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Conjectures on South African Literature

Michael Chapman


The Introduction pursues the question of what constitutes South African literature ‘beyond 2000’. If the 1990s identified the challenge of ‘difference’, the challenge now might be ‘connection’. Is literature in South Africa today post-apartheid or post-postapartheid?

My title alludes of course to Franco Moretti’s influential article, “Conjectures on World Literature” (2000), in which he makes the point that world literature is not so much an object as a problem: a problem that asks for new perspectives and critical method. His point is germane to this 21st anniversary issue of Current Writing, thematically entitled “Beyond 2000: South African Literature Today”.

Our impulse to look beyond 2000 was spurred by Leon de Kock’s article, “Does South African Literature Still Exist..?” (2005). It is a question that is applicable not only to the essays in this double issue, but also to several of the critical works and articles of the last decade to which I shall refer in this Introduction. How do we delineate a field, ‘South African Literature’, in relation to descriptive and definitional terms that have begun to be used with some persistence: post-apartheid literature; South African literature in/after the transition; South African literary culture ‘now’ as distinct from ‘then’; South African literature in the transnational moment, the “transnational” being the formulation of  Bill Ashford (2007) and others before him to denote the nation caught in movement – possibly transformational movement – “in-between” local and global demands. If post-apartheid usually means after the unbannings of 1990, or after the first democratic elections of 1994, or in/after the transition, then beyond 2000 begins to mark a quantitative and qualitative shift from the immediate ‘post’ years of the 1990s to another ‘phase’.1 It is a phase in which books tangential to heavy politics, or even to local interest, have begun to receive national recognition. An example is the double prize-winning novel, The Rowing Lesson (US 2007; SA 2008),2 by Anne Landsman, in which a father-daughter relationship exceeds the shaping force of any local scene. There is also, prominent on the shortlists, Michiel Heyns’s Bodies Politic (2008),3 a novel set in early 20th-century suffragette England. It is a phase in which the dominant figure of the 1990s, J M Coetzee, in his quieter, suburban Australian novels (2005; 2007), appears to have gone beyond his traumatised vision of his home country: that is, beyond Disgrace (1999). As I place Coetzee beyond Disgrace, however, the film version of his novel is about to be released on the South African cinema circuit (August 2009). If Landsman or Heyns inhabits a landscape outside of any apartheid/anti-apartheid narrative, the winning book in the Sunday Times-Alan Paton Prize category for non-fiction, Peter Harris’s In a Different Time (2008), returns us to the trial of the Delmas Four: ANC Mkhonto we Sizwe operatives who, in the late 1980s, militarily opposed the apartheid state. As the lawyer who defended the Four – at times against their own reluctance to grant the charges or the court even a modicum of legitimacy – Harris’s vivid ‘translation’ of legalities into human drama alerts us not only to a recurrent feature of literature from this country – its genre-crossing potential – but also to the fact that ‘then ‘ and ‘now’ retain a power of symbiotic memory. Phases of chronology are ordering conveniences rather than neatly separable entities.

In posing the question, does South African Literature still exist? – the question supersedes its rhetorical provocation – De Kock reminds us that he himself is a key contributor to conjectures on our literature. His Introduction to the special 2001 issue of Poetics Today (subsequently published in book form – see De Kock et al. 2004) developed the metaphor of the “seam”. This is taken from Noël Mostert’s monumental historical novel Frontiers, in which it is posited that “if there is a hemispheric seam to the world between Occident and Orient, it must be along the eastern seaboard of Africa” (1992: xv). For De Kock the seam – a stitching instrument which seeks to suture the incommensurate – illustrates the problem of defining not only a South African national imaginary (the question of identity recurs in post-1990 fictional and critical response), but – more to the point here – a field of South African Literature. We inhabit a culture of largely “unresolved difference”; of “radical heterogeneity”; a site where “difference and sameness are hitched together, always uneasily” (De Kock 2001: 272-6). Such a conundrum of interstitial identities, of “identities caught between stasis and change” (Attwell and Harlow 2000:3), of  “cultural bastardization” (Breytenbach 1998:263), or “creolisation” (Nuttall 2009:21) – all typified as the creativity of our many differences – simultaneously suggests its own negation: the perverse difference of apartheid, its enforced separations. In contrast, sameness as the cohesion of multiple groups and languages in the single geographical space called South Africa (our ‘bodies politic’?) may signal, again simultaneously, a negative corollary: the erasure of local distinctiveness, of difference. In the master narratives of Western provenance, the current is neoliberal globalisation.

