October 24, 2010

Slave, Worker, Nationalist

Filed under: johan van wyk,literature,politics — ABRAXAS @ 5:09 am


In this essay the worker in Afrikaans poetry is explored in contrast to his predecessor, the slave, and then as object of the aesthetically distanced focalisation of the nationalist.

Slave and Worker

Work defines both the slave and the worker. Work is the process through which use value and exchange value in the form of commodities are produced. The slave differs from the worker in that he/she is owned completely by the owner.

In contrast to the slave the worker’s labour power is a commodity, determined by demand and supply, which is freely exchanged on the labour market. Its exchange value is of central importance.

Like the linguistic sign in Saussure’s language system the value of the worker’s labour power is relative to the rest of the social and economic system. This means that the relation between labour power and its value is arbitrary and changeable.

Like the signified aspect of the sign the use value presupposes the content of the labour power; the exchange value correlates with the signifier aspect in so far as it points to the arbitrary, but socially determined, equation of labour power with value.

The fact that labour power has exchange value defines the freedom of the worker in contrast to the bondage of the slave. This freedom is largely imaginary. The fact that the worker is determined by the market forces of supply and demand, and is responsible for his/her own survival makes him/her more vulnerable than the slave whose sustenance is supplied by the slave owner.

The worker continuously has to compete with other workers on the labour market. From this competition and struggle the worker develops a notion of his/her own value, as wel1 as a personal and class consciousness: an inner life based on social value.

The inner life of the unemployed worker, who cannot earn enough for his/her own and the family’s survival, is marked conflict, despair and guilt feelings.

Linked to Descartes’ formula “I think therefore I am”, the centre of the worker’s existence is the inner and thinking self. The slave’s existence on the other hand is regulated by the owner’s thoughts. The centre of the slave’s existence lies outside self and the own mental life.

The internal and external centres of existence point to an important difference between the slave and worker. Marx defined this as follows:

… the slave works only under the spur of external fear but not for his existence which is guaranteed even though it does not belong to him. The free worker, however, is impelled by his wants. The consciousness (or better: the idea) of free self-determination, of liberty, makes a much better worker of the one than of the other, as does the related feeling (sense) of responsibility; since he, like any seller of wares, is responsible for the goods he delivers and for the quality which he must provide, he must strive to ensure that he is not driven from the field by other sellers of the same type as himself. The continuity in the relation of the slave and slave-owner is based on the fact that the slave is kept in his situation by direct compulsion. The free worker, however, must maintain his own position, since his existence and that of his family depends on his ability continuously to renew the sale of his labour-power to the capitalist (1982:103 1).

The interiorised being of the worker situates him/her within the context of logocentrism. The inner word of workers consciousness betrays a belief in the presence of the self. The slave, on the other hand, is positioned outside of a logocentric worldview. This is illustrated by an example from AJ Kannemeyer’s Hugenote-Familieboek (1940). A slave, captured in 1821 after an uprising, describes the sources of his wounds to a doctor:

Through flogging with a cane in the Worcester prison.

Through a flogging with a strap in the Tulbach gaol.

Through a flogging by my baas with a sjambok.

Through being tied up with ropes in prison.

Chafed by handcuffs on the way to Cape Town.

Through a blow with a stick when I was arrested.

Through the kick of an ox.

Through a gunshot fired on me when I was caught.

Through a blow with a stick of the field-cornet.

Through the horn of an ox.

Through blows with sticks at different times.

Through a sore that came by itself (1940:84).

Kannemeyer gives this report in modem Afrikaans. Although the original could not be find, one assumes that it would have been in a broken form of Dutch, close to Afrikaans. Kannemeyer quotes the white speakers in the same context in Dutch. In 1821 Afrikaans was still not considered a language; it was spoken, but was not founded on the logocentric metaphysics of God, the self and a fixed grammar; it was still not in the words of Gustav Preller “an ever changing diorama of the inner being of man” 1920:18). It also did not exist in written form except where the speech of slaves was recorded. Without a grammar it was not a language in the Saussurean sense of a language as a system with fixed synchronic rules. Every utterance in Afrikaans therefore a form of ostranenie. It is therefore apt that the transcription is given in verse form.

Further, despite the oral nature of the transcription, it also not be considered as speech. According to Derrida speech implies a “self” as origin. The absence of the self is ironically indicated by the word “vanself” (“by itself”) in the last line. The “sore that came by itself” has an origin, just like all the other wounds, not in the self, but in something inexplicable.

In so far as the transcription is an utterance of which the cannot be situated in the self, it becomes writing. The body of the slave described here itself evokes an image of writing; a body written with wounds, a body as sign within a particular social system and which indirectly narrates the story of that system: The body as narrative, written by the baas, law and nature.

The worker, unlike the slave, exists within a logocentric tradition. The emergence of a working class consciousness, of an inner life, as well as a working class literature, depends on the transformation of the worker from a slave existence. The worker has a consciousness because his/her labour power exists in commodity relation to the rest of his/her existence and is relative to the impersonal and indifferent economic forces.

The Worker

The first extensive capitalist activity in South Africa went hand in hand with the discovery of diamonds in the late 1860s, or more specifically with the transformation of the diamond industry from individual diggers to an industry where the means, instruments and rights were increasingly monopolised by a small group of owners and companies. In the process the individual digger was transformed or displaced by wage earners in the service of big companies.

With the emergence of capitalism came the first influx of politicised workers from the industrial areas of the European mainland and Britain. Kimberley, the diamond capital of South Africa, became the first modern town with electrical street lights. The first worker uprising inspired by the ideas of Marx occurred here in 1884. The discovery of diamonds also initiated a conflict between Free State farmers and Britain. The emerging capitalism received a further impetus with the discovery of gold in 1886 on the Witwatersrand.

Burton Tubb praises the discovery of minerals and the industrial possibilities of South Africa in the song “On Colonial Industries” from the year 1890:

We have our coal, we have our gold.

And Diamonds in wealth untold;

What need we more, but go ahead,

And plod along with stubborn tread.

With stubborn tread, unbending will,

Engendering all our local skill,

Which education, now-a-days,

Is drawing out in various ways.

Hail, gladd’ning star, arising now

O’er Southern Afric’s rugged brow,

Awa’ning us to energy,

And all the arts of industry (Van Wyk et al 1988:98).

He predicts that the wealth of resources and the availability of labour “will attract, in course of years,/ The capital of millionaires” (Van Wyk et al 1988:99).

`The establishment of capitalism in South Africa was accompanied and facilitated by an endless number of wars in the nineteenth century between colonists and the various black kingdoms, as well as between different groups of colonists and black followers of different chiefs themselves (Anglo-Boer War and the Difaqane are examples.) The contribution of the Difaqane to the establishment of modern employment practices Natal is well-documented in Keletso E. Atkins’ book The Moon is Dead! Give Us Our Money! (1993). The scorched-earth policy, whereby farms were burnt down and livestock destroyed during the Anglo-Boer War, similarly forced thousands after the war to become urban workers.

The Anglo-Boer War was explicitly seen as a war against capitalism. F.W. Reitz describes the Boer hero “Commandant Danie Theron” as a “determined and sworn enemy … of Capitalist bondage” (Van Wyk et al 1988:180).

The violent intervention of the new economic system in people’s lives also manifested itself in other ways such as alcohol abuse. The introduction, taken from a newspaper, to the poem “The curse of ‘Cape Smoke'” by Burtron Tubb stated:

Usually between thirty and forty natives, often-times more, lose their lives every month through drink and exposure, and their bodies are removed from the streets and by-ways by the police authorities to the mortuary at Du Toit’s pan (Van Wyk et al 1988:100).

Interestingly this behaviour is linked to the emancipation of the slaves (“Afric’s swarthy sons”) and their introduction to capitalist system as free workers.

In the early 1890s many poems appear about the small or individual mining of diamonds and gold. The digger is of the recurrent figures in the poetry and popular songs (see “Di Digger” in Van Wyk et al 1988:97, or C. and A.P. Wilson-Moore’s Digger’s Doggerel 1890). An anonymous poem “The Labourer” (Van Wyk et al 1988:166) from The Legend of Dilsberg Castle explores in a rhetorical and philosophical way the fate of the worker in the late nineteenth century.

It is in the period 1913 to 1922 when large scale mining was already established that poetry and songs written by workers on strikes and other contemporary issues, such as whether to participate in the First World War, appeared in pamphlets, newspapers and slim volumes of poetry.

Although Afrikaans was the language of a large section of the proletariat very little workers’ poetry in that period was written in Afrikaans. This could be attributed to the absence of Afrikaners in the leading positions of the labour unions, and to the fact that Afrikaans was not considered to be a language. It had no recognition as official, school or church language. A large part of the Afrikaans labour force must have been illiterate. It is of interest that the nationalist Second Language Movement directed its activities partly to the “ignorant proletariat” (Pienaar 1920:33).

At this period of workers’ unrest a strong nationalist Afrikaans literary tradition already existed. It was marked by a hearkening back to the past and meditations on Afrikaner history, or otherwise by modernist aesthetic conventions and currents whose influence became manifest. This tradition, though, did not embody the problematic of the Afrikaner worker. The absence of poems on the 1922 mine strikes, for example, is very apparent.

In the 1930s, and especially the 1940s, there was suddenly a very strong focus on the Afrikaans worker within this nationalist literary tradition. The newly established Purified National Party (1933) had to compete with existing trade unions and the Communist Party for the support of the urban Afrikaans worker. The influx of rural Afrikaners to the cities increased greatly in the 1930s due to the depression. Radical nationalist organisations such as the FAK, the Blankewerkersbeskermingsbond and the Blanke-werkersfederasie were formed to save the Afrikaans worker from “corruption by Jews, Communists and Kaffirboeties” (Du Toit 1978:41).

For Bettie du Toit the class nature and interests of these workers’ organisations were clear:

The middle-class Afrikaners had always supported such organisations as the FAK, and they recognised the threat to their established way of living and political thought if the Afrikaner worker did not remain tied to the Nationalist Party and the Dutch Reformed Church (1978:41).

The worker and the division between worker and nationalist constitute two streams of the Afrikaans literature. On the one hand there are poems, songs, reports, drama and stories of the garment workers from their mouthpiece Klerewerker. The garment workers were in the front-line in the struggle against the Gray Shirts, the Black Shirts and other South African fascist organisations, and therefore irreconcilable with the nationalists. Anexample of a song directed against these organisations is Mrs. J. Clifford’s “It is May Day again” (“Dit is weer Mei-dag):

It is May Day again – the work is over;

See how jubilant are the workers, are they not happy?

Do you see Hitler’s clique? Do not get a fright,

Because our GM. Union Guard are ready to take aim (Van Wyk et al 1988:318).

the other side is the broad nationalist literary tradition which developed from the GRA (Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners or Association of Real Afrikaners) established in 1875 to promote the interest of Afrikaners and to develop Afrikaans into a written language. The activities of the GRA were continued after the Anglo-Boer War by the Second Language Movement under the leadership of prominent journalists, political and cultural leaders and authors. This nationalist tradition developed a modem aesthetics especially in the 1920s and 1930s. Aesthetics became an important mark of the modem Afrikaner nationalism. Philosophical essays on politics as art were written by Diederichs in the 30s, while N.P. van Wyk Louw headed the aesthetic movement in literature.

Within this tradition and in the period 1930-1950 many poems with the worker as theme appeared. Some of the best known ones are S.J. Pretorius’ “Sonnet – Uit Malvern”, Toon van den Heever’s “In die Hoëveld” (“On the Highveld”, an English translation by Guy Butler appears in Afrikaans Poems with English Translations, edited by A.P. Grove and C.J.D. Harvey 1965) and D.J. Opperman’s “Ballade van die Grysland” (“Slag-Heap Ballad”, English translation William and Jean Branford in A.P. Grove and C.J.D. Harvey 1965). These poems have all been canonised in D.J. Opperman’s Groot Verseboek.

Although these poets were not workers themselves they could observe the worker problematic from close by through their working class family background or as teachers and lawyers working with people from this section of the population. The working class problematic is always subservient to the aesthetic, and formal aspects, in these poems. The title of Pretorius’ poem “Sonnet – Uit Malvern” indicates that it is primarily intended to be read as sonnet. The form is foregrounded, the social problematic is secondary. The same is true of D.J. Opperman’s “Ballade van die Grysland”.

The aesthetic distancing also underlies the apparently objective surface description of workers in the poems: it betrays on the level of form an essential alienation between the Afrikaans poets and workers in this period.

The mythological idyll of the period before the Anglo-Boer war figures strongly in these poems. In S.J. Pretorius and Toon van den Heever’s poems the rural idyll of the past contrasts with the contemporary proletarian existence:

On the Highveld where it’s spacious, where a chap can see so far

(The pale blue brings a lump into your throat)

Stands my cottage still and waits for me, waits ten years and more

Where the kid-goats play upon the graves of slate.

But when my phthisis rages, and I hear the siren blow,

To the Highveld on the wind I drift away

And in the moonlight search for each delightful place

Where a lad made little oxen out of clay (Grove and Harvey 1965:79).

The urban and rural contrast was also depicted by the Zulu poet Benedict Wallet Vilakazi in the poem “Ezinkomponi” about the black mine worker returning to a rural area in decline:

Where I have come from, far away,

The lands are free of towering buildings

Whose tops I stretch my neck to see;

But when I return there, clutching my bundle,

All I can find are shrivelled stalks

And empty huts: I scratch my head

And ask about my family.

They answer: “Ask your white employer!”

I close my mouth in weary silence (Van Wyk et al 1988:350).

The nostalgia for the rural past presupposes a conservative attempt to wish proletarianisation away. In policy this was translated by state programmes to prevent the decline of the rural. It indicated artificial attempts to perpetuate the past and traditional forms of existence. Marx, who described “The exprropriation of the agricultural population from the land” extensively in Capital vol. 1 (1982), remarks on this conservatism:

we suffer not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from the incompleteness of that development. Alongside the modern evils, we are oppressed by a whole series of, inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded modes of production, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations. We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead (1982:91).

The working class also wrote about the rural past in relation to their proletarianised urban existence. An example is Johanna Comelius’ song “The struggle in the city” (“Die stryd in die stad”):

I come from the farm, from the country side;

Too oppressed to live there any, longer,

I am broken, driven from my land,

Heritage of my forefathers, that is my reward (Van Wyk et al 1988:319),

What is different in this poem, however, is the optimistic reaching out to a better future and a new society. The worker has assumed a new sense of community in the trade union that is directed towards a future and is inclusive of everybody:

Here is a way out -join a Union,

Where people striving for a better day

Unite, stand together and fight in one line,

The motto of our people – “Unity makes might!’

Now I am with the working class

We work and suffer, There is a struggle that we fight.

We pursue and build, to the highest mast,

A better life for everybody, for you and me! (Van Wyk et al 1988:319)

How different is the tone here when compared to the faceless ing away of the workers in the smog of the night in S.J. “Sonnet – Uit Malvern”:

The mpoulas dance and make the shadows haunt –

They are lost between houses and smog … (Opperman 1983:344).

In 1948 the (reconstituted) National Party came to power. This coincides with the gradual disappearance of the Afrikaans worker as topic of Afrikaans poetry. The political victory was for the Afrikaner intellectuals also a victory for the Afrikaner worker. It was therefore unnecessary to continue the theme, especially after South Africa became a republic in 1961.

In the period after 1948 the radical worker’s voice, typified by their mouthpiece Klerewerker, also disappeared. This be attributed to the intensified repression of communist and socialist worker leaders by the State (see the Repression of Communism Act of 1950) and the banning in 1952 of Solly Sachs, leader of the Garment Workers Union. White workers were further increasingly displaced by black workers.

a kind of language

Filed under: literature,shaun de waal,south african cinema — ABRAXAS @ 4:58 am

October 22, 2010

anton krueger – sunnyside sal

Filed under: anton krueger,literature — ABRAXAS @ 8:31 pm

The Father in Two Afrikaner Nationalist Plays by J.F.W. Grosskopf

Filed under: johan van wyk,literature,south african theatre — ABRAXAS @ 8:24 pm


The following essay explores the construct of the father from a psychoanalytic point of view in two plays by J.F.W. Grosskopf. Legende (1942) and Padbrekers (1947).

The Biographical, Political and Literary Context of Grosskopf

J.F.W. Grosskopf was born in 1885 to a German missionary family in Bloemfontein. Throughout his life he was involved with the Afrikaner struggle in a variety of ways: returning from his studies in Europe he took part in the 1914 rebellion of Boer generals against the government of General Botha. He writes:

When our own Free State hero, Christiaan de Wet, and the Transvaler, Christiaan Beyers, (both of whom I knew personally) came into conflict with government policies, I saw, although without great optimism, it as my duty to stand by them. In this way I also became a “rebel”, together with Jacques Pienaar and Jopie Fourie. After six adventurous weeks being chased and hunted in the bushveld I had nine months to come to my senses in the Pretoria prison (Nienaber 1947:147).

In the 1920s he was on the editorial board of the newspapers Ons Vaderland, and Die Volksblad. In 1932 his report, as member of the Carnegie Commission investigating the “Poor White” problem Plattelandsverarming en Plaasverlating (in English Rural Impoverishment and Rural Exodus), was published. He was professor of Political Science at University of Stellenbosch and the deputy chairman of the National Marketing Board in 1945. He died in 1948.

He saw his writing as part of the nationalist struggle. The very fact that he used Afrikaans as medium brought an element activism to the writing:

Some of the brash (and therefore amusing) younger generation reproach the older Afrikaans authors because of that sermonising tendency. They are right. A touch of pedantry – or to state it more elegantly: didactic aims – accompanied the writing, of its own accord. If you were an advocate of the Afrikaans language, you felt the call to write in it, even if its not because of a creative urge.

Use of Afrikaans itself already amounted to sermonising (Nienaber 1947:147).

The two plays, Legende (1942) and Padbrekers (1947), were published towards the end of Grosskopf’s life and are not as highly regarded as the earlier innovative play As die Tuig Skawe

(1926), considered to be the first successful modern tragedy in Afrikaans focusing on the growing rural poverty.

By the 1940s when Legende (1942) and Padbrekers (1947) first appeared, new authors and a new literary value system had already eclipsed Grosskopf, the emphasis had shifted from texts blatantly propagating nationalist values (especially through historical themes and those promoting the virtues of rural life and the unity of the family) to the more subtle use made of the aesthetics of the individual as an autonomous entity within the nationalist programme. In Afrikaans drama Jan F. E. Celliers initiated this shift with the introduction to his play Reg bo Reg:

Though to achieve what art should achieve, and has achieved elsewhere, we must have a broader outlook, and take man himself more as a subject – man, his character, passions, feelings; and the complications, conflict, and the amusing and sad relations that come to the fore because of this – because man differs so much from man (1922: introductory page).

Grosskopf’ s play As die Tuig Skawe (1926) was one of the first and most successful plays to embody this broader concept of humanity expressed in the social realist style. However the allegorical and historical drama never disappeared, and during the 1938 Voortrekker Centenary a spate of allegorical interpretations of the Voortrekker history appeared for the stage, among them N.P. van Wyk Louw’s Die Dieper Reg of 1938.

Legende (1942) and Padbrekers (1947) moved away from the social realist tradition and were part of the allegorical interpretations of history. These belonged to the Volk or People’s Theatre. In the foreword to Legende (1942) Grosskopf announces:

This is a play for ordinary people; not for literary connoisseurs (5).

Whereas As die Tuig Skawe (1926) was canonised, these two disappeared into relative obscurity. According to the historian J.C. Kannemeyer, Grosskopf did not maintain the standard he set with As die Tuig Skawe (1926) in the later plays of the 1940s. These plays are interesting to explore as manifestations of nationalist ideology, or even as nationalist “psychology” in so far as “psychology” refers to a discourse motivated by drives rooted in infantile imagery.

Legende and Padbrekers: Points of Intersection

The two plays differ in many ways: Legende (1942) is the idyllic portrayal of pioneering life on the frontiers of nineteenth-century South Africa. The main character, Karel Veldcamp, was, according to the foreword, inspired by the former president of Transvaal, Paul Kruger. Although Veldcamp eventually becomes the leader of the frontier community, he should not be seen as an exact replica (“portretgelykenis”) of the president. Padbrekers (1947), on the other hand, is situated in a non-temporal and non-specific space and is

a partly allegorical story of a people, who under the influence of an idealistic leader, rise up against a superior power and choose in this moment of crisis an honourable death above unconditional surrender (Kannemeyer 1978:203).

It is not difficult to recognise in the “idealistic leader” who chooses death, Hitler and the second world war, despite Grosskopf s assertion in the introduction that “The characters and the background of this play are completely fictitious – actually allegorical” (1947:5). The allegorical form itself is typical of late Nazi art. According to Berthold Hinz in his study, Art in the Third Reich (1980), the unreal and non-temporal realm in which much of Nazi art is situated has the purpose of eliminating all “human consciousness about reality” (1980:163).

The cover of Padbrekers (1947) is strongly reminiscent of Nazi art. It depicts a row of identical, stylised figures standing in the same military pose, holding alternately a sword and a spade. In the centre is a figure holding a shield with a dripping heart as emblem. These figures symbolise the worker, farmer and soldier trilogy of Nazi art. The spade evokes the farmer and worker, and the sword the soldier. The worker in the military pose shows the worker-become-soldier. Hinz writes:

As a “soldier”, he has to “serve” without any claim to wages proportional to his contribution. He has lost the freedom to move about at will and to enter into contracts (1980:116).

The same motif appears in Padbrekers (1947). The character Ebba emphasises “Nobody works here for remuneration” (70).

Apart from the Nazi parallels, one also recognises in the “people” rising up against a “superior power”, the Afrikaner people in their struggle against British Imperialism. In Padbrekers (1947), therefore, aspects of the second world war, details from South African life, and different historical periods have been displaced onto the “non-temporal and non-spatial” structure of the play.

In spite of the differences between the two plays they do seem to be continuous at certain points (pointing to a continuous psychology). This intersection, point of continuity, occurs in Padbrekers (1947) where Oom Frederik reminisces about his father’s pioneering activities on the eastern frontier of the country (clearly an allusion to the South African frontier wars of the nineteenth century):

My own father has given his life to break open a road for others. That was when our fathers made the first march to occupy the eastern part of our country. You cannot believe how wild everything was then. Between the shrubby gorges and cliffs, there were wide grassland strips as tough as reedbush far above a man’s head. And the weed patches were-as impenetrable as scrub … you needed a strong fearless man to break open the road for the troop of land seekers. a man with a great heart (1947:18).

The eastern frontier, in South African history, could refer to the Eastern Cape, where colonists settled before they trekked into the interior, or to Natal, the destination of those Trekkers. It overlaps with the type of milieu in which Karel Veldcamp of Legende (1942) struggles against Xhosa thieves. The pioneering activities of Oom Frederik’s father correlate with the taming of wilderness by Karel Veldcamp. Karel Veldcamp, then, resembles the father type described by Oom Frederik. In terms of story time Legende (1942) represents a phase preceding that depicted in Padbrekers (1947): it shows the space and time of the primal father, while Voorganger (meaning “precursor”), the leader of the people in Padbrekers (1947), is the melancholic son who acts (and destroys) in the name of this primal father. Oom Frederik’s account of his father leads to the erection of a monument to honour his father: he becomes the symbolic father of the nation. But this father is also merged with the geographical area that the nation occupies: the fatherland. The infantile emotions towards the father are displaced onto the land, while the death of the primal father and the symbolic “dying” (1947:15) of the fatherland lead to the same “eroticisation” of the dead, the same melancholia in which death becomes the ideal. This book is dedicated to:

all the unnamed ones of history who died for a belief in great thoughts and deeds of sacrifice (1947:9).

The death drive is further elaborated in a passage which contrasts Voorganger’s idealism with the materialism of the capitalist, Simon. The aim is to illustrate that there is in death something more sublime than animal existence. Voorganger quotes the Roman moralist Cato:

“Sweet and honourable the dying for your fatherland!” (1947:41).

The Death of the Father

The following words from Padbrekers (1947) imply what Freud saw as the Original Sin: the killing of the primal father as well as the guilt feelings that accompany the act:

My own father has given his life to break open a road for others (18).


In that time when it first looked as if our fatherland was dying. Through its own inner dissension and decay (15).

In Padbrekers (1947), however, the idea of the contribution of the descendants to the death of the father is repressed and it is displaced onto a rhinoceros instead:

And suddenly a moody rhinoceros came storming from the front through the undergrowth, lightly, as if it was a mere oatfield. It impaled my father with its pointed horn., and, enraged, trampled father’s body. We crawled like mice into the undergrowth. With father’s hunting-spear, which I had to carry. I wanted to attack the rhinoceros but it escaped with ease on the road that my father had made’ (1947:19).

