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Writers’ views on SA literature

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I came across a very fascinating journal on African literature edited by Bernth Lindfors. It puts together various presentations from the proceedings of the Symposium on Contemporary South African Literature held at the University of Texas at Austin from March 20 to 22 in 1975.

The panel called South African Fiction and Autobiography produced particularly exciting and instructive papers.

Although the symposium was held way back in 1975, the statements made then are still critical to current serious scholars of South African writing produced during apartheid.

I have randomly selected passages from various presentations made by writers who have become household names in their home countries and globally.

These excerpts will, no doubt, provoke the reader’s mind.

Emmanuel Obiechina, a Nigerian writer and scholar on the difference between South African writing and West African writing: I must say that South African fiction seems to me to stand at the opposite end of a spectrum from West African fiction…

The South African fiction is so different from the West African situation that each situation tends to create its own dynamic, which is reflected in the prose work produced in that area.

You can’t read the works of Alex Laguma and Chinua Achebe without being fully aware of this difference in tempo, in language and in the type of sensibilities expressed. I think such differences are caused by the social situation.

What Zeke has called the tyranny of time and place operates so strongly on the South African and so little on the West African.

Certainly anybody who reads Things Fall Apart cannot fail to be impressed by the differences between Achebe’s rhetorical resonance and the racy, vital, almost journalistic language of South African prose.

What has always intrigued me is the fact that the South African writer is the most urbanised and most deracinated of African writers, a fact which might explain the almost total urban base of his writing.

This is not so in West African writing, where the writer is himself a modern product of the rural as well as the urban situation.

Ezekiel Mphahlele, a South African scholar and writer on the identity of South Africans: Since we are talking about South Africa, we need to know that we are talking about African people rather than about ethnic groups, rather than about tribes.

Many people who meet me ask me, “What tribe do you belong to?” And I get very offended.

I often say, “We don’t have things like that in South Africa.” And then they are puzzled and I say, “Well, if you want to know what language my mother tongue is, I could let you know, if it is only of importance to you. We are all just Africans.” In my view the word tribe does not have any meaning.

If ever it had a meaning at all when it was used by the really old guard anthropologists, it referred to a group with a political organisation adequate to itself.

Today we have national governments to which all ethnic groups are answerable, so the concept of tribe, if ever it meant anything at all, does not exist.

Apart from that, there are groups of people, language groups or ethnic groups…I don’t like talking about tribes…I use other words…

Ezekiel Mphahlele on the early black novels of South Africa: If we look at two early novels, Chaka which was written originally in Sesotho, and a subsequent novel written in English, Mhundi by Sol Plaatje, we see that these are two novels based on historical events.

There is something in them that tells us that these writers wanted to grapple with historical material because history showed the ways in which they and their whole communities had changed. . . it resounds, recalling historical personalities and historical events of tremendous moment.

That gives the story resonance. So is Achebe’s Arrow of God; Ezeulu’s grandeur of speech has in it an element of song.

Ezekiel Mphahlele on the latter day South African novel: My point is that we find resonance in these two early South African novels, Chaka and Mhundi, in a way that we do not find it in South African novels today (the 1970’s).

There is a different kind of sound in contemporary South African fiction.

The reason is this: when you get to Alex Laguma, Peter Abrahams and writers like Bloke Modisane, the field narrows down to a single melody.

The orchestration of the novel is more in visual terms. Look at any of Laguma’s novels and you will find an impressionistic cluster of things that you see and feel. . .

A single melody is brought about by the fact that one is constrained to give definition to the physical and mental agony of a man in a situation like the South Africa one, where a common event might be a criminal offence, a chase, a shooting, an arrest, or a hanging.

This is what narrows it down to the single melody. The novel in South Africa almost becomes a long short story because it is so compact.

It seems like the counterpart of a poem in prose because it has a singleness of melody, a singleness of point.

It does not sprawl all over; it works in flashes. Just a flash here and there will illuminate the truth.

This is how it approximates the poem so much. . . The South African novel will work that way.

