Celebrate Freedom Day with these local reads recommended by SA authors
From novels to nonfiction - 18 South African scribes respond to which local book published between 1948 and 2019 has made the most significant contribution to SA's sociopolitical landscape
April 27 2019 commemorates 25 years since the advent of South Africa's democracy. In celebration of this singular day, celebrated nationwide as Freedom Day, we asked several South African authors the following (rather challenging) question:
Which local book published between 1948 and 2019 has made the most significant literary contribution to South Africa's sociopolitical landscape?
From novels to nonfiction - here's the response of 18 South African scribes:
Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred by Mark Gevisser is the book that I think has been phenomenal for me. Although Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela is tempting, by scrutinising Mbeki, Mark was able to explain the long history of South Africa while also giving a layman like myself a better understanding of the political history of this country. It is an honest and unbiased representation of a country that wants to find itself.
The author underwent some difficult tasks while working on the project, often losing friends along the way with an aim of giving what is really a guide for future generations. It shows where we come from, the promises made, and ultimately shows that indeed the dream is deferred.
André Odendaal's The Founders: The Origins of the ANC and the Struggle for Democracy in South Africa. Odendaal's book is a true tour de force and exposition of how the black elite of South Africa are often first in line when trying to benefit from catalyst moments in our country's history. It oddly provides a high-level map to understanding this same group doing the same in the present.
Alan Paton's Cry, The Beloved Country. Published in 1948, the year the white Nationalists came to power, this novel prophetically lays out what was to happen in the decades to follow, especially to black rural communities: marginalisation, alienation, desperation, migration. The story of two families, one black one white, both from the same area in what we now call KwaZulu-Natal, the novel eloquently captures the country’s complexity that still exists today.
K Sello Duiker's The Quiet Violence of Dreams stands out for me as having made a huge contribution to South Africa's literary landscape. He wrote with a rare boldness and clarity, unafraid of shining a light on the parts of South African society we brush aside or glibly pretend do not exist. For that reason his writing is both troubling and illuminating, a mirror in which we see ourselves, if only we care to look. K Sello Duiker died in 2005, a few months before his 31st birthday. We can only imagine the magnificence of his later works if he had been alive today.
Literature is totally irrelevant to most South Africans. At best a book may cause a few ripples in the public consciousness. Cry, the Beloved Country, Disgrace and Down Second Avenue spring to mind.
A summary from a piece originally featured in the Sunday Times (29/09/2018), published with the author's permission: Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country turns 70 this year, reminding us that the novel's vision of the inevitable triumph of good over evil has been fulfilled. The National Party, which came to power in the same year the book was published and immediately introduced the racist policy of apartheid, is now dead - but the book is still rocking.
Written in a white-hot rage at frenetic speed, it was a cry of despair, a cautionary tale of how the theft of black people's land by their white conquerors would not only complicate race relations in SA but might also lead to a bloodbath.
Lost in Transformation by Solomon Johannes 'Sampie' Terreblanche. While most of us were glued to our TV screens watching the Codesa talks, there were other talks – away from the public eye - which dealt with economic matters. These secret talks, according to an author who was professor of economics at the University of Stellenbosch for more than 20 years, laid a solid foundation for the economic policy to be implemented in the post-1994 era. The author, who at one stage was the senior member of the Broederbond, was an insider who moved in powerful circles before having his Damascus moment. According to the book, the "mineral energy complex" – which was largely represented by the captains of Industry - was worried about two key issues: apartheid debt and how money would legally be taken out of the country after the first democratic elections. Apparently the deal was struck … #WeNeedAnotherCommission.
I think Steve Biko's writings have been more influential than many people thought they would be. I am revisiting I Write what I Like: A Collection of His Writings (Bowerdean Press, 1978) alongside Rekgotsofetse Chikane's Breaking a Rainbow, Building a Nation: The Politics Behind #mustfall Movements (Pan MacMillan, 2018). I think Biko laid a foundation for a lot of ideas I anticipate finding in Breaking a Rainbow and many books that, similarly, discuss bread-and-butter issues faced by students, employees and voters from South Africa's black majority. If the EFF breaks growth-rate records these coming elections, we will trace a lot of the reasoning and reasons for that, wrongly or not, back to Steve Biko.