(This passage correlates with Legende (1942) where the father’s servant, Danster, is killed by a rhinoceros, during a hunting trip).

The contribution of the children to the father’s death is unconsciously recognised in that they perceive it not merely as a chance event, but as a sacrifice: he gave his life for “others”. In recognising themselves in these “others” they are obliged to feel guilty. They imagine that they owe their lives to his death and they must in turn be willing to die for the fatherland.

The reluctance to accept “objective” death is linked with the view that Freud took from anthropology concerning the people of earlier times who draw no distinction between murder and natural death: a man who has died a natural death is a man murdered by evil wishes. The father’s accidental death is sacrifice, suicide for their sake, it is murder by them.

Ritual develops around the death of the father: ritual with the purpose of invoking the power of the dead by projecting omnipotence onto the figure of the dead father. By erecting a stone monument they seek to gain the power of influencing the dead father according to their wishes. Therefore the monument has a double function: to protect them against their enemies in war and to evoke the superhuman power of the father.

The rhinoceros and the father become identical in the shape and form of the monument:

And on the grave we will erect a high, rough rock pillar, that will point upward like a stone thumb (1947:19).

In the “rough” surface of the rock and the protruding (phallic?) “thumb”, aspects of the rhinoceros and the father are combined. In this identification of the father with the animal that killed him, and in the implied “stone” quality associated with him, one senses a hostility felt towards the primal father. Because the death of the father demands further sacrifice, he is at the same time the one that kills. The road that the father made, the one on which the rhinoceros escapes, also leads to their destruction:

But the road broke us (1947:116).

Extravagant burial rituals – develop around the death of those who, like the father, gave their lives for the people’s cause. The first “martyr” buried in this way is the activist Rudolf who was killed by opposition groups. He is buried with great ceremony at the foot of a hillock which becomes the heroes’ acre. Thousands of people from the city, the neighbouring towns and farms, “Commando on commando” (1947:34), are organised to take part in the funeral procession, a procession in which the women are also granted the right to participate:

I felt that in this procession to Rudolf s grave the women and the daughters should not be absent. I have organised for a thousand to fifteen hundred of them to attend (1947:47).

A small group of young girls in white costumes are accompanied by “mothers clothed in dark colours” (1947:47) in long rows. The planning of the burial ceremony shows the origin of a typical obsessive action (which Freud described in connection with religious and neurotic people (1985a:31) on a mass scale. A similar phenomenon is the methodical arrangement and “the turning of what is apparently the most trivial matter into something of the utmost importance” (1985a:40). A further example of turning trivia into something important is the great interest Voorganger shows in the arrival of the one man whose horse fell while bringing the message of an election victory:

Bring that man, as soon as he arrives, to me – him alone. I want to shake his hand. His left hand (1947:68).

The image of the dead fathier introduces the important problem of the role of the father and masculinity in nationalist texts. The dead, and therefore transcendent, father is central in the strong patriarchal world portrayed in Padbrekers (1947). Masculinity in this world is all-important. Women play at most a supportive role.

We make warm jackets., knit socks, we fluff out the bandages. We work to free the men to concentrate on their commando duties. I bake ovens full of rusks and prepare the salted meat for our men. Some daughters nurse the wounded as well (1947:89).

They cannot participate in male conversation and are portrayed as intellectually inferior:

You talk… either too learnedly. or too much about the art of stock-farming. But my, life has been such that I am ignorant of both (1947:22).

And Sarie cannot help with the production of propaganda because she is too “ignorant” (1947:32).

The function of the women is to look after domestic affairs and to bring children into the world. As Karel Veldcamp’s son, Koenraad, says to his future wife in Legende:

In this house, in domestic affairs, my mother was always in control. In our house you will be the same. But in matters of state, on the farm, on the yard, my word comes first(1942:64).

When Karel Veldcamp’s wife, Eva, complains:

As your wife I have sometimes been sad because it seemed as if you actually appreciated in me only the mother of your children (1942:39).

he replies:

An exemplary mother and housewife., – Eva, is there anything better for a man to honour? (1942:39).

It is around the idea of the omnipotent, transcendent father that taboos are to be maintained. The new and alien capitalist social order with the accompanying perception of the world as object – devoid of the all-pervading supernatural presences that the reactionary character perceives in everything – produces helplessness, “a fearful sense of guilt” (Freud 1985a:125) as if the fatherland, their omnipotent, transcendent support is dying. They react through organisation:

Everywhere in the country small groups that wanted to make an end to the disgrace found one another (1947:15).

This helplessness is experienced, not because of economic deprivation, but because of the disintegration of the ideology, the world view. The economic deprivation is interpreted as the consequence of the death of the father, of cultural degeneration, of ideological impoverishment rather than exploitation. The aim then is to heal – not economically by destroying exploitation in the marxist sense, but to heal the people through an anti-materialist programme: they want to deprive the people of pleasure – the “sweets” of capitalism. When the capitalist, Simon, offers his co-operation in the war, Voorganger rejects it by saying:

It is precisely these alms to our people – sweets now and then to keep the children well-behaved – to which we want to make an end. we want to heal the foundation of the people’s life itself, make it possible for our people to be brave, of one mind, and industrious… The joy of mutual dependence (1947:40).

The image in the text of the dying “father”-land – the helplessness experienced in the face of this – and the perception that it will lead to fateful punishment – put a question mark behind Chasseguet-Smirgel’s assumption that Nazism (and by implication other forms of obsessive nationalism) is a consequence of the abandonment of the super-ego and the complete “erasure of the father and the parental universe” (1976:362). The dead father seems to control fate absolutely.

The internalised father which dominates the ego as critical agency forces the subject to renunciation. Voorganger and Ebba, sacrificing their sexuality for the struggle, are prime examples of renunciation in Padbrekers (1947). This renunciation is accompanied by a strong emphasis on honour – honour that becomes more important than life itself. On different occasions Voorganger resists the temptation to capture Leo, the visiting leader of the “Holy League”, the enemy nations, because it does not comply with his concept of ethical behaviour. Voorganger himself later prefers dying in battle to being captured and exhibited:

in a cage, behind bars, everywhere in their countries like a carnival lion to the rabble (1947:113).

and he saves Ebba from being disgraced by “wagon drivers and cooks” (1947: 112) by thrusting a dagger into her heart.

Identification with the Father as Foundation of the Nationalist Conscience

In Padrekers (1947), as a nationalist text, identification with the father (a symbol encompassing the shared language, history, tradition, geography, and fauna and flora) is all-consuming: it denies to all these things autonomy or objective existence. A relationship with the world as object (separate from the self), i.e. as reality is impossible: such a relationship with the world fills the nationalist with aversion: it is the animal relation, the relation of women, capitalists and the masses to the world

The fatherland is perceived as a unity, and the volk, constituting the fatherland, as “one”:

One volk! One! One! One!(1947:25),

Everything different and indifferent to this incestuous “One” is perceived with distrust, fear and hatred, while everything that is considered part of it is overvalued. Even the melodies of the indigenous birds are seen as having national significance and as part of the people’s narcissism (1947:6).

Within this unity nothing is coincidental, everything is interrelated and determined by the dead father’s omnipresence. No object-relationship with the world – relationship which perceives things as existing independently of the father’s will – is tolerated. Everything becomes subject. The attachment of the ego to the collective narcissism is absolute, while the individual libidinal relationship with the world (as object) becomes possible. Through this inability to accept the objective essence of the world (determined by physical laws and not the transcendent father’s will) the drive to incest is manifested: the world is only known as the same and not as difference.

In the discourse of psychoanalysis, incest and sexuality are often confused, as if the repression of incest is identical to the repression of sexuality.

For the nationalist characters incest and sexuality are clearly opposites. Nationalism represses sexuality and encourages incest in its less extreme forms: it promotes marriages between people from the same geographical area, speaking the same language, of the same nationality, and sharing the same values. The discourse is constructed around the incestuous image of the people as one family

The incest motif is manifested in scenes between Willem and Ebba. Ebba, whose main desire is to have a son by Voorganger, says to Willem (who she adopts at the end as spiritual son):

… for me, Willem, it feels as if you are my- big son. (Quickly): Iwill thank God one day if I could raise a son like you (1947:86-87).

Willem prefers to see her as his equal, as a lover. The elision in the following dialogue represents the repressed wish to marry her:

If I was a few years older – and the Voorganger remained so slow I would really like myself to … (1947:87).

Within the incestuous family of the people there is no room for an individual conscience challenging the countless obsessive rituals, ceremonies and customs which are instituted around the image of the transcendent father and which have to be maintained.

The conscience in this context is the product of superstition. This is in conflict with the development of the individual conscience which develops independently and in conflict with the father-determined value system. The individual conscience is based on the experience of the world as an object that is separate from the self.

The individual conscience, historically the product of the enlightenment, is an expression of the civilising activities of Eros:

Civilization is a process in the service of Eros. whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples, and nations, into one great unity, the unity, of mankind (Freud 1985b:313).

In contrast, nationalism absolutises the interest of a specific group of people at the expense of others. It represents the lawlessness of a small segment of a population

which behaves like a violent individual towards others, and perhaps more numerous, collections of people (Freud 1985b:284).

The war by Voorganger’s people’s movement against the “Holy League”, the combined countries with their universalised economy, is an attempt to hinder the civilising process. Voorganger prefers the isolation of his country even if it means impoverishment.

The Distorted Image of the Father

Voorganger acts in the name of the transcendent father. But a comparison between Padbrekers (1947) and Legende (1942) illustrates that the image of the father as the object of Voorganger’s guilt is distorted in accordance with Freud’s remark that:

the original severity of the super-ego does not – or does not so much – represent the severity which one has experienced from it (the object), or which one attributes to it; it represents rather one’s own aggressiveness towards it (1985b: 322).

The primal father, Karel Veldcamp, of Legende (1942) represents a relationship with the world which is very different from that of his descendants in Padbrekers (1947). He experiences the world in its immediacy. There is no transcendental world, no renunciation of the instincts, no need for sacrifices or retaining memories of the past.

The reader is prepared by the different tone of Legende (1942) in the introduction to this play:

the author wants to make a humble confession of his sincere hope that the judges of the dialogue will not find one poetic or literary word (1942:6),

The absence of the poetical, the sentimental, and the rhetorical in Legende (1942) denotes the anti-intellectual, anti-metaphysical discourse of power, brute force, will, and the unrenounced instincts. In contrast to Voorganger’s movement in Padbrekers (1947), Karel Veldcamp needs no transcendental legitimisation for imposing his will on the world. In this he is very near to nature itself. There is no effort to reduce nature to intellectual or categories. The bond between him and nature is expressed in his love for the veld:

No., you cannot understand it; you can only feel it. Look: when I sit there in the evenings next to my fire, even if it is without the company of any white people, then my heart feels so calm, then my heart feels so satisfied .

In Padbrekers (1947), on the other hand, Voorganger is completely alienated from nature; nature remains for him an unattainable object of the future; he will know it not by feeling at one with it but by studying it; that is, by maintaining a removed (transcendent) relationship to it.

This alienation from, and narcissistic pride in reducing nature is further emphasised by Willem, who sees man’s potential to renounce the instincts as a peculiarly human characteristic:

Do we fight against a ruthless law of nature? Must we continue to try to exploit and exterminate one another like the animals of the bushveld and plains? (1947:30).

In contrast to the characters in Padbrekers (1947) who overestimate the power of mental activity, Karel Veldcamp represents the omnipotence of the body, of the will and of the unrenounced instincts; he is immune to pain and indifferent to love. He is described as a real man, who

seems to be able to do anything, and everything, better than we other people (1942:9).

He tames wild horses with ease, is dominated by a desire to escape from the confines of society and family. As a pioneer he lives outside any law. He is a law unto himself in a world of unreasoning force in which cold-blooded murder becomes reasonable. The text presents death and murder in an unsentimental way.

Veldcamp’s rejection of the metaphysical is illustrated by his indifference to his wife’s clairvoyant activities;

But I have never concerned myself with Eva’s visions. I prefer things that one can get a grip on. I think one must hold one’s own as well as one can – against whatever might happen. It weakens the will, if you imagine that you know what is awaiting you in the future (1942:44).

In this he is different to the characters in Padbrekers (1947) to whom the metaphysical, the transcendental, and the “soul” were central concerns. In them one discerns the “overestimation of the influence which our mental acts can exercise in altering the external world” (Freud 1985a:360). On the other hand Karel Veldcamp represents “the lower physical activity which had direct perceptions … as its contents” (Freud 1985a:360).

The characters in Padbrekers (1947) relate to the new intellectuality in which ideas, memories, and inferences become decisive (Freud 1985a:360) and in which “Things become less important than ideas of things” (Freud 1985a: 142).

The discrepancy between “things” and the “ideas of things” has already been pointed out in connection with the portrayal of the father in Padbrekers (1947), which is incompatible with the portrayal of the father in Legende (1942). In a similar way the sublime “idea” of the people in Padbrekers (1947) is contradicted by the aversion felt when the actual people are referred to:

People are like sheep… There are those who are wellbred, but then there are those who are not… When I look at my own people – so many of them that cannot think., that blindly worship Mammon (1947:22).

The “people” is an abstract idea which goes beyond the reality denoted by this concept. In consequence confused responses are provoked in reaction to economic crisis and exploitation. Campaigns for the poor idealise sacrifice and material renunciation:

If you can teach a people to make sacrifices for the well-being of the community, then the bond between them is so much stronger than when you give them wealth and prosperity (1947:17).

Voorganger criticises the materialism of the enemy nation when speaking to their leader:

But you have become too timid to raise your children properly; you wanted to live in ease; leave behind rich and lazy children (1947:102).

Voorganger sees this materialism as leading to decay:

Your people! They will perish of decay, like a people ill with leprosy: smelling and rotting away, piece by piece (1947:104).

Although the ideal “people’s state” is anti-capitalist, it does not represent the material interests of the poor. That it is not a struggle of the poor is made clear when Sarie refers to it as “Voorganger’s cause” (1947:70). Its anti-capitalist sentiments 3 are misleading. Not surprisingly it is the urban proletariat who put up the strongest resistance to it. They are described as “the roughest and rowdiest lot from the shanty-town” (1947:11) who broke up the nationalist gathering in the first act. They are described as little skunks” as having offensive physical attributes: “a pimpled, red-headed, spindle-legged store mongrel” (1947:13) and their behaviour is seen as a consequence of employment rather than exploitation: “a group of weak street strollers, and pale, unemployed young girls and boys”(1947:30).

Grosskopf s nationalism typifies an ambivalent attitude towards the people. It is not a people’s movement as such.

The inconsistency between the ideas of things and things themselves is the consequence of an experienced “mental omnipotence” which is divorced from reality. This mental omnipotence is construed as intellectuality and rationality. To Freud it has its historical source in the patriarchal overthrow of matriarchal social structures:

But this turning from the mother to the father points in addition to a victory of intellectuality over sensuality – that is, an advance in civilisation, since maternity is proved by the evidence of the senses while paternity is a hypothesis, based on inference and a premise. Taking sides in this way with a thought-process in preference to a sense perception was proved to be a momentous step.

At some point between the two events that I have mentioned there was another which shows the most affinity to what we are investigating in the history of religion. Human beings found themselves obliged in general to recognise intellectual (geistige) forces – forces, that is, which cannot be grasped by the senses (particularly by sight) but which none the less produce undoubted and indeed extremely powerful effects. If we may rely upon the evidence of language, it was movement of the air that provided the prototype of intellectuality (Geistigkeit), for intellect (Geist) derives its name from a breath of wind – ‘animus’, ‘spiritus’, and the Hebrew rauch (breath). This too led to the discovery of the mind [Seele (soul) as that of the intellectual (geistigen) principle in individual human beings (1985a:361).

This discovery of subjectivity which transcends the senses leads not only to “rationality” – but to the imaginary and illusory “incestous” forms of patriarchal thinking with the inability to experience the world as object, as sensual entity. In opposition to Freud, Reich makes intellectuality the product of the objective and sees the sensual world as the foundation of rationality. Rationality contradicts types of “thought and action” which “are inconsistent with the economic situation” (1978:53), that do not respond to material exploitation and find comfort in a nonexistent world beyond.

Irrational and passive acceptance of exploitation is a product of the dominance of the Freudian patriarchal “soul” concept. With the assumption of the omnipotent “soul”, the body on which hunger and exploitation act becomes secondary and unimportant. Voorganger says: “The soul is more than the body” (1947:42) and: “There is something higher than mere animal

existence” (1947:41).

The soul is the product of instinctual renunciation, especially sexual repression. It is thought that is “felt” with intensity (dammed up libidinal energy). The absence of the “soul” in Legende (1942) suggests its absence in pre-social and pre-repressive conditions. The emergence of the “soul” implies the end of unrestrained existence. The “soul” is a necessary category for social existence: within the context of the people’s struggle the deified primal father, Karel Veldcamp, the man without a soul, in reality would not be tolerated. To have social order, individual impulses must be repressed while the state, or the movement, monopolises control over it and channels the aggressive instincts into war. The people must become of “one nund”. The individual omnipotence repressed in this way is transferred to the transcendent primal father who becomes the keeper of the “soul”.

The renunciation of individuality, as well as the concommitant repression of the instincts demanded by nationalists, are depicted in Padbrekers (1947) in the chorus of followers who have sunk to a “position of blind allegiance” (Reich 1978:97):

One people! One. One. One. – honour above wealth, honour above life! Honour with peace. Honour for our past! Noble aim; noble life! One people., one people! One. One. One. Honourable labour for everyone – Unity. Unity. Unity (1947:43).

Voorganger relates to the masses as the hypnotic leader to the primal horde described by Freud in reference to Le Bon. He states:

the condition of an individual in a group as being actually hypnotic (1985b:193).

and emphasises that

the sense of omnipotence, the notion of impossibility disappears for the individual in the group (1985b: 104).

Voorganger becomes the “master” (1947:16 & 115) who, by inspiring (“besiel”) his followers, would lead them to victory against overwhelming forces:

Now we know that—with voorganger’s spirit one man is equal to two of them (1947:86).

Voorganger s voice has the monotonous tone of the hypnotist when he addresses the people. His voice is described as “rhythmic” and “with calm inspiration” (1947:40). When listening to the chorus of followers Voorganger and Ebba stand motionless as if listening to a prayer. The faceless crowds of followers and their adulation evoke images of intense narcissism and omnipotence. After initial victory the crowds fill the streets with torches, at which Sarie exclaims:

it is so overwhelming! Now even our youths realise the importance of the time we are living in (1947:95).

The loss of individuality in the crowd is compensated for by the belief in the people’s soul:

Yes., Willem! I believe in the soul of the people. It is only that which gives me courage and trust in the future’ (1947:21).

This soul has its source in “mystical feelings” (Reich 1978:163): the “Volksgevoel” (1947:21) which must be “activated by soul” (“besiel” 1947:21) in Padbrekers.

This experience of a national soul correlates with the “oceanic feeling” described by Freud (1985b:252), the “sensation of ‘eternity'” (1985b: 251) felt as something “limitless” (1985b:251) and “unbounded” (1985b: 251):

The soul is more than the body. I believe in what looks foolish and unattainable today; and the eternity of aspiring (1947:42)


Ideals are immortal. They, revive, like the phoenix, always again from the fire (1947:101).

The “oceanic feeling is:

a feeling of an indissoluble bond of being one with the external world as a whole (Freud 1985b:252).

In Padbrekers (1947) this bond refers to the experience of the people as “one”. Underlying this experience – as in the case of religious mysticism – is the regression to a phase when the boundary line between the ego and the external world is uncertain. Before the ego is constituted as an autonomous unity, the infant does not distinguish the self from the external world:

He gradually learns to do so, in response to various promptings. He must be very strongly impressed by the fact that some sources of excitation, which he will later recognise as his own bodily organs. can provide him with sensations at any moment, whereas other sources evade him from time to time – and only reappear as a result of his screaming for help (Freud 1985b:254).

The differentiation between internal and external is produced as the difference between experiencing satisfaction and displeasure: the external is associated with a feeling of lack and pain. This lack is an essential part of reality; it is the basis for the perception of reality as something different and separate. Nationalism and people’s movements emerge precisely in situations when this lack is felt intensely, for instance, during periods of economic collapse. But instead of leading to “realism” it regresses to illusion.

The production of a collective illusion, bound up with narcissism and wish-fulfilment, is an important aspect of political manipulation. This is especially true of nationalism where economic deprivation is confused with ideological decay. Feelings of inferiority are manipulated by feeding the mass narcissism with illusions of omnipotence:

The earnestness of life I have known since my youth. From father I learnt the sorrowful humiliation of our people, and the feeling of duty to help heal the decay, especially that fatal and spiritless attitude (1947:24-25).

The pain Ebba gives expression to in this situation is not due to actual material hardship: it is the pain of humiliation. In contrast, Sarie and the capitalist Simon (1947:42) experienced real poverty in their youth. Sarie grew up in a house with an unemployed father (1947:70). Because of their background of poverty, they are far more concerned with the threat of material collapse. To them narcissism is secondary.

The manipulation of narcissistic impulses is of central importance to divert the attention of the suppressed classes:

The narcissistic satisfaction provided by the cultural ideal is also among the forces which are successful in combating the hostility to culture within the cultural unit. This satisfaction can be shared in not only by the favoured classes… but also by the suppressed ones, since the right to despise the people outside it compensates them for the wrongs they suffer within their own (Freud 1985b: 192-193).

Reich formulates it as follows:

The wretchedness of his material and sexual situation is so overshadowed by the exalted idea of belonging to a master race and having a brilliant führer that, as time goes on, he ceases to realise how completely he has sunk to a position of insignificant, blind allegiance (1978:97).

In Padbrekers (1947) the feelings of elevation accompanying the material renunciation, the self-sacrifice, as. well as the experience of omnipotence in inspired crowds and mass processions brings this narcissistic aspect to the fore.


Padbrekers (1947) depicts a guilt reaction to the death of the father and the disintegration of the patriarchal order in the face of materialist and capitalist expansion. It shows how the materialist understanding of the world is experienced as a threat prefiguring an imminent apocalypse.

October 21, 2010

Social Concerns in Afrikaans Drama in the Period 1930-1940

Filed under: johan van wyk,literature,south african theatre — ABRAXAS @ 10:36 am


Afrikaner nationalism is increasingly seen as a diverse phenomenon. This diversity is also evident in Afrikaans literature, which has formed an essential part of Afrikaner nationalism since the inception of the first language movement, The GRA (Genootskap vir Regte Afrikaners – Association of Real Afrikaners), in 1875. This essay explores some of the complexities of Afrikaans drama in the period 1930-1940, a period in which the ideological foundations of the later Apartheid society were first systematised. The drama of the period was not characterised by any radical break with the past. Most of the plays continued the social realism and naturalism of the twenties. N.P. Van Wyk Louw was the only Dertiger (belonging to the important movement of literary renewal in the 1930s) to publish a drama, namely Die Dieper Reg, produced for the 1938 Voortrekker centenary. This play relates strongly to the new aesthetic orientation of poetry of the Dertigers and therefore stands out from the other drama production of the period.

Aesthetics in Literature and Politics

The Dertiger-movement, under the leadership of N.P. van Wyk Louw, was a movement of aesthetic purification. It reacted against the mass-based populist cultural productions of the period, by emphasising the author as individualist, prophet and craftsperson. For Kannemeyer their work is characterised by the “more subtle use of the word and a concentration on the inner life of the individual” (1978:360).

Central to their writing was a concern with beauty. To an Wyk Louw the word beauty referred to meanings outside middle class and mass understanding – it meant exploring areas which challenge and threaten middle class society, readers and auiences. The middle class signified to him the downfall and destruction of spiritual life, who “neutralise all beauty with their banality” (1970:24). Only the discontents, those who suffer and stand outside of middle class life can appreciate art (1970:24). Inner conflict and subjective life become the yardstick of beauty: bauty is measured by pain, suffering, sorrow and desire.

This new aesthetics had its counterpart in the Purified National Party (established in 1934) and its tendency to aestheticise politics. The philosopher of this new nationalism was N. Diederichs, who was trained by the Nazi’s Anti-Kornintern (Wilkins & Strydom 1979:76), and showed some understanding of fascism in articles such as “Die Fascistiese Staatsfilosofie” in the Huisgenoot (3 November 1933).

