Itala Vivan




The case of South Africa constitutes a particularly interesting, and unique, specimen for the contemporary critic, for it offers a rich literature written by whites - both in English and Afrikaans - together with a stream of literary texts produced by black South Africans and beginning with the earliest examples of written fiction and poetry by African authors. Moreover, the intricate history of the area, its complex colonial developments, and the more recent phases of apartheid and post-apartheid, with all the ambiguities and difficulties involved in their processes, but also the tensions and urges they created, make South Africa a case history in itself for an analysis which rests its theoretical principles on the tenets of postcolonial literary theory.
It might be useful to observe here that, in the definition of Evan Carton and Gerald Graff, who drew an outline of the latest developments in American literary criticism for The Cambridge History of American Literature 1,
postcolonial studies represent a kind of culmination of many of the changes in academic literary study over the last half-century (…) [and] may be the form of cultural studies that most obviously assumes the task of intellectual decolonization. (…) Postcolonialists share with feminists, African-Americanists, popular culture critics and specialists in other marginalized culture the project of recognizing neglected work, denaturalizing dominant formal and evaluative literary paradigms, and connecting politics with aesthetics.
It might be added that a long term target of postcolonialists is the elaboration of a new cognitive aesthetics, an exploration of hybridity that leads back to the problematics of signification and judgment typical of contemporary theory, and also of poststructuralism2. It is however necessary to specify that a deconstruction of the concept of race in South Africa - which cannot be carried out here3 - would undoubtedly show that within the century under study here, the image of the black in the white gaze and its function within the cultural dynamics of that society have constantly changed, shaping their face according to the mould of economic and political needs, but at the same time developing an extraordinary power through the realm of imagination, and opening new space and dimension to the imperial drive.
The region of Southern Africa was penetrated in its interior at an earlier time than West or even more so, Central Africa. The Europeans who travelled into the area, 'exploring' and 'discovering', invented a lonely land where only few and rare inhabitants, sparsely distributed, appeared and disappeared in a space unknown, uttering strange sounds closer to the animal than to the human world. It was in this region that an English traveller, later a famous writer - Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon's Mines 4 - coined the expression "heart of darkness" which was to become a widely accepted subtext to the whole European literature on Africa and of Africa. It is also relevant to remember that here the Europeans became settlers, that is, owners of the land and the landscape, creators and geographers of the space, with all the material and cultural wealth herewith involved.
The literature of the white settlers developed not as a wonderful, exotic description woven by outsiders, but as a harsh and tough tale born from the very bowels of that world. In the words of the founding mother of white South African literature in English, Olive Schreiner, introducing the second edition of her story of an African Farm 5:
It has been suggested by a kind critic that he would better have liked the little book if it had been a history of wild adventure; of cattle driven into inaccessible 'kranzes' by Bushmen; 'of encounters with ravening lions, and hair-breadth escapes'. This could not be. Such works are best written in Piccadilly or in the Strand: there the gifts of the creative imagination untrammelled by contact with any fact, may spread their wings.
But, should one sit down to paint the scenes among which he has grown, he will find that the facts creep in upon him. Those brilliant phases and shapes which the imagination sees in far-off lands are not for him to portray. Sadly he must squeeze the colour from his brush, and dip into the grey pigments around him. He must paint what lies before him.
The tough tale which began to be spun in 1883 - roughly at the time when diamonds were discovered in South Afri-ca - went on for a century of colonial relationship, where the subject and the object of a very peculiar colonialism intermingled and acknowledged their reciprocal existence while placing themselves into different spaces and conflicting descriptions; and allowed the white gaze a position of dominance over the other - its black counterpart, but also its most intimate companion and partner. The itinerary leads to the year 1994, when the first democratic elections were held and a government of the majority went into power, with Nelson Mandela as President.
The literary works positioned as landmarks at both ends of the tale are Olive Schreiner's early masterpiece - the already quoted Story of an African Farm (1883) - and Nadine Gordimer's latest novel, None to Accompany Me (1994)6. The discourse underlying the itinerary is built on the concepts of marginality and difference: where the former, marginality, turns into the latter, difference, through a process of radical deconstruction which subsumes the political value of silence surrounding marginality, and leads to a practice of difference rooted in listening and dialoguing. The way white South Africans have recorded their perceptions of the black other - and of themselves - in the landscape they inhabited is strictly connected with linguistic devices. Black characters were made to speak in the way white people thought they spoke, and thus turned into stereotypes derived from political tenets.
1. The tough tale from the farm: Olive Schreiner
The African farm in the dry, semi-desertic karoo is "Schreiner's microcosm of colonial South Africa: a tiny community set down in the midst of the vastness of nature, living a closed-minded and self-satisfied existence"7; its population is representative of different European cultures transplanted into Africa, and also includes blacks, called 'natives' and divided into 'kaffirs' (here, sometimes free Africans, or rather Bantu people), Hottentots (Khoikhoi, mostly servants in the novel) and Bushmen (San; vanished from the area at the time when the novel is set)8. It seems worth examining the blacks' fictional role in order to evaluate their position in the whole work and their relevance to a cultural and anthropological discourse.
In a few instances, the presence of Africans in the novel creates a narrative event within the story; in all the other cases, Africans play mere walk-on parts, and are simple details in the physical background of the novel. In no instance, however, do they achieve the level of characters - that is to say, they never enter the action. They are always confined to the role of objects observed and commented upon, only occasionally helping the characters as passive executors of the characters' will and orders. A typical symptom of this strictly defined role is that they are deprived of a language. One never hears them speak intelligible words of their own; the only time when they articulate words is either to translate the whites' speech (never quoted, however, but only hinted at), or to mutter incomprehensible (and savage) sounds, or to laugh. Most of the time they are silent: mute shadows belonging to the inner or outer space of the farm.
In one episode we are invited to observe the participants in a religious service:
There, too, was the spruce Hottentot in a starched white 'kappje' and her husband on the other side of the door, with his wool oiled and very much combed out, and staring at his new leather boots. The Kaffir servants were not there, because Tant'Sannie held they were descended from apes, and needed no salvation (p. 69).
The description points to the hierarchy of Hottentots and Kaffirs: the former are silent and passive spectators to the action, where they are only supposed to help whites - the Hottentot maid is introduced as Tant'Sannie 'satellite' (p. 51) -, while the latter are definitely excluded from the social gathering on the ground that they belong more to the animal than to the human level of existence. The details indicate that the two Hottentots are dumb imitators of white behaviour, and only succeed in appearing grotesquely farcical.
In a second episode, the three children
sat under a shelving rock, on the surface of which were still visible some old Bushman-paintings, their red and black pigments having been preserved through long years (…): grotesque oxen, elephants, rhinoceroses, and a one-horned beast, such as no man has seen or ever shall. (p. 44) [The boy says,] 'it seems that the stones are really speaking - speaking of the old things, of the time when the strange fishes and animals lived that are turned into stone now; and the time when the little Bushmen lived here, so small and ugly, and used to sleep in the wild dog holes, and eat snakes, and shot the bucks with their poisoned arrows. It was one of them, one of these old wild Bushmen, that painted those pictures there. He did not know why he painted but he wanted to make something, so he made these. He worked hard, very hard, to find the juice to make the paint; and then he found this place where the rocks hang over, and he painted them. To us they are only strange things, that make us laugh; but to him they were very beautiful'. (…) 'He used to kneel there naked, painting, painting, painting; and he wondered at the things he made himself', said the boy, (…). 'Now the Boers have shot them all, so that we never see a yellow face peeping out among the stones. (…) And the wild bucks are gone, and those days, and we are here. But we will be gone soon, and only the stones will lie on here, looking at everything like they look now' (pp. 49 ff.).