In short, a key pursuit since the 1990s has been how to cope with the concept and practice of ‘difference’. It is a conundrum at the heart of the ‘post-’ debate (post-apartheid, postcolonialism, postmodernism)4 not only in South Africa, but also in northern institutions of society and culture. How does Western Europe, which still wishes to see itself as predominantly white and bourgeois, as does the US, cope with its own increasing and heterogeneous ‘minorities’? Whereas De Kock’s summarising metaphor is the seam, David Attwell adopts Fernando Ortiz’s (1995) Cuban-inspired notion of transculturation, formulated in the late 1940s: “multiple processes, a dialogue in both directions [centre to periphery, periphery to centre] and, most importantly, processes of cultural destruction followed by reconstruction on entirely new terms” (Attwell 2005:17-19). In illustration, Attwell demonstrates that black modernity in South Africa has never constituted a linear path from oppression to liberation, whether cultural or political, but has poached from both the West and Africa to fashion its own temporal habitations. Isabel Hofmeyr– looking first at John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress as a missionary text (2004), then at the Indian Ocean seam (2008) – unravels the binaries of centre/periphery and coloniser/colonised as she charts new transnational circuits of texts and identities. Michael Titlestad (2004) utilises jazz as metaphor to disrupt fixed categories of sense-making, and it is the notion of complicity which, in the light of TRC testimony, Mark Sanders (2002) uses to dislodge any simple alternatives of conviction and challenge. He explores, among other cases, that of the major Afrikaans poet N P van Wyk Louw whose commitment to Afrikaner identity led him at the same time to project an ethical commitment beyond the apartheid system in which he was complicit. “Entanglement” is Sarah Nuttall’s shorthand for a condition of the “now”: “So often the story of post-apartheid has been told within the register of difference – frequently for good reasons, but often, too, ignoring the intricate overlaps that mark the present and, at times, and in important ways, the past as well” (2009:1). Like Sanders, Nuttall seeks “human foldedness” (6).

What might such foldedness invoke? My own literary history, Southern African Literatures (2003 [1996]), provoked debate on whose story shapes our literature and identity.5 My collection of essays, Art Talk, Politics Talk (2006), is subtitled “A Consideration of Categories”. Attwell argues for “rewriting modernity” and for a “more heterogeneous and cosmopolitan dialogue” (2005:14). Hofmeyr, Loren Kruger (2002) and others open outwards to Indian Ocean transculturation. Achille Mbembe (2001) turns his analytical lens on what he terms as the two major historiographical traditions in decolonised Africa of nationalist Marxism and nativism, neither of which he believes retains explanatory persuasion in the time-space compression of global circulation. It is by returning to and repositioning ‘minor’ stories that Kruger seeks human foldedness in the now. Achmat Dangor’s protagonists, she argues, elude the grasp of the reader looking to identify with the certainties of anti-apartheid feeling: his protagonists the bastardised progeny of Indian-Malay slaves at the Cape, of indigenised Cape Muslims, are not suitable anti-apartheid subjects; they are neither the victims of apartheid violence nor activists against it. Accordingly, Dangor’s stories (1981; 1997) are neither anti-apartheid nor post-apartheid, but “post-anti-apartheid” (Kruger 2002:35). (The same appellation may be applied to Yvette Christiansë’s new collection of poetry, Imprendehora, 2009.)

Human foldedness, then, does not denote a comfort zone. Out of its sutured folds – in Titlestad’s study (2004) – emerges the stranger who jolts our habitual awareness. Here Titlestad returns to a Levinasian ethical path: respect the radical Otherness of the other, which in the 1990s lent general direction to criticism on Coetzee.6 InTitlestad, however, the stranger has shed its Levinasian ambiguity as either human or deity to become a more tangible character in the ordinary, but marginalised, life of the South African city: a stranger because, as in Dangor’s fiction, neglected in apartheid/liberation narratives. Out of human foldedness Ashraf Jamal (2005) plucks neither heroes nor victims; neither Njabulo S Ndebele’s (2006[1991]) return to the ordinary nor Titlestad’s stranger, but an ethical ‘extraordinariness’. Recollecting Albie Sachs’s (1990) desire for culture beyond the weapons of struggle, Jamal gathers together theorists of ‘play’ (Homi Bhabha, for one, is put to the service of his argument) in, some might say, a new romantic need to be free of all constraining categories. Citing Brett Bailey’s theatre as a daring exploration of “unresolved heterogeneity” (150) – De Kock is marshalled to Jamal’s side – Jamal urges us all to revel in our category explosions. He wishes us to abolish vanity and self-possession, to break whatever the “sage wisdom” that would be an excuse to keep the imagination in thrall and, in a psychic rupture of our systems, begin to love the South Africa that has too often been characterised as an unlovable place (159-62). Tying commitment to place with a greater measure of groundedness than Jamal, both Ari Sitas (2004) and Brenda Cooper (2008) energise the value of people’s ordinary agency in African socio-scapes of difficult transition, while for Meg Samuelson (2008) our home beyond the threshold of transition may begin to lay the foundation of a new national culture, a signal being bold voices among young black women. In this vein and eschewing the demeaning categorisation of ‘coconut’ or ‘cheese girl’ (white inside), Asandi Phewa (2009) in her play A Face Like Mine (first performed at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, 2009) agrees with Mbali Kgosidintsi of the theatre company Right 2 Speak, a company which focuses its performances on the struggles of a new generation of South African women to redefine blackness:

I know where I’m going but not what or who I am leaving behind and that is where the search for identity comes in. There is this trend for those of us living in Sandton to still go back to the township every Sunday to reconnect. But when you know who you are you don’t have to hold onto anything. (Kgosidintsi 2009:27)


Beyond a politics of exclusion (Samuelson reminds us of the deathly face of xenophobia in the new South Africa), we hear voices that in the liberal-Marxist culture wars of the 1980s would have been ignored, voices that are not prominent either in international postcolonial criticism’s fixation on big names (Soyinka, Rushdie, Coetzee, etc). In elevating as ‘national marker’ not Athol Fugard’s intricate moral explorations but Brett Bailey’s spectacular disruptions (the Xhosa past, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, whatever or whoever can be stirred into the witches’ brew, or the inyanga’s muthi)7 Jamal (2005:161) has it that Ndebele – and the generation of mainly white academics who embraced his return to the ordinary – got it all wrong. Rather, South Africa is a country of chaotic intervention. Ndebele (2007), for his part, has limited truck with endless exhortations of difference, endless deferrals of mimetic consequence. Seeking instead “fine lines from the box” he declares that “[T]he challenge of the future in South Africa is nation building: no more, no less. It is the massive task of creating one nation out of the institutional divisions that currently beset it” (24). Ndebele does not entertain the question as to whether South Africa has a national imaginary, or whether South African Literature still exists.