To Diederichs fascism is l’art pour I’art on the terrain of politics. Both Diederichs and N.P. van Wyk Louw emphasise hierarchical differentiation as an essential part of the new aesthetic intellectual attitude in culture and science:

to recognise and investigate the different levels of reality (matter, life, psyche, spirit) each in its own right… it is not only a more advanced intellectual development when compared to the earlier denial of differences, but also one which is more true to the natural and aesthetic attitudes of man. Ordinary man sees the world as irreducibly rich and diverse, and he refuses emotionally – even when he agrees intellectually to accept the abstraction that materialism presents him of the world. in his immediate aesthetic experience of the world he recovers everything that was reasoned away: sound and colour, beauty, even pain, and the whole marvellous hierarchy of values and people (1970:21).

The aesthetic, to both Diederichs and N.P. van Wyk Louw, is anti-bourgeois. Diederichs describes fascism as “in its being a romantic and anti-bourgeois impulse” (Huisgenoot 3 November 1933:17).

The word “bourgeois” to them does not refer to the owners of the means of production, but rather to mass conformism and materialism. The bourgeois are the “miserable” audiences, the well-to-do, the important state officials, cultural managers or culturocrats (Van Wyk Louw 1970:23) who attended the Afrikaans plays such as J.F.W. Grosskopf’s As die Tuig Skawe in which Van Wyk Louw acted in the mid-thirties (Neethling-Pohl 1974:93, see also Van Wyk Louw’s article “‘n Toneelopvoering in Kaapstad” from Lojale Verset 1970). They represent audiences selected according to “wealth, class or education” (1970:23). He would have preferred an audience of.

All those who know suffering who are restless,. empty and hungry; sexually unfulfilled: the youth not yet spoiled by other matters… they are the ones who could appreciate beauty (1970:23).

There is the same emphasis on the youth in Diederichs. Youth is characterised by “will”, “power” and “action”:

The spontaneous unity of will power youth. movement and action for the sake of action (Huisgenoot 3 Nov. 1933:17).

The deed is central:

reason is rejected for the sake of the deed, theory for the sake of practice (Huisgenoot 3 Nov. 1933:187).

The deed, as theme, found its most pure expression in Van Wyk Louw’s Die Dieper Reg (1938). This play, written for the Voortrekker Centenary of 1938, consists of choruses and individual voices allegorically representing the Voortrekkers in the Court of Eternal Right which must decide over their continued existence as a people. They are charged for rising up against, and breaking all ties with, the law, for appropriating land and enriching themselves, for being motivated by lawlessness and self-righteousness. In their defence they name their suffering, the fact they that paid the highest price by sacrificing their lives.

They are redeemed, not because of their suffering, but because of the power and simplicity, the deed, which motivated them and which made them an expression of God himself who is the “mysterious Source/ of restlessness, deed and life itself” (Van Wyk Louw 1938:16). Because of the deed their existence is secured in the land South Africa. God is the unreasoning, motivating force of history transcending intellectuality and human law. This play is the most profound exploration of the “birth of a nation” in lawlessness.

Poor Whites

An important theme of the drama of the 1930s was the “poor whites”.

By 1930 there were about 300 000 “poor whites” out of a population of one million Afrikaners. They made their living from farming as tenants, worked as hired farm labourers, or were owners of small pieces of land, squatters or unskilled labourers. Others were roaming trek farmers, hunters, woodcutters, the poor of the towns, diggers and manual labourers on the railways and relief workers (Touleier 1938:4-5). The “poor white” was defined as a person whose income did not enable him/her to maintain a standard of living in accordance with general norms of respectability (Touleier 1938:5).

By the 1930s the “poor white” already constituted an established literary category: poor whiteism as theme abounded in prose and drama. As in the many social studies on the topic, the poor whites in literature were seen as the direct descendants of the Voortrekkers: they represented the last of the people living according to the Voortrekker ethic as the character Jan in P.W.S. Schumann’s play Hantie Kom Huis-Toe (1933) makes clear when he points to the parallels between the Voortrekkers and Hantie’s parents:

Is it not true that he (Louis Trichardt, the Voortrekker leader) was possibly just as poor, if not poorer, than your father is today? Your mother and father still live like the real Voortrekkers of the olden days. And what right do we have to reproach them for still living in the same way? They are still Voortrekkers, just like their parents were (1933:84).

The “Poor whites” are portrayed as the remnants and descendants of the people who lived according to the unthinking deed that Diederichs and Van Wyk Louw romanticised: “they did not gather material possessions, pursue wealth or luxury. Nature was their wealth and freedom, their luxury and pleasure” (Schumann 1933:94) and “They roamed from here to there… from the diggings to the settlements, to wherever their instinct lead them” (Schumann 1933:94).

From this perspective the term “poor whites” seems to be a misnomer. Indeed the “poor white” character, Annie Oosthuizen, points out that the tag “poor white” is a discursive invention by the petit bourgeois rather than a reality as experienced by the “poor whites” themselves:

I am no “blinking street woman” and also not a “poor white” … It is the “charities” and the “Distress” and the “Mayor’s Fund and all the people who want to make “poor whites” of us. My husband says they are just like doctors who discovered a new illness and now want everyone to have it (Schumann 1933:84).

Thee “poor white” in literature was more than just the depiction of social fact of the time. The theme introduced modernism, in the form of naturalism, to Afrikaans literature.

Naturalism – especially the petit bourgeois family drama formed part of the materialist tradition rejected by N.P. van Wyk Louw and Diederichs, especially in so far as it shows individual characters as victims of external forces such as the social environment and heredity.

Naturalism, nevertheless, was in vogue in Afrikaans theatre in the 1930s. Many of the naturalist classics were translated and performed – among them Ibsen’s A Doll’s House staged by Paul de Groot and his travelling players in the rural areas. Before every performance De Groot would give a lecture on the importance of naturalism to Western literature and during the performance:

The public followed the play in silence, a silence of “non-comprehension”. The ending, if anything, surprised them. They simply threw their hands indignantly in the air at the thought that Nora would leave her children rather than sacrifice her individuality (Huguenet 1950:59).

On the other hand naturalist melodrama also displayed a crude realism: an exact but superficial imitation of reality that the audiences – unaccustomed to the artifices of theatre – loved:

Because they have never seen a production by “Strangers” who play with so much conviction and vigour, so much “naturalness” as they called it, the experience was a revelation. For them the play was something real, a reality, and without much effort they displaced themselves into that reality. Without any conception of what a theatrical performance actually is, they were convinced by the play and believed in it. It is to this unconditional surrender that I attribute the initial big successes of Afrikaans theatre (Huguenet 1950:52).

One of the interesting examples of this extreme realism was Hendrik Hanekom’s production of the historic and symbolical play Oom Paul by D.C. Postma in 1934. This play, based on the life of the Transvaal president, Paul Kruger, was an attempt to recreate history: Paul Kruger’s house, the wallpaper, the uniforms of the time, the gestures as recorded from the memories of people who knew the president, his drinking of coffee from a saucer and being addressed by the black servants as “uncle” were portrayed in the greatest of detail (Binge 1969:175).

Naturalism in Afrikaans literature dates back to Harm Oost’s Ou Daniel in 1906. This was also the first depiction of the poor white. Old Daniel, the main character, is seen as the “first truly living character in Afrikaans drama” (Bosman 1951:11). This play is the first psychological and sociological study in Afrikaans literature: Old Daniel is the “personification of the clash between the old and the new in the changed Afrikaans society after the Anglo-Boer War and he becomes the distant precursor of the social problem drama” (Bosman 1951:11). The “poor white” theme enabled writers to depict the “Afrikaner as a human being instead of as a patriot, or simply man as man” (Bosman 1951:12).

The following plays have the poor white as theme: Hantie Kom Huis-Toe by P.W.S. Schumann from 1933, Die Skeidsmuur by A.J. Hanekom from 1938, Drankwet by E.A. Venter from 1933 and Die Stad Sodom by F.W. Boonzaier (1931). A nationalist perspective is explicitly inscribed in these texts. The “poor white” is seen from the outside – from a concerned petit bourgeois perspective – as a difference that must be returned to the same of the nation. One of the main criticisms by directors against Afrikaans playwrights was the fact that the political prejudices of the authors made objective depiction of the characters impossible:

until recently no playwright in Afrikaans could withhold himself from personal interference with his character portrayals. This inability to portray objectively the many different characters is the main criticism against their work (Huguenet 1950:126).

Most of these texts are critical of the wealthy Afrikaner’s conceptions and exploitation of the “poor whites”. The class differentiation, implied by “poor whiteism”, was experienced as a threat to Afrikaner unity. Uninspired nationalist strategies towards poor white problem were even criticised in some plays:

HANTIE (With renewed passion): Yes, they have congresses, and make resolutions, and choose delegates and appoint commissions of inquiry and send deputations and do research and publish blueprints … That will not be my approach (1933:96).

The most extreme portrayal of the raw reality of the “poor whites” is found in P.W.S. Schumann’s Hantie Kom Huis-Toe (1933). This play was produced in Cape Town by Anna Neethling-Pohl the assistance of N.P. van Wyk Louw. Neethling-Pohl felt that the H.A. Fagan plays usually produced in Cape Town “were too civilised” for her “rebellious taste, and not relevant enough” (1974:93). In contrast, Hantie Kom Huis-Toe (1933) represented “a piece of realism, crude and raw, saying things as explicitly as possible” (Neethling-Pohl 1974:93). Anna Neethling-Polil would later be confronted with the reality of the “poor whites” as represented in Hantie Kom Huis-Toe (1933) when she became the secretary of Schumann’s wife, who was a social worker in the Krugersdorp area.

Politically, poor whiteism – “that factory of idiotic monstrosities” (Jan in Hantie Kom Huis-Toe 1933:76) – is of interest because it points to an emerging class differentiation undermining the unity of the nation. (“JAN:.. I do not believe in classes for white people” 1933:56). As a class that may define its interest in opposition to that of the nationalists the poor whites posed a threat to the nationalists.

The increasing assimilation of the “poor whites” into a racially integrated South African society was perceived with shock by the nationalists. This process of integration is symbolised by Lappiesdorp where the poor whites of Hantie Kom Huis-Toe (1933) lived with “Greek and Syrian, and Hottentot and Malay” (73). In the same play, evidence that the poor whites were outgrowing their racial prejudices is seen in the friendly relations between them and Abdoel, the Indian shop owner, called “Oupa’ (“Grandfather”) by some children.

A most interesting description of emerging class differentiation is found in the articles “Nogeens die bediendevraagstuk” (“Once again the servant question”) and “Die wit meisie in huisdiens” (“The white girl in domestic service”) from the Huisgenoot (21 August and 18 September respectively). The problems that employers could expect when employing poor whites according to the Huisgenoot were:

1 the fact that they saw themselves as the equals of their employers because no clear-cut class differences existed amongst Afrikaners.

2. a prejudice against work that they considered to be the work of blacks (“AUNT GRIETA:… I won’t allow my child to do kaffir work (Schumann 1933:29)).

The Huisgenoot (21 August 1931) then gives the following advice:

Make such a domestic understand for her own sake that although she is not of the same class as the coloured servant she also does not belong to the class of the employer, just like children cannot be the equals of parents. She is the servant and must therefore serve at the table, but at the same time it must be seen to that she eats in respectable conditions (67).

Class differentiation and the question of white domestic servants depicted in A. J. Hanekom’s play Die Skeidsmuur (1938). This play attempts to show that poverty in itself does not define poor whiteism: the poor white here is rather the person that has lost his/her self-respect and is no longer of any use to the Afrikaner people. This is shown by contrasting the poor, but respectable, railway family of Johan Terblanche with the alcoholic neighbour, Gert. Gert’s loss of self respect is especially evident in the following aspects of his use of language:

1. In the form of address: he addresses Mrs. Terblanche as “Miesies” instead of “Mevrou”. “Miesies” was the form of address used by black servants when speaking to white women. It indicated a class and racial difference. Compare also Hantie Kom Huis-Toe (1933) where Mrs. van Niekerk reproaches Aunt Grieta for calling her “miesies” because she is “also white” (26).

2. In the “carnivalesque” (Bakhtin 1984) aspects of his discourse. He uses the words “poor whites” as if between quotation marks, thereby humouring learned society’s definition of him. The quotation marks show that he puts on the mask of society when he utters the words “poor whites”.

3. In his particular way of transforming English words into Afrikaans: This can be seen as a banalisation of the self. “paartie” (party), “fektrie” (factory), and “wiekend’ (weekend).

4. In his use of idiomatic expressions like “erfgeld is swerfgeld” (“easy come easy go”) with which he invokes the folkish wisdom of tradition and the forefathers.

5. In his use of homespun forms of standard Afrikaans words: “kenners” instead of “kinders”, “eergeester” instead of “eergister”.

Through his particular use of language he attempts to establish a sense of equality between his family and that of his neighbour; he wants to make the Terblanches feel at home in their “poor white” environment. By calling Mrs. Terblanche “Nig Maria” (“Cousin Mary”) he accentuates the kinship ties. He says that this was the way “our grandfathers and grandmothers spoke” (1938:4).

Terblanche, on the other hand resists his assimilation into “poor white” society by maintaining his family’s dignity or his family’s difference from poor whiteism at all costs although they are economically in a similar situation. Gert, on the other hand, as a typical carnivalesque character, transforms everything into the lowest common denominator: namely the body. The carnivalesque language of the working class (Gert) is typified by its ability too assimilate and to generate a rich and lively diversity of expression.

Terblanche’s daughter, Aletha, works as a domestic servant in the house of the mayor and prospective member of parliament, Van Zeelen. Van Zeelen sees the “poor whites” as those backward types who are nothing but a social burden and completely worthless to society. In his house Aletha has to pander to all the whims of the spoilt daughter, Helena. In these circumstances Aletha has to maintain her self-respect.

Helena senses in the dignity of Aletha that Aletha has forgotten her place as servant in the house. She refuses to be tolerant towards Aletha, because then Aletha might see herself as an equal. Aletha represents a class to Helena that has to be kept in place.

Van Zeelen’s son, Albert, on the other hand, challenges the stereotypical images of the poor whites shared by his sister and father. He sees that the rich, instead of helping the Church and the State in the struggle against “poor whiteism”, are strengthening the dividing wall between rich and poor. According to him the wealthy should rather encourage the poor whites to maintain and develop their self-respect. The poor whites must be taught that the history of the Afrikaner people also belongs to them, that they are fellow Afrikaners and equally part of the people. He gives effect to these words by falling in love with Aletha and marrying her against the wishes of his father.

. Like the nationalists of the time, Albert emphasises the unity of the People and the need to struggle against developing class divisions; in this way he is verbalising the author’s own views


In most plays of the period a conflict between father and children developed on the plot structure of the biblical parable of the prodigal son. The conflict implies the tension between the modern and the traditional, the rural and the urban, the past and the future. Sometimes as in Die Skeidsmuur (1938) it is a struggle by the son against the preconceptions of the father. In Agterstevoor Boerdery (1932) by David J. Coetsee, the son wants to introduce scientific methods of farming against his father’s wishes. In the foreword to Die Stad Sodom (1931) F.W. Boonzaier states that his play should serve as a warning to the daughters who want to settle in the city. In this play poverty forces the urbanised young woman to prostitution. Her father disowns her and, unlike the father of the Prodigal Son, he does not welcome her back when she returns to the farm dying of TB.

Another depiction of the generational conflict is Fritz Steyn’s Grond (1938) which is about the duty of the unwilling son towards the dead father’s wish to keep the inherited farm within family. The son is a qualified teacher and does not enjoy farming. He keeps his feelings towards the farm a secret from his children who in their turn also rebel against the farm and the rural milieu. He forces them not to abandon the farm, but to be part of his promise to the dead. However, circumstances such as a bond repayment and a hailstorm, force them off the farm. The loss of the farm leads to the reunification of the family and enables the children to go to university and pursue professional careers.

Loss of the farm signifies the loss of the means of production; the inability to reproduce independent life itself; it means alienation – the fact that the independent person is forced to become a wage labourer. This is made clear by Terblanche in Die Skeidsmuur (1938) when he says:

How can I forget that once we were also independent farmers, that we could face people as equals (2).

The duty to the ancestors in Grond (1938) expresses the duty to “the ideal of the glorious fatherland” (Diederichs 1933:17) which is so central in nationalist ideology.

In Hantie Kom Huis-Toe (1933) the father is identified with God and the devil. Hantie – who never knew her father and was taken away from her “poor white” family at the age of five has mystical conversations with God. Gertjie, her poor white little brother also has moments of clairvoyancy. Hantie dates her mystical conversations back to her childhood from the time that she was taken from her real family:

It’s not so strange … at least I am used to it now, … He has been everywhere with me since my childhood… I see Him often… always … I don’t know how to explain it. (1933:16).

When her friend, Jan, asks her about her father she answers:

I do not know much about Father. Do not ask me about Father. because… aunt never talks about Father. Sometimes I feel so scared (1933:20).

When Hantie meets her real father, without knowing that he is her real father, he stirs irrational revulsions in her. He is a most violent poor white. She tells her mother. “he has the most abhorrent face I have ever seen” (1933:65). She becomes completely irrational in his presence:

if only I never have to see him again – the devil marked him … I feel like that day when I slipped on the mountain slope, when I had to clung onto some shrubs to prevent my fall (1933:70).

At the end God and devil merge in the father when she discovers with shock that he is her real father:

He? – Then I’ve got his blood in my veins? My body is from him. and my nerves and my constitution and my spirit descended from him? There is not a part of my body. or of my soul, where his stamp is not! MY Creator, One-That-Formed-Me, that saw me before I existed, that knew me before my birth – was it really your aim with me?… Then the night is part of me, and I embrace the darkness like a bride (1933:100).

After this she faints, recovers a few minutes later and declares the ground holy where she saw God. She finally feels relieved of material reality.


Race in the 1930s still referred to the differences between Afrikaners and the English. When Mrs. van Niekerk says “There are so many mixed marriages these days” (1933:56) in Hantie Kom Huis-Toe she is referring to marriages between Afrikaners and the English. The “Native Question” indicated the thinking on the future of the African peoples – an obsession of especially General Hertzog. In the early thirties the Native Question was seen as a “matter of the utmost gravity calling for a meticulously thought-out long term policy” (Pirow nd: 193). No coherent plan on the political future of the Africans seems to have existed. The Native Question went hand in hand with what was called the “survival of White Civilisation” and the fear that whites would become “swamped politically” (Pirow nd. 195) when a “black skin would no longer be a test of civilisation” (Pirow nd. 195).

Hertzog differentiated in the late twenties between the future of the coloureds on the one hand and the Africans on the other. His view of the coloureds was that ultimately they should be integrated “into the White Man’s world industrially, economically and politically, but not socially” (Pirow nd:127). On the other hand his “native policy was based on the principle of segregation and has as its ideal the development of the native along his own lines in his own territory” (Pirow nd: 128).

Hertzog, according to Pirow, was not a protagonist of Baasskap, but of differentiation with “benevolent guardianship” (Pirow nd:193). The determining factor for eventual self-government by Africans was not “the acquisition of the white man’s book-learning, but of his ethical conceptions” (Pirow nd: 193). There was a general fear amongst whites about the political consequences of education for Africans. This is expressed as follows by the patriarch Van Riet in the play Van Riet, van Rietfontein:

The Kaffir is here to work. Make it compulsory. Close down that mission school. They only spoil the blacks. Why must they learn to read and write? A Kaffir that can read and write is worthless. And if he speaks English I’ll kick him from my property (Van Niekerk 1930:28).

Central to the propagation of the white man’s ethical conceptions was the spread of Christianity: “The paramount position of the European population vis-a-vis the native is accepted in a spirit of Christian guardianship” (Pirow nd: 198). The play Jim (1935) by J.C. Oosthuysen, which could be performed by any drama society as long as they sent ten shillings of the takings to be used for missionary work in the Eastern Province and the Transkei, aimed to make white children on the farms aware of their duty to spread the gospel amongst the “heathen” children of Affican farm labourers.

By 1933 the Broederbond began to formulate its ideas on black and white relations systematically. These ideas would eventually become the policy of the Purified National Party. In a secret circular it defined the main points of the policy as follows:

1 Total segregation should be implemented;

2 Black people be removed from white areas to separate areas provided for the different tribes and “purchased by the natives from the State through a form of taxation such as hut tax, or occupied in freehold from the State” (Wilkins and Strydom 1979:193). The “detribalised native” (Wilkins and Strydom 1979:193) in urban areas would be seen as “temporary occupants” of locations in white areas and living there “of their own choice and for gain” (Wilkins and Strydom 1979:193). The same would apply to the coloured people who would get their own homeland (Wilkins and Strydom 1979:197).

The integration which became discernible in the mixed areas (such as Lappiesdorp in Hantie Kom Huis-Toe 1933) was looked on with horror by the educated and wealthier Afrikaners: it was a direct assault on their sense of propriety.

A concern with what is proper was one of the obsessions of university-educated Afrikaners of the time. It manifested itself in a concern with the minutest detail. Compare M.E.R.’s outrage during a performance of Langenhoven’s Petronella at the torn and tattered red velvet curtains and at the constant laughing of the town’s people who saw all drama as comedy (Huisgenoot 29 May 1931:67). She calls it “cultural disorder”. The concern with what is proper is further manifested in Hantie’s dismay at her mother wearing a night gown in the streets in Hantie Kom Huis-Toe (1933:67).

The concern with “cultural order” and what is proper explains much of the nationalist’s racism. But this racism also has economic motives. The obsession of the wealthy Mrs van Niekerk with the friendly relations between the Indian shop-owner and the poor whites in Hantie Kom Huis-Toe indicates her fear of the growing economic power of the Indians:

Yes my child, here you can see the bare truth about poor whiteism. And as you noticed, one is astonished by the big Indian shops. But the reason is: the Indians treat the poor as their equals. They feel at home with them. Do you see that shop? It is Abdoel’s. The people call him Grandpa (1933:25).

In another passage Mrs van Niekerk scolds Aunt Grieta:

Are you again at the Indian’s shop. You promised me last time you will not buy from the Indian if you could be helped elsewhere (1933)

To this Aunt Grieta answers:

Oh Miesies, it is easy, for you. You rich people do not care where you buy and what you pay, but we poor people must be happy to buy, at the cheapest place (1933:55).

It is more than the price of goods that attracts Aunt Grieta to the Indian shop: there she does not feel discriminated against, she does t feel she is looked down upon by her own kind. When Mrs. van Niekerk suggests that she should buy from Goodman, a white man in spite of being a Jew, Aunt Grieta says:

I went to old Goodman’s shop, and do you know who I saw there behind the counter? Was it not Katryn, you know Roelf Visagie’s Katryn, Roelf whom they call Red Roelf. But she was so dressed up and powdered that I nearly did not recognise her and she was so full of airs, the little snob. I wanted a few yards of lace, but I refuse to be intimidated by such a little upstart. Who is she or her parents that she imagines herself to be so much better than me? (1933:55).

Another reason why they prefer buying from old Abdoel is because, he gives credit to the poor (1933:57).

When with her educated daughter, however, Aunt Grieta returns to a crude racism. When Abdoel addresses her with the familiar “You” she replies:

What! You saying to me “you”! I am Miesies Diedericks. Imagine such a Coolie. Where does he gets his “you” from? (1933:67)

The author’s Own prejudice towards Indians (and their goods) is manifest in the many scenes in which the quality of the products come into question: the hat and night-gown are described as ghastly to everybody except Aunt Grieta. The stigmatisation of Abdoel’s goods is part of the campaign for the proper.

In Hantie Kom Huis-Toe (1933) Africans are only marginally present. One senses in this presence an immense fear, as if the poor whites saw in the dehumanisation of the Africans their own possible fate. The women react with intense irrational fear to the African loitering around the veranda and asking for Hans (the real father). The African’s presence forecasts the looming trouble: he is the bait which leads to the arrest of Krisjan and Hans for selling liquor illegally to Africans.

The play which most consistently and most interestingly explores the obsession with colour prejudice is L.C.B. van Niekerk’s Van Riet, van Rietfontein (1930). Van Riet, the owner of the farm Rietfontein, upholds crude racist ideas: he is upset about the prominence given to the native question in the newspapers and the fact that there are always new laws to define the relationship between master and servant. This means that he cannot “discipline` (assault) his labourers any longer without being challenged in court. He is especially upset because the educated always interfere with existing relationships. To him this interference is unnecessary. The “native question” is a “question of experience and common sense” (1930:21).

In contrast, Prins, a university professor, pleads for the “upliftment” (1930:29) of Africans. To him “The Kaffir is no longer a barbarian. He is beginning to think. He refuses to be the property of the white man in the servile sense of the word (1930:29). Later on he states: “there is a possession nobody can deny their fellow human beings: freedom. Freedom of movement, freedom of thought, freedom to search for the own salvation” (1930:29) and “The time will come when the native will play a part in the government of the country. It is for us to decide whether we want to co-operate with them as friends or resist them as enemies (1930:31).