There is always the inevitability at the end. The choices are few because the society is what it is. If there are no choices in a society, the fiction will represent that, will show that.

If you have a small minded people such as the Boers, the fiction will never be big. It’s small; it’s tiny; it’s parochial; it’s way down at the bottom; it has never grown up, never matured because the people are small minded — they’ve all got blinkers on their faces. How can you expect any broad vision from people like that…

Ezekiel Mphahlele on black and white relations in South Africa: There is a big barrier between us (blacks) and the whites.

We are looking at each other through a keyhole all the time. I don’t want to write about white people because I don’t know them that well.

If I write about them at all, it’s as adults, because I know them as adults and I don’t know them as young people.

I only see their children playing around in the park; when I was a boy, I saw them riding around on their tricycles or motor cycles in the streets.

I don’t know how they are born. I don’t know how they grow up in their homes. I don’t know how white people get married except what I see in the movies or what I read in books. I don’t know how they court, or how they make love. . .

If you are born in South Africa, you never forget you are black. Nobody ever lets you forget you are black. You have these pressures on you day after day. You are harassed.

You come back to your ghetto life exhausted, and you may take it out on your children or your family or you may not, but there is always this constant fight for survival…

Peter Nazareth, Ugandan writer and academic’s responds to Ezekiel Mphahlele’s views on South African Lit: First of all, I don’t think it is completely correct to say that there is no music in South African writing.

Rather, we should say it is not the kind of music we like to listen to. You have the music of sirens, knuckles, and boots, and you have heard it coming through South African writing for a long, long time.

While some of us were emerging from colonial rule in east and West Africa and going through this process…

When we looked at South African writing, we found that it was dealing with a specific situation and yet raising issues which came to confront us later and still confront us today.

Peter Nazareth on South African Literature and setting: First, the question of setting. Do you deal with your immediate environment or do you try and escape it and deal with man?

It is quite clear the answer is that you can only be universal by being very specific. Peter Nazareth on South African literature and language: Then allied to the question of setting was the problem of language.

How do you deal with a violent situation and yet create a language to communicate that violence in art?

In other words, you have the reality which is violent, but the language itself has to come to grips with it. Some of the solutions that were found to this language problem were remarkable.

For example, Alex Laguma writes in a style that looks very journalistic, but actually he selects details very carefully and has a kind of counterpoint underneath.

For instance the ubiquitous cockroach in A Walk in the Night. When the cockroach comes to perform his act again, as the rat does in in one of Richard Wright’s novels, it is not journalistic anymore.

It carries a significance, and it carries a sense of violence as well because when you stamp on a cockroach, you are stamping on something that has found a way of surviving.

Peter Nazareth on the question of the individual and the community in South African literature: As I said, in East Africa we were being told that you had to deal with the individual, but here was South African writing insistently dealing with the community, because under this system of extreme oppression, people could only survive as a community.

They suffered as a community and they could only endure their suffering as a community.

When you look at the best of South African writing, you find a dialectic process: you find oppression ramming people down, seeking to dehumanise them and actually dehumanising some, but then you find the counterforce of the community still surviving in spite of everything.

It is a kind of dialectic force.

Here again was a lesson for us: the writer should not be concerned only with the individual, he should be concerned with the whole community and its problems of survival…

Mongane Wale Serote, South African poet on the writing environment in South Africa during apartheid: The only way I can describe black South African writing is to say it is a very tragic thing in its own way because of what is happening in South Africa.

The writing seems to have no continuity; usually when we talk about black South African writing, we start around the 60s, but I think it started long before then. . .

When I started writing, it was as if there had never been writers before in my country. By the time I learnt to write, many people – Zeke, Kgositsile, Mazisi Kunene, Denis Brutus — had left the country and were living in exile.

We could not read what they had written, so it was as if we were starting from the beginning.

Oswald Mtshali, a South African poet on what he terms his level of South African literature: A black man’s life in South Africa is an endless series of poems of humour, bitterness, hatred, love, hope despair and death.

