Fear and Favour: Fallouts from Reading South Africa's Literature

Some people have everything; some people have nothing; some people have hopes and dreams; some people have ways and means - Robert (Bob) Nesta Marley
Like life, Literature is marked by epochs. Such epochal categorisations are important if one wants to understand the culture that influenced or shaped the general body of thought of painters, writers, sculptors, musicians and the literati in general. For instance English Literature could roughly be categorised as being of or belonging to the Elizabethan Era, Jacobean Literature, Augustan Literature, Romantic Movement, Victorian age, Modernism, Post Modernism and other such categorisation. Though my reading of South African Literature is limited and so I cannot describe myself as a cognoscente of South African Literature nor even expert in chicken Literature – all that I am is a simple reader who does not, perhaps, qualify even as a bibliophile – for the purpose of this article, let’s say South Africa’s Literary oeuvre could be classed into three main epochs: pre-apartheid, apartheid and post-apartheid literature, using the year 1948 and 1994 as the demarcation between among these epochs. These choices, which represent the year in which apartheid was officially introduced and ended, respectively, in South Africa, are very arbitrary as the change from one era to the other is not quite a discrete event but one that overlaps, losing its colour as it progresses but retaining some of its elements so much so that one is able to see taints of the initial colour, like that paper chromatography experiment we carried out in science class.

Most of my readings of SA literature can easily be placed into the apartheid category including but not limited to Bessie Head, J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Nelson Mandela – his earlier collection of letters and essays – Andre Brink and Alan Paton. Common to all these books (fiction and non-fiction) is the issue of the oppression of native black South Africans. In fact Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, addresses ‘the problem of race relations...’ and is considered as ‘the single most important novel in twentieth century’.

For centuries, native South Africans were extremely discriminated against, intentionally maligned and systematically pushed into poverty so that they remain as a source of cheap labour to be used to amass wealth. They were denied of education because they were deemed not to be fit enough for it; besides they would begin to demand for more if they became educated. During this period, the very land that makes one a native of a place and which act as the source of livelihood, providing food and shelter for the people, were taken from them. They were chased off their lands through deception, thievery and force. And the natives became landless. How a native could remain a native without the very thing that makes him one beats my imagination. Then in 1948, the year in which Paton’s most celebrated work was published, apartheid was instituted and the torture moved from mere discrimination to legally-binding segregation, punishable by law if not enforced. So that natural acts like inter-racial marriages became anathemised.

Then the struggle against apartheid began (by both blacks and those whites who saw the stupidity of this system of governance the National Party had instituted and in fact these included many writers of the day) and, needless to say, several blacks were killed and whites too; it was through such demonstrations that Sharpeville meandered its way into SA's history. However, the greatest effects of apartheid is not the numbers that died (as some individuals have argued that 'only 21,000 people died') but the mental torture that the living went through; the destruction of self-confidence; the building up of inferiority complexes; the consequences of being hopelessly poor, have nowhere to go, and seeing your children suffer into death. These are the greatest effects of the regime.

Then in 1990 Mandela was released after twenty-seven years in prison. Hope was coming back to a hopeless country, the sun was shining upon a darkened land. And God, the one through whose words apartheid was religiously enforced but chose to remain quiet while the people he loves suffered indescribably, was finally twitching the corners of his mouth to the people of South Africa.

And Mandela became president in 1994. And people became happy. At least even without any amendment to the constitution by this act alone apartheid became shattered. Things would therefore change, or so they (the oppressed blacks and their white supporters) thought. Then the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established, with emphasis on reconciliation. This great man, Nelson Mandela, with a golden heart, a heart that is incomparable to any chose to forgive the perpetrators of such atrocious acts, though some enforcers were sentenced with some currently serving an over two-hundred year jail term. Yet, those who wrote the law and forced others to implement them are free men, calling the Truth and Reconciliation Commission a circus.