These arguments set the context in which Van Riet’s son, Pieter, announces his love for Malie Hartman, a world-renowned violinist, but unfortunately coloured. In his love for Malie he expresses “powers that are stronger than prejudice and hate” 1930.33) and which have to struggle against the autocratic father’s “willpower and … race pride” (1930:33). Despite her

colour Malie as violinist is representative of what is most noble in “white civilisation”.

The whole play is then an exposure of the father’s unreasonableness. Malie makes it clear: “Your father condemned for my descendance, before he knew me” (1930:52). His racism is further extremely self-destructive. All his farm labourers desert him and he goes bankrupt. Klara, the faithful African domestic servant, sacrifices her life’s savings in an attempt to postpone the due date for bond repayment on his farm.

When his son arrives to help in these circumstances he still refuses to accept Malie as possible daughter-in-law, although he has sympathy for her; he is possibly echoing the sentiments of the author when he says to her:

You, innocent, today suffer for a crime that you did not commit… No person can do more than sacrifice their own life for others. this you do today … There is no other way out (1930:99).

Although the play shows Van Riet’s racism as irrational, unreasonable and self-destructive it is still victorious in the end. This play which is one of the most persistent in its rejection of the rationality of racism still saves racism in so far as it presupposes a transcendental rationality. Racism is then right exactly because it is irrational and absurd. This links Van Riet, van Rietfontein (1930) with Van Wyk Louw and Diederichs’ romanticisation of the “unthinking deed as the ideological foundation of Afrikaner nationalism (and racism?).

sunnyside sal – anton krueger

Filed under: anton krueger,literature — ABRAXAS @ 9:41 am

October 20, 2010

Identity and Difference: Some Nineteenth and Twentieth Century South African Texts

Filed under: johan van wyk,literature — ABRAXAS @ 2:07 pm

Identity implies qualities of continuity, sameness and repeatability (“To give birth is to multiply one’s self” Kunene 1979:70), but also suggests difference and otherness. Identity must further be understood as the product of discourse and history rather than as something essential and ahistorical. This chapter explores how the identity of the self, but also of the other as difference, was formulated in some South African texts: Olive Schreiner’s Thoughts on South Africa (1992) (written in 1892 and published posthumously for the first time in 1923), Erasmus Smit’s Diary (1972) (written in 1837-1838), N.P. van Wyk Louw’s Die Dieper Reg (1938) and H.I.E. Dhlomo’s “Dingane” (written in the late 1930s, but first published in his Collected Works in 1985).

Identity constructs based on physical continuity, history and culture were pivotal to apartheid discourses. Ethnographic studies and ethnographic fiction which assumed pure identities and closed societies, abounded in the apartheid period. The study of constructs of identity and difference is therefore of primary importance for an understanding of apartheid as discursive formation.

Olive Schreiner in her Thoughts on South Africa makes the curious statement that the

South African Boer (the white and Afrikaans-speaking peasant and farmer of the nineteenth century) is the “most typically South African”(1992:60). She qualifies this statement as follows:

The Bantu and the Englishman may be found elsewhere on the earth’s surface in equal and or greater perfection; but the Boer, like our plumbagos, our silver-trees, and our kudus, is peculiar to South Africa (1992:60).

She commences by locating the Boer’s history in terms of time and space; she writes “The history of the Boer begins, as is well known, in 1652, when Van Riebeeck landed at the Cape” (1992:60) and then she personalises the space of origin, make it a space that can be shared by the reader in its printed representation and hypothetically in reality:

If one climbs alone on a winter’s afternoon to the old Block House on the spur of the Devil’s Peak at Cape Town, and lies down on the ruined stone bastion. with the warm sun shining on one’s back – as one lies there dreaming; the town and shipping in the bay below … then the noisy little life of the valley slips away from one, and through the mist of two centuries one is almost able to put out one ‘ s hand and touch the old, long-buried days, when the first while men built their huts on the. shores of Table Bay (1992:60).

Space in this text becomes an important index of the character of the Boer. The Boer, according to Schreiner, is different from his modem Australian, Canadian, Yankee and American Spaniard counterpart in that he shows no attachment to Europe as home. The “untrodden plains of South Africa (1992:62) are complementary to the Boer’s “unquenchable passion for movement and change, and (his) fierce rebellion against the limitations with which civilised life hedges about and crushes the life of the individual” (1992:62). The Boer descended from the “free-fighting children of fortune, rovers of the sea and the sword” (1992:62), a “small body of French exiles” (1992:67) and girls from “orphan asylums” (1992:63). These girls are especially important because “the day in which they landed at Table Bay and first trod on African soil, was also the first in which they became individuals, desired and sought after, and not mere numbers in a printed list. In the arms of the rough soldiers and sailors who welcomed them, they found the first home they had known” (1992:66-67). The Boers’ origins and identity, their temperament derived from adventurers, exiles and orphans, are somehow inscribed in their shared blood, a product of their incestuous inbreeding:

From this small stock by a process of breeding in and in. they have developed, there having been practically no addition made to the breed for the last two hundred years; the comparatively large numbers to which they have attained have entirely to be accounted for by the fact of their personal vigour, very early marriages, and prolific rate of increase. Thus the Boer represents rather a clan or family than a nation; and there is probably no true Boer from the Zambesi to the Cape who does not hold a common strain of blood with almost every other Boer he meets. Each Boer has in him, probably. at least a drop of blood of these women.. and their emotional and intellectual peculiarities can hardly have failed to leave their mark, if slight, upon the racial development (1992:67 my italics).

Their identity as adventurers, exiles and orphans is translated into their love for the physical country. The “plains, rocks and skies”(1992:75) become the transmutation of their existential being.

In Capital (Volume 1) Marx identifies the colonial space as one that makes it difficult for the Capitalist from the mother country to turn the settlers with their existence economies into labourers: the settlers cultivate for themselves, make the furniture and tools they use themselves, build their own houses, take their produce to the markets themselves, they spin and weave, make soap and candles, shoes and clothes (1982:935). Escaping from the economic and political misery of Europe the settlers established themselves in a space where they were largely a law unto themselves. This underlies the many images of omnipotence that mark their discourses.

Schreiner describes her narrative as the result of “long and sympathetic” deciphering of Theal’s nineteenth century South African histories (especially his Cape Commanders) and John Noble’s History of South Africa. As is to be expected from the contradictory nineteenth-century urge to classify races on the one hand and explain evolutionary patterns on the other, she assumes that there is such a thing as an essential Boer whose particular emergence in history can be explained. The description of this “essence” and its origins is based on existing printed texts, rather than empirical observation and measurement. In this regard Schreiner’s text is different from later ethnographic studies with its detailed photographs, measurements of features and statistical data.

Schreiner makes the point that somewhere beneath the “bare facts” contained in Theal and Noble’s histories there is material to be transformed into “the great epic of South Africa by a “seer and singer” (1992:60). History to her becomes a source to be fictionalised, somehow removed from itself.. providing material for the making of a fetish. Epic, or narratives about the heroic figures in the migration histories or mythological origins of a people, often forms the foundation for an assumed national essence. It becomes the object through which a nation idolises its own history. Schreiner’s observation is based on the fact that the nineteenth century Afrikaner history of South Africa contains typical epic material: the mass migration into the interior of South Africa, the strong leading figures, the battles with the various peoples of the interior with their peculiar and unusual customs, God’s supposed intervention, etc. It is not strange, then, that the Afrikaner nationalists of the twentieth century based their foundational fictions on these events. The movement of the Cape Emigrants or Voortrekkers into the South African interior in 1837-1838 has been compared by nationalist ideologues of the 1930s with the travels of the Roman epic hero Aeneas and his followers from Troy to Rome (Moodie 1975:297). Although the “sacred history” of the Afrikaner has never been versified to the same extent as Virgil’s Aeneid, Camoens’ The Lusiads or Mazisi Kunene’s Zulu epic Emperor Shaka the Great, the Afrikaner nationalist leader D.F. Malan stated “Our history is the greatest masterpiece of the centuries” (Moodie 1975:1). This history, according to Malan, was part of a “divine plan” through which God’s “will and determination” (Moodie 1975: 1) is revealed.

In the twentieth century, this history of divinely inspired invasion formed the basis of a metaphysics, a discourse of sovereignty and terror ultimately expressed in the narrative of apartheid. Derrida described metaphysics as “the unfolding of the structure or schema of an absolute will to hear-oneself-speak” (Spivak 1987:106). This aptly describes the dominant South African political discourses in the period 1910-1994 when Africans were excluded from the democratic process by the constitution of the Union of South Africa. By being excluded from the process Africans were denied a voice. The African identity was increasingly defined from the outside. White laws circumscribed what Africans should and could be, where they could stay, what they could own, who they could marry, and in which positions they could be employed. The system acknowledged Africans only as labourers and traditionalists. They had to conform to the ethnographic picture presented by the ethnographic text. The transindividual sphere of custom and tradition delineated by the ethnographic text forced onto them a fixed identity, endorsed by law. This made it very difficult for the educated African elite to participate, and write their own identities, in terms of middle class European norms, or “civilisation” as it was called by these subjects in the early twentieth century.

The exclusion from the law-making process and the fact that the law determined their identities from the outside made Africans into the Other. The fixity of the African’s definition as Other has the quality of print. The word “stereotype” derives from plaster moulds of printing type. In its modem use it refers to the commonplace and distorted perception of the Other. The stereotype, according to Gilman (1990:15), implies an Other who is perceived as pathological, as having lost control over the environment. The African stereotype is rooted in a context where Africans were forced to surrender their authority over the political environment. The new dominant colonial discourses saw Africans as lacking in Western reason (as pathological) and therefore not able to participate in the institutions of Western civilisation. The Africans’ assumed exclusion from the world of writing and print, and their resulting inability to be masters of their own voice, played a determining role in the construction of this stereotype.

The English colonial histories that Schreiner used, and her own perspective in noughts on South Africa, betray a similar prejudice in the construction of the stereotypical Boer. This prejudice derives from Schreiner’s position as author in the tradition of the Enlightenment with its emphasis on reason, literature and literacy as signs of civilisation and progress. Access to printed literature, and owning printing technology meant political power in the emerging modern environment. Print placed the subject in a position to control stereotypes. This power to distort and stabilise became the signifier of health and reason.

That which, according to Schreiner, makes the Boer the most typically South African is also that which makes the Boer pathological in relation to her own position as author of the Enlightenment. To her the Boer is “merely a child of the seventeenth century” (1992:82) who because of illiteracy had been isolated from the world revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:

For the Boer the awakening of human reason in the eighteenth century, with its stem demand for intellectual tolerance and its enunciation of universal brotherhood never existed. The cry for Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, with which later on the heart of Europe leaped forth to grasp an ideal for which men’s hands were not yet quite pure enough. but which rent the thunder-cloud of despotism brooding over Europe; the Napoleonic wars and the crash of thrones, the growth of physical science, re-shaping not only man’s physical existence but yet more his social and ethical life, of these things the Boer behind his little Taal wall heard and felt nothing (1992:86).

The world revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are very much inscribed into the discourses and texts of the Boer and formed the basis of the Boer’s own discriminatory texts, despite Schreiner’s image of the Boer as ignorant illiterate. The Boer’s relationship with revolution dates back to the Batavian perid when the influence of the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Napoleonic wars was strongly felt at the Cape. The French Revolution had its echoes in the popular uprisings of Cape frontier towns when colonists declared Swellendam and Graaff-Reinet republics with their own national conventions. It is from these towns that the Great Trek took place in 1837. Erasmus Smit, who accompanied the Cape Emigrants into the interior as lay-preacher in 1837, vividly recalls in his Diary the day, 19 January 1795, when as a child he saw the rag-tag French army marching through Amsterdam in

the wake of the French Revolution (1972:19). From this revolution stems the Emigrants’ and the twentieth century Afrikaner’s obsession with republicanism and the rejection of royal sovereignty. The discovery of gold, the development of Johannesburg, the Anglo-Boer War and the subsequent urbanisation of the unskilled poor from the rural areas led to an early awareness of Marxist theory amongst many Afrikaners. In the War Proclamation of 17 October 1899, Commandant-General Piet Joubert saw “malignant capitalists” as the cause of the war. He spoke though not from the perspective of a working class, but from a threatened rural position based on the exploitation of African labour.

Identity within the capitalist epoch is a personification of economic relations (Marx 1982:178). The Emigrants moving into the South African interior saw the Africans they encountered mainly as servants and sources of labour. In Erasmus Smit’s Diary there are many references to this. Several Africans seeking refuge from the continuous wars were made into servants while others were taken captive by force. In Dhlomo’s. “Dingane” the Induna Bongoza remarks about the emigrants:

I hear they make servants of men – men who ought to serve as warriors. No man should be servant to another. Each should serve himself and serve with and for the others. Only a king should have servants, for they who serve the king. serve all. The Boers think they are each a king! (1985:85).

Looking at the sovereign within the context of the Cape Emigrant invasion of African territories in the nineteenth century makes for interesting comparative analysis in terms of identity constructs. The consequences of the opposing views on sovereignty are illustrated in Erasmus Smit’s description of a last conversation with a captive warrior of Dingaan. The Zulu warrior is sentenced to death by the Council of Emigrants for murdering “2 white women and 4 children” (1972:134). It was Smit’s task to convince “the prisoner of the justice of the temporal punishment of his death sentence by his earthly judges” (1972:133). It is as if the earthly judges, discovering the relativity of their own metaphysics in confronting the Other, themselves ask to be exonerated by the condemned man. The prisoner defends himself by saying that the sovereign, Dingaan, who gave the order to kill, should bear the guilt. The Emigrants however see the prisoner as being primarily responsible and force him to agree “that he had gone with a happy heart on the attack and found pleasure in the murder’ (1972:134). Smit contrasts this with the way they themselves will execute him. He states that the executioners “will … have sympathy with you even at and in your death; they will not torture you with 30, 40, and fifty stabs, as you and your people have slowly murdered our people in the cruellest way; but your death will be short and compassionate” (1972:135).

Smit further states that the Council “do not as individuals kill you; but it is the law of our God which condemns you and also me, and all people when we commit murder” (1972:135). Christianity is Smit’s root metaphor. The invisible God is the sovereign and guarantor of the Emigrants’ lawless law. Sovereignty is removed from the world. The natural motive for murdering is projected onto a transcendental god. To the prisoner sovereignty is embodied in the institution and the physical presence of the king. To him it is Dingaan who “ought to bear the guilt”(1972:133). By removing sovereignty from the world the Emigrants internalise it in the embodied concept of an omnipotent and transcendental God and tie it to the will of the individual. God becomes a force linked to the group’s helplessness (as minority in threatening surroundings), but also provides a feeling of omnipotence (because God will make them victorious despite their small numbers). This concept of God is at the basis of Afrikaner Calvinism and republicanism. It is best illustrated in the allegorical verse play Die Dieper Reg (1938) by N.P. van Wyk Louw, considered to be the most important poet of modern Afrikaner nationalism. This play was written for the centenary of the Great Trek in 1938. In this play the Emigrants are brought before Eternal Justice. They are charged with the plundering of land and lawlessness. These charges stand against their plea to continue to exist as a people. From the point of view of a rational and earthly conception of justice they are guilty. But they are acquitted because they embody the blind deed, the non-rational act that made them mere instruments of God. God, as the ultimate will and justice in history, becomes the sovereign who arbitrarily decides the fate of peoples.

In the 1930s H.I.E. Dhlomo wrote the play “Dingane” (from his Collected Works 1985) possibly to counteract the Afrikaner’s version of the Great Trek which was ritually re-enacted in the 1938 Centenary as part of their sacred history. In this play the Zulu character Bongoza refers to the kinglessness of the Emigrants:

A people with no king is no race – a headless snake writhing nauseatingly to death! Homeless people observe the law of the jungle – destroy. provoke trouble and roam about. A kingless race is like monkeys -noisy, mischievous, restless! (1985:85)

It is possible that Dhlomo, in the context of the 1930s, plays off the royalist sentiments of the British against the Afrikaner republicanist drives.

In this play the king as object of royal praise is transformed into the king as tragic hero. This illustrates the influence of the Greek Classical and Shakespearean tradition, although it also has its roots in African ritual. The line linking the African and the European tradition (as embodied in the heroic and ‘the Shakespearean tradition with which Dhlomo was especially familiar through missionary education) is drawn in the important essays by Dhlomo (1977): “Drama and the African” and “Nature and variety of tribal drama”. In the second essay he elaborates on the dramatic structure of the ritual surrounding a king’s death and relates it to the “mysteries, miracles and moralities” from which Greek tragedy originated. For Dhlomo literature represents civilisation. Linking Africa’s rituals to the Greek classics was important in order to place the African tradition positively within the foundation fiction of civilisation. Civilisation was the criterion that gave entry to the dominant Western political processes in the

early twentieth century. Literature as proof of civilisation was central to Dhlomo in the African’s struggle for national recognition. Literature was seen as especially important because “Geographical and colour boundaries have no power in the field of art. Here the African can speak on the universal level denied him in the political field” (1977:72).

The play “Dingane” deals with the very important intersection of the different South African nationalist movements: the murder of Shaka, the movement of the Cape Emigrants into the interior and the fall of Dingane. Together these events signified the beginning of the destruction of the Zulu empire. Twentieth Century African literature portrays Shaka as a military leader who through wars managed to unite a number of diverse tribes into a nation and Kingdom. In Dhlomo’s essay “Nature and Variety of Tribal Drama” the reign of Shaka is described as follows (based again on the histories of Theal and imbued with the values of the missionaries):

The coming of Shaka brought about great changes and wide repercussions. Life ceased to be hedonistic,. peaceful and safe. The policy of laissez faire succumbed to one of tyranny. People became military-minded. Shaka’s domestic and foreign policy, his great wars of conquest, and his studied ruthlessness transformed tribal life and gave it new patterns of behaviour, new channels of thought, new political ideologies. The demon of war, the menace of invasion, the fear of annihilation, the restlessness of whole tribal migrations and endless group treks, shook the very foundations of African life. and gave birth to a whole catalogue of changes, developments and upheavals (1977:26).

In the first scene the dying Shaka curses Dingane’s reign by referring symbolically to the eventual fall of Dingane at the hands of the invading Boer. The drama describes the events that led up to this fall (his defeat by the combined forces of Mpande, Dingane’s brother, the Swazis, the Cape Emigrants and the Bay Europeans – mainly British traders and officials living in Durban). It further portrays the killing of the Boer leader, Piet Retief and his entourage, from a Zulu point of view. Jeqe, Shaka’s body servant, who according to custom should have died with the king, is the antagonist who in the end kills the fleeing Dingane and so revenges Shaka’s murder. In the play Dingane stands out as the individual. Like a typical Shakespearean character he is tormented by reliving the murder of Shaka in hallucinations, internal monologues, and dreams. These indicate inner mental processes that distinguish the individual as individual in literary discourse. The fearful hallucinations are focused on Jeqe, “Shaka’s shadow”, which “envelops” Dingaan in its power. Jeqe as embodiment of Shaka’s curse, rather than the triumphant armies of the Boers or Swazis, leads to the undoing of Dingane.

In “Dingane” the tragic, but sovereign, king is trapped by and subject to fear, curses and his own mortality, In Kunene’s Emperor Shaka the Great, Shaka also has an obsession with mortality that is expressed in his interest in white medicine. Identity and subjectivity amount to nothing when the subject is confronted with death. Dhlomo’s Dingane eventually realises that “I am a shadow – nothing”. The hero-king expresses an individuality that is essentially tragic. This tragic dimension is sent in the texts by Erasmus Smit and Van Wyk Louw; the subject here is eternal, is an essence. The condemned man in Erasmus Smit’s text must come to “acknowledging God’s justice if God wished to subject and punish him with eternal death” 1972:35 my italics). In Van Wyk Louw’s play all individuality disappears behind the man, woman and youth, i.e. the family unit, which represents the eternal and abstract continuity of the people, nation. It is this abstract nation that inherits eternity, i.e. becomes an essence. Die Dieper Reg shows an interplay between history and the trans-historical eternity. The history depicted in the drama is grounded in an eternal abstraction.

The two central elements identified by most texts as the basis of Afrikaner nationalism are skin colour and the Afrikaans language. The emphasis on language makes Afrikaner nationalism very different from African nationalism with its adoption of English. The African adoption of English in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century reflects an attempt to transcend tribal divisions and the tribal definitions imposed by whites, but it also pointed to a strong identification with British values as embodied in the Christianity of the Missionaries and the Cape parliamentary system which allowed African participation on the basis of property and education. The early nationalist African leaders looked down on the tribal past and embraced modernity. African and Afrikaner nationalism in its early phases were formulated by an educated elite who were often also the founders of their respective literatures in printed form. To the early Afrikaner nationalists the transformation of the Afrikaans language into a written language was of primary importance. This should be seen in the light of the resistance to Afrikaans as language in Dutch and English speaking educated circles. Schreiner saw Afrikaans as the factor that isolated the Afrikaner from the important developments in Europe and as having no literary potential: “so sparse is the vocabulary and so broken are its forms, that it is impossible in the Taal to express a subtle intellectual emotion, or abstract conception, or a wide generalisation; and a man seeking to render a scientific, philosophic, or poetical work in the Taal, would find his task impossible”(1992:78). Gustav Preller’s acclamation of Eugène Marais poem “Wintenag” in 1905, and the emphasis in the first decade of the twentieth century on a metre in Afrikaans poetry that deviates from that of the typical folkish doggerel of the nineteenth century, should be seen as attempts to nurture a type of literature that would repudiate statements like the one by Schreiner.

The transformation of African languages into printed languages preceded the same development in Afrikaans In his Diary Erasmus Smit mentions “a good room for the printing of books in which stood an excellent press” (1972:8) in the missionary’s residence at Moroka, the Barolong Chief’s capital city. Smit made this observation in 1837, four decades before the movement to transform Afrikaans into a printed and literary language. The printing press in Moroka’s city is also an index of the idyllic and petit bourgeois appearance of this city. According to Smit this was due to missionary efforts. He was apparently unaware of the large Tswana cities such as Lattakoo that existed about two decades before his diary entry and which were destroyed by banditry and invasions.

Missionaries established printing presses at a number of places in the early nineteenth century. One of the first printing presses was set up amongst the Xhosa in the Tyumie valley in 1824. It moved to Gwali in 1826 and was named Lovedale. Lovedale became an important centre for the training of African intellectuals. Printing presses were also set up at Beersheba in 1841 and at Morija in 1861 amongst the Sotho. These printing presses published the first grammars of these languages as well as religious books, newspapers and eventually important literary texts. At the missionary schools, especially Lovedale, an educated elite developed who played a major role in the development of modem African nationalism. The first office bearers of the African Native National Congress, John Dube, Pixley Seme, Sol Plaatje and Walter Rubusana, were all mission-educated. These office bearers also played a pivotal role in the development of literature written by Africans.

The transformation of Afrikaans into a printed language and Afrikaner nationalism followed basically the same developmental pattern as African literature and nationalism. The impulse to establish printed African literatures came from missionary stations. Similarly the impetus for an organisation to promote Afrikaans as printed language was religious. According to one of the moving figures, Arnoldus Pannevis, there was a need to have the Bible translated into Afrikaans especially for the Afrikaans-speaking coloureds. S. J. du Toit, who was a student of Pannevis, saw Afrikaans not only as the language of the coloureds, but as the national language of white Afrikaners. On 14 August 1875 he initiated the establishment of the Association of Real Afrikaners (Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners) whose main aim was to develop Afrikaner nationalism, to transform Afrikaans into a printed language and to translate the Bible into Afrikaans. This association printed the first Afrikaans newspaper, Die Patriot, and published Afrikaans grammars, literary texts, histories, etc. Similarly grammars, religious texts, newspapers and eventually more substantial literary texts marked the output of the missionary stations amongst Africans.

There are also significant differences between the Afrikaner and the African movements. The African movement emphasised humanity united on Christian principles. This found expression in the rejection and conflict with the tribal past and in an acceptance of British subjecthood. This is apparent in statements such as “Onward! Upward! into the higher places of civilisation and Christianity – not backwards into the slump of darkness nor downward into the abyss of antiquated tribal systems” (John Dube in Walshe 1987:38) and “We have come … not to ask for independence, but for an admission into British citizenship as British subjects so that we may also enjoy the free institutions which are the foundations and pillars of this magnificent Commonwealth” (Mvabaza, Thema and Ngcayiya, in Walshe 1987: 64). In contrast to this, early Afrikaner nationalism reacted against British subjecthood, and emphasised its separateness. Rooted in the apparent modernism of petit bourgeois republicanism this nationalism nevertheless saw itself as against the emerging modern, material (capitalist) and urban civilisation of the late nineteenth century, while promoting folkish, traditional and rural values. The language was seen as a carrier of these values and this Afrikaans language and literature became the logocentric medium through which the Afrikaner soul was made present. The language was according to D.F. Malan a question of the “existence or non-existence” of the Afrikaner people (Pienaar 1920:2) while Gustav Preller stated that a language gives an “image of the thoughts of a people, a continuously changing diorama of the inner consciousness of a person” (Pienaar 1920:18).

Afrikaner nationalism was promoted and became dominant in South Africa especially because of the privileged position of the Afrikaner with regard to the franchise and parliamentary power that they had exercised since the establishment of the Union. Africans were excluded from this representative politics. This contributed greatly to the Afrikaner and African’s conceptions of identity in the twentieth century.

October 19, 2010

Afrikaans Language, Literature and Identity

Filed under: johan van wyk,literature — ABRAXAS @ 8:54 pm

The following essay explores the close interrelationship between Afrikaner identity, the Afrikaans language and literature.

The first section focuses on the way in which the Afrikaans language was made the constitutive element of the political identity of the Afrikaner, an identity consciously constructed in the early years of the twentieth century by Afrikaner intellectuals. In this process the Afrikaans language was used as a central mobilising factor and was made into a question of the “existence or non-existence” of the Afrikaner (D.F. Malan in Pienaar 1920: 2).

The second section explores the imaginary nature of identity. Through the analogical use of the theory of linguistic identity in the chapter entitled “Identities Realities, Values” from Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1981), identity is seen as a value rather than as a concrete material entity.

The last section relates the development of Afrikaans literature and Afrikaner nationalism to the establishment of Afrikaans as written and printed language. This process is compared with similar developments in other South African languages.


Early attempts to link the development of the Afrikaner’s national consciousness with the Afrikaans language include S.J. du Toit’s Geskiedenis van the Afrikaanse Taalbeweging ver vrind en vyand (1880) and the founding in 1890 of the Zuid-Afrikaanse Taalbond (South African Language Association) with the express purpose of promoting knowledge of the people’s language (“volkstaal”) and developing a national consciousness (Van Niekerk 1920:26).

However it was only in the early years of the twentieth century that Afrikaans was made synonymous with the very being of a particular section of the white speakers of the language. Gustav Preller in an article Laat’t ons toch ernst wezen” (Let it be our serious concern) from De Volkstem of June 1905 said:

(The language) is not an arbitrary construction of grammatical rules and laws, no printed thing, no series of black markings on a piece of paper, but the image of the thoughts of a people, a continuously changing diorama of the inner consciousness of the people (Pienaar 1920:18).

It is during this period – when people like Preller made language synonymous with the existence, the thoughts and the “inner” being of the Afrikaner subject – that literature was developed as an important part of the symbiotic intertext of language and identity.

The furtherance of an own literature became one of the main objectives of the second language movement (1905-1925). Literature, at the second congress of the Afrikaans Language Society in December 1908 was seen as one of the chief means by, which the volk could be reconciled with the language. A people without a literature, a people that did not read, was described by Preller as a deaf-and-dumb people. Preller concluded his article “Laat’t ons toch ernst wezen” by quoting Eugène Marais’ poem

“Winternag”, proving that “sublime feelings” could be expressed in an Afrikaans literature.

Although the language and the literature came to be seen as essential elements of the character of the people, of the volk, the coincidence of language and national identity was not complete as is shown by General Hertzog’s view that Afrikaans and English speakers who believe in the dictum “South Africa firs” are Afrikaners. This was the dominant view until 1934, when the white purified National Party, which saw Afrikaners exclusively as speakers of Afrikaans, was established.

In the early years of the twentieth century many “Afrikaners” also maintained that Dutch and not Afrikaans was the language of the Afrikaner. In the Geref. Maandblad of Sept. 1905 a Prof Marais said referring to Afrikaans:

The kitchen language which is glorified in Pretoria … is not the language of the cultured Afrikaner (Pienaar 1920:23).

Therefore, to the Dutch-orientated Afrikaners, Afrikaans had the image of being the language of the lower strata of society, of being a proletarian language, or the language of a people fast becoming proletarianised in the cities. On the other hand the language was essential in the communication with and the mobilisation of the white Afrikaans-speaking working class. Preller said in this regard:

The totality of our people of which a large section is slowly degenerating into an ignorant proletariat – these we want to uplift, we want to communicate with them through newspaper and book (Pienaar 1920:33).

The attempts to make the Afrikaans-speaking working class participate in nationalist and racist cultural programmes were not always successful. In the 1930s Johanna Cornelius, president of the Garment Workers Union, attacked the attempts by the FAK (The Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Societies) to co-opt the Afrikaans working class. She called it a “plot of capitalists and employers to keep workers backward and fomenting race hatred” (Du Toit 1978:41).

The symbiosis of Afrikaner nationalist ideology and literature was also threatened by divisions amongst Afrikaner literary critics and authors on the issue of aesthetics in relation to ideology. The debate in 1924 concerning the alien references to Greek mythology in Toon van den Heever’s first volume of poetry Gedigte (1919) initiated this division. This division re-emerged in the 1960s and 1970s when the Nationalist government promulgated more stringent censorship laws. Afrikaans writers, organised in the Afrikaans Writer’s Guild, came into direct conflict with the government on this issue.

The symbiotic relationship between literature, language and identity, which early nationalists like Preller tried to establish, was not as complete as is often supposed. The following section explores the imaginary nature of Afrikaner identity, and the way in which this identity is constituted by an unconscious other.


Ferdinand de Saussure’s discussion of linguistic identity in the chapter Identities Realities, Values” from Course in General Linguistics (1981) had far-reaching implications for other disciplines such as structuralist anthropology and poetics.

When does one recognise one linguistic unit as being the same as another in a different context, or attribute identical meaning to the same “slice of sound’ (Saussure 1981:108) in two different sentences? Answering these questions Saussure concluded that the material aspect of a sign (the sound) does not primarily determine identity. The word “Afrikaner”, for instance, although pronounced identically in different sentences and contexts, can express different ideas: apart from referring to a nationality, it can indicate a type of ox or flower. On the other hand, two dissimilar words, “Afrikaner” and “Boer”, can refer to the same concept. Saussure extends his argument by drawing comparisons with facts taken from “outside of speech”:

we speak of the identity of two “8:25 p.m. Geneva-to-Paris” trains that leave at twenty-four hour intervals. We feel that it is the same train each day, yet everything – the locomotive, coaches, personnel is probably different. Or if a street is demolished, then rebuilt, we say that it is the same street even though in a material sense, perhaps nothing of the old one remains (1981:108).

Similarly, immigrants, emigrants, deaths and births point to a degree of material flux in the concept of a nation. The linguistic sign according to Saussure, is in essence a “value” determined by context and the system within which it is located. He explains the relation between identity, value and matter using the example of a chess game. Referring to the “material make-up” of a knight as element of the game he says:

Certainly not, for by its material make-up – outside the square and the other conditions of the game – it means nothing to the player., it becomes a real, concrete element only when endowed with value and wedded to it. Suppose that the piece happens to be destroyed or lost during the game. Can it be replaced by an equivalent piece? Certainly. Not only another knight but even a figure shorn of any resemblance to a knight can be declared identical provided the same value is attributed to it. We see then that in semiological systems like language, where elements hold each other in equilibrium in accordance with fixed rules, the notion of identity blends with that of value and vice versa (198 1:110).

Afrikaner identity does not refer to a fixed material substance or essence, but is a socially and conventionally constructed value within discourse, which changes as history impacts on this discourse: the very existence of the language movements and other institutions which shaped Afrikaner identity indicates its discursive construction in history. In an interesting passage from Dolf van Niekerk’s novel Die Son Struikel (1973) a student, caught during the rebellion of 1914, tells of his wish to become a politician who would teach his people “what they are” (1973:8). This passage brings out the artificial nature of the identity: identity is not something people have within themselves consciously, or that they are born with; it is something they have to be taught, a value that they assume.

Value when ascribed to the term “Afrikaner” implies:

1. a conventional and arbitrary relation between the sound-image “Afrikaner” and the concept “Afrikaner” at a particular point in history;

2. a relation between the concept “Afrikaner” and other similar concepts like “English” or “Zulu”.

Value, then, is governed by the principles of “a dissimilar thing that can be exchanged for the thing of which the value is to be determined” (Saussure 1981:115) (the sign of an identity and its concept) and similar things (various identities) that are compared. The second relation presupposes that identity functions within a world system of identities, and the relationship between these identities within the system is continuously changing because of conflicting economic and ideological forces. Ideological and economic struggles define the value, or values, evoked by identity.

Identity points to both diachrony (the succession of definitions of the Afrikaner in history) and synchrony (the definition dominant in a particular period). Herman Giliomee in the

paper “The Beginnings of Afrikaner Ethnic Consciousness, 1850-1912” from Leroy Vail’s The Creation of Tribalism in Southern A rica (1989) gives a list of such a succession of definitions. According to him the term Afrikaner was used:

1. in the early eighteenth century for slaves or ex-slaves of African descent;

2. in 1830 for those “whether English or Dutch who inhabited the land” (1989:22);

3. but still in this period and thereafter to refer to the half bred descendants of slaves.

Synchrony, the “axis of simultaneities, which stands for the relations of coexisting things and from which the intervention of time is excluded” (Saussure 1981:81) would refer to the definition the Afrikaner at a particular time in relation to other group definitions within the system of national identities, but also to the internal structure of values implied by the identity in a fixed period.

The dominant definition of the Afrikaner in the period of Apartheid implies skin colour and the language Afrikaans – the definition which became dominant after 1934.

This definition was the consequence of earlier, though not definitive formulations by influential authors like Langenhoven who saw Afrikaans as specifically a “white man’s language” and the Afrikaner as exclusively white. In 1914 at a meeting of the Akademie he said:

(Afrikaans) is our most splendid glory, our highest possession: the one and only white man’s language, which was made in South Africa and did not conic ready-made from overseas … it is the one bond which unites us as a nation: the expressed soul of our people (Pienaar 1920:63).

This definition is contradicted by the mixed origins betrayed in the diachrony which operates as an unconscious. It is an unconscious in the sense that it is an index of successive events that have been repressed; in the sense of being a “chapter of history that is marked by a blank or occupied by a falsehood” (Lacan 1982:50) or which, in the words of Lacan, can be retrieved “in monuments”. “in archival documents”, “in semantic evolution”, “in traditions” and in “traces that are inevitably preserved by the distortions necessitated by the linking of the adulterated chapter to the chapters surrounding if’ (1982:50). An unravelling of the history would at the same time be an unravelling of the unconscious, of the “historical turning-points” (Lacan 1982:50) which constitute an identity.

The diachrony (unconscious) of the Afrikaner betrays racial hybridisation and contact. This is seen in the number of Malay-Portuguese and Khoi-Khoi words contained in the Affikaans vocabulary. It is further reflected in grammatical features such as the disappearance of inflections.

When J. Lion Cachet identifies the Aflikaans language with a racially pure “arme Boerenooi” in his poem “Die Afrikaanse Taal” (Opperman 1983:14) he is not aware that the word “nooi” discloses the slave or Malay-Portuguese contribution to the language: the word “nooi” is derived from the Malay “njonjah’ and the Portuguese “donna”.

The Malay-Portuguese origins of the word “nooi” stand in stark contrast to the message of the poem which states that the Cinderella “Afrikaans” is of noble European ancestry:

From Holland my father came

To sunny Africa;

From France, with its vines

My beloved, pretty mother (Opperman 1983:14).

In contrast to the racially exclusive image of the language, the language betrays the history of another. The language, which in the poem is supposed to symbolise the racially pure essence of the “Afrikaner” contains traces of the repressed other. In the Afrikaners’ language is inscribed a history of contact and hybridisation.

The repression of the racially “other ” in Afrikaner identity is indicative of the construction of this identity for the European “other” or the attempts to make this identity conform with An European identity. The Afrikaner identity was developed in a period when European “civilisation” was a central motif, implying the right to democratic government, while everything African was stigmatised. In a context where Afrikaans was scolded for being a “Hotnot’s language” or the bastardised language of “Asian and Mozambican maids” (Pienaar 1920:66) the supporters of the language reacted by emphasising the racial purity of the language. The racism which was made an element of the identity speaks of the way in which the African aspects of the identity were socially traumatised by the discourses of the European Other. Consequently the African and Asian origins of the language were underplayed in the many debates on the emergence of the language by the nationalists. Various institutions were further established to purge the language from all traces of “barbarism” (Pienaar 1920:43).

The early Afrikaner Nationalists, especially in the first two decades of this century, realised that Dutch could not be maintained in South Africa as a means of communication; that the only way to resist the imperialist language policies of the British was by propagating a simplified form of Dutch: an Afrikaans based on the model of Dutch. The 1876 dictum of the first language movement “We write as we speak’ (Die Afrikaanse Patriot 1974:3 facsimile of 1876 edition) became in 1903 “Spell according to pronunciation, but do not deviate without reason from the spelling rules of High Dutch” (Pienaar 1920:12).

The identification with Dutch, instead of English, as European model indicates the threatened economic position of the Afrikaans- or Dutch-speaking small town lawyers, teachers, shop owners and dominees who were losing their clientele to the English dominated cities.

To make Dutch the model was to give Afrikaans European status. There were further conscious efforts by Afrikaner cultural organisations to construct a standard language which was divorced from the Afrikaans of the street and the Afrikaans of the white and black working class. According to Preller, Afrikaans had to reflect only “the sounds heard where Afrikaans is spoken in its most pure form” (Pienaar 1920:123). In this process the development of Afrikaans as a written language played an essential role.


The transformation of Afrikaans into a written language illustrates the process that Derrida called logocentrism (Of Grammatology 1984). He defines logocentrism as the “metaphysics of phonetic writing… which was fundamentally… nothing but the most original and powerful ethnocentrism, in the process of imposing itself upon the world” (1984:3). Logocentrism refers to:

1. the location of the truth within the ego of the individual as thinking subject, to self-consciousness and the internal word in its presumed nearness to the truth, and

2. the expansion of Christianity or truth located in the transcendental God (“The sign and divinity have the same place and time of birth” Derrida 1984:14).

Logocentrism in South Africa relates to the orthographic activities of missionaries in their conversion of the “heathen” languages into written languages so that the Bible could be translated and read by the people speaking these languages. The first evidence of this was the list of Khoi-Khoi words and the translation into Khoi-Khoi of the Lord’s Prayer, The Ten Commandments and the Confession of Faith which N. Witzen conveyed to the German philosopher GM. Leibniz in October 1697 (Nienaber 1963:121).

Logocentrism refers to the very status of a language as a language. Before the introduction of writing into Afrikaans, Afrikaans was not considered a language. It was seen as an “impoverished, dissonant gibberish that is offensive to the ears” (Van Niekerk 1920:9) and which would plunge its speakers into the darkness of barbarism (Van Niekerk 1929:9); it was seen as a language in which it was disrespectful to address God (Van Niekerk 1920:9) and originated with the lower classes in the back streets of Amsterdam (Van Niekerk 1920:23). It was all exterior: the lack of a tradition of phonetic writing implied a lack of memory, truth, being: all concepts which evokes an image of interiority.

Afrikaans had to be transformed into a respectable language, had to be established within the metaphysics of logocentrism. This happened on three levels:

1. transcribing an oral language into a written language;

2. transforming it into a language of the Book by translating the Bible into it; and

3. making it the language of the inner voice of the individual and canonised writer.

This process has many points of comparison with other South Affican languages. Xhosa was transformed into a written language by missionaries at Lovedale as early as 1820 and Sotho at Morija in 1868. The process in Afrikaans started with the establishment of the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners (GRA or Association of Real Afrikaners) in August 1875.

The establishment of the GRA developed from Arnoldus Pannevis’ suggestion that the Bible should be translated into Afrikaans specifically for the coloured population. The British and Foreign Bible society was not sympathetic to the suggestion and in a letter to Pannevis stated:

we are by no means inclined to perpetuate jargons by printing scriptures in them (Steyn 1980:137).

Pannevis attended the founding meeting of the GRA, but never became an active member. S.J. du Toit, the leader of the movement, was a student of Pannevis.

In contrast to Pannevis’ view of Afrikaans as a coloured language, the GRA saw itself as representing the “20 000 white Afrikaners” (Die Afrikaanse Patriot 1974:8) who were not Anglicised in the 70 years subsequent to the British take-over of the administration of the Cape in 1812. The aim of the GRA was to elevate Afrikaans to the status of a written language and in this way transform what they saw as a “deaf-and-dumb” (Die Afrikaanse Patriot 1974:7) people into a political force.

The objective of transforming Afrikaans into a written language was realised in the publication of the periodical Die Afrikaanse Patriot. It was a monthly which appeared for the first time on 15 Jan. 1876. It contained many examples of poetry and articles on customs, traditions, history and the language itself.

Other projects which laid the foundations of Afrikaans as a written language were the printing of grammars, vocabularies, dictionaries and alternative history books. S.J. du Toit’s Die Geskiedenis van ons Land, in die Taal van ons Volk (1877) was a conscious attempt to rewrite South African history from an Afrikaner’s perspective.

Similar types of books and journals appeared in the other South African languages: John Tengu Jabavu, one of the first African nationalists, became the editor of the Imvo Zabantsundu which was launched in Nov. 1884. The Xhosa grammar A Systematic Vocabulary of the Kaffrarian Language in Two Parts; to which is Prefixed an Introduction to Kaffrarian Grammar of 1826 predated by a few decades the first grammars in Afrikaans such as the Eerste Beginsels van die Afrikaanse Taal of 1876 and Fergelykende Taalkunde Fan Afrikaans en Engels of 1882. In the editorial of the first Die A frikaanse Patriot Afrikaners are urged to write Afrikaans by making reference to the fact that other African languages were in the process of becoming written languages:

Write your language! They are writing Kaffir languages and Bushmen clicks presently. Why should we then smother our language? (1974:3).

Like William Wellington Gqoba’s Imbale yaseMbo which gives “a historical account of the scattering of the tribes under Chaka’s reign” (Gérard 1971:37) and “which illustrates a budding awareness of the interdependence of the black peoples faced with the European threat throughout the subcontinent’ (Gérard 1971:37), S.J. du Toit’s Die Geskiedenis van ons Land, in die Taal van ons Volk (1877) represents the premature awakening of a broader South African nationalism. This must explain du Toit’s anti-war propaganda during the Anglo-Boer war and his support for Rhodes.

The many points of contact between Afrikaans and the other African languages in the process whereby they became logocentric languages must be explored further. Printed literatures came to represent particular relationships between poets, national leaders and collective movements. Logocentrism seems to be inscribed in nationalism.

Individual poets were the heroes (Freud 1985b: 170) who elaborated national myths which transformed groups into cohesive entities. Poets like Totius, Jan Celliers, N.P. van Wyk Louw and D.J. Opperman shaped to some degree the collective psychology of the Afrikaner. Tiyo Soga, Sol Plaatje, John Dube and A.C. Jordan did the same for the African nationalist movements. The work of these Afrikaans and African poets was only possible because of the transformation of their respective languages into writing and because of the accompanying logocentric metaphysics.

The respective anthems, the GRA’s “Die Afrikaanse Volkslied” and the ANC’s “Nkosi

Sikelel’i-Aflika” epitomise the comparative positions of the two opposing nationalisms within logocentrism. Both songs see God, that evasive indeterminable source of Western metaphysics, as the protector of the people.

Both show a direct model of the Oedipal Family: God as the Father standing in relation to the people as children. He is the transcendental origin of their melancholic self-alienation. He has become inscribed in their languages. Their languages no longer represent an exterior, worldly, unselfconscious state; no longer did these languages exist in heathendom, as the languages of sailors, slaves, nomadic farmers and tribes outside the boundaries of Western metaphysics.

October 17, 2010

Killing a Story: The Discourse of Cannibalism in the History and Literature of the Basotho

Filed under: johan van wyk,literature — ABRAXAS @ 11:53 pm


This paper explores the theme of cannibalism in the historical and literary texts relating to the Basotho. It points to the link between cannibalism and the historical period the lifaqane, which was an heroic epoch gone out of control. It shows how the repression of cannibalism is inscribed in the founding moment of the Basotho nation, therefore how it links to Basotho identity. Other aspect explored is the link between cannibalism and the supernatural (the use of human flesh in medicine and ritual), but also on how cannibalism was used as literary motif by the SeSotho within the contesting ideologies of traditional SeSotho world views and Christianity. It further touches on the problem of the historicity and factuality of cannibalism, as well as its link to the mouth as performative instrument in story telling.


The Tsonga people of South Africa has a custom of spitting into a fire after telling a story. It is a way of killing the story so that it does not follow them into their dreams. [1]

A character which often features in these stories is the ogre, half human and half animal, and living on human flesh. The ogre, or cannibal, belongs to realm of the animal rather than human society. He, or sometimes she, lives in the wilderness, outside of society. As part of the animal world, and associated with the lion and hyena[2], the cannibal becomes also part of the sacred world[3]. The lion is often seen as a transformed shaman in the cultures of the hunter-gatherers[4] and this belief was possibly shared by the Bantu-speaking groups such as the Tsonga or the Basotho. The word for cannibal in SeSotho “modimo” also refers to God. The cannibal of tales and religion, though, is different from the cannibal in history and it is part of the intention of this article to explore the link if there is any.

A further question is what is the link between the telling of stories where the mouth is such an important performative instrument (stories are told with the mouth) and the motif of cannibalism itself (as one eats with the mouth). Within pre-Christian societies where associative links between things had a determining impact this is an important question. I ask this question as historical cannibalism, possibly a food economy somewhere between hunting and gathering and the domestication of cattle[5], as occurrence on syntagmatic level of consciousness moves further and further into the associative realm – into the realm of stories and discourse. I’m interested in the transition and differences between “real” event, which can never be recaptured in its full presence and which we cannot talk about without doubt, or without questioning the motives of our sources, and the associative chain which is brought about as it moves further and further into memory and the unconscious. As distance develop between historical event and ourselves it becomes metaphor for more and more things. C. Richard King[6] for instance discusses the problem of the association of cannibalism with capitalism on the basis that it is a mode of consumption depending on the exploitation of an underclass in diacritics. Through the same use of associative thinking (a less politically correct) relationship between oral societies and cannibalism can be made as the mouth is foregrounded in both. In these stories a cannibal or trickster often eat the grandmother or the children. These stories play with the desire for omnipotence as the children to whom they are told desire to introject the grandmother who tells the story[7].

While associative thinking is tolerated (as current literary theory shares much with the type of thinking operative in pre-Christian times, except that it retains Christian petty morality) the factuality of the original event comes more and more under question on the basis that the past cannot be brought back into full presence, but also because it is ideologically suspect. Cannibalism is seen as an invention of missionaries to justify the imposition of their world view on their heathen subjects and is part of the conspiracy by the West.

It is in the light of the above that the similarities and differences between history, folklore, ritual, mythology and literature as discourses, and the process whereby history becomes folklore through the dream-work of displacement and condensation becomes important. For this paper the question of the reality or the correctness of the events described is not as important as the fact that the presence of the theme in SeSotho texts point to it as a constituent of the unconscious identity of the people.

The link between the “real” and the associative points to a link between the syntagmatic (historical event) and the paradigmatic (unconscious associations). This link is very pertinent to the literary, historic and folkloric discourses of Lesotho, where there was a cannibalist historical moment in the 1820s, where the ogre is an important folkloric character[8] and where at the metaphoric level the people of Lesotho are being cannibalised by the South African mines and South African imperialism.

In this paper the theme of cannibalism will be looked at historically and as theme in the folklore and literature of the Basotho where as part of the group mythology it is one of central elements of the Basotho identity formation[9].

Cannibalism in Basotho History

The Basotho are people living in a small mountainous country called Lesotho in the centre of South Africa, but who managed through patronage of Great Britain to remain politically independent from South Africa, although they are economically sustained by wages earned by the men on the South African gold mines. As a nation the Basotho came about as a merging of many smaller and dispersed tribes during the unsettling wars of the nineteenth century, especially during the lifaqane (difaqane in Zulu, from the name of the Mfengu refugees. Mfengu derives from the word fenguza expressing “their need for sustenance” or meaning “we want”[10]), when the wandering refugee tribes fleeing the Zulu king Shaka (especially the AmaNgwane under Matiwane and the Matebele under Msilikatze, who in their turn dispersed the AmaHlubi under Pakalita) invaded the territories occupied by the Basotho.

