By Kelwyn Sole
One approaches this topic with a certain amount of déjà vu, as questions pertaining to political literature were an area of critical debate during the struggle against apartheid.
These debates, heated though they were, vanished in the face of the unbannings of 1990 and political settlement of 1994. Post-liberation SA, it was now proclaimed by many literary commentators, had become a “normal” society where literature could pursue interest in the “ordinary” activities of its citizens. If there were to be a social area at issue at all, it was as regards the upliftment of the previously disadvantaged, especially through the prism of identity politics.
The issue of political fiction, to be sure, always played a minor role in pre-liberation debates. The prevalent usage of the “political” was more often in genres with an oral and performative potential, such as poetry and drama. Nevertheless, a number of issues regarding political fiction were visible in debates at this time, and were left unresolved at apartheid’s demise.
The first question one needs to ask, then, is why a topic declared redundant at liberation, both by the literary establishment and by cultural spokespeople from the new government, is once again raising its head?
With the benefit of hindsight, I would suggest that it is now possible to question the validity of assumptions about the “end of the political” made at liberation. In the face of corruption, mismanagement, and – even more to the point – attempts by the government to curb its media and artistic critics (for example through the Protection of State Information Bill and the Brett Murray incident), political and even resistance art are again compelling topics of discussion.
One suggestion is that it is now a popular form of fiction – crime fiction – that is the “new” political fiction; because it must per se focus on social issues in a country where the divide between the rich and the poor is enormous, where corruption suffuses the public arena, and where joblessness is a fact of life for many.
However, there seems to me to be a fault line at the very heart of crime fiction in these terms. Generally speaking, as a genre it tends to require resolution of plot.
Such resolution sits ill with one of the possible functions of political literature: which is to cause sufficient unease in its readership that they take the injustices it unveils off the page into forms of social and political activism.
My feeling is that political fiction does have a future in South African literature.
In its classic and avant-garde forms it deals, more often than not, with individuals struggling to live in, and make sense of, their social milieux. This suggests that authors need to accomplish more than simply detail the political dysfunctions and social injustices of our contemporary lives.
What is needed, perhaps, is an art that scrutinises how and why the elation and promise of liberation has turned into its opposite so quickly.
What is needed is a fiction which, among its literary tasks, is prepared to venture into the thorny question of causality. There is no literary form better equipped for such an exploration than the novel. - published June 24, 2012.
Sole is a poet and critic who is a professor in the English department of the University of Cape Town. He recently won the Thomas Pringle Award for Poetry. His sixth collection of poetry, Absent Tongues, was recently published by Modaji Books