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Articles: Writing in South Africa

Quick flip through this article's contents: Introduction || The background picture
Being more than a writer || Albie Sachs and political writing || Publishers || The 1990s || Writers Organisations in South Africa || P.E. N. || COSAW || National Arts Coalition || Radicals and liberals || The publishing scene in South Africa

The state of writing in South Africa

by Anne Kellas

© 5421 words

* South African Literature; Writers
* Biographical details: Anne Kellas has published poetry in a variety of Australian, American and South African magazines. Books: Poems from Mt. Moono 1989; Isolated States 2001; Anothologies: work in: A writer in Stone (1998); Like a house on Fire (COSAW 1986); Moorilla Mosaic (2000). She's worked as a book reviewer for Island Magazine; Famous Reporter, and BookTalk in Tasmania.

In October 1994, I made a brief journey back to South Africa where I was born. The Nationalist government had been in power all my life. When I went back, it was to a country that had at last, after 46 years, been able to vote en masse and experience a change of government. I was immensely curious to see the changes effected, and how my writer friends were adjusting to their new world. The editor of a small magazine in Australia called Famous Reporter asked me to write something about the state of play in South African writing, and this article is an expanded version of the text that appeared in Famous Reporter #9, 1994, re-worked here with permission from its editor, Ralph Wessman.

I acknowledge the many writers I met on my trip, most of whom asked to remain unnamed, whose informal conversations with me I have attempted to weave into one picture along with my own personal impressions of the writing scene in what Alan Paton called the beloved country.

I hope this overview will tempt people to explore the rich writing tradition of this vibrant culture.

Index to reviews 


This once familiar landscape is now strange to me - all the boundary lines have changed, municipalities along the gold mining reef on which Johannesburg perches have new boundaries too, former black municipalities are now incorporated in 'white' areas. The physical landscape I traversed is orderly on the surface but a little more dangerous underneath.

This is a landscape of confusion for me. I have not lived here for eight long years, and too much has changed. Personal safety seems to be an over-riding concern - everyone has either had a car stolen, or knows of someone involved in a hijacking incident, or has had their home burgled.

The perpetrators of this kind of random and sometimes violent crime are often the very people who fought for their country's freedom, who chose revolution instead of education. But now, without education themselves, they have few prospects for jobs, have no money in the beloved country that has no welfare system to support them. They are the so-called 'Lost Generation' who prey on the more affluent community in order to survive. No one drives an old car I notice when I arrive at Jan Smuts Airport, where the car park looks like a new car yard. At night if you drive, I am told, don't stop at stop streets. Why? In case you stall - you can't risk breaking down, they explain, you're only safe if you keep moving. And lock yourself in, keep the window up. In 33 degree heat this is quite a test for my faith as I wind down the window.

Everyone is armed. This is the heartache of the new South Africa and the framework from within which I am viewing the literary situation. I stare out the car window at this land that is now so different and still so much the same. We are speeding along a highway that will take us in a wide arc out of Johannesburg and west towards Rivonia - a suburb whose name is resonant with meaning for South Africans as it gave its name in the '60s to the series of trials which saw the eventual imprisonment of the likes of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu.

The night is warm and in the darkness I note that the town- house complexes which have sprung up everywhere like smart shanty towns have hundreds of little streetlights illumining every pathway, to deter burglars. Townhouse complexes are surrounded by such massive walls that the word wall loses all its meaning. These are buttresses and ramparts, battlements and defences such as Australian townships will hopefully never see. The top of these massive structures is topped with a frill of neatly tangled razor wire in loops and whorls, or alternatively 20-cm metal spikes aimed in all directions like the spines of mechanical porcupines.

The gates to such establishments are patrolled by civilian security guards. By comparison, ordinary houses look defenceless.

Writing this story about the condition of writing in South Africa, I find it difficult to confine myself to the topic without veering inevitably onto a familiar political track, as indeed my conversations with writers there did, and as they had always done in the past. Writers in South Africa have always spoken in terms of the politics of the country and they still do - something of the old fabric of life in South Africa insists on reasserting itself, despite having at last a new government - it is still a place suffering from years of apartheid rule.


