November 11, 2010

ewa’s correspondence with johan van wyk about “man bitch”

Filed under: johan van wyk,literature — ABRAXAS @ 4:55 am


your approach to women in relationships is strange indeed; very appealing on one hand; if it leaves the initiative to women; on the other, it renders you a bit indifferent and unwilling to fight for what you like and love; and frees you from any responsibility too; for a relationship to work both people should be ready to bear responsibility; leaving it to one part only is really cruel; and playing safe again; i guess you have reasons for such a stance; was it because your initiatives came to nothing and you no longer see a reason to take up such a position; i’m not criticizing you; i do see you may have reasons;

i don’t mind if you use this exchange of ours in your review; don’t feel scared because you make me into an intellectually aggressive monster; if don’t agree with what you will add to the interview, we can still have an interesting debate;; i really didn’t mean to show you up; you are a very intelligent person to me; otherwise i wouldn’t have “messed up with you”; i am taking your intelligence to foster mine; it helps me to better understand certain things and be able to express them; there are so many things i feel and cannot express in any way;

again about prostitutes; your books makes it clear they were prostitutes; that you didn’t see them as such is because you loved them; so who were they and what were they doing for their living? what were they doing before you met them? one of your arguments to one of them was that you don’t want a girlfriend whom you will have to pay for sex; if they were having sex for money while being with you it was something you agreed on; or something your love could handle; i understand you don’t want them to be called prostitutes because they were with you; and at those particular times they meant a lot to you; and what are they doing now?

it is not the exchange itself that defines prostitution; obviously, if that was so we could all be called prostitutes; there always is some economy in every relationship; you give and get something; but if money is the mediator of such an exchange then what? prostitution (or whatever you call it) refers to getting money for offering sex; ok, let’s forget the word prostitution for a moment; what is the act of selling one’s body then? it can be seen as selling one’s soul but only when a woman is forced (by whatever reasons) to sell herself; but there are women who do it because they simply enjoy it; without really being forced to it; there are women who sleep their career; going to bed with the boss to get a promotion; it’s also prostitution; the payment is not money but other profits; i don’t think these women sell their souls really; i agree it is really tragic and means ultimately selling your soul more than the body itself when this is the only option for you left; there are more and more women in poland now forced into prostituting themselves because they have no other alternative; there was a talkshow some time ago on tv; with women who in an act of desperation went onto the streets to support their children; single mothers in all cases; and this is tragic; but why didn’t your girlfriends take the chance you were giving them? why none of these relationships never worked in the end? are they back on the streets now? i was not telling you didn’t have feelings for these women; your view on prostitution as selling the soul is idealist and both is and is not the case; and i’m not judging you on the account of having relationships with these women; you still don’t see what i’m driving at; i’m not moralising; you misunderstand me; by rejecting the word prostitute you are precisely crediting this word with only negative and most tragic connotations; i have no need to reject it so firmly as you do; objecting to the word you trap yourself betraying the most traditional (mis)conceptions that you want so desperately to give up; do you see my point? and this is why, also, i wouldn’t hesitate to go into prostitution if i had to; i’d rather prostitute myself than beg for instance;

i guess i agree with your idea of factual books and literature; yet both use manipulation though with different ends in mid perhaps; another thing is i don’t believe there is such a thing as freedom at all; it’s only our wishful thinking; to attain freedom would necessarily mean your annihilation and because for some reasons we strive to live we compromise this freedom to lesser or greater extent;

i don’t know about you classification of the real; i don’t know what the real is; the word real has been tossed and shuffled so much that i’m not sure whether it means anything any longer; though it is part of our vocabularies and we use it with lesser or greater consciousness of what it means, or might mean; for me it’s an exceedingly slippery term; and i’m really confused;

i dislike the word canon; i don’t know what the criteria are to describe good literature and bad literature; but if i read a harlequin romance and angela carter for example i have no doubt to say which is good to me and which isn’t; i don’t see zaza’s stories as good; there is no literariness (whatever it is), no poetry that would make it good to me; i don’t define literature in terms of formalist devices; it was just an example to tell you that i see nothing appealing in the naivety of her writing; ok, literature is about the interactions between the two levels (if we agree on this classification); but still, this interaction can be more or less appealing, more or less poetic; and it is probably the quality of this interaction that makes good literature; i don’t say zaza’s story is worse than sociology; still, it doesn’t make good literature to me; literature is more than the stories themselves; it is what and how these are made into that makes them literary; literature may be about the relationship between the ego and the underworld; but there are texts that portray this relationship in a more interesting way while others in a less interesting one;

indeed, perhaps i will understand more of it all once i’m in SA;

i do understand your motivation behind giving up your way of life; the point is that i, myself, am torn between such two worlds and cannot cope with that; on one hand, there is this need to oppose everything and turn on all conventions, even though i have my own values and try to stick to them; on the other there are my parents whom i love dearly and wouldn’t like to hurt (it is probably never possible to renounce that which formed you; perhaps only by inflicting an unbearable pain onto yourself); i seem to be dangling somewhere between the two and it sometimes exhausts me; but choosing one of them would always mean a complete loss of the other; and i’m not able to face that;

it’s easy for me to point out all your contradictions and say how they drive me crazy; but this is because i exist in such contradictions myself and am well aware of them;


November 10, 2010

on the price of admission

Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 12:26 am

“Being an artist doesn’t take much, just everything you got. Which means, of course, that as the process is giving you life, it is also bringing you closer to death. But it’s no big deal. They are one and the same and cannot be avoided or denied. So when I totally embrace this process, this life/death, and abandon myself to it, I transcend all this gibberish and hang out with the gods. It seems to me that that is worth the price of admission.”

Hubert Selby, Jr.

on the need for complications

Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 12:20 am

if one writes , it is only a refuge from ‘all points of view’. I do not write professionally and have no literary ambitions. I would have become an adventurer of great bearing and subtle motions if I had the physical strength and nervous resistance to achieve this one exploit: not to become bored. one also writes because there are not enough new men, out of habit; one publishes to seek out men, and to have an occupation (even that is extremely stupid). there might be a solution: resign oneself; quite simply: do nothing. but to do so requires enormous energy. and one has an almost hygienic need for complications.

tristan tsara
in Litterature no 10 december 1919

November 9, 2010

paul lothane reviews “omoseye bolaji” edited by hector kunene

Filed under: free state black literature,literature,reviews — ABRAXAS @ 11:37 pm

Author: Hector Kunene
Publisher: New Voices Publishing (Cape Town)
Pages: 117
Reviewer: Paul Lothane

This is a beautiful book put together by Mr Hector Kunene; proving once again that he is “a real breath of fresh air in the literary sphere” as Mr Lechesa puts it. This is a book that will really put the Free State on the map!

This new book bears comparison with virtually every major study on key African writers over the years – eg Fraser’s study on Ayi Kwei Armah; Dr Adele King’s study on Camara Laye; Wild’s initial study on Dambudzo Marechera; Mary Ebun Modupe Kolawole’s study on the late Zulu Sofola. This is a book that will be treasured by the scholars and lovers of literature for generations to come.

Kunene has gone out of his way to present a most pleasing book – apart from the main body of about 30 articles on Omoseye Bolaji’s works. There is the interesting introduction, revealing interviews late on in the study, an excellent piece by Ishmael Soqaka, and the book concludes with a world class Bibliography at the very end.

The articles, critiques etc themselves cover a wide range. All the books of poetry produced by Bolaji are reviewed. The most visible aspect of his writings; the fiction, is also extensively covered. Contributors like Peter Moroe, Pule Lechesa, Aryan Kaganof, Raphael Mokoena, yours truly, Hector himself – all have their say.

Such an excellent work challenges the critic who is in danger of becoming a “praise singer” as Lechesa puts it in one of his books. But of course this new work is not free of a few blemishes – happily such weaknesses are confined mainly to the Introduction to this book.

Hector, in his introduction shows what some critics refer to as a “butterfly mind” which is not necessarily a bad thing; but he also puts together many contradictory and illogical statements. Let’s take two of them here:

“I even asked him (Bolaji) how he expects to be well known if he was so private and distant and he would simply smile and shy away…”
(Page 17)


“Bolaji does not strike as a public figure; I continue to question myself how he has managed to survive in this industry that is dominant in competition whilst keeping a low profile. Can it be perhaps that he manages to keep up with the pressure…?”
(Page 14)

Yet, from the beginning and throughout his introduction the author keeps on stressing how much he wanted to meet the “great” Bolaji, the “legend” Bolaji – he repeats this many a time. Hector himself goes out of his way to track Bolaji down. This clearly shows that Bolaji’s fame already preceded him in the literary world despite his low profile. Hector ironically confirms this himself in the following passage which again contradicts what he is claiming:

“Whilst Bolaji and I were journeying the streets of Bloemfontein (people) would raise their fists in the air when greeting him, and in return he raises his fist back at them, smiling…I even feel like I am walking with David Beckham or a Will Smith”
(Page 15)

We should also note that the “competition” and “pressure” (in writing) Hector refers to is largely a creation of his own imagination, or his own approach to life. Distinguished writers like Bolaji who have amassed top quality awards and accolades for writing have a large corpus of published works and complementary studies which already speak for themselves; they do not need to be childishly running up and down “competing” or seeking cheap publicity.

But these are just minor blemishes in what is a stunning, superb work put together by Hector Kunene.

this review first appeared here: http://letterfromsouthafrica-eric.blogspot.com/2010/11/book-review.html

johan van wyk’s correspondence with ewa about “man bitch”

Filed under: johan van wyk,literature — ABRAXAS @ 2:30 pm

Dear Ewa

I t was good for me to hear your voice on the phone last night.

Just before phoning you I was at an interesting therapy session. The evening was dominated by this heavy psychotic loner (quite a handsome guy), who was abused as a child, or so he says. What was strange is that I saw so much of myself in his pathology – what you have rightly identified by now: the strange contradiction of the inability to feel for others while I feel deeply for them. It is driving me crazy. My emotions got stunted through various things that happened to me in my life – most relating to the inhuman politics in South Africa. The fact that one could not really verbalize one’s opposition to the system without the risk of becoming a complete outcast, and that is what happened to me. I could never find a real sense of community amongst white South Africans outside of the literary and art circles. Worse throughout my adolescent years and my twenties I could never communicate with women about sexuality and love, although it was all that was on my mind, due to this totalizing taboo of sexuality that exists in the country and all the repressive mythologies around it.

The types of relationships I had with the women and something about them Somehow my book did not make that clear.

