“We Work, to Stay Alive:” Fiction and the South African Literary Imagination

A language map of South Africa, generated using data compiled by Stats SA. Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:South_Africa_2011_dominant_language_map.svg.

This is not a post about Nelson Mandela.

Numerous public tributes for a man of such stature have flooded in and will no doubt continue to do so for some time, while many more of us, I would imagine, have chosen to privately mark his passing in some manner. It is the least one could expect for such a key figure of modern human history.

But I do not want to dwell on Mandela, neither on his life nor (directly, at least) his legacy. Instead, I want to spend some time thinking about the country he lived in and helped transform, and the major literary compatriots – and their texts – that made that transformation unique. Reading modern South African literature might not be the best way to fully understand how complex this particular nation’s history, and those of its many peoples, has been. But there is a special character and, I think, a peculiar vision that distinguishes this set of texts from many others, and searching for that spirit can perhaps help us (not least South Africans) better understand the overlap between social reality and the creative imagination.

Most people’s understanding of “South African literature” in the West – assuming, of course, that there is a sufficient awareness that South Africa has a rich literature – tends to be limited to the works of two of its most celebrated authors: Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. (It doesn’t hurt to know that, among numerous awards, they’ve won the Nobel Prize in Literature – in 1991 and 2003, respectively – either.) That’s hardly a bad thing, as both Gordimer and Coetzee are capable of writing scintillating, challenging, yet ultimately honest prose. But these talents are matched by many of their peers, and the tumultuous circumstances they found themselves in furnished these authors with a staggering body of provocative subject matter and material to tackle in their work.

Much of that literary production is rooted in the efforts of the Sestigers (Afrikaans for “sixtiers”), a circle of Afrikaner dissidents who began challenging state-imposed apartheid in the ’60s. Writers such as Breyten Breytenbach, Elsa Joubert, and André Brink – the latter arguably the most celebrated author of the group – rebelled the South African Nationalist Party’s policy of racial segregation and gave voice to a fast-emerging literary and cultural movement against concurrent social policy. Not surprisingly, many of the Sestigers’ works were banned and censored by the government, and several fled the country altogether. As Brink himself has written in A Land Apart: A Contemporary South African Reader (1985):

Towards the end of the 1960s…some of the writers from the group – notably Breytenbach and Brink – began to extend the scope of their work in attempts to come to grips, quite explicitly, with the socio-political context within which they worked. Within a few years practically all the Sestigers were exploring at least the fringes of a more overtly ‘committed’ form of literature. This development led to a head-on collision with the political authorities…[and a]fter the banning of Brink’s Kennis van die Aand in 1974, published in English as Looking on Darkness later that same year, the hunt was open.

But the silencing of Afrikaner dissident voices did not deter the simultaneous efforts of their Anglophone peers to challenge South African policy and racial injustice. English-speaking writers of all races (white, black, Indian, and “colored” or mixed-race) channeled the chaos of apartheid and its implementation into their writings. Oupa Thando Mthimkulu’s “Like a Wheel” (1978) captures the cyclic turmoil of black South African life with a devastatingly simple metaphor, the wheel:

This thing is like a wheel
It turns
Today it’s me
Tomorrow it’s you

Today I’m hungry
Tomorrow it’s you
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Today I’m in prison
Tomorrow it’s you

This thing is like a wheel

Gordimer’s July’s People (1981), arguably her most famous novel, meanwhile, configures her social context into a a post-apocalyptic South Africa in which the eponymous black servant of the novel’s title takes in his (now former) master’s family – the Smales – to shelter them from the violence and destruction of the surrounding civil war. There’s a telling scene where July introduces his two families to each other, and Maureen (the Smales matriarch) meets July’s wife Martha for the first time:

A small, black-black, closed face, and huge hams on which the woman rested on the earth floor as among cushions….[Martha] frowned appealingly under July’s chivvying voice, swayed, murmured greeting sounds.
     “She say, she can be very pleased you are in her house. She can be very glad to see you, long time now, July’s people -”
     But she had said nothing.

