An overview of the main currents in South African literature, from Olive Schreiner’s depiction of life on isolated Karoo farms to more recent work that tackles the aftermath of apartheid and pushes into the post-apartheid future.
Brand South Africa reporter
South Africa has a rich and diverse literary history, with realism, until relatively recently, dominating works of fiction.
Fiction has been written in all of South Africa’s 11 official languages – with a large body of work in Afrikaans and English. This overview focuses primarily on English fiction, though it also touches on major poetic developments.
Sections in this article:
- The colonial adventure
- Truly South African voices
- Emergence of black writing
- Between the wars
- The 1940s
- The Drum decade: urban black life
- Gordimer: liberalism to radicalism
- Figures of the 1960s
- The Soweto poets
- The emergency years
- After apartheid
The colonial adventure
The first fictional works to emerge from South Africa were produced by colonial writers whose attitude to indigenous South Africans was, at best, ambivalent, if not outright hostile. This is especially true of the writers of adventure-type stories, in which colonial heroes are romanticised and the role of black South Africans was reduced to that of enemy or servant.
One such writer, Rider Haggard, wrote many mythical and adventure stories, beginning in the early 1880s. His most famous book is King Solomon’s Mines (1886), a bestseller in its day (and filmed several times up to the 1980s). Like subsequent novels such as Allan Quartermain and She (both 1887), its central character is the hunter Allan Quartermain, Haggard’s ideal of the colonial gentleman.
Although Haggard wrote many other adventures and fantasies, it is his highly coloured African works that are still read today.
Truly South African voices
Olive Schreiner’s novel, The Story of an African Farm (1883) is generally considered to be the founding text of South African literature. Schreiner was born on a mission station and worked as a governess on isolated Karoo farms, an experience that informed the novel.
The novel draws on the post-romantic sensibility of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and is still a key text in the formation of a truly South African voice. However, it has been criticised for its silence with regard to the black African presence in South Africa. Schreiner’s other work includes a critique of Cecil John Rhodes’s brutal form of colonialism, Trooper Peter Halkett of Mashonaland (1897), and the polemical Women and Labour (1911).
Douglas Blackburn, a maverick British journalist who came to South Africa when the Transvaal was still a Boer republic, had something in common with Schreiner. In several newspapers, he denounced British colonial attitudes as well as satirising Boer corruption. He wrote two novels set in this world, Prinsloo of Prinsloosdorp (1899) and A Burgher Quixote (1903), capturing with a great deal of sly humour the personality and situation of the Boer at the time. His later novel Leaven (1908) is a moving denunciation of “blackbirding” (the recruitment of people through trickery and kidnappings to work on farms) and other iniquitous labour practices, and Love Muti (1915) attacks British colonial attitudes.
Emergence of black writing
Literature by black South Africans emerged in the 20 th century. The first generation of mission-educated African writers sought to restore dignity to Africans by invoking and reconstructing a heroic African past.
The first novel by a black South African was Mhudi (completed in 1920 but only published in 1930), by Solomon (Sol) Thekiso Plaatje. This epic story follows the trajectory of the Tswana people during and after their military encounter with the Zulus under Shaka, the Zulu conqueror of the 19th century, and encompasses their earliest encounters with the white people moving into the interior.
Viewed as the founding father of black literature in South Africa, Plaatje was also the first secretary general of the then South African Native National Congress (now the African National Congress) at its foundation in 1912. His Native Life in South Africa (1916) was a seminal text in the study of land dispossession in South Africa. He also wrote a diary of the siege of Mafeking during the Boer War, and translated Shakespeare into seTswana language.
While Plaatje’s Mhudi related the history of the Tswana people in South African literature, Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka reinvents the legendary Zulu king, Shaka. Mofolo portrays him as a heroic but tragic figure, a monarch to rival Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Mofolo, however, also invests Shaka with a complex personality, in which good and evil are at war – in contrast to white colonial historians who made him a simplistic monster of tribal savagery. Completed in 1910, the novel was published in 1925 and the first English translation came out in 1930.
Between the wars
Perhaps the dominant figure of South African literature in the period between the two world wars was Sarah Gertrude Millin, whose reputation has faded considerably since her death. This can be predicated on her politics: she was initially a devout supporter of Jan Smuts’ government, but later became something of an apologist for apartheid.
Her views on the “tragedy” of racial miscegenation were put forward in God’s Stepchildren (1924). Seen in terms of racial hierarchies, with whites at the top and blacks at the bottom, Millin’s views represented those held widely at the time.
Her later novels continued to deal with the predicament of coloured (mixed-race) people in South Africa, or attempted to describe the world of indigenous peoples.