The numerous denotative elements - 'grotesque', 'ugly', yellow', 'dog holes', 'eat snakes' - blend with a romantic nostalgia for the vanished Bushmen, perished at the hands of white violence. These Bushmen belong to a remote past outside history and time, to a cycle of life which has been wiped out and replaced by white history, leaving no trace except for their pathetic paintings: these are sufficient, however, to create difference and a suspicion of 'another' aesthetic canon, since the boy says 'to him they were very beautiful'. Young Schreiner9 cannot break free from the notions of her time, culturally and anthropologically, but her inquiring mind makes her reflect on the nature of difference and the values there implied.
Another interesting episode depicts the encounter of good old Otto with a black woman who has been unjustly thrown out of the farm:
the German caught sight of a Kaffir woman, seated there (…). She had a baby tied on her back by a dirty strip of red blanket; another strip hardly larger was twisted round her waist, for the rest of her body was naked. She was a sullen ill-looking woman, with lips hideously protruding.
The German questioned her (…). She muttered in broken Dutch that she had been turned away. Had she done evil? She shook her head sullenly. Had she had food given? She grunted a negative, and fanned the flies from her baby . (…) Beside the milk-bush sat the Kaffir woman still - like Agar, he thought, thrust out by her mistress in the wilderness to die. Telling her to loosen the handkerchief from her head, he poured into it the contents of his bag. The woman tied it up in sullen silence.
'You must try and get to the next farm', said the German.
The woman shook her head; she would sleep in the field.
(…) Kaffir women were accustomed to sleep in the open air; but then, the child was small, (…) The German took out his coat, and held it out to her. The woman received it in silence, and laid it across her knee (pp. 87-88).
The most striking feature in this episode is the silence of the black woman, not understood by the old German, in spite of his saint-like goodness. The silence of this 'sullen' woman, together with the eternal silence of the vanished Bushmen, mark a total marginality and remoteness which under the scrutiny of the white gaze remain as elements of ugliness and strangeness. No dialogue comes into being, in spite of Otto's goodwill. The Kaffir woman is a mute emblem against the background of the dry karoo.
The next episode worthy of attention takes place when beautiful Lyndall walks in the karoo together with Gregory, her unlucky but faithful suitor, and points out to him a scene:
'There at the foot of a 'kopje'10 goes a Kaffir; he has nothing on but a blanket; he is a splendid fellow - six feet high, with a magnificent pair of legs. In his leather bag he is going to fetch his rations, and I suppose to kick his wife with his beautiful legs when he gets home. He has a right to; he bought her for two oxen. There is a lean dog going after him, to whom I suppose he never gives more then a bone from which he has sucked the marrow; but his dog loves him, as his wife does. There is something of the master about him in spite of his blackness and wool. See how he brandishes his stick and holds up his head!'
'Oh, but aren't you making fun?' said Gregory (…).
'No; I am very serious. He is the most interesting and intelligent thing I can see just now, except, perhaps, Doss11. He is profoundly suggestive. Will his race melt away in the heat of a collision with a higher? Are the men of the future to see his bones only in museums - a vestige of one link that spanned between the dog and the white man? He wakes thoughts that run far out into the future and back into the past'.
Gregory was not quite sure how to take these remarks. Being about a Kaffir, they appeared to be of the nature of a joke; but, being seriously spoken, they appeared earnest: so he half laughed and half not, to be on the safe side (pp. 227-28).
Lyndall sees beauty in the Kaffir man: it is the first and only time that such a thing happens between blacks and whites in the novel. Her aesthetic and visual appreciation of the handsome herdsman-warrior is paralleled only by one other instance where the visual approach is pre-eminent: during a wedding feast, among Boers arriving in carts and waggons, there appear - to take care of the children - 'Hottentot, Kaffir, and half-caste nurses whose many-shaded complexions, ranging from light yellow up to ebony black, add variety to the animated scene' (p. 211). This is perhaps the only case where one feels a touch of the exotic in Schreiner's treatment of blacks.
Lyndall appreciates the physical features of the herdsman, and praises his bearing 'in spite of his blackness and wool', but at the same time she imagines he must behave in a low and mean way morally speaking. She ends her little speech by saying the man is 'the most interesting and intelligent thing [sic] … except, perhaps, Doss'. The statement is reinforced later: 'one link that spanned between the dog and the white man'. Her appreciation is therefore only visual, possibly sexual ('magnificent legs'). On the other hand, Gregory appears puzzled by Lyndall's remarks, and thinks she is 'making fun' of the Kaffir, for her remarks, 'being about a Kaffir, appeared to be in the nature of a joke'. Kaffirs cannot conceivably be discussed seriously as if they were human beings.
The encounter throws a fascinating insight onto the characters' minds, and allows Lyndall to speak her mind and reveal her aesthetic sensibility and her relative openness. The black man himself is an object of contemplation and discussion, present to the gaze but not in the action: just a striking detail in the African landscape.
On the whole, the presence of blacks in Story of an African Farm reflects the anthropological and cultural approach of the time, and is a result of young Schreiner's readings - Spencer, Gobineau, Darwin - but it also shows an opening up of attention toward difference and a perceptive awareness of silence. Her farm is a world untouched by the beauty of the sublime which infuses nineteenth-century American literature12 but represents a topos of meditation for the three young characters who inhabit it and die crushed by its stark reality.
With the years and the deepening of her political awareness, Schreiner was to grow out of her attitude regarding Africans. She was to identify the so-called Native Question as a basically political problem, and in a later work, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897), depicted the figure of a black African accepted as a fellow human being by young Peter Halket who, after a conversion and an illumination, saves his life by setting him free.
Schreiner's brief glances - a sort of side glance - of the black presence in Story of an African Farm convey a meaningful silence and suggest a marginal but powerful reality which seems ready to erupt into the tough tale of the white narrative. Her world is already far removed from the tone of early chronicles by seventeenth-century travellers to the Cape:
The local natives have everything in common with the dumb cattle, barring their human nature (…). [They] are handicapped in their speech, clucking like turkey-cocks or like the people of Alpine Germany who have developed goitre by drinking the hard snow-water (…). Their food consists of herbs, cattle, wild animals and fish. The animals are eaten together with their internal organs. Having been shaken out a little, the intestines are not washed, but as soon as the animal has been slaughtered or discovered, these are eaten raw, skin and all (…). A number of them will sleep together in the veld, making no difference between men and women (…). They all smell fiercely, as can be noticed at a distance of more than twelve feet against the wind, and they also give the appearance of never having washed13.
My curiosity led me to enter one [of their huts] and see what kind of life people led. As I came within, I saw a parcel of them lying together like so many hogs, and fast asleep; but as soon as they were aware of me, they sprang up and came to me, making a noise like turkeys. I was not a little concerned; yet seeing that they did not go about to do me any harm, I pulled out a piece of tobacco and gave it to them. They were mightly pleased, and to show their gratitude they lifted up those flaps of sheepskin which hang before their privy-parts, to give me a sight of them. I made all haste to be gone, because of the nasty stench; also I could readily perceive that there was nothing special to be seen there14.