Roland Barthes said a writer's work is his 'essential gesture as a social being.' (quoted by Nadine Gordimer in 'The Essential Gesture: writing, politics and places'; Penguin, 1988, p288) But what sort of gesture is this to be in the new South Africa?

Gordimer also quotes Camus: 'It is from the moment when I shall no longer be more than a writer that I shall cease to write.' (p. 288) For some South African writers, a writer has a greater responsibility to society and not to art - to write in a situation like South Africa was to be some kind of cultural worker, and make one's 'essential gesture' an inevitably political one.

Opposition to apartheid as it grew over the years produced a groundswell of writers from whom I hope the world will hear shortly - if funding and publishing opportunities improve. Yet not one pro-apartheid writer emerged - fascism, it would seem, seldom produces great writers, but opposition to apartheid on the other hand produced giants: playwright Athol Fugard, Nobel prize-winning novelist and essayist Nadine Gordimer, Booker prize winner J. M. Coetzee, and Breyten Breytenbach.

For some South African writers during the years of apartheid rule, to write well meant to leave the country - living under strict censorship is anathema to a writer. The choice to live in self-exile, where one can write what one likes, is tempting. Ironically, 'I write what I like' is the title of murdered Steve Biko's book.

South Africa has lost many writers to exile, or self-exile, and the brain drain from the South African English writing community has taken its toll. Poets like Mike Kirkwood and Jenny Couzyn now live in England, others have gone to America, Canada, Australia. Fine novelists like Douglas Livingstone, Dan Jacobson and a long list of others have made foreign shores their home, and not many of these self-exiled writers are returning to the new South Africa.

Some had no choice but to flee for their own safety, often a measure that still did not work - Albie Sachs for example, a lawyer and writer, went to live in exile in Maputo in Mozambique, only to find himself the victim of a right-wing car-bomb blast which took away his right arm . An outspoken communist, Sachs returned to South Africa in 1994. Sankie Mthembi-Nkondo is another such returned exile. An award- winning fiction writer with several books of poetry to her name, she lived for many years as an underground worker for the ANC in exile, and returned in 1994 to succeed Joe Slovo as Minister of Housing in the new government. If you use the World-Wide Web and are a subscriber to 'Planet Wired' or 'Hotwired', you can read an account of her years in exile at this URL:


However it was Albie Sachs who set the cat among the pigeons in writing circles in South Africa. His words carry great weight - he is one of the 12 judges in one of the most important institutions created under the new dispensation, the Constitutional Court. Shortly after the new government took office, Sachs made a sweeping statement to the effect that writers could stop being political now - writers and artists could now lay down their weapons of culture and get on with the business of writing, released from the imperatives of writing about apartheid.

Many writers did not see it in this way, and immediately a fierce debate began in writing circles. They were angry. Perhaps he was saying, stop writing battle-hymns and let's have some real writing, but perhaps he was saying shut up in a way that smacks a little too much of the old regime's habit of telling people what to do.

Some argued the best writing to come out of South Africa had always come out of the political tradition - from the pen of overtly political writers such as Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee, John Miles or Breyten Breytenbach for instance. Writers in South Africa have always seen it as their duty to challenge the status quo, and speak out against injustice and the abuse of power. In the years to come there may be reason, some writers argued hypothetically with Albie Sachs, to be grateful if this tradition of political writing were valued, and continued. Perhaps now as much as ever before, writers would be required to write politically and document the political realities of the new country and tell the untold stories of recent years. After all, 'South Africans generally have a short memory,' commented one writer I met.

Sachs' statement could also be greeted with delight in some respects, some felt - the literature had been freed from the imperatives of politics - perhaps Sachs was saying writers could write whatever they liked and get on with it. Yet others said readers were bored after years of saturation with politics and were showing an aversion to political books or so-called 'politically engaged' writing.

Whatever you may think of these two views - of political writing as either sloganeering that is boring at best and, at its worst, bad writing, or alternatively as good literature attuned to the issues of its society - Sachs' statement caused deep heart-searching and heated debate among writers.