The 1940s saw the beginnings of a flowering of literature by black South Africans such as HIE Dhlomo whose work preached a “return to the source” – the wisdom of finding traditional ways of dealing with modern problems. His work includes several plays and the long poem The Valley of a Thousand Hills (1941). Poets such as BW Vilakazi, who wrote in Zulu, gave new literary life to their indigenous languages.
Peter Abrahams, a writer of mixed race descent, published his first novel Mine Boy in 1946, the same year a large miners’ strike was violently suppressed by Smuts’ government. Mine Boy depicts life in black urban areas of the time, and dramatises the problems of rural people in a depressed urban environment – a theme that was referred to as the “Jim comes to Jo’burg” phenomenon in South African literature.
Later works by Abrahams (who left South Africa and settled in Britain before finally moving to Jamaica) include The Path of Thunder (1948), which deals with interracial love; Return to Goli (1953), about his journey back to report on life in Johannesburg; and his autobiography Tell Freedom (1954).
Another South African writer who emerged in the 1940s, Herman Charles Bosman, is best known for his tales, a portrait of Afrikaner storytelling skills and social attitudes. The first collection of stories was published in Mafeking Road in 1947. Among the most famous are Unto Dust and In the Withaak’s Shade.
Bosman, who was once jailed for the mysterious murder of his half-brother, also wrote poetry, novels, and much journalism, often satirical. One of his best works, Cold Stone Jug (1949), is a semi-fictionalised account of his time in jail. All his books have been reissued in new 2001 editions to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his death.
Bosman had satirised social attitudes in South Africa, but it was the work of a former white schoolteacher, Alan Paton, that brought the world’s attention to the situation of black people in South Africa. Cry, The Beloved Country (1948) is possibly the most famous novel to have come out of South Africa. When it was first published, it was an international bestseller, launching Paton, to worldwide fame. The novel put South Africa on the map of international politics by making visible to Western audiences the effects of racial prejudice and the oppression of black people. The novel was turned into a movie in 1995.
It is the story of a black priest who travels to Johannesburg in search of his son, who had fallen victim to the corrupting influence of the city. The novel explores themes of corruption and forgiveness, putting forward a liberal-humanist view of South Africa’s racial politics – as well as Paton’s deeply felt Christianity. The novel has a lovely poetic language, with extensive use of Biblical cadences, though Paton has also been criticised for a possibly condescending portrayal of black people.
The Drum decade: urban black life
The 1950s also saw a new generation of black writers talking about the conditions of their lives in their own voices – voices with a distinctive stamp and style. The popular Drum magazine in the 1950s was their forum, and encouraged their emergence. It depicted a vibrant urban black culture for the first time – a world of jazz, shebeens (illegal drinking dens), and flamboyant gangsters (tsotsis).
These Drum writers, whose style will be later described by renowned writer Es’kia Mphahlele as “racy, agitated, impressionistic, it quivered with a nervous energy, a caustic wit”, depicted urban deprivation, and also the resilience of people who survived “without visible means of subsistence”. They recorded satirical stories ridiculing the discriminatory and repressive policies of the state, while others provided harrowing details of the effect of apartheid legislation on people’s lives.
Their work ranged from the investigative journalism of Henry Nxumalo to the witty social commentary of Todd Matshikiza; others such as Nat Nakasa, Can Themba and Mphahlele moved toward embodying their visions of black South African life in poetry or fiction.
Later, Nakasa edited a literary journal, The Classic, that published work such as Themba’s story “The Suit” (1963), now regarded as a classic of South African literature. Themba was banned by the apartheid state and died in 1968 in exile, but others such as Mphahlele pursued their literary careers.
Lewis Nkosi became a noted literary critic in Europe and the United States. Other notable writers connected in some way to Drum include William Bloke Modisane, Arthur Maimane, Dyke Sentso, James Matthews, Peter Clarke, Richard Rive, Jordan Ngubane, Alex La Guma and Casey Motsisi. Modisane wrote the autobiography Blame Me on History (1963), Matthews has written much poetry and a novel, and Rive wrote Buckingham Palace, District Six (1986), about life in that coloured Cape Town area, and two novels about South African states of emergency, decades apart, Emergency (1964) and Emergency Continued (1989).
The Drum Decade , edited by Michael Chapman, and A Good Looking Corpse , by Mike Nicol, anthologise and comment on key works of this era.
Professor E’skia Mphahlele’s autobiographical Down Second Avenue (1959) is a landmark in the development of South African fiction. Set in a village and a township near Pretoria, the text records in evocative language the resilience of various female characters in Mphahlele’s life, women who defied poverty and urban squalor to bring him up. At the same time, they are presented with complexity and depth – his grandmother, for one, is a rather tyrannical figure.