His is a poetic existence shaped by the harsh realities and euphoric fantasies that surround him. Every day is a challenge in survival not only in the physical sense but also spiritually, mentally and otherwise.

It is hard for people who live in “free societies” to comprehend a black man’s life in this strange society. If you do not share my environment and my culture, it is hard to understand what I am talking about. . .

Memory Chirere

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We need a coordinated approach on youth challenges

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For a number of good reasons, all of us are concerned about problems that face Lesotho’s young people, particularly youth unemployment, and the increasing tendency towards anti-social behaviour among sections of Lesotho youth including their increasing admiration for criminality.

Not only do members of such groups admire criminality and actually commit crimes but they commit crimes without much care as to the harm and other costs that their actions inflict on immediate victims and on society-at-large.

Evidence of public concern about these problems includes the fact that within society individuals, groups and public and private institutions have all expressed concerns over problems facing the youth, with some of these parties making attempts to come up with ideas and measures to assist.

However, a number of problems seem to be emerging on, at least, three fronts. Firstly, a seeming lack of coordination in addressing problems that face young people. Secondly, lack of clarity on questions of whether (a) parties that seek to assist are basing their interventions on credibly identified sources of problems that face young people; and (b) whether any credible assessments are made to ensure that interventions such parties are proposing and implementing have potential to solve problems that face Lesotho’s young people.

There are many examples of what may seem to us, members of the general public, to be lack of coordination in approaches to solve problems facing young people. One such example may be sufficient. On January 8, 2024, Lesotho TV broadcast a statement in which the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) authorities announced establishment of some army facility where Basotho young people would be taught some values, including patriotism.

The very next day, on January 9, 2024, Lesotho TV broadcast another statement, this time by the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) authorities, announcing the LMPS’s plan to establish a police facility at which young people would be taught anti-crime and other values. In their essence, the LMPS’s plan sounded not totally dissimilar to LDF’s.
Apart from the LDF and LMPS’s plans for Lesotho’s youth, there are also public and private sector initiatives to nurture and support entrepreneurial talents of Lesotho’s youth with a view, among others, to fight youth unemployment and develop the country’s private sector.

Politicians have also been seen to sponsor football games for young people in their constituencies with a view, they say, to keep young people from crime and narcotics. These events cannot be criticised too much but given that they are one, or two-day events that take place during specific times, they look more like publicity stunts.

National sports federations are now complaining that politicians who sponsor these events put too much stress on sports as a means to fight crime. What federations want is that, if politicians want to help, they should stress the importance of sports as careers, and sponsor young people to develop their sporting talents accordingly.

Amidst expressions of concerns and various parties’ attempts to address problems facing Lesotho youth, public authorities that we have not heard from, or from who we do not hear enough, are those charged with responsibilities over precisely problems facing young people; that is, authorities at the Ministry of Youth.

Admittedly, we do not know if the initiatives of the LDF, LMPS, and others are carried out in consultation with or with the blessing of the Ministry of Youth.

The worry ought to be not only whether interventions of the LDF, LMPS, and others have the blessings of the Ministry of Youth. Instead, the worry should extend to the question of whether the Ministry has any national plan to address problems facing young people. And, if such a plan exists, we would expect that it identifies the LDF and LMPS as places where young place can be coached; and initiatives of these and other institutions would align with such a plan.

Without an identification of the army and the police as implementing agencies of the Ministry’s plan, and without the army and police’s initiatives alignment with the Ministry’s plan, at least two things are likely to result: duplication of effort — as seems to be the case with the LDF and LPMS plans; or, at worst, LDF and LMPS plans might contradict and undermine national plans entrusted to the Ministry of Youth.

In the worst case scenario that a national plan does not exist, we face the danger that anybody wishing to address problems facing Lesotho’s young people can do so, basing herself, or himself on a personal or group perception, and implementing plans and solutions based on such perception.

As in the case of too many people stirring the same cooking pot without coordination, undesirable consequences can be expected from a situation where just about anybody can apply a solution to a public problem.

