Newspaper headlines blare MURDER CENTRAL! HIGHEST RAPES PER DAY! And don’t forget our recent history: APARTHEID!
This darkness is part of our past and our present, but what the scaremongers conveniently forget is that every country has its demons, just as every country has its moments of glory.
South Africa is not only a land of darkness; she is also a land of hope and glory and great natural beauty.
The list of South Africa’s achievements goes on and on, and includes nine Nobel Laureates: three medical, four peace and two literature prize winners.
Two Nobel Literature prize winners? J M Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer have both won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And don’t forget J M Coetzee was the first author ever to win the coveted Man Booker Prize twice.
Eish!* South Africa’s current literary scene has a big history to live up to.
There was the short story writer Herman Charles Bosman, who is best known for the Oom Schalk Lourens series set in the Marico region and for his semi-autobiographical book, Cold Stone Jug, based on his experiences in prison, where he served a sentence for killing his step-brother. Between his Bohemian life-style and satirical sketches of rural Afrikaans life, Bosman also found the time to translate the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam into Afrikaans.
Olive Schreiner is best remembered today for her highly acclaimed novel The Story of an African Farm (1883.) For a Victorian woman, Schreiner was ground-breaking in her free-thinking views: the novel deals with some of the critical issues of the day, including agnosticism, career aspirations of women and an insightful portrayal of the elemental nature of life on the colonial frontier. But Schreiner was no radical, for her writings tend to hint at universal values such as moderation, peace and co-operation among people, rather than promoting socio-political causes, such as feminism or anti-racism.
During the apartheid era, many of the most influential anti-apartheid activists were local South African writers. There was JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, who was a close friend of Nelson Mandela's defence attorneys during his 1962 trial. When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Gordimer was one of the first people he wanted to see.
Alan Paton, Andre Brink and Breyten Breytenbach all wrote passionately against the apartheid regime: perhaps for personal reasons, but their voices were effective nonetheless. One wonders what was discussed at the Sunday lunch table in the prominent Afrikaans Breytenbach family, for Breyten Breytenbach’s brother was Colonel Jan Breytenbach, who formed the elite 32 Battalion - known as the Buffalo Battalion - of the South African Defence Force; in the brilliant movie “Blood Diamond,” Leonardo di Caprio’s tragic character, Danny Archer, had served in 32B.
Our literary history also includes some well-respected poets, such as Guy Butler and Roy Campbell. In his poetry, Butler strove for the synthesis of European and African elements into a single voice, while Campbell was considered by T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas to have been one of the best poets of the early 20th century.
In contemporary South Africa, we have a vibrant literary community.
Writers such as Lauren Beukes (who won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award) and Sifiso Mzobe (whose debut novel Young Blood won both the Herman Charles Bosman Prize and the 2011 Sunday Times Literary Award for Fiction) carry the torch of South African literature high.
South African authors today reflect the literary voices of this wounded nation as she struggles to throw off the demons of her past and overcome the challenges of her present.
And it is their myriad voices that are helping to rebuild South Africa’s reputation: one that will match the warmth and hope of a country battered and scarred by dark memories, yet ever hopeful of a future glory.
*“Eish!” A catch-all South African exclamation that expresses anything from surprise to annoyance. Not allowed to appear in print without an exclamation mark.
This post first appeared on The Literary Lab blog in September 2011.