Any overview of South African history will be dominated by consideration of the Apartheid era, from which the country only truly emerged in 1994, when the first free elections brought the African National Congress (ANC) to power, giving South Africa a black government for the first time, under President Nelson Mandela. It is important, though, to put white rule in South Africa in its colonial context.
The Portuguese were the first to make their mark on South Africa in the 15th century, but the first major settlers were the Dutch in the 17th century, who established a settlement in Cape Town on behalf of Dutch East India company. The English followed in the 19th century, settling mainly on the Eastern Cape. The riches of South Africa, especially diamonds and gold, created a rush to exploit the resources. The British had to contend with wars with the Zulus, then at the very end of the 19th century, with the Boers, the descendants of the original Dutch settlers., Seeing their influence and control threatened, they invaded British South Africa in 1899, which resulted in the Boer wars. One of the more discreditable acts of the wars was General Kitchener’s invention of the concentration camp, where Boer civilian sympathisers were held, resulting in over 20,000 deaths. The final outcome of the Boer wars was the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, a semi-autonomous state under British colonial rule. Black political right were abolished, and the rights of blacks to own land were severely restricted. The Nationalist Party came to power in 1948, marking the increased power of Afrikaaner ideology. The laws and system of Apartheid came into power the following year, with racially mixed marriages immediately outlawed. In 1955, an area of Johannesburg called Sophiatown was designated a whites-only area, necessitating the eviction of 60,000 black Africans. Dr Verwoerd was elected president in 1958 and he entrenched the apartheid system, creating separate education for whites and blacks, the establishment of black independent “homelands”, and protectionist labour laws to ensure white job security.
During this time, the black political movement had been active, despite suppression, and the ANC, starting with an emphasis on African racial pride and cultural autonomy, adopted the Freedom Charter in 1955, which stated that South Africa belonged to all those people who live in South Africa, both black and white. One of the ANC’s key leaders was Nelson Mandela. In 1960 the world was shocked by the Sharpeville Massacre: 76 peaceful demonstrators are killed for protesting against the Pass Laws – a law requiring all urban black persons to have state sanction to be in city. The ANC was banned the same year, but in 1961 Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) was launched as the military wing of the ANC. It carried out various sabotage activities. In that year the country changed its name to Republic of South Africa. In 1964, the leadership of the ANC, including Mandela, was captured and sentenced to life imprisonment for treason. The Soweto Riots took place in 1976, when apartheid policies on black education meant that black students were forced to study in the Afrikaaner language. Many students were killed when police opened fire on a peaceful student demonstration, and in the riots which followed, over 1000 people were killed, over 4000 injured and 13000 arrested. There were, over the following years, many examples of police brutality, a famous example being the death of Steve Biko, a civil rights lawyer, in police custody. International unrest and protests led to the isolation of South Africa, with many multinational companies withdrawing and the international sports boycott after South Africa refused to play a cricket test match against an England team which included a coloured player. Barclays Bank was particularly boycotted by students in Britain, as it refused to withdraw from its business in South Africa. Many diamond and gold firms also continued to work in South Africa. International pressure eventually led to President FW de Klerk lifting the ban on the ANC in 1990, which led to the release of Nelson Mandela from prison amid scenes of international rejoicing. The first non-racial elections followed in 1994 and Mandela became the first black president of South Africa.
In an attempt to heal the wounds of South Africa’s history the Truth & Reconciliation Committee was established to provide “as complete a picture as possible of the nature, causes and extent of gross violations of human rights”. The aim was to provide a forum for people to voice their pain and their guilt, without recrimination. Statements to the commission revealed the extent of state sponsored terrorism and violence, and it remains to be seen whether complete ‘reconciliation’ will be the result.