As hinted above, a good national plan aimed at addressing problems that face Lesotho’s young people would have two characteristics, at least. First, it would be based on our assertion of the kind of society we want to be; an investigation of problems that stand in the way of achieving such a society; how such problems can be overcome, say, through school curricula; and how, in general, from Early Childhood Care & Development (ECCD), young people can be brought up and socialised in ways that ensure they will be useful members of a society we wish to be.

Any action that is not based on an investigation of the problems that stand in the way of achieving a society we want to be has little chances of success. Such action would be based on some understanding that the young who are anti-social, unpatriotic and criminals are naturally bad people.

It is, of course, not as simple as that. For example, one possible explanation for the absence of patriotism among young people may have something to do with socio-economic inequality in Lesotho: those who are closed out of, and excluded from, benefiting from Lesotho’s wealth and power cannot be expected to be patriots.

A second characteristic of a plan aimed at addressing problems that face Lesotho’s young people is that, such a plan should identify and/or establish institutions designed — and with appropriate skills — to implement ideas and proposals that come out of credible investigations.

It is unclear whether the LDF and LMPS plans have resulted from something like considerations suggested above. While it is admitted that these institutions’ initiatives are limited to addressing problems of lack of patriotism and criminality among the young people, one clear problem with their plans and solutions is that, it might be the case that they are catching young people a little late, when schooling and general socialisation have already entrenched anti-social values that we see among sections of young people; namely, individualism and the inability to think of others.

In one word, these institutions catch these young people when tendencies towards criminality, anti-social behaviour, and lack of patriotism might have already hardened.
Perhaps the biggest hope we should have is that the army and the police will have full complement of resources necessary for providing full and wholesome mentoring to young people who undergo army and police mentoring.

Short of adequate resources necessary for achieving what the army and the police have in mind, we might end up with cohorts of young people with a faulty army and police culture that may come back to haunt us. Inserting a faulty army culture among a section of young people brought us bitter results in the 1970s and 1980s that should not be repeated.

To conclude, no one can argue against all of us being concerned with problems of youth unemployment; increasing tendencies of young people’s admiration of criminality and their participation in crime. And no one can argue against all of us coming up with ideas and proposals of how to address these problems.

However, our concerns and proposals ought to be based on:
a nationally-agreed assertion of society we want to be;
a credible investigation of difficulties that stand in the way of us becoming society we want to be;

and coordination of proposals and ideas aimed at becoming society we want to be.

As with other specific instances of socio-economic development in Lesotho, problems facing the country’s young people cry out for the long-neglected establishment of the National Planning Board, as prescribed in Section 105 of the Constitution of Lesotho.

Prof Motlatsi Thabane

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Call that a muffin?

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In Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Canterville Ghost” (1887) one of the characters says about the British, “We have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” Between American English and British English there are many, many differences. Which is not to say that either American or British English are standardised; there are multiple varieties within each. As a south-western Brit I can find it difficult to fully understand what someone from Liverpool or Newcastle is saying.

I remember one year during the NUL’s International Theatre for Development project we had a student from the islands of Scotland. She was brilliant and hard-working and full of good ideas — if only one could understand the ideas when she introduced them. The NUL students grouped together and asked me: “Chris, can you translate what Kirsty is saying for us?” and I replied: “I’m as lost as you are.”

Between American and British English it’s not just a matter of pronunciation but also of vocabulary (I’ll be coming to muffins — see the title of this piece — in a while) and spelling.
In the biographical film Prick Up Your Ears British, dramatist Joe Orton shares a room with Ken Halliwell and they decide to write a novel together. Ken asks Joe “can you spell?” and Joe replies “yes, but not accurately.”

This is hardly a surprise, given that he’s a Brit. The American spelling system is far more regular and rational than the British. (Readers with laptops will have noticed that your spell-check gives the option of British or American spelling, but that doesn’t help you as in Lesotho the British system is used, so for the time being you’re stuck with it).

I mean, what can you say about a spelling system where “plough” rhymes with “now”, but “tough” rhymes with “stuff”– and “now” doesn’t rhyme with “low.” Yipes (as the Americans say). When I was lecturing in Lesotho and in Nigeria and marking assignments I was always very lenient over spelling, because I know what a mountain it is to climb (the latter word rhyming with “time”, of course).