2. The 'Black Peril' of miscegenation: William Plomer and Sarah Gertrude Millin
Both Plomer and Millin, active in the Twenties, offer insights into the question of miscegenation - the 'Black Peril' which occupied the white mind in that period.
William Plomer, son of English settlers who lived in Zululand shortly after the Bambatha rebellion of 1909 among the Zulus, wrote the novel Turbott Wolfe (1926)15 when he was nineteen. He managed, as Michael Chapman remarks, "to turn a dystopian eye on most of the figures that, by the 1920s, had begun to give South African fiction its recognizable stamp: these included bigoted colonials, farmers ploughing seeds of racial hatred into the earth, the man who goes native, the noble savage"16. He understood the fragility of the West's civilizing mission and saw that the impact of Western materialism on Africa was a one-way process. One of his characters, Mabel van der Horst, who decides she will marry the Zulu Zachary, concludes:
What the hell is the native question? You take away the black man's country, and, shirking the future consequences of your action, you blindly affix a label to what you know (and fear) the black man is thinking of you. - 'The native question'. Native question, indeed! My good man, there is no native question. It isn't a question. It's an answer. (…) The white man's as dead as a doornail in this country. All this Empire-building's a blooming blind alley (pp. 65-66).
The novel, where Plomer himself is the bearer of the narrating voice of Turbott Wolfe - a sort of conradian device - contains two love stories between whites and blacks. Mabel van der Horst marries Zachary with a gesture of defiance against her society, while Wolfe falls in love with the handsome young Nhliziyombi but does not dare propose to her:
The girl came into the store [where Wolfe-Plomer worked] and took my breath away. She took away the breath of Chastity Wolfe.
She was a rare savage, of a type that you will find nowhere now: it has been killed by the missions, the poor whites and the towns. There was a chance, when those blacks were first taught to stop fighting, there was a chance to build up a new Christianity. (…) I have an immense faith in their character. But it is too late now. The missionaries brought them the sacrament, but (…) brought them syphilis too. They took away everything from the natives - all those vague mysterious savage ways of mind on which their lives were conducted, often very honourably and even nobly, certainly with method, and what on earth did they give them instead? Example? No. (…) Christianity is dead. (…)
But I was telling you about the girl. An aboriginal, perfectly clean and perfectly beautiful. I have never seen such consummate dignity. She was rather tall and rather a light colour. She used to wear a piece of black material embroidered with grass. (…) She was fit to be the wife of an ambassador. (…)
From the time that I first went to Ovuzane I had been at pains to control any amorous feeling towards the natives, because I was afraid (…). As soon as I had fallen in love with Nhliziyombi I was afraid of falling in love with her. (…)
She was an ambassador of all that beauty (it might be called holiness), that intensity of the old wonderful unknown primitive African life - outside history, outside time, outside science. She was a living image of what has been killed (…) by our obscene civilization that conquers everything. I think if you go into the question thoroughly you wiill find that ultimately, our civilization is obscene (pp. 30-31; italics in the original).
The beautiful black girl Nhliziyombi is the symbol of an ahistorical and timeless Africanness17 untouched by Western civilization, while the daring white woman Mabel plays the role of indicating the ideal of Eurafrica:
I allowed myself to reflect that these Colonial girls of very mixed ancestry - not innocent of German blood - perhaps with a touch of the tar-brush, as they say - that girls who could marry blacks -. Yes, but as she walked away in her springing stride, with fine legs and buttocks, and a royal back, out of the early morning shadows into the early morning sun - left, right: left, right - she was no less than a goddess.
As she emerged across the open sward (dew-drenched and sunlit) her departure acquired a colossal valedictory significance: her shadow travelled rapidly with her over the uneven verdure (…) and she became the goddess of the future, going out to suffer.
What was her name? Her name was Eurafrica (p. 105).
Plomer's story is a radical indictment of a colonial society where the protagonist retreats into the impotence of an aesthetic self-indulgence, but at the same time struggles to wrench the colonial mind away from the grip of its racial and social stereotyping. The approach is 'human' and 'literary', and gives no significant account concerning the loss of the land on the part of the blacks, combined with the labour hunger of the white economic machine, the major causes of migrant labour. The migrant labourer is not allowed to enter the tale, for the level of political discourse must be avoided: in this context, the denial suggests a powerful blocking mechanism, an aspect of a total system of defences vital to an organism's well-being. This distressing arrest in the development of white perception is linked with the impossibility for the white South African of seeing the black as an autonomous other.
If miscegenation is romantically viewed by young William Plomer as an ideal but impossible way of overcoming racial prejudice and its ensuing contradictions, it becomes the dark heart of disaster, the horror of colonial civilization in Sarah Gertrude Millin's God's Step-Children (1924)18.
Sarah Gertrude Millin, who in the words of John M. Coetzee "was the most substantial novelist writing in English in South Africa between Olive Schreiner and Nadine Gordimer"19, and has now grown outdated and unreadable for the degree of offensive racism she exhibits, provides an interesting adaptation of scientific and historical ideas which were in vogue from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieh century and embodied the myth that western Europeans were biologically destined to rule the world. Also, the centrality of race in her writings is an answer to formal problems facing the colonial writer and contributes to create a special space and eliminate the question of difference, which is totally and definitely marginalized.
Millin's God's Step-Children - the title speaks for itself - is her main story of blood and race, organized like a saga going through generations in a family tainted by the flaw of black blood. It is worth recalling the plot of this extraordinary novel. An English missionary, Andrew Flood, goes to an isolated mission station among the Hottentots, fails his task, and decides to 'convert' the savages with an example. He therefore marries a Hottentot girl, has two half-bred children; his daughter conceives from a passing Boer a light skinned son, Kleinhans. Kleinhans tries in vain to pass himself off for white. He marries a Coloured girl and has a daughter, Elmira, who looks white and is sent to a white convent school in Cape Town: but all this is in vain, because the lie emerges. Elmira is thrown out, and later marries the old, rich and white Lindsell. The son, Barry, seems absolutely white, and Elmira runs away from her family with another man. Barry is sent to school in Cape Town and then to Oxford, becomes a minister and marries a white English girl: but the dreadful secret comes out once again, and he, crushed by guilt and 'responsibility', leaves his pregnant wife and goes to preach the Gospel among 'his' people, thereby closing the circle initiated by his ancestor Andrew Flood.
The basic assumption is that blacks (Kaffirs) are - naturally - inferior beings, in no way comparable to the civilized race. They are animal-like and make ugly and grotesque noises by way of a language: "these little yellow, monkey-like people, with their triangular faces, Mongolian in type" (p.28); "they were, on the main, stupid and indolent" (p. 39); "now and then they would fire a cannonade of clicks at one another" (p.36); "the [Hottentot] interpreter, whose civilized language was a mixture of Dutch and English" (p. 32).