While other colonised countries in Africa gained their independence in the 60s, resulting in black rule, the independence of South Africa reinforced the white rule of the settlers, continuing the oppression of the black majority for another three decades. It is not surprising, therefore, that apartheid and the struggles against the regime dominate late 20th century South African literature. One might consider, though, the implications of the fact that the best known writers of the period are not black, but white politically liberal writers. This is addressed in some way in Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter (1979), where Rosa, the eponymous heroine, attempts to forge her own identity and independence from her father, Lionel Burger, a prominent white anti-apartheid activist who dies in prison. Towards the end of the novel, Baasie, a black childhood friend of Rosa’s, who she has not seen for years, rebukes her: “Lionel Burger… Everyone in the world must be told what a great hero he was and how much he suffered for the blacks. Everyone must cry over him… Listen, there are dozens of our fathers sick and dying like dogs, kicked out of the locations when they can’t work any more. Getting old and dying in prison. Killed in prison. It’s nothing. I know plenty blacks like Burger. It’s nothing, it’s us, we must be used to it”. At another point in the novel, another black character rejects the white liberal struggle against apartheid: “Whites don’t credit us with the intelligence to know what we want! We don’t need their solutions.” The novel is very firmly placed historically, with references to the Sharpeville and Soweto disturbances and to the key figures in the ANC. Gordimer faces the turbulent politics of South Africa, and her questions about the white liberals’ role in the struggle reflects her own position as a writer. It is significant that Rosa, who tries to separate herself from her family’s history of political struggle, is inevitably drawn back into it and ends the novel in prison. Though chronological in structure, in other ways Gordimer’s narrative technique demonstrates some of the experimentation of other post colonial literature. The novel employs different narrative voices, first person and third person, as it follows Rosa’s story, some passages like Rosa’s personal confessions and reminiscences, others which treat her objectively. There are sections which have the style of newspaper reports, others the tone of police reports about her activities.
JM Coetzee occupies a similar political position to Gordimer, a white liberal intellectual (he is Professor of Literature at Cape Town University). His post-apartheid novel Disgrace questions what kind of country South Africa will become and how it will deal with its past. At the novel’s centre is the brutal rape of the central character’s daughter by three black men. Lucy astonishes her father, David Lurie, by her absolute refusal to inform the police about the attack or to move away from the area. “What if,” she says, “what if that is the price one has to pay for staying on? Perhaps that is how they look at it; perhaps that is how I should look at it too. They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying?” Through Lucy, Coetzee asks how it is possible to redress the wrongs that have been done in South Africa by white rule and the oppression of the black population. At the same time he asks questions about men’s sexual dominance of women, drawing an implicit parallel between sexual oppression and colonial oppression. The rape of Lucy is the starkest example of men’s sexual oppression of women, but it also has its parallels with David’s relationships with the prostitute Soraya and his affair with a student, Melanie. In David’s claiming and possession of these women, and the men’s rape of Lucy, Coetzee shows a scale of masculine exploitation which parallels the exploitation of colonialism. Only David’s sexual encounter with Bev Shaw shows mutuality, and ultimately he is drawn to expiate his relationship with Melanie by facing her parents to apologise.
The plays of Athol Fugard hold a slightly different position, in that he formed drama groups called the Actors’ Studio and The Serpent Players with black actors from the townships, and a number of his plays are scripted from collaborations and improvisations with these actors. Two of them, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who developed and played the leading roles, share the copyright on two of the group known as The Township Plays. Sizwe Bansi is Dead focuses on the Pass Laws: its central character, Sizwe Bansi faces the dilemma of losing his own identity by using a dead man’s pass book if he is to find work and support his family. He is persuaded that he has no identity or dignity under South African law anyway: “When the white man looked at you at the Labour Bureau what did he see? A man with dignity or a bloody passbook with an NI number? … When the white man sees you walk down the street and calls out, ‘Hey, John! Come here’… to you, Sizwe Bansi… isn’t that a ghost? Or when a little child calls you ‘Boy’… you a man, circumcised, with a wife and four children?” The Island shows two men imprisoned on Robben Island, the infamous prison where political dissidents, including Nelson Mandela, were imprisoned. As well as dramatising a moving account of the hardships endured by prisoners, the play’s two characters are preparing a performance of Sophocles’ play Antigone in the prison, and the last scene shows the key moment of their production, which draws an unmistakable parallel between Antigone’s situation and their own, as Antigone points out that she is guilty of following a higher, god-granted law rather than the legislated law, seeing in that a greater honour than following the laws of a tyrannical state. At the end of the play, Winston, playing Antigone, removes his costume to deliver Antigone’s final lines: “Gods of our Fathers! My Land! My Home! Time waits no longer. I go now to my living death, because I honoured those things to which honour belongs.”