A Privileged Source of Information


Stephane Serge Ibinga



The wind of change that blew through South African society after the collapse of the apartheid system brought sudden transformations in the law and in attitudes to everyday life. The end of apartheid witnessed the emergence of new social problems that writers have attempted to confront in their works. Post-apartheid writing is marked by an abrupt shift away from a racial focus towards a wider concern with all the many and various dimensions of human existence.

South African texts published after the first democratic elections in 1994 are commonly referred to as post-apartheid literature because, despite the lingering after-effects of the former political system, this event marked the eradication of legalized racial segregation. The key element in the classification of South African literature is no longer racial difference but the language used by writers. Whereas during the apartheid era we spoke simply of ‘black’ or ‘white’ literature, now we refer to South African literature as Zulu literature or Afrikaans or Xhosa or English.

This major political shift prompted many questions in the minds of critics and commentators on South African writing. Some predicted the disappearance of many committed writers who used to denounce political oppression in their texts. Others again wondered whether South African writers would be able to adjust their writing to the new political climate, since the end of racial oppression implies liberation from the old racial discourse.

The sudden socio-political mutations that took place subsequent to the demise of apartheid were one manifestation of the transitional phase of a transforming society. In the South African political context, ‘the transition’ has come to mean the period running from the late 1980s to the first democratic elections in 1994. Within this historical timeframe the apartheid regime and anti-apartheid activists embarked on political negotiations in order not only to liberate all political prisoners but also to construct a new political system based on respect for democratic values and human rights. Political turmoil in Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War were the main factors that increased internal and external pressure on the oppressive political system.

The early years of democracy were characterized by a new form of writing called ‘honeymoon literature’ or ‘the literature of celebration’. The most striking feature of honeymoon literature is its overriding tendency to praise the miraculous materialization of the so-called multiracial ‘rainbow nation’. This emphasis on describing the feeling of euphoria was more dominant in poetry and drama. Authors such as Athol Fugard and Mongeni Ngema are well-known for their obsession with this form of writing. In fact, honeymoon literature basically took up the themes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) by highlighting the importance of confronting the truth about the traumatic past in order to promote forgiveness and reconciliation between the victims and perpetrators of violence.

However, South African literature has subsequently taken a path similar to that followed by post-colonial authors in African states that gained their independence in the 1960s. The representation of euphoria has quickly been replaced by a feeling of disillusionment as the past continues to haunt people’s everyday lives.

Many post-apartheid texts are still influenced by apartheid-era writing, which is to say they can be characterized by three dominant tendencies: an obvious interest in political issues, resistance to oppression and the obsessive reference to race. The well-known South African critic Lewis Nkosi for example, acknowledges that the apartheid inheritance continues to influence the thematic choices of South African writers. Nkosi explains that while some black writers “remain somewhat stunned by the sudden change” another category of white writers “suddenly quite numerous see the end of apartheid as the occasion for inventing black villains whose function is to serve as pawns in a game in which roles are suddenly, conveniently, revised.”

In fact, one can identify two dominant approaches in post-1994 literature: the presence of certain striking features of apartheid writing and the emergence of new ways of writing that are free from the ideological determinism ideological determinism of the past. Here we can agree with the South African critic Elleke Bohemer who suggests that writers should follow the winding course of change to adapt their writings to “the moments and movements following apocalypse.”

The allusion to a South African ‘literature of the transition’ should not be taken to refer simply to South African literature produced during the period of political transition. Rather, it refers to a transitional phase in South African literature itself. In this regard Elleke Bohemer tells us that “South African fiction is [indeed] in transition”. In fact, despite socio-political transformations the effects of apartheid have not totally disappeared from South African fiction. In other words, when we refer to post-apartheid writing in its transitional phase we mean the unpredictable ongoing change in the new literature emanating from South Africa. In fact, the nuance between literature of transition and literature in transition is based on the dynamic aspect of change. Bohemer’s formulation seems to be more appropriate as an adequate description of the characteristics of post-struggle literature. The first phrase is potentially confusing as it refers to a particular period of South African history, while ‘literature in transition’ emphasises the ongoing nature of change.

The dominant characteristics of the transitional phase of post-apartheid literature are the persistent presence of apartheid features in post-liberation writing and the sudden change of perspective in the representation of contemporary social phenomena.

Novels such as Lauretta Ngcobo’s And They Didn’t Die (1990), Farrida Karodia’s Other Secrets (2000) and J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) address the rape issue, still a dominant preoccupation in public debate. However, these three authors all present the topic of rape with apartheid-era racial determinism, in which the villains stand on the other side of a racial boundary. Their description of race in South African society is still bound up with stereotypical representations. The first two novels depict black women as victims of white men’s sexual violence while the last portrays a white woman as a victim and black men as perpetrators.

Despite the lingering remnants of the past in post-apartheid literature, we can still observe a great demarcation from the traditional portrayal of racial difference. Zakes Mda, for instance, in his novel Ways of Dying (1994) exposes political atrocities of the pre-1994 elections. The author is particularly outraged at the bloodshed that was the result of political skirmishes between ANC loyalists and the Inkata Movement. Mda’s criticism of black-on-black violence indicates a sudden shift away from a traditional perspective on the political struggle. One might also argue that post-apartheid euphoria turned out to be ephemeral because it was replaced by mourning for the victims of the present. Mda notes many ways of dying arising from the political instability of the transition period. The author argues that “a new year is born with its new problems.” Mda seems to suggest that since apartheid has been officially defeated writers should start addressing the issues of the present – the new social realities - rather than those of the past. In a similar vein, the critic Sten Pultz Moslund investigates the impact of history on contemporary texts by looking at major changes occurring in post-liberation literature. Moslund notes that “in anticipation of the new dawn, South African publishers of literature were preoccupied in the first half of the 1990s with the celebration of a break with the past, realizing anthologies that would supposedly capture the New South African fictional strands.”