But, even if inferior, blacks are a 'pure' race. The 'tragedy' - more horrible and inevitable than Oedipus' - occurs when they copulate with whites (usually it is a degenerate woman who seduces a white man), and out of this comes a mixed, flawed, and sinful offspring:
Because, whatever they are, they aren't pure, he says. I heard him tell mother that he couldn't stand mongrels. He says they've got all the bad of both sides. What would you do if you found out you had coloured blood in you, Elmira, with that dark skin and all? I'd drown myself or something, wouldn't you? (p. 143)
Things have been left alone too long. They should have been stopped hundreds of years ago - hundreds of years ago. It should never have been allowed to happen in South Africa that - that white children should have come into the world with shame and sorrow in their blood (p. 271).
These 'step-children' are branded with a curse which recurs over and over again, inescapably classifying them as hopeless and inferior:
She [the Coloured girl Deborah] had, as most half-caste children have, a capacity for imitation. She copied the manners and habits - even the gestures and intonations - of Mrs Burtwell (p. 83).
She [the light-skinned, beautiful Elmira] was not as clever at her schoolwork as she had promised to be when a child. It was as if her brain, running a race against the brains of other children was very quick at starting but soon tired and lagged behind (p. 152).
It was not until the end of 1915 that Barry crossed over to France. He was back within three months. Shell shock. In the middle of 1916 he went out again. And in even a shorter time than before he was once more in England. Shell shock. He knew it now. It was no use. He couldn't stand it. His spirit would not uphold his cringing flesh. His flesh shrivelled back upon his fainting spirit. He had tried telling himself to be white, he had besought God for strength - nothing helped. They might give it any name they liked. Barry suffered from fear (p. 282).
In the end, justice is done, with pain but also with firmness. Barry, the last descendant of that mixed breed, changes the course of his own life and breaks the chain of sin. This is Barry's final encounter with his English wife Nora:
'Poor Nora. How impossible it is for you to understand.' (…)
'It's being in Africa makes one morbid and hysterical.'
'It's being in Africa makes one realize the truth. … Nora, I have just come back from where I found myself at my beginnings. There at Doornkraal, I saw my whole story. The natives in their huts. My great-grandmother, old Deborah. Her son, Kleinhans. My mother. Myself. I saw what had come down to me, and what I was handing on to others….Don't stop me, Nora. Let me tell you everything…And, standing there among my people, I made a vow.' (…)
'This is my vow,' he said at last. 'For my sin in begetting him, I am not to see my child. And, for the sorrow I share with them, I am to go among my brown people to help them…'
'I thought', he added after a moment, 'of settling down in those parts near Canaan where the Rev. Andrew Flood had his mission. (…) It seems me right that I should should go there.' (pp. 325-326)
Millin's novel is a telling example of the theories of biological degeneration which were common in the nineteenth century and fuelled the literature of Naturalism. The concept of a flaw perpetuated through generations concerns both moral and physical realities, and brands much Western fiction. Social Darwinism "in its crudest form explains the poverty of the poor, the enslavement of the enslaved, the criminality of the criminal as in some sense biologically predetermined"20, and is of course ideologically useful to the ruling classes in Europe, while it beautifully rationalized why certain peoples were destined to be colonized. During the period when both imperialism and anthropology took shape, allowing the reification of the 'primitive', there developed
an idea of History with the capital H, which first incorporates St. Augustine's notion of providentia and later on expresses itself in the evidence of Social Darwinism. Evolution, conquest, and difference become signs of a theological, biological, and anthropological destiny, and assign to things and beings both their natural slots and social mission. Theorists of capitalism, such as Benjamin Kidd and Karl Pearson in Britain, Paul Leroy-Beaulieu in France, Friedrich Naumann and Friedrich von Bernhard in Germany, as well as philosophers, comment upon two main and complementary paradigms. These are the inherent superiority of the white race, and, as already made explicit in Hegel's Philosophy of Right, the necessity for European economies and structures to expand to 'virgin areas' of the world21.
Millin popularized these ideas and embodied them into a story full of local colour which became immensely popular in South Africa, as well as in the United States, also because it explained the reality of the great threat of miscegenation and justified the fear of it. These ideas classified evil according to a satisfactory taxonomy and kept it at a safe distance from whites. Once the theoretical grid of good and evil, of civilized and barbarous, of cultured and savage was firmly in place, the human adventure could be told and retold over and over again, to please and entertain the readers and give them a thrill of danger without ever disturbing their peace of mind. There is a long line of storytellers of this sort who came out of South Africa with their loads of myth and blood - from Rider Haggard to Sarah Gertrude Millin to the contemporary Wilbur Smith. During her own time, Millin was considered the most authoritative writer on the native question, and endorsed by prime minister Smuts as the official voice of South African culture22. She acted as the grand dame of South African letters from the twenties well into the fifties, and became identified with the racist ideology which contributed to the establishing of the apartheid regime after the elections of 1948, won by that National Party which was to rule the country until 1993.
3. The cry of the liberal voice in 1948: Alan Paton
Written on the eve of the coming to power of Dr Malan with the National Party, Cry, the Beloved Country (1948)23 gained international fame and was soon made into a film, which toured the whole Western world and brought the conflicts of South Africa to the world's attention. It was the first South African novel with an almost entirely black set of characters portrayed as human beings who speak like human beings and as such are described, without derogatory remarks or sarcastic asides.
Paton was an enlightened liberal - in fact, he helped found the South African Liberal Party in 1953 and was its National President until 1968, when it was banned by the regime, after the African National Congress (ANC) and the Panafricanist Congress (PAC) had been outlawed in 1960. He was not at all a Marxist and did not believe in the class struggle, as it became obvious in 1955 when the Liberal Party refused to endorse the Freedom Charter, a sort of Bill of Rights written by the ANC, which was agreed upon by all the anti-apartheid organizations at the time.
All this comes out in the novel, which is animated by a feeling that South Africa might develop into a better and more open society if moved by a common sense of humanity and reciprocal acceptance24.
Here we have the moving story of Revd Stephen Kumalo who leaves Zululand and goes to Johannesburg in search of his young son Absalom. The latter becomes a criminal and kills a white man, and so we are confronted with a Christian message implying that a change of heart is the requirement for a change in society, while no mention is made of the need for a change in the racial and economic structure of that very society. Paton's liberalism invokes principles outside the realities of history - where history itself compels liberals to realize that one should not bow down to entities beyond the human community.
Revd Kumalo, with his meek attitude of a country minister, and his brother John with his rather shrill Marxist statements, are both undoubtedly stereotyped: the fact is clearly revealed by their language25.
The Zulu characters - especially those who are from a rural area - speak a plain and slightly exotic English which is meant to recreate the rhythm and style of the original Zulu of the true (phantasmatic) characters. The passage quoted below depicts the encounter of Revd Kumalo with Jarvis, the father of the man murdered by young Jonathan, who does not know about the dramatic connection linking them.
The suffering in the old man's face [Kumalo's] smote him [Jarvis], so that he said, Sit down, umfundisi. Then the old man would be able to look at the ground, and he would not need to look at Jarvis, and Jarvis would not need to look at him, for it was uncomfortable to look at him. So the old man sat down and Jarvis said to him, not looking at him, There is something between you and me, but I do not know what it is.
- Umnumzana.
- You are in fear of me, but I do not know what it is.
- It is true, umnumzana. You do not know what it is.
- I do not know but I desire to know.
- I doubt if I could tell it, umnumzana.
