Literature of South Africa

Literature of South Africa

Elleke Boehmer (cf. Cullhed, 2006: 79) writes, “Nationalism, like patriarchy, favours singleness—one identity, one growth pattern, one birth and blood for all . . . [and] will promote specifically unitary or ‘one-eyed’ forms of consciousness.” The first problem any student of South African literature is confronted with, is the diversity of the literary systems. Olivier notes, "While it is not unusual to hear academics and politicians talk about a 'South African literature', the situation at ground level is characterised by diversity and even fragmentation". Mossman adds that "One of the enduring and saddest legacies of the apartheid system may be that no one - White, Black, Coloured (meaning of mixed-race in South Africa), or Asian - can ever speak as a "South African." The problem, however, pre-dates Apartheid significantly, as South Africa is a country made up of communities that have always been linguistically and culturally diverse. These cultures have all retained autonomy to some extent, making a compilation such as the controversial Southern African Literatures by Michael Chapman, difficult. Chapman raises the question:

[W] hose language, culture, or story can be said to have authority in South Africa when the end of apartheid has raised challenging questions as to what it is to be a South African, what it is to live in a new South Africa, whether South Africa is a nation, and, if so, what its mythos is, what requires to be forgotten and what remembered as we scour the past in order to understand the present and seek a path forward into an unknown future.

South Africa has 11 national languages, Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Pedi, Tswana, Venda, SiSwati, Tsonga, and Ndebele. Any definitive literary history of South Africa should, it could be argued, discuss literature produced in all eleven languages. But the only literature ever to adopt characteristics that can be said to be 'national', is Afrikaans. Olivier argues, "Of all the literatures in South Africa, Afrikaans literature has been the only one to have become a national literature in the sense that it developed a clear image of itself as a separate entity, and that by way of institutional entrenchment through teaching, distribution, a review culture, journals, etc. it could ensure the continuation of that concept." Part of the problem is that English literature has been seen within the greater context of English writing in the world, and has, because of English's global position as "lingua franca", not been seen as autonomous or indigenous to South Africa - in Olivier’s words, "English literature in South Africa continues to be a sort of extension of British or international English literature." The African languages, on the other hand, are spoken across the borders of Southern Africa, e.g. Tswana which is spoken in Botswana, and Tsonga in Zimbabwe, and Sotho in Lesotho. South Africa's borders were drawn up by the British Empire, and like all other colonies, these borders were drawn without regard for the people living within them. Therefore: in a history of South African literature, do we include all Tswana writers, or only the ones with South African citizenship? Chapman bypasses this problem by including 'Southern' African literatures. The second problem with the African languages is accessibility, because since the African languages are regional languages, none of them can claim the readership on a national scale comparable to Afrikaans and English. Sotho, for instance, while transgressing the national borders of the RSA, is on the other hand mainly spoken in the Free State, and bears very little relation to the language of Natal for example, Zulu. So the language cannot claim a national readership, while on the other hand being ‘international’ in the sense that it transgresses the national borders.

Olivier argues that "There is no obvious reason why it should be unhealthy or abnormal for different literatures to co-exist in one country, each possessing its own infrastructure and allowing theoreticians to develop impressive theories about polysystems". Yet political idealism proposing a unified 'South Africa' (a remnant of the colonial British approach) has seeped into literary discourse and demands a unified national literature, which does not exist and has to be fabricated. It is unrealistic to ever think of South Africa and South African literature as homogenous, now or in the near or distant future, since the only reason it is a country at all is the interference of European colonial powers. This is not a racial issue, but rather has to do with culture, heritage and tradition. Rather, it seems more sensible to discuss South African literature as literature produced within the national borders by the different cultures and language groups inhabiting these borders. Otherwise the danger is emphasising one literary system at the expense of another, and more often than not, the beneficiary is English, with the African languages being ignored. The distinction 'black' and 'white' literature is further a remnant of colonialism that should be replace by drawing distinctions between literary systems based on language affiliation rather than race.