My first relationship with a black woman was with L. M., an academic. Lecturer in African Languages. She was an absolutely stunning person in all ways, but extremely professional. Her career came before everything else and she lived far away, so it was difficult for her to find space for me in her busy professional life. She had to look after a child of her own and professionalism was therefore very important to her. This was my first relationship outside marriage (after thirteen years of married life). That is where my life changed. I realized that I was getting older, there was no more real meaning in my life and I felt empty. When it became apparent that it was going to be difficult to get her to come and stay with me, and that I will be alone during one Christmas I decided that it was a pointless relationship. I was extremely lonely. Living in my new flat in this area where there was life around all the time. My friend and me went to have a drink at a sidewalk cafe at about two o’clock one night. A woman came to sit with us. I discovered that this side-walk cafe was a place where one could meet people very easily. My friend did not like the place. He had a mortal fear of anything unhygienic. So I went back there about a week later and met Mbali there. She came into town once a week from the outskirts of the city to earn money to look after her child, and she desperately wanted to attend some MBA type of course to help her find a job. So I took her out. I was so overwhelmed by her beauty that I was pretty impotent the first night, and from then on when I wanted sex with her she would always say later. She needed love intensely, to be embraced, but disliked sex intensely. This was the beginning of a two-year relationship. We made love on rare occasions. She was highly intelligent. I paid for her studies, provided food and a roof, and some money for her child sometimes and for clothes. After a year she became seriously ill. I asked her if she has AIDS. She always denied it. The doctors could not quite determine what it was, until she became so weak she had to go back to her mother’s place and eventually ended up in hospital. They found out that she had TB of the stomach (not that common). She recovered and the rest of the story I think you know from the book.

Angel. I suppose she was a real prostitute. And there was a regular exchange of money for sex. But she infatuated me. And later I think I came to mean quite a lot for her, but it was too late. We broke up because she didn’t want to stop prostitution.

Then I met Luisa. She is pretty middle-class or high-class even. Knows exactly what she wants and how to get it. She was pretty bright. Too materialistic for me and had no understanding for things like literature and art. She once threatened to throw all my books through the window. No taste and she wanted to impose that tastelessness on everybody around. Not quite true. She had good dress taste. Refused to go to clubs with me unless I’m immaculately dressed, hair combed, etc. I got pretty close to her children. Again she was this professional person. She started shops in Maputu and did not have time for me anymore. There was also her miscarriage of my baby in an accident. That was pretty traumatic. She could not cope with South Africa. That was basically the story.

Then I met Zaza. I was and still is pretty close to her. Although she is like a sister to me these days. She could not end her relationships with other men at that stage. That is why we broke up.

Then Z. or Zinhle. I’m pretty worried about her. I think she is going to commit suicide when her child dies of AIDS (he is three years old.)She was/is freelance model. She ABSOLUTELY hated sex. I was pretty close to her. I don’t know where she is at the moment. We broke up because it was difficult to be with someone who wouldn’t even allow one to touch her.

There were several other encounters which went nowhere

I suppose the real is a mixture of things: first what is conventionally decided as real (although I find it difficult to accept things like the existence of a God), then it is the material world as we encounter it and name it and then the events that happen in this material world, and the way it is socially and individually experienced and talked about. When we want to generalise about this I find literature to be far more comprehensive and complex than the microscopic forms of reduction in other social sciences.

I suppose you haven’t had a copy of the final production of Zaza’s book, and that you have not read it to the end? I would like to develop your critique of the book as I busy writing an article about this book and type of writing and your ideas would be interesting.

I’m going to look at our correspondence, cut out the more personal things, send it back to you to check and then submit it to the editors of the journal if its okay with you. as many interesting things were touched upon. Off course it would give my critics a lot of ammunition. I’m too old to care.


November 6, 2010


Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 9:01 pm

A young woman has written about a childhood filled with abuse, poverty and pain. Vasantha Angamuthu spoke to Zazah Khuzwayo.

This is the face behind the statistics on domestic violence and abuse, the name behind the court roll calls of panic and pain behind private walls, the eyes behind all those details of alcoholism and teenage pregnancy. Ultimately, though, this is the face of Zazah Khuzwayo, survivor.

The 24-year-old Durban woman’s story of surviving childhood abuse, poverty, a battle for education and growing up in a time of political and social upheaval is contained in a slim, self-published volume, which was launched in the city on Wednesday.

Zazah’s book, Never Been At Home, is a simply told, badly edited, painfully raw story of survival against the kind of odds which are all too familiar in the townships that straddle this city. She tells, through recounting her childhood and teen years, a story that is all the more tragic because it is so familiar.


Through her book, she said, she hopes that women and children who were living with abuse could find strength. Her descriptions of the abuse suffered by her mother, her older sister, her brothers and Zazah herself are graphic, sometimes littered with expletives to show the young Zazah’s growing anger at her violent policeman father. “…That is when he jumped at me like a police dog jumping to catch a criminal. I tried to run, but he caught me just outside the door that had a burglar guard next to the kitchen. Everybody ran outside. My mother, my sister and my two brothers were all screaming for help, but they wouldn’t come nearer as they were all afraid of what he might do to them. As he grabbed and kicked and punched me, his aim was to drag me inside the house so that he could lock me in and hit me without interference. But I was holding onto the burglar guards. I knew that if he succeeded in dragging me inside I would be dead meat.

“God gave me power. Maybe because I was so frightened he kept on hitting, punching and kicking me. It was like he was fighting with another man. I was screaming and begging for help,” she writes.

She records each remembered incidence of abuse and through them, her intense dislike of her father, her growing belief that there could be no God and her ambivalent feelings towards her mother, whom she loved totally even though she despised her because she remained in her cruel marriage.

Her father, she says, was a dog, a “satan”, and a man whose cruelty was fed by a diet of violent books and movies and his job as a policeman. The physical violence aside, the father showed no love towards the family. “What was really disgusting,” she writes in the book, “was that he had his special groceries like eggs, aromat, sponge cake, peanut butter, jam, sausages, polony and cheese. All that was only for him. We could only look at it when we prepared food for him. He locked all of it in his bedroom. Through her experiences, Zazah raises the use of traditions and culture to make excuses for violence.


“The culture and traditions of all nations are harder on women. To me it seemed that being a woman was a curse. I wish I was a man. We give and nurture life. We are the weaker sex and we are abused by society…for women the shadow is darker and closer. Even in our so-called civilised world, it lurks behind them, always threatening, like a dark, evil bird; a stranger; a friend, a madman, a father. Even a husband can hurt and humiliate them as a matter of right.

“In our family we were being abused inside the walls very secretly. The church, the society and the neighbourhood didn’t know about the treatment or cruelty we were facing inside our house. My home was not a home.”

Today, Zazah Khuzwayo is a beautiful, though still not self-assured, young woman, determined to complete the engineering course she started at tech a few years back. She is raising a four-year-old son from a teen relationship and will try to make peace with her father, who she says she might forgive but will never regard as a father. She is also mourning the loss of her sister and her mother. She has worked as a domestic worker and a waitress. She has battled alcoholism and survived a three-month spell in jail after being found guilty of assault.


Her stint in Westville Prison at the end of last year helped her, ironically, because it made her take stock of her life and gave her the space and time to write the manuscript which has now become Never Been At Home. “I got into a fight,” is all she would say about why she ended up in jail, “but I learned so many things about myself when I was in jail. I cried all the way through writing this book and when I reread it, I cried some more from remembering.”

Zazah says the book has helped her heal. Her brothers have seen it and have shown nothing but love and support for her endeavour, she said.

“My father has not seen it yet. I don’t mind if he does read it. I believe this book will help other people.”

She makes this clear in her dedication: “This book is dedicated to two late women that were both victims of abuse; mentally, physically and sexually: My mother Nosipho Octavia Khuzwayo and my sister Nomusa Gloria Khuzwayo. I only survived because their love was so powerful, but not enough to save them.

“To the women being abused out there: Don’t waste your time. Stand up for yourselves.

“And to the men: Maybe in the future you’ll need the tree that you piss and shit under…

“To the children being abused: Don’t allow them to destroy your dreams and your future.

“To the parents that abuse their children: Not only do you destroy your children’s lives, but also the future of new generations.”


Her fiancé helped pay for the publication and now, she says, she hopes to complete her studies and maybe do something more creative, writing or theatre, so that she can destroy all the demons which her book has released and helped her exorcise. Kwela Publications has expressed an interest in publishing the book.

· Never Been At Home was launched in Durban this week at the same time as the release of books by two other Durban authors. Johan van Wyk’s much pre-publicised Man Bitch (self-published and available at Ike’s Bookstore in Morningside) is an autobiographical story of the University of Durban-Westville professor’s search for love in the environs of Durban’s Point Road, where most of his relationships are forged with sex workers.

It is a graphic account of his relationship that reads like a journal.

· Rick Andrew’s Buried in the Sky (Penguin) is an account of South African soldiers trying to make sense of a war in Angola which they could not see. Andrew, a conscript at the time, allows his comrades to tell their stories of loss, life, death and a political situation they couldn’t quite comprehend.

November 2, 2010

My name is angel

Filed under: johan van wyk,literature — ABRAXAS @ 9:37 pm

It is one o’clock at night. I look down at the street. Below next to the take-away cafe there is a four-wheel drive pick-up van. At the back of the van there sit and stand three highly drugged and pale teenage girls. The one standing screams into the streets “God is coming to get me! God is coming to get me! God is coming to get me!” The other girls pull her down and smother her calls for help.

The next morning at the entrance to the block of flats the supervisor sighs and complains about people stealing. Potplants are disappearing. He knows who it is: The woman from no. 15. She allows nobody into her flat, but through the opened slit of the door he could see a passage crowded with potplants. She has lost it a bit. Especially at full moon. Then she sings arias. He adds that she is a devil worshipper.

This is Oxford House, Gillespie Street, Durban. This is where I live. Around the corner there is a wonderful little bar called The Squireman’s. It open every afternoon at about five o’clock. The food and the beer are dead cheap. A bit further on there is the Costa de Sol, a place of great decadence and pleasure. A place where middle-aged white men socialise with prostitutes.

My computer says it is 2h13 in the morning; definitely deep in the night; but here it never gets dark – the blue neon light of the Holiday Inn Garden Court throws its glow across the city. A terrible bang wakes me from my sleep, an explosion it seemed, with glass spattering in all directions. It sounds as if one of the ceilings of the Four Seasons Hotel next door collapsed. Earlier in the evening a motorbike gang made great noise: the ladies singing spirituals while the men answered in a kwaito chorus. Ambulances and police cars gather at the corner of the Four Seasons. A pick-up van is parked on the other side of the robot. Something is happening around the corner.

Later in the morning, about 10h00, I return from the Pick ‘n ‘Pay with some groceries in my hands. At the entrance pillar to Oxford House there stands Piet, the tow-away man. His tow-away van is parked on the other side of the road. The smell of an early tot is on his breath. Yes, he knows about the accident. A lorry landed on a van. They had to cut a woman loose. Only her legs were protruding from the wreck. Not something one wants to see over a weekend.

A cockroach against the kitchen wall watches while I’m chopping onion, garlic and chillies. Curry powder, cinnamon and cumin are added.

The other day I walked down one of the side streets and strange things happen. A beggar grabbed my Pine Nut cold drink from my hand. I only know of beggars begging for money. This is the first time somebody begs for left over cold drink. A bit further on a man take hold of my hand and shakes it as if I know him for years: “You want ghanya, hashish or cocaine?” I’m completely flustered.

Fekile is the daughter of a domestic worker and she has an extensive field of reference, because she devoured an encyclopedia at the house where her mother works. Is there a link between the Bushmen and the Chinese she asks me? She is obsessed with the Bushmen as the first people in South Africa.

