Monday, 16 July 2012
"Apartheid era literature has been oversimplified"
By Kelwyn Sole
The period since liberation has allowed a number of new perspectives, themes and possibilities for expression to emerge in South African literature. In the immediate political sphere, many noteworthy literary figures have, since liberation, suggested that the days of the “bring-on-the-poet-to-lick-the-stage-clean-for-the-politicians” phenomenon (to use Lesego Rampolokeng’s phrase) are over; while others, such as cultural activist Vonani Bila, have lamented the “clowns” who are still prepared to perform work of uncritical flattery for politicians. In addition, there has been an explosion of genres more concerned with entertainment, such as crime, teen and fantasy – one of which, crime fiction, has instigated fascinating discussions about its potential for highlighting socio-political problems.
From the perspective of literary studies, though, we appear now to be in the process of entering a new, post-transitional phase in our history, marked by a renewed interest in so-called “protest” literature and discussions about the viability (or not) of certain genres as bearers of the “political”. This renewal of debate has, of necessity, highlighted misconceptions and omissions in our understanding of our critical priorities to date. One of these is the relative lack of interest in an important period in our literary history: the two decades preceding liberation.
To a majority of literary commentators, the cultural and literary concerns of these two decades were made redundant by the demise of apartheid. This has resulted in a tendency to present this period in a remarkably uniform way, both in the media and in universities which teach South African literature. The general impression given is that these years were unspeakably arid; chiefly because most writers were engaged in various kinds of “support” activity to anti-apartheid organisations, and had little interest in questions of craft, skill or style beyond these dictates. Any suggestions that there were socially conscious writers and performers who were not so circumscribed, have tended to be ignored.
This impression of homogeneity is not only mistaken, but has become a remarkably unproductive response itself. One gets a sense of a pre-structured and predictable discourse about the literature of this period being spoken through its critics. It is significant that the critical interventions still used to affirm such a stereotype are, by now, also more than two decades old. Yet, time and again, the words of Albie Sachs, Njabulo Ndebele and a handful of others are served up as sufficient truisms to describe this period.
According to Sachs, by the 1980s South African art was plagued by a “solidarity literature” which was met by a fawning “solidarity criticism”. In turn, Ndebele suggested that South African writers had become so engrossed by the “spectacle” of apartheid that they paid insufficient attention to the ordinary, culturally-rich aspects of people’s daily lives, and that this led to a literature content with reader recognition of the dire circumstances it revealed, rather than more fruitful engagement with social processes or causality.
Despite this, I would suggest that a more complexly layered and shifting cultural terrain operated in the 1970s and 1980s. These years were not uniform; neither in politics nor in the literary responses occasioned. For instance – partly as a result of the global ferment taking place in the arts – in the early 1970s there was innovation in the air, even in South Africa. New theatre spaces opened and a new generation of directors experimented with performance forms; little literary magazines abounded; and exceptional jazz musicians, both black and white, could be seen. Young intellectuals sought out banned books and other materials.
However, the most significant upsurge of this period was the appearance of the Black Consciousness movement. While its political and philosophical weaknesses and strengths are not my subject here, this surge had important implications for how South African culture could be conceptualised and understood, as it searched for fresh perceptions and appropriate artistic forms. More than any other phenomenon, it allowed South African artists and activists to scrutinise structures of general and cultural engagement. It demonstrated that the traditionally powerful institutions of culture could be challenged; signalled the importance of literary performance; turned the spotlight on African history; stressed the need to confront dominant white notions of aesthetic values; put forward novel ways through which artists could relate to their audience and community; and – albeit in a somewhat contradictory fashion – began to grapple with questions of language use.
The 1980s, with its sharpening political crises and bloody struggles between anti-apartheid groups and the State and each other, did – to some extent – give rise to an art and literature that bear out some of Sachs’s and Ndebele’s criticisms. However, this was not uniform, and was itself subject to criticism.
The dismissal of these years can be seen, in hindsight, to be also based on a misconception of the post-apartheid political reality of South Africa. Many of the problems assailing South African literary studies did not vanish after liberation, while the spaces allowed for “normal” art are perhaps less unconditional than they were then understood. In the light of recent discussions about the need for a “second transition” within the ruling party, Eve Bertelsen’s 1990 observation in Pretexts that Sachs was advocating a “normalising” of art and literature due to an ANC belief that “different attitudes (were) clearly needed for the current phase” may no longer seem carping. It would explain why literary spokespeople of the government joined more conservative white critics in levelling broadsides at “political art” more or less simultaneously in the early 1990s.
It is perhaps time to re-examine these pre-liberation debates with a fresh eye, re-examining their strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the recent Social Cohesion Summit suggests that there is a necessity to revisit the “national culture” debate of the 1980s – but in a less doctrinaire manner than the terms in which it was then cast – as the hope expressed by Mazisi Kunene in a 1993 South African Review of Books that literature could help establish “how to build a society; how to build a different ethical order”, has clearly not been met.
Furthermore, in the light of the Brett Murray incident, the question of the “independence” of the artist has again come into focus; and it might be surprising to know that artist independence from government interference, before and after liberation, was a demand first made by members of the Black Consciousness movement in the 1970s, those such as Mothobi Mutloatse and Mafika Gwala.
Whatever his intention, Mutloatse’s suggestion in 1980 that black writers should “donder conventional literature, old-fashioned critic and reader alike” still resounds as a call to experiment and play with form. Currently there is a tendency bordering on disrespect among too many critics, especially white critics, to underplay the amount of work that goes into black literary expression; typecasting it as somehow spontaneous, and thus dismissing the levels of intellectual activity and conscious experimentation that have gone into it. This is especially true of writers who experiment with form, such as Seitlhamo Motsapi and Rampolokeng.
We, of course, live in a world where global market forces have penetrated every corner of our lives, and the subsidisation of literature by anti-apartheid organisations overseas is now just a fading dream. Nevertheless, those who suggest that writers and publishers should simply go about their business in compliance with the imperative of markets and treat their clientele as consumers requiring mere entertainment, or who on the other hand believe that commercial or institutionalised notions of literary value should merely be accepted, can still be resisted.
There has been a narrowing of the places where cultural and literary debates are given recognisance. As our literary departments snooze away, bound to an insistence that South African literary study should concern itself mainly with the constant reiteration of canonical texts and a focus on the “literary” rather than “history” ( as if the two were not insistently braiding), it can be suggested that there is a need for a wider, more inclusive debate than they, and book fairs, are at present providing. There is, in addition, a need for a research of previous eras that goes beyond the text or the library archive.
A lot of literary activity in the period I have discussed, for example, took place in the public sphere, and ephemeral sources such as newspapers and pamphlets are still instructive, as would be more extensive interviewing of the people involved. We need to widen our perspectives as to what is entailed in studying the sprawling, ungainly but compelling world of South African literature.- published July 15, 2012