It was inevitable that the defiance, dissent, resistance and protest against Apartheid should be reflected in South Africa’s literary tradition. What is surprising is the extent to which the literature that dealt most urgently with South Africa’s unbearable political oppression was dismissed as ‘protest literature’. The suggestion was that this fiction did not deal sufficiently enough with the depth implicit in most things, but scratched only the surface of meaning. An entire cottage industry emerged that extolled the literary shortcomings of the literature that dared to explore in its fictional worlds both the political repression as well as the dissent.
The most troubling aspect of the school of thought that sought to belittle this literature they called ‘protest literature’ was that it seemed that the very act of questioning the political persecution of the day was a betrayal of some higher literary code. There was a suspicion of a commitment to the political as a kind of betrayal of the literary or even a lowering of literary standards. Poets like Mongane Wally Serote and Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali wrote poems that were at once deeply political even as they were allegorical. The meaning that their work yielded depended on the effort the reader was prepared to make to go beyond surface meanings.
The Poems in Sounds Of A Cowhide Drum by Mtshali offer a powerful reminder that the most political language is often deeply coded so that those unaware of the code may read it at the surface level. But when picked up by those familiar with the code, the same line, passage, or poem yields an entirely different meaning. One of the things that I always found troubling about the dismissal of ‘protest literature’ was the uniformity of the reading of the texts.
Poet Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali
Now one of the things that is well known is that the same text yields different meanings to different readers because they bring both themselves and their expectations to the text. So the idea of the text as a uniform narrative is not plausible. It suggested to me the emergence of a popular response that may have amounted to a cultural sleight of hand because it relied for its uniformity on referencing the responses of persuasive reviewers and critics.
The alumni of this loose network of critics of this literature were not always openly hostile to these writings. At times the criticism reacted using the well-known rituals of literary criticism before delivering that telling blow that typically faulted these writers for serving political rather than literary gods. But the agony, the anguish and on occasion, even the ecstasy of small triumphs within the milieu of Apartheid were said to strangle the literary imagination of the writers of what was styled ‘protest literature’.
In its introduction to the course on American Literature of Dissent, the University of Pennsylvania says ‘The United States is a nation founded on dissent and some of the most enduring works of American literature deal with topics that were politically controversial at the time’
The great critic and novelist Lewis Nkosi
The Urdu writer, Dr Gopichand Narang says of literature “Basically it is a social act, sa-hitya, that which is with the people. Like all arts, it provides a space for dissent, raises voice for the oppressed and against social injustice” He adds “Literature reflects the dreams, desires and aspirations of the people. It is inspired by ideology but it goes beyond the narrow confines of ideologies”
Within South Africa there was relief amongst some that the end of Apartheid signaled the death of politics as the primary source for the country’s literature. For many a burden had been yanked off their backs and they could rush to write novels and poems about flowers, birds, and even love. It was truly fascinating to hear at literary gatherings so many writers express the view that the end of Apartheid signaled the moment of their literary freedom.
But things did not work out so neatly. As the post Apartheid novels of writers like Mandla Langa and Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee and Njabulo Ndebele have shown, the everyday can be deeply political. In the works of Gordimer, Langa and Coetzee, it is clear that there are always sides to be taken in any conflict, no matter how large or small.
As soon as the political dust had settled and even former combatants found themselves locked in the tentative embrace of reconciliation, they were surprised to find that the old suspicions persisted.
The Novelist Mandla Langa
It is worth revisiting this important period in South Africa’s literary history. It is true that some South Africans find it unsettling when the dark periods in our history are revisited for fear that this may open old wounds. The trouble with this kind of nation building that favors amnesia is that it leaves too many questions. In any case peace founded on ignorance is not worthy of our aspirations.
In fairness to the school that curated this ‘protest literature’, South Africa has an enduring fondness for catch-all labels as could be seen soon after 1994. The label ‘the new South Africa’, suggested a neat break with our past that was politically and emotionally desirable to many but was sadly implausible. What was fascinating was to see how so many in the literary establishment prayed that this new South Africa might bring what they called ‘one dimensional’ protest literature to a quick death.
Incredible as it may seem now, the common prayer was that the new writers would spurn the exterior for the interior, and the gun for the flower.
It is worth noting that one of the strongest critics of ‘protest literature’ was Lewis Nkosi. Nkosi brushed aside much of the literary response to Apartheid as formulaic and devoid of the imagination. Nkosi’s main charge was that writings by Black South Africans had not responded with the imaginative force that matched the scale of the oppression. His assertion was that the literary works were minor in the face of a major political crime. Njabulo Ndebele refined Nkosi’s position, saying that a lot of the writing favored spectacle at the expense of the ordinary and the nuanced.
It was thus not surprising that at the crossroads between the repression of Apartheid and the freedom of democracy, there was this hope, perhaps even plea that writers should abandon the political in favor of the personal. The spoken word artists were the first to seize on this release and their mostly spoken word performances were littered with references to desire, sex and broken hearts. But as they were to quickly discover, even the seemingly personal can become deeply political. The disease AIDS brought to the intimacy of the bedroom the political squabbles of the day.
Beyond that, while the term ‘protest literature’ may have provided the critic with a reliable literary pillar, it was always likely to include works that differed considerably, and paradoxically, leave out works that had a lot in common. With the passage of time, it is clear that what was then seen as a lost literary opportunity reflected the expectations of the interpreters, fed as they had been on a literary canon that favored introspection over action and the inner life over the outer life. But more importantly, it was inevitable that South Africa’s literary output would reflect the struggles and the war for control that raged on the political front. The ‘literary canon’ of the day reflected the contradictions of the colonial experience. Most of the novels and poetry and even fashionable theory were imported from abroad. The ‘classics’ as they were known, were supposed to contain ‘Universal truths’ and young students had to ignore any doubts about the appropriateness of these foreign books.
Of course on closer reading it became abundantly clear that many of these classics that were supposed to be above temporal political concerns were deeply political. I often wondered if they had they been written in SA, would they have been considered protest literature. Novelists like John Steinbeck were in the canon, but their writings were deeply subversive.
Perhaps the writer Zakes Mda’s words provide a useful post Apartheid perspective on how the political situation may have created narratives with clearly delineated parameters. “It was easier to write about the past… because the past created ready-made stories. There was a very clear line of demarcation between good and evil, you see? Black was good; white was bad. Your conflict was there”
Mda suggests that this polarization in real life translated to a literature that sacrificed nuance for clarity. He adds. “There were no gray areas…. We no longer have that. In this new situation, black is not necessarily good. There are many black culprits; there are many good white people. We have become normal. It’s very painful to become normal”
It is fascinating to see how there is now a new movement towards literary exile, fuelled in some cases by writers with a strong desire to avoid any mention of Apartheid, even two decades after its official dismantling. What this shows is that there will always be many responses to writing the politics of the day in literature. But the past offers no clean break either, and writers and critics have to accept that meaning and significance in literature is always negotiable and never fixed.