I framed my undergraduate thesis around this passage – the inability of Martha and Maureen to communicate on equal terms, even with the (albeit destructive) collapse of the apartheid superstructure. Maureen’s impression of Martha is especially disturbing and symptomatic of the long-standing white South African instinct to frame the black body in disfiguring terms: “small, black-black, closed face, and huge hams” is not a clause that brings a human being to mind. Likewise, Martha’s failure to say anything to the Smales – despite July’s false intervention – encapsulates her failure, it seems, to say anything at all. So much, or perhaps so little, for life under South African apartheid.

That fundamental failure to communicate also emerges in late-apartheid literature, particularly in Coetzee’s Foe (1987), a re-telling of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe from the perspective of Susan Barton. But for every work emphasizing the apparent futility of interracial recognition and equality, there’s another depicting the brutal realities of day-to-day life under apartheid. Lauretta Ngcobo’s And They Didn’t Die (1990) notably details the difficulties that black rural women faced in responding not only to white male and female oppression, but also to the burdens of “traditional” culture and patriarchy. Its protagonist, a young Zulu woman named Jezile Mpanga, is forced to negotiate the complexities of farm labor, family life, and later domestic servitude, motherhood, and sexual violence. Ngcobo summarizes many of these difficulties by translating her heroine’s travails into the plight of an insect caught in an intricate spider web:

[S]he felt trapped between the impositions of customary law, state law and migratory practices. And she, the physical creature in between, somehow had to manoeuvre successfully among the threads of the web woven around her by all these….Although all the women lived this reality, few could articulate it for themselves. They suffered it and with this sting in their lives they could be merciless to those who failed somewhere along the line.

It’s a succinct yet devastating portrait of the black, rural South African woman’s experience, one where the “sting” of oppression on all sides – customary law, state law, and migratory practices (the latter referring to South Africa’s notorious pass laws) – becomes a weapon to be turned on fellow black women who “[fail] somewhere along the line.” Fortunately, there are moments of respite for Jezile from her troubles – more often that not she demonstrates the anger and initiative to challenge her circumstances – but I’ll leave you to discover them for yourself.

These literary fragments can hardly sketch the full terrain of South Africa under apartheid rule, but they do provide brief glimpses of the physical hardships faced by non-whites (particularly non-white women) and the psychological distress faced by all who opposed their sociopolitical circumstances. So what about literature after the ‘democratic moment’ of 1994, after the official dismantling of raced policies and prohibitions?

If the world now largely recognizes South Africa as a “rainbow nation,” as a harmonious and functioning multiracial democracy, then we could perhaps understand a great deal of South African literature written after 1994 as a response to that metaphor. Not surprisingly, the difficult realities of post-apartheid life are reflected in the works of recognized South African authors, many of whom imagine the ‘transition’ as a messy transformation rather than a clear-cut triumph. Sindiwe Magona, for example, draws from the publicized murder of white American graduate student Amy Biehl in Cape Town in 1993 to open up a conversation on the disparities in black and white motherhood in her novel Mother to Mother (1998). Figured as a correspondence between Amy’s assailant’s black mother Mandisa (more than one person in reality) and Amy’s white mother Linda, but written entirely from Mandisa’s perspective, the novel carries over the disjointed nature of interracial communication evidenced in July’s People. Mandisa demonstrates the wide gap in the mothers’ experiences by describing her life as a domestic servant for the white Nelson family:

[A]s a mother, I’m supposed to have authority over my children, over the running of my house. Never mind that I’m never there. Monday to Saturday, I go to work in the kitchen of my mlungu [white] woman, Mrs. Nelson; leaving the house before the children go to school and coming back long after the sun has gone to sleep. I am not home when they come back from school….I have a hard time remembering my name, most of the time, as it is. But, we have to work. We work, to stay alive.

Mandisa’s experience as a black matriarch is ultimately an ironic one: despite her assumed “authority over [her] children” and “the running of [her] house,” her powers are channeled entirely into the service of another mother’s family. Even her own name threatens to become a placeholder rather than an entry point into a ‘free’ life in a transitional South Africa.