Afrikaans is a language akin to the Germanic languages and in particular Dutch. It has its origins in the 17th century, but was only officially recognized in 1875 when the "Genootskap vir Regte Afrikaners" was established. Afrikaans is spoken throughout South Africa, and is the mother tongue of both whites and coloureds (in the South African sense, meaning a specific independent culture rather than the disparaging European or American use of the term). The literary history is thus short, but surprisingly vibrant. The major literary histories are HP Van Coller's "Perspektief en Profiel", JC Kannemeyer's "Geskiedenis van die Afrikaanse literatuur", and Dekker's "Afrikaanse Literatuurgeskiedenis". Lewis Nkosi (cf. Cullhed, 2006: 18) claims that “in South Africa there exists an unhealed—I will not say incurable—split between black and white writing.” This split occurs because, Nkosi claims, black writers are “largely impervious for the most part to cultural movements which have exercised great influence in the development of white writing.” The Afrikaans literary system, in contrast to the African languages, engages with European artistic movements such as symbolism, expressionism, modernism, post-modernism, Dadaism and the like, offering literature familiar to a European or American audience.


Some of the early names include Leipoldt and Langenhoven, who wrote the national anthem ("Die Stem"). Early poetry often deal with the Anglo-Boer War, and it is only in the 1930s that poetry reaches a significant literary standard. NP Van Wyk Louw is the vanguard of the new movement, called "Dertigers", along with his brother WEG Louw, and Elizabeth Eybers, although they were all to write in future literary periods. Olivier notes Van Wyk Louw's predominance: "It was only in the Thirties that a fully developed theory about Afrikaans as a national literature was launched by the erudite poet, N P van Wyk Louw, in his two collections of essays "Lojale verset" (1939) and "Berigte te velde" (1939)". Van Wyk Louw introduced international literary theories and movements into the South African literary scene on a much larger scale than any of his predecessors, and his "theory provided the intellectual and philosophical space within which poets and novelists could exercise their craft without fear of transgression; in short, it became the paradigm for Afrikaans literature" (Olivier).
DJ Opperman started writing in the 1940s, and was to have a particularly prominent role with his anthology, "Groot Verseboek". The next major paradigm shift came in the 1960s, with TT Cloete and Ingrid Jonker, who, after her death, attained cult status. Cloete et al. discuss this literary watershed in "Rondom Sestig". TT Cloete is further noteworthy for his compilation, "Literêre Terme en Teorieë" (1992), which is one of the most encompassing works on literary theory available on the global market, although written in Afrikaans. Some modern poets of note include Joan Hambidge, Hennie Aucamp, Ernst van Heerden, Antjie Krog and Gert Vlok Nel. The major poetry anthologies are DJ Opperman's "Groot Verseboek", Foster and Viljoen's "Poskaarte", Gerrit Komrij's controversial Die "Afrikaanse poësie in 1000 en enkele gedigte", and André P. Brink's "Groot Verseboek", a remake or reworking of Opperman's anthology.