- You must tell it, umfundisi. Is it heavy?
- It is very heavy, umnumzana. It is the heaviest thing of all my years. (p. 155)
Concerning this dialogue - where umfundisi is the Zulu word for Reverend, and umnumzana for Sir - it has been said that Paton was using a "phantom Zulu", in the sense that such expressions as be in the fear (instead of be afraid of), desire (instead of would like), heavy (instead of serious), etc., have been selected not for realistic purposes, but in order to create an archaic and ahistorical world, "as if the Zulu language, Zulu culture, the Zulu frame of mind , belonged to a bygone and archaic age"26. Once again, the vanished hero is easier to manage than a flesh-and-blood one, and is also more pleasing from an aesthetic viewpoint, at least for the colonial mind.
It is also important to notice that throughout the book there runs a continuous, undulating rhythm which lulls the reader into oblivion and induces a sort of soft melancholy. The speeches of the Zulu characters, their meditations and even the descriptions of landscapes which are evoked as if they were filtered through a Zulu subject, have the allure of a hymn, or a dirge, and might even be arranged into lines following their staccato composition. Here there are a few examples passages of prose - sometime with dialogue - the first of which is taken from the episode quoted above:
The suffering in the old man's face smote him
so that he said
sit down, umfundisi.
Then the old man
would be able to look at the ground
and he would not need to look at Jarvis
and Jarvis would not need to look at him
for it was uncomfortable to look at him.
So the old man sat down
and Jarvis said to him
not looking at him
There is something
between you and me
but I do not know what it is (p. 155).
There is not much talking now.
A silence falls upon them all.
This is no time to talk of hedges and fields
or the beauty of any country.
Sadness and fear and hate
how they well up in the heart and mind
whenever one opens the pages
of these messengers of doom.
Cry for the broken tribe
for the law and the custom that is gone.
Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead
and for the woman and children beraved.
Cry, the beloved country
these things are not yet at an end.
The sun pours down on the earth
on the lovely land
that man cannot enjoy.
He knows only the fear of his heart (pp. 66-67).
Some men call it magic
but it is no magic
only an art perfected.
It is Africa, the beloved country (p. 189).
There is an intriguing fascination in these texts, also because the underlying structure is obviously that of a chant, a remote and sad tale, a broken epic of old. Paton has in his ear the Zulu oral epic, the izibongo, and builds an English text which resembles it, without being it. Oral literature might constitute a key and an introduction to otherness, were it not assimilated into European patterns of knowledge and expression but rather received as the vehicle of a a 'different' history. Given the familiarity that Alan Paton had with Zulu culture, it is clear he was well aware of the operation he performed on the English language by way of elements which create structure in oral poetry: repetitions, patterns of variations, alliterations, insertions of lists of names:
And he told them
all about these places
of the great hills
and valleys of that far country.
And the love of them must have been in his voice
for they were all silent
and listened to him.
He told them
of the sickness of the land
and how the grass had disappeared
and of the dongas
that ran from hill to valley
and valley to hill
how it was
a land of old men and women
and mothers and children
how the maize grew
barely to height of a man
how the tribe was broken
and the house broken
and the man broken
how when they went away
many never came back
many never wrote any more.
How this was true in Ndotsheni
but also in the Lufafa
and the Inhlavini
and the Umkomaas
and the Umzimkulu (pp. 21-22).
4. Writing from a fractured society: young Nadine Gordimer
Young Nadine Gordimer made her entrance into the world of fiction with a collection of short stories; her first novel, The Lying Days (1953)27, is a work where blacks are depicted exactly as the child's eye sees them and, then, the main character gets to know them in the society of the late forties and early fifties, which was being violently fractured by the apartheid laws following one another in a succession of terrible waves.
A World of Strangers (1958)28 appeared just before the split between the ANC and PAC, after the Treason Trial, general rehearsal for the disastrous trials which were to come later. It brings us into the world of the black magazine Drum with its black writers, artists, intellectuals, who for a brief moment - a few years only - gave life to the embryo of a mixed society and saw the emergence of important black writers - Es'kia Mphahlele, Nat Nakasa, Can Themba, Bloke Modisane - whom Nadine used to see regularly.
The Late Bourgeois World (1966)29 is a novel which, while connecting to the first phase of writing, opens up a new and more mature period in Gordimer's career. A brief survey of these three novels shows her changing treatment of blacks over a span of fifteen years - the years of the building of apartheid and the total crushing of the black population.
Gordimer, like Schreiner, is a writer who grew in time, both as a writer and as a political witness. Her early world, the seemingly autobiographical tale in The Lying Days, first denounces the hypocrisy and closed-mindedness of her provincial home town - a small mining town on the Rand - then shows the disillusion with the liberal world encountered in Johannesburg. There are no black characters playing active roles. Blacks are rare and strange encounters in the rural or mine area, then occasional acquaintances in town. Yet, blacks become more and more visible as a group: a choral element which imposes its presence in spite of the marginalization organized by the social system. The child's eyes seek experience, and along a country road look at
these dark brown faces - the town natives were somehow lighter - dark as teak and dark as mahogany, shining with the warm grease of their own liveness lighting up their skin; wondering, receptive, unthinking, taking in with their eyes as earth takes water; close-eyed, sullen, with the defensive sullenness of the defenceless; noisy and merry with the glee of the innocent. (…) I passed a mine boy standing with his back to me and his legs apart. I had vaguely noticed them standing that curious way before, as I whisked past in the car. But as I passed this one - he was singing, and the five or six yards he had put between himself and the vendors was simply a gesture - I saw a little stream of water curving from him. Not shock but a sudden press of knowledge, hot and unwanted, came upon me (pp. 23-24).
This approach is entirely that of an outsider: and it grows even more so later on, in Johannesburg, when Helen discovers 'Africans':
'African' was an acquired word, preferred by non-Europeans and liberals not only because it was a more accurate designation, but rather because it was as yet clean of the degrading contexts in which the other had been dyed more deeply than with colour - in the unselfconscious privacy of my thoughts I still used the old inherited word (p. 128).
She makes friends with an African schoolmate, Mary Seswayo, observes her and then goes with her to the location of Mariastad, a black township which in her eyes looks like a monstruous blot on the earth:
It must have been fifteen years since I had been in such close contact with an African; not since that other breast, longer ago than I could remember, the breast of my native nanny, had I casually felt human warmth, life, coming to me from a black body (p. 130).
One native location is much like another. Mariastad was one of those which are not fenced, but the approach to the place was the familiar one: a jolt off the the smooth tarmac on to a dirt road that swerved across the veld; orange peels and rags, newspapers and bits of old cars like battered tin plates, knock-kneed donkeys staring from tethers. All around the veld had been burned and spread like a black stain. And all above the crust of vague, close, low houses, smoke hung, quite still as if it had been there for ever; and shouts rose, and it seemed that the shout had been there for ever, too, many voices lifted at different times and for different reasons that became simply a shout, that never began and never ended (p. 173).
Ever since I had begun to see the natives all around not as furniture, trees, or the casual landmarks of a road through which my life was passing, but as faces; the faces of old men, of girls, of children; ever since they had stepped up all around me, as they do, silently, at some point in the life of every white person in South Africa, something had been working in me - the slow corrosive guilt, a guilt personal and inherited, amorphous as the air and particular as the tone of your own voice, which, admitted or denied, is in all white South Africans (p. 211).
This growing sense of guilt comes from not having been more attentive before. Africans had been the "few natives, swathed in blankets as in the silence of a cocoon" (p.100); or the one "who sat on the ground, shrouded like a Mexican in his poncho" (p.101); or "dark figures with their strong body-smell and their great knobkerries, [who] passed silently" (p. 101). The closing in of the cage of apartheid compels the young Nadine to become more involved with these human beings living all around her and to interrogate their silent presence.
A World of Strangers has articulate African characters together with a British young man, Toby Hood, a bird of passage like Turbott Wolfe, who sees African life through 'exotic' eyes and is fictionally used as a perceptual tool. Toby goes into township shebeens and assimilates the bohemian features of Sophiatown: but his immersion in African spontaneity is temporary, and his itinerary is that of an outsider. Gordimer seems to be experimenting with a liberalism of a Forsterian brand.
The book opens on a satirical tone, with several 'typical' English travellers, like Mrs Turgill who exclaims, "Can't you imagine degenerating most marvellously in one of those thatched huts, with a beautiful native girl, a Polynesian or something, with long black hair?" (p. 8).
The language too has become anglicized and at times somewhat too clipped, almost snobbish: it changes when Toby gets involved in friendship with black South Africans, and particularly with the painter Steven Sitole and the journalist and composer Sam Mofokenzazi. In fact we know that Toby is the portrait of the British journalist Anthony Sampson, who was general editor of Drum, while Sam might resemble the jazz specialist and composer Bloke Modisane; for Steven, the writer used the extraordinary, dazzling personality of Can Themba, with his House of Fame and the crazy drinking parties in Sophiatown. Steven Sitole, the main black character in the novel, is depoliticized: one wonders if this was meant in order to make it possible for white readers to accept and perceive a black as a human being, or if it came as a consequence of the type of model Gordimer used here - Can Themba. The result is that Steven, who is frequently a guest at parties of the Johannesburg's smart set at the time, is made harmless:
'I don't want to feel miserable [says Steven], I don't want any glory out of it. Sam and Peter and all those others, yap-yap all the time, chewing over the same old things, this they've taken from us, that they've denied our children, pass laws, injustice - agh, I'm sick of it. Sick of feeling half a man. I don't want to be bothered with black men's troubles…'
'A private life', I said. 'That's what you want' (p. 172).
Steven Sitole dies in a car crash, and Toby is called by the police to see the body at the mortuary:
What had I known of Steven [thinks Toby ], a stranger, living and dying a life I could at best only observe; my brother. A meaningless life, without hope, without dignity, the life of the spiritual eunuch, fixed by the white man, a life of which he had made, with a flick of his wrist, the only possible thing - a gesture. A gesture. (…) He was in the bond of his skin, and I was free; the world was open to me and closed to him; how could I recognize my situation in his? (p. 252)
After one year in his job, Toby leaves Johannesburg to go back to England and Sam sees him to the station. There is a close resemblance between the endings of A World of Strangers and E. M. Forster's A Passage to India. When Toby promises to go back to South Africa, his closing comment is,
'Who knows with you people, Toby, man? Maybe you won't come back at all. Something will keep you away. Something will prevent you, and we won't -' the rest was lost as we disappeared from each other down our separate stairways. But at the bottom of the steps, where the train was waiting, he was there before me, laughing and gasping, and we held each other by the arms, too short of breath to speak, and laughing too much to catch our breath, while a young policeman with an innocent face, on which suspicion was like the serious frown wrinkling the brow of a puppy, watched us (p. 266).
The Late Bourgeois World marks the radicalization of Gordimer's inscription into South African reality, and it comes historically at an appropriate moment, the moment of defeat for the liberal-radical alliance whose origins were rooted in nineteenth-century Europe: Mill, meliorism, and Marx. It mirrors her position in the late sixties, thanks to the isolation of the heroine Elizabeth among the ruins of the demolished urban multi-racial left.
Elizabeth has lived in close friendship with blacks in the era that has ended, and at a crucial point in the novel invites Luke Fokase to dinner at her flat. He is a black man who - as it will turn out - needs her help in order to receive money from abroad and finance his movement, the PAC. Luke belongs to a new generation from the one Elizabeth had previously known. But she accepts to see him, her "Orpheus in his too-fashionable jacket" and to become "pale Eurydice" for him, thereby shifting the axis of the narration and putting an end to the normalness of the white writer's perception.
It is a momentous change in Gordimer's fictional and ideological approach, and allows her to build a new and original position in the South African world by putting the white writer (and her heroine) at its margin. It is as if the white intellectual had understood that it is now time for her to listen to blacks and be at their service. At the end of the day - the novel is in fact contained into the space of day - Elizabeth gains a new perception, a consciousness of her inadequacy, as the possessor of a particular version of her group's mythology.
The black friend Luke Fokase, her Orpheus ("my Orpheus in his too-fashionable jacket", p. 89), comes as a mysterious visitor and yet has a strong physical presence:
A plump young man with a really black, smooth face - almost West African - and enormous almond eyes that were set in their wide-spaced openings in the black skin like the painted eyes of smiling Etruscan figures. That was Luke (p. 71).
When he - Luke - stood in the doorway I realized that he is not present to me in any way when I don't see or hear him (p. 75).
Sometimes, when his great eyes are steady with attention to what I'm saying, there's a flicker - just a hair's-breadth flicker - that makes me aware that he's thinking, fast, in his own language, about something else (p. 77).
What a face, those extraordinary cloisonné eyes, you could put your finger on the eyeball to try the smooth surface (…). The eyes filmed over as if someone had breathed on them (p. 81).
Almost thirty years later, when writing None to Accompany Me, Nadine Gordimer was to build on this important novel and develop the figure of Luke Fokase into a more complex black character, whose relationship with the heroine Vera mirrors the changes which have occurred in the writer's perception of South African reality.
5. What was true savagery? John M. Coetzee
John Coetzee started to publish in the seventies, a period Gordimer defined as "the Interregnum"30. His first work of fiction, Dusklands (1974)31, is divided into two sections, of which only the second, The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee, will be discussed here. Gordimer had stated that the South African ego was white; Coetzee focuses on the formative process of that ego and simulates a travelogue written in 1760 by a Boer settler bearing his own name, Coetzee.
The Narrative is an artful postmodernist tale organized into five different layers of vision, so as to fragment and yet multiply the narrative voice. It relates an expedition to the land of the Great Namaqua, where Jacobus Coetzee, accompanied by his Hottentot servants and slaves, meets a group of 'wild' Nama Hottentots, is first robbed of all his possessions and then vilified by the villagers and deserted by his servants. He falls badly ill, is later cured and manages to return to his farm. The settler's broken ego however asks for revenge and retaliation, and he goes back to punish them ruthlessly and inflict an exemplary punishment upon his traitor servants. The Nama village is destroyed.
The encounter of the white man with indigenous people who had never seen a European does not aim at generating a realistic report, but is an opportunity to deconstruct the master narrative of the West, the traveller's chronicle, by showing how the ideas of Enlightenment have been translated into the 'third world' as imperialism (more latterly globalism), that the superior technologies are likely to continue to impose their will on others.
