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Emma Huismans

Berigte van weerstand

critic by Louise Vijoen

Berigte van weerstand (Reports of resistance) by Emma Huismans was published in 1990 shortly after the unbanning of the ANC, but looks back on the author's experiences during the political struggle in Cape Town in 1985 and 1986 when she worked as journalist for the publication Crisis News (Odendaal 1990: 45). These stories with their strongly factual content focus on the issues of political struggle, race and language that are usually associated with the oppositional phase of postcolonialism. The narrator in this collection of interconnected stories takes an active part in the political struggle, writing newspaper reports about the political crisis, carrying guns, nursing the wounded and doing paper work like taking down statements from victims of political violence.
Huismans' stories bring to light several complications in the dialogue between race and gender in the South African context. Although she is a privileged white, the narrator identifies herself actively with the struggle of the racially oppressed in South Africa. This does not however mean that her position as a white woman in the struggle is unproblematic. This can be deduced from remarks like: "Nog 'n jaar van swart en bruin agterdog oor wie is wie in die struggle en freaked out whiteys wat iets probeer doen" [Another year of black and coloured suspicion about who is who in the struggle and freaked out whiteys trying to do something] (p.11) and "My usefulness as 'n whitey in die local townships het uitgedien raak. Wit is 'n opvallende kleur" [My usefulness as a whitey in the local townships was wearing thin. White is a conspicuous colour] (p.12). Some of her assignments are also the direct result of her marginality in the struggle as a white person. In the story "Die verhouding" [The affair] she is ordered by her young black comrades in the struggle to eliminate a coloured man, suspected of defecting from the struggle. She realises: "Dis 'n swart-bruin ding hierdie en 'n whitey om die can te carry" [This is a black-coloured-thing with a whitey carrying the can] (p.14). Her conclusion illustrates the dilemma of the person who completes the cross-over between races in times of political upheaval: "Maar commitment is commitment. 'n Opdrag 'n opdrag. En waar sal ek, ex-Afrikaner, mĒre wees as ek dit nie uitvoer nie?" [But commitment is commitment. An order is an order. And where will I, ex-Afrikaner, be tomorrow if I do not carry out the order?] (p.14).
The narrator's position in the struggle is further compromised by the fact that she is Afrikaans-speaking. Some stories demonstrate that the perception of Afrikaans as language of the oppressor is transferred onto the Afrikaans-speaking narrator despite her commitment to the liberation struggle. She comments that her Boer-descent was "'n byna onuitputlike bron van wantroue" [an inexhaustible source of distrust] and her use of Afrikaans as "'n persoonlike belediging" [a personal insult] (p.80) by one of her black comrades in the struggle. Her identity as an Afrikaans-speaking white is complicated by the revelation in another story that her familiy emigrated from Holland to South Africa when she was five years old. She comments ironically: "Verwoerd was vyf toe hy die eerste keer sy Hollandse voet op Afrikaanse grond gesit het, spot ek. Ek ook. Moet minstens nie ons Afrikanerskap in twyfel trek nie" [Verwoerd was five years old when he first set his Dutch foot on Afrikaans soil, I say jokingly. Me too. At least do not doubt our Afrikaner identity] (p.72). The stories also note the use of Afrikaans by the violent oppressors with devastating candour (p.18) and demonstrate to what extent English came to dominate the jargon of the liberation struggle. In contrast with this the mere writing and publication of these "reports of resistance" in Afrikaans testify to the fact that Afrikaans was also the language of the struggle.