Thomas Mofolo described the lifaqane as follows in his book Chaka[11]:

Ahead of Chaka’s armies the land was beautiful, and was adorned with villages and ploughed fields and numerous herds of cattle; but upon their tracks were charred wastes without villages, without ploughed fields, without cattle, without anything whatsoever, except occasionally some wild animals. Wild dogs and hyenas roamed about in large packs following or flanking Chaka’s armies, and stopping wherever they stopped in the knowledge that that way they would obtain food without sweat or labour, provided free by someone else. The land became wild and unfriendly and threatening; the smell of death was upon the earth and in the air. The fields lay fallow for lack of people to plough them, because the moment someone dug his field, Chaka would see him, and that would be the end. Where villages once stood was utter desolation, the ghostly sight of which one’s hair stand on end.

It was at that time that, on account of hunger, people began to eat each other as one eats the flesh of a slaughtered animal; they hunted each other like animals and ate each other; they started because of hunger, but afterwards continued with their cannibalism out of habit. The first cannibal was a Zulu called Ndava, who lived near the place where the city of Durban now stands. And then after a few years the persecutions and sufferings from the east climbed over the Maloti mountains and entered Lesotho, and there too cannibals came into being because of hunger. This is the worst of all the evil things of those days, and that too arose because of Chaka, originator-of-all-things-evil.

The missionary Ellenberger[12] states that in this period the cannibals were present everywhere in the area where the BaSotho lived. He calculated that there were about 4000 of them and that in the period 1822 to 1828 about 288 000 people died being eaten by their fellows[13].

The tribes who indulged in cannibalism according to Ellenberger were the Bakhatla of Tabane, and especially the Bakhatla ruled by the chief Rakotsoane at Sefikeng, the Bamaiyane, the Bafokeng of Ratjotjosane, who lived in a cave on “the spurs of Mautse, facing Leribe” and the Mazizi at Sekubu. The district of Mangane (Bloemfontein in modern times) at the end of 1822 “was infested with cannibals” [14]. In a cave at Mohale’s Hoek there was a brotherhood of twenty-seven cannibals under the leader of Motleyoa. At Sefate and on the banks of the River Nkoe (Cornelius Spruit) there were villages of cannibals. The Sotho who were not cannibals were the bigger tribes who managed to retain their food supplies, especially their cattle. They were the Batsueneng of Khiba, the Bamokoteli under the leadership of Moshesh and the Baphuthi of Mokuoane.
According to Basotho tradition the great Bakuena chief and travelling sage, Mohlomi, prophesised the coming of the lifaqane and cannibalism on his death bed with the words “After my death, a cloud of red dust will come out of the east and consume our tribes. The father will eat his children. I greet you all, and depart to where our fathers rest”[15].

The prophesy was inspired by an encounter he had among the Bamahlabaneng who lived in the Zoutpansberg area in the north of South Africa during one of his travels. The encounter is described as follows:

Mohlomi arrived at one of their villages unexpectedly about noon. The sun was very hot, and every one in the village slept. Nothing was to be seen but the cattle lying in the shade, and one heard no sound but the barking of the dogs and the buzzing of the flies. But little by little the inhabitants came out of their huts, and the chief appeared and invited Mohlomi to sit down in the shade with his people. To their great horror, he offered the travellers some human flesh to eat[16].

According to Ellenberger cannibalism amongst the Basotho originated among the Bakhatla who intermarried with the Bavenda whose custom it was to eat prisoners of war. The Bakhatla “hunted their fellow-creatures, caught them in traps, and declared all they caught to be prisoners of war”[17].

Cannibalism is attributed to the lifaqane with the invasion of Nguni groups under firstly the AmaHlubi under the king Pakalita, fleeing from the invading AmaNgwane of Matiwane who was dispersed by Chaka. Pakalita in his turn disperses the Batlokoa of queen Mantatisi who in her turn create havoc under other Basotho tribes such as the Bafokeng of Tseele, then the Bafokeng of Patsa, the Bamolibeli of Ramatekoa, the Bamokoteli of Moshesh at Butha-Buthe, the Bahlakoana, the Makhetha and Batloung, the Bahlakoana and the Bafokeng of Patsa whom she attacks raiding their cattle and destroying their harvests. She became “a giantess with one eye in her forehead, who loosed swarms of bees in advance of her soldiers” [18].

But Ellenberger also states that “cannibalism” among the Basotho was present even before the invasions by Mantatisi, Pakalita and Matiwane. When the Bafokeng’s livelihood was destroyed in raids by Matiwane’s father, Masopha, they formed, under their leader Letuka, “into bands of robbers, trekking about the country with their women, children, and cattle, and robbing and murdering such as were not strong enough to resist”[19]. They attacked the Bamaiyane who formerly protected them “and utterly ruined them, driving them ultimately to cannibalism” [20].

Another event points to the fact that cannibalism came about due to cattle raiding among Basotho themselves is the ruining of the Bafokeng of Makholokoane by Moshesh’s brother, Mohale. After raiding their cattle Mohale taunted them with the advice “to eat each other” after which “the ruined tribe immediately became most bloodthirsty cannibals, and a terrible scourge to the country”[21]. They preyed on women and children who in the early mornings searched for edible roots and bulbs on the river-banks and then drove them across the Caledon river to a cave in the spurs of the Mautse. Here they slaughtered, skinned and ate their prisoners. They made clothes of the skins[22] .

When Moshesh was besieged by the Batlokoa at Butha-Buthe, he and his people decided to move to the mountain near Quiloane. He broke through the Batlokoa by diverting their attention with the help of the Zulus of Sepetja, “a clan of brigands and cannibals” [23] who surprise-attacked the Batlokoa at the night inflicting heavy loss on them. After this the Batlokoa decided to abandon the siege and Moshesh migrated to Thaba-Bosiu. On this journey some of the people were falling behind including Moshesh’s grandfather, Peete. These were attacked by a band of cannibals. When the rescue party came to help them all they found was blood and some garments.

At Thaba Bosiu, Moshesh increased his following “by collecting round him the fragments of tribes and broken men whom war, famine, and cannibalism had scattered far and wide” [24]. Many years later, in August 1843 (and reported in the Journal des Missions of 1843 [25]), as part of a policy of reconciliation, Moshesh expressed his regret for the taunt by his brother directed at the Bafokeng “to eat each other” in the presence of Rakotsoane’s cannibals and he said “We, the masters of the country, did drive you to live on human flesh, for men cannot eat stones” (Ellenberger 1992:218) [26] .

Rakotsoane, a Bakhatla chief who lived at Sefikeng and ruled over several villages, a man of “gigantic stature, whose fierce eyes were hidden under dark, bushy eyebrows” [27] and therefore resembling the ogre of the folklore, was the leader of the cannibals who ate Peete, the grandfather of Moshesh, during the retreat of the Bamokoteli from Butha-Buthe in 1824 [28].

Moshesh’s eldest son could not be circumcised until his ancestor’s grave was purified, but there was no grave to purify.[29] In 1828 Moshesh ordered Rakotsoane and his followers to Thaba Bosiu where he rubbed the purification offal over them as they were “the tomb of the departed” [30] and he gave the cannibals some cattle to stop their custom to eat people. This event stands out as the beginning of the end of cannibalism in this area, although it continued “in out-of-way places” as late as 1836 [31]. The event is also commented on in a popular song by Letsema Matsemela “In the time of cannibals”:

This song reminds me of the old days,

When I was still a boy, I Letsema;

I found places named with the names of cannibals,

So when I asked the older people to tell me,

Why in the end (they) are named in this way,

They said, “There cannibals stayed.”

“So what finished them?”

They said, “King Moshoeshoe slaughtered cattle,

And collected them all.

Then on arrival he gathered them at his home,

He said, ‘Look, men, the food to be eaten,

it’s these cattle –

You shouldn’t eat people,’ and they understood”[32]

This incident points to an interesting substitution of cattle for people as food supply, something which needs extensive exploration and relates to questions of the relationship between human and animal sacrifice in ancient times[33].

In black culture there is a strong link between cattle, people and ancestors. The head of the family, for instance, is buried in the cattle-fold and the slaughtering of cattle at ceremonial occasions is symbolic of the eating of ancestors (see Pauw[34]). As in Christianity the eating of bread and the drinking of wine during Holy Communion points to the symbolic consumption of Christ’s body. It points to the resolution of oedipal conflict in the assimilation of the father’s body in a universal recurrence of what Freud termed the “original sin”[35] or the killing of the father by the brotherhood. In Sotho culture the dead is buried in an ox-hide and an ox is killed for the purification of those who are present at the funeral and the gall-bladder of the ox is attached to a wrist of the person who prepared the corpse. The master of the ceremony has the right to take the skin and the head of the animal, while the flesh is eaten by all those present. The cattle of the deceased are made to pass over the grave, and afterwards are sacred to the family [36]. Cattle further constitute the bride-price men has to pay in order to acquire women and it is for this reason that cattle are a sought-after commodity and cattle-raiding becomes part of the culture an essential element of conflict. It played a very strong role in the lifaqane.

Cannibalism and SeSotho literature

A link between cannibalist practices and Sesotho litsomo (oral tales and myths) is drawn by one of the Christian converts whose confession combines apocalyptic motifs with motifs of social rebirth as happens in the tale of Kholumolumo[37] (this tale is important part of Basotho initiation[38]). The convert, who was a cannibal, stated :

The hand of the Amangwane was heavy on the land; all the tribes were at war with each other, and every one was a fugitive. Day by day men began to eat men, and I too tasted human flesh. From that time I shunned my fellows, dreading to be eaten too. What horrible days followed that on which I cut off the arm of my mother’s brother and cooked and ate it! I also ate my father’s brother, every bit of him, and many others. Even as Ezekiel saw in a vision the dried bones of a whole nation draw near to each other and assume form, so, with terror, do I see the bones I have picked reunite with their fellows and rise up in judgement against me. I see the figure of one with a reim round his neck; another rises from the earth with my knife in his breast; a third appears without an arm; while another indicates an old pot wherein I cooked his flesh. Woe is me, I am afraid! I am Kholumolumo, the horrible beast of our ancient fable, who swallowed all mankind and the beasts of the field[39].

The cannibal is a figure in the heroic epoch of Basotho history and features widely as folkloric figure in the oral tales of the various South African groups. The hero, and the heroic, is in essence part of literary terminology and applied to literary texts such as epic literature derived from oral lore and embedded in a particular cultural and historical milieu, which is very different from the Christian epoch in its values and world outlook. The term is used by H.M. Chadwick & Nora K. Chadwick[40] who derived it from Hesoid’s fourth stage in human development. This stage referred to a period of universal warfare and mass migrations of people[41]. Rather than exploring the term in relation to its cultural milieu, the Chadwicks narrowly explore it in terms of the formal aspects[42] of Homeric and Teutonic narrative poetry and the relation between the oral and the written. They do, though, see that heroic poetry is part of a bigger heroic age. D.P. Kunene saw that the concept could be used to describe traditional Basotho poetry in his book Heroic Poetry of the Basotho[43]. Although the boasts he investigates are not quite in the form of Heroic epic poetry, it is clearly situated in an African heroic milieu. The following are elements of the Heroic Age as found in Basotho culture and traditional literature (and also present in the later historical literature by converts such as Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka[44]):

1. An aristocratic milieu determined by ancestry. Ancestor worship plays an important part in SeSotho religion. Memory of ancestors are kept alive through genealogies which are an integral part of the boasts. The boasts laud own achievements and glories of ancestors especially in combat. They are often produced in a state of intoxication.

2. The identity of the individual and family are more important than nations, although empire building[45] or the incorporating of more and more tribute-paying tribes became increasingly important.

3. Warfare and cattle raiding are essential parts of life (at the annual first fruit festival of the Zulu the enemies to be attacked in the coming winter are identified[46]),

4. Social values are bound up with courage (determined by physical strength), cunning (as exemplified by the trickster figure in the folklore) loyalty, generosity and revenge.

5. The heroic worldview is tragic, if not absurdist. Witchcraft, magic and omens play a determining role.

In an Heroic Age the eating of parts of a slain enemy on the battle field to internalise the bravery of the enemy, or to use parts of the human body for medicine and various other rituals[47] are quite common and are described in novels such as Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka[48] and in Blanket Boy’s Moon by A.S. Mopeli-Paulus and Peter Lanham[49].

Factuality when writing Chaka was not as important to Mofolo as the literary structuring of the novel, and he uses the idea of the magical use of human flesh in the text as part of his characterization techniques. It is a book about evil personified by the character of King Chaka. By indulging in this practise of taking in human flesh for the sake of power King Chaka sells his humanity or soul as becomes an example of evil. It also had the ideological by-product, as Mofolo was a Sotho and Chaka a Zulu, of making King Chaka into the originator of cannibalism. The taking in of human flesh is part of the initiation of the protagonist to Evil. The tragic king sells his soul to attain power by choosing the murder of his mistress Noliwa. Her body became an ingredient in the medicine which gave him power. The fact that the king has a choice creates a degree of tension in the developing plot[50].

Blanket Boy’s Moon (1953) by Lanham and Mopeli-Paulus, a picaresque adventure story, is about the refugee from the law, Monare, who according to traditional custom was ordered by his chief to commit a ritual murder (liretlo) so that the body parts of the victim could be used for a “medicine horn” necessary for the establishment of a new village[51]. Under the new colonial rule this practise is outlawed and Monare becomes a sought-after murderer. The book is essentially about the clash of colonial and traditional values and the lireto is used as an ingredient in the plot to illustrate this dilemma.

Another interesting example of the use of body parts for magical purposes comes from the great text of the lifaqane, namely the History of Matiwane and the Amangwane Tribe as told by Msebenzi to his kinsman Albert Hlongwane[52]. This is not a Sotho document, but is derived from an Amangwane account, and it is interesting in that, unlike most of Sotho literature, Moshesh himself becomes implicated in cannibalist practices, or at least in the use of human flesh for medicinal purposes. The text is an historic account by an oral bard (with many of the formal features of the heroic epic as defined by the Chadwicks) of the Amangwane migration across the Drakensberg and the various battles they engaged in. It describes how Madilika flees with the a spear in his body to Moshesh. His body is found close to Thaba-bosiu, Moshesh’s mountain fortress, by Basotho herders and Moshesh orders them to scrape up “everything, even the very soil”[53]. Ellenberger records that Matiwane accused Moshesh of stealing the corpse “in order to make medicine of it” [54].

Most of the information we have of cannibalism derives from missionaries[55] and missionary-educated Basotho. The missionary presence in Lesotho points to a great turning point and conversion from heroic values to the values of Christianity and this turning point is strongly present in the Sesotho literature (which was mainly a product of missionary educated authors). Much of this literature was somehow influenced by earlier missionary articles. The question could be asked to what extent is the theme of cannibalism part of a missionary and racist conspiracy, derived from fundraising motives of missionaries. In order to secure needed funds it was necessary to exaggerate the condition of the “heathens” to the missionary societies in Europe funding them.

It is clear reading Ellenberger’s text, which is based on innumerable oral accounts[56] by BaSotho informants (as well as other missionaries’ accounts), that a great degree of displacement and condensation regarding historical events occurs as inevitably happens when material based on memory and telling is used. He often refers to informants he knew and interviewed personally such as Mabokoboko[57] and Neme[58]. The question of the “reality” of the reports of cannibalism could only be settled by archaeology. All the places where so-called cannibals lived are known and the evidence should still be there[59]. The point, though, is that the theme of cannibalism is widely present in SeSotho literature and this literature seems to indicate a great connection between the repression of cannibalism, and the heroic world of which it was part, and Basotho identity. Moshesh’s reconciliation with the cannibals, changing their eating habits, and incorporating them into what became the BaSotho nation exemplifies this founding moment of BaSotho identity.

E. Motsamai’s accounts[60] of recorded escapes from cannibals is an attempt to record testimonies of survivors of an apocalyptic moment (and is possibly a forerunner to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission). It must be pointed out that there was a strong mystic presence in the historical lore of the Basotho, even before the missionaries came, in the figure of the travelling sage Mohlomi (who probably served as the model for the mystic protagonist of Thomas Mofolo’s Moeti wa Botjhabela[61].

But cannibalism itself in the heroic world seems to point to an extreme form of mysticism. The word for cannibal in SeSotho, “Modimo,” (or “Molimo”) is also the word for God, hyena[62] and Ancestor (also according to Ellenberger for “Invisible Being”) and explains how strongly it is tied up with the supernatural, that which is beyond reason, but also the melancholic[63] origins of these people in the time of the difaqane. The Basotho saw God as a “malignant spirit, invisible and wicked; a pitiless master, residing in a subterranean cavern, always working evil” [64].

The cannibal, like God, is invisible, in that the victims can never testify, can never bring evidence of what happened to them unless they escaped. And then it is always a question of the truth. Does the blood and garments found by the search party for Moshesh’s grandfather, Pete, constitute evidence of cannibalism?

The reality of cannibalism is a “reality” of conjecture and stories. Stories that should be spit on so that their invisible, but threatening presence, could be killed.

[1] C.T.D. Marivate, Tsonga Folktales: Form, Content and Delivery (Volume One). (Pretoria: M.A. Thesis. University of South Africa, 1973), pp. 26-27.

[2] As in E. Motsamai’s Mehla ya madimo (Morija: Sesuto Book Depot & Press, 1954)

[3] “As soon as human beings give rein to animal nature in some way we enter the world of transgression forming the synthesis between animal nature and humanity through the persistence of the taboo; we enter a sacred world, a world of holy things.” G. Bataille 1984. Death and Sensuality. Walker and Company, New York

[4] See David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson Images of Power (Johannesburg: Southern Book Publishers, 1989), p.132.

[5] I say this on the basis that cannibal stories are universal, and on the presumption that there is an historical unconscious (real) operative in their telling. Cannibalism must have been practised in different parts of the world at different times.

[6] C. Richard King, “The (Mis)uses of Cannibalism in Contemporary Cultural Critique,” diacritics, Vol 1, No. 1 (2000) pp. 106-123.

[7] See popular story of the trickster who cooks and eats the grandmother “The story of Hlakanyana” from George McCall Theal, Kaffir Folk Lore. (Leipzig: A Twietmeyer and London: W. Swan Sonnenschein & Co. 1884), pp. 84-110.

[8] Although in many stories predating the real historical cannibalism. The same stories occur in many Bantu languages pointing to the possibility of having been part of Bantu society before it dispersed at various stages or to extensive intermarrying and contact. If these stories are rooted in some historical real it is in a distant past and extensively transmuted by the dream-work operations of condensation and displacement)

[9] (reading Freud one has to acknowledge that at unconscious level it is a central element in the human identity formation which so much depends on the introversion of others and the outside world. Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), p. 72 and pp. 116-117.

[10] Henry Francis Fynn, The Diary of Henry Francis Fynn (Pietermaritzburg: Shuter & Shooter, 1986), pp. 22-23.

[11] Thomas Mofolo was born in 1876 and died in 1948 and was educated at the Morija Mission. He wrote the novels Moeti wa Botjhabela (Morija: Morija Press, 1907)

and Pitseng (Morija: Morija Press, 1910) before Chaka appeared belatedly in 1924. It was apparently partly written in 1910. Thomas Mofolo, Chaka (Oxford: Heinemann International, 1988), p. 136.

[12] D. Fred. Ellenberger, History of the Basuto: Ancient and Modern (Morija: Morija Museum & Archives 1992).

[13] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p. 218 and p. 225.

[14] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.219.

[15] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.97

[16] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p. 94.

[17] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.218.

[18] William F. Lye and Colin Murray, Transformations on the Highveld: The Tswana and Southern Sotho (Cape Town & London: David Philip, 1980) p. 37.

[19] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.122.

[20] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.122.

[21] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, pp. 128-129.

[22] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, pp. 218-219

[23] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.145

[24] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.150

[25] S. Rolland, “Station de Béerséba – Lettre de M. Rolland, sous la date du 10 aoút 1843”, Journal des Missions évangéliques de Paris, Vol. 18 (1943), pp. 401-414.

[26] This story is often recounted in Sotho books, but some times with significant differences. Peete, the grandfather of, Moshoeshoe, was eaten by members of the Nthatisi and Rakotsoane clans during the starvation caused by the difaqane. Mopeli Paulus and Lanham writes:”when Moshoeshoe was told of the eating of his grandfather by these tribesmen, he said, “The people of Nthatisi and Rakotsoane Clans have chosen themselves to become the grave of my grandfather – leave them! Let them be! For if I order them to be killed, then shall I also be ordering the destruction of my father’s grave.” A.S. Mopeli-Paulus and Peter Lanham Blanket Boy’s Moon (London: Collins 1953) pp.302-303.

[27] Arbouset in Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.219.

[28] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.227.

[29] This event has a counterpart in the European philosopher Montaigne’s discussion of cannibalism in his Essays. He writes about cannibals in Brazil who use to feast on their Prisoners of War and being taunted by one such prisoners: “These muscles…this flesh, and these veins are yours, poor fools that you are! Can you not see the substance of your ancestors’ limbs is still in them? Taste them carefully, and you will find the flavour is that of your own flesh.” (Michel Eyquem Montaigne, Essays (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981), p.117.

[30] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.227.

[31] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.228.

[32] David B. Coplan, In the Time of Cannibals: The Word Music of South africa’s Bastho Migrants (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994), p.3.

[33] This reminds of the King Minos, who became judge of the underworld, whose wife mated a bull from which a half human, half bull Minotaur was born. The Minotaur lived on being fed an annual tribute of seven Athenian youths and maidens. The myth as a condensation contains the elements of the human, the bull and cannibalism and an inversion of the animal eating human beings.

[34] B.J.F. Pauw, Sex, Custom and Psychopathology: A Study of South African Pagan Natives (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951), p.97.

[35] Sigmund Freud, The Origins of Religion (Harmondworth: Penguin Books, 1985), p.216 and p. 330 and 385.

[36] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.262.

[37] Long ago, they said, there appeared a marvellous monster, with a long tongue, which ate all the people, which ate all the animals. This monster would pick up a man at a distance or a thing at a distance by means of its long tongue, and swallow it. It swallowed people alive, and an ox and any animal the same, all things indeed which walked. It roamed about the earth thus, until it finished human beings and animals. Because of the weight of its belly, it sat down, and gathered in by its tongue only.

When all the people were finished up and the animals likewise, a single pregnant woman escaped, and hid herself. She was confined whilst still in hiding, and delivered of a male child. That child puzzled his mother much, even when he was still young. He was hardly born before he had teeth. He quickly asked his mother where the people had gone, and his mother told him. Then he fashioned a bow, he fashioned arrows broad like a razor and sharp and said: “Mother, lead me to that monster, that I may kill it. ” His mother refused, but at length her son overcame her, and she took him.

When they were still a long way off, Kholumolumo saw them. It stretched out its tongue and tried to lick them up but the boy stabbed its tongue and cut it; it tried to lick them up, he stabbed its tongue and cut it; it tried to lick them up, the boy stabbed its tongue and cut it; it tried to lick them up, he stabbed its tongue and cut it, and so he went on cutting it; it grew shorter and shorter, and they came nearer and nearer. Kholumolumo nearly went mad with pain and with desire to swallow a human being. It was in a furious rage, its eyes became red, they were as blood, but the weight of its belly overcame it, it could not stand, it could not fight. The boy kept on coming nearer and nearer, and at length he killed it. And then he took a knifeand plunged it into its belly.

The greatness of that monster’s belly was more than Basutoland of those times, that is to say, that the boy could not see the other side of it. He saw only the side he was on. When he pierced its belly a person screamed from inside and said: “Do not pierce me, make a hole over there.” When he tried to pierce there, a dog howled; when He wanted to pierce in a different place an ox bellowed. In the end he just made a tear without listening to the cries of those in the belly. Out came people, cattle, dogs – everything living took the opportunity to come out. Then all the people thanked that boy, and they even made him their chief. But soon jealousy arose among the men who had been saved by the boy, at being governed by a boy, and finally they murdered him.

Thomas Mofolo The Traveller to the East (Nendeln: Kraus reprint 1973) pp.35-36.

[38] Lord Raglan in Jocasta’s Crime: An Anthropological Study (London: Watts & Co, 1940) pp. 106-107 described myth as the spoken part of the initiation rituals. It links to initiation as individuation, the birth of the hero as individuation process The initiation ritual, according to Raglan is the symbolic recreation of the world at regular intervals, after the physical birth of the individual followed by social rebirth in initiation. This recreation or rebirth of the world is especially pertinent after apocalyptic moments. Senkantana, is also model for Thomas Mofolo’s main character in Moeti wa Botjhabela (Morija: Morija Press, 1907) as someone in search of social rebirth..

[39] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, pp. 225-226.

[40] The concept “Heroic Age” is explored extensively in H.M. Chadwick and Nora K. Chadwick’s The Growth of Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932).

[41] The concept also had currency in psychoanalysis. See Otto Rank’s The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (New York, 1914).

