/ 12 September 2020

Achmat Dangor: On writing and change

Achmat Dangor
Black Thoughts: Writer and activist Achmat Dangor never shied from his personal odyssey of exploring uncertain terrain. (Paul Botes)

Could we begin with your personal background and how you began writing?

Briefly, I was born in Johannesburg in Newclare. It was a fairly cosmopolitan township in which all the black population groups, including Indians and some Chinese and even white people, lived in general harmony during the sixties. It was, however, also a context in which class differences and tensions were evident. There were, for instance, Asian merchants, coloured artisans, Chinese fahfee runners and affluent African bus-owners. This environment was formative for my social attitudes as well as my writing, since race was largely irrelevant in interpersonal relationships. 

I started writing after the character Newclare was “colouredised” to conform to the ethnic and race policies of the State. African, Indian and Chinese people were evicted from the area and there was an influx of people classified as coloured. These people had, in turn, been evicted from areas in the city such as Doornfontein, Troyeville and Mayfair. This process, which is linked to the Group Areas Act, played an important role in establishing the race and ethnic consciousness that apartheid thrives on. 

I began by writing plays, taking my models from American playwrights such as Tennessee Williams. I, however, found that writing in a vacuum where there were no theatre facilities led to a situation where nothing significant materialised from my early playwriting. I eventually moved on to poetry. This compact form suited the terse and pointed style through which I wanted to convey the realities I observed around me. I was able to use the immediacy of the form to write about things as I saw them.

I progressed to prose at a later stage when I found myself facing a five-year banning period in which I had lots of time and nothing urgent to attend to. I had time to read and write, as well as to develop a more contemplative attitude to writing. I started with short stories and attempted the longer form of the novella until I arrived at the novel. Today I mostly write prose, although I continue to write plays and poetry. Poetry enables me to write about current issues and politics and other immediate matters while prose is a mode through which I explore these issues contemplatively.

Is there any relationship between the language you use in the different genres and your social experience?

In my writings I draw on the township patois or lingua franca. I developed a sensitivity to this in the townships and the rural areas of South Africa. I spent some time in rural Western Transvaal and the Cape where I picked up some of the language spoken in these areas. In the absence of books and libraries I attuned my ears to the oral forms of storytelling around me. I used this language of the community for my early plays. 

I have, however, come to find this language somewhat restrictive in prose writing, especially when exploring philosophical and theoretical matters. What I have been trying to do is to interpret this language in such a way that elements of it are retained through images that invoke the experience embodied in the language without attempting to literally transfer the oral forms into writing.

Your reference to imagery recalls the symbolism in, especially, the novella Waiting for Leila where you focus on social as well as mythological aspects. Do you always strive for multiplicity in your fiction and have there been any literary influences in this regard?

Waiting for Leila was a very important experience for me. The original manuscript is a 400-page novel, which I wrote over a five-year period. I started writing it when I was living in District Six. The story grew as I developed. I was reading widely and was especially impressed by the way in which Homer’s Odyssey uses narrative poetry and mythology. The various levels of the narrative, focusing on the travels of the hero in relation to his wife, Penelope, who waits for him, and his son, Telemachus, who also hopes for the return of his father, introduced me to an important aspect of writing. In conjunction with this I was also struck by the outsider figure in Western literature. Here Albert Camus’s The Outsider

 comes to mind. I, of course, had to find a social and communal basis for some of these aspects in my own writing.

In Waiting for Leila the main character is introduced to different situations in which he is an outsider and, therefore, must try to find a place. The main character is alienated from his own culture but wants to be part of it. 

This coincided with my own transition from a disillusionment with a pure Black Consciousness position into an uncertain terrain where there was nothing to replace it as yet. In this sense, it reflects my personal as well as a general South African odyssey. I realised that South African history itself is one of a people in odyssey. By the time I had finished Waiting for Leila, I realised that I had included many foreign elements that clashed with my conception of what I thought I should be writing as a South African. I cut the story down to its existing dimensions, retaining the rebellious outsider and his revolt against his society.

The question of writing and political commitment is currently very controversial. There is a fatigue with sloganeering in literature and a new openness to diversity. What are your views concerning these issues?

My view is that although our goal is to achieve liberation it is not necessary for us to turn all our writing into pamphlets in pursuit of that liberation. This is a position articulated by Njabulo Ndebele on numerous occasions. Although the political role of the writer is important, it is, however, even of greater importance to stress the intrinsic artistic responsibilities of the writer. Writing in South Africa cannot be reduced to mere ideological, racial or even economic constraints. Its richness is the diffusion of all these aspects.

The debate around South African literature has, for a long time, been reduced to two simple questions. Firstly, whether it furthers the struggle for liberation and secondly whether it has become hackneyed as a result. For me, writing about oppression is not a cliché, whereas writing continuously about the known aspects of oppression can become a cliché. In the effort to avoid what are considered clichés we should, however, be careful not to lose sight of the struggles of our communities.

The question of politics has divided South African writers into various camps. These divisions are even evident among writers who view themselves as opponents of apartheid. You referred to your involvement with Black Consciousness in the seventies and right now you are a member of the Congress of South African Writers. What are the present and future prospects of writers finding common ground?

We can go back to the fifties when the Freedom Charter was conceptualised and drawn up by the people. Someone closely involved with the proposal of the cultural clause was none other than Es’kia Mphahlele. Some people might now locate him within the Black Consciousness Movement, while he quite conceivably will neither loudly proclaim nor deny it. In a newspaper polemic I had with him, not so long ago, he pointed out that he does not think the ANC is opposed to Black Consciousness. I think he is correct. What, however, is important to me, is the extent to which the crude labelling of people can be harmful. It often creates the impression that there is no historical continuity between the various phases of our history.

For instance, the principle of nonracialism in the national democratic movement is linked to the concept of African leadership and empowerment. Personally, I have developed from a position of commitment to Black Consciousness in the seventies to nonracialism in the eighties, but I still believe that the values of black self-assertion and emancipation put forward by Black Consciousness are relevant to me today if they do not preclude upholding a nonracial political philosophy. 

Therefore, I think that the reduction of the debate to simplistic ideological positions is counterproductive, especially now when the unity of the oppressed requires that we view all people as equal. In this regard, culture has a primary role to play. If, for instance, we neglect the development of a diverse but inclusive national culture it will hamper unity in a future South Africa. The anticolonial struggles in Africa and their failures to establish common national cultures have led to internal conflict in countries like Angola and Mozambique. The common culture that I have in mind does not mean that the various language groups have to give up their languages. The development of a literature and culture that fosters these values is crucial.

This implies that the culture that fosters racism has to be isolated and criticised. Do you think that the cultural boycott was one way of achieving this?

Certainly. The cultural boycott was conceived in a time when all peaceful opposition had been driven underground. The people’s organisations and their leaders were arrested, driven into exile and even the culture of the people was suppressed. The necessity to fight and isolate apartheid and white supremacy on all fronts included a cultural dimension. In the eighties, the blanket boycott was adjusted to accommodate the emergence of resistance culture and to implement it in a democratic fashion. Although there have been difficulties, this strategy in relation to the other fields of struggle has been effective and it will remain in place until apartheid is abolished. It should be remembered that neither the cultural boycott nor sanctions are ends in themselves, but means to an end. 

Ravan Press is due to publish your latest novel, The Z-Town Trilogy, shortly. What does the title signify? Why did you opt for the triple structure and what were your main concerns in the novel?

The triple structure is related to how the story evolved. Basically, the lack of time to write continuously played a role, as well as the fact that I attempted to combine the self-contained form of the short story or novella with the overlapping and continuous themes and events associated with the longer novelistic narrative that has a beginning, middle and conclusion. Parts of the novel, except for the conclusion, have been published locally and abroad. 

Z-Town is an abbreviated reference to Riverlea, where I live, which is often scathingly referred to as Zombie Town. This is a reference to the lack of infrastructures such as lights and proper roads and basic facilities, which led people to suggest that the government placed the inhabitants there because it thought they were zombies. The name Zombie Town stuck and even acquired a romantic aura. I’ve lived there for the past 10 years. In writing about it, I have tried to deal with its day-to-day struggles as well as infuse it with universal concepts such as love, hatred, jealousy, religion and the humanity of both supporters and opponents of the government.

Some of the material, such as the housing issue, the rent boycotts, the State of Emergency and roadblocks, are drawn from real events and, in some cases, real people, but reworked for fictional purposes. 

Your story Jobman has recently been made into a film. How did it come about and what do you think of the final product?

Well, I knew about the project and was given a film script to read and revise where necessary. When I discussed it with the producers I realised that our conceptions of the

story differed. I realised that the short story form was quite different from the medium of film. I was, however, concerned that the story should not be turned into some kind of Karoo western or local version of Rambo.

When I eventually got to see the movie I realised that it was different from my story, but not invalid. There were some changes. Mainly, it involved a shift in the focus away from the revolt of the black protagonist to the white farmer in an attempt by the director to expose Afrikaner power. In addition, Jobman’s reasons for revolt become personalised. As a thriller I think the film is quite powerful but it is certainly not an explicit political statement.

This interview was taken from the South African History Online archive of Staffrider. It has been edited for length