Fekile is a prostitute. She doesn’t really have an option. She is like so many others. I think about the Apostolic Mission Station at Dassenhoek somewhere on the outskirts of the city and inaccessible by car. There the living dead multiplies by the day, consumed by cholera, pneumonia, tb, aids, insanity and unemployment. An image of hell.

I tell Fekile that she should become a writer. What should she write about she asks me? Start your book with sex. People like reading about sex. She cannot write about that, because she has never experienced sex with love. It is repulsive to her. It is her work. Exactly. Write about that.

I’m looking for a guide to hell, because somebody is dying. But everyone is warning me. There are too many people dying. But I want to see her before everything is over. No you are not allowed. Because I’m white I ask? A smile is Fekile’s answer.

I’m looking down through the window of my flat after a few hours in front of my computer. In the wind and sun below on the street corner there is a figure of a tall thin woman. The thought that Mbali returned from death involuntarily comes into my mind and a suffocating feeling. Life is betrayal and I remember a line from Ingrid Jonker about Judas Iskariot. She described him as “the verb of love”. If you don’t betray others you betray yourself.

Is it Mbali’s ghost which returned from hell, the muddy potholes of Dassenhoek? Can she walk again, or is she gliding? In Zulu her name means flower.

Early in the evening. I’m sitting at the Squireman’s. Things are getting worse at my tribal bar. There was a robbery the previous night, and during the week a concrete block fell from the sky killing two passers-by. Death sometimes come unexpectantly. I eat my preggo, drink a beer and feel lonely. After the beer I walk over to Costas, and make myself at home on a bar-stool between the prostitutes and look at the mirror behind the liquor and other bar paraphernalia. A young whore with an ochre skin and straightened hair and from Swaziland thinks I’m lonely and we start a conversation about Mbali.

Pneumonia and TB are symptoms of aids she says, and then tells the story of Mbali and her previous boyfriend. First time for me to hear the story. He was a well-known businessman from Richardsbay. He and Mbali apparently were very close, but his businesses were registered in the name of his wife.

What was his name? I ask. She tries to remember, calls the barman. He is too busy to make small talk. Earlier in the evening the Bafana’s won Mauritius in a soccer match and people are crowding into the bar. She cannot remember the name. But everybody knows him. He is wellknown here. He is now a hobo. His wife threw him out of the house. You often see him sleeping on the side walks.

So that is the secret history of Mbali. She always refused telling me stories. She lived for the moment. Sometimes drank so much that her body was covered in scabs from falling down stairways. For her there was no compromise in love. Maybe that is what she is dying from now.

On the floor of my flat there is a game of chess. She was mad about chess and the TV soaps between four and six in the afternoon: The Bold and the Beautiful and Days of our lives.

I stand up from my bar stool and suddenly take the road back to my flat. On the corner of Point and West Street there is a big pot of soup and a long queu of street people in their rags.

In my flat chaos is taking over. Dust, dead cockroaches, pealing paint, uncleaned dishes and books lying about. I do not have the power anymore to reoroentate myself for life. The professor is becoming a hobo. Every moment of the chaos is valuable. So history is repeating itself.

She could dance her heart out, but she did not like sex. Love was everything. A prima donna, a complete fucking prima donna: any waitor’s nightmare, because she was fastidious, everything had to happen exactly. Then the other side: Two o’clock at night she would stumble into the flat and her whole body would exude smoke and alcohol and she would pass out on the bed with her boots still on.

The prostitute from Swaziland defined love. Love is to take someone in your home and to take care of her: to give clothes and food. Love is therefore very concrete.

Mbali once told me the story of the hobo that is always reading. You’ll never find him without a book. He was driven from the townships by the comrades. Maybe he was someone who wanted to go to school, while others had another agenda in mind. The intense hatred drove him out. Now he talks to nobody. He fishes for his food from the rubish bins and reads and reads and reads.

Then there is Three Quarters, the dwarf hobo with a steel leg and a stump for an arm. He comes from a wealthy family, but prefers life in the streets. He loves swearing at people. One of the unforgetable moments in my life was when he asked me to pick him up from the sidewalk so that he could stand. The smell of the sidewalks was in my nose for weeks afterwards. Every now and again the police would come and take him for a bath and delice him. According to the supervisor the Africans have a holy fear of him. He is a tockeloshe for them.

A mere reference to him and Mbali wishes him dead. Why I ask her? Because he swears at people is her answer. But it has to be something more.

“My name is Angel, but I’m not from heaven in any way” is the unforgetable words of a tall figure, dressed from head to toes in black, with braids hanging down her back. The words Bad Girl in silver is printed vertically on her T shirt. Angel is easily the most beautiful woman I ever came across in my life. We have a date: seve o’clock, Friday night. We eat tomato soup, long French bread, pap and chops in my flat. Nasan, a history of art lecturer, and Richard, a linguist with a pony tail hanging down onto his bum is also there. In the clubs Richard is known as Jesus due to his appearance. He loves languages. The sum total of all languages in the world surely is only one language. And that is what excites him: proto-world, or comparative rootwords from all the continents of the world. His prey are are the sailors in the Durban harbour. He knows how to tempt them to his flat which is covered from wall to wall, floor to roof with cassettes; recordings of sailors telling the folklore, anecdotes of cue d’etats, stories about mother-in-laws and proverbs, etc.

Nasan decides to leave early: he doesn’t have money for the night club or drinks. Richard, Angel and me make our way to the Monte Carlo night club. Up we go the narrow stairway. Buy our entrance tickets from a woman with red hair, red nails, a red dress in a red office. We enter the loud temple of pleasure. At the bar a number of men and women sit . The women are by far in the majority. They are in all shapes and sizes. At the wall to the rightthere are more tables and seats. Left is a circular dancefloor with lights flashing from the floor and the rotating roof. There are two concrete pedestals with sliver pipes connected to the roof, pipes against which the women could rub their dancing cunts. The music is contemporary disco, something about San Francisco, wanna party, shake your body…poop…poop…poop. And above all this the hysterical scream of Olivia who recognises me and embraces me… and fuck trouble is coming coming, because I’m with Angel. I give Olivia the Judas kiss, go and sit sympathetically with her, showing great interest in her latest news, but it is not long before Angel orders “Come and sit here!”

Meekly I do as told and hold her hand and stare the whole evening at Olivia. My heart breaks in my face for her. We drink and drink and drink…Dance, but my robot steps are not for Africa. At four in the morning we stumble to the car. I can understand why the girls regularly fall down the stairs and keep the doctors in business.

Back in my flat Angel and me are immersed in a deep alcoholicly inspired conversation: something about her king (she is from Swaziland) and her chief. Virginity is tested by the looks of the nipples, and a light bulb is pressed up the vagina. She was exiled because she became pregnant at school. And she talks about white men. The previous night she was with a police man from CR Swart police station. He told her that she is a kaffir, and that he is mad about her body, but he is a boer and he hates kaffirs. Boers and kaffirs are natural enemies. I tell her I’m a communist…She is quiet for a moment and suddenly very hungry and randy: there is still a chop left, some more pap and tomato soup and her round black hand bag full of condoms. In the back of my head all the time the shit feeling about Olivia, and Angel saying again and again ahe must leave at six. She must see another client. We make love. She tells of a man pushing a cigaret up her, and anger overcomes me. How could somebody do that? I’m genuinely angry. She prefers sailors, because then she could completely forget about politics. She also refers to Mbali. Mbali will return , she says. Never I say. She was a skeleton the last time I saw her. She could not even walk. We screw and screw. When the one condom is off, the next is put on. In the mean time she also got hungry. Eight o’clock we wake up. I go to the autobank. She cannot stay for the day. I feel empty.

After she left the flat I feel good, but fall back into a deep sleep. Much later that afternoon the buzzer violently wakes me up. Vaguely I hear the voice of a woman on the other side. I press the button which opens the door downstairs, quickly put on my jeans and T shirt. A little bit later… God I cannot believe it: Mbali at the door. Her clothes hang loosely over skin and bone, and underneath a little hat of leopard skin her shining tiger eyes are peering. She immediately orders some spare ribs. She is dying of hunger, for months hibernated between life and death. People from the township carried her to the busstop, and here in town she found her way step by little step to my flat. With my credit card in my pocket I flee from the flat, first to Costas where to my surprise I see Angel in the corner with a man. She holds a rose in her lap. It comes as a shock to me. I try to make myself heard above all the noise. All the eyes in the bar are on me, because last night it was me and Angel and the pain of their mate Olivia. “Mbali is back… please tell Olivia as well,” and then I disappear to the steak house to order some spare ribs.

Back in the flat Mbali eats like a wolf. I’m not hungry. I know something between me

and Mbali is dead, but I cannot say anything. She keeps on repeating “Thank you for everything…thank you very much…” I do not quite know for what. For months in her semi-death I was her only hope. It nearly breaks me.

The next morning we visit Wimpie and Jannie. I drink a glass of white wine. They also offer us some biscuits with smoked mussels and cheese. Just before we leave, we drink some Earl Grey tea and I for the first time eat a marijuana biscuit. I eat two. They laugh at Piet who got so badly stoned on the biscuits. Marijuana has bnever really affected me in my life.

My God it was the closest I ever came to hell. I found the way to the flat okay, even at Spar I managed to get all the ingredients for a stirr fry, because Mbali was still very hungry. Below at the lift of the flat I started to laugh uncontrollably. In the bedroom I lost control. It felt as if I had to jump through the window to get fresh air, as if a monster took control of me., as if I might do things like killing someone. I touch my arm and asked again and again “Am I real?” Different levels of memories compete for space in my mind. Olivia, Angel and Mbali crowded into my mind at the same time. I’m being smothered. I know I must try to sleep. I cannot stand up straight. Mbali who sneeked under the blankets with her skeletal eyes peering at me nags for food, she is hungry…I cannot stand up…I hallucinate diarhea…I cannot control my thoughts… My head sweats…My hands sweat…For five hours I battled with death.

I remember Angel’s words: “My name is Angel, but I’m not from heaven in any way.”

October 25, 2010

Class Struggle and Class Identity in H.A. Fagan’s Die Nuwe Wêreld (The New World)

Filed under: johan van wyk,literature — ABRAXAS @ 2:10 pm

The fact that the depiction of workers and poor whites is relative to the class position from which they are observed was already recognised by the Afrikaans poet N.P. van Wyk Louw in his essay from the 1930s “Die Rigting van die Afrikaanse Letterkunde” (“The Direction of the Afrikaans Literature”) which appeared in the collection Berigte te Velde (1971, but first published in 1939). In this essay he bemoans the increasing estrangement of the Afrikaans worker from Afrikaans literature because of the dominant class perspective found in this literature. As example he uses the portrayal of Jochem van Bruggen’s Ampie figure from the text of the same name who, as rural poor, is not known as he “would be as human being in the immediate presence of God” (1971: 10), but rather as he is seen through the eyes “of the older, patriarchal landowner” and this at a time when the poor whites (as urban workers) began to take militant steps as in the uprisings of 1922 when workers confronted South Africa “through the viewfinder of the mauser gun”. The estrangement between literature and the workers pointed to a break in the organic unity of the nation; it indicated the emergence of petit bourgeois authors who no longer understood the aspirations of their people.

