Postcolonial Fictions| Span | Reading Room | What'sNew | CRCC
Journal of the South Pacific
Association for Commonwealth
Literature and Language Studies
Number 36 (1993)
Edited by Michèle Drouart
Literature and Political Revolt in South Africa: the Cape Town crisis of 1984-86 in the novels of J. M. Coetzee, Richard Rive and Menan DePlessis
Paul Rich Writers under an apartheid social order in South Africa have over the years faced a number of major challenges. As the repression of white minority rule intensified, there was a diminishing space for artistic and intellectual expression. Radical critics began to demand that some form of open political engagement was essential as the ruling white regime appeared to be lurching towards its doom; others contended, by contrast, that what was needed was a reaffirmation of traditional literary values against the political domination of writing whether from the right or the left.
By the mid to late 1960s a major change of focus did begin to occur in South African writing, certainly in English. The mainstream tradition of what may be termed "liberal realism" came under growing attack from a more radical genre of writing that sought to appropriate realism for a rather different ideological agenda. Nadine Gordimer for example employed realism as a means of undermining liberal notions of linear time, individual progress and resolution of plot that had defined most works within the English-speaking literary canon in South Africa up to the 1960s. Gordimer's novels developed an alternative level of consciousness as a reading of contemporary South African history "from the inside."1
Radical realism, however, has an inherent tendency, as Terry Eagleton has pointed out, of lapsing into a more individualistic form. Its very structure means that in the hands of some writers social issues can be displaced into more individual ones. "It is not a great step from seeing the individual as representative, as Lukacs would encourage us to do," he has remarked, "to seeing the historical as personal."2 There is no necessary imperative behind realism continually to engage in issues of social and political struggle since the social base behind the African literary tradition has been severely disrupted both by state censorship as well as the breakdown and destruction of the communities that underpinned it.3
Realism in the South African novel has increasingly interacted with a variety of other literary forms in the course of the 1980s. It has, in particular, been challenged by postmodernism in writers such as J.M. Coetzee, whose novels have been concerned with dissecting and deconstructing dominant cultural myths and revealing their opposite at the heart of modern culture.4 Some critics on the South African literary left found this form hard to swallow. Coetzee's novel Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), for instance, was condemned by Jean Marquard for focusing upon the action in the mind of the central character, a magistrate on the remote fringes of a nameless empire, from whom the reader was essentially alienated.5 Other radical critics, however, have viewed the work more positively. Menan Du Plessis saw Coetzee as "deliberately informing us of its own presence, with the result that we're no longer able to read the text passively, as is our habit with the realist novel." She considered that Waiting for the Barbarians illustrated that "the Romantic epoch has ended - that epoch which could believe in the idealist myth of glorious transcendence. Perhaps we have hit on a genuine materialism of our own accord, only to find that it provides no impetus for revolution."6
The upsurge of revolt:
This debate over realism and postmodernism was still unresolved when a wave of township unrest in Cape Town in the middle 1980s appeared to presage a major challenge to the stability of the ruling white regime. The unrest followed the introduction by the government of P.W. Botha of a new constitution in 1983 that provided for a tricameral parliament with ethnic chambers for whites, coloureds and indians. The unrest in the Western Cape had far-reaching implications for it was the most extensive revolt against white rule since the establishment of colonial authority in the region since the eighteenth century.7
The revolt was an offshoot of wider struggles that had commenced in the Vaal Triangle in the Southern Transvaal in September 1984. These reached the greater Cape Town area in the middle of 1985 with the boycotting of schools on July 26 by the Western Cape Student Action Committee, five days after the proclamation of a national state of emergency. The schools boycott gained wider community involvement through the establishment of parents, teachers and students organizations. On August 28 these local protests were coordinated by Alan Boesak and the United Democratic Front when a march on Pollsmoor prison, then holding Nelson Mandela, drew 25000 people. The government responded by closing 464 "coloured" schools and colleges on September 6 leading to an orchestrated attempt to "take back" the schools on September 17.
Over the next few weeks the confrontations between the townships' residents and police escalated. On October 15 there occurred the "Trojan horse" incident when police hidden in an unmarked lorry fired on residents in Athlone and killed three. This led to government measures to restrict the news reporting of the unrest and, on October 25, sixty nine members of political organizations were detained under Section 50 of the Internal Security Act. This did not prevent school pupils from refusing to write examinations the following month and the unrest continued into the following year.
