheid South Africa was largely a reaction against the injustices of the policy and brought figures like Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee, Athol Fugard, and Alan Paton to literary prominence. Their works told of the tragedy and beauty of South Africa. When apartheid ended with elections in 1994, the South African literary scene took its own time to absorb the changes introduced after Mandela's election.

The government immediately devoted most of its budget to streamline the education system. Under apartheid, local publishers had funded unprofitable literary publications with revenue from the education system, by supplying textbooks to schools and libraries. After 1996, with lay-offs on a large scale, publishing programmes were frozen, though the situation recovered in 1999. In the initial post-apartheid years, literary figures and artists such as black comics and satirists were also afraid of attacking the new ruling elite. There was concern that a new government broadcasting act might stifle artistic freedom. In 1998, South Africa's richest province, Gauteng, banned one of Nadime Gordimer's novels from schools in an ironic and painful blow for the writer who campaigned tirelessly for the ANC. July's People, published in 1981, was found unsuitable for study in schools because "the subject matter is questionable ... the reader is bombarded with nuances that do not achieve much ... any condemnation of racism is difficult to discover — so the story comes across as being deeply racist, superior and patronising".

When `normal' is painful

Post-apartheid South Africa thus began with a creative slump as people also thought about what to write. As the writer Zakes Mda put it, "It was easier to write about the past... because the past created ready-made stories. There was a very clear line of demarcation between good and evil, you see? There were no grey areas. But in a new situation, black is not necessarily good. There are many black culprits; there are many good white people. We have become normal. It's very painful to become normal."

Issues of power that haunted the apartheid era still remain in many ways as writers such as J.M. Coetzee have continued to demonstrate. In July's People, Gordimer depicts the complex relationship of master and servant, or "madam and maid", as it was ironically termed in South Africa; it was an issue that all whites at that time had to consider — how they could participate in their country's future. J.M. Coetzee, in Disgrace, makes the definitive pronouncement: that whites don't have a choice, they must go along with what emerges in the new South Africa or leave.

Gordimer has moved beyond her earlier themes. In The Pickup, the action begins in Johannesburg but moves to a small town in an Arab state. The central issue in the novel is global rather than local. South Africa is today a haven for illegal migration; the country draws tens of thousands of outsiders who hustle a living as street traders, car washers and building labourers. The Pickup's male protagonist is a car mechanic from an Arab country who works illegally in Johannesburg till he is deported. He returns with the white woman he picked up when her car broke down in Johannesburg to his home in a miserably poor town on the desert's edge. Still desperation compels him to go away for days at a time, scouring the consulates in the capital, looking for a new country to escape to, while the white woman strangely finds contentment in her new surroundings.

Reflecting complexities

Other important writers — Breyten Breytenbach, Andre Brink and others — continue to produce challenging work that reflects the complexities of their country. The 2003 Booker Prize nominee Damon Galgut's novel The Good Doctor, is built on the fissures that run through the new South Africa, and attempts to give some shape to the problems and moral issues apartheid has left in its wake.


What sets the new black South African authors apart are their very different experiences. A number of them had to readjust to life after returning from exile, to cope with being placed within a new black elite, and to witness problems like corruption and ineptitude. Their experiences of detention, banning and exile tell a story of struggle and celebration. Mandla Langa and Zakes Mda were among the first authors to have joined the pantheon of black classics such as Njabulo Ndebele (Fools and Other Stories, 1984), Bessie Head (A Collector of Treasure, 1977) and Esk'ia Mphahlele (The Unbroken Song, 1988).

Mandla Langa published his first two novels, Tenderness of Blood (1987) and Rainbow on a Paper Sky (1989) while in exile in London. Tenderness of Blood is an intimate account of one man's political and emotional journey in the 1970s from his student days at Fort Hare to his imprisonment on Robben Island. The novel allows us to see the liberation struggle from the perspectives of those involved in it and also depicts the personal foibles, weaknesses and limitations of these apparently brave individuals.

Questions over reconciliation

Zakes Mda is described as the most "critically acclaimed' author in the post-Apartheid black South African literary scene, publishing Ways of Dying in 1995 and The Heart of Redness in 2000. Having spent 32 years in exile, Mda's novels depict characters coming to terms with post-Apartheid life. The struggle to hold on to traditional values in the face of the new South African politics and western materialism forms an important theme in his writings. Mda writes of the clash between tradition-bound rural villages and cosmopolitan cities, of tribal communities witness to oppression and political violence. He writes also of the brutality blacks suffered, not merely at the hands of whites but at the hands of other blacks — in the Xhosa communities of the Eastern Cape; in the successive coups in Lesotho; in the liberation movement that overtook the townships the years before the ANC's electoral victory in 1994. In The Heart of Redness, Camagu, a former exile, has to contend with many changes: friends who were fighting for liberation have become corporate figures, acquaintances from rural villages have become successful in the big city.