The late 1930s, when Van Wyk Louw’s essay appeared, though, was different from 1922. In 1922 the break within the volk was not that apparent. The workers and their petit bourgeois nationalist compatriots were still fighting hand in hand in the trenches. In 1924 the labour and nationalist pact won the elections. In 1929 the nationalists won on their own. In the

30s, after ten years under nationalist and semi-nationalist rule, poor white and worker support of the nationalist party waned. In these circumstances the nationalists lost in the mainly Afrikaner constituency of Germiston during a by-election in 1932 (Bonner 1981.97-122). In this region Solly Sachs and his garment workers’ union played an important role in fighting the exploitation of Afrikaner women workers in the nationalist controlled clothing industry. The clothing industry was developed in the twenties by the Pact government to create jobs for unemployed white women (Bozzoli 1987:181). This industry was marked by extreme exploitation of unmarried women workers. Because of the low wages and work the workers began to strike in the clothing factories of Germiston in 1931 and 1932. The then Minister Minister of Justice, Oswald Pirow, reacted by ordering mounted police officers to break up the women strikers (Bonner 1981: 102-103). With these events as background the national party came to lose in what was considered the safe constituency of Germiston.

Throughout the thirties and forties the garment workers played a leading role in the resistance against the reactionary nationalism of especially the purified national party founded the leadership of D.F. Malan in protest against the amalgamation of the national party of Hertzog with Smuts’ South African party in 1933.

In contrast to the racially orientated nationalism of the purified national party the garment workers promoted a non-racial and worker orientated nationalism (compare articles such as “Ons en die Voortrekker-eeufees” (Cornelius 1939), “Die tragedie van die Aflikanervolk” (Anonymous 1940), and “Wat die Duitse Nazis waarlik dink van die Afrikaners” (Burford 1939) from their journal Klerewerker. This journal shows how far the workers progressed in the development of an own class consciousness and identity in opposition to the patronising image of them created by the nationalist petit bourgeoisie.

Under the leadership of Solly Sachs the garment workers’ union produced poems, short plays, stories and articles in their journal Klerewerker. These literary products fell completely outside the main stream of Afrikaans literature.

With time the garment workers’ history fell into oblivion. In the main stream Afrikaans literature it found expression only in the largely forgotten drama Die Nuwe Wêreld (1947) by H. A. Fagan. This play is part of the petit bourgeois tradition of worker literature. It is set in Johannesburg six months after the Second World War. A worker strike at the Van de Leur Clothing Factory forms the context in which the main character, Gerhard, comes into conflict with his father, the factory owner, Mr. Van de Leur. Gerhard, who has just returned from the front, is under the impression that the objective of the war was to establish a classless society:

We fought for liberty and equality. Now the war has ended and we are free and equal (1947:5).

He is confronted, though, with a situation where the old capitalist codes are still in use and where the exploitation of the workers actually intensified under emergency regulations that were not scrapped at the end of the war. The workers are forced to work long hours because of the huge demand in the industry due to the returning soldiers exchanging their uniforms for civilian clothing (1947: 15-16). The workers on the other hand fear that the market will reach saturation point with consequent retrenchment of workers.

The oedipal confrontation between father and son complements the struggle between workers and the factory owner: the oedipus complex overlaps here with the class struggle. The play, from its narrow petit bourgeois perspective, explores the problematic identified by Lewis S. Feuer in his introduction to the Fontana Pocket Readers Marx & Engels (1984): the irrational identification of bourgeois youths with the working class and the ensuing conflict with the established social order put in place by their fathers. According to Feuer, Freud addressed this problematic far better than Marx. In Marx’s own time the struggle between the generations was so apparent in Russia that Bakunin predicted a rural revolution under the leadership of 40 000 students in 1896. This social phenomenon was portrayed by Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons (Marx & Engels 1984:24).

This essay explores the knowledge unconsciously present in Die Nuwe Wêreld about the way in which the oedipal complex links with the class struggle, and determines Gerhard’s identification with the workers. This essay will also focus on the way in which class codes operate in this play.

The title Die Nuwe Wêreld is a reference to the “Intemational”, the anthem sung, by the real garment workers at their meetings (compare the article “Kruistog vir ‘n bestaande loon” from the Klerewerker, Feb. 1940):

Stand up! Oh slaves of the world!

Awaken! Who thirst and hunger.

Come and help build a new world,

Because the old is coming to pass…

Away with bad old traditions

Poor people arise, arise.

The foundations of a new future

The workers themselves will make.

The “new world” as the ideal of the returning soldier can be linked to the activities of the Springbok Legion, an organisation of ex-servicemen, who with the slogan “Liberty-Equality-Fraternity” and with their journal Fighting Talk promoted the idea of a classless and non-racial democracy (Pike 1985:229).

But these points of contact with historical reality are coincidental. For Fagan the play is primarily an exploration of a motto taken from James Burnham’s book The Managerial Revolution, which sees the post-war world in terms of greater state interference in the economy and extensive bureaucratisation that leave the workers more helpless than in the capitalist period:

The control of the world is passing into the hands of managers. Capitalism has virtually lost its power, and will be replaced not by Socialism but by the rule of the administrators in business and government (Fagan 1947).

It is not a protest drama. Fagan tries to be as objective as possible. But when the history of the garment workers is compared to their portrayal in the drama the extent to which Fagan is a victim of his own petit bourgeois worldview becomes apparent: the workers are portrayed predominantly as simple minded (Dorie and her begging father, Koot Coetzee), drunk (Koot Coetzee during the meeting in the third act), corrupt (Stoffel Booysen, the representative of the union) and obsessed with money. The only two workers presented in a positive light are the comical and morose foreman, Balthasar Diederiks, and the “attractive” (“bevallige” 1947:1) secretary, Ria, who is typing “diligently” (“ywerig” 1947: 1) and is “tastefully dressed” (“smaakvol gekleed” 1947: 1). The worker in the play is therefore not the same type of intelligent and militant person who published in the Klerewerker or travelled throughout South Africa to organise workers (see Bettie du Toit Ukubamba Amadolo).

The decor gives an image of the social hierarchies in a capitalist society: the secretary’s office with chairs “for people waiting to see the managing director” (1947: 1) is the bourgeois version of a royal court; the word “Private” (a recurring motif in the play) on the managing director’s office door has the connotation of bourgeois individualism and control of the self against the collective existence of the workers in the machine hall.

Much of the tension and comical effects of the play can be ascribed to the way in which Fagan consciously portrayed the interaction of the social codes of the different classes. As such the play becomes a good example of the “little behavioural genres of speech situations” (Morson 1986:46). People of different classes, for instance, cannot share jokes, as Booysen tells Gerhard:

I can bear a joke – of a man who is my equal. But from you people how can I know it is a joke? People must be friends to make jokes with each other. You are not our friends. You could never be our friends (1947:69).

And they are not allowed to fight with one another:

Leave him, Stoffel. He is not your mate you can fight with (1947:80).

Gerhard’s function in the play is to disrupt the existing order and code in that he as bourgeois identifies himself with the workers. The workers, however, do not accept or trust him. He bemoans the separation between the “us” and the “you” which makes of him an outcast:

“we” and “you”! Always still “we” and “you”!… Am I a strange animal to be chased from the herd? (1947:7 1).

The class and capitalist order also manifest itself in other ways in the text. The sequence of names in the list of characters is an example. Gerhard is the central character in the drama, but his name appears after that of his father. This indicates the important social status of the father as factory owner and patriarch in the capitalist order. He is the one that possesses all the other characters (as father he owns his son Gerhard, while financially he owns the workers). Precedence in the List of Characters is therefore determined by the ideological status of a character. The sequence of parent and child is changed around lower down the list with the unemployed father, Koot, and working-class daughter, Dorie. The father’s name here appears after that of the daughter as breadwinner. Ownership is turned upside down: Koot’s survival depends on the money his daughter earns: his statement “It is me – me as the parent – who hurts when my child is injured” (1947:22) indicates not only sentiment, but has a real material foundation. Stoffel Booysen’s name, last on the list (despite his important role in the play), appears without any indication of his role as representative of the trade union. As character he is the most nuanced figure in the drama and also the most convincing (critics like J.C. Kannemeyer and R. Antonissen objected specifically to the characterisation in the drama: Stoffel Booysen though can be considered an exception). The different dimensions of his character emerge in his portrayal as spokesman for the workers, but also as a figure who enriches himself through the struggle and in a moment of doubt expresses his scepticism regarding the struggle. Compare his reaction (“If we ever will get those things”) to Gerhard’s naive idealism:

The new world, Booysen – to see to it that there is food for everybody, clothing, homes and education for everybody. That is equality – equality for everybody. Is it not correct as I say it. Booysen – is it not right? (1947:70).

A tragic dimension to the character emerges when the factory is nationalised and the workers lose their negotiating powers.

The separation of the classes is manifested especially in the forms of address that is one of the central motifs of the play. In many scenes Gerhard comments on this ritual of the class society:

Now the war has ended and we are free and equal. We call each other by the first names. I am Gerhard and you are Ria 2 (1947:5).

When Gerhard meets the foreman for the first time, he asks:

Tell me, friend – eh – what is your first name, friend?’ (1947:8).

The question upsets Diederiks and he responds with timidity:

My first name, rnister? Balthasar – Balthasar Diederiks (1947:8)

Where Gerhard addressed him with the jovial “friend”, he answers with the ideologically loaded “mister” (in this context referring to distance and respect for a superior class). Later Diederiks find a compromise form of address for Gerhard: calling him “Mister Gerhard”, which combines respect and the first name, while Gerhard teasingly refers to the conservative Diederiks as “Comrade Balthasar” (1947:4 1). Mr. Van de Leur’s power over Diederiks is expressed in the fact that he addresses him by his surname while he does not know the names of the two hundred women workers whom all look the same to him in their uniforms (1947:4).

The most apparent separation of the classes manifests itself in the fact that marriage between them is taboo; even when the bourgeois son is willing and the working class woman a diligent worker. Mr. Van de Leur, addressing his son on the issue of marriage, states that he should be able to marry well with their money and position (1947:33).

The perspective of one class on the other is ideologically determined and relative. The relativity of vision is illustrated by the way in which the author organises his material to overlap with that of particular characters. When Gerhard points out to his father that they are looking at the workers through different “spectacles”, his father answers with the following words which actually summarise the play in such a way that the vision of the father and the playwright complement each other:

You will have to hit your head against reality, and hit it till those spectacles break (1947:28).

These words are confirmed when Gerhard’s idealistic view of the workers is destroyed time and again by “reality”. The first disillusionment occurs when the foreman, Diederiks, calls in the police to suppress a strike. Gerhard digests this disillusionment with a piece of “ego talk” (Vygotsky, see Morson 1986:29) in which he explains the situation to himself.