Es'kia's Mphahlele's Down Second Avenue. This poignant memoir highlights the coming-of-age of this literary genius and narrates a lived experience of a life under the early days of a system intended to entrench divisions and sow the dominance of one race over another. I love how Mpahlele takes the reader through his ebbs and flows, and highlights the intersectionalities of home, politics and social lived experience of one black child in a world where his footprint was intended to succumb to the actions a black child ought to own and embody as an inferior in a country that is South Africa.
Afrika, My Music by Es'kia Mphahlele. That book has made me to look into the past as a present concern and the present situation as a consequence of the past concerns.
With the caveat that it has the made the "most significant contribution", it is hard to look past Alan Paton's Cry, The Beloved Country. But, flapping the wings of that momentum have been JM Coetzee's Disgrace (Booker Prize winner) and Bryce Courtenay's The Power of One and Tandia. Each piece of literature captures and frames the picture of the times and Paton's, Coetzee's and Courtenay's works capture quite poignantly a time of strife and hope, division and unity, anger and subservience, uproar and understanding. For the post-1994 era, which is an age unto itself in South Africa, Kopano Matlwa's Coconut encapsulates the literary – and national – transition from segregation to curiosity.
Hunger eats a man by Nkosinathi Sithole depicts that South Africa faces a new struggle with values and institutions immensely failing South Africans rather than helping them in surviving to a better life. Directly tackling issues around poverty, one realises that the imbalance between rich politicians with their counterparts and poor citizens is worsening the current situation: and hiding this situation with religion is not working anymore. This book is not a folktale. This book is real.
Steve Biko's I Write What I Like towers in the archive as among the most influential literary work of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Not only has the book shaped young people’s imagination of a country free of racial oppression, it has also been an influential academic reference cited by scholars, students, unionists, politicians, journalists, priests and poets, globally. Most recently, it was a zeitgeist of the Rhodes and Fees Must Fall campaigns. Like the author himself, ideas in this book will outlive the politics of the contemporary moment in the most profound ways.
For me, it would have to be The Broken River Tent (by Mphuthumi Ntabeni) because I was unaware of the violence that accompanied the land dispossession that led to the creation of the South African Republic as we know it today. This book was able to illuminate this tragic narrative by bringing back to life Chief Maqoma who was at the forefront of Xhosa resistance against British colonisation of the Eastern Cape. I love how this book paints with lyrically poetic sentences the history of the era and its effect on the present-day South Africa. As a foreigner, I learnt so much about the country's hidden background because this is the part that is rarely spoken about.
I think it's such a hard question to answer 'cause there are so many important books that have been written that try to make sense of our fractured and often missing identities as a country. There are so many important and moving parts that have been discovered and bravely uncovered between the formalisation of apartheid until now, both in fiction and nonfiction. The banned and legal alike. Selfishly and this book by no means stands alone, in any way, I'd say Kopano Matlwa's Coconut. She peeled back layers on topics of conversation barely approached back then, on the psycho-existential psyche complex of a guinea pig generation that had little diction to articulate their experiences. Her layered approach to the work, I think, helped young black South Africans confront our own context within the country's socio-political landscape. Again, one book definitely isn't enough, but this book makes sense for a lot of the underlying, hidden and overt, drivers of a lot of what we as a society are still grappling with.
Together, Jacob Dlamini's two books, Native Nostalgia and Askari, take back from the ANC the authority to decide what the apartheid past meant. He is the first to do this, and he does it with grace, with urgency, and with the power of his formidable prose.
Shades of Difference by Padraig O'Malley, published in 2007. It has two parallel narratives, one, the life and times of Mac Maharaj, but the other, a much more important narrative looking at this history of the ANC. The book took about 15 years to research and write and everything that has come to pass since 1994, will be found somewhere in the book.
For me a literary work that fulfils at least my own criteria for the question posed is Ronelda S Kamfer’s Noudat Slapende Honde. It is an emotionally and psychologically complex work in direct conversation with the past while still preceding much of what has only recently entered the mainstream conversation. A book written by a black woman, from within a marginalised community, in a marginalised, decolonised language. It does all this in a style that is far simpler than the complexities it binds, and never to the exclusion of the disadvantaged community it portrays. Noudat Slapende Honde is a book that will only grow in relevance and importance to future generations of readers and perhaps people who have not typically considered themselves worthy of literature.