Nation’s loss is literature’s gain

Money, capital, resources, property: all these are as much part of South Africa’s literary landscape as its economic one.

This is the week of the finance minister’s annual budget speech. Last week the president sent back land expropriation legislation to parliament. Disagreement between workers and employers continues to characterise the mining industry. The Competition Commission has charged an array of international and local banks, the latter including Absa and Standard Bank, with manipulating the rand for their own profit.

Much of South African literature is about dispossession, greed, corporate manipulation, the tyranny of capital over labour, and the metamorphosis of rural, independent, small-scale pastoralists and farmers into urban, predatory, small-scale survivalists and, sometimes, crooks.

The discovery of gold led to a system of forced migratory labour without which there might not have been works such as Mine Boy by Peter Abrahams (1946), Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (1948), The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer (1974) and Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost by Dugmore Boetie (1969).

The nation’s loss has been its literature’s gain: a terrible price. As randlords and mining magnates and their conglomerates have grown fatter, wives and children have lost their husbands and fathers.


Marikana, when 34 people were killed and 78 wounded in 2012, might have been the single most overtly visible act of violence by capital and the state against labourers and citizens, but in truth such systemic killing in the mining industry has been going on ever since 1886.

Abrahams and Paton use the trope of “Jim comes to Jo’burg”, their rural protagonists coming to the big city to seek materially better lives. But, as Xuma in Mine Boy and Absalom in Cry, the Beloved Country discover, the bright lights are an illusion.

Back-breaking, man-breaking labour, repeated shift in and shift out, in an underworld of heat, darkness and occasional light, is Xuma’s world.Ultimately, Xuma seeks not a better life but recognition of his humanity. Beyond that, as Michael Chapman points out: “He wants something more simple, or perhaps more difficult: to be a man of respect.” (Southern African Literatures, Longman, 1996; University of Natal Press, 2003)

Abrahams and Paton and their novels are bracketed together by Chapman in a subsection, titled “Novels against Apartheid. Abrahams. Paton.” Chapman reminds scholars and readers that: “In 1946 Mine Boy was described by Faber and Faber (London) as one of the first books to draw attention to the lives of black South Africans in a white-controlled country”.

Paton it is who conjures up that epic journey to Jo’burg, made by so many so often for so little: “All roads lead to Johannesburg. Through the long nights the trains pass to Johannesburg. The lights of the swaying coach fall on the cutting-sides, on the grass and the stones of a country that sleeps. Happy the eyes that can close.”

Gordimer’s industrialist Mehring is the apotheosis of the capitalist boss with homes in the city and the country. Working weeks in the metropolis alternate with weekend retreats on the farm:

“The farm is large. He can go off anywhere. (Quite frankly, I can’t wait to get to my old plaas. There is a mica-glitter of malice in the polite refusal of weekend invitations.) … Four hundred acres.”

Mehring wants to conserve his lifestyle — he is the conservationist of the title — and neither his left-leaning mistress nor his son, eager to dodge looming conscription, can loosen his grip. This is his land, his assets, his life. But then: “What Solomon had found, months ago, in the third pasture.”

There, on Mehring’s favourite patch of the farm, a corpse. This in the place that: “Wherever he sets out for or from, or however without direction he sets out to roam, on his farm, it’s always here that he ends up. Down over the third pasture at the reeds.”

Whose farm now?
Ownership is a mutable concept in Boetie’s Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost. The memoir — exaggerated, with doses of whimsy, fantasy and the picaresque — of its one-legged, ex-convict creator, Familiarity is perhaps the non pareil of Sophiatown writings.

As Es’kia Mphahlele wrote in The African Image: “For an epic account of a black man’s life in a police-infested state, Familiarity is a most informative autobiography. He was a representative of the vital, almost unbeatable youth who must survive the continual assaults of white rule as if some malignant fate would have it so.”

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