Yes, yes might be – the period of transition – from war to peace suppose it is difficult. Maybe I am too impatient. But police against striking workers – that cannot be right (1947:9).

His second disillusionment is in the first act in the scene with the injured Dorie, her father and Stoffel Booysen. Disillusioning for him in this scene is the importance of money in their lives (in contrast to his idealism):

But, old man, first get your daughter home. First make her comfortable. You can talk later about the money (1947:23).

Later, though, he notes that their obsession with money is a product of their living circumstances:

And then their poverty. A five pound note is a dream. For father it is something to play with. to show off in front of them and to tease them with (1947:28).

A further disillusionment is when he discovers that Stoffel Booysen is enriching himself through Dorie’s injury. His reaction is vehement..

…But even if I was a private under you, I would tell you in your face that your behaviour is detestable. It is detestable, disgusting’, such treachery… such meanness, such betrayal, such… I cannot find words for it (1947: 26-27).

The next disillusionment does not come from the workers, but from Gerhard’s father. Stoffel Booysen brings Gerhard to the realisation that his father bribed the inspector. Gerhard challenges his father to answer the accusation. His father, not used to being accountable to his inferiors, refuses and the bonds between father and son are broken temporarily:

I do not have to answer them, and I do not have to answer you. You said You are going with them. All right, do that. I will not stop you. The bonds between you and me, you have destroyed yourself., now you can go your way and I Mine (1947: 62).

The final disillusionment happens when it becomes clear to Gerhard that the workers refuse to accept him. This happens in the last act after Booysen has physically attacked him in a state of rage:

I cannot understand these people. See in you an enemy, despite all your attempts to be their friend. Even the Coetzees – Dorie included, for whom I went to some trouble when she was injured (1947:82).

Later he admits that the workers are spiteful and distrust him. He then asks dejectedly:

But why? Why all the distrust? Why are they looking for an ugly ulterior motive in everything one does or says (1947: 82-83).

The effect of this ultimate illusion is undermined by the aesthetically weak, but otherwise significant, ending. In Gerhard’s most dejected moment (“Nowhere, and with nobody can I find solace. Every door I knock on, is closed in my face” ) Ria comes to his rescue and adopts him:

I can see you need someone to keep you in order, and it seems to me nobody else wants to do it (1947:85).

The last scene between Gerhard, Ria and Mr. Van de Leur is central in explaining Gerhard’s irrational behaviour (the fact that he identifies with the interests of another class). This scene represents the “wound” (Hillman 1979:54) of the text: the opening to the unconscious of the text that enables analysis and knowledge (that is not only description and interpretation) (Macherey 1980). It is the point in the text where the reader can extricate him/herself from the tautological trap of description.

The textual wound, or the weak place in the text (“the dramatist [achieves] an all too easy solution for the sub-motif when Ria decides to marry Gerhard to assist him in his weakness” Kannemeyer 1978:210) makes it possible to explore Gerhard’s irrational behaviour using psychoanalysis. His “illness of ideality” (Chasseguet-Smirgel 1976), his idealism, has as foundation the desire for the lost mother, a desire displaced onto Ria, the workers and the ideal of a classless society. Compare in this connection the word “mother instinct” (“moedergevoel”) that Mr. Van de Leur uses in the following passage:

With that thought you would not have found a woman, Gerhard – not a real woman, not one with the motherly instincts that each real woman has (1947:85).

Throughout the drama, Gerhard’s mother, who never appears on stage, is referred to in terms of his loneliness and alienation. The “stifling atmosphere” in which he grew up, because his mother and father could not relate, is described:

It was not a marriage based on love. Father wanted a pretty doll,’ and mother a wealthy man. Why they did not separate – well, that is their business. but a mother and father who do not get on are an, oppressive atmosphere for a child – a crushing, stifling atmosphere (1947:30).

The following significant remark explains his contradictory attitude to poverty (on the one hand he idealises poverty, on the’ other hand he fights it):

It does not help to justify the things I went through in my life. If only we were poor, so that mother could have been in charge of the housekeeping, so that she herself would have looked after me instead of servants and governesses! (1947:31).

Ria is object of transference of both the mother and the servants: she is a worker, but, like the mother, tastefully dressed. She is a compromise resolution of his libidinal problematic reaching back into his infantile years. His mother does not react to the needs of his existence, therefore he feels she rejects him:

I was at home last night – for dinner, before I came to you. Mother did not come out of her room at all. She had one of her headaches – which she often gets, but never would have had if she was working for a living (1947:43).

Because of this rejection he experiences his whole existence in terms of being excluded and therefore he rebels against the class code according to which he must keep himself apart as bourgeois:

Oh, I see. I must keep apart. (With sincerity:) You know, Mr. Diederiks, I grew up apart. Our house was big enough for each to go his own way, and that is what we did. And when I could wander away from my governesses, it was to the poorest pans of the city that attracted me the most. And do you know why? Because I always saw, people there., people in crowds – adults, children always masses of them. They were thrown together in their small overcrowded houses; the houses were close to each other, the one person could not stay out of the way of the other, the one family could not avoid the other. Those people must be friends; they must laugh and cry together … (my italics 1947: 53-54).

The emphasised “must” in the quotation above, the “must” forced on the poor by the capitalist system, is in other places in the drama the “must” of authority, of being subject to the private decisions of the boss and inspector. In the above the “must”, the capitalist necessity, brings forth Gerhard’s ambivalence, he glorifies this “must”.

The collective cohabitation of the poor is in contrast to the “private” associated with the owner; the private against which Gerhard is rebelling: “I thought of the disappearance of the whole idea of private ownership” (1947: 52-53). Ironically his unconscious identification with his father is betrayed when he falls in love with his father’s “private secretary”: possibly in the capitalist society the nearest substitute for the wife of the father.

Because of his experience of rejection by his mother (loss of the mother and the pre-oedipal unity) his whole existence is aimed at fighting “artificial divisions”: he seeks (like the nationalist N.P. van Wyk Louw in Berigte te Velde) the organic unity of a society of difference. His experience of the communist idea is based on a mystical oceanic feeling. He is actually a nationalist who emphasises the organic unity of the society despite the apparent material differences:

You want equality, and I want it. I desired it since I was a child. I did not understand things then as I do now. I just felt that I was looking for something, but now I know what I always missed and sought (is carried away by his topic and urge to confess). I was a lonely child, and I wanted friends, I wanted to be friends with everybody. But because of the divisions, the artificial divisions presented by society, I could not do it (1947: 69-70).

Time and again Gerhard’s idealism degenerates into egocentric and existential outpourings, to which nobody wants to listen, about his “loneliness~’ as child. He is essentially looking for a therapist and therapy. The fact that nobody wants to listen increases his oedipally determined loneliness:

Hm! Does not listen any more. I am a fool casting pearls before everybodv’s feet (1947:71).

And to Diederiks:

Now, that is an honest admission: you are not listening, you are only hearing. But you do not have to listen. (Despite the smile, his body and voice indicate disappointment and dejection). I feel sometimes as if I am only talking to get rid of the thoughts. And I just started – I do not know how it happened (1947:55).

Gerhard’s oedipal alienation makes him intensely aware of an existential lack in his life, and makes him a seeker trying to heal the wound left by the loss of his mother (“I desired it since I was a child. I did not understand things then, I just felt that I was looking for something” 1947:69). In the working class and in the image of Ria (a Lacanian illusion) he saw wholeness:

Why did your image float before my eyes for three years – in the trenches, during the battles? Can I explain it? Is it necessary to explain it? (1947:43).

In the concluding scene all the oedipal lines come together in the depiction of Ria as a woman with “motherly instincts” (“moedergevoel”) and therefore “a real woman” (1947:8 5).

Gerhard’s desire is fulfilled on two levels in the last act: through the nationalisation of the factory in which he sees a recovery of the organic unity of society, and through his libidinal desire for a substitute mother He is completely satisfied. But it brings to light the absolute irreconcilability between him and the working class, a difference that can never be bridged. The melodramatic and the tragic as two diverse currents in the play emerge. To tragedy belongs Stoffel Booysen, the Dionysian figure, with whom the female workers, as Bacchantic choir, identify. As tragic figure he moves from his initial hubris to his downfall with the nationalisation of the factory:

DIEDERIKS: Speak, Stoffel it is your last speech. Official of the Union, hi! Played Mr. Big. And now? Official of nothing. A dead thing (1947:78).

With Stoffel Booysen the workers go under. The choir becomes one with the body of their hero. It becomes clear when Gerhard calls out in his joy about the nationalisation to a crowd who cannot understand his excitement (“Ladies! Ladies! You won. The factory is now state property – your property. Say hip, hip hooray! Come now: Hip hip hooray! Hip, hip…nobody joins in)” (1947:79)). Booysen then points out his sophistry:

Shut your mouth! Such a hypocrite! Such a fraud! Who is the state? Who is the government? Who is the Minister, the inspector, the inspectors, the manager? Is it us? It’s you – you – just your rule under a new name – you aristocrats, exploiters. thieves! (1947:79).

Throughout the play the workers are the carnivalesque, orgiastic tragic undercurrent for whom the material – “the five pound and the immediate physical existence are central. The carnavalesque (Bakhtin) and the tragic (Nietzsche) (identical concepts?) overlap in the scene of the meeting (1947: 72-75). Booysen with his hubris creates here a stage for his own fall (when Dorie and Koot take the stage and unmask him).

The tragic current within the melodramatic context of the drama as a whole brings the question again to the fore: why are the names of Stoffel Booysen and the workers last on the list of characters? Can one not read the ideological proximity of the or and the bourgeois hero into that? Is the author not here again the hero of his own play, while the “true” drama happens

somewhere below the surface of the text in the lesser characters the unconscious of Gerhard? The truth seems to be something unconscious, and maybe it is therefore important that workers, as social unconscious, come at the bottom of the list.

In contrast Van de Leur takes the decisions that regulate lives of the other. He is therefore the social conscious: He is ordering factor in society; therefore it is natural that his name should be at the top of the list.

October 24, 2010

Mixed identities

Filed under: anton krueger,literature,politics,reviews — ABRAXAS @ 9:52 pm

ANTON KRUEGER – Jun 01 2008 15:04

The issue of an emergent South African identity is possibly one of the most vexing questions to have surfaced within our collective imaginary since 1994. That is to say, it might have been, if we had a collective imaginary to speak of, which, apparently, we don’t.

In his book Predicaments of Culture (2005), Ashraf Jamal suggests that the radically heterogeneous nature of our society means that any calls towards a unified identity are fraudulent. He implies that claims which purport to define a collective identity are inevitably based on the self-interests of the parties who suggest them. In a similar vein, Chipkin also describes appeals to nationalism as more often than not revealing particular agendas.

Chipkin illustrates his points with practical examples from South African public life, opening his book with an analysis of the advertisement which appeared in the Sunday Times in 2001, which alleged the existence of a media plot against President Thabo Mbeki. Carefully unravelling the logic behind the phrasing of the advertisement, Chipkin finds it to be premised on assumptions such as that criticism of Mbeki would be tantamount to wanting to preserve “the legacy of apartheid” and would, therefore, be unpatriotic. Looking further, he finds that being black is defined as “by definition, reversing the apartheid inheritance”, which, therefore, implies claims to authenticity, irrespective of perspectives or agendas.