At the same time, other issues besides this one were challenging writers in South Africa - the sweeping changes in the new South Africa and the smooth transition to democracy were busy taking the world - and writers - by surprise. Writers of all kinds were struggling to get a grip on the new situation. So much had happened, such extraordinary, almost incredible changes occurred in this society in the space of a few short years. It is very difficult for writers to reflect such rapid change - a novel takes a couple of years to be written and published, and if you're trying to reflect the society around you in a quite immediate way, the chances are that by the time you're book is on the streets, you could be living in an entirely different society.

That is precisely what has happened in South Africa. In some respects the writer in the new South Africa seems 'like the long-term prisoner who finds the cell door open one morning but is too afraid to venture out into the sunshine...' said award- winning writer Ivan Vladislavic during a speech to a very active Afrikaans readers' group (the Leserskring) in the Orange Free State in September 1994. While there might be some truth in this attitude, Vladislavic pointed out that the reasons for such a writer's equivocation are more complex than we might imagine: 'We are likely to be writing about apartheid for decades to come. It may well be that the best books about the apartheid years have yet to be written. We should not be afraid to write them. Frisking out into the sunshine may be fine for some writers; others might prefer to loiter in the cells, trying to decipher the scribbles on the walls.' (Ivan Vladislavic, Welkom, September 1994)

Perhaps the debate about political writing has more to do with dispersing with political cliche rather than with political writing per se. If so, Albie Sachs' remarks are helpful - being freed from the cliche born of a kind of literary opportunism can only be good.

The entire debate reminds me of an earlier bitter debacle between those writers and publishers who believed that all the literary outpourings of the revolution were valid and deserved to be published on the strength of their political statements alone, and between those who believed the writer's creativity is not necessarily fostered by the demand placed upon a writer by society to be more than a writer, and that the quality of the writing was of primary importance. To quote Gabriel Garcia Marquez: 'The writer's duty - his revolutionary duty, if you like - is to write well.' (Gordimer, p. 276).

The tradition of political writing in South Africa is undeniably strong. In the 1960s, the Sestigers (meaning, of the '60s) were a group of writers who made a profound influence on the course of South African literature. They were mainly Afrikaners who'd rejected the apartheid ethos of their parents and peers at a time when to do so was not only unusual but dangerous, to say the very least.

Many of these avant-garde writers are still writing from within South Africa. Breyten Breytenbach lives abroad - during an abortive attempt to return clandestinely from self-exile in Paris in 1975, he was betrayed, charged with terrorism and thrown into Pretoria Central Prison for seven years (see his 'True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist'). Ironically, after his release, he came to Pretoria in the late '80s to receive the Hertzog Prize for Afrikaans literature at the state theatre and spoke to a crowded auditorium of his fellow Afrikaners, berating them for their bigotry and blindness to apartheid's cruelties. Instead of stony silence, he was greeted with guilty applause from the very 'volk' who'd been after his blood - such is the nature of schizophrenic South Africa.

Another sestiger who rose to world prominence is Andre Brink ('A Dry White Season', 'Looking on Darkness'). Other Sestigers who are still very definitely part of the contemporary South African writing scene include Hennie Aucamp, a story writer now writing mainly for the stage; Abraham De Vries, also a story writer, with at least a dozen collections of stories to his name; John Miles; and Chris Barnard, well known mainly as a dramatist in the '60s who seemed to vanish completely for about 20 years and then came back with a CNA award-winning novel, 'Moerland' published two years ago. Etienne LeRoux, my personal favourite among the Sestiger prose writers and probably the best known of all the Sestigers, died some years ago.

Political writing also rose strongly from the Black community - certainly the riots of 1976, and the constant waves of uprisings throughout the country ever since produced scores of writers among the Black community who found their voice in powerful elemental poetry which was a cry from the heart for their people's agony.

This was performance poetry at its most powerful. Some found its way into the pages of Ravan Press's highly successful magazine, 'Staffrider'. Some of it found its way into what political correctionists would describe as more elitist journals, like 'Sesame' and 'Contrast' and some was gathered up into anthologies published internationally in such publications as the 'Tri Quarterly Review', but much of this writing seems to me to have disappeared undocumented.