Being a predominantly agricultural society, the "plaasroman" (farm novel) plays a prominent role in early as well as later novels. One of the archetypes is CM Van den Heever's "Laat Vrugte", which lay the foundations for parodies in the 1960s and later such as Etienne Leroux's "Sewe dae by die Silbersteins", André P. Brink's "Houd-den-bek" and Eben Venter's "Ek stamel ek sterwe". Even some English novels, such as JM Coetzee's "Disgrace", remind one of the plaasroman. As urbanization became more prominent during the time of the two World Wars, other forms emerged, notably the "dorpsroman" (town novel) such as Lettie Viljoen's "Karolina Ferreira", Etienne van Heerden's "Die Swye van Mario Salviati", or Alexander Strachan's "Die Werfbobbejaan". Afrikaans writing tends to be critical of conservative culture, and during the Apartheid regime, critical of politics as well. André P. Brink and Etienne Leroux deserve special mention, Brink not only because he is accessible to English readers (he writes in English and Afrikaans, e.g. "Duiwelskloof" is available as "Devil's Valley"), but also because the vast oeuvre he produced (prose and drama) sets him apart as arguably the greatest South African writer. Leroux produced less, but had a profound influence on the literary scene. His characters are often outsiders, and his satirical view on South African issues embodies alchemistic, Jungian and Cabbalistic theories and philosophies, with the novel reading like a palimpsest with different levels of meaning. This style had a profound influence on writers such as Ingrid Winterbach (Lettie Viljoen), Alexander Strachan, and Etienne van Heerden's magical realist novels. With the war in Angola, "grensliteratuur" (border literature) started playing an important role, such as Dine van Zyl's "Slagoffers", Christiaan Bakkes's "Skuilplek" and Alexander Strachan's "'n Wêreld sonder grense". After political changes in 1994, an emphasis on the past has become an important feature as South Africans attempted to make sense of their past, of which Dan Sleigh's "Eilande" and André P. Brink's "Duiwelskloof" are examples. "Triomf" by Marlene van Niekerk deals with poor Afrikaners in a legendary suburb of Johannesburg, where the Apartheid regime demolished the old black township Sophiatown, in order to build houses for the white lower-class. "Triomf" has been translated into English by Leon de Kock. Another writer who often regresses to earlier times is André P. Brink, e.g. "Anderkant die Stilte" (in English available as "The Other Side of Silence") which is set during the German occupation of Namibia. Andre Brink was the first Afrikaner writer to be banned by the government after he released the novel "A Dry White Season" about a white South African who discovers the truth about a black friend who dies in police custody. In recent years, gay and lesbian writing has also begun to feature, e.g. Johann de Lange, and Eben Venter's "Ek stamel ek sterwe". Political turmoil and the opening of South Africa's borders after the 1994 elections have resulted in many writers moving abroad, or writing about their time spent overseas, e.g. Jaco Fouché's "Ryk van die Rawe". Other contemporary issues include crime (Jaco Fouché's "Die avonture van Pieter Francken", Etienne van Heerden's "In stede van die liefde" and others) and other government issues such as corruption. In short, Afrikaans prose tends to be critical of the dominant ideologies and the government of the time, the society inhabiting this space and the people living within this society. From a European perspective, Afrikaans prose produces works of a high standard and is artistically and intellectually capable of engaging with the best European and American writers.


As with the prose and poetry, Afrikaans drama is often intellectually and stylistically modern and complex, as influenced by French, German, Russian and Dutch playwrights. "Siener in die Suburbs" by PG Du Plessis, Reza de Wet's "Vrystaat Trilogie" and "Drie susters twee", Breyten Breytenbach's "Boklied" and André P. Brink's "Bagasie" deserve mentioning. Breyten Breytenbach was jailed for his (alleged) involvement with guerrilla activities against the Apartheid regime, but was subsequently released.

English Literature


One of the first literary works of note is Olive Schreiner's "The story of an African farm", which can be linked to Van den Heever's "Laat Vrugte" as a "plaasroman". The novel was a revelation in Victorian literature: it is heralded by many as introducing feminism into the novel form. However, Mossman (1990: 41) argues that "The most frequently taught work of South African literature in American classrooms is "Cry, the Beloved Country" (1986) by Alan Paton". A possible reason for this is that it was made into a film starring James Earl Jones, and it depicts a typical racist situation which fits well with American perceptions of South African society. Alan Paton also produced "Too late the phalarope", another text criticizing Apartheid politics, in particular the Immorality Act which forbade interracial sexual relations. During the 1950s, Drum magazine became a hotbed of political satire, fiction, and essays, giving a voice to urban black culture. Around the same time, future Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer began publishing her first stories. Her most famous novel, "July's People", was released in 1981, depicting the collapse of white-minority rule.
Athol Fugard's "Tsotsi" was also made into a film, although Fugard is usually better known for his dramas. Several influential black poets became prominent in the 1970s such as Mongane Wally Serote, whose most famous work, "No Baby Must Weep", gave insight into the every day lives of black South Africans under Apartheid. Another famous black novelist, Zakes Mda, transitioned from poetry and plays to becoming a novelist. His novel, "The Heart of Redness" won the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize and was made a part of the school curriculum across South Africa. Miriam Tlali was the first black woman to publish a novel in South Africa with "Muriel at Metropolitan" (1975) (also known as "Between Two Worlds"). John Maxwell (JM) Coetzee was also first published in the 1970s. He became internationally recognised in 1983 with his Booker Prize winning novel "Life & Times of Michael K". His 1999 novel "Disgrace" won him his second Booker Prize as well as the 2000 Commonwealth Writers' Prize. He is also the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. South African English writing has produced two Nobel Prize winners: Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee. One of the most harrowing tales in world literature can be found in Coetzee's "Disgrace", a story of loss of power and brutality towards whites in the New South Africa.