Chipkin’s vigilant eye picks up other slippages. For example, in Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech, Chipkin questions why Mbeki necessarily conflates being “South African” with being “African” and wonders whether Mbeki is implying a hierarchy of South Africanness.

Other sections of interest include Chipkin’s examinations of the various programmes installed by the post-apartheid government to create democratic institutions which might have led towards a definition of a national identity. Two of the key movements have been the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Chipkin finds that it has been the aim of the RDP to produce not only houses, electricity, plumbing and so on, but also “certain kinds of individuals”, and that the programme seeks to instil “a certain class consciousness” and “a certain struggle for socialism” within the population, both of which are linked to claims of a national identity.

The TRC, according to Chipkin, was an opportunity to define “the people” as those who were previously oppressed. And yet, during the proceedings, the ANC was also accused of human rights abuses, and whites were in some cases cast as victims.

When the ANC desperately tried to intervene on the eve of the publication of the findings to prevent itself from being described as inhumane, this showed the extent to which an investment had been made into the classification of “the people” as primarily black and oppressed. If the ANC was also an occasional oppressor, then the story of reconciliation was no longer between groups, but between individual perpetrators and victims that made it a story not specifically about South Africa, but about “humanity as a whole”. As Chipkin says, “the TRC did not generate the South African people per se: it produced a world people”.

Whereas ideals of nationhood have often been premised on shared cultural values, languages or religions, African nationalism has most often been formulated in terms of its resistance to colonialism, and Chipkin develops a theory of National Democratic Revolution (NDR) as a key marker for nationalist aspirations in African states. The problem is that if a national identity were to be premised on NDR, then those considered to be former oppressors would not belong to a new national identity. In most colonial countries in Africa, the colonisers went back to Europe after independence but in South Africa we have a curious situation. If non-white South Africa was a “colony of white South Africa itself”, then this also implies that the former colonisers now have no other home to return to, and that they also wish to be considered part of “the people”.

In general, Do South Africans Exist? is a lot more technical and a lot less daring than Predicaments of Culture. Chipkin’s book provides a dense hedge of quotations and his assertions remain highly speculative. His focus remains on unravelling ways in which others have tried to bolster a national identity. Chipkin diligently avoids stating any personal beliefs outright. His skill lies in dissecting the arguments of others, in cutting a swathe through a range of explanations, rather than in providing definitions of his own. Perhaps this is the role of the academic — to question everything.


This is a densely argued, somewhat dry account. The historical illustrations often provide fascinating vignettes and interesting detours, rather than always being directly illustrative of the formulations developed. Still, they’re captivating ventures into how specific people at certain junctures have defined themselves as being part of a South African nation.

At any event, this thoroughly prescribable book reminds us of what a remarkably strange and unique country this is. Perhaps we should be grateful that we’re having such trouble formulating a national identity. At least we don’t force our children to pledge allegiance to the flag every morning in the way that American schoolchildren have to, since a stalwart sense of national identity can also lead to the kind of naive arrogance so often associated with Americans today. So perhaps it’s not at all bad to have the kind of critical humility that Chipkin displays in his perpetual quest after an identity which can never be fully resolved.

first published here: http://www.mg.co.za/article/2008-06-01-mixed-identities


Filed under: ian martin,literature — ABRAXAS @ 9:46 pm

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

On the pavement there was a man lying on his side with his legs drawn up. Snoring loudly, he lay with his cheek pressed to the paving slab, his open mouth a slack hole. One arm was tucked under him, elbow jutting behind, in front his hand palm up. The other arm was bent prayer-like, the hand laid palm down on the pavement before his face. He was lost in the grateful oblivion of the dead drunk. Henry stepped round him and crossed Albert Road.

Treaty Road was a narrow side street marked by a church school on the corner. Grimy and dilapidated, the school blended in with the surroundings. Pausing, he looked up at the wall and contemplated the cross surmounted by the name of the school. He sought for an apposite phrase. Did the cross merely symbolise ‘Church’, or did the locals regard it as signifying something more complex and abstract like, ‘the love of Christ’, or, ‘the pain and suffering of mankind?’ What of Promise, Justice and Goodness? Did any of them regard it with bitterness as a symbol of ‘superstition and ignorance’?

A gust of paper and grit blew across the street and he hurried on. Although the clouds were few the blustery southwest wind robbed the afternoon sun of its warmth.

He saw no sign of the tree. The road seemed to end at a set of rusty gates in a wall of crumbling brick that surrounded a half demolished warehouse. Beyond lay the railway tracks, a factory and the docks. When he approached the gates he saw that the road turned to the right and followed the wall. There at the end was a tree.

He had seen the white milkwood at Mossel Bay, the Post Office Tree. Huge, gnarled and ancient, maybe six hundred years old. The Treaty Tree was not as impressive, though its thick, twisted trunk was evidence enough that it had been standing there for some three of four hundred years. He admired the dense foliage, the rich dark green of the shiny, rounded leaves. The tree was protected on one side by a wall in which was set a brass plaque proclaiming the monument. Next to the tree had stood a house where the commander of local Dutch defences had formally handed over the Cape to the British after the Battle of Blaauwberg in 1806.

He tried to imagine how unspoilt the area must have been in 1806. Low dunes with grass and yellow flowering sea pumpkin, and sails in the bay. Now look at it. The plot of grass where the house had stood was kept neatly mowed by the Council and there was a park bench. But the view beyond was grim. The ugly utilitarian shape of a warehouse made more unsightly seen from the rear, a derelict site littered with rubble and refuse, the long, crumbling brick wall.

He turned from the tree and was confronted by a coloured woman. He had not noticed her approach.

“Master, gee vir my ‘n sigaret. Asseblief, Master.”

“I don’t smoke” Henry replied.

She looked about thirty and wore tight black pants and a dirty blue cotton coat. Her hair was concealed by a woollen cap. She had a shapely figure but her face looked raddled and puffy. She carried a plastic bag and he heard the clink of empty bottles.

“You don’t smoke, Master? I’m a smoker. I’m also a drinker.” She giggled. She was probably drunk: there was an aggressive air about her. He began to move off. “Give me ten cents, Master. Vir ‘n dop”

He shook his head. He tried to imagine the kind of life she led.

“Do you know about this tree?” She looked blank. “Did you know that this is the Treaty tree?” She eyed him suspiciously.

How remote she is from me, he thought. Of course she knows nothing of the tree. It was a tree. What did she care?

“You want to come with me?” She asked, gesturing towards the wall. He was a little surprised and began to walk away. Bound to be diseased, anyway. Then out of curiosity he turned.

“How much?”

“Five rand.” He laughed. She came and stood close to him. “Net twee rand.” She was dark skinned and her face was marked. He could smell the wine on her breath and see the offensive boldness in her eyes. “Net twee rand. Kom jy?” She was slightly impatient.

Henry made a motion with his hand and she understood. He followed her to a point where there was a break in the wall. There was nobody in sight. She led the way to the partly demolished building and they passed through a doorway into a room that had four walls but only the sky above for a roof.

How easy to do the wrong thing again. No clamour of warning in his head. Merely a vague idea that this was not the right thing. No intuitive surge of feeling to counteract the rising curiosity, excitement, and sexual urge. Just a faint, toneless voice disinterestedly making a statement: wrong. How unpersuasive.

His heart was thumping fast and he felt shaky in the legs. She turned round and put down the bag, the bottles rattling together on the cement floor.

“Kom” she said, smiling to reveal two missing teeth. Henry unzipped and lowered his trousers and she began.

Henry was particularly excited by the darkness of her hand, the contrast of brown against white. She was expert and unhurried and he stood leaning against the wall, arching his body back in sacrificial abandonment. Then he clutched her hand holding it down, hard.

Henry gave her the money and hurried away, wondering why he felt so unashamed of himself.

Why did I do it? It was such an easy defeat. I don’t’ think I put up any resistance at all. Possibly I didn’t even realise I was being attacked. But then, what was wrong with it anyway? A minor incident in the daily economic life of the city. A straightforward transaction between two persons, one providing a service, the other, the consumer, paying the agreed price upon satisfactory delivery of said service. No coercion, no exploitation. No exploitation? Well, of course there was exploitation. I exploited the vulnerability of a ‘fallen woman’ and paid her to perform yet another demeaning act, thereby further undermining what was left of her self-respect and regard for her fellow beings. But what if she had come to Palmerston Road and knocked on my door and offered to clean the windows for two rand? If I had then given her the choice, clean the windows or milk the bull for two rand, I’m sure she would have gone for the bull without hesitation. Ho-hum, who am I trying to deceive with this specious bluster, this beating about the bush? There’s no necessity for an ethical debate – in my own eyes, according to my own values, according to my own notion of how human beings should treat each other, my action was plainly immoral. Instead, what I should be trying to determine is why I repeatedly succumb to the wrong impulse. Maybe the initial impulse can be ascribed to my active imagination and openness to novel or exciting situations. A dilettante’s unencumbered disposition at play. But the conception of possibilities should be accompanied by judgement and choice. The moment the migratory thought of hiring the woman’s services crossed my mind an alarm bell should have sounded. A neon sign should have lit up proclaiming a bold warning. Something like ACHTUNG, or WATCH IT, PAL, or PAS OP VIR DIE GEVAAR. Without a moment’s hesitation that clear warning should then have been heeded. I should have immediately turned my back on the temptation, discarded the impulse and walked away. For my own physical safety and peace of mind it should become an unquestioning habit, as automatic as a conditioned response in a laboratory rat. I see the danger; I don’t even think about it; I just walk away. And to hell with the voices extolling life as an open-ended adventure and deriding the insipid gentility of virtuous action.

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

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
With The Ways of Dying (1995) Zakes Mda produced an intricate analysis of the historical nightmare of “death producing” (Peterson in Mda 1993) Apartheid. Mda is different from the black writers of the seventies and eighties in that he roots his plots not only in the “streets, schools, prisons, rallies and other public places” (Peterson in Mda 1993) but also in the family, or the disintegration of the family. In this his works have the ability not only to deconstruct the past, but also the future, seeing that the future carries with it the small details of the personal narratives of the past, and these past narratives contain determining signs which go beyond Apartheid and which is shared by all humanity.


Freud, S. 1985. Civilization, Society and Religion, Group Psychology, Civilization and its Discontents and Other Works. Harmondsworth : Penguin Books.

Laplanche, J. & Pontalis, J.-B. 1985. The Language of Psycho-Analysis. London : Hogarth Press.

Mda, Z. 1995a. Ways of Dying. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Mda, Z. 1995b. She Plays with the Darkness. Florida : Vivlia.

Mda, Z. 1993. And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses. Johannesburg : Witwatersrand University Press.

Mda, Z. 1990. Marotholi Travelling Threatre: Towards an Alternative Perspective of Development. Journal of Southern African Studies, 16 (2) : 352-358, June.