In the days of the early 'Staffrider' almost every second person was a poet, but now the whole performance poetry tradition seems to have died down. It went hand in hand with political activism - worker poets who were attached to unions began performing poetry in the '70s - a very interesting development, because they were blending a tradition of praise poetry with union themes.This was an exciting period.


Also in the early '70s, small South African publishers began to break the monopoly of British multi-national publishing houses, and some truly independent South African publishers began to emerge - David Philip in Cape Town, Ravan Press and Ad Donker in Johannesburg, for instance. They made possible the publishing of a different kind of local writing.

Much of the publishing activity by the small local presses was fuelled by idealism - and foreign funding, which has now dried up. Understandably the provision of housing, education and basic services are where any spare resources should go in a country as deprived at South Africa. The money and the resources that once funded the cultural field have gone into what are regarded as more useful, more immediately productive areas such as educational publishing, literacy projects and the like.

Purely literary publishing has taken the brunt of this shift in emphasis. Exit the small publishing houses, into the arms of multi-nationals who have seized the opportunities waiting in the burgeoning market for educational materials.

The result, it seems to me, is that things are back to where they were twenty years ago. Hardly any publishers are producing interesting work, and the country is going through a particularly slow and unexciting publishing period. Some of the platitudes bandied about as to why this might be so are perfectly valid: the big international publishing conglomerates have moved in progressively during the '90s, and were advertising for staff during my visit. Even where the names of publishing houses remain the same, their nature has often changed with the times.

Publishers who concerned themselves with the avant-guarde of politics now concentrate on producing educational materials, in response to the huge push to fix the country's enormous literacy problems. Many are developing textbooks and are trying to find ways of reworking their existing publications so that they'll be useful at a school level. A lot of books for teenagers are being published - that's one area where things look healthy - clearly because those books have potential to be prescribed and used in the schools.

Books are regarded as luxury items and the price of books, especially imported books, has sky-rocketed in the last five years, basically because the South African rand is so weak. There are simply not enough readers to support a thriving book trade in a country where maybe as many as 60% of South Africans are functionally illiterate, and where, of the remaining 40% who can read, many read at a level that would not make them regular book buyers, certainly not buyers of fiction. Add to this the fact that in any given population, only a small percentage of the educated literate people are going to be interested in novels and one gains a gloomy picture for both the book buying public and for writers.

Which brings me back to the 'Lost Generation', still out there, invisible, stealing from the houses of the whities and hijacking their cars, too busy surviving now to write slogan poetry. Each night trains grind to a halt because someone somewhere along the line has stolen essential bits of copper wire from signal boxes; each morning it is replaced. And what about Hillbrow, Johannesburg's flat-land, where countless millions now dwell, where a single room will be curtained off in segments and sub- let to other individuals... Comparisons with Mexico City or Manilla seem colourless. Slogans present themselves to explain everything - 'decades of neglect' explains away everything. Decades of neglect are to blame. Decades of neglect are responsible. Decades of neglect will come home to roost.

The RDP is another slogan, the new government's 'reconstruction and development program, attempting to address the decades of neglect. The Lost Generation is seemingly left out of the new equations of the RDP. The Lost Generation, at school during the 1976 riots and on strike ever since, became politicised into professional campaigners for 'freedom now, education later'.

Later has still not arrived, and they are now a huge component of the 60% illiterate and innumerate, trying to survive in a country where there is no social security or welfare system to feed the unemployed or homeless. Their ranks are swelled by the untold numbers of illegal immigrants from the rest of Africa, hopeful arrivals in Nelson Mandela's new country.

The Lost Generation, and AIDS, are I discover, conversation stoppers. AIDS campaign? What AIDS campaign? No one hazards a guess at the spread of the disease. But yes, an academic tells me, AIDS is a massive problem, and there will be a 'window' in the population eventually - the potential work-force will be dead from AIDS. Mention the Lost Generation or AIDS and the dinner party goes quiet and eyes are averted. No one wants to contemplate the politics of the future to that degree.

The Lost Generation is the key factor to consider in the future of a country where the revolution has not fully run its course and where writers, I believe, have much important work left to do.