Call me vindictive; call me any other name that you might want but I do not think forgiveness was required so soon when the perpetrators had hardly regretted their crime. For does it take a moment for one to regret an institutionalised hegemony specially created to benefit him? Yet, that was what was decided: forgiveness. And anytime I read a novel that captures the lives of natives before and during the apartheid regime, I cannot help but feel that that decision was a rushed one. The Nuremberg Trials showed no reconciliation or forgiveness! Perpetrators were virtually stolen and killed by Jewish Intelligence, why must we? To receive pats on our backs? To show we are more humane than they are?

When Terreblanche, the AWB's (Afrikaaner Resistance Movement) leader, was murdered last year, this is what a member of the party, Margarite Dreyer said:

It is not that we don't like blacks. It's just that we want to be apart from them. We have our God and our ways, and they have their ancestors and the things that are important to them. God did not want us to be mixed like this. It is not a coincidence that Oom Gene (Terreblanche) died at Easter. He died so that we may be saved - so that God will give us our own homeland at last, so that Afrikaners would be alone, like the people of Israel.(Source)

I believe the AWB, a party with a Swastika-like emblem (shown above), should have been banned a long time ago. For Margarite to have said this is an affront to the present democratic dispensation and the forgiveness shown them after their cruelty; it is indicative of a group that has no remorse and would re-institutionalise this system at the least opportunity. They congregate to preach their Apartheid ideas, preaching them to their children, so that soon there would be a group of individuals demanding and fighting for their independence within South Africa. If they want to be alone, they could always leave to their home country, wherever that is. South Africa was not promised them by any God: not Buddha, not Jehovah God, not Allah, not Krishna, or even Confucius. It was given by the ancestors to South Africans - blacks and whites who are willing to respect each other and live in harmony, live as men of conscience must live - none enslaving the other, none threatening to eliminate the other.

Any time I read about the past I can help but question the present, what is being done? What needs to be done? After these settlers disrupted the natives' communal way of life, after black South Africans have been battered, beaten, and sometimes bludgeoned, after black South Africans have been treated as less than dogs or logs, with no feelings, after they have been psychologically, spiritually, physically and emotionally tortured, it takes more than mere forgiveness for construction. What the people need is a concerted and commitment by government to improve their lot. For what had taken years to destroy would not get fixed if left in the hands of time or evolution.

If almost two decades after apartheid black South Africans still wallow in poverty, are still landless because we are afraid of being tagged with names like that which have been bestowed upon the likes of Mugabe, then we have failed as a people and as a government. For what beneficiaries of apartheid want is a lethargic society, so they could enjoy the bounty of their harvest, of their kill, of their illegally amassed wealth, in peace. There are times when good name is not better than riches, when one’s actions would be denounced today only to be heralded and worshipped by posterity. For until there is a concerted effort to rebuild the minds of South Africans through equal distribution of resources the mental Apartheid that exists would forever remain even though, visibly, none should be discriminated against. All that the west and its allies (including Israel which supported the apartheid regime) want is to see the status quo remain. After all, the ANC was a terrorist organisation (see here, here, and there) on the CIA’s list. Even as at 2008, a decade after he had left office as a president, Mandela was officially a persona non-grata in the United States, the cradle of democracy (or perhaps demon-crazy). So we need not conscientiously play into their hands just to gain their applause and their pats. What we need to do is the equalisation of resources as Vilfredo Pareto perceived it and if that would not come naturally, it would have to be enforced. Besides, the effects of un-equal resource allocation are there for all to see. Some called it xenophobia, others called it irresponsible behaviour; some affected countries labelled it betrayal, but it stems from the government's inability or rather unwillingness to work to correct centuries-old problem; the failure of the system to correct the established thought.

As it stands now, resources are skewed and the literature written in this post-apartheid era might not be any different from that which pervaded and dominated the pre-apartheid and apartheid era. It is only when the theme of the majority writers changes drastically from the heart-wrenching, difficult-to-fathom, easy-to-weep-over, theme of the apartheid era that we can say we have arrived.
Our weakness is our eagerness to forgive even before the perpetrators have forgotten their crime. Jews never forgave, and Americans never do. Why are we so quick to forgive? (my facebook update of 23.10.2010)


  1. a wonderfully thoughtful post Nana ,I ve only read a the writers you mentioned have a few other on my shelves ,all the best stu

  2. Wow, fantastic thought-provoking post Nana. I've read books on both sides of the fence on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee with Soyinka against it and Gobodo-Madikizela supporting it. Personally I don't know where I stand... I can see how it had it's benefits, but I definitely think that more should have been done, and should still be done. The issue is what to do and how to do it. I would love to see action started though.