The stand-off between township residents and security forces provided the space for the revival of the ANC in many townships. On March 3 1986 seven people suspected of being guerrillas were shot by police in Guguletu. In the course of 1986 some of the worst violence shifted to the squatter camps outside the main township areas. Conflict between UDF-affiliated "comrades" and older squatters (known as witdoeke because of their white head cloths) began on December 24 and widened on March 19 in Nyanga and New Crossroads. These conflicts escalated to a full-scale confrontation over May 18-22 leaving at least 22 dead and the complete destruction of three camps housing up to 35000 people.8 After this the conflict began to wind down, particularly after the proclamation of a second state of emergency in July 1986 led to some 20,000 people being detained nationally.
The unrest undoubtedly shook the Cape intellectual community which confronted a situation of growing bitterness and political polarization. The fact that it was radical youth that tended to be one of the main driving forces behind the revolt has lead some observers to point out the unreality of many of the activists' political expectations. This kind of activism produced what Colin Bundy has termed "immediatism" characterized by an "impatient anticipation of imminent victory." The fact that this victory did not follow also produced a reaction in the form of demoralization.9 One of the longer-term results of the upsurge was the radicalization of the black intelligentsia in the Western Cape who sharply fissured from the "traditional" intelligentsia that had dominated the area's politics. These splits were generally on generational lines as the younger intellectuals considered that the generation of their parents had capitulated to the power of the white state.10
The rest of this paper will examine three novels, Age of Iron by J.M. Coetzee (abbreviated as AOI in this text), Emergency Revisited by Richard Rive (abbreviated as ER) and Long Live! by Menan Du Plessis (abbreviated as LL), which in differing ways portray these divisions in Cape intellectual and political life. They are by three local writers who felt forced to respond to a political crisis that represented a major challenge to the continuing legitimacy of white minority rule.
Three literary responses to the revolt:
One of the major literary works that emerged in part as a result of the crisis of 1984-86 was Age of Iron by J.M. Coetzee, first published in 1990. This was quite a surprisingly realistic work for a writer whose previous novels had portrayed South Africa in mostly allegorical terms. Coetzee had tended to steer clear of realism as he sought to transcend the South African situation for a more universal plane of human existence ". . . one shouldn't be condemned to being a minor writer," he said in a 1982 interview "because one is a provincial writer, but it is certainly easier to do major work if you have a wider view than a merely provincial view."11
Coetzee's novels have been centrally concerned with colonialism and its effects on human consciousness. His standpoint is one of a colonizer who refuses, though within this there is a situation of marked ambiguity.12 Age of Iron shares a number of themes to previous novels. The narrator of the story, Mrs Curren, is rather like Magda in In the Heart of the Country, since she is an isolated and lonely white woman surrounded by a hostile colonial culture with which she is unable to empathize. Unlike Magda, though, Mrs Curren has been married and addresses the story to her daughter who left South Africa in 1976 to live in America and has no desire to return. She is also rather better educated and shares a similar outlook to the cultured liberal magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians, for she was, before her retirement, a lecturer in Latin and is steeped in the values and outlook of classical civilization.
Mrs Curren is a voice from an obsolete classically-based educational background that formed a major part of the colonial culture in South Africa earlier in the century. She was born in 1910 and grew up during the last major phase of white rule in Africa. At the age of seventy in 1986 she is now approaching the end of her life and is ill with bone cancer, a metaphor for the diseased state of white South African society. As she approaches the resolution of her own personal crisis she also tries, rather desperately, to engage with the wider social and political crisis going on around her.
Despite her education, Mrs Curren is unable to break away from the psychological dependency upon a male father figure which is so typical of the white colonial woman.13 She allows an alcoholic tramp called Vercuil to come and live on her property. Vercuil at least provides a semblance of the male comfort and company she was used to from her late husband, though she recognizes how dry and barren she has now become. Her psychology is shaped by the comforts and security of a bourgeois childhood. By those far-off standards she finds modern South Africa disgusting. The politicians she sees on television remind her of the "bullies in the last row of school desks, raw-boned, lumpish boys, grown up and promoted to rule this land." There is no "legitimacy" in their rule for "reasons they have shrugged off. What absorbs them is power and the stupor of power. Eating and talking, munching lives, belching. Slow, heavy-bellied talk. Sitting in a circle, debating ponderously, issuing decrees like hammer blows: death, death, death" (AOI, 25-26).