The 1990s

I believe that the new writing that will emerge from the new South Africa is more likely to come from the African writers, with Afrikaans writers probably more strongly in evidence than their English-speaking compatriots, if I read the signs correctly.

Of the new exciting writers mentioned to me, many were either African or Afrikaans, although stalwarts of the English-writing world maintain their influence and excellence - I am thinking of the likes of Nadine Gordimer, Lionel Abrahams (editor of the works of Herman Charles Bosman, and author of 'The Celibacy of Felix Greenspan', 'Journal of a New Man', 'The Writer in the Sand'), and poets Kelwyn Sole, Chris Mann.

Some of the younger writers emerging are: * Etienne van Heerden, a novelist, and story writer whose early collection of stories was very important in terms of 'grens' literature - writing about the country's embattled border regions, writing with an army theme, in particular a collection called 'Om Te AWOL' (Afrikaans, meaning 'In order to AWOL'). More recently he's been publishing mainly novels, which have also been very successful - CNA Prize-winning books. I believe he's quite widely read in Europe, with his work translated into German, Dutch, and English, though these English translations seemed not to have had quite the success locally in South Africa as the Afrikaans versions have had.

* Marlene van Niekerk is a new writer who has published a collection of stories and a novel.

* Geanne Goosen's published some very successful novels, interesting because while they're literary satires, they are very amusing books written in a popular, easy style, using idiomatic speech patterns and colloquialisms.

* Koos Prinsloo I think is probably the most interesting and well known of the younger prose writers. Very much a post- modernist, his works are highly experimental. Before his untimely death from AIDS in 1994, he published four books and introduced into Afrikaans writing gay themes - this hadn't been done before.

* Joel Matlou is a young black writer with a highly successful collection of short stories to his name, Life At Home and Other Stories, published by COSAW (Congress of South African Writers). Matlou first began publishing in 'Staffrider' in the late 1970s and continued publishing there throughout the early '80s.

* Bheki Maseko was also a 'Staffrider' writer who deserved to have a collection published in the '80s but it was only in the early 1990s that his collection of stories called 'Mamlambo and Other Stories' saw the light of day.

South African writers still seem to favour the story as a form, and recent short story collections and anthologies include:

* 'The Heinemann Book of South African Short Stories, edited by Martin Trump, and Denis Hirson (Oxford: Heinemann/UNESCO Publishing, 1994).

* 'The Penguin Book of South African Stories', edited by Stephen Gray; revised editon. (Penguin, 1993?***).

* 'Penguin Book of Contemporary South African Stories', edited by Stephen Gray (Penguin, 1994).



The international writers organisation PEN is active in South Africa but not in Johannesburg. A major split occurred in the 1970s when the Johannesburg branch of PEN was disbanded amid much argument. The writer Mothobi Mutloatse was one of the people who brought about the disbanding but recently suggested reviving it and I do not know if this is being done.


COSAW is the Congress of South African Writers, valiantly supported by Nadine Gordimer, Andries Olifant and others. It too has suffered from the withdrawal of funding which has affected almost all the traditional opposition organisations. As a result, COSAW has slimmed down from being a huge national structure with massive overheads to being a very small core of people who do very valuable work - much of it voluntary.

COSAW started out largely as a political gesture. Even though it was ostensibly a writers' organisation, some of the driving motivation behind the organisation was political. It was not an organisation that grew out of an expressed need of writers - it didn't develop in any organic way. It was created as a national congress because it was necessary at that point for the political opposition in the country to claim to represent writers nationally, and COSAW was a way of cornering this particular cultural field. For these reasons, I think COSAW was regarded with some suspicion by a fair number of writers.

COSAW aimed to be what in Australia the Federation of Australian Writers (FAW) really is, a national writer's organisation with a branch in each state or in each major city. In COSAW's case however, its centrally imposed structure seems to have mitigated against it obtaining the grass roots support it needed to be viable through hard times. As a funded organisation, funding sometimes did not appear to be supporting writers, as much of it went into maintaining a national front with offices nationally, yet COSAW also did some very valuable work on behalf of writers.