The aftermath of apartheid has brought about new problems in society. The South African poet and critic Andries Oliphant predicted that post-apartheid writing would have many possibilities “ranging from ecologically sensitive to gender conscious literature as well as carnivalized forms of literature.” In fact, in the newly democratized South Africa, literature is no longer confined to the representation of the politicized racial environment. It has started to look at new aspects of power distribution and social relations. Post-liberation writing has shifted from the representation of racial division to that of class difference, reflecting the new social fabric. In fact, writers have become interested in class relationships rather than race since the black empowerment policy (affirmative action) began to help black people join the circle of the white bourgeoisie, while the poor comprise both races even though blacks still dominate this group.

For example, the 1991 Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer’s portrayals of the social realities of contemporary times are often set in the centre or suburbs of Johannesburg, where the novelist herself lives. She focuses on the Marxist dialectics of class division with very little comment on politicised racial dialectics. Gordimer’s work epitomises the transition from racial dialectics to the dichotomy of class. Her description of class division is perhaps most evident in her novel The Pick Up (2001). The best illustration of class opposition is provided by Sello Duiker in his novel Thirteen Cents (2000), which is an account of the tribulations of street children in Cape Town. The story is full of harrowing scenes in which younger boys are the victims of sexual abuse and beating by gang leaders. Sello Duiker, who was himself a street boy, wants to draw his government’s attention to the problem in the hope that it will take effective measures to eradicate poverty and the phenomenon of homeless and unschooled children. Duiker’s purpose illustrates the surprising changes in post-apartheid writing.

A common feature in post-apartheid literature is a concern with nation-building projects. Authors explore the possibility of re-assessing past identities in order to construct a new national identity based on a transcultural perspective. The representation of the present state of civil society puts individuals rather than politics in the centre, even though the interaction between the private and public sphere persists. One can identify a thematic change in much post-apartheid literature. In fact, South African texts published after 1994 are increasingly preoccupied with certain emerging issues that we can identify by providing examples of texts dealing with each social problem facing the new South Africa.

1. HIV and Aids: One in every five South Africans is HIV positive. So, writes on every side of the gender and cultural divides have joined hands to use the artistic arena to fight against the epidemic. Nobantu Rasebotsa’s Nobody ever said AIDS, Poems and Stories from Southern Africa (2004) and Colored Hill by Verenia Keet (2005).

2. Xenophobia: Apartheid racism seems to have been replaced by xenophobia. black South Africans’ rejection of black people from other African nations. Welcome to our Hillbrow (2001) by Phaswane Mpe.

3. Homophobia: The theme of homosexuality has begun to dominate among both black and white writers such as Nadine Gordimer and Sello Duiker.

4. Ecology: Liberation from the determinism of race has opened literature towards other horizons such as environmental consciousness. Zakes Mda’s The Whale Caller (2005) and The Heart of Redness (2000).

5. Feminism: Women’s new public roles and their heroines in the liberation struggle are emerging literary themes. Kasigo Lesego’s Dancing in The Dust (2002). Mtutuzeli Nyoka’s I Speak to the Silent (2004). Njabulo S. Ndebele’s The Cry of Winnie Mandela (2003).

6. Domestic Violence: an alternative to the theme of political violence. Gordimer’s The House Gun (1998).

The thematic change in post-apartheid literature has also given a novel aesthetic dimension to contemporary texts. Responding to criticism of the lack of aesthetic dimension in South African literature – an assessment made from a purely European standard - Nadine Gordimer has explained that the overriding tendency towards the realist perspective in apartheid narratives was a result of the urgency of coercive political measures used against those in South Africa who struggled for freedom from oppression. Gordimer responds to the heated debate around the intertwining of politics and art during the anti-apartheid struggle by claiming that ‘agit-prop’ is a social necessity, using both mimesis and art in order to restore humanism and justice to a society in crisis. In a similar vein, in his new book Art Talk Politics Talk (2006) Michael Chapman justifies the importance of resistance literature in an oppressive society.

Nowadays, many writers have adopted Njabulo Ndebele’s approach of “rediscovering the ordinary”, which implies leaving behind the propagandist form of writing in order to discern the individual within society. Andre Bring reckons that the technique of magical realism - juxtaposing the fantastic and the real - is a fitting feature of African story-telling. Mandla Langa also suggests that there is a need for writers to explore the folklore, myths and legends of South Africa as part of a new aesthetics.

Post-apartheid literature is still in transition because the past still impacts on the new South Africa. However, significant changes are taking place in the thematic and an aesthetic aspects of post-apartheid literature. Thus, we can argue that post-liberation fiction has embarked on a journey towards the new horizons offered by various new pressing issues. Despite the long history of racial segregation, race is less and less the principal preoccupation of writers. By dealing with the present issues of their society, writers attempt to transcend race in order to construct a national identity that promotes the country’s cultural diversity.