[42] These definitive aspects are the fact that Heroic poetry is primarily narrative stories of adventure and composed for entertainment consisting of a uniform type of verse unbroken by stanza’s which includes direct speech, with vivid description, an abundance of epithets, concentrating on a brief period of action, focussing on individuals in an aristocratic milieu with references to both historical and unhistorical elements.

[43] D.P. Kunene, Heroic Poetry of the Basotho (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971)

[44] Thomas Mofolo, Chaka (Oxford: Heinemann International, 1988).

[45] According to the missionary Ellenberger, The History of the Basuto, the lifaqane had its origins in the policy of the Mtwetwa chief, Dingiswayo, to “unify” or subdue all the surrounding independent tribes. Dingiswayo gave protection to the young Chaka of the Zulus who became a commander in Dingiswayo’s armies. Dingiswayo did not support Chaka claim to his father Senzagakona’s position when Senzagakona died, and Chaka betrayed and killed Dingiswayo in a war against Zwide. He continued to pursue the policy of the conquering of neighbouring tribes, but with much more cruelty.

[46] Fynn, Diary p.305.

[47] Such as initiation. “They were given a kind of porridge to eat, in which, it is sometimes said, a little human flesh was boiled, in order to render them bold and courageous. They were also, of course, inoculated with the powder from the horn, with a view to rendering them invincible in battle.” Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.282.

[48] The book achieved international fame when it was translated into English in 1931 by F.H. Dutton and again in 1981 by D.P. Kunene (I used the 1988 edition of this translation for this presentation). The book is historical fiction and was accused of containing “exaggerations” by N.R, Thoahlane in the Leselinyana la Lesotho in February 1927 while the Reverend S.M. Malale questioned the historical correctness of the book in July 1928 [see Daniel P. Kunene Thomas Mofolo and the Emergence of Written Sesotho Prose (Johannesburg: Ravan Press 1989) p.xiv) to which Mofolo replied: “I am not writing history, I am writing a tale, or I should rather say I am writing what actually happened, but to which a great deal has been added, and from which a great deal has been removed, so that much has been left out, and much has been written that did not actually happen, with the aim solely of fulfilling my purpose in writing this book “(Kunene, Thomas Mofolo, p. xv).

[49] A.S. Mopeli-Paulus and Peter Lanham Blanket Boy’s Moon (London: Collins 1953) A.S. Mopeli-Paulus, born in 1913, is a descendant of the great Basuto chief, Moshoeshoe, and was member of the Ruling House in Lesotho. His co-author Peter Lanham was a pioneer in radio broadcasting in South Africa. Both of them were active as soldiers in the Second World War.

[50] Chaka’s potency is improved by a medicine containing “the liver of a lion, the liver of a leopard, and the liver of a man who had been a renowned warrior in his lifetime” (Mofolo Chaka p.14) and it was “constantly” added to his food (Mofolo Chaka p.14) and for ultimate power he has to sacifice his beloved, Noliwa, so that his warriors could “eat food mixed with medicines containing the blood of someone” (Mofolo Chaka p.100) that he loves dearly. In this way this book portrays Chaka as the original emblem of the cannibalism which came to plague the Sotho as their food supplies and cattle were destroyed by the invading Zulu armies. The formation of empires and kingdoms through the violent absorption of smaller tribes seems to be symbolised by cannibalism.

[51] With the establishment of a new village, according to ancient custom, a medicine horn must be prepared “to ward off bewitchment, and ensure prosperity and success to the new community.” (Lanham & Mopeli-Paulus Blanket Boy’s Moon p.98). This medicine horn required “as one of its magic ingredients the blood and flesh of a man of the Bafokeng clan” (Lanham & Mopeli-Paulus Blanket Boy’s Moon p.98).

[52] N.J. van Warmelo (ed.), History of Matiwane and the Amangwane Tribe as told by Msebenzi to his kinsman Albert Hlongwane (Pretoria: Department of Native Affairs, Ethnological Publications, 1938)

[53] Van Warmeloo, History of Matiwane, p.45.

[54] Van Warmeloo, History of Matiwane, p.45.

[55] Most of the early reports on cannibalism appearing in French and German missionary magazines such as Journal des Missions évangéliques de Paris and Berliner Missionsberichte in the 1830s and 1840s.

[56] D.F. Ellenberger was born in 1835 in Switzerland and becoming a missionary with the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society in 1856 and came to Lesotho in 1860. He was active at the mission station at Bethesda, and he was in charge of the organisation of the mission’s printing operations. He trained Adophe Mabille printing skills which were used in the printing of the church newspaper Leselinyana la Lesotho (important for South African literary history as it serialised much of the early literary texts in SeSotho) at Morija in 1863. After war between Lesotho and the Freestate farmers, Ellenberger had to leave Bethesda to Masitise. During this war Lesotho requested protectorate status from Britain, and the Sotho became British subjects. He had a great interest in the traditions and history of the Sesotho and collected a large amount of documents (printed documents but also transcriptions of Sotho oral traditions in his Masitise Archives. The History of the Basotho: Ancient & Modern was a synthesis (with the help of a variety of people participating: his wife, JC MacGreggor the assistant Commisioner in the Leribe district) of the material he collected during his life. It contains the history of the Sesotho up to the period of 1830, before the modernising influences of the missionaries which started in 1833.

[57] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.221.

[58] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.220

[59] Politically, though, this is a taboo area. Trying to find out what the state of archaeology is with regard to cannibalism I was told that nothing has been done in this area. In South Africa archaeology is very much focussed on the “origins of man” type of excavations or the more popular hunter-gatherer rock art sites.

[60] E. Motsamai Mehla ya madimo (Morija: Sesuto Book Depot & Press, 1954)

[61] Thomas Mofolo’s Moeti wa Botjhabela (Morija: Morija Press, 1907)

[62] In Motsamai’s Mehla ya madimo the cannibal is on the same level as another man-eating creature, the lion – which in the lore of the hunter-gatherers whose lands the Sotho occupied, and whom the Sotho have cannibalised in a political, but also literal sense, is strongly associated with the transfiguration of the shaman.

[63] In the psychoanalytic sense of people experiencing loss and trauma on a massive scale through the incessant wars.

[64] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.239


Filed under: ian martin,literature — ABRAXAS @ 9:11 pm

From The Life of Henry Fuckit, 1950-2015
by Ian Martin

WOODSTOCK. Unfurnished, two-bedroom tenement. Rent controlled. R30 per month. Only persons of sober habits need apply. Isodore Glick Attorney. Phone 243546.

Well, well, well! Isadore Glick. The first Cape Argus he looks into offers up this gem, meant just for him. Glick had been the landlord at Bedford Street. Probably owns half of Cape Town – the ramshackle half. This was promising, this was something worth pursuing. It would be reassuring to have Mr Glick as his landlord. He though about it some more and it felt right. He looked forward to being able to say ‘No man, that fucking Jew landlord can wait for his rent’. Not that he was anti-Semitic. Far from it. On the contrary, apart from some traits of the stereotype, such as unctuous servility, mendacity, avarice and parsimony, which didn’t appeal to him much, he actually admired and envied this racial grouping above all others. He even suspected that if he had been able to delve into his own lousy British parentage he would probably have unearthed at least one Yiddish skeleton. It seemed to him that Jews were the most human of humans, capable of anything and everything, and certainly they were most prolific in the areas of Art and the intellect. So he didn’t feel the slightest twinge of guilt when he found himself categorising his prospective lessor as a fucking Jew.

First thing in the morning he left the YMCA, walked a short way down Long Street, turned right into Hout Street and located the Olbers Building. Of no architectural significance, it was sandwiched between two similarly unimpressive edifices of seven or eight storeys. In the foyer he caught sight of a polished granite plaque.

In memory of
HWM Olbers
Who helped us to doubt the dark

Doubt the dark? Who the hell was this Olbers? He chose to take the stairs to the second floor. It was an old building but in an excellent state of repair. Gleaming floors, fresh paintwork, shining brassware on the windows at each landing. Why doubt the dark? There was an idea behind this inscription, an enticing, niggling idea, but it was obfuscated by lack of context. Damn it, this was irritating. Now he’d be compelled to satisfy his curiosity.

Frosted glass doors opened into a large room divided into two sections. First there was a reception counter with much-worn top. Beyond this area the carpet began and some soft furnishings were clustered about a coffee table. This would be where you waited before being shown in to this or that lawyer, depending on the nature of your legal dilemma. Behind the counter a young coloured man in shirt sleeves and tie was writing out a receipt and taking some grimy notes from a customer. At a desk a white man, similar age, similar attire, was busy with a file and bits of paper. Articled clerks, no doubt. Apprentices, learning the tricks of the trade, doing the kak work. Was it existentialist nausea mounting up in him? Or was it the after effects of YM brekkers?

“I’d like to see Mr Isadore Glick. About this advert for a house in Woodstock.”

The coloured clerk looked at Henry, sized him up, concluded that he wasn’t dealing with an important person, displayed his teeth condescendingly, and said “Mr Glick don’t deal with rent. Mr Glick is the senior partner. He’s the owner.”

“Well, who can I speak to then? I’m interested in this place in Woodstock. Maybe you can help me. Are you a junior partner?”

The white clerk glanced up and snorted. His colleague ignored the question and began flipping through a journal.

“Alright, Meneer. Here it is. Palmerston Road. Number Thirteen. No hot water, outside toilet and bathroom. Thirty rand a month, sixty rand deposit. To go look you can get the key at number nine. Palmerston Road, it’s off Roedebloem. You know Rodebloem Road that runs up from Main Road? I’ll draw you a map.”

Furnished with directions, Henry thanked him and turned to leave. Then, halfway to the door, he remembered.

“Ah, yes. Sorry, there was something else I wanted to ask you. This Olbers, after whom the building is named, can you tell me who he was?”

“Olbers? No, uh-uh. Some kind of German, I think. Hey, Mr Lipkin. That lady doctor, the one who used to rent in Mr Glick’s flats at Mowbray. Didn’t she say something to you once about this Olbers?”

“Dr Goldblatt? Yah, she seemed to know about him. A German scientist. Astronomer. Yes, she wanted to know who named the building after him, but I couldn’t tell her. I mean, this isn’t a new building. Told her to ask Mr Glick.”

Henry had blanched and he felt a weakness in his legs bidding him to take a seat. His words came out with a rasp as if he had suddenly come down with a bad bout of laryngitis. “Goldblatt? Did you say Goldblatt? Kaye Goldblatt?”

“Yes. Left about a year ago. Went to Jo’burg, I think.”

Twelve units in a tessellation of reflected L’s, the lower legs of the L’s forming the unbroken facade.

Twelve chimneys in a zinc roof.

A four-foot wall punctuated with twelve pedestrian gates of tubular steel and wire mesh construction.

Front gardens measuring two doors end to end.

Two steps up to the covered stoop, one pace deep.

Twelve front doors, fanlight above, bedroom window to the left or the right.

Enter Number Thirteen, into the hall, meter and fuse box behind the door, main bedroom to the left.

From hall into lounge, lounge into kitchen, kitchen into back bedroom; floors giving and groaning on disintegrating joists.

Small black fireplace with suspended grate, painted wooden mantelpiece awaiting elbow and glass.

Window into backyard of cracked concrete, washline and Devil’s Peak above.

Excoriated enamel sink with single brass tap, teak draining board, looking out at yard wall.

Back door, all nine panes loos and a-rattle, swinging and banging.

Six foot wall dividing U-space between mirrored L’s.

Access from yard to lean-to shed containing bathroom and toilet.

Two three-quarter doors, gaps top and bottom, free flow of air.

Cast iron bath on crude brick cradle, wood-burning geyser in corner, no wash basin.

Pull-chain hanging from The Union 3 Gallon, wooden toilet seat without cover.

What’s left? Two steps up to square of garden, entirely dominated by ancient fig. Iron sheet fencing with boarded up door to service lane.

Beyond, higher, another row of houses, streetlamp, three big stone pines, the mountain, the sky.

Even though he acquired the barest minimum, and it was only battered, second-hand stuff, furnishing the house took a large chunk out of his savings. It foreshortened the time between him and the inevitable day when again he would be required to go out there and make some kind of a living. A bed, a couch, an easy chair, a fridge and a stove, a kitchen table and chairs, a desk and office chair. And odds and ends. Nothing extravagant, but it all cost money and the only way to buy time was with money. Maybe he should start making enquiries about the dole, once he was settled in.

It took him some three weeks to establish himself, and over that period he was kept so busy he had few moments for reflection. Then, all of a sudden, there was nothing more to be done. Now he was free to read a book, take a walk, smoke a bowl of Turkish Delight, pour a glass of Vrotters, sit and stare into space, masturbate, pace the deck.

To have five rooms, including the hall, under one roof, all to oneself, was decidedly sybaritic. Add to that a stoep, a yard, a back garden with a fig tree, a front garden with a rambling rose, and a lean-to outbuilding – this was so excessive as to be downright reprehensible. Especially after seven years in a cramped hellhole of a chamber hardly big enough to kill a cat in. Well, no profit to be gained from feeling guilty about it. Might as well enjoy the freedom of movement and the accompanying sense of psychological liberation.

In Kalk Bay the ceiling and the walls had crowded in on him and many a time he had lain on the lumpy mattress, bathed in sweat, choking for breath, panic at his throat. How had he ever been able to sleep in that room? A persistent, recurring memory of an incident, possibly a nightmare, returned to him and penetrated his consciousness. It must have been in the early hours, for there was no traffic. The door was on its hook and he could hear the occasional wave rustling as it broke on the harbour beach. Then he became aware of a voice shouting, somewhere, in the distance, or maybe not so distant. Was it a man or a woman? Constant, repetitive. Yet desperate. Like the cry of a peacock. A woman being raped? Too hoarse to be a woman. He got up, went out, the voice was coming from the sidestreet. He crossed to the end of the balcony and saw a police van parked below, blue light flashing. Two policemen came down the sidestreet with a figure between them. All the while he was shouting. ‘No. For pity’s sake have mercy. Mercy. Have mercy. Leave me. Don’t do it. Have mercy.’ They opened the back of the van and pushed him in, behind the wire grating. He kept shouting. When they drove away he was still shouting about mercy. The horror he had felt at the time was still with him, but now it was more a sense of dread, a sick fear that the night would again be rent to reveal the same unreality. He must put his fear aside and savour the airy spaciousness of his new abode.

The scalding inflicted on him by the vengeful cuckold was already dwindling into a blur, vaguely shameful at the edges, obscuring, thank God, the physical intensity at the core. What would his mind make of the whole episode, once enough time had passed for it to be viewed with historical dispassion? Had the extreme nature of the experience jolted him out of one paradigm into another? But, as those bloody idiots had pointed out when they visited him in the hospital, pain is a great distraction, and for many weeks now he hadn’t given his old metaphysical torments any attention at all. And he had somehow discovered enough resolve to break with the Dockyard and move away from Kalk Bay. Jesus, is this what is required in order to bring about some structural change in one’s life? Climb down into a pit of depravity and have one’s balls burnt off? Confucius, he say, Man has three ways of acting wisely. First, through meditation. This velly sensible, velly noble. Second, through intuition. This velly easy if you got stlong intuition. Third, through experience. This velly painful, velly bitter. It looked as if number three was going to be the method for him. Velly bitter.

As the weeks slipped by he grew accustomed to his new surroundings and habit began to blur the details of his daily routine. What he was left with was a series of aesthetic highpoints which became more and more intimately experienced as they recurred. He decided to begin a record of them and bought a shorthand notebook for that purpose. It would be a running account, in snapshot form, of some of his impressions, just for a dilettante’s satisfaction, and for no more pretentious reason than that.

Ian Martin’s controversial novel Pop-splat is now available from http://www.pop-splat.co.za.

October 15, 2010


Filed under: anton krueger,literature,pravasan pillay — ABRAXAS @ 3:30 am

(Another Shaggy Story by Pravasan Pillay and Anton Krueger)

Pablo Picasso once said: “Give me a museum and I’ll fill it.” I’d like the class to think about that for a moment. Isn’t it rare today to find an artist who is able to confront his body issues in such a frank manner? Not for Picasso, the existential cop-outs of the crash diet, the corset of Photoshop touch ups, the airbrushed gloss of the Art SA cover page. Instead he declared: “This is me. Deal with it.” I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: before one creates good art one must know oneself and be prepared to present one’s true self to the world. Picasso, with this public declaration of his weight issues, did just that. And that is why he is one of the world’s most celebrated artists, prepared to fill a room with his corporeality, with his being, with his body. Picasso is not today referred to as a genius because he was “talented” or “skilful” or “irresistible to women”, but because he was “authentic”; because he stayed true to the vision of the world he saw before him.

I may not be a Picasso (we will leave history to be the judge of that), but for now, in the same manner as the Dalai Lama has declared himself to be “a simple Buddhist monk”, I would like to state that I am “merely an independent arts educator”. And yet, it is not impossible that both myself, (and possibly Tenzin Gyatso also), may have a weight problem. No no ladies, you don’t have to sugar coat it for me, I’ve looked long and hard into the mirror and the truth has stared right back out at me. I know that the XL on my T-shirt does not stand for Xtra Lard, though perhaps it should. Remember: one can kill with kindness, and one can save with truth.

I mean, everybody today knows that genetics are to blame for the illness of obesity. Just think about it, people who would never say a racist word, never insult a woman or a homosexually inclined individual, will think nothing of gaping at me quite openly in the street while saying: “Look mummy, there goes a Fat Person.” It’s hard to believe that there are those who blame my 150 kilogram frame on years of eating steaks and chips and those delicious little kidney vetkoeks they sell on Friday’s at the Margate bazaar. Yes, maybe I would have eaten differently if it had been up to me. If I had really enjoyed eating fresh salad, then quite possibly I would have. But it is not ours to reason why.

Hey – who am I kidding? How can I pull the wool over your eyes? Here I am in the presence of some of the most perceptive part-time mature artists in the country. Certainly the most talented. And I think that by now you have all come to realise the truth that my weight is a by-product of my art. Yes, the truth is that I have suffered for my muse. While other artists chose to sculpt, paint or digitise portraits of their penile piercings, I chose to pursue the field of conceptual art. And installation art, as well we know, is the most mentally intensive art form around. Anybody can create an object, but how many of us can shape our minds?

Unfortunately, the life of the mind-artist is a sedentary one, and in the pursuit of pure thought I have had to sacrifice my body. Is there really that much difference between Van Gogh cutting off his ear and myself adding on the kilos? In a way, yes; but in a way, no; and also in a way, maybe. Believe me, as an artist I am very tempted to avoid this, my most challenging “problem”; but then I remember a quote from one of my favourite authors. It was, in fact, Oscar Wilde who said: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Wilde seems to be saying that many of us not only have faulty plumbing but a roofing problem. And one should fix that problem. Because what if it rains? What would happen? That’s correct, one would get wet. He also seems to be implying that we should “be grateful for the gutters”, because what happens when you don’t have gutters? That’s right, the water runs straight down the outside walls. Wilde seems to be saying “get your house in order”. And I would like to use this advice to cast a critical light on my own architecture, and I have chosen to do so through the only means I know – Conceptual Art. Capital C, Capital A.

Since I have been extensively referencing my works in our “History of South African Conceptual Art” series, some of you may be familiar with my previous projects. As we all know, Marie-Helene’s research on my “Eleven Ways To Say Goodbye” series described it as a profound piece of writing in and on the body. Discovering new ways of voiding matter from being, besides the obvious four – emitting, defecating, blood letting, spitting – provided a challenge for both myself and my discerning audience. I was very fortunate to have taken the last Brett Kebble award which assisted me in the first three years of these investigations.

I know also that the first in my “?Womyn?” series remains popular with the ladies in the class. To the newer students, this was one of my more controversial pieces. Some critics, particularly Gavin in the Margate Gazette, called it “a scandal”. But I would like to ask Gavin: isn’t good art always a scandal? Food for thought. I’ll wait while you jot that down…

The thing is, conceptual art is all about thinking, and this is what the critics fail to see. If Gavin can’t put it on his coffee table or auction it on e-bay then, for him, it’s not art. But what would one expect from critics? On paper every thing he accuses me of is correct. Did I grope Sally Mistry in my art supplies shed? Yes. Did she accuse me of sexual harassment? Affirmative. Did I get a six month suspended sentence from the magistrate? As a matter of fact, I did. That was the whole point, excuse me.

What Gavin fails to understand, is that art does not happen on paper. My so-called “harassment” was of an aesthetic rather than a so-called “sexual” nature. Via an intervention I was able, if anything, to “harass” the pants out of patriarchy by parodying the “essential” position of patronymy. Gav should have paid more attention to the title of the instalment, which was “WomynNeedTime”. Sure, I wouldn’t have received a fine if I had told Sally that she was a participant in the piece, but then what would I have been doing? I’ll tell you what – pantomime! Oh and wouldn’t Gavin have loved that, I’m sure if I’d given him a musical he’d have been in there every day of the week and twice on Sundays. I bet he watches Hollywood movies. My God, I don’t want to go too far, but it wouldn’t surprise me if “Gavin” watches television!

No, I’m not here to create safe art, to create soap opera. Some, in the Margate arts community, have accused me of pandering to the female gender with “?Womyn?” but, tell me something ladies, is it pandering when one’s audience is 52 percent of the world population? I tell you, if only the rest of Margate’s “artists” had the eye for art that you women have. Some of you may be aware that I have not yet closed the chapter on that series, but more about that later. If one wants to work on the fringes of society then, as Rilke said, one must be prepared to face both one’s angels and demons.

Take my entry to the Spier Contemporary which has just been rejected out of hand. Honestly, I don’t really know why I bothered. One would think that a chat room exchange in which I posed as a perverse 53 year old stalker as something they saw every day. Not only did they reject my proposal “When Lassie Met Sally”, but they had the gall to forward my details to Interpol. Well, that’s nothing new. Performance artist crosses the margins. Again. Conceptual work slammed for being “too provocative”. Why am I not surprised?

Do you know what I love about you ladies? You ladies learn quickly and are open to the openness of art in its most radical and transgressively…uh…open forms. When you all came into my studio garage for the first time you brought your easels and brushes and paints that you bought at Kabous’ Kamper Supplies in Ramsgate. Some of you brought your clay and your pastels and one daring individual (was it you, Pearl?) brought a six pack of new florescent lighting. Oh, I can still see it as clearly as if it was yesterday. You came in here with your fresh cream aprons, thinking you were going to learn how to, excuse the expression, “paint, sculpt, sketch”. And there I sat on my chair with my back to you, for all intents and purposes, finishing off my Internet banking. Oh, I remember, Mrs. Hetherington, getting all huffy. What did she say? That’s right! “Pardon me, but we’ve paid for an art lesson. Aren’t you going to teach us?” And then she starts complaining about my Toyota’s engine lying in the middle of the floor. Ten minutes later, she storms out. Ha! I love it. Moving the spectator.

I think her reaction taught everybody a valuable lesson about the way in which art is considered by the middle-classes, as a transaction: you pay me and I am then supposed to teach you “artistry”. Sure enough a number of other philistines stormed out soon after Mrs H’s display, demanding refunds. Well, I refused. That is what good art is, a refusal. Those of you who remained the whole hour while I finished my banking and went on to edit my Wikipedia profile page, will remember well my words: “Congratulations” I said. “You have just taken part in your first piece of conceptual art.” Well, ladies, since then we have mounted several other successful pieces.

Who can forget the day my ex-wife and I produced “Man Insulted”. Do you remember? There you sat, pretty much where you’re sitting now, while Maude harangued me about the clichéd subjects of alimony – lawyers’ fees, school fees, petrol allowance (I can understand why some of you thought the piece had been titled “Fees”, and I was especially impressed with Marie-Helene’s inter-linguistic interpretation of “Fees” as “Festival”, thus succinctly dove-tailing the performative aspects of the celebratory with the private, the personal space.) It was quite a show, wasn’t it? Some of you almost fell for its veritas, I remember Jacqueline reaching for her phone when Maude had me by the hair, forcing me to recant my vows. You almost called for help didn’t you? Don’t be shy, you can admit it. I mean, how many people urinated in Marcel Duchamp’s urinal? How many wanted to call for assistance when spectators began to cut Marina Abramović? (Or, as she is known in her native Serbia, Марина Абрамовић). Who jumped on Tracey Emin’s unmade bed? It’s the same story the world over. We WANT to be voyeurs. We WANT to stay on the outside, and yet when confronted by the sordid realities of our humdrum lives THEN we want to intervene. What a paradox!

Now I know that in several of my other pieces I have kept you in the dark, making you unknowing participants as it were. For example, in my piece “Boredom” two weeks ago, some of you thought I had just forgotten to come to class, or in “Stranded”, #1, # 2 and #3, several of you ladies ended up paying for my drinks at the Hole in the Wall before leaving, little knowing that I was hiding in a corner, quietly observing my canvas. But I feel now that it’s time to bring you into my world. It’s time to step through the looking glass, ladies. That’s correct. It’s time to collaborate.