Naturally, racial friction is often depicted in South African literature of all languages. But there is a marked difference between how white writing depicts black characters and how some black authors depict whites: one emphasizes that people are not what the stereotype claims, the other argue that the stereotype is substantiated. For instance, Miriam Tlali (cf. Cullhed, 2006: 64) writes, “The Republic of South Africa is a country divided mainly into two worlds. The one, a white world — rich, comfortable, for all practical purposes organised — a world in fear, armed to the teeth. The other, a black world; poor, pathetically neglected and disorganised —voiceless, oppressed, restless, confused and unarmed—a world in transition, irrevocably weaned from all tribal ties.” This clearly provides a one-sided view of South African realities, of course ignoring Soviet involvement in the arms trade during the freedom struggle, the reality of poor whites (as depicted in Marlene van Niekerk’s "Triomf"), and essentially the fact that South Africa in the years of Apartheid was a more complex environment than the one often depicted in reductionist texts (literary and journalistic). Her stereotypical and demonizing depiction of “Boers” (Afrikaners) highlights the same reductionist tendency: “they have an insatiable lust for persecuting non-whites, [their] perfect efficiency in this respect was motivated by the unmistakable burning desire you find in most of them, that is, to sit on the necks of the non-whites.” This contrasts sharply with specifically Afrikaans works under Apartheid (e.g. Leroux, Brink, Krog, Van Heerden), who tend to address the absurdity of Apartheid and the humanity in the Other, rather than perpetuating stereotypes.

Other prominent texts listed by Mossman are "Mine Boy" by Peter Abrahams, Alex La Guma's "Walk in the Night", Breyten Breytenbach's "True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist", Nadine Gordimer's "Burger's Daughter", Andre Brink's "Dry White Season", Richard Rive's "Buckingham Palace, District Six", Andre Brink's "Rumours of Rain", Nadine Gordimer's "July's People", Sipho Sepamla's "Ride on the Whirlwind", and Mongane Serote's "To every birth its blood". Miriam Tlali was the first black woman to produce a novel, "Murial at the Metropolitan" ("Between Two Worlds"). David Lambkin also deserves mentioning, "The Hanging Tree" reading like a Leroux novel with various Jungian and alchemistic substrates.


Athol Fugard's "Master Harald and the boys" is a drama about race relations, and "Boesman and Lena" depicts the hardships suffered by South Africa's poor. Athol Fugard's plays have been regularly premiered in fringe theatres in South Africa, London (The Royal Court Theatre) and New York. Another noteworthy drama is Zakes Mda's "We shall sing for the fatherland".


Tony Ullyatt's "The Lonely Art: An Anthology" includes South African English poetry. English poetry in South Africa is often considered ‘good’ by whether or not it criticises Apartheid, or whether or not it depicts life ‘as it is’, rather than the Afrikaans emphasis on literary merit taken from Russian Formalism and introduced by Van Wyk Louw.

African Languages

Although there are nine official African languages in South Africa, most speakers are fluent in Afrikaans and English. Coupled with the small market for writing in African languages, this has lead many African writers to write in English and Afrikaans. The first texts produced by black authors were often inspired by missionaries and frequently deal with African history, in particular the history of kings like Chaka. Modern South African writing in the African languages tends to play at writing realistically, at providing a mirror to society, and depicts the conflicts between rural and urban settings, between traditional and modern norms, racial conflicts and most recently, the problem of AIDS. Very little is known about these authors and their works, as they write mostly in languages not accessible to European scholars. An attempt has recently been made to make more information available about them, as can be seen in the external links section where the link to the website, "Literature in Context", will provide more information about African authors than available on any other one website. There is also more information about Afrikaans and English writers.