    I am always... fascinated? disgusted? disturbed?... by how our governments here in Canada and the US are quick to label some groups as terrorist and support others who are working for the same things. How is wanting freedom a terrorist activity? It really upsets me especially how the media propagates these things that the government decides and ordinary people just accept it as fact. Mandela as a persona non-grata? Ridiculous! It makes one wonder what can ever be done...

  3. (Oh, and that party symbol is terrible, and people who make comments like that should be the ones labeled as terrorists!)

  4. @Stu, thanks. After you have read them, let's talk more. I also have still more on my shelves.

  5. @Amy (1&2) Personally I am not against reconciliation. What I am against is when the people whom you are reconciling with have shown not an iota of remorse and are still going about their ways as if nothing has happened. It hurts when people have been destroyed and the destroyers flaunts their tools of destruction. Yet, we are afraid to take action. Afraid to be labelled. I detest it. I have not actually read any document for or against the TRC. This is purely my own personal opinion.

    As for the policies of the US and other countries, the least said the better. Mandela was a persona non-grata even as at 2008 and it was Condoleeza Rice who said it was a disgrace and something should be done about it. We are all seeing what is happening in Egypt where the US government supports an autocratic regime but would send weapons, under the pretext of Weapons possession, into Iraq and destroy that country; bring it into ruins. It is so stupid but that's what happens. They choose to call whomever they want terrorist. If you don't like them, if you don't do things that would benefit them you are a terrorist.

    I believe the answer, the actions, lie with the government of SA to work at this. Things need to change and they need to change now.

  6. Yes Nana, that is a good point - Gobodo-Madikizela's book makes the same point that the remorse must be there and shown for any reconciliation to be given. Makes some interesting points. Ah the least said the better for sure, and yes, the government of SA must really do more - and we all must support them.

  7. Thanks Amy. I really would have to read this book. I would add it to my wish list.

  8. I think your points are very good Nana, but if we take the example of Zimbabwe, we can see what happens if the past is never, ever laid to rest: it can become a stick with which the old beat the young . . .

  9. The past definitely must be laid to rest. That I agree and believe in. However, the past itself would not rest when the conditions that arose from the past are not corrected. People would still refer to these conditions and would point to the past. If today, we all live together happily without any discrimination in terms of resources who would reawaken the past? No one can even use it as a tool. However, if we still see the beneficiaries of the previous regime, enjoying their loot, we are bound, by nature and necessity, to point to the past. That's the point I am making. Conscious effort would need to be taken without fear of label. If we still have the AWB still doing their Nazi salute with their swastika-like emblem, who would forget this past. Like Steve Biko said, it isn't just a change in faces or leaders that would lead to us leading life as a common humanity. It's when access to resources are equitable. It's when the minority holds the biggest wealth in a country. It doesn't work that way.

  10. I see what you are saying. And I entirely agree that the minority should not hold the biggest wealth in the country. However, I think that sometimes in Africa we run the risk of seeing the minority/majority issues as being primarily race (as they are in South Africa). However, in lots of other countries, that minority is not a racial minority at all - that minority is a hardened elite who hold all the resources and all the power (as in Egypt, Tunisia, Zimbabwe, and far too many other African countries, sadly, to mention).

  11. @Sarah, can't agree with you less on this. it's true and that's why such regimes would fall. I don't believe in that skin deep racial divide. It does not help any society. And this is what Steve Biko warned against. What is equalisation of resources. However, here in particular, my argument remains that if the perpetrators have not shown remorse there's no need for forgiveness and also the government has to do more than it is currently doing. And it shouldn't be deprived because of fear.

  12. Wonderful and touching post. My feelings exactly. So much needs to change in SA particularly the land issue, education and access to good healthcare and employment. I'm definitely not the forgiving sort, having lived in Zimbabwe in the 1980s (just after its independence).


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