The figure of Mrs Curren is an example of the paralysed liberal, whose appeal back to a gentler and more civilized order in the past appears increasingly anachronistic. She finds the children of the townships, such as Bheki, the son of her maid Florence, hard to understand since they demonstrate a pitiless hardness which makes them "children of iron." She finds herself propelled into a lower level of civilization called the "age of iron" after which comes "the age of bronze." "How long, how long," she thinks, "before the softer ages return in the cycle, the age of clay, the age of earth?" But this is a Spartan age and older blacks such as Florence, who is proud of Bheki for standing up to whites, are, like Spartan women, "bearing warrior sons for the nation" (AOI, 46). This warrior imagery is also exemplified in Mrs Curren's dreams of the nineteenth century Battle of Borodino between Napoleonic France and Russia.
Despite the limitations of her situation, Mrs Curren finds the energy to go the black township of Guguletu in her old British-built Hillman to look for Florence's son. Andre Viola has noted that "through their desperate striving to leave marks on their surroundings, Coetzee's characters seem to be trying to persuade themselves that they exist."14 Mrs Curren also tries to affirm her identity and existence in an increasingly incomprehensible situation.
In Guguletu she comes face to face with the pitiless violence that is raging in the townships as squatters are forced from their shacks while troops in Casspirs passively look on. She finds the dead body of Bheki in a burnt-out shack and is challenged by one of the local black residents, Mr Thabane, to consider that what was going on in the townships was not just simply "terrible" but a "crime" from which it is impossible just to turn away and go home. At this point, Mrs Curren's liberal philosophy fails her as she pleads that she must say things that "truly come from me. When one speaks under duress - you should know this - one rarely speaks the truth." A reply that meets the retort from one local resident "this woman speaks shit" (AOI, 91).
Age of Iron can be seen as a further attempt by Coetzee to interrogate the basis upon which language is used in a colonial culture such as South Africa. Liberal discourse has been employed in a situation of white cultural and political domination and, in a situation of acute crisis and polarization, is stretched to the point of silence. Any further development in this discourse can only occur when blacks are fully a part of it, though in the context of an "age of iron" this is not likely to happen in the forseeable future. Mrs Curren confronts the surviving friend of Bheki, Johannes, who is on the run from the police, but she finds him a creature of instinct rather than intellect. It was a "waste of breath to preach prudence to this boy. The instinct for battle is too strong in him, driving him on. Battle: nature's way of liquidating the weak and providing mates for the strong. Return covered in glory and you shall have your desire. Gore and glory, death and sex. And I, an old woman, crone of death, tying a favour round his head" (AOI, 131).
Mrs Curren's outlook is also one of inverted Darwinism as she ponders on the insensitivity of whites to the events occurring in South Africa. The face of a white woman in a car that passes her while at a car park on the Cape Peninsula exemplifies this. The woman had "not a face but an expression, yet an expression worn so long as to be hers, her. A thickening of the membrane between the world and the self outside, a thickening become thickness. Evolution, but evolution backwards. Fish from the primitive depths (I am sure you know this) grew patches of skin sensitive to the fingerings of light, patches that in time became eyes. Now, in South Africa, I see eyes clouding over again, scales thickening on them, as the land explorers, the colonists, prepare to return to the deep" (AOI, 116).
Alongside this outward rhetoric of decay and degeneration, Mrs Curren's own life disintegrates from within. The police find out that Johannes has come back to live on her property and trap and shoot him in the garage. She flees from her house to spend a night in the open under a nearby motorway and is discovered by Vercuil who carries her back to the house. She rings Mr Thabane in Guguletu but can only leave a message asking him to "be careful" (AOI, 158). Johannes, by his violent end, has ultimately made a deeper impression on her than Bheki. She visualizes him waiting in the garage for the police to come and shoot him: "his eyes are open and mine, though I write, are shut. My eyes are shut in order to see" (AOI, 159). Some form of evolution has at last occurred in contrast to the devolution going on around her.
Mrs Curren is ultimately able to free herself in some degree from the psychological constraints of the colonial past by the last phase of the novel. She begins to break through towards some sort of human understanding as her illness increasingly worsens and death starts to loom. It is, though, with the symbol of common sense and ordinary humanity, Vercuil, with which she achieves this rather than any of the African characters.
She increasingly admits Vercuil into her formerly private and shut-off life; by the end they even sleep in the same bed. She discovers that Vercuil had been a seaman before an accident left him without the use of a hand. He has now lost the taste for wandering over the oceans in favour of wandering around the margins of Cape Town; she wonders where he will go to next when she has finally passed on. Vercuil represents a link, along with Mrs Curren's daughter, with the universal plane of human existence. But the relationship is ultimately a withered and desiccated one, symbolizing the limits on human relationships in the present state of South Africa. At the end Vercuil "took me in his arms and held me with a mighty force, so that the breath went out of me in a rush. From that embrace there was no warmth to be had" (AOI, 181).