* * *

Ndebele notwithstanding, let me pursue a recent study that focuses on the issues I have somewhat brutally summarised so far. But focuses on the issues through a shift in paradigm from both literary criticism and cultural criticism: the former values the force of the imaginative text in the shaping of the culture; the latter, depending upon the interpreter’s ideological predisposition, identifies the imaginative text as either a significant constituent or just one of the many constituents in the shaping of the culture, the culture being, at base, a political economy. In similar vein to Hofmeyr, Sanders and (in his meticulously sourced interpretative history of South African literary censorship) Peter D McDonald (2009), Andrew van der Vlies in South African Textual Cultures: White, Black and Read All Over (2007) turns to textual cultures or, as nowadays more commonly denoted, book history. His by now familiar ‘post-’-inspired conclusion is that a singular delineation of South Africa or South African (see Chipkin 2007) is defeated by a history of radical heterogeneity (that is, De Kock’s “seam”). In the same way the category South African Literature and, by extension, its equivalent national literature remains problematic in a country in which territorial borders were colonial conveniences and politics was inhospitable to fundamental requirements of converting groups into a nation. These include the pursuit of widespread, multiclass literacy in a common language and the example, or the pursuit of a common, functioning society.

Most critics would concur with Van der Vlies’s conclusion that in South Africa (in fact, in the colonies or postcolonies, wherever the particular periphery) the ‘literary’, as a category, has been authorised not entirely by the local response, but by “complex, multipolar, fragmented, often inconsistent and at best self-interested [usually] Anglophone metropolitan (both British and North American) fields of publishers, reviewers and readers” (175). The character of a national cultural identity, whether in South Africa, Nigeria, Africa, Australia, etc, is, accordingly, ambivalent. “Whose language, culture or story can be said to have authority in South Africa,” I asked in the Preface to Southern African Literatures, “when the end of apartheid has raised challenging questions as to what it is to be a South African, whether South Africa is a nation, and, if so, what is its mythos?” (2003: xiv).

The value of Van der Vlies’s study is not to be found in his introductory rehearsal of arguments as to whether or not it is possible satisfactorily to write literary history. Whether it is or is not, literary histories of different persuasions will continue to be written. (See not only Chapman, but also Heywood (2004), Van Coller (2006), and, in preparation, Attridge and Attwell.) Rather, the value of South African Textual Cultures is to be found in its contribution to book history. This relatively new field of enquiry has its roots in sociology, social history and, closer to the literary domain, in reception theory. Pierre Bourdieu (1993) is an influential figure: how to conceive of the operation of literary texts in the multiple spheres in which they are produced and circulated? To which we must add Hans Robert Jauss’s key concept: the reader’s ‘horizon of expectation’, a concept that bears on Jerome K McGann’s earlier insights (consolidated and expanded in his book, The Textual Condition, 1991), in which he attempted to position in illuminating interaction text, context and reception. We ought to consider not only the historical context of the work, said McGann (1985:9), but also the “history of its embodiment in successive texts (its textualisations) and its circulation and reception (its socialisations)”. Whereas literary criticism is concerned primarily with the ‘meaning’ of the text, with its narrative, its poetic, its dramatic shape, book history explores how these meanings, these aesthetic configurations, are influenced by factors beyond the control of authors themselves: by publishing pressures, the ruling discourse of reviewing, censorship, educational institutionalisation, the literary-prize culture.

In the case of South African Literature – as Van der Vlies argues in several case studies – South African writers have often had their achievement sanctioned in zones of reception between the metropole and the colony. How did British reviewers initially receive Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883)? Originally published in England the book would have had to satisfy several 19th-century British expectations. How did colonials receive the book? African Farm at its outset was considered at least by one reviewer to be of interest to colonists because it was about farming! Interesting, that is, if colonists actually bought books! As literature, African Farm was deemed by some to be second-rate. But, then again, by others in Britain African Farm was identified as what today we would call a proto-feminist text. More surprisingly (in anticipation of postcolonialism?), Schreiner’s book was seen as typical of the colonies where margins produce not the central, but the hybrid, subject. (Van der Vlies 2007: 21-45)

Or to turn to Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country (1976), we are reminded that there was a significant difference between the edition of this novel published in Johannesburg (Ravan Press) and the editions published abroad. In the local edition Magda’s stream of consciousness is filtered into Afrikaans (her mother tongue); in the international editions, totally in English, the reader if the claustrophobic Afrikaner Calvinist mental landscape is to be permitted its full effect must make a linguistic leap from the English on the page to an imaginatively transliterated Afrikaans syntax and rhythm. Reception abroad emphasised the universality of a tortured soul; local reception spoke of religious and sexual trauma according to which Magda’s anguish is partly provoked by the ‘sin’ of her father’s fucking his ‘non-white’ servant. To accentuate the local in Coetzee in the 1970s helped English departments in South Africa wean syllabuses from the Leavisian Great Tradition. Ironically, English departments today, having to justify the study of literature within a so-called developmental state where literacy training is a prerogative, probably prefer the international Coetzee. Such shifts of reception in Van der Vlies’s conclusion to his case study of Coetzee neatly summarise his own ‘book history’ purpose: Coetzee in the 1970s tacitly recognised (in his English/Afrikaans Ravan Press text) that he was contributing to a South African Literature even as In the Heart of the Country contributed to his project of rendering such a category problematic. (2007:134-54)