Phaswane Mpe, another black author whose life was tragically cut short by illness in 2004, also challenges the nature of South Africa’s newfound ‘inclusiveness’ in Welcome to Our Hillbrow (2001). Named in reference to one of Johannesburg’s formerly affluent white neighborhoods, the novel recounts (in second-person narrative) the life of Refentše, a young black student at Wits University, and the circumstances that lead to his death by suicide. In particular, xenophobia against non-South Africans shapes the state and space of Mpe’s Hillbrow: a dilapidated, crime-ridden maze of streets and not-so-honorable residents, migrants, and Makwerekwere – foreigners so named because of the sounds of their seemingly unintelligible languages. As the narrator summarizes:

No one seemed to care that the treatment of Makwerekwere by the police…ran contrary to the human rights clauses detailed in the new constitution of the country. Ambiguities, paradoxes, ironies…the stuff of our South African and Makwerekwere lives.

There’s a cutting irony to this xenophobia; namely, that the language with which South Africans exclude outsiders simultaneously destroys any conception of a “South African identity.” The paradox that South Africans refuse to adhere to the “human rights clauses” inaugurated with the birth of their new republic only complicates the nature of a seemingly unified democracy even further.

One final example of modern South African writing worth noting is Zoë Wicomb’s 2006 novel Playing in the Light. Though more widely recognized for her earlier novel David’s Story (2002), Wicomb has arguably become South Africa’s most productive and challenging “colored” writer, and the fragmentary nature of South African “coloredness” figures prominently in virtually all of her work. Playing revolves around the life of Marion Campbell, a woman who has believed all her life that she is white – only to discover that in fact she is colored. Key to that process of discovery is her colored colleague Brenda McKay, whom she gradually befriends in her struggle to reconfigure her sense of identity. Indeed, it is Brenda who cuts to the problem of “coloredness” by encouraging Marion to embrace it for what it is:

“So what? Haven’t you heard how many white people, or rather Afrikaners of the more-indigenous-than-thou brigade, are claiming mixed blood these days? It’s not such a tragedy being black, you know, at least you’re authentic. And just think of the other benefits: you need no longer speak in hushed tones – you’re free to be noisy, free to eat a peach, a juicy ripe one, and free of the burdens of nation and tradition.”

Being colored, then, is rejecting the racial purity upon which pre-democratic, colonial South Africa was built and embracing instead the ‘authenticity’ of mixed heritage. And the “benefits” of that mélange are liberating – I especially like the wink to T.S. Eliot in Brenda’s “peach” comment, because it demonstrates the unique power (a post-colonial power, one might well argue) of South Africans to borrow metaphors from so many sources, free – perhaps – “of the burdens of nation and tradition.”

There is, obviously, much more that can be said about a subject so broad as South African literature, and a nation so rich in history and experience as South Africa. Certainly I have left out the names of countless writers – Antjie Krog, Lewis Nkosi, Zakes Mda, Athol Fugard, Elleke Boehmer, Njabulo Ndebele, and of course Coetzee himself – and I could easily have picked a completely different selection of texts to comment on. But in these snippets I’ve chosen, I can sense an extraordinary creative spirit that, from one writer to the next, manifests itself in so many passionate, compelling, and ultimately human forms. And in so many cases, the overlap between material reality and the literary imagination becomes virtually complete. Perhaps that unity is what sets South African literature, and South Africa as a nation, apart from others. It’s certainly left a lasting impression on my own consciousness, and I imagine it’s had as great an impact on the lives of many more readers.

A very, very short list of other recommended reading:

Elleke Boehmer – Bloodlines (2000)
J. M. Coetzee – Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), Disgrace (1999)
Athol Fugard – Tsotsi (1980), Master Harold and the Boys (1982, play)
Antjie Krog – Country of My Skull (1998, memoir)
Ellen Kuzwayo – Call Me Woman (1985, autobiography)
Zakes Mda – Ways of Dying (1995), The Heart of Redness (2000)
Lewis Nkosi – Mating Birds (1983)
Zoë Wicomb – You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town (1987), David’s Story (2002)




About csquaredetc

I'm a graduate student in English at the University of Pennsylvania (or "Penn" for short). My most prolific writing is on The Hong Kong Project, a blog about my former experience as an exchange student: thehkproject.wordpress.com
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2 Responses to “We Work, to Stay Alive:” Fiction and the South African Literary Imagination

  1. Pingback: Bookmarks: 11/24 – 12/15 | Shelf Reflections

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