In the first half of the 20th century, epics largely dominated black male writing: historical novels, such as Sol T. Plaatje’s "Mhudi: An Epic of South African Native Life a Hundred Years Ago" (1930), Thomas Mofolo’s "Chaka" (trans. 1925), and epic plays like those of H. I. E. Dhlomo, or heroic epic poetry such as the work of Mazizi Kunene. These texts “evince black African patriarchy in its traditional form, with men in authority, often as warriors or kings, and women as background figures of dependency, and/or mothers of the nation” (Cullhed, 2006: 21). Female literature in the African languages is severely limited because of the strong influence of patriarchy, but over the last decade or two society has changed much and it can be expected that more female voices will emerge.


Some of the most prominent Zulu authors are BW Vilakazi, Mazisi Kunene, RRR Dhlomo, HIE Dhlomo, JL Dube, Njabulo S Ndebele, Nimrod Ndebele, EA Made, and DBZ Ntuli.


Some of the most prominent Xhosa authors are AC Jordan, Samuel EK Mqhayi, JJR Jolobe, ZS Qangule, KS Bongela, Godfrey Mzamane, Rubusana, and Guybon Sinxo. A female writer of note is Sindiwe Magona. Her 1998 novel, "Mother to Mother", deals with violence at the end of Apartheid through the killing of American student Amy Biehl. Magona writes both in English and Xhosa.

SesothoSome of the most prominent Sesotho authors are MKPD Maphala, BM Khaketla, and Thomas Mofolo.

PediSome of the most prominent Pedi authors are OK Matsepe, HDN Bopape, HP Maredi, SR Machaka, and Ramaila.

TswanaSome of the most prominent Tswana authors are Sol DT Plaatje, DB Moloto, DPS Monyaise, SA Moroke, Gilbert Modise, MJ Ntsime, LD. Raditladi (who had a crater in Mecury named after him), MD Mothoagae, JHK Molao.

References and further reading

Mossman, Robert. South African Literature: A Global Lesson in One Country. "The English Journal", Vol. 79, No. 8. (Dec., 1990), pp. 41-43.Chapman, Michael. "The Politics of Identity: South Africa, Story-telling, and Literary History".Olivier, Gerrit. "Afrikaans and South African literature".Dekker, G. 1961 "Afrikaanse literatuurgeskiedenis". Cape Town: Nasionale Boekhandel Bpk.Kannemeyer, J.C. 1978. "Die geskiedenis van die Afrikaanse literatuur", Band I. Pretoria: Academica.Kannemeyer, J.C. 1983. "Die geskiedenis van die Afrikaanse literatuur", Band 2. Pretoria: Academica.Van Coller, H.P. (red.) 1998. "Perspektief en profiel. ‘n Afrikaanse literatuurgeskiedenis" I. Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik.Van Coller, H.P. (red.) 1998. "Perspektief en profiel. ‘n Afrikaanse literatuurgeskiedenis" II. Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik.Van Coller, H.P. (red.) 2006. "Perspektief en profiel. ‘n Afrikaanse literatuurgeskiedenis" III. Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik.Cullhed, C. 2006. "Grappling with Patriarchies. Narrative Strategies of Resistance in Miriam Tlali's Writings". Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Studia Anglistica Upsaliensia 131. 233 pp. Uppsala.Attridge, Derek and Rosemary Jolly, eds. "Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995". Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.Boehmer, Elleke. "Endings and New Beginning: South African Fiction in Transition". Attridge and Jolly 43-56.Brink, André and J. M. Coetzee, eds. "A Land Apart: A South African Reader". London:Faber and Faber, 1986.Chapman, Michael. "Southern African Literatures". London: Longman, 1996.Coetzee, J. M. "White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa". New Haven: Yale UP,1988.

External link

See also

* Amstel Playwright of the Year Award
* List of South African writers
* List of South African poets
* South African poetry
* The Great Place
* Poetry Africa - International Festival of Poetry

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