Does such a project lead us to a situation – familiar to the postcolonies – in which the ‘locality’ is once again subsumed by a global imperative or, to revert to an older discourse, by an ongoing ‘colonisation’? The problematic is suggested in Scrutiny2 (13(1), 2008), edited by Flanery and Van der Vlies. As the editors say in their Introduction to this special issue entitled “South African Cultural Texts and the Global Mediascape”:

Why do the stories South Africa tells itself about itself, the people who act as its formal and informal and ever self-effacing international ambassadors, have such peculiar resonance globally? Is it because (uncomfortable as the suggestion might be) Northern/Western audiences find the formal and cultural influence (the incursion, even) of European sensibilities and aesthetic traditions on and in an African context more familiar, more accessible, perhaps even more palatable (notwithstanding the legacy of apartheid), in the South African context, than the kinds of cultural products and representatives offered by or exported from other African countries? Or, equally problematically perhaps, might the cultural hybridity, the nascent creolisation of South African culture, simply be more successful aesthetically for Western audiences? (2008: 5-6)

We are prompted here to ask, is South Africa, Africa or the West? Given its different races, languages, cultures, religions, its economic inequalities, South Africa may be typified as Australia and Nigeria annexed – I avoid the term nation – to a single demarcation. Indeed, the articles in the issue of Scrutiny2, to which I have just referred, remind us of the global ‘circuit’ of South African works: Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country; international collaboration on films such as Cry Freedom (1987), Yesterday (2004), Tsotsi (2006), and now Disgrace (2009). It is a global circuit, however, in which endorsements are not without erasures. As Sarah Brophy says of Yesterday:

At its best, the film creates a powerful critical commentary on HIV-related discrimination and abuse. However, because it uses maternal heroism as the basis for this critique, and particularly because it positions a black woman’s suffering as transcendental, both the extent of its critical commentary and the effectiveness of its address to an audience at high risk for HIV are limited. (2008: 41)


Can a film that ignores the personality-cult of heroes and villains (the ideology of individualism, the anti-humanist would say) survive financially on the mainstream, the ‘bourgeois’circuit? As Lucy Valerie Graham notes of Tsotsi (the post-apartheid film adaptation of Athol Fugard’s novel, set in the apartheid 50s):8

Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi … recuperates a black man and woman as able parent-figures, but another form of erasure takes place as the issue of rape in post-apartheid South Africa is for the most part elided.... (2008:117)


So are we to applaud the fact that books outside of or tangential to South African localities show a resurgence of prize-winning potential in South Africa? Or do we endorse what the Marxist-inclined commentator is likely to say: know the ideological predispositions of the adjudicators to know to what kind of book they will award a prize?  (For the comments of several 2009 adjudicators see in this issue the Appendices to De Kock’s essay.) What all this suggests is the classificatory instability that characterises debates not only on South African Literature, but also on world literature: whose world, whose literature, literature from where? Literature from somewhere, or from nowhere in particular? Like book history, world literature is a new field not unconnected to the post-Cold War condition. Eileen Julien (2004:124) makes the point that US funding agencies have curtailed support for area studies while increasing support for transnational, multiregional studies. Drawing on Bourdieu’s (1993) distinction of social circuits, world literature seeks to refine its own unstable category by identifying sub-categories in a circuit of mass literature, a circuit of educational literature, and a circuit of prestige literature. As a Nobel laureate J M Coetzee circulates in the domain of prestige, at both centre and periphery, but in sales, reviews and acclaim more so in the North Atlantic sphere than in that of his ex-home country South Africa, where the prestige circuit is uneven in terms of sales and acknowledgement. (Shortly before receiving his Nobel Prize, Coetzee was castigated by members of the ANC government for the supposedly white Afro-pessimism of his novel Disgrace.) And Coetzee, even in South Africa, is eclipsed in his impact by the mass circulation of, for example, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003).

In the light of this, I return to De Kock’s article “Does South African Literature Still Exist…” and complete his title, “South African Literature is Dead, Long Live Literature in South Africa”. Change the designation “South African Literature” to “Literature in South Africa” and we shall need to include alongside Coetzee, the postcolonial Salman Rushdie, or, to shift from prestige to mass, we shall have to contend with Dan Brown and the numerous other London and New York bestselling authors whose works in South Africa commandeer the shelves of Exclusive Books. What has prompted Coetzee’s international recognition? World literature identifies within the prestige circuit the work of “like-but-unlike” provenance (Damrosch 2003: 12), in which the local content, a critique of Communist East European kitsch (Kundera), or a revelation of Latin American cultural hybridism (Márquez), has to find consonance with North Atlantic fictional recognitions of character portrayal, concerns and styles. Coetzee’s fiction may be classified, accordingly, as like-but-unlike: the motif of scapegoating, or master and slave, provoked the title (which alludes to C P Cavafy’s poem) of Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). André Brink and Nadine Gordimer – among the most globally travelled of South African writers – also offer like-but-unlike identifications. Behind the ‘national question’ of apartheid, for example, Gordimer’s protagonists (usually white English-speaking South Africans) occupy private lives which, although influenced by local political demands, are in their aspirations, disappointments, desires and conversations not entirely alien to educated, middle-class readers in London, New York or Paris.