Coetzee's bleak portrayal of human relationships at a terminal point in white colonial rule in South Africa shares some resemblances with Richard Rive's novel Emergency Revisited, which was published posthumously in 1989. Rive came from the generation of black writers who emerged in South Africa in the 1950s and became notable for his short stories about life in the Coloured suburb of District Six, published in the collection Buckingham Palace, District Six. His novel Emergency (1964) about the crisis of 1960 was banned in South Africa until 1988. For a long period Rive was forced into effective silence as a number of fellow writers went into exile or, like his close friend, the Afrikaner poet Ingrid Jonker, committed suicide.
Rive was also a scholar as well as a writer and edited the letters of the liberal novelist Oliver Schreiner. By the 1980s he became an increasingly established literary figure despite the long period of state harassment. He moved to a comfortable Cape Town suburb in Heathfield and it was here that he was murdered by two youths on 4 June 1989 shortly before a new play of his was due to be performed at the Baxter Theatre.15
In the last decade of his life Rive became rather estranged from the new generation of Black Consciousness intellectuals who began to emerge on the South African literary scene. He was strongly committed to principles of non-racialism in writing and condemned critics who judged literary works by the principles of an ethnic group. This was a rather isolated position to be in, for it left the writer rejected by both the white and black groups. Rive felt that non-racialism would ultimately prevail "but only after the death blow has been delivered to racialism. Time is the decisive factor."16
Rive felt it was still possible for the non-racial writer to carve out a literary identity and opposed those who argued for the abandoning of literary effort in favour of political engagement. It was essential, he argued, for room to be created for black writing even if it was not particularly good. "No person should and must be asked to stop creating," he wrote in one essay, "[f]or when creativity dies it also spells the death of the creator. No writer must stop writing just because some critic feels the situation warrants it."17
Emergency Revisited is thus Rive's last novel, and it reflects a return to the political novel form that he took up in Emergency in 1964 and then abandoned. The novel is a strictly realist portrayal of a new phase of political crisis in Cape Town, taking place over three historically significant time periods in 1985: the march on Pollsmoor Prison led by Alan Boesak on 28 August, the campaign to open the schools begun on 17 September and the Trojan Horse shooting on 15 October.
Some of the characters in the novel Emergency reappear in Emergency Revisited including the central, semi-autobiographical figure of Andrew Dreyer. Andrew is now no longer the young activist of the first novel but a senior teacher in a school on Mitchell's Plain. Dreyer had opted out of politics; the last time he spoke on a public platform was at the time of the Treason Trial in 1956. He is estranged from his activist son Brad, who disappears early in the novel in order to go underground. Andrew is accused by Brad of selling out to the authorities. He is also under increasing pressure to side with the militants in his school in favour of seeing schools closed.
Unlike Mrs Curren, though, Andrew Dreyer was a former political activist who has now chosen not to take sides in the bitter climate of the 1980s. Living a life almost permanently under some form of emergency, he has come to despise and distrust political activists such as the senior English teacher in his school, Joe Ismail, who continually quotes the classics to show off his degree from the University of South Africa and exerts considerable influence over the students. In the first half of the novel Andrew experiences ostracism from his colleagues who accuse him of siding with the authorities; his house is daubed with red paint and his car scratched.
For Andrew, literature has become a substitute for political engagement and he prefers to shut himself in his study reading rather than getting involved in political confrontation. Reading and writing in this context become self- referential. Andrew writes in the course of the novel a series of letters to a former colleague, Professor A.G. Hanslo, who now lives in Canada. This device enables Rive to expose the self-consciously autobiographical nature of both the novel Andrew Dreyer is writing and of Emergency Revisited itself: the two novels are increasingly shown to be one and the same entity. Andrew Dreyer as the fictional character/autobiographical voice of Rive sends Hanslo draft chapters of the novel he is writing. The novel is itself about a writer writing a novel. Andrew Dreyer/Richard Rive admits however that he lacks any perspective on the events he is writing about since he is the middle of them (ER, 22). He is really happier reminiscing about the events of 1960 in which Hanslo also took part.
The refusal to engage in collective political action becomes itself a political statement. The letters to Hanslo provide the space for the development of a liberal political philosophy which Rive counterpoises to the radicalism of the students. This philosophy demands the sanctity of private space free from public intrusion. "I object with every fibre of my being to being forced to declare myself publicly," Dreyer writes to Hanslo:
I cannot be party to such an undemocratic process. I am prepared to answer only to those to whom I am accountable and only when I have personally resolved to do so. If freedom implies absence of restraint, then I will fight for the retention of that freedom and against any form of restraint. It cannot be otherwise. (ER, 106)
This liberal commitment leads to self exile in the context of contemporary South African political struggle. The novel becomes a vehicle for disseminating a message that Rive believes will prevail when the basic dilemmas of South African politics are eventually resolved. Andrew Dreyer does not therefore really fear for the future, like Mrs Curren, since he sees the radical youth winning in the end. "The future is on their side," he writes to Hanslo, "[t]hey are the future" (ER, 45).