Mphahlele went on to write critiques The African Image (1962), short stories Man Must Live (1946), In Corner B (1967), as well as further novels, including The Wanderers (1971), in some ways an extension of the autobiographical form of Down Second Avenue . He also wrote poetry and autobiography. Taken as a whole, Mphahlele’s oeuvre represents one of the most important views of the life experience and developing views of a politically aware South African.
In 2007, actor and theatre director James Ngcobo reworked Mphahlele’s poignant and emotional story The Suitcase into a highly successful play.
Gordimer: liberalism to radicalism
At the same time as the Drum generation was creating the first urban black voice, one of South Africa’s most important white writers was beginning her long, distinguished career. Nadine Gordimer published her first short stories in the early 1950s and in 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Between those two dates, her many novels and short stories articulated key issues for white South Africans sympathetic to the plight of disenfranchised blacks, as well as providing for the outside world a devastating picture of what it was like to live under apartheid.
In her first published novel The Lying Days (1953), Gordimer charts the growing political awareness of a young white woman, Helen, towards small-town life and South African racial division
Her second novel, A World of Strangers (1958), shows the first fruitful but often frightening encounters between white and black people in the heady days of Sophiatown. By the time of The Late Bourgeois World (1966), Gordimer is dealing directly with the effects of the black liberation movement on white South Africans, showing the divided soul of the white liberal in a morally ambivalent situation. The Conservationist (1974) pits Afrikaner land hunger against the indigenous population in an often phantasmagoric narrative. Burger’s Daughter (1979) depicts the involvement of radical white activists in the liberation struggle. July’s People (1981), perhaps Gordimer’s most powerful novel, projects into the future the final collapse of white supremacy and what that might mean for white and black people on an intimate level. Her other works (and her short stories are regarded as among her finest work) deal with issues such as love across the colour line and, more recently, the emergence of South Africa into a democracy after the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 – a society still dealing with a myriad contradictions.
Figures of the 1960s
In the early 1960s, the State of Emergency used by the apartheid state to crack down on dissidents and the banning of political organisations sent many black writers into exile. Among them was Alex la Guma, a Marxist and ANC leader who saw the purpose of his work as the exposure of the dreadful conditions of South Africa’s oppressed.
His novella A Walk in the Night (1962) shows the life of crime to which slum inhabitants are driven, and And a Threefold Cord (1967) contrasts the existence of a black worker in a white home with her employers’ affluent life. The later novel, In the Fog of the Season’s End (1972), possibly his best, shows the developing consciousness of a man dedicated to the underground struggle for freedom. As a “listed person”, little of La Guma’s work was available in South Africa until 1990, when the liberation movements were unbanned.
At the same time, in the 1960s, the Afrikaans literary scene had a rush of new blood, as literary writers such as Jan Rabie, Etienne Leroux, Breyten Breytenbach and Andre Brink emerged. Publishing first in Afrikaans, these writers were increasingly politicised by the situation in South Africa and their contrasting experiences overseas.
Breytenbach, who began as one of the most linguistically radical new poets in Afrikaans, left South Africa for France in 1960, where he became a vocal critic of the apartheid state. Later, in the 1970s, he returned to South Africa and was arrested and jailed for work he was doing for the liberation movement. From this experience came his extraordinary prison memoir, True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1996). His prison poetry was published in English in Judas Eye (1988). Breytenbach’s return visits to South Africa are recorded, mixing reportage and imaginative commentary, in A Season in Paradise (1976) and Return to Paradise (1993). His essays have been published in The Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution (1996). Even under an ANC government as he was under a Nationalist one, Breytenbach remains caustic about politics and power.
Andre Brink stayed in South Africa to see his novels become the first Afrikaans works banned by the government. Written in English as well as Afrikaans, his novels have become as important a part of South African English-language literature as they are in Afrikaans. Having published several novels in Afrikaans during the 1960s, it was his novel Looking on Darkness (1973) that was first banned.
His immensely powerful novel A Dry White Season (1982), focused on the death in detention of a black activist, and caused great irritation to the apartheid state, while conscientising many white South Africans. It was also banned, then unbanned. Later novels by this prolific novelist include An Act of Terror (1991), dealing with an Afrikaner dissident turned “terrorist”, and On the Contrary (1993), a playful reworking of South Africa’s colonial history.
During this period, Bessie Head emerged as a leading South African woman writer. Of mixed blood, and with a traumatic family history, Head left South Africa to avoid its racial policies and lived in Botswana, where she felt more at ease. Her novels show a marked sympathy with ordinary peasant women; her heroines are poor but strong-willed, women who have to face up to various forms of prejudice.