Writers are also critical of the reconciliation rhetoric in contemporary South Africa, especially the question of what constitutes facts and how they are to be used in the creation of South Africa's past. As Mandla Langa has pointed out, the preoccupation with reconciliation and reconstruction also pushes for a compromise, even if the victims are denied justice in some cases. The new South Africa is no less politically expedient than the old, appropriating, reinscribing, or exaggerating racial sameness or difference when it is ideologically useful. The country's president, Thabo Mbeki's once made a statement that the country was one of two nations — one black and one white. Coloureds who form a distinct category within the population are thus spoken of as white when they vote white, their own racial history — their colouredness — is silenced. In its current form, reconciliation is seen as erasing the coloured past and deprives the community of its cultural memory. The confusion of being a coloured writer was painfully expressed as early as the 1960s when the poet Arthur Nortje wrote his compositions. Nortje wrote about being coloured and the paradox of being neither African nor European, while simultaneously having ties to both worlds.

Zoe Wicomb, a mixed-race lecturer of literature now based in Scotland, made a name for herself in 1987 with the novel You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town. Her more recent novel David's Story, is the tale of a mixed-race anti-apartheid fighter whose love story did not outlast the end of the anti-apartheid era. Achmat Dangor, a novelist of Indian origin, spent his formative years in Cape Town's District Six — the "coloured" area once demolished by the apartheid government. At university in the 1970s he became involved in Steve Biko's black consciousness movement. In his fiction such as the Z-Town Trilogy Dangor has explored relations between the races in the townships. As has Marlene van Niekerk in her novel Triomf, published in Afrikaans in 1994 and recently translated into English. The novel is set in the rubble of a razed community, Sophiatown. Once a multiracial freehold township in west Johannesburg, Sophiatown was subjected to forced removals from 1955 to make way for the white working-class suburb of Triomf. Yet the barefoot Afrikaners of Van Niekerk's novel are not a triumphant lot; they are the "white trash" who may have fallen for the National Party's apartheid vision but have received none of its promised fruits. Set on the eve of the country's first free elections in April 1994, the novel finds the family anxiously wondering whether the "kaffirs" will want their places back, while struggling to get by in their cardboard shacks on a diet of bread and polony, swilled down with cheap brandy and Coke.

These enduring confusions are reflected in Zakes Mda's new novel The Madonna of Excelsior. Mda moves back and forth between black and white characters, powerfully stressing the connection between these two groups, between oppressors and oppressed. The connection does not foster an easy alliance — for, the past cannot be wished away. The Afrikaners cannot escape the shame of their oppressive past; for the blacks, these same associations threaten the new present. Yet there is hope in the alliance. Mda is arguing that, despite its other horrific lessons, the history of South Africa can teach much about reconciliation.

A different kind of inequality

Another young black writer K. Sello Duiker, draws attention to the new inequalities that are being formed according to class, even as racial inequities are vanishing. Studying in a coloured school, Duiker discovered that in the coloured community there was a lot of politics around hair, the smoothness and the colour (to distinguish themselves from blacks). His insight into this group of people is explored in his The Quiet Violence of Dreams (2001). Its main protagonist, Tshepo, comes from a black middle class family but having studied in a private school is more comfortable in the white world. People like Tshepo, are seen as grey, not belonging to the black race and rejected by the white. Duiker here tries to explore whether the politics of such people living in the grey areas have any value; Tshepo was his vehicle to explore these issues of identity.

And there are writers who have have attempted to transcend parameters set by the very question of race; strangely writers are defensive about taking such a position. For instance, Pamela Jooste wrote an unusual preface to her recent novel, Dance with a Poor Man's Daughter, where she justified her "impertinence" as a white writer in depicting "the suffering of so-called `coloured' people" through the eyes of one of their children. For white South African writers, this difficulty, even presumption, of representing the silenced Other in fiction has rightly given serious pause for thought. One response has been consciously to renounce the right to tell anyone else's story, mindful of the historical minefield of misrepresentation. In J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, black characters are pivotal but difficult to decipher. But as Salman Rushdie has also insisted, literature is self-validating and has to be judged on its own terms, not on whether its author owns certain themes or characters. Writers must be imaginatively free to cross borders of whatever construction at will; whether they do so well or not is for readers to decide.

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