Emergency Revisited illustrates Eagleton's warning that realism can reduce the historical to the personal. Andrew Dreyer does not really develop as a character since he is imprisoned within a political ideology. Even when he starts to side with the student struggle, by speaking at a public meeting called to protest against the closure of the schools, he is still an isolated figure: "The words came out of him in jerks, now trapped, now spluttering over. Andrew felt empathy with the crowd. The crowd felt empathy with the speakers. They and he were one. Yet he felt loneliness pressing in on him, isolation in the middle of this sea of bodies" (ER, 115).
Andrew attempts to establish contact with the generation of militants, particularly after meeting an old radical friend of the 1950s, Justin Bailey, who has spent twelve years on Robben Island. There are not just historical bonds that link Andrew to Justin for he is the father of Brad's girl friend Lenina. Andrew goes to an illegal meeting hoping to find Brad and comes up against the debate raging amongst radicals on whether to continue the boycott of the schools or to go back to school and use them as a political weapon. Justin intervenes in the debate and argues that the slogan should be not "education after liberation" but "education for liberation" (ER, 156). He urges his student audience to involve the workers in their struggle.
Justin Bailey is the consummate political activist who wins Andrew's respect, unlike the verbose Joe Ismail. He appeals back to a radical political tradition that has been rather lost by the upsurge of rather naive student immediatism. He is for this reason too great a danger to the state and is shot by the police as he walks home from the meeting. His death prompts Andrew into realizing the need for greater involvement in the students' cause and he makes an emotional oration at Justin's funeral. This wins back the respect of his Brad, who secretly attends the funeral, and at the end of the novel father and son are able to effect a reconciliation.
In a final letter to Hanslo, Andrew Dreyer/Richard Rive leaves open the ultimate resolution of the story: it could be a Brechtian "alternative happy ending" or a Dickensian resolution of all the loose ends. Rive shares Olive Schreiner's view that this is a "stage method" untrue to real life which is "unpredictable and less dramatic" (ER, 184). He leaves the story unresolved as he admits to feeling "metaphorically tired" since he has to end this chapter of his life without really knowing how to do so.
Emergency Revisited only partially works as political realism. While it contains a number of graphic accounts of the student rebellion, the violence in the township and the political debate of the middle 1980s, it is anchored in an uncertain authorial voice. Personal history frequently dominates at the expense of the wider historical process. Rive, though, is honest enough to recognize as a writer that there is no necessary inevitability to the pattern of struggle going on, despite the fact that it is likely that the young generation of student militants will probably triumph in the end.
The intensity of the conflict in the Western Cape reveals in both Age of Iron and Emergency Revisited a certain loss of authorial nerve. Both the characters of Mrs Curren and Andrew Dreyer are doubtful of their identities in a situation of social turmoil and only achieve a partial resolution of this by the end of each novel. A similar pattern of struggle is portrayed on a rather larger canvas by Menan Du Plessis in Long Live!, first published in 1989.
This novel is set in a single day in November 1985 and explores the lives and fantasies of a group of people sharing a house. The three main characters are Andre Binnemann, an academic at the University of Cape anxiously trying to complete a doctoral thesis; Marisa Siervogel, an unemployed actress trying to get some sort of career footing and Desiree September, who works voluntarily at a trade union advice centre. In addition, a fourth member in the house, Chris Braaf is an opera singer and is due to leave the following day for New York.
Long Live! is a novel that explores social atmosphere and mood. Menan Du Plessis considers that it is longer-term social changes which are most important for writers rather than immediate patterns of politics. "I think writers attune themselves to a much deeper level of social process," she has said in one interview. "Not wanting to sound idealistic or facile, what one is really influenced by is social struggle. And that has very little to do with that flimsy, thin layer of politics."18
The novel looks at the South African crisis from the successive vantage points of Andre, Marisa and Desiree. Through the technique of stream of
consciousness it reveals their own memories and thoughts. At one level this undermines the notion that individuals are rational automatons obedient to the logic of some political ideology. This view is most closely associated in the novel with the Marxist theoretician, Andre, who is desperate to bring both his own personal life as well as that of the society around him under theoretical discipline. But even Andre leaves a note for himself on his computer warning of a possible "fatal flaw" in the argument of his thesis, namely that "idealistic suppositions about 'humanness' could be Achilles heel of thesis. Need to pre-empt counter-argument that human beings are lazy, aggressive, inarticulate, selfish . . . so on: weak animals with thin, naked hides, preserved from extinction only by such features (unique to the species?) as their cunning, adaptability and an unlimited capacity for violence" (LL, 3-4).