To pursue such considerations, or rather reconsiderations, of category can be liberating. Tired of anti-apartheid literary realism, for instance, De Kock (2005: 80) wishes to read what appeals to him, whether it is politically correct or not, whether its references are South African or not. (The tarnishing of the ‘rainbow nation’ – Coetzee’s Disgrace is metonymic – is severely felt in prestige circuits.) Hofmeyr utilises book history to suggest that Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in its travels along the missionary circuits of Africa requires us to consider the space of empire, both intellectually and economically, as a difficult interrelationship, rather than a neat separation, of ‘metropole’ and ‘colonies’. Should The Pilgrim’s Progress – a “classic” of English Literature, according to F R Leavis (1962[1952]: 206) – be included in a classification, South African Literature, or Literature in South Africa?

As I have already suggested of De Kock’s project,9 his questions are not meant to be merely rhetorical. There remains a historical need to anchor literatures, whether from South Africa, Africa, or any other peripheries of the North Atlantic circuit, somewhere in the world: somewhere shaped by the priorities of particular literary works. Whatever critics or reviewers in the metropole might have said about Schreiner or say about Coetzee, reception from the South African focal point cannot ignore the immediate context. There is in the literature of South Africa the shared experience of colonialism in its abrasive, economic form attendant on a strong and permanent ‘settler’ population. As a result, the racial theories, practices and values of Europe have featured prominently in the language and texts of literary response. Transitions from traditional to modern loyalties in aggressive, industrialising economies have led to swift, often desperate disjunctions in both literature and life. In these, the challenge of urbanisation beyond the middle-class suburbs has characterised forms of expression in several languages, and in the oral and written mode: that is, in forms and voices that do not necessarily fit the like-but-unlike model of world circulation. The consequence is that any history of South African Literature, whatever the transnational allure, cannot confine its field to those like-but-unlike books and films which, as in the case of the film Tsotsi, adjust their local specificity to a generic (individual, liberal, middle-class, whatever) international horizon of expectation. This is not to deny Van der Vlies’s conclusion (2007: 175) that given South Africa’s peculiar amalgamation of the West in Africa, its literary output will continue both to invite and resist description in national terms. It is to be cautious, however, of Van der Vlies’s attendant conclusion that an ever-growing body of the writing will be published both in South Africa and abroad. This will not be the case. Only those writers whose work meets the international horizon of expectation – novelists in English, the novel being the most accessible travelling form – are likely to be read worldwide.

Van der Vlies’s study is concerned with writing which, if it is ‘South African’, has been read and written to be read by a global Anglophone community. A complementary study might be concerned with literary expression, written and oral, that is aimed primarily at a local audience. Here we might ask: why has Zakes Mda been granted greater validation abroad, and at home, than Ivan Vladislavić? – such is book history. Is the validation deserved on the evidence of an evaluative reading of the actual texts? – such is literary criticism. Another question: has South Africa produced no significant poet since Roy Campbell relocated abroad? No poet who remained at home – eg Douglas Livingstone – has enjoyed sustained international recognition. Thus the ‘transnational’ and the ‘national’– I use the terms as nodes of debate – intersect in the relative perspectives of book history (the institutionalisation of literature) and literary criticism (the assessment of the work). If my conjecture here has avoided reducing a passage of debate to a narrow lane of global travellers, then the category ‘South African Literature’ continues to have value in its persistence.

* * *

It is a persistence not really at odds with De Kock’s initial question as to whether South African Literature still exists. As we should have understood by now, it is a suitably qualified question which asks not for any emphatic yes or no. Instead, it encourages the kind of interrogation of the category that has been the purpose of this Introduction, indeed of this issue of Current Writing. Where he differs from Moretti, whose article on conjectures I mentioned at the outset, is that De Kock calls for the reading of the many new texts which have appeared in the last decade. Yet his call for a stocktaking of what is being written, of how literary criticism makes sense of what is being written, of a possible return to a “descriptive-evaluative approach” (2008:117) is again not necessarily at odds with Moretti’s comment that we cannot read every book on the world map, but must master the art of “distant reading” (2000:57). Distant reading, in Moretti’s conjectures, does not mean what it means to a bluffer’s guide, where the aim is to impress the dinner party with throwaways on books you haven’t read. Rather distant reading is a condition of knowledge: it allows the critic to focus on units that are both “much smaller and much larger than the text (devices, themes, tropes, or genres and systems)”(57). One perspective follows the “waves” of text dissemination in global circuits of “geographical continuity”; Moretti’s complementary metaphor to the waves is the “trees in the plantation”, which provides a check on geographical continuity, in fact identifies “geographical discontinuity” (66-8). The waves suggest the world; the trees suggest the nation, or even the locality. Viewpoint is crucial and a “variable” (64), in which the critic or reader is placed in comparative consideration of the “problem” (55) under discussion, in this case as to whether or not there is a South African Literature. As Simon Gikandi has it in pursuing the question of a global imaginary: local identities might borrow patterns and processes of self-definition from elsewhere, but they equally reflect local concerns and problems. There is no discrete global model, neither are there discrete national models, or indeed discrete local models. (Titlestad’s study endorses Gikandi’s category reconsideration): “Global images might have a certain salience for students of literature and culture [wherever their particular plantation]”, Gikandi continues, [but] “this does not mean that such global images are a substitute for material experiences” (2001: 632).

