/ 27 August 2010

More rebellious than ever

More Rebellious Than Ever

Craig MacKenzie previews texts and topics at the heart of the state of South African fiction

Its bewildering range and variety notwithstanding, two things can confidently be asserted about South African literature in English over the past five years or so — it expresses a deepening disillusionment with current South African society and politics, and does this in a way that is both rebellious and funny. In other words, it has no truck with political correctness or cant.

Looking back even a short distance can reveal a lot about where we are now. It comes as something of a shock, for example, to return to some of the early 1990s pronouncements of the soon-to-be ruling party. Albie Sachs’s watershed (or bathetic, depending on your perspective) paper “Preparing Ourselves for Freedom” (Weekly Mail, February 1990) elicited a flurry of responses at the time, a few supportive, most critical, which were published together as Spring Is Rebellious (1990) edited by Ingrid de Kok and Karen Press.

Sachs wondered whether we had “sufficient cultural imagination to grasp the rich texture of the free and united South Africa” and, in essence, called for more nuance, ambiguity and contradiction in literary works — elements practitioners of the craft had for years taken for granted. To be fair, Sachs was directing his comments primarily at an “in-house” ANC audience and, more importantly, he has since proved to be a stalwart of constitutional freedoms as well as an accomplished contributor to post-apartheid South African literature in his own right.

But now not only would there be no heat generated over such pronouncements, there would simply be no point in making them. Freedom is here (no preparation needed) and this is being used to express views that are often critical of the status quo. The tenor of Niq Mhlongo’s “kwaito-lit” novels (Dog Eat Dog, 2004, and After Tears, 2007), for instance, is far from celebratory.

In After Tears, the township poor are still poor, pervasive ignorance about HIV/Aids means that the disease is still consuming the youth and those disadvantaged by the discrimination of the past are now disadvantaged more permanently: “If you’re black and you failed to get rich in the first year of our democracy, when Tata Mandela came to power, you must forget it, my bra,” said Zero. “The gravy train has already passed you by and, like me, you’ll live in poverty until your beard turns grey. The bridge between the stinking rich and the poor has been demolished. That is the harsh reality of our democracy.”

Also in After Tears, returning student Bafana is erroneously presumed by his family to have passed his law degree at the University of Cape Town, but his homecoming is not that of the traditional male hero. His uncle crassly but accurately expresses the family’s intention of using “Advocate” Bafana to claw its way out of poverty: “One nine nine nine was a bit of a rough year, Advo, but this coming year of two gees belongs to us — We’ll be fucking rich. You’ll be an advocate and together we’ll sue Transnet for my lost leg, my laaitie — Our days as part of the poor walking class of Mzansi will soon be over. We’re about to join the driving class, with stomachs made large by the Black Economic Empowerment.”

To complete the picture of disillusionment, it turns out the uncle’s leg was not sacrificed in, say, nobly leading the protest of 1976 — he injured it after falling off a train while attempting to rob a fellow passenger.

Even stranger to return to than Sachs is Barbara Masekela, who remarked in July 1990 (“Culture in the New South Africa”, Akal, October 1990): “The Freedom Charter and the Constitutional Guidelines make it clear that any artist who wishes to sing his or her own song must in the future be free to do so — so long as that song does not pretend to a representativeness it does not have.”

The assumption that any one person (or group) can decide what is representative or not is simply risible today. Sinking herself still further, she went on: “Those who wish to speak on behalf of the South African people must be part of structures which can join with them in shaping and giving mandate to their message so that, when it reaches the world, it truly represents us as a nation.”

Again, the notion of “speaking on behalf of the South African people” strikes us today as quaint or, perhaps more sinisterly, as Stalinist. And the structures she speaks of have long since disappeared (remember that odd piece of furniture called the cultural desk?). It would not even occur to the writers who have emerged in the past 10 years or so to claim to speak on behalf of anyone in particular.

Take Zinaid Meeran’s Saracen at the Gates (2009), a sexy and subversive tale of a Mayfair “curry mafia princess” who connives her way into a hectic nightlife and a series of illicit entanglements — one of them with a woman of another race — while her father constructs an empire on tax-dodging and the sex industry. Who could Meeran possibly have been speaking on behalf of? Wasn’t he simply intent on satirising Jo’burg’s Muslim society? Isn’t this what a free literature does?

And Masekela’s idea of a nation also smells musty. Even the concept of a rainbow nation (add as many bands of colour as you like) assumes some sort of singular entity, which South African society, pre- or post-World Cup, simply isn’t.

Whether one accompanies Ivan Vladislavic on his eccentric walks through Jo’burg (Portrait with Keys: Joburg and what-what, 2006), takes a disillusioning trip to a Karoo dorp with Damon Galgut’s poet-protagonist (The Imposter, 2008), has a thoroughly non-touristic look at Cape Town with Sven Eick (Ape Town, 2007) and Tracey Farren (Whiplash, 2008), cocks a snook at high-brow lit and indulges in some “sista lit” with Zukiswa Wanner (The Madams, 2006; Behind Every Successful Man, 2008), or revels in the audacity of Jabulile Ngwenya’s I Ain’t Yo Bitch (2009), which tells the tale of a lesbian hip-hop artist, one will find writers who are bold and innovative, and, moreover, unapologetic about their unrepresentative tastes.

Ngwenya’s publisher, Paper Bag Publishing, aims to publish works “that are revolutionary and relevant to young-adult South Africans”. Seeking to “nurture emerging writers who live the joys and tribulations of growing up in this incredible country”, the publisher cheekily adds: “Should you have a problem with the content of the books we publish then feel free to contact someone who cares. We don’t.” This manifesto certainly captures something of the devil-may-care attitude of much of the new South African lit.

But the title of this year’s winner of both the University of Johannesburg and Sunday Times prizes, Imraan Coovadia’s super, subtle High Low In-between (2009), probably best captures the tenor of new South African fiction: it is not on this side or that, speaking on behalf of this group or that, espousing this ideology or that. It is on the new high that is South African lit, it plumbs the lows; it is also elusively, unclassifiably in-between.

Craig MacKenzie is professor of English at the University of Johannesburg. He will chair Session 1: Word-count: The State of Fiction in South Africa on Saturday September 4 from 9 am to 10.30 am. Panellists will be Leon de Kock, David Medalie, Jane Rosenthal and Thabo Tsheloane