Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time South African Literature

Nadine Gordimer is one of many distinguished writers who have taken South Africa and its struggles with apartheid for their subject. We will look at some of these writers and their works so that students hoping for a fuller picture of this place and time can find several works of fiction to help illuminate the topic.

In the early days of apartheid, Alan Paton published his lauded work Cry, the Beloved Country (1948). He showed how racism led to the segregation of Blacks and whites, as well as how entrenched the system was and would remain.

Nobel Prize-winning J.M. Coetzee may be the most internationally renowned South African writer, with Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and Disgrace (1999) his most famous novels. His prose is spare and impactful, some of his novels experimental, and many of them somewhat surreal in their quiet depictions of trauma.

Achmat Dangor speaks frankly of his admiration for Rushdie and Joyce, which can be seen in his work that utilizes a multiplicity of voices. This chorus gets to the heart of what he calls a “schizophrenic nation.” Dangor was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for 2001’s Bitter Fruit.

Farida Karodia wrote of women, using Other Secrets (2000) to explore two sisters who try to control their destinies during the era of apartheid.

Njabulo Ndebele's The Cry of Winnie Mandela (2003) links the lives of four regular women with the life of Winnie Mandela, the wife of Nelson Mandela.

Mark Behr’s The Smell of Apples was published in 1997 and tells its story of apartheid through the eyes of a naïve young Afrikaans boy. Behr later revealed he had been a spy for the apartheid police, posing as a student activist.

The Postcolonial Web notes that Mda Zakes is probably the most critically acclaimed of the post-apartheid Black South African literary scene, “publishing Ways of Dying in 1995 and The Heart of Redness in 2000. Having spent 32 years in exile, his novels interestingly depict characters coming to terms with post-Apartheid life, of which the struggle to hold on to traditional African values in the face of the new South African politics and western materialism is an important theme. In The Heart of Redness, Camagu is a former exile who has to contend with changes: friends who were freedom fighters are now corporate figures, and friends from rural villages have gone on to lead successful lives in the big city.”

To conclude, novelist Henrietta Rose-Innes writes of the current scene, explaining that in the 21st century, there are “major tremors running through the South African literary world right now. Nelson Mandela left office in 1999, and once again it has taken writers a good few years to process the disenchantment and desire for real transformation that set in after the rosy ‘rainbow-nationism’ of the Mandela era waned. But now that shift is well upon us. Race is, as always in South Africa, the issue, and through all the country’s changes, the publishing establishment has remained stubbornly white-dominated. In conjunction with the past two years’ fierce student activism for the ‘decolonization’ of universities, a movement to ‘decolonize’ literature has taken root.”