Where do variable perspectives leave us if not in perpetual paradox? Louise Bethlehem probably summarises the ‘problem’ in her two almost contradictory insights. She is concerned that a “rhetoric of urgency” (the political imperative) has imposed a flat-earth “trope-of-truth” on South African literature and criticism (2001: 368). Yet at the same time as she herself favours an opposing disruption of signifier from signified (life is not so much ‘out there’ as constructed in language), she notes with regret that the swing to textuality in the 1990s led to the large abstractions of continental philosophy being applied, too often without precision of adjustment, to the subjective experience of the particular author’s texts. A consequence was that J M Coetzee began to function “virtually by default, as a convenient point of reference through which to hone by-now predictable aspects of postcolonial [one might equally say, postmodern] theory in its metropolitan guises” (2000: 153). (See also Bethlehem 2006)

Coetzee’s own critical essays, in contrast, respect the particularity of each text, whether he is reviewing novels from “Europe’s dark recent history” (the words are Derek Attridge’s (2007: xi) from his Introduction to Coetzee’s Inner Workings) or whether he is posing to Nadine Gordimer a question he has posed to himself: “[W]hat historical role is available to a writer...born into a late colonial community?” (Coetzee 2007: 255). To label Coetzee or Gordimer a South African writer is constraining; not to label them South African writers is to ignore in their work more than the ‘like but unlike’ nexus of metropole and periphery. It is to ignore, more importantly, the troubled ‘colonial community’ in which they found their distinctive voices. Without the waves, probably no Nobel Prize; without the trees in the plantation perhaps no Coetzee or Gordimer, as we know them!

To pursue the matter of variable perspectives, what got reviewers talking in South Africa – at least, in newspaper columns – was not so much, ironically, the books that won the several 2009 literary awards (books published in South Africa in 2008) as a first novel – actually a thinly disguised ‘life story’ – by Thando Mgqolozana, A Man Who Is Not a Man (2009). The author tackles the taboo subject of circumcision in the traditional Xhosa rite of manhood. (By July such practices in the veld had led to the death in 2009 of 49 young men and the hospitalisation of 139, thirteen of whom had to undergo an amputation of the penis.) Mgqolozana’s aim is to “break the silence” (2009: 3), an action which at the launch of his book at the 2009 Grahamstown National Arts Festival had an imposing man who described himself as a “traditionalist” wanting to “smack” the author because of his mentioning the unmentionable in front of women and the uninitiated. In his story of Lumkile, who after a botched circumcision ends up in hospital, Mgqolozana introduces several pressing contemporary issues in South Africa: tradition and modernity; patriarchy; gender; AIDS; and the ongoing, emotive question of race. A cynical response might be that Man Who Is Not a Man has excited the interest of the still predominantly white chattering classes because it seems to confirm the prejudices and fears of a dark heart of Africa in the middle of a democratic state. In fact, none of the commentators to whom I refer reveals such prejudice, while there has been support for Mgqolozana’s breaking the silence from several black South Africans.10 As I suggested in my earlier reference to the theatre group Right 2 Speak, African society is not monolithic: African society being another category requiring new definition. South Africa is sufficiently stratified not to continue to be called a community.

My point is that if the 1990s sought to cope with difference, the current priority might be how to connect in a society which at the same time is alert to Anne Landsman The Rowing Lesson and Thando Mgqolozana’s Man Who Is Not a Man. I am reminded here of Attwell’s key insight: it is not simply that the post-apartheid society has heralded a “civil turn”; it is rather that a civil turn has been with us all along, and that what is different now, to then, is our “capacity to recognise more intricately the complex picture” (2005: 9). It is a picture which reveals not only a civil, but also a literary turn, or return, to a more nuanced relationship between the concreteness of the imaginative work and the abstract language of criticism.11 Three particular perspectives among others may also be mentioned. There is a widening of the social/imaginative spectrum both ‘nationally’ and ‘transnationally’. South Africa may not yet be categorised easily as a single nation, but the space begins to be populated by newer voices: for example, a ‘born-free’ generation of different colours, or an Indian presence occupying almost simultaneously its difficult location in-between its apartheid-enforced ‘separate’ community and its diverse inheritance of diaspora and migration. At the same time there is a variegated response to belonging to the middle class, in which the concept ‘middle class’ begins to reflect new and challenging race/class gradations.12 As Ian Birrell notes of Africa as a whole, the time of the ‘Big Man’ is yielding to the aspirations of “an emerging middle class which is educated, entrepreneurial and empowered by technology [and] is leading calls for change across the continent” (2009: 8). With change signalling both threat and emancipation there have been turns – as in the world at large – from quotidian conditions to metaphysical dimensions, the religious and spiritual as potent force in postcolonies.13 These dimensions (both conservative and progressive) have been almost entirely ignored in a postcolonial discourse which arose out of secular metropolitan conflicts between liberalism and Marxism, or capitalism and socialism. Indeed, if postcolonial categorisation is to retain its purchase, then – as Robert J C Young (2001:7-9), Attwell, and others have noted – the postcolonial can no longer be regarded as “the chimera of a [single] position”, or even as a “common theoretical explanation”, but must denote a naming of “those institutional spaces in which people from widely different backgrounds and situations can at least talk to one another” (Attwell 2005:13). In such spaces we may begin to ask a question which in the political emergency of the 1980s and in the post-apartheid phase of the 1990s was rarely asked: is this a good book? Let me term such a conjecture on South African Literature (or Literature in South Africa) not post-apartheid, but post-postapartheid.