Andre is not really sure how to engage with this dilemma; the construction of his life as an academic suggests that he has avoided confronting life fully. His intellectual battle has become rather a narrow academic one as he finds himself increasingly disillusioned with the liberal head of his department, David Harvest, whose remarks about a "bunch of radicals dictating to the rest" force Andre to keep quiet when in the department (LL, 46). Even as an institution the university he is in appears incapable of confronting the repression going on outside. The academic staff at the University of Cape Town initially decide not to support a planned march by students to Pollsmoor Prison and then reverse their decision once the students vote to go anyway. The march, led by academics in gowns, is halted by police waiting just outside the campus. It rather ludicrously turns back to where it started from, this time with the gowned academics following in the rear.
Andre's search for discipline is partly shaped by a past in which he has had bitter battles with his conservative father, forcing him eventually to leave home. He tries to understand his father, recollecting the times when he played on the swings in the evenings in front of the silent cinema screen of the drive-in his parents would attend. The cinema was also a reinforcement of a patriarchal idealization of women as he recalls his father asking to him to tell his mother she looked like a film star when she got dressed up to go out:
He remembered how he'd stepped nearer and touched her skirt, filled with breathless hope. Mommy, are you a film star? (LL, 92)
The past catches up on Andre at the end of the novel when his father comes in search of Andre's brother Riaan, on leave from the army, in order to keep him away from the influence of Andre, whom he considers a "blerry kummunis." The white community, too, in South Africa is shown to be experiencing generational struggle, though Andre's authority appears on the decline since he suffers a heart attack. This leaves the rudderless Riaan pathetically calling out to Andre "Boet, what are we supposed to do?" (LL, 255).
The theme of patriarchy is an important one in Long Live! just as it has done so much to shape Mrs Curren's outlook in Age of Iron. The two female characters in the novel Marisa and Desiree confront it in rather different ways. Marisa comes from a rather more bourgeois background than Andre and has never had to be committed to anything in particular. As a child she was considered by the adults in her family to be like a "little doll" and her aunt had called her " 'n Klein aktrisetjie" (LL, 35). Her one attempt to act outside Cape Town, when she played Cordelia in a production in Johannesburg, fails when she fears the block of flats she is staying in and abandons the role. She is stung by her lover Richard's disparaging remark that "You do an awful lot of acting. For a failed actress" (LL, 34).
Marisa lives for the moment and is swayed by impulse. She is challenged by her former lover Braam as to why she continually craves admirers and is sexually promiscuous; he tries to get her to see that it is an illusion for her to believe that this makes her in control. Marisa does not really have an answer. Buying beautiful objects is one way of coping with her alienation. Though she only has R14 in the world she buys a cheap necklace and some flowers in the flower market in Rondebosch. She is the complete opposite of Andre, and is rapidly bored by his efforts to explain rationally the nature of the South African political conflict. Andre quotes from Marx's The Civil War in France, in which the rich perceived the civil war in Paris in 1871 as "an agreeable diversion, eyeing the battle going on through telescopes, counting the rounds of cannon, and swearing by their own honour and thatÊof their prostitutes that the performance was far better got up than it used to be at the Porte St Martin" (LL, 151).