Mda, Z. 1980. We Shall Sing for the Fatherland and Other Plays. Johannesburg : Ravan Press.

Nadeau, M. 1978. The History of Surrealism. Harmondsworth : Penguin.

derek davey on becoming a drummer

Filed under: derek davey,literature,music — ABRAXAS @ 8:00 pm

Becoming a drummer

To watch a band or the cast of a play deliver a performance is to witness the (hopefully) seamless combination of individual artists putting their talents into action. You can’t see the effort behind the show that went into its creation; you can perhaps sense whether the preparation was adequate, or not.

I’ve been playing music with bands for a quarter of a century, but until recently never actually sat down and worked on my own instrument with any real dedication. I had this punk philosophy of never reading music, never honing my own talent. Once I thought that sex drugs and rock n roll was all that was required.

Finally linking up with real musicians, it became apparent that this background was not enough. Luckily, I live with two very patient, if at times crabby teachers. It’s my recent process of learning I wish to share.

I realized pretty quickly that to learn drumming is to truly stand on the shoulders of giants. There is almost nothing I am going to create that has not been done before, unless it is done with, for instance, my own particular flavor in the delivery, or combinations of what came before. (That’s what distinguishes me from a drum machine, because all of what I play can be played flawlessly by a machine. It’s the flaws and accents you want – but not too many.)

It’s all been done before, the genres are mapped out and documented and recorded on cds (Tommy Igoe is the man) and in dvds where aficionados interview drummers like Earl Palmer, who has been around forever and been recorded more than any drummer, and all of these aids are useful for learning about and understanding what drumming is about.

The drumkit is, for instance, a fairly modern invention, which has only been around for about a century, unlike a violin which has been in existence since the dark ages. Drums are by themselves extremely ancient, but the combining of snare and bass and cymbals only happened because it was cheaper to pay one band member playing all three, rather than three people each playing one instrument. Latin bands still have these separate percussionists, each playing one part of a complex rhythm.

I also discovered from reading Drumming at the edge of Magic by Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead that drummers just make a noise. No, really! The sound a drum makes is not harmonious. It’s only by combining the noise of striking a drum in a certain time signature that the noises become a rhythm. It’s those spaces between the noises that become all important.

But listening, watching and reading are all merely preludes. True, it will make no sense to just bash away without rhyme or reason. In the end though, it’s the hours that one puts in that create a drummer of substance, or a shitty excuse for one hiding at the back of the stage behind his or her kit.

What one is really doing in this time, which hopefully is not within ear range of anyone else (practice pads help) is training the muscles to repeat certain actions flawlessly, and in perfect time. Practice is always done with a metronome, that tyrannical chicken that clucks in my ear a million times over. I have almost lost all hi-tone hearing in my right ear, as the metronome was on a tad too loud.

There is certainly grey matter involved too, as drumming boils down to mathematics in the end, so in a sense one could say practicing is the art of instilling maths into your muscles, as well as creating neural pathways which can be called upon to perform their function and link with certain limbs with perfect certainty, on cue, whenever needed, over and over.

I have in the past subjected my body and brain to considerable abuse, and the creation or re-creation of neural pathways is helping to restore vast tracts of missing memory. Well, I hope so. But I digress. What was I talking about again?

A large part of drum practice is the creation of independence. This means that one hand plays one rhythm, consisting of say, three notes per bar, while the other does another, perhaps two notes per bar, at the same time.

Meanwhile the feet are doing a further two rhythms of their own, and at certain times all of these intersect and I will be playing bass drum, snare, hi-hat and tom, all at the same time, at one particular place in the bar. I also at times sing on top of this, and lately I learned that if I move while playing, like a dance, it helps to keep me in time.

All of this requires considerable patience. Learning a new rhythm is a question of starting really slowly, piece by piece, drum or cymbal individually, then combining two, then three, then four limb movements all in the right place.

A lot of practice is just repeating certain simple combinations of the stick rhythms until they are part of my soul and no longer require to be thought of, freeing up my brain so it can concentrate on what other limbs are doing, or when a change is coming, and what the larger rhythm requires.

I can sense that certain readers are becoming distracted at this point. That is part of learning music. I can’t communicate what I am doing to anyone else, except to other musicians. The world of practicing music on a daily basis sometimes becomes quite alienating for those around me who are not musicians.

It’s not exactly engaging conversation either. I meet someone I have not seen for years and they ask what I have been up to and I say, well, I have been bashing on my drums. Like, just about every day. Oh, ok.

It’s quite a trip though. Quite similar to martial arts or yoga or anything that requires a lot of discipline and practice. Except that the final application needs to be done with other musicians, particularly as a drummer. Eventually I don’t need to talk to people. Solace is found in my instrument. I go mad if I don’t get to practice. I’ve heard of musos damaging their muscles through over-practice. I’m getting there.

Learning drums is also really humbling. Every time I get to learn something new I realize how far I still have to go. There is this endless tunnel I am going into made of rhythms and I will never get to the end of it, no matter how many tunes I learn. I bet I could come keep coming back and learn new instruments and genres and songs for an infinite number of reincarnations. Maybe that’s what a musical prodigy is, the result of that process.

It sure helps to start learning music early: I only began at the age of 18. My plan is to be really good by 50, or maybe 60. I’m learning to think ahead. I was really surprised when I turned 30. I didn’t think I would get that far.

Musicians don’t retire, they just get better. That’s what I keep telling myself, between the clucks of the metronome. I sure don’t have any pension package to fall back on.

October 12, 2010

a journey up the arse of god

Filed under: kaganof,literature,reviews,trevor steele-taylor — ABRAXAS @ 9:37 pm

Literary Studies in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Filed under: johan van wyk,literature — ABRAXAS @ 1:31 pm

The Centre for the Study of Southern African Literature and Languages (CSSALL):

The Centre for the Study of Southern African Literature and Languages (CSSALL) was established at the University of Durban-Westville, Durban, in 1994, the year in which South Africa became a non-racial democracy. It was established in order to reflect the transformation of literary studies in this new political reality. This article surveys the activities of the CSSALL as well as the philosophy behind its establishment and the particular theoretical contribution it wishes to make in the study of South African literature.

The CSSALL is the first unit in South Africa to exclusively research South African literature. In the apartheid period the different language literatures of South Africa were studied as belonging to different nations. There were separate departments at universities for the literature produced in Afrikaans, English and African Languages. South African English literature was studied as a subsection of broader English literature (British, American, Australian, African and West Indian). In the new political dispensation South Africans have shared citizenship, are one nation. This prompted the idea of the study of the literatures in the different languages as one literature, as belonging to the same system. The CSSALL was established in order to explore the literatures in the different languages as one system, as a multilingual intertextual and comparative discourse.

The CSSALL is one of the products of the intense political and educational struggles at the black universities in the period before the establishment of the non-racial democracy in South Africa. Democratisation of the university structures at all levels, and developing new curricula which reflect the ideals of a non-racial society, were very high on the agenda of the various committees and groups fighting against the old order. When the new progressive rector, Prof. Jayram Reddy, was appointed he initiated and supported the planning of the CSSALL. In 1988 Johan van Wyk, Pieter Conradie (both from the Afrikaans Department) and Nik Constandaras produced an 800-page, and multilingual, anthology of South African poetry, doggerel and verse, SA in poësie/SA in poetry. This anthology contained poems in English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Tswana, Sotho and Xhosa. The anthology was strongly influenced by the ideas of Pierre Macherey. It does not contain the most aesthetically pleasing South African poems, but rather traces the different ideological formations present in the development of South African poetry. The work on this anthology gave Johan van Wyk the means to explore the comparative and intertextual research of South African literature further, and he took the lead in the planning of the CSSALL with the close co-operation of individuals from various departments in the Arts Faculty. Many of the scholars participating came from a Marxist or psychoanalytic background and were critical of Nationalism. The problem was then the relationship of the CSSALL with the founding moment of the new South African nation. The South African focus, rather than being based on national narcissism, used the shared history of South Africans, and the relationship between literature and this history, as its point of departure. This is a history of conflict and difference happening in one geographical area and evolving into an increasingly inter-dependent economy. The research of the CSSALL is very much focused on this historical process as it is manifest in literature

The CSSALL has two permanent members of staff (Johan van Wyk and Jean-Philippe Wade), one research assistant, 15 doctoral and 30 masters students and 15 honours students. Sixty one students have completed their studies with the CSSALL in the last four years. Much emphasis is placed on teamwork with colleagues from other departments and universities. This teamwork is manifest in its projects. These include:

a.) The production of the journal Alternation containing articles on the different Southern African language literatures, but also more general theoretical articles. The fourth volume is currently under construction.

b.) An interdisciplinary conference every two years. The first one was called “The Dancing Dwarf in the Land of the Spirits” (1995). The title is a reference to an Egyptian expedition to the South of the African continent. This expedition returned to the court of the pharaoh Harkuff with a “dancing dwarf from the land of spirits”. In ancient times the area below Sofala was known as Wakwak, the “land of the shades” inhabited by the Khoisan. It is possible that “the land of the spirits” indicated by this Egyptian hieroglyph is the same as this “land of the shades”. The image of the dancing dwarf forms an interesting intertext with current studies on the trance dances by hunter-gatherer shamans. We thought the dancing dwarf is an interesting metaphor for South African literature and our activities. The focus of the conference was on different micro-areas, or formations, which constitute a South African literary history.

The second conference was held in September 1997. It focused on “The body, identity, repression and sub-cultures in texts from Africa”. The idea was to gather papers together that would form a basis for a theory in which the body, and the movements of power in the body, would be central. This entails the study of “inspiration”, trance and states of possession in the production of oral literature. The concepts, though, should also explain some of the phenomena in modern literature. Such a theory links traditional African explanations of power to psychoanalytic models of the psyche. Freud’s early writings saw the psyche in terms of electrical movement. This conforms with the traditional African view of the body in terms of power.

c.) A project for the translation of African language texts into English. Andreas Z Zungu’s USukabekhuluma and the Bhambatha Rebellion is the first to appear in this series. Dr ACT Mayekiso from the Zulu department at the University of Durban-Westville translated this text just before her death in 1996. It is about the rebellion by the Zulu people against the imposition of taxes in 1906. USukabekhuluma, was the main strategist behind this uprising. He was also called Chakijane after the trickster figure in Zulu folklore. He received his training as war strategist during the Anglo-Boer War when he acted as spy on both the British and Boer sides.

d.) A computer database containing about 32 000 bibliographic entries of interest to South African literature research.

e.) The development of a South African literature encyclopaedia in CD ROM and book form. This project will be the product of intensive co-operation with other researchers in field both within and outside of South Africa. In order to achieve this we recently set up a South African literature listserv.

f.) A condensed and extensively illustrated history of South African literature aimed at scholars and students. Through this project we hope to lay the foundation for the study of South African literature as a whole.

g.) Various theoretical projects. These concentrate on problems of literary history when dealing with a multilingual society, problems of identity formation in such a heterogeneous society and texts, Colonial literature and ideology. The next section will elaborate on some of these.