Over recent years they have held the writing community together as best they could, publishing work of a varied nature, organising very interesting workshops and conferences, and they certainly played a valued part in the evolution of a new culture. COSAW has recently realigned itself quite radically, and now that it no longer has to play such an overtly political role, it seems to serve writers much more directly. Their most recent publication is an anthology, 'Like a House on Fire: South African women's writing, art and photography'

Over the last couple of years there's been a realignment of the cultural forces generally as the power relationships locally have changed, and COSAW's position has shifted away from being a mass democratic movement or ANC-aligned writers organisation, towards holding a much more independent. position. COSAW is now much more aligned with the National Arts Coalition.

National Arts Coalition

The National Arts Coalition, which started out as a group called the National Arts Initiative, is one of the key arts movements in the new dispensation.

As an extremely broad grouping of writers, artists, theatre people, encompassing practising artists from right across the spectrum, the National Arts Coalition set out specifically to represent the interests of artists to the new Government. This has lead to quite a lot of conflict, and interesting power struggles between the National Arts Coalition and for instance, the ANC and existing arts structures (such as the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal or the Natal Performing Arts Council).


One of the obvious splits in South African writing has been between what was perceived as a radical position and what was perceived as a more liberal position.

Such divisions seemed to have a regional basis with the major figures in either side of that debate based either in the Transvaal or in the Cape. This geographic difference may be a bit of an over-simplification of the issue, but nevertheless, the radical tradition was regarded as the Transvaal camp centred around magazines like 'Staffrider', publishers like Ravan Press, and organisations like COSAW, while the more liberal tradition was regarded as Cape Town-based and centred around magazines like 'Contrast' (which became 'New Contrast' after its amalgamation with the small magazine 'Upstream'.).

Nowadays this debate has more or less run out of steam, and both sides have shifted - writers on both sides of the fence have moved closer together and are more inclined to be seen in the pages of each other's magazines, which themselves have changed. For instance, 'Staffrider' has changed, and now carries a much more diverse range of work. It is no longer a specifically ANC magazine, just as COSAW can no longer be identified as an ANC-aligned writing organisation. The old allegiances aren't as stable and as exclusive as they used to be. No doubt this reflects the changes in the political situation locally, where it's no longer necessary for writers to promote a very strong, very militant and politically active role.


With the changes in South Africa, many publications have gone under in the last few years, mainly as a result of the drying up of funding. Among the early casualties was 'Vrye Weekblad', the alternative Afrikaans newspaper, an Afrikaans 'Weekly' Mail as it were.

Taurus Publications, a small independent Afrikaans publishing house who published Breytenbach in South Africa and a lot of other very interesting writers including Koos Prinsloo for example, closed, and along with it, the little magazine 'Stet'.

Lionel Abrahams, who for many years was the driving force behind publications and imprints such as 'The Purple Renoster', 'Quarry', and Bataleur Press (with Patrick Cullinan), stopped publishing his highly successful small magazine 'Sesame' some years ago, and the number of publishing outlets for writers in South Africa is now at an all- time low, with only a handful of literary journals remaining, most prominently 'New Contrast', and 'Staffrider'. Literary journals attached to universities are not the norm as they are in Australia, and no one could name one for me, interestingly enough. For prose writers there is no where to go apart from 'Staffrider' and 'New Contrast', and for poetry there might be a couple more options, such as 'New Coin'.

Recently at least half a dozen other small publications which used to carry some literary content have ceased to exist, including 'Work in Progress' which had been around for at least 10 year or 15 years, and 'Learn and Teach'. Essentially none of these small publications were able to function without funding from abroad, even with local funding.

New alliances are forming, and old antagonisms are healing, the expatriate writers come and go from the country more frequently now - for instance Denis Brutus was in South Africa recently, as part of a series of readings and workshops for an annual festival in Johannesburg called Arts Alive, and yes the arts are alive.

Do we writers in Australia know we are alive? Writers in South Africa eke out an existence without an arts infrastructure, without funding opportunities, with no funded 'writers in the community' projects, few writers festivals, few magazines to publish in and few indigenous publishing houses to look after their interests. There are no grants to literary magazines.

Writers in South Africa are solitary and brave people. Long may they soldier on.

by Anne Kellas
C/- The Write Stuff