DIASPORA AND IDENTITY IN SOUTH AFRICAN FICTION by JU Jacobs
(University of KwaZulu-Natal Press)
Mhudi, the baRolong woman who is the protagonist of Sol Plaatje’s novel Mhudi (written in 1917, published in 1930), is the first refugee, migrant and dispersed fictional person mentioned in JU Jacobs’s study, Diaspora and Identity in South African Fiction. The last fictional person to be examined is Winnie Mandela as a character in Njabulo Ndebele’s The Cry of Winnie Mandela (David Philip, 2003).
A century or so separates these diasporic characters and their displacement from home has more similarities than one would expect.
Although this is an academic text, it should appeal to anyone who has an interest in the complexities of who we are, the histories of how we got here and the expression of these in fiction and near-fictional biographies. Jacobs examines several such works to illuminate South African identities and to show how we, all of us, are the products of diaspora. It’s an exceptionally rich feast.
Jacobs, scholar and emeritus professor of English, takes the time to make clear the meanings of these words, identity and diaspora. Identity is expanded to include specifically post-colonial identities and he notes the formulations developed by South African academics to express the fluid, changing, marginal nature of post-colonial identity. These include “seam” and “mark of the suture” (Leon de Kock), “entanglement” (Sarah Nuttall), “complicity”(Mark Sanders) and “transitivity” (Steven Clingman).
We generally think of diaspora in its original meaning to refer to the dispersal of the Jews after Masada, and for African Americans and Caribbeans dispersed by slavery. Jacobs looks at the extended use of the term to include any mass migration and other displacements.
He uses Robin Cohen’s list of features by which to identify diaspora, among which are some form of dispersal, an idealised myth of a homeland and desire to return often manifesting in movements to do so. Studies of diaspora show that it can also be used to look at those who have been left behind (Jacobs uses this in his final chapter on The Cry of Winnie Mandela).
In addition to detailed and illuminating summaries of the texts he examines, Jacobs also provides the history of the era. He begins with Mhudi, which is set in the late 19th century and describes the plight of Mhudi and her husband, RaThaga, in the disrupted aftermath of the Mfecane. In this novel there are three sets of dispersing people: the Matabele (still rampaging northwards), the baRolong and the newly-arrived Boers under Sarel Cilliers. The latter two join forces and seek refuge with Chief Moroko.
Still in the 19th century Jacobs looks at Karel Schoeman’s Another Country (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991) (’n Ander Land, Human and Rousseau, 1984), which shows the development of a white colonial identity of Dutch and German settlers in Bloemfontein in the 1870s. By the end of the novel the main character, Versluis, is no longer a “stranger in a strange country” but “a new person in a new world”. Jacobs calls this a “minutely observed social history” and quotes JM Coetzee’s generous praise of this novel.
Jacobs addresses the identities of group that experienced diaspora: Afrikaners, in Isobelle’s Journey by Elsa Joubert (Jonathan Ball, 2002 – a saga of four generations of women in one family, ranging politically from extreme conservatism to the far left); coloured, in Zoe Wicomb’s David’s Story (Kwela, 2000) and Playing in the Light (Umuzi, 2006 – Wicomb uses the qualifier “so-called” and Jacobs uses lower case c); South African Indian, in Aziz Hassim’s The Lotus People (STE Publishers, 2003) and The Revenge of Kali (STE Publishers, 2011); and Africans who moved to the United States, in Zakes Mda’s semi-fictional autobiography, Sometimes there is a Void (Penguin, 2011) and Cion (Penguin, 2007).
My favourite chapter is on Skyline, Patricia Schonstein Pinnock’s novel on mainly African migrants from the north, now surviving at the top end of Long Street in Cape Town. Each chapter of Skyline ends with a description of paintings by a Mozambican, Bernard, of refugee from horrific slaughter in his village.
Jacobs clearly admires and enjoys these imagined artworks, which enact the migrants’ identities, and which he elucidates in detail.
Many of these paintings reference Western works of art but appropriate them to Bernard’s experience, decolonising them in the process. Jacobs observes: “… what we now uncomplicatedly refer to as ‘Western art’ is not an essential, unified concept but refers rather to the cultural products of long and continuing histories of migration …”
As with several of the works he discusses, one feels the need to rush out to acquire a copy of this novel.
The concept of home is central to identity and diaspora, and Jacobs begins to look at diasporas that happen without the subjects necessarily making any physical journey, in the sense that once a person no longer feels “at home” or their sojourn in a place is threatened, they may be displaced without hope of return.
Diasporas, both geographical and psychological, of white South African identity are looked at in specific works – by Breyten Breytenbach, Ivan Vladislavic, Michiel Heyns, JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. These authors do battle with concepts of home, whether white South Africans are at home anywhere now, and other such painful dilemmas. Is it possible to be at home only in a language, as he suggests for JM Coetzee (“The English language provides … a national and international cultural domicile.”)? Or to live “in irony” as Heyns makes clear is not enough for his character, Peter Jacobs, in Lost Ground (Jonathan Ball, 2011)?
The last chapter engages again with the concept of home in the discussion of The Cry of Winne Mandela, which Jacobs says “provides a major contribution to the fictional discourse on home and dislocation in South Africa”.
Jacobs begins with a lengthy quotation on our disrupted South African identity: “South Africans have an intriguing capacity to be disarmingly kind and hospitable at the same time as being capable of the most horrifying brutality and cruelty. So much killing went on after Nelson (Mandela) returned home. Home? We saw strange armies of black men terrorising townships, hacking children’s heads with machetes … All this while we celebrated the advent of democracy, human rights … were working on the best Constitution in the world …”.
Using the mythical archetype of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife who waited long years for him to return from his travels, Ndebele sets up a fictional framework of four women who have likewise spent years waiting, and they in turn address the fictionalised character of Winnie Mandela who waited 27 years for her husband, Nelson Rolihlala, to come out of jail.
Ndebele makes the point that the major event of (ongoing) migratory labour has made “the essential South African experience the ‘shared experience of homelessness’.” He refers to the work of various theorists, especially Minoli Salgado, who propose a definition of diaspora that is multidirectional, that espouses the principles of chaos.
Ndebele points out that for the waiting women the diaspora creates “sustained and unbearable psychological turbulence”; he sees “diaspora as chaos”.
The four women question Winnie about her life. She says that she never recovered from being interrogated during one of her many imprisonments, that her response to the incessant disruption of her life with bannings and so on, shows that she has deliberately chosen to “become the embodiment of disruption”. And with reference to her marriage: “The diasporic trajectories of their lives were irreversible; there could be no returning to a lost home.”
In his final comments Jacobs says that Ndebele’s novel suggests: “For a truly new and ethical South African homecoming … South Africans would have to identify themselves with the chaotic trajectories of their diasporic histories, to acknowledge division and to embrace difference.”