The inflated ego of the elephant hunter, a man lonely in the wild, occupies the whole space and overwhelms the reader/spectator:
In the wild I lose my sense of boundaries. This is a consequence of space and solitude. The operation of space is thus: the five senses stretch out from the body they inhabit, but four stretch into a vacuum. The ear cannot hear, the nose cannot smell, the tongue cannot taste, the skin cannot feel. The skin cannot feel: the sun bears down on the body, flesh and skin move in a pocket of heat, the skin stretches vainly around, everything is sun. Only the eyes have power. The eyes are free, they reach out to the horizon all around. Nothing is hidden from the eyes. As the other senses grow numb or dumb my eyes flex and extend themselves. I become a spherical reflecting eye moving through the wilderness and ingesting it. Destroyer of the wilderness, I move through the land cutting a devouring path from horizon to horizon. There is nothing from which my eye turns, I am all that I see. (…) What is there that is not me? I am a transparent sac with a black core full of images and a gun (pp. 78-79).
Whatever appears or moves onto the horizon of this giant eye/I has to be subdued, captured, owned. Whatever reality resists the settler's law is inevitably brutalized and destroyed. The expedition into the interior is a paradigm of this; it opens with reflections on the Hottentots and Bushmen, originated not from a philosophy of knowledge but from a theory of absolute domination:
The one gulf which divides us from the Hottentots is our Christianity. We are Christians, a folk with a destiny. They become Christian too, but their Christianity is an empty word. (…) The Hottentot is locked into the present. (…) The Bushman is a different creature, a wild animal with an animal's soul. (…) The only sure way to kill a Bushman is to catch him in the open where your horse can run him down. (…) It is only when you hunt them as you hunt jackals that you can really clear a stretch of country. (…) It will not be difficult to stamp the Bushman out, in time (pp. 57-61).
The exploring expedition runs into the Nama, and both groups rode
peacefully to meet each other, as pretty a sight as you could wish, two little bands of men under a sun only a few degrees above the horizon, and the mountains blue behind us (p. 64).
Jacobus Coetzee notices the dignity of the wild Hottentots, so much superior to the degraded condition of the 'tame' Hottentots, while
Flies buzzed about an ox. Where the ring entered its nose the foam stood out. We breathed in unison, all living beings. Tranquilly I traced in my heart the forked paths of the endless inner adventure: the order to follow, the inner debate (resist? submit?), underlings rolling their eyeballs, (…) word of greeting, firm tones, Peace! Tobacco! (…) these forking paths across the true wilderness without polity called the land of the great Namaqua where everything, I was to find, was possible (pp. 65-66).
The hunter soon discovers that the Nama do not believe in private property and take all his goods from the carts. Furious, he reacts violently, but meets with scorn and derision:
The Hottentots had fallen back in little clumps and were staring at us. I rode out toward them. 'The first person who lays a hand on my wagon or my oxen I will shoot dead with this gun! This gun will kill you! Go back to you houses!' They looked back at me stonily. (…) 'Ssss-sa!', hissed someone, and others took it up. It was the sound they make to taunt a cornered animal into jumping. (…)
A woman stepped out of the crowd toward me. Her legs were straddled, her knees bent, her arms held out horizontally on either side. Over the drum-roll of the 'Ssss-' she twitched her whole body so that her fat naked breasts and buttocks shuddered. On each explosive 'sa!' her fingers clicked, her head jerked, her pelvis snapped at me. Thus twitching and jerking, feet wide apart, three steps forward and two steps back, she advanced on me, the Hottentots' music becoming quieter and more excited until I could hear each snap of her fingers. Through slit eyes she was looking at me (p. 74).
Finally Jacobus Coetzee, who had to accept the help of the Nama people, who put him in a hut reserved for 'impure' (menstruating) women, recovers from his disease and on his own leaves for the farm:
I was alone. I had not Klawer [his servant] to record, I exulted like a young man whose mother has just died. Here I was, free to initiate myself into the desert. I yodelled, I growled, I hissed, I reared, I screamed, I clucked, I whistled; I danced, I stamped, I grovelled, I spun; I sat on the earth, I spat on the earth, I kicked it, I hugged it, I clawed it. Every possible copula was enacted that could link the world to an elephant hunter armed with a bow and crazed with freedom after seventy days of watching eyes and listening ears. (…)
But were they true savages, these Namaqua Hottentots? (…) What was true savagery, in this context? Savagery was a way of life based on disdain for the value of human life and sensual delight in the pain of others. (…) The Namaqua, I decided, were not true savages. Even I knew more about savagery than they (pp. 95-98).
The reflection about 'true savagery' is central to the Narrative, and suggests a total revision of the canon of savagery, while linking the status of the white hunter to that of the wild Nama Hottentots.
At the end of the second retaliating expedition, having murdered his former servants and destroyed the Nama village, Jacobus Coetzee meditates on his relationship with the local people he has met and killed:
I am an explorer. My essence is to open what is closed, to bring light to what is dark. If the Hottentots comprise an immense world of delight, it is an impenetrable world, impenetrable to men like me, who must either skirt it, which is to evade our mission, or clear it out of the way (…).
What did the deaths of all these people achieve?
Through their deaths I (…) again asserted my reality. No more than any other man I enjoy killing; but I have taken it upon myself to be the one to pull the trigger, performing the sacrifice for myself and my countrymen, who exist, and committing upon the dark folk the murders we have all wished (p. 106).
This impressive Narrative deals more with Afrikaner and European identity than with the white perception of the black other, and hints at the fact that the two are indissolubly linked in South African culture. But this is the essential message of Coetzee's parable: there is no perception of the other in the master narrative of the West. The black other is there just as a speck to be removed from the colonial space which can thus be turned into civilized landscape.
There is no escape in Africa from materialism, rationalism, Western-style economics, the profit motive, and the cult of the individual. It is no use invoking lost pasts, whether Afrikaner or African: the greater responsibility is to understand, modify, and re-imagine the symbolic narratives and the maxims by which we construct and construe our reality. Where the ethical core is to be found is in Coetzee's uncomfortable prediction that the possibility of moral reconstruction is a movement which begins with self-abnegation within the recognition of unbridgeable historical constraints32.
6. The New South Africa: None to Accompany Me
Nadine Gordimer's latest novel, None to Accompany Me, published in 199433, opens with a party thrown on "the year the prisons opened" - 1990 - and closes in the clear, "biting ebony-blue of winter air" in 1993. The country we are transported to is a new South Africa, bristling with problems but finally breathing freely, deeply changed from earlier times. Many blacks circulate in the novel. There are no hesitations, constrictions, duties or uncertainties in the representation of this world in rapid transition: society proceeds by itself, and the writer seems happy to contemplate it without feeling called to explain. It is, in brief, the same atmosphere which characterizes the end of a war.
None to Accompany Me is a beautiful and huge novel, firmly and tightly organized around a cluster of motives and themes which give it strength: a search for freedom, intertwined with the political struggle but always oriented towards a liberation from dependence; the representation of the passing of time, with mature and old age creeping in upon the characters' lives; the ripeness of friendship, including all sorts of human relationships but centering on the axis of sex, family and politics.
All the characters are fictionally attracted to the force of Vera Stark, the heroine, who has friends who are black as well as friends who are white, not because it's trendy or subversive - as was the case with A World of Strangers, for instance - but because South Africa is now multiracial: it is a Babel of languages and colours. Black characters are there naturally, and they bring the weight of their experiences and sensibilities.
The most relevant black figures are Zeph Rapulana; a couple of former exiles, Didymus and Sebongile Maqoma, old friends of Vera's; and a young man, Oupa, who works for Vera at the Legal Foundation and has spent years in prison (at Robben Island) as a member of MK. They are all "old friends from across the colour line" (p. 303).
Vera has frequent interchanges with the Maqomas, and spends time with Oupa, who is the victim with her of a violent robbery by a black gang along a country road and dies of the wounds he receives. But for her the most important person is Zeph Rapulana, an organizer and representative of squatters who stands out during a legal conflict with an Afrikaner farmer over a land problem, and becomes an affluent figure in Johannesburg. He is a reincarnation of certain black characters one has already encountered in Gordimer's novels, and more particularly of Luke Fokase in The Late Bourgeois World, while also reminiscent of the black corpse that kept emerging from the flooded land of the Boer farm in The Conservationist. Like Luke, he has a mysterious quality, an element of secrecy and reserve which comes together with physical and sexual attraction. Deeply attached to the land where he comes from, Zeph is no corpse to be flooded away from the soil: on the contrary, he proves to be firmly rooted in rural culture when Vera asks him to speak to Oupa's relatives at the funeral in the countryside:
He became again as he was when he was among his own people at Odensville; the cadence of his voice, his gestures, transformed a fragmented life into wholeness, he knew exactly how to do it, it came to him from within himself in symbiosis with the murmuring group gathered. They understood the tradition and she understood, without words, without tradition, their understanding (p. 216).
At the end of the story Vera sells her house and goes to live at Zeph's , in a small annexe, as his tenant: this fact has a high symbolic value, for it rebalances the century-old injustice the blacks have suffered, and puts everybody in his or her right place - the black, who is the original owner of the land, as the landlord; the white, who is a guest and passer by in Africa, as his tenant.
The process by which Nadine Gordimer now resumes certain earlier narrative lines of her past should not be judged as a backward movement: it is in fact what postmodernists call a false movement. In her novel she indicates that her choice "is a process that must not be looked back upon with a glance of Orpheus" (p. 313). Vera Stark is no pale Eurydice buried into the underworld and prisoner in it, but rather a woman addressing the future.
When Annick Stark, Vera's daughter, reacts with shock and rage at the news of her mother going to live in Zeph Rapulana's annexe, and asks, "What are you experimenting with? (…) What have you wanted?", Vera replies, "To find out about my life. The truth. In the end. That's all" (p. 313). Vera's final statement links to the inscription to the novel - a sentence by Marcel Proust - "We must never be afraid to go too far, for truth lies beyond".
Gordimer, who during the apartheid years had officially and explicitely stated she was accepting the principle that art was "a weapon for the struggle", is not returning that same weapon, like a warrior asking for rest. She continues along her chosen path, more lonely than ever in her search of freedom. None to Accompany Me is Gordimer's Winter's Tale: like the old king of the fable, she thinks that "a sad tale's best for winter"34. And she goes out in the garden, where
Cold seared her lips and eyelids; frosted the arrangement of two chairs and table; everything stripped. Not a leaf on the scoured smooth limbs of the trees, and the bushes like tangled wire; dried palm fronds stiff as her fingers. A thick trail of smashed ice crackling light, stars blinded her as she let her head dip back; under the swing of the sky she stood, feet planted, an the axis of the night world. Vera walked there, for a while. And then took up her way, breath scrolling out, a signature before her (pp. 323-24).
The contemplative words of the writer are an echo, and a variation, of a poem by the black South African poet Mongane Serote, whose calm 'humanism' reappears, transformed, in the white gaze, creating an interesting hybridity:
it is a dry white season
dark leaves don't last, their brief lives dry out
and with a broken heart they dive down
gently headed for the earth,
not even bleeding.
it is a dry white season brother,
only the trees know the pain as they stand erect
dry like steel, their branches dry like wire,
indeed, it is a dry white season
but seasons come to pass35.
The presence of black, and blacks, in the white gaze has by now a long history in South Africa, and has registered many changes since the beginning of the colonial relationship. The selection of literary texts discussed here aimed at offering some of the most meaningful, important and representative examples in the rich literary production in the English language coming from that country.
The pattern of change in the treatment of blacks, the variations in the persisting and often obsessive presence of the black character and its mutilations are evidence that social, political and economic conditions - the system of power - were powerful determinants of the imaginative world, but also that the creations of the human imagination - its literary patrimony - had an immense influence on the course of events and the facts of history.
In South Africa, the brave eye of writers who were able to look into the stark realities and complex contradictions of their culture helped the collectivity grow in awareness and start on new and arduous paths of change. The consciousness of belonging to the African world, of having to construct a new literary canon and a new set of aesthetic values - and writing new literary histories - is a sign that South Africans have finally accepted their postcolonial condition, a new axis in their world.
  • Ashcroft , Bill, Graham, Griffithsand Helen TIFFIN, The Empire Writes Back. Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literatures, London, Routledge, 1989.
  • Brantlinger, Patrick, Rule of Darkness. British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 1988.
  • Chapman, Michael, Southern African Literatures, London and New York, Longman, 1996.
  • Coetzee, John M., White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1988.
  • Dabydeen, David, ed., The Black Presence in English Literature, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1985.
  • Fabian, Johannes, Language and the Colonial Power, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1986.
  • Gerard, Albert, Comparative Literatures and African Literatures, Pretoria 1981.
  • Gray, Stephen, Southern African Literature: An Introduction, Cape Town, David Philip, 1979.
  • Gray, Stephen, Introduction to The Penguin Book of Southerm African Verse, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1989.
  • Heywood, Christopher, Aspects of South African Literature, London, 1976.
  • Jolly, Rosemary Jane, Decolonization, Violence and Narration in White South African Writing: André Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, and J. M. Coetzee, Athens, Ohio, Ohio University Press, 1996.
  • Mphahlee, Ezekiel, The African Image, London, Faber and Faber, 1974 (1962).
  • Mudimbe, Valentin Y., The Invention of Africa. Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge, London, James Currey, 1988.
  • Nelson, Dana, The Word in Black and White. Reading 'Race' in American Literature 1638-1867, New York, Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Reising, R., The Unusable Past: Theory and the Study of American Literature, London, 1986.
  • Trump, Martin, ed., Rending Things Visible. Essays on South African Culture, Johannesburg, Ravan, 1990.
  • Voss, Anthony, "The Image of the Bushman in South African Writing of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries", English in Africa, 14, 1, May 1987, 21-40.
  • Voss, Anthony, Introduction to God's Step-Children by Sarah Gertrude Millin, Johannesburg, Ad Donker, 1986, pp. 7-19.
  • Wade, Michael, White on Black in South Africa. A Study of English-Language Inscription of Skin Colour, London, Macmillan, 1993.
  • White, Landeg and Tim Couzens, eds., Literature and Society in South Africa, Maskew Miller Longman, Cape Town, 1986.
  • Young, Robert, White Mythologies: Writing History and The West, London, Routledge, 1990.
Home page Culture
Indice Culture 97