Then there is the matter of vocabulary or denotation (a term I hope readers remember from a few weeks back). There are many examples of things that are denoted by different words in British and American English: lift / elevator; pavement / sidewalk; windscreen / windshield; petrol / gas; cinema / movie theater (and look at the American spelling of (Brit) “theatre”– a lot easier). And some of these reflect our different histories.

For example, there’s a vegetable, a kind of small marrow, the British call it a courgette (one of my favourite vegetables, in case any of you are planning to invite me for dinner). That’s a word that British English has borrowed directly from French — that is, a loan word (I’m not sure we plan to give it back).

The Americans on the other hand call it a zucchini, a loan word from Italian, which I guess reflects the size and influence of the Italian community in the USA. (Speaking of vegetables, I can’t give you an explanation for why the Brits call an aubergine an aubergine — another loan word from French — but the Americans call it an egg-plant).

Next week I’ll get around to muffins — a sore point — and I’ll move on to differences between English and French and between Sesotho and Setswana. Bet you can’t wait.

Chris Dunton is a former Professor of English and Dean of Humanities at the National University of Lesotho.

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Insight

Lessons from Israel: Part 3

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I shall round off my account of my 1995 trip to Israel by putting on my tour guide cap. Staying in Tel Aviv, most days were fully taken up by the conference, which was my reason for being there. Tel Aviv in July is scorchingly hot, so there were walks along the beach only before breakfast and after sunset. I did take a little time off to go with South African author Stephen Gray to an art gallery that had a painting he wanted to see (a portrait by Modigliani of Beatrice Hastings, whose biography Stephen was then writing).

I wasn’t especially keen on the hotel restaurant, where dinner comprised meat served by the ton (surprisingly little fish, given that we were on the coast. By contrast, I had always been surprised and happy that Maseru restaurants are so good on fish, despite the fact that Lesotho isn’t exactly maritime). But I discovered a little Russian Jewish restaurant that offered Beluga caviar at an amazingly cheap price. I suspect it had fallen off the back of a lorry, as we say in the UK — i.e. that it was contraband, acquired illegally. I just blinked innocently and enjoyed myself. I can’t think of a more delicious way of starting a meal than with caviar, freshly-made blinis and a large glass of deeply chilled Wyberowa vodka — no ice, please. (I only say all this to show you what a very cosmopolitan chap I am).

The conference ran to a packed schedule and we worked hard (no, really). Half-way through we were given a day off and taken to Jerusalem. On arrival I teamed up with an old Nigerian friend and a friend of his from Senegal and we took ourselves first to the Dome of the Rock, the main mosque, which is splendid and radiant (wow, the mosaics!) Then we saw the Wailing Wall.

Then we trudged up the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Via marks the route along which Christ was forced to carry his cross on the way to his crucifixion (dolorosa means something like “of miseries”). I had expected it to be lined with sculptures showing the Stations of the Cross (rather like the lovely ones at Fatima, near Ramabanta).

Instead it was one tourist gift shop after another. Here I came across one of the most repugnant things I’ve seen in my life. Proudly displayed for sale, a wall clock with the face adorned with the image of the head of Christ, the two clock hands protruding from his nose.

At the top of the Via Dolorosa, the fourth century Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in the world for Christians, which is breathtakingly beautiful. The interior is (not visibly) divided into sections, the upkeep of each of which is the responsibility of one of the major denominations: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, and so on. I had had the impression this was an arrangement worked out under the colonial regime of British Palestine, but Google tells me it dates back to the Status Quo of 1757.

My companions had done their homework and suggested we head first for the roof, which had been allocated to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (dare one possibly suggest a tinge of racism in this marginalisation?). There we found a cluster of monkish cells, each inhabited by an elderly Ethiopian monk, at least two of whom spoke English or French. They were delighted to see us, and utterly sweet, hospitable, and in their accounts of their pastoral work spellbinding.

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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