Marisa is not really anxious to know that the men who were killed in the Paris Commune were part of a process that was "so intensely historical." She wants to affirm her own identity in the present. She becomes one of the white "amajoini" of the United Democratic Front, desperately trying to find some meaning in political solidarity. She attends a political funeral organized for a night watchman burned to death in a police tear gas attack. Here the minister describes the "spirit of resistance" in quasi-religious terms as an "everlasting fire" for "in the face of the utmost evil there is a human capacity to resist and to resist that is indestructible" (LL, 191). She experiences her own political baptism when the funeral is cut short by the police and is teargassed as helicopters hover over head. Driving back from the funeral she sees fires alight in the townships and has come to realize through her own experience the force of Marx's argument:
Then the barricades would be going up all over Cape Town tonight. People who lived on the slopes of the mountain would come out onto their patios, to watch the rags of fire spreading across the city's grace of a million lights, necklaces of light as white as moths. (LL, 238)
In contrast to both Marisa and Andre, Desiree is the one character in the book who connects directly back to a political tradition of resistance in Cape Town. She comes from a "coloured" family, the Septembers, who were well known in the left wing Teachers League in the 1950s. Her dead father has left behind notes and writings in his house which is now occupied by Desiree's sister Rose. These notes indicate an understanding of the relationship between the language of logical reason used by intellectuals and the need for humanity. It is a considerably more optimistic philosophy than the neo-Darwinism of Mrs Curren:
Think of the things that lift us above the beasts: and aren't they precisely those things transcending the immediate, the individual? They are the things that bind us; the things that only exist where we hold them in common. Language now. And think how language in turn depends on - or maybe it creates - the gifts of memory and imagination. Empathy. Speculation. Logical construction. Of course, for each of us, so long as we are alive - awake to the times, living through our days - there will always be urgent, immediate, possibly even ephemeral questions. But what human kind possesses, everlastingly, is a sense of its own history, and its dreams of a different history. (LL, 218)
Desiree nevertheless considered that much of her father's work for the Teachers League had been a waste of time, given its consistently negative policy of boycott. She recalls as a child painting a Teachers League poster and was challenged by her brother Stephen to say what a "League" was. She replied "seven league boots" to which her father had laughed to his wife "We give our time, our sweat, not to say our blood and tears to keep the League alive, and this one can only associate it with fairy tales and fantasies" (LL, 51).
The "fantasy" though was really her father's. Desiree knows that her uncle Theo also feels a similar way about her parents. While visiting Rose and Desiree, though, Theo takes a rather more mature view. He thinks to himself that Desiree's parents' work for the New Era Fellowship of the 1950s might have been negative "criticizing everything and everybody. So and so is a quisling; something else is a collaborationist." But he concedes that they were "eloquent types, well I suppose, after all they were teachers and intellectuals. I don't mean to run them down, really, I'm grateful there are people like that to educate my kids." (LL, 228) In the common sense outlook of the older generation represented by Uncle Theo, it is important to have intellectuals guiding a society and teaching its young. He stands in marked contrast to the bigotry of Andre's father.
Desiree tries to apply her talents at the trade union advice office where she deals with the casualties of the South African system. She realizes the limits of trying to explain sick leave entitlement to a sick and confused African woman:
Desiree senses the futility of their word. All this careful talk of three-quarter wages being multiplied by weeks must seem like tormenting nonsense to the woman. (LL, 127)
It is presumptuous of intellectuals to think that the oppressed and exploited always need words and language, which can be just further instruments of oppression. Desiree looks to a longer-term strategy of organizing workers and tells her younger brother Victor of the launch of COSATU the following month in Durban. But this too will take time for "it's not something you can hurry. Every step has to go through factory committees; and there are a lot of factories involved, especially on the General Workers side" (LL, 196).
Desiree thinks these processes of organization should not stop people being able to live their lives as best they can. She chides Victor for attacking his sister Shireen's desire to spend money on shoes and new clothes, thinking of a quotation from Goethe "the greyness of the dogma" (LL, 200).
Menan Du Plessis's character are not really driven by a directional history; they are free to make their own choices and accept the consequences, though within a process of social struggle. There is perhaps a hope that this struggle will be reaching some sort of resolution but the triumph of non-racialism can not be seen as inevitable as in Richard Rive's novel. The characters of Long Live! are not seen as the repository of a set of values that are stored up waiting for release at a future date. Even Andre is not certain of the direction of South African history; his Marxism only gives him a hope for future possibilities.
None of Menan Du Plessis's characters are really hardened political activists: they exist on the fringes of politics and are not a party to key political debates. Long Live is thus not a political novel in the same way as, say, Gore Vidal's novels are. The central actors in the novel are revealing, though, of deeper movements in South African society in a way that is similar to some of the characters of Emergency Revisited. Desiree for example comes out of the same political tradition that created Justin Bailey. None stick rigidly behind barriers of non-involvement put up by Andrew Dreyer and none share quite the same level of ineffectual Angst as Mrs Curren. Marisa has begun some sort of resolution of her alienation by the end of the novel and is clearly able to embrace what the future can offer in a way that the terminally sick Mrs Curren cannot. Menan Du Plessis does not see South Africa as simply a "grey and sombre world" and has been concerned to dispel many of the myths that have grown up about among exiles.19 Long Live! is thus a work of considerable importance in dispelling the idea of an easy road to South African liberation. It reveals the complexities of human relationships in a situation of acute social crisis.
By way of conclusion . . .