Her first novel was When Rain Clouds Gather (1968), followed by Maru (1971), The Collector of Treasures (1977), and A Question of Power (1973). The Collector of Treasures is her most autobiographical work, dealing with the traumas of her own illegitimate mixed-race birth, her mother’s suicide and her own nervous breakdown.
Another writer to make his name in the 1960s was Wilbur Smith, South Africa’s a worldwide best-selling author. In many ways he is the heir to the tradition of Rider Haggard – some would say politically as well.
His earliest novels are probably his best: Where the Lion Feeds (1964) and The Sound of Thunder (1966) are set in the era of the foundation of gold-mining in South Africa. Others go as far afield as the state of Israel, Ethiopia during the Italian invasion, piracy in the age of sail, or, more recently, investigate the pharaonic times of Ancient Egypt. His latest novel, The Quest (2007), is New York Times’s best seller as well as best seller in several European countries.
The 1960s also saw the emergence of a new generation of white South African poets, among them Douglas Livingstone, Sidney Clouts, Ruth Miller, Lionel Abrahams and Stephen Gray. Their work ranges from powerful apprehensions of natural life (Livingstone) to more interior, meditative considerations (Abrahams), and a sardonic socio-political sensibility (Gray).
Gray has also written novels, plays and much criticism. Abrahams has written two semi-autobiographical novels, The Celibacy of Felix Greenspan (1977) and The White Life of Felix Greenspan (2002).
The Soweto poets
The 1970s are widely regarded as a defining period for the development of political consciousness among black South Africans. With the rise of the Black Consciousness (BC) movement, of which the martyred Bantu Steve Biko was a leading figure, and the school children’s revolt of 1976, literature became a vehicle to promote the political ideals of anti-apartheid popular movements. The genres of drama and poetry were utilised for their immediacy of impact.
The most notable writers from this period are Mongane (Wally) Serote, Sipho Sepamla, Oswald Joseph Mbuyiseni Mtshali, Christopher van Wyk, Mafika Gwala and Don Mattera. Couched in graphic language designed to arouse the emotions of listeners, their poems were often performed at political rallies.
While Mtshali’s poems, first published in 1971 in The Sound of a Cowhide Drum , asked for generalised sympathy for the plight of poor black people, and Sepamla was at first considered a “contemplative” poet, the tone soon changed. By the time of The Soweto I Love (1977), Sepamla’s poetic persona is fully identified with the oppressed. Sepamla also wrote a novel of this turbulent time, A Ride on the Whirlwind (1981). Sepamla, apart from being a leading arts teacher, has written several other novels, and his Selected Poems were published in 1984.
Serote’s early poems, in volumes such as Yakhal’inkomo (1972) and Tsetlo (1974), deal with the life and attitudes of a politically aware black person, looking at his society and its discontentment. In later volumes, Serote begins to develop an epic, incantatory voice, with the long poems of Behold Mama, Flowers (1978) and Come and Hope with Me (1994), winner of the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa.
Serote (who became an ANC leader) is also the author of the novel To Every Birth Its Blood (1981), a remarkable account of political activity in the 1970s. Serote’s later novel, Gods of our Time (1999), reconstructs civil and military campaigns which led to the demise of apartheid.
Other interesting fiction to deal with the Soweto revolt and subsequent political activity include Miriam Tlali’s Amandla (1980) and Mbulelo Mzamane’s The Children of Soweto (1982). Don Mattera has written an account of life in Sophiatown, and its destruction, Memory is the Weapon (1987).
The emergency years
A mass democratic movement, based on the ideals of the Freedom Charter, arose within the country in the 1980s and the state responded with successive states of emergency that brought white troops to the townships.
In the face of this, poets such as the orator Mzwakhe Mbuli reached vast audiences, while novelists such as Menan du Plessis and Mandla Langa engaged with the business of resistance to apartheid.
Yet, at the same time, some felt the need for a move away from rhetoric and toward the depiction of ordinary life and Njabulo Ndebele, in his 1986 essay, The Rediscovery of the Ordinary expressed this view, seeing politically determined work as inimical to a full depiction of rounded humanity in fiction. His own fiction, in the award-winning collection, Fools and Other Stories (1983), demonstrated that it could be done with grace. The main story, Fools was later reworked into a movie with an all-South African cast.