Settle down! Settle down! You’re more than welcome. Just think of it as a reward for your great work this year. I was even going to hustle up a few certificates for you guys, but then my printer ran out of toner. Michelle? You own a printer right? Perhaps, you could get that seen to? While you’re at it could you also run up a few flyers for next year’s course? Hmm, about 2500. I’ll e-mail you the details. Maybe you could just szhoosh it up a little on PhotoShop, cause my free trial seems to have expired and I’ll only be able to get another key from my nephew when he gets back from Germiston next month. Thanks sweetheart.

Now, let me tell you a bit about this project, our first collaboration. It involves, as I have already hinted, my issues with society’s pre-occupation with obesity. I want to tackle this most personal of problems in the public eye, within that most parochial of South African affairs: the bring and braai. As I said before, the problem of “The Body” still stands as the central concern of 21st century art, and I mean to weave together, within a social space, a tapestry of ideology and notions of discourse. I intend to re-create (re-produce, re-present) the contested sites of sports and sexuality. I mean to foreground the concerns of mass, equating matter and movement with a jurisprudence hitherto reserved for issues relating purely to the commercialisation of “beauty”.

In brief, as some of you with wider social interests may be aware, next Saturday afternoon is the Curry Cup final. Now, what I am envisaging is to place myself at the very core of our contemporary crises of masculinity. I mean (in layman’s terms) to situate myself in my lounge before a wide-screen plasma television, with a cooler box of Castle at my side. As embodiments of the reification of “the feminine”, you ladies will be participating by means of a performative function, displaying and adopting the role of “the emasculated”. In identifying with the subaltern, roles will be divided between “bikini crew” and “cooking unit”. Selections will be made in the course of the week as to how best to divide the talents of this group, though I think that an easy enough and relatively impartial measure may be to rely on the simplicity of “age” and “figure”.

There are many other arrangements which also need to be made. I may need to rent the Home Studio equipment, since, when it comes to Art, as you all know, I am not prepared to compromise. Never. As collaborators we can discuss everyone’s involvement at a later stage, in fact, Lucille? Would you mind terribly being treasurer? It’s a weighty responsibility but I believe you’re up for it. Before we draft the contracts, though, I would like to say – call me old fashioned if you will – that I believe in the integrity of socialist art values. Yes, some have said that I revert back to the Bohemian times, but when it comes to collaboration I believe in the equality of all the contributors. Any of the costs, therefore, including sundry items such as beverages, meat, and rental equipment, will be split equally between all participants. No, no, please, I will not accommodate any protestations on the matter. I refuse to allow anyone in this classroom to pay more than I am prepared to stake myself. I mean, you’ve already paid the class fees haven’t you? Well, since this IS an extracurricular learning activity, we may need to sneak a stipend on top of the usual tuition, but the benefits are going to be their own reward, believe you me.

So, ladies? Who’s in?

October 14, 2010

Catastrophe and beauty: Ways of Dying, Zakes Mda’s novel of the transition

Filed under: johan van wyk,literature,zakes mda — ABRAXAS @ 9:05 pm

Maybe all the catastrophes that have happened in her life have affected her eyes, so that she is able to see beauty where there is none (Mda, 1995a:142)

In our language there is a proverb which says the greatest death is laughter (Mda, 1995a:153)

1. Ways of Dying as novel of the transition

Transitional literature refers to literature produced in or about periods when societies experience extensive ideological, political, economic and institutional changes. The transition is in many ways traumatic and productive. In literature it can lead to specific literary features. Such periods produce a literature of mass meetings and processions: a literature depicting a group psychology and mass omnipotence asserting itself against a State which has lost legitimacy. The confrontation between the masses and the state often leads to violence, death, arbitrary repression and persecution. The inversion which happens when the people take control of the state’s functions, and the visibility of the people in mass gatherings on the street evokes images of carnival. The breakdown of the old order is accompanied by a resurgence of repressed instincts embodied in images of violent death, birth and sexuality. This resurgence of the repressed in turn implies regression: a loss to some extent of the reality principle (so that the form of this literature is surrealism, the dream, mysticism and images of infantile omnipotence). Death and rebirth, the apocalyptic and the carnivalesque combine. This paper explores these features of the transition in Zakes Mda’s novel Ways of Dying (1995).

Ways of Dying (1995) describes the period between a Christmas and a New Year sometime between 1990, when negotiations for change in South Africa started, and 1994, when South Africa became, through elections, a democratic country. It therefore deals with the period of transition in South Africa. The transition itself is a product of a repressive decades, which preceded it. The text recollects these decades through continuous flashbacks. It describes the transition and the past as it was experienced by the two main characters, Toloki and Noria. They both came, although at different times, from the same unnamed rural village to an unnamed South African city. Years later they meet coincidentally at the funeral of Noria’s second child, after which they re-establish friendship. This is the point where the text starts. It then develops around the question of how it came that Noria’s five-year old child died at the hands of comrades.

2. Images of the transition in the text

The text evokes many images of transition through references to “those days” in contrast to “these days” or “today”. Sentences with “those days” are often qualified with “people of his colour” or “people of his complexion”. These phrases evoke the typical exclusions experienced by Africans during the Apartheid period: “In those days, they did not allow people of his colour onto any of the beaches of the city, so he could not carry out his ablutions there, as he does today” (1995a:112). “People of his complexion were not allowed to buy houses in the suburbs in those days” (1995a:116). “Funerals were held only on Saturday and Sunday mornings those days, because death was not as prevalent then as it is at present” (1995a:136) “Most people did not even have the necessary qualifying papers. Their presence was said to be illegal, and the government was bent on sending them back to the places it had demarcated as their homelands” (1995a:112).

From the rigid Apartheid of “those days” the text narrates the small changes which occur as the resistance to Apartheid intensifies, as petty Apartheid laws disappear, and as people find new ways of survival. This culminates in the period when the dismantling of Apartheid is negotiated, and a new, democratic future becomes eminent. Typical images of these social changes are:

· The emergence of the informal sector of the economy. The main character, Toloki, is described as one of the first to buy a trolley for grilling meat and boerewors, and to make his living selling his produce on the sidewalks in the city (1995a:113).

· The movement of Africans into “White” areas through new strategies. The rich Nefolovhodwe “used a white man, whom he had employed as his marketing manager, to buy the house on his behalf” (1995a:116).

· The appearance of informal settlements, “squatter camps”, and the repeated attempts by the government to destroy these, only to find that they are rebuilt overnight again “Bulldozers would move in and flatten the shacks, and then triumphantly drive away. Residents would immediately rebuild, and in no time the shanty town would hum with life again. Like worker bees, the dwellers would go about their business of living” (1995a:136).

· The emergence of vigilante groups and street committees.

Stagnation, intensified repression and resistance further mark the period of transition. In the “eighteen years” that has passed since Toloki lived in his first shack very little has changed:

It is strange how things don’t change in these shanty towns or squatter camps or informal settlements or whatever you choose to call them. (1995a:138).

Instead of change for the better, things become more violent and complicated:

The situation is even more complicated these days, what with the tribal chief wreaking havoc with his hostel-dwelling migrants. (1995a:138).

The transition is a period of extensive bloodshed and killing, evoking images of both the apocalypse (“there are funerals everyday, because if the bereaved were to wait until the weekend to bury their dead, then mortuaries would overflow” 1995a:136), and carnival (the serious funeral situation becoming comical in the overcrowded cemetry as “hymns flow into one another in unplanned but pleasant segues” 1995a:136).

The transition, though, does not only mean death, but also rebirth. This rebirth is only implied in the strategic ending of the text with the arrival of a new year: a new year with on its immediate agenda a stay-away for a whole week as the people want to make “a strong statement to the government that it is high time that they took the negotiations for freedom seriously” (1995a:161).

The new year points to the liberation that is at hand. “Women are singing… Their song is about the freedom that is surely coming tomorrow” (1995a:159) and “the freedom that was surely coming soon” (1995a:172). This future liberation is a product of death and sacrifice. Death becomes an assertion of eminent victory, an instrument of re-birth, a sign of collective power with the individual fading into the omnipotent idea of freedom. This is explained in the text with reference to the jubilation of the Young Tigers at the political funerals which “is due to the fact that part of the message of the songs is that the people shall be victorious in the end” (1995a:159).

The future, though, is pregnant with new divisions, betrayals, disillusionment and repression. Mda uses the portrayal of a meeting in order to represent the new order. The meeting assumes the form of a the ritual repression of the real. He foregrounds the difference between the ideal and the real by depicting the affluence of the leaders of the political movement who arrive in a “Mercedes Benz” and an entourage of other cars at the meeting as against the poverty of the inhabitants of the informal settlement. The meeting ends in a disillusionment for the character Noria when a promised public apology by the comrades for the necklacing of her son is not forthcoming. She is warned not to speak to anyone about it, while the “bejewelled” wife of the leader smile “benevolently” at her. After the meeting the women of the settlement are reproved for serving the leaders “bread and cabbage” (1995a:163).

The political group demands silence, repression, complete unity. In this way the future is made to contain in itself the past. Noria must remain silent so that no one will point fingers and say “You see, they say they are fighting for freedom, yet they are no different from the tribal chief and his followers. They commit atrocities as well” (1995a:167).

But a repressed past also returns in a more positive way with a return to creativity: a creativity rooted in a traditional and rural past. A certain normality reasserts itself when the business man, Nefolovhodwe, arrives with the figurines sculpted by Toloki’s father, Jwara. Jwara’s ghost visits his wealthy friend Nefolovhodwe and forces him to take the figurines to his son Toloki, because “he could not rest in peace in his grave, or join the world of the ancestors, unless the figurines were given to Toloki” (1995a:192). This is the beginning of an archaeological process (“Nefolovhodwe rounded up a few labourers, and proceeded to excavate the site of the workshop” 1995a:194); it is a physical recovery of what is repressed, and in terms of the ideology of the text this signifies the spiritual wealth of the rural past:

These figurines which are returned to Toloki are seemingly “useless” (1995a:195). They represent the material manifestation of the past speaking silently as objects to the present, but the meaning of what is said is unclear and it has no apparent value to the people in the present, except as an image of the past, as commodity for white art dealers or in producing laughter amongst the children of the informal settlement. Is it possible that implied in this episode there is an allegorical reference to the Post-Apartheid future as a period when the repressed artefacts of the past (the art and literature which was looked down upon for being tribal) will become visible again: “They decide that they will keep one of the figurines in their shack, next to Toloki’s roses, to remind themselves where they came from” (1995a:198). These figurines are returned to Toloki at a time when Toloki himself starts drawing again while Noria is singing to him, repeating the ritual of Noria singing to his father in the past. This repetition of the introduces the oedipal themes of the novel which will be dealt with more extensively in the next section.

3. The text as dream

There are many references to dreams in the text. The text itself can be interpreted in terms of the typical form and content of the dream: formally using the dream device of condensation and on content level it is oedipal. The oedipal of the dream is specifically African in the way it links the dream to the ancestors. The dream is seen as communication from the world beyond and as a source of art and literature. The father, Jwara, for instance used Noria’s singing, to communicate with the beings of his dreams and to create their images in the form of figurines. While Noria sang “he shaped the red-hot iron and brass into images of strange people and animals that he had seen in his dreams” (1995a:23).

On a formal level the novel uses the dream device of condensation, the device in which “a sole idea represents several associative chains at whose point of intersection it is located” (Laplanche and Pontalis 1985:82). It is a device which combines various images into one image.

The harbour city in this text, for instance, combines various incidents reminiscent of the recent history of different South African cities into one city: The train violence and attacks by migrants on nearby settlements are associated with the Vaal Triangle (Gauteng), the carnival with Cape Town, the tribal chief and his followers with Durban. The harbour city therefore becomes an allegorical image of all South African cities in the late Apartheid era. The names of the people from Toloki’s home village derive from various language groups: Xhosa, Sotho and Venda, making it a Pan Africanist Village. The narrator is also an instance of condensation. The narrator is the collective alter-ego of Toloki, but also the voice of the group. In its omniscience it embodies the omnipotence of the group. It focalises on Toloki in the village as well as the city. The text itself states:

It is not different, really, here in the city. Just like back in the village, we live our lives together as one. We know everything about everybody. We even know things that happen when we are not there; things that happen behind people’s closed doors deep in the middle of the night. We are the all-seeing eye of the village gossip. When in our orature the storyteller begins the story, “They say it once happened…”, we are the “they”. No individual owns any story. The community is the owner of the story, and it can tell it the way it deems it fit. We would not be needing to justify the communal voice that tells this story if you had not wondered how we became so omniscient in the affairs of Toloki and Noria (1995a:8).

The collective narrator, though, is not an innocent one. Like the group this collective narrator is not inhibited in terms of mindless primal drives. Freud writes: “A group is impulsive, changeable and irritable. It is led almost exclusively by the unconscious. The impulses which a group obeys may according to circumstances be generous or cruel, heroic or cowardly, but they are always so imperious that no personal interest, not even that of self-preservation, can make itself felt” (1985a:104). When Toloki opens his eyes on Boxing Day the following thoughts traverse the narrating text (they are both those of the communal narrator and of Toloki):

we go for what we call a joll. All it means is that we engage in an orgy of drinking, raping, and stabbing one another with knives and shooting one another with guns (1995a:20).

The group voice is cruel, persecuting what it conceives as different from itself “we always remarked, sometimes in his presence, that he was an ugly child” (1995a:26).

As an “all-seeing eye of the village gossip” the narrator is also an eye present in Toloki’s dreams: “Toloki has nightmares that night. He is visited by strange creatures that look very much like the figurines that his father used to create” (1995a:108).

There are many oedipal undertones to this dream. The “crystal clear and sparkling glass” (1995a:108) figures point to purity and signifies Toloki’s wish (“looking longingly at the scene” 1995a:108) to be part of the realm of the holy, to be part of the the creative interaction between his sculpting father and the singing Noria. This oedipal aspect is present in his shame (“sees himself, made embarrassingly of flesh and blood”) at desiring the woman who was his father’s link with the creatures of the dream. His father, described as “a towering handsome giant in gumboots” (1995a:23) is both an ideal and his opposite.

The oedipal identification with the father is intensified as the father stifled his creativity, and never gave him any recognition for his achievements in art. The father is the source of his negative self-image. Noria, called a “stuck-up- bitch” by his mother, and by himself (“one thing that Toloki used to be jealous about even as a small boy, was that we all loved the stuck-up bitch, for she had such beautiful laughter” 1995a:26), becomes a transposed mother of his oedipal and sexual desires. The drunk perceiving Toloki dreaming asks: “Who is she, ou Toppie, the woman you have wet dreams about?”. The wet dream becomes a recurrent motif, contradicting Toloki’s own vision of himself as a holy man, even intervening with his daily activities:

The dream haunts Toloki … It makes something rise in the region of his groin. It is violently kicking inside his pants. Toloki bends forward as if responding to the rhythms of oration and mourning. But what he is really doing is hiding his shame. People must not see that he has disgraced his asceticism by having dirty thoughts running through his mind, and playing havoc with his venerable body (1995a:146).

At other places in the text Noria is called “this powerful woman who killed his father” (1995a:101) thus embodying his own oedipal wish for the death of the father. The hold that Noria, as a little girl, had over his father enhances her image in his mind, makes her a “goddess”. His desire for the woman who had this power over his father points to the unconscious oedipal ambivalence of identification with the father, but at the same time “deep bitterness”(1995a:95). The “hatred” (1995a:95) he felt towards Noria is transformed into desire and elective love (amour fou) at the end of the plot.

The love between Toloki and Noria in which the plot resolves itself is also associated with a “dream-like state”. It is through the mysticism of love that they transcend their historical predicament:

They dazedly rub each other’s backs, and slowly move down to other parts of their bodies. It is as though they are responding to rhythms that are silent for the rest of the world, and can only be heard or felt by them. They take turns to stand in the basin, and splash water on each other’s bodies. All this they do in absolute silence, and their movements are slow and deliberate. They are in a dream-like state, their thoughts concentrated only on what they are doing to each other. Nothing else matters. Nothing else exists (1995a:180).

Time in the text also belongs to the realm of the dream: Noria’s two pregnancies last 15 months each. The second child is not conceived by a mortal man, but by “strangers that visited her in her dreams” (1995a:140). Another dreamlike occurrence is when Toloki’s apparently illiterate father leaves a hand-written testament at his death (1995a:102). The death of the father itself evokes dream images: after years in a trance in his workshop his body is found:

And there was Jwara, sitting as they remembered him, but with his biltong-like flesh stuck to his bones. His bulging eyes were staring at the figurines as before. Glimmering gossamer was spun all around him, connecting his gaunt body with the walls and the roof (1995a:102).

A paradox between text time and story time, adding to the dream-like nature of the text, occurs on page 101 when “Toloki remembers how his father died” (1995a:101) at a point in the story when he has not as yet been informed about his father’s death.

The themes of the dream and the oedipal link with the theme of beauty in the text: beauty is the product of the dream in the midst of catastrophe. The dream has at its basis the oedipal rejection of Toloki by his father. On page 61 this rejection with strong oedipal undertones is portrayed. The passage brings to the fore Toloki’s search for recognition from his father which is at the same time an identification and competition with the father: The father says:

“So, now you think you are better? You think you are a great creator like me?”

To which Toloki answers:

“I want to be like you, father. I want to create from dreams like you.”

To which the father replies:

“Don’t you see, you poor boy, that you are too ugly for that? How can beautiful things come from you?” (1995a:61)

4. Beauty

Beauty in the text is often placed in squalor: “There she is, Noria, in a rubble of charred household effects next to her burnt down shack. A lonely figure. Tall and graceful. Sharp features. Smooth, pitch-black complexion – what in the village we called poppy-seed beauty” (1995a:43) and “She looks beautiful, this Noria, standing surrounded by debris, holding flowers of different colours” (1995a:44). In contrast to Noria, Toloki is always referred to as stupid and ugly by his father. When Toloki and Noria walked to the school as children, strangers would stop them and say: “What a beautiful little girl” (1995a:64) but comment on him: “He looks like something that has come to fetch us to the next world” (1995a:64). After winning a prize in a national art competition sponsored by a milling company, Toloki for the first time in his life “felt more important than everyone else” (1995a:27), but he is rejected by his father with the words: “Get out here, you stupid ugly boy!” (1995a:28). Toloki then walks out “with tears streaming down his cheeks” (1995a:28).

On page 142 Noria calls Toloki “a beautiful person” on which the narrator, shifting the focus to Toloki’s thoughts, remarks: “he has been called ugly and foolish all his life, to the extent that he has become used to these labels. But he has never been called beautiful before” (1995a:142). Because the text is focalised through Toloki’s eyes his “ugliness” is never experienced by the reader. The text rather produces an empathy towards his loneliness and imaginings. The text continues: “maybe all the catastrophes that have happened in her life have affected her eyes, so that she is able to see beauty where there is none” (1995a:142). When Toloki calls his father’s figurines “ugly” (1995a:196), Noria rebukes him: “Toloki, the figures are not ugly. Remember that my spirit is in them too. And we must never use that painful word – ugly” (1995a:196).

The period of Apartheid has been dominated by the internalisation of the negative – but it was also productive of beauty in that it produced, ironically, the beautiful poverty of Toloki and Noria: “They make a strikingly lovely picture against the sunset” (1995a:165). This kitsch image is part of an inversion process: a writing back to White Culture. The art dealer, in reference to the figurines of Toloki’s father, said that they looked “quite kitschy” (1995a:196). But the ultimate inversion is the wishful imaginings of Toloki and Noria around the Home and Garden wallpaper to her shack. The inversion becomes literal in the journal title. Through these imaginings they parody kitsch white lives:

They walk out of their Mediterranean-style mansion through an arbour that is painted crisp white. This is the lovely entrance that graces their private garden. Four tall pillars hoist an overhead trellis laced with Belle of Portugal roses. A bed of delphiniums, snapdragons, cosmos, and hollyhocks rolls to the foot of the arbour. Noria and Toloki take a brief rest in the wooded gazebo, blanketed by foliage and featuring a swing” (1995a:104).

5. The transition as Hallowe’en

The main character, Toloki (Xhosa derivation from the Afrikaans “tolk” meaning interpreter), evokes the image of an unreal being embodying the transition as an unreal historical time. He wears a black costume and top hat, hallmark of his profession as Professional Mourner, and which he got from a shop renting out “period” costumes to the theatre world. The text defines these period costumes as costumes used in plays “that were about worlds that did not exist anymore” (1995a:21) or belonging not “to any world that ever existed” (1995a:21) thus emphasising the unreality of this historical period. The costumes are further evocative of “New Year carnivals” (1995a:21) (an indirect reference to the nature of the book itself), but then a carnival that is reminiscent of the terror of Hallowe’en. The text makes this link explicit when it states that the costume has once before been used by Americans for a Hallowe’en party (1995a:21). Many macabre images of arbitrary and senseless killing, as well as of laughter, further develops this textual linking of the transition with Hallowe’en. The deaths of people are often described in terms of games and fun. A white man burning a worker laughs; a black “crony” of the white man explains “that the white colleague was merely laughing because it was a game” (1995a:57) and the text states “To him the flames were a joke. When the man screamed and ran around in pain, he thought he was dancing” (1995a:57). The community “danced around the burning shack, singing and chanting ” (1995a:58) when they revenged themselves on thugs who had been terrorising them for a long time. Their realisation that they had become “prosecutors, judges and executors” (1995a:58) left them with a “numbed” (1995a:58) feeling. Shadrack’s “hell-ride” to the mortuary where he was forced by right-wingers to have sex with a corpse of a young woman was done “because it was a fun thing to do” (1995a:133). When the right-wingers dropped him at his taxi again they thanked “him profusely for the good time he had given them” (1995a:133).

The many deaths of the text, pointing to the fact that in this historical nightmare, dying was a way of life, points to a society that has regressed; a society where the law is illegitimate or completely absent. The perpetrators of the crimes in this lawless society were allowed not to grow up, and this is evident in the fact that they cannot distinguish between their fantasies (ideologies) and reality. The reality principle is absent. The political reality itself has taken on the form of a nightmare. Senseless violence permeates everything and everybody, also children, and as in the Hallowe’en festivals the children become the instruments of the dead. This raises the question of the innocence of children, especially as many of the protagonists of this Hallowe’en are grown-up children.

6. The Innocence of Children

The text questions the innocence of children. It makes it clear that their innocence is not in the fact that they are not capable of being most violent tools in the hands of faceless historical forces, but in the fact that they do not really know what these acts that they participate in mean and signify. The theme of children is interestingly explored in the episode depicting the necklace death of Noria’s child, Vutha the Second, at the age of five.

At this age Vutha was already a “veteran” (1995:167) in the struggle “an expert at dancing the freedom dance, and at chanting the names of the leaders who must be revered, and of the sell-outs who must be destroyed. He could recite the Liberation Code and the Declaration of the People’s Rights” (1995:167). His feelings of infantile omnipotence is encouraged by the “Young Tigers” who “always praised Vutha for the strength of his throw. They said that if a stone from his hand hit a policeman, or a soldier, or a hostel vigilante on the head, he would surely fall down. Vutha was proud of this praise that came from older and battle-scarred cadres” (1995:169). His feeling of omnipotence further derived from his ability to manipulate his mother: “It established him as a hero among his peers. Sometimes it went to his head, hence his practising his stonethrowing skills at Noria’s shack whenever she punished him for being a bad boy” (1995:169).

This infant, unable to know his own limitations, is further given “political education” (1995:169) about the “nature of oppression” (1995:169). The text states that “Much of this information floated above the heads of the children” (1995:169). Because they do not know the difference between good and evil, and they are capable of both, they are innocent. As they cannot understand the content of their political education, they are also not able to understand the implications of their betrayal when they communicate information to the hostel dwellers about the planned attack on them. When discovered by the Young Tigers, they are transformed into examples: implying that they become signs to the community. The form of disciplining is necklacing [“They called all the children to come and see what happened to sell-outs” (1995:177)]. The act of disciplining consists in producing terror; necklacing is itself an infantile form of execution – pointing to the fact that the mind of a crowd is no different from the mind of a child. This is brought out when it is the four-year old Danisa who innocently, under the orders of the Young Tigers, becomes the executioner of her friend Vutha:

Danisa and the child who had been given the honour of carrying out the execution struck their matches, and threw them at the tyres. Danisa’s match fell into Vutha’s tyre. It suddenly burst into flames, the crackle of burning flesh, and the blowing wind. He tried to run, but the weight of the tyre pulled him to the ground, and he fell down (1995:177).

7. Conclusion