* * *

As identified in the Preface, the essays in this double issue have two interrelated purposes: to survey and analyse the current South African literary field. It is hoped to offer a pointer to what is being written and what critical commentary might make of the work. The titles of the essays in conjunction with the abstracts are self-explanatory. The arrangement is broadly generic: fiction, poetry, autobiography and drama precede essays on conceptual/thematic topics. To devote separate essays to Indian literature, Zulu literature, Afrikaans poetry, and poetry in English could be interpreted as a return to pre-1990 race and language classifications. The reality is however more complex: given a history of race division in a country of multiple languages and beliefs, many writers continue to draw on the experiences of group affiliation as a spur to their literary imaginings. Our intention is to broaden the landscape of interest and involvement.

A retrospective overview of the contributions reveals an interesting observation. It has been suggested in my Introduction that a critical concern with difference in the 1990s has shifted more recently to a concern with connection. If this is so, it is appropriate that in this double issue attention has shifted from J M Coetzee’s refusal to impose the Self on the Other (at least, that is how several influential critics interpret Coetzee’s fiction) to Antjie Krog’s pursuit of a ‘syncretic imagination’. Such tentative turns point this 21st issue of Current Writing ‘beyond 2000’.



1. The following ‘thematic’ issues of journals have pertinence to this Introduction: AlterNation 15(2), 2008 (Literature, Language and Cultural Politics); Current Writing 15(2), 2003 (Region, Nation, Identity); Current Writing16(2), 2004 (African Shores and Transatlantic Interlocutions); Current Writing 20(2), 2008 (Postcolonialism and Spirituality); English Academy Review 24(1), 2007 (Africa in Literature: Perspectives); English Academy Review 25(1), 2008 (The Local, Global and the Literary Imagination); English Academy Review 26(1), 2009 (Culture, Identity and Spirituality); English in Africa 33(2), 2006 (Postcolonialism: A South/African Perspective); English in Africa 35(1), 2008 (on book history); Journal of Literary Studies 18(1/2), 2002, and 19(3/4), 2002 (Alternative Modernities in African Literatures and Cultures); Journal of Literary Studies 19(3/4), 2003, and 20(1/2), 2004 (Aspects of South African Literary Studies); Scrutiny2 10(2), 2005 (Transnationalism and African Literature); Kunapipi XXIV(1&2), 2002 (South Africa Post-Apartheid); Modern Fiction Studies 46(1), 2000 (South African Fiction after Apartheid); South Atlantic Quarterly 103(4), 2004 (After the Thrill is Gone: A Post-apartheid South Africa).

2. Winner of the Sunday Times-Alan Paton Prize for Fiction and the M-Net Prize.

3. Shortlisted for the Sunday Times-Alan Paton Prize for Fiction Heyns’s novel won the 2009 Herman Charles Bosman Prize.

4. For the ‘post- conundrum’ – history as continuous ‘story’ or history as discrete ‘stories’ – see Chapman (2006: x-xxiii) and (2008:1-15). In relation to ‘women writing Africa’ see Driver (2002). Driver refers to Daymond et al. (2004).

5. See Chapman (1998).

6. The Levinasian trope – utilised by Attridge with greater finesse than by several other commentators in the 1990s – is the structuring device of his study on Coetzee (Attridge 2005). See also Helgesson (2004). Such studies defend Coetzee against charges of his disengagement from racial issues. Attridge invokes Coetzee’s principled (his ethical) refusal to subsume the marginal ‘Other’ in the dominant ‘Same’ (the Other and the Same being Levinasian concepts). The argument is that in Coetzee’s fiction acts of reciprocity respect ‘difference’.

7. See Greig (2002).

8. The manuscript was first published in 1980 by Ad. Donker and Quagga Press (both Johannesburg).

9.  See also De Kock (2003) and (2008).

10. See Isaacson, Brouard and Zvomuya (all 2009).

11.        Several studies, some of which are structured around postcolonial tropes, tie high theory to the subjective experience of texts: e.g. Barnard (2007), Bell and Jacobs (2009), Chapman (2008), Coullie (2001), Coullie and Jacobs (2004), Daymond et al. (2003), Graham (2009), Kearney (2007), Potts and Unsworth (2008), Stiebel and Gunner (2005), Viljoen and Van der Merwe (2004), Viljoen and Van der Merwe (2007).

12.        On identity see, among other pertinent references, Coullie et al. (2006), Distiller and Steyn (2004), Govinden (2008), Moran (2009), Steyn (2001).

13.        On the religious and spiritual see, among other pertinent references, Bennum (2004), Brown (2009), Green (2008), Gunner (2004), Mathuray (2009). See also relevant ‘thematic’ issues of journals listed in note 1, above.



Ashcroft, Bill.       2007. “Toward the Literary Transnation.” Paper at the conference Rerouting the Postcolonial, University of Northampton (3-5 July). http://ocs.sfu.ca/aclals/view abstract.php?id+425..

Attridge, Derek.    2005. J M Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

—————.          2007. “Introduction” to J M Coetzee’s Inner Workings: Essays 2000 – 2005. London: Harvill Secker: ix-xiv.

Attridge, Derek and David Attwell (eds). [In preparation]. The Cambridge History of South African Literature. Cambridge: CUP.

Attwell, David.     2005. Rewriting Modernity: Studies in Black South African Literary History. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

Attwell, David and Barbara Harlow. 2000. “Introduction: South African Fiction after Apartheid.” Modern Fiction Studies 46(1):1-9.

