Cultural mother lode

Sarah Nuttall’s name is inescapable at the moment if you are interested in the ongoing debates of cultural theory and an investigation into the present life of South Africa. Three recently published books bear Nuttall’s name, and a couple of older titles are hopefully still on our shelves.

Late last year Wits University Press (WUP) published Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis, which Nuttall co-edited with Achille Mbembe (her partner as well as academic collaborator). The volume tracks new ways of understanding the “Afropolis” that is Jo’burg, a “global city” that has its own particularities.

For instance, where a historian such as Charles van Onselen, in his magisterial studies of the social history of the city, saw the city’s “lack” (a lack of defining geographical features such as a river or a mountain, and a lack of the “affection or mystery easily appropriated by myth-makers or nation-builders”), Mbembe sees in today’s Jo’burg an aesthetic — and a politics — of excess, of superfluity.

The volume combines more formal academic and essayistic work, such as that by AbdouMaliq Simone and David Bunn, and less theoretical advances into the complicated socio-geography of the city, and what Simone calls its “intersecting fragments” and “reworked intersections”. The mix of registers in The Elusive Metropolis echoes a mix in Nuttall’s Entanglement: Literary and Cultural Reflections on Post-Apartheid (WUP), and its chapters on issues such as “self-making” among South Africa’s “Y generation” overlap with her work in Entanglement.

Then there’s Load Shedding (Jonathan Ball), the second in a series describing itself as “writing on and over the edge of South Africa” (the first being At Risk), which Nuttall co-edited with Liz McGregor. Load Shedding collects personal reflections that gather around a recent moment in South African history — the time of planned rolling blackouts in 2008. That period includes xenophobic violence, the fall of Thabo Mbeki and the rise of Jacob Zuma; “load shedding” itself stands for a moment of disillusionment for many, particularly the intelligentsia. It also stands for some of the things we need to get off our chests.

The book contains strong work by the likes of Jacob Dlamini (on black nostalgia for apartheid), Michael Titlestad (on the remilitarisation of the self in a time of rampant crime), and Makhosazana Xaba (on the resonances of the Zuma rape trial) — and much more that is well worth reading. Nuttall’s own piece in Load Shedding deals with the deaths of friends amid the darkness of the blackout months.

All this, alongside Nuttall’s previous books Beautiful/Ugly: African and Diaspora Aesthetics and At Risk, precursor to Load Shedding, represents a lot of work — and innovative, vitally exploratory work that refigures some of our academic givens while also pushing into a more personal vein of testimony and “life writing”.

Most of this work took place between 2001 and 2007, “years that were very compelling and powerful to me”, says Nuttall, who had worked in post-colonial studies at Oxford.

“I got a job at the newly formed Wiser [the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research], which gave me the chance to do no teaching apart from graduate supervision and to write. I came to Johannesburg, having been in Cape Town for three years in a teaching job in Stellenbosch and in Oxford before that, with Achille, whom I had recently met.

“Being with him shaped a part of how I came to be at this time. He came from somewhere else, but from this continent [via Paris and New York], and we were free to roam around Johannesburg, to drive it and test out ideas about it in ways not insignificant to my work during this time.”

Apartheid was about separation and the fight against it in part about finding new ways of togetherness. In the post-apartheid space, however, forms of apartness persist, and new forms of “mutuality” need to be found. Entanglement deals with areas that in post-colonial theory have been theorised, often in a utopian way, as hybridity, creolisation or métissage (or mixing); it draws on ideas such as Leon de Kock’s “politics of the seam” and Mark Saunders’s “complicities”.

Nuttall describes “entanglement”, in her introduction to the book, as “a condition of being twisted together or entwined; it speaks of an intimacy gained, even if it was resisted, or ignored or uninvited. It is a term which may gesture towards a relationship or a set of social relationships that is complicated, ensnaring, in a tangle, but which also implies a human foldedness”.

Using texts such as the writings of Phaswane Mpe, Ivan Vladislavic, Antjie Krog and Niq Mhlongo, the paintings of Penny Siopis and the “self-styling” of today’s black urban youth, Nuttall investigates “a history of the present”: “I wanted to write from a place, in a language that I felt I could live by,” she says. “Living here, one is actively trying to build something — and actively trying to find a future. There is a history of overlap and mixture and intimacy in the most unwritten and disregarded of ways. It’s useless to keep repeating the terms of our difference — or to do only that.

“What seems to me worthwhile is to dig deep into our history and psyches and find forms and moments of mutuality from which we can begin to build something. I am looking for that which remains latent in our usual accounts, a critical underneath or sub-terrain.”

Her piece in Load Shedding takes this search personally, as it were. “I Love You, I Hate You” continues the autobiographical narrative from At Risk. Such writing is a place, she says, “to drop the academic voice and submerge oneself in the personal voice. I love to discover very different sorts of voices that one can use. In these pieces, I can go into darker places than I feel I want to do in the academic work.

“I make an alternative world, in this place but not in this place. I make an idea of myself inside of a larger story that is mine but also not mine. These are the languages of the personal but also of place, of an immense wrestling with a love of place, of wanting to name it as it is, to find a language for it which is not that of the foreign correspondent, the ex-South African, the walled-in white South African, the blinkered black South African; something that’s mine or at least makes sense to me, and which my children can live by, a language, manner of being, a place.”

Sarah Nuttall talks about Load Shedding on Sunday at 10am in room F7.

Nuttall and co-author Achille Mbembe discuss their books Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis and Entanglement: Literary and Cultural Reflections on Post-Apartheid on Tuesday from 1pm to 1.45pm in Room 1.42.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday