South African Literature

Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer at the Göteborg Book Fair 2010. Photo by Bengt Oberger

South Africa is a beautiful country, and has long had a relationship with the literary arts. Indeed, literature has documented and represented life and culture within the country to such an extent that it can be seen to have played an instrumental role in the slow dismantling of apartheid, and in helping post-apartheid South Africa find an identity. To neglect the literature without a political agenda, even that within South Africa, however, is to reduce the art and imagination inherent in writing to mere ideological tool.

The current site, somewhat in line with its predecessor, will look to provide information about the literary arts in South Africa in an accessible, informal manner. The current page will provide a very broad outline of literature in general in SA, hopefully including not just that written in English, but also writing produced by other cultures.

South Africa hosts eleven languages, each of which has a tradition worth close analysis: for the purposes of brevity, though, this page will necessarily have to overlook much.

The first issue to raise when writing of “South African literature” is to point out that the notion is untenable owing to the fragmentary and diverse nature of the cultures in South Africa. This is to say that a unified voice that could be described as quintessentially South African would require the dissolution of all diversity, culturally individual historical narrative and perhaps even that of class difference. It is thus that writers and readers of literature produced by South Africans would do well to note the country does not have a single tradition that can be allocated a broad tradition as American or British literature might.

An advantage, in terms of the classification or categorisation in which a literature can be discussed, enjoyed by English South African literature, is that it operates within a well-documented and wide ranging context. Another benefit is that as the lingua franca, English literature produced by South Africans is, like a cheap Plasma TV, easily accessed by a wide international audience, thus ensuring that, in financial terms, it stands to be more successful (on the whole) than literature produced in Afrikaans, SiSwati, Zulu, Xhosa, Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, Sotho or Ndebele.

Given the fact that many of the languages mentioned above are spoken across the colonially entrenched borders, writers and academics like Michael Chapman speak rather of Southern African literatures rather than a national literature. The sense of this should be very apparent, but unfortunately it is contra the tradition of literary criticism, and will encounter resistance due to its exceptional nature.

The essential point, argued for on this page, is that the very idea of a singular South African literature is a misnomer, deceiving the unwary into believing in the existence of a national literature with an identifiable discourse, leading in its turn to the creation of a cultural identity enjoyed by an unchallenged majority. Whereas this phenomenon may not be found anywhere in the world, it is certainly true that its existence in South Africa is as much of as fiction as much of the writing is.