Whose literature is it anyway?

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

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.