Theoretical projects of the CSSALL

A group of South African researchers interested in South African literary history explored the feasibility of a comprehensive South African literary history at a colloquium arranged by the CSSALL and called “Re-thinking South African literary history” in 1995. Literary history is one of the main theoretical interests of the CSSALL. Many participants at the colloquium complained about the totalizing tendency of such a project: the fact that many micro-areas of comparative research in South Africa would be ignored, that as a new ideological narrative it would gloss over the various conflicts and differences in South African literature. The shortcomings of such a totalizing narrative literary history already materialized in Michael Chapman’s Southern African Literatures (1996), the first South African literary history attempting to cover the literatures in the various South African languages since Manfred Nathan’s South African Literature of 1925.

Chapman described his book as a “moral narrative” based on a “common humanism”. Chapman states:

Without diminishing ‘difference’, it has been important to examine the potential of a common humanism, whether in the utterance of an ancient Bushman or a contemporary metafictionalist. It has also been important, in an intellectual climate currently favouring decentered subjects, to recover an ‘African’ justification for the accessibility and sociability of communication as well as for the moral agency necessary to effect change (430)


What the scars of the emergency have left on the study is a concern for a social contract between writer and citizen that is humanising and democratising in its obligations (430)

This approach with its roots in a humanising middle-class morality is somehow reminiscent of Victorian pietism and didacticism. Chapman does not explore the complex relationship between “morality” and “literature”. To him there is no unconscious to morality or dark side to the democratic, representative values that he promotes in literature. It is not strange therefore that he pleads for a realist form of literature. He finds it difficult to relate to modernism, or to understand it in its historical context. He rejects particularly Afrikaans modernist texts for not giving attention to the political realities of South Africa. Modernism in Afrikaans developed in the 1920’s in reaction to the narrow-minded demands for socialist realism in service of nationalist politics of the time. The recent magic realist novels of Zakes Mda, She plays with the darkness and Ways of dying, points to a similar reaction in black literature to the simplistic dichotomies of struggle literature.

The CSSALL’s approach to South African literature is different to that of Chapman. It is not normative or evaluative in terms of aesthetics or ideology. It rather attempts to explore why a particular literary or ideological phenomenon, or text came into existence: what type of institutions, discourses, social conflicts and economic systems made its emergence possible. In this it owes a lot to Pierre Macherey and Michel Foucault. Ultimately, though, the aim is to produce our own theoretical approach and developing our own terminology and using South African material. The first naive attempt in this regard is the book Constructs of Identity and Difference in South African Literature (Van Wyk 1995). This text focuses too narrowly on Afrikaans literature in an attempt to explore the relationship between this literature to nationalism and the working class. The text combines Marxism, semiotics and psychoanalysis. From a semiotic point of view it uses the concepts of iconic and indexical signs to describe different forms of identity formation. Nationalist identity, for instance, is based on a discourse of similarity and has an iconic form, while socialist identity assumes a causal relationship between economic circumstances and identity and is therefore indexical. From a psychoanalytic point of view, the text sees nationalism as related to melancholia. Central in nationalist discourse is an imagined loss of pre-oedipal omnipotence symbolized in the image of the father. In the second last chapter “Identity and difference: Some nineteenth and twentieth century South African texts” the approach is more comparative. It compares aspects of the heroic world view of the Zulu with the European-derived Calvinism of the Afrikaner pioneers in texts such as N.P. van Wyk Louw’s Die dieper reg and H.I.E. Dhlomo’s drama “Dingane” (from his Collected works.)

In recent research by the CSSALL the focus is more and more on how institutional changes are depicted in South African literature. Changes of particular interest are the changes involved in the transition from a heroic/ pre-colonial society to one in which Western institutions became central. For this the analysis of oral histories such as the text History of Matiwane and the Amangwane Tribe as told by Msebenzi to his Kinsman Albert Hlongwane (1938) becomes central. The comparative terror of pre-colonial oral societies and societies based on Western institutions (with reason as the founding principle) is of interest here. The terror of reason in its history is both genocidal and productive. In the name of civilization and progress hunter-gatherers were exterminated, while educational programs imposed on heroic societies transformed them into a middle class one marked by the institutions of private property, the nuclear family, Christianity and representational politics.

An interesting moment in the history of reason in South Africa is the white working class and socialist discourses around the industrial uprisings in the period 1910-1924. Ivon Jones described the uprising in 1922 as “the first great armed revolt of the workers on any scale in the British Empire” (Hirson 1993:81). Many of these socialists described themselves as rationalists and belonged to rationalist debating societies such as the Heretics. What is interesting here are the formulations of a counter empire. They manipulate discourse of civilization and barbarism in such a way that the capitalist system becomes equal to that of the so-called barbarism of heroic societies. The appropriation of Darwinist evolution theory combined with historical materialism features strongly in these discourses. In a completely different context, the first Zulu author, Magema M. Fuze, in his The Black People and Whence They Came (1979, first published in 1922) combined genealogy, a prominent feature of praise poetry, with evolutionary theory and genetics. Through this he hoped to challenge the beliefs of his Christian and colonial masters.

The notion of civilization (which is a product of a history of terror) is inseparable from its opposite, namely regression. To the white socialists this was evident in the First World War. Fuze also used an image of regression in his text. He inserted an anecdote about the Thusi clan who became baboons living in the veldt after becoming weary of cultivating crops. This is a variation of a theme that were globally prevalent at the time, for instance in a text such as Freud’s Civilisation and its discontents. More recent and relevant to us is Foucault’s Madness and civilisation.

As part of Colonial ideology Reason was instrumental in genocidal projects against the colonized. But this death drive of Reason also turns against itself. This is evident in the many intrigues in the Communist Party of South Africa during the early Stalinist period and the texts referring to these make for interesting discursive analysis.

The CSSALL’s focus on history is in many ways absurd. As one of the nineteenth century informants of Callaway in the book The Religious System of the Amazulu (1970) declares: “there (is) no going back to the beginning” (1970:18). There is in African explanations a concern with the immediacy of visible things and the present. The past is no longer part of the visible and is therefore irrelevant. Callaway’s informant describes the irrelevance of the origins of things by referring to a stalk that is discarded after the maize grains have been plucked. The grains are of value, not the stalk. Even explaining the visible, though, can be a form of arrogance.

In South African literature there are very old visible records in the form of rock paintings by hunter-gatherers. These are the oldest writing in the region and raises the question of man’s transition to the semiotic realm. This question also relates to burial. When did human beings become aware of death, when did a rock or something from the natural environment become a tool, and is this metamorphoses or shape shifting not metaphor, the basis of poetry? Is poetry (opaque signs) not older than language (transparent signs)? The conception of language as a transparent sign system is one of the products of the Enlightenment and the orientation to the measurement of things, and the need to name things in their difference to other things.

The African turn against history, and the embracing of the abundance of the immediate, is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s notion of tragedy from his early The birth of tragedy. This text to me is of central importance to the study of South African literature. Nietzsche wrote this text as a critique of the programs of Naturalism in literature in the late 19th century. Naturalism was an attempt to bring the newly emergent social science forms of reasoning into literature: it wanted to portray the effects of poverty and heredity in the world. It wanted to illustrate science. As such it inspired many movements in literature concerned with development and upliftment. Tragedy on the other hand does not see poverty, but rather the omnipotence of the satyr. The satyr figures behind all the constructs of civilization and represents the counter civilization, the futility of civilization. The satyr is image of popular music, dance, sexuality and the inevitability of death. It stands against all blueprints and programs which wants people to conform to the image of reason. The satyr and tragedy express the abundance of nature. Callaway’s Zulu informant states “Just as we married many wives saying, ‘Hau! we cannot deny ourselves as regards the abundance which Unkulunkulu has given us: let us do what we like” (24) expresses the philosophy of Nietzsche and the world outlook of the satyr. A further example of the tragic in Africa is the king who embodies the heroic consciousness of the individual psychology and its “imaginary” omnipotence. At the king’s death with the tribe as satiric chorus tragedy is enacted, individual and group psychology interacts in an interplay of consciousness, abundance, power and death.

Nietzsche’s chorus of satyrs is another version of Bakhtin’s carnival. And South Africa, like many other postcolonial countries, is one in which carnival plays a central role. It is a country of mass processions, marches, toy-toy, public oratory and mass-gatherings. This is not only part of recent black culture: The 1922 worker uprisings on the Witwatersrand and the Voortrekker Centenary in 1938 amongst others point to white carnival culture, point to continuity between white and black cultures in this regard, and the need for comparative analysis. These mass gatherings and carnivals express the omnipotence of the group who again is ideally mirrored in its martyrs and leaders. It is a society in which different carnival formations, different formations of lawlessness, contest with one another.

Postcolonialism, although recognizing hybridism, has been hampered by a narrow focus on the European language literatures from the colonies. Language here also referring to the language of Reason. I believe that a whole renaissance could come about through the study of First Peoples languages and traditions – not as something anthropologically different, but as something very much continuous with and relevant to postmodern industrial existences. In the magic realism of Zakes Mda the return of a rural and traditional repressed is a rediscovery of spiritualism and wisdom. In conclusion I would like to oppose this wisdom to reason. The CSSALL in future will more and more explore the tensions between wisdom and reason. Wisdom can be silent, and contradictory. It belongs to pre-colonial, heroic and oral cultures. It does not have any final answers. It does not want to master nature. It uses anecdotes and poetry.


Callaway, H 1970. The Religious System of the AmaZulu. Struik. Cape Town

Chapman, M. 1996. Southern African Literatures. London: Longman.

Dhlomo, H.I.E. 1985. Collected Works. Johannesburg: Ravan.

Foucault, M. 1982. Madness & Civilisation. London: Tavistock.

Freud, S. 1985. Civilisation, Society and Religion, Group Psychology, Civilisation and its Discontents and Other Works. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Fuze, M.M. 1979. The Black People and Whence they Came. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.

Hirson, B. 1993 “The General Strike of 1922”. Searchlight South Africa. No. 11, Oct., p. 63-64.

Louw, N.P. van Wyk. 1947. Die Dieper Reg. Kaapstad: Nasionale Pers.

Macherey, P. 1980. A Theory of Literary Production. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Mda, Z. 1995a. Ways of Dying. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Mda, Z. 1995b. She Plays with the Darkness. Florida : Vivlia.

Msebenzi (edited by Van Warmelo) 1938. History of Matiwane and the AmaNgwane Tribe. Pretoria. Government Printer.

Nathan, M. 1925. South African Literature: A Critical Survey. Cape Town: Juta.

Nietzsche, F. 1956. The Birth of Tragedy. New York: Anchor Books.

Smit, J. Van Wyk, J. and J-P Wade. 1996. Rethinking South African Literary History. Durban: Y Press.

Van Wyk, J.1995. Constructs of Identity and Difference in South African Literature. Durban: CSSALL.

Van Wyk, J. Conradie, P and N. Constandaras. 1988. SA in Poësie/SA in Poetry. Durban: Owen Burgess.

Zungu, A..Z. 1997. Usukabekhuluma and the Bhambatha Rebellion. Durban: CSSALL.

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