Barnard, Rita.       2007. Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writers and the Politics of Place. Oxford: OUP.

Bell, David and J U Jacobs (eds). 2009. Ways of Writing: Critical Essays on Zakes Mda. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

Bennum, Neil.       2004. The Broken String: The Last Words of an Extinct People. New York: Viking.

Bethlehem, Louise.         2000. “In the Between: Time, Space, Text in Recent South African Literary Theory.” English in Africa 27(1): 140-58.

—————.          2001. “‘A Primary Need As Strong As Hunger’: The Rhetoric of Urgency in South African Literary Culture under Apartheid.” Poetics Today 22(2): 365-89.

—————.          2006. Skin Tight: Apartheid Literary Culture and Its Aftermath. Pretoria: Unisa Press; Leiden: Koninklijke Brill.

Birrell, Ian.           2009. “Big Men Who Have Pillaged a Continent.” The Mercury (21 August): 8.

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Brouard, Pierre W.         2009. “Becoming a Man.Mail & Guardian (17-23 July): 2-3.

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Brown, Duncan.    2006. To Speak of This Land: Identity and Belonging in South Africa and Beyond. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

Brown, Duncan (ed.). 2009. Religion and Spirituality in South Africa: New Perspectives. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

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Christiansë, Yvette.       2009. Imprendehora. Cape Town: Kwela Books.

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Cooper, Brenda.    2008. A New Generation of African Writers: Migration, Material Culture and Language. Woodbridge: James Currey; Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

Coullie, Judith Lütge (ed.) 2001. The Closest Strangers: South African Women’s Life Writing. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Coullie, Judith Lütge and J U Jacobs (eds). 2004. a.k.a. Breyten Breytenbach: Critical Approaches to His Writings and Paintings. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi.

Coullie, Judith Lütge, Stephan Meyer, Thengani H Ngwenya and Thomas Olver (eds). 2006. Selves in Question: Interviews on Southern African Auto/biography. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Damrosch, David. 2003. What Is World Literature?. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dangor, Achmat.   1981. Waiting for Leila. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.

—————.          1997. Kafka’s Curse: A Novella and Three Stories. Cape Town: Kwela Books.

Daymond, M J et al. (eds). 2003. Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York.

De Kock, Leon.     2001. “South Africa in the Global Imaginary: An Introduction.” Poetics Today 22(2): 263-98.

—————.          2003. “Splice of Life: Manipulations of the ‘Real’ in South African English Literary Culture.” Journal of Literary Studies 19(1): 82-102.

—————.          2005. “Does South African Literature Still Exist? Or: South African Literature Is Dead, Long Live Literature in South Africa.” English in Africa 32(2): 69-83.

—————.          2008. “A History of Restlessness: And Now for the Rest.” English Studies in Africa 51(1): 107-22.

De Kock, Leon, Louise Bethlehem and Sonia Laden (eds). 2004. South Africa in the Global Imaginary. Pretoria: Unisa Press; Leiden: Koninklijke Brill.

Distiller, Natasha and Melissa Steyn (eds). 2004. Under Construction: Race and Identity in South Africa Today. Johannesburg: Heinemann.

Driver, Dorothy.   2002. “Women Writing Africa: Southern Africa as a Post-apartheid Project.” Kunapipi XXIV(1&2): 155-72.

Flanery, Patrick Denman and Andrew van der Vlies. 2008. “Annexing the Global, Globalising the Local.” Scrutiny2 13(1): 5-19.

Gikandi, Simon.     2001. “Globalization and the Claims of Postcoloniality.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 100(3): 627-58.

Graham, Lucy Valerie. 2008. “‘Save us all’: ‘Baby Rape’ and Post-apartheid Narratives.” In: Flanery, P and A van der Vlies (eds). Scrutiny2 13(1): 105-19.

Graham, James.     2009. Land and Nationalism in Fictions from Southern Africa. London: Routledge.

Green, Michael Cawood. 2008. For the Sake of Silence. Cape Town: Umuzi.

Greig, Robert.       2002. “Horrific and Funny Product of a Darker Vision: Brett Bailey’s Macbeth.” Sunday Independent (14 July):10.

Govinden, Devarakshanam Betty. 2008. A Time of Memory: Reflections on Recent South African Writings. Durban: Solo Collective.

Gunner, Liz (ed.). 2004. The Man of Heaven and the Beautiful Ones of God/ Umuntu waseZulwini nabantu abahle bukaNkulunkulu. Isaiah Shembe and the Nazarite Church. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

Harris, Peter.        2008. In a Different Time. Cape Town: Umuzi.

Helgessen, Stefan.          2004. Writing in Crisis: Ethics and History in Gordimer, Ndebele and Coetzee. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

Heyns, Michiel.    2008. Bodies Politic. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball.

Heywood, Christopher. 2004. A History of South African Literature. Cambridge: CUP.

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—————.          2008. “Indian Ocean Lives and Letters. English in Africa 35(1): 11-25.

Isaacson, Maureen.        2009. “An Initiate Claiming His Space as a Man.Mail & Guardian (28 June): 17.

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—————.          1991. The Textual Condition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mgqolozana, Thando.     2009. A Man Who Is Not a Man. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

—————.          2009. “From the Mouth of the Author.” Mail & Guardian (17-23 July): 3.

Moran, Shane.       2009. Representing Bushmen: South Africa and the Origin of Language. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.

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