Monday 10 October 2011

A Wounded Name

South Africa is a country with a bad-ass reputation.

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.

There is much to inspire us. The iconic Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu head the list, but we also have Oscar Pistorious, a double amputee athlete known as the Blade Runner, because instead of flesh-and-blood legs, he runs on steel prostheses. Dr. Chris Barnard, who performed the world’s first-ever successful heart transplant was born in the Karoo and performed his world famous operations in Cape Town. And did you know that the great JR Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein?

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.


Unknown said...

What a beautiful love letter for an amazing country. I have longed to visit South Africa, it is on my must-see-before-I-die list.

You bring up an excellent point. If we want to truly see the world, then we must look beyond the trappings of headlines, government and policies. The people, the land, the culture, these are the things that we should see. Thank you for sharing your country with us. I will definitely be checking out some of these authors and poets you have written so eloquently about.

J.C. Martin said...

A lovely tribute to a beautiful country! We should always bear in mind that the shortcomings and beliefs of a country's ruling party are not necessarily reflected in its people.


Join me in the Trick or Treat Spooktacular! Could you help make the Grand Prize a brand new Kindle Touch?

Ann Summerville said...

Great post. For me, the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency gave a more personal look into the lives of Africans.

Frances Garrood said...

I would love to visit South Africa (I've only been to Zambia). Not sure about Coetzee, though (hated Disgrace), but I LOVE Andre Brink!

T. Powell Coltrin said...

How beautiful--your post. I would love to visit Africa.

I will use the word Eish!


Damaria Senne said...

Beautiloe letter. Can I add that I also love South Africa for its people? In the middle of all the scaremongering, you will find many South Africans who are friendly and willing to hep a stranger. And the fun and funny conversations you can have with people while waiting in the queue to be served! Damaria

Lisa said...

I want to go to South Africa.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Judy .. the good and the bad - Jock of the Bushveld .. a beautiful story of a Staffie ... and Helen Suzman, who was the sole parliamentarian unequivocally opposed to apartheid for many years.

There's sadness too ... but as you say there is warmth and love and hope in a country that is still battered with dark troubles.

Then there's modern hope .. via the writings of the Judy Croome's for the future .. the writers in the anthology "Notes from the Underground" ..

A land of hope and glory .. it needs some inspiration and some leadership ..

Wonderful read .. Cheers .. Hilary

Marilyn Brant said...

A lovely and thoughtful post, as always, Judy, and I really appreciated learning what "Eish!" meant!! Thank you ;).

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

MELISSA: I’m glad to hear our beloved country is on your must-see list!

JC: Yes, I suspect most ordinary people just get on with their own lives and trust their leaders…sometimes to their detriment. :(

ANN: Oh I loved Precious! The TV show made from the books was also excellent!

FRANCES: I’m also not a great fan of Coetzee (sacrilege, I know!)

TERESA: This is a fascinating continent – once you’ve visited, Africa is in your blood…and, eish!, you can already speak one vital word! :)

DAMARIA: Oh absolutely! I often think that the reason we manage to survive what appear to others to be insurmountable obstacles is because of our people!

OCEANGIRL: We’d love to have you…!

HILARY: Jock of the Bushveld’s another great story – there were so many powerful local books/authors I couldn’t mention because of space limitations it was quite frustrating!

MARILYN: If you remember Eish!, you’re ready to visit…!

Lauri said...

This is lovely Judy. Headlines do not a country make. South Africa is a beautiful, resilient country.

Rebecca A Emrich said...

oh how lovely! I found this so informative. Well done!

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

LAURI: "Resilient" is a good word. Actually, it's a GREAT word to describe South Africa! :)

REBECCA: Glad you enjoyed it!

Bish Denham said...

All the more reason to come for a visit.

PK HREZO said...

Impressive stuff. I've always been fascinated with South Africa. I'll get there one day to tour around. It's on the list. :)

CA Heaven said...

South Africa looks like an amazing country to me.

Some time ago, when I helped my son prepare for a geopraphy test at school, I learnt that South Africa belongs to the so-called NIC countries (Newly Industrialized Country), together with Brazil and India and some others. These countries have are on the way up and have a positive development.

I read many books by Andre Brink when I was young. Great author >:)

Cold As Heaven

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

BISH: I hope your reasons to visit get so many you just have to come! :)

PK: I hope a visit to SA soon moves up to the top of your list!

COLD: Yes, I read somewhere that the level of hope for South African youths of all races is amongst the highest in the world! Andre Brink is one of the best! :)

septembermom said...

Judy, what an amazing tribute and love letter to your beautiful country. You gave me some good South African authors to look up.

Thanks my dear friend!!

LOVED, LOVED, LOVED your book!!!!!!!

Rosalind Adam said...

I have family living in South Africa and they're always asking me to go and visit them. I'm not the world's best traveller and I'm still saying 'one day' but your blog has made me think that maybe it should be some day soon.

In Yiddish there's a phrase "Oy Vey!" which means the same and also requires an exclamation mark.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

SEPTEMBER MOM: Thanks so much for letting me know you enjoyed my book – I’m vy pleased!! Take care & big cyber hugs (until you visit here to collect a real hug!)

ROSALIND: Oy vey is used almost as much as Eish! in Jo'burg!! :) And do come and visit soon...we're not a perfect country but we have so much going for us! :)

Marja said...

A long list of inspirational people. That is something to be proud of. In NZ live a lot of people from South africa. I tried to speak to them as Afrikaans sounds a lot like Dutch but it proved to be quite different. I could only understand the occasional word.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

MARJA: Yes Afrikaans is quite different from Dutch, but we can understand Dutch if you speak slowly or if we read it. When my husband did his thesis, he could only get one article in Dutch and it was too expensive to translate, but he read it slowly and understood it!