This paper has sought to show that the crisis of the middle 1980s in Cape Town has given vent to some significant works of South African literature. Despite the injustice and exploitation of the decaying apartheid system, none of these works has portrayed the struggle to create another kind of society in simple Manichaean terms of goodness and evil. Human weakness pervades at all levels of society, even when it faces profound transition.
To this extent, the question emerges of whether the South African situation is not a tragic one in the sense that Albert Camus defined it during the bitter struggle in Algeria in the 1950s. Tragedy, Camus pointed out, can only emerge in periods of rapid social transition - or what he termed a "drama of civilization" - such as occurred during the century of Ancient Greece from Aeschylus to Euripides and in the sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe of Elizabethan and Spanish theatre. These periods allowed tragedy to emerge based upon a balance of good and evil for "the forces confronting each other in tragedy are equally legitimate, equally justified. In melodramas or dramas, on the other hand, only one force is legitimate."20 It is thus impossible to have an atheistic or rationalistic tragedy or for that matter religious tragedy for "tragedy is born between light and darkness and rises from the struggle between them."21
Camus found evidence within contemporary French drama of a "kind of tragic nebula within which various nuclei are beginning to coagulate."22 Is it possible to say that similar features are beginning to emerge within contemporary South African literature? This may only reach its full fruition within drama rather than the novel form; equally it may be swept away by the forces of political ideology if the society undergoes a conventional process of third world liberation.
However, a literary debate has been engendered by Albie Sachs's paper "Preparing Ourselves For Freedom" in February 1990, which urged that ANC members "should be banned from saying that culture is a weapon of political struggle."23 If a considerable autonomy is given to writers in a post liberation social order, then it is likely that many of the tensions that give vent to tragedy will be able to flourish. Exploitation and human misery will still exist and there will be no one politically correct method of dealing with them. Human faults and inadequacies will still be portrayed in South African literature and there will be no clear solution to the problem. In this sense it may be possible to speak of the conditions existing for a South African variant of human tragedy by the next century.
University of Melbourne
1 Stephen Clingman, History from the Inside (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1986); see also Paul B. Rich, "Liberal Realism in South African Fiction, 1948-1966," English in Africa 12 (1985): 47-81.
2 Terry Eagleton, "Towards a Critique of Political Fiction," Meanjin 39.3 (October 1980): 384.
3 Jane Watts, Black Writers From South Africa (Houndsmills: The Macmillan Press, 1989) 21-22.
4 Lance Olsen, "The Presence of Absence: Coetzee's 'Waiting for the Barbarians'," Ariel, 16.2 (April 1985) 47-56.
5 Contrast 12.1 (1981): 45.
6 Contrast 13.4 (1983): 52.
7 Martin Hall, "Resistance and Revolt in Greater Cape Town 1985," unpub. paper, Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town, 1986.
8 Hall, 28; see also Glenda Kruss, "The 1986 State of Emergency in the Western Cape" in South African Review 4 (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1987) 173-186.
9 Colin Bundy, "Street Sociology and Pavement Politics: Aspects of Youth and Student Resistance in Cape Town, 1985," Journal of Southern African Studies, 13.3 (April 1987): 322-23.
10 Bundy, 326.
11. J.M. Coetzee interviewed by Folke Rhedin, Kunapipi 5.1 (1984): 10.
12 Stephen Watson, "Colonialism & the novels of J.M Coetzee" in Selected Essays, 1980-1990 (Cape Town: The Carrefour Press, 1990) 35-56.
13 See, for example, Erika Smilowitz, "Childlike Women and Paternal Men: Colonialism in Jean Rhys's Fiction," Ariel, 17.4 (October 1986): 93-103.
14 Andre Viola, "Survival in J.M. Coetzee's Novels," Commonwealth 9.1 (Autumn 1986): 10.
15 Stephen Gray, "Richard Rive: A Memoir," Staffrider 9.1 (1990): 42-55.
16 Gray, 21.
17 Richard Rive, "Writing or Fighting: The Dilemma of the Black South African Writer," Staffrider 8.1 (1989): 53.
18 Interview in Duncan Brown and Bruno van Wyk, eds., Exchanges: South African Writing in Transition (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 1991) 20-21.
19 Interview in Brown and van Wyk, eds., 22.
20 Albert Camus, "On the Future of Tragedy," Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 1968) 301.
21 Camus, 303.
22 Camus, 309.
23 Brown and Van Wyk, eds., vii.
Postcolonial Fictions| Span | Reading Room | What'sNew | CRCC
Murdoch University CWIS
Administration inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org
HTML created: 17 January 1997
HTML author : Garry Gillard
HTML last modified: 17 January 1997
Modified by: Garry Gillard, Site Administrator