There is no room for individual identity in South African literature Discuss.

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Natalie Clifton 13WA

‘There is no room for individual identity in South African literature’ Discuss.

Literature has often been used as tool to capture a sense of the self in society.  The issue has clearly had pertinence in South Africa since the introduction of apartheid policies. Apartheid was the system of legal racial segregation imposed by the National Party government of South Africa between 1948 and 1993. Under apartheid whites were given a political-racial identity which was synonymous with superiority. The ‘coloured’ characters in Athol Fugard’s play ‘Boesman and Lena’ were left helpless by the racism, as Lena’s song illustrates when she sings about how ‘Boesman’ is not merely a name, it is also a label and an identification of one's culture. The sense of individuality appears to have been superseded by the need to conform in a malicious, segregated society. The thought of being exposed to such a hostile land is discussed in poems such as ‘Landscape of Violence’, where Currey uses a simile to liken the politics of South Africa at the time to ‘hailstorms’, showing just how crippling the results of prejudice can be. Indeed, those ‘caught outside’ the comfortable life of the elite are depicted as having only a horse to shelter them from the hail.

Racial prejudices are by far the most obvious restriction on personal identity; the characters I have studied are defined first and foremost by the colour of their skin. Though Afrikanerdom saw itself as culturally distinct from the English-speaking South Africans, both groups exercised apartheid policies to persecute black or coloured Africans, forcing them into subservience. The fact that Fugard’s ‘Boesman and Lena’ begins with ‘A coloured man...’ suggests that everything from that moment forward has been as result of his skin colour. Fugard goes further to show that Lena is highly disadvantaged as a result of being coloured; her dreams of reinventing herself are met by Boesman’s ‘What do you think you are? A white madam?’ highlighting that there are distinct limits to her possibilities. Outa is ever only referred to by Boesman as a ‘kaffir’, disregarding any personality the character might have and basing his prejudice purely on his social status. In ‘Landscapes of Violence’, Currey endorses Fugard’s view that apartheid catalyses the loss of identity when he writes that ‘racial attitudes, [are] like snakes…And every brown and white child wakes/Beside a sloughed-off love one day’, the simile here suggests danger; racial attitudes will creep up, and just like the bite of a snake infiltrates your blood bit by bit, they will infiltrate ideology. The metaphor of the shed snake skin suggests the racial hatred in South Africa is a manufactured phenomenon which has stolen innocence from the previously integrated society. The dehumanising and depersonalising effects of apartheid are shown yet even more clearly in Unto Dust, where Oom Schalk Lourens likens black people to animals. He states his horror that white people may be ‘laid to rest…just anyhow, along with a dead wild cat, maybe, or a Bushman’. Even the seemingly accepting Lena, in a fit of frustration tells Outa to ‘stop that baboon language’, implying that she sees him as a being incapable of human speech, and therefore perhaps incapable of feeling human emotion.

However, writers such as (Mbuyiseni Mtshali) in ‘An Abandoned Bundle’ have chosen not to explicitly describe people in terms of their race, and it could be argued this is due to the lack of need; the reader will be able to assume race from the conditions described. Yet, providing a more likely alternative, explanation also is found in the Suppression of Communism Act (1950) which is was in effect the legal gagging of opposition to the apartheid government. Others such as Herman Bosman, who, in the words of Christopher Heywood possesses a “light touch even when dealing with heavy issues”, address the injustices of racial attitudes in a more subtle way. In ‘Makapan’s Caves’ Lourens appears to have “genocidal racism” when collating black people with a cattle-destroying plague (‘I could never understand why [the Almighty] made the kaffir and the rinderpest’). It should perhaps be noted here that the use of the word “kaffir”, although totally unacceptable in today’s society, would not necessarily have raised even the most liberal eyebrows in 1930. Nevertheless, Lourens is considered racist because despite defying expectation placed on him by caring for Hendrik, Nongaas is fatally wounded because Lourens automatically assumes him to be the enemy due to his race. Though these images of racism have made Bosman’s stories unpopular to a modern readership, I feel that to take this view is to fundamentally misunderstand the narrative distance between Bosman and Lourens. In the vast majority of Bosman’s stories, explicit authorial intervention is limited exclusively to the “Oom Schalk Lourens said” which punctuates each story’s prefatory statement. This authorial marker is a vital tool because it immediately establishes a separation between author and storyteller.

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Apartheid has caused divisions further than a simple black/white divide though, seeping into groups of similar ethnicity. Marico Scandal presents a white man chased from his home by the villagers’ ‘scandalous story’. The sibilance of the narration emphasises the malicious nature of the remarks made by the Marico farmers. The drastic action taken by Koos Deventer to stop Gawie getting involved with Francina causes Gawie to ‘leave Drogevlei and the Groot Marico for ever’. This shows the gravity of the accusation of being mixed race and the social stigma attached to such a label. Tragically, his paramour Francina is left ...

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