Like Ndebele, JM Coetzee, one of South Africa’s most lauded writers in the 1970s, dealt in subtle ways with issues of power, authority and history. One of the key works of recent South African writing, Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) tackles issues germane to South Africa. His next novel, Life and Times of Michael K (1983), a story of a poor man of colour trying to survive in a civil-war situation, won the Booker Prize in Britain. Age of Iron (1990) takes the perspective of a white academic who is dying even as the townships explode with violence.
Coetzee’s next novel, Disgrace (1999), won him a second Booker Prize and caused huge debate in South Africa over its depiction of a post-apartheid reality in which the wounds of the past have not been healed – and new ones are being inflicted. A film of the book, starring John Malkovitch, had its world premier at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008, where it won the International Critics’ Award.
An illustrious literary academic, Coetzee published Doubling the Point (1992), and has published a memoir of growing up in South Africa, Boyhood (1998).
His more recent works include The Lives of Animals , edited and introduced by Amy Gutmann (1999); The Humanities in Africa – Die Geisteswissenschaften in Afrika (2001); Stranger Shores: Essays, 1986 to 1999 (2001); and two more novels, Youth (2002) and Slow Man (2005).
Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003 and the Order of Mapungubwe by the South African government on 27 September 2005 for his “exceptional contribution in the field of literature and for putting South Africa on the world stage.”
The most prominent question asked of South African writers after the end of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 was: what will you write about since the primary topic has gone?
Well, apartheid may have died, but its effects linger on, and as writers such as Coetzee have demonstrated, the issues of power that haunted the apartheid era are still in many ways with us. The early years of democracy were characterized by a new form of writing which literary critic Stephane Serge Ibinga describes as ‘honeymoon literature’ or ‘the literature of celebration’.
One of the most acclaimed of these post-democracy writers is Zakes Mda, who worked for many years as a playwright and poet before publishing his first novels in 1995. He started with two novels, She Plays with the Darkness and Ways of Dying . The latter, the story of a professional mourner, won the M-Net Book Prize. His next novel, The Heart of Redness (2001), won the Commonwealth Prize; it contrasts the past of the 19th century, when the prophetess Nongqawuse brought ruin to the Xhosa people, with a present-day narrative.
Ivan Vladislavic is another author pushing into the post-apartheid future, with distinctly post-modern works that play with the conventions of fiction as much as they speak about contemporary realties in South Africa today. He has published two collections of stories, Missing Persons (1990) and Propaganda by Monuments (2000), and two novels, The Folly (1993) and The Restless Supermarket (2001).
One of the most irreverent voices to hit the South African literary scene over the past decade is poet Lesego Rampolokeng. His poems are published in Horns for Hondo (1991) and End Beginnings (1993). A powerful live performer of his work, he has collaborated with musicians as well.
K Sello Duiker is a young novelist who has recently made a splash in South Africa with two novels that have won him awards and critical acclaim, Thirteen Cents (2000) and The Quiet Violence of Dreams (2001). Set in the urban landscape of Cape Town, the two novels see the world through the eyes of the underdog, a street kid in the first and an ostracised gay student in the second.
Mark Behr has been one of the most compelling and controversial additions to the South African literary canon. His first novel, The Smell of Apples (1997), tells of white South Africans who were brainwashed by the apartheid system. Soon after that, Behr admitted that he had been a spy for the apartheid police while a student activist; a graphic illustration, if one were needed, of the divided loyalties felt by many whites in that period. Behr’s second novel, Embrace (2000), deals with the formative experiences of a young homosexual.
There are many South African writers still dealing with the legacy of apartheid and the struggle against it, as South Africa finds a new national – and hybrid – identity. One is Zoe Wicomb, whose new novel, David’s Story (2001, winner of the M-Net Book Prize), interrogates the past and present of an anti-apartheid activist, as does Achmat Dangor’s Bitter Fruit (2001).
Mike Nicol’s first novel, The Powers That Be (1989), brought a magic-realist sensibility to South African literature, and his latest, The Ibis Tapestry (1998) is a post-modern take on the secrets of South Africa’s apartheid abuses. Among Afrikaans writers now translated into English, notable works have come from Etienne van Heerden, particularly the marvellous Ancestral Voices (1989), and from Marlene Van Niekerk, with the hilarious and horrifying Triomf (1994).
Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow (2001) is a critically acclaimed view of the physical and moral decay in both the rural areas of Tiragalong and the urban ghetto of Hillbrow. Kgafela wa Magogodi is a poet who probes issues such as Aids in his collection Thy Condom Come (2000).
Some quarters have observed that 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 government’s black empowerment policy 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.
Also, a common feature in post-apartheid literature is a concern with nation-building projects. Various authors have explored the possibility of re-assessing past identities in order to construct a new national identity based on a transcultural perspective.
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