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Antjie Krog

Lady Anne

Critic by Louise Vijoen

The established Afrikaans poet Antjie Krog's seventh volume of poems called Lady Anne was published in 1989, at the end of a decade marked by such furious political resistance against the apartheid government that it resulted in the unbanning of the ANC in February 1990. In this volume of poems, conceived as a postmodern epic, Krog interrogates her own situation as a white Afrikaans-speaking woman in the politically turbulent South Africa of the late eighties by using the historical figure Lady Anne Barnard as a "guide" (p.16) for her own life. Lady Anne Barnard (1750-1825) was a Scottish noblewoman who married her husband Andrew, a former soldier twelve years her junior, in 1793. Because she was a friend of Sir Henry Dundas, then Secretary of State for War, she procured for her husband the post of Colonial Secretary at the Cape during the first British occupation from 1795 to 1803. Unusually for a woman of her time and class she accompanied her husband to the Cape in 1797 where they lived until 1802. The letters, journals, diaries and drawings she produced during her stay at the Cape and travels into the interior have become an important source of information about the people, events and social life of the time, because she recorded particulars male writers considered beneath their notice. She is also retained in popular memory as a socialite, known for entertaining at the Castle at the Cape of Good Hope as the official hostess of governor Macartney (Lenta in Robinson 1994: x-xix).

Krog's Lady Anne is a collage of poems supplemented by quotations, drawings, an ovulation chart, a property advertisment, an electoral poster and extracts from a diary. Some poems are written from the perspective of Lady Anne while other poems are written from the perspective of an I that can be autobiographically linked to the poet. Still another set of poems place the two women together in situations that imaginatively overstep the boundaries of time and space. Similarities as well as dissimilarities in the way the subjectivity of both these women is determined by race, class and gender in different historical contexts emerge from the poems. Lady Anne's position at the Cape of the late eighteenth century is determined by the fact that she is a member of a privileged race (a European in Africa), a privileged class (of noble descent) and a power that colonized the indiginous peoples as well as the Afrikaners in South Africa (a British subject).

She looks at South Africa from the perspective of a temporary inhabitant and voyeuristic traveller, as demonstrated by the poem describing her consciousness of being an outsider who looks at the country as if through a windowpane (pp.56-57). The volume also refers to the fact that Lady Anne lived in a time of political upheaval. Some of the poems show her in Paris during the time of the French Revolution feeling guilty about the fact that personal sorrow stands in the way of political concern (pp.65-66) while others depict her agitation about the inhumanity of slavery (pp.81-82). The poet Antjie Krog's position in South Africa in the nineteen-eighties is determined by her being a member of a privileged race (white in apartheid South Africa), a privileged class (the bourgeois middle class) and a group who colonized black people in South Africa but were also colonized by the British (an Afrikaner). She looks at South Africa from the perspective of a permanent inhabitant who feels morally compelled to take part in the establishment of a just society in that country. Her writing is decisively influenced by the context of political emergency in which she finds herself. She questions the validity of poetry about private emotions written from a privileged perspective in an unjust society in the poem "parool" [parole] (pp.35-38) and remains conscious of the fact that even her most innocent words cannot be detached from the context of political violence in which they were produced (p.32). She also acknowledges that her poetical project entails a measure of violence towards her subject Lady Anne, when she admits in the final line of the volume: "onder my duim l* die fyn sintaksis van jou strot" [under my thumb lies the delicate syntax of your throat] (p.108).

Because the epic usually traces the history of great men and nations, the mere fact that Krog chose a woman as subject of her postmodern epic makes a statement about the importance of gender issues amid the struggle for racial equality in South Africa. Krog's artistic portrait of Lady Anne ventures further than the conclusion of literary historians that she was both caught up in traditional gender stereotypes and anxious to escape them (Driver in Robinson e.a. 1994: 7). Krog represents her as a strong-willed person, fully conscious of the power play between men and women as in the poem "ballade van die magspel" [ballad of the powergame] (p.76). One of the poems even depicts her as expressing a militant erotic desire to grow a penis and to possess her husband sexually in the manner of a man (p.24). The poems referring to the poet Krog herself show the way in which she struggles to reconcile different facets of her gendered position (sexual partner, wife, mother, daughter, domestic manager) and how they interact with her writing as well as political and religious consciousness. Despite the fact that the "bard" and her "epic hero" (p.108) are both women and share many similarities, Krog experiences ambivalent feelings about Lady Anne. These feelings emerge in several poems self-reflexively charting the course of her project of writing about Lady Anne. Her elation at finding a woman she can use as "guide" (p.16) soon makes way for frustration when she discovers that this British Lady cannot easily be accomodated into her own scheme and has to conclude: "as metafoor is jy fĒkol werd" [as metaphor you are worth fuckall] (p.40).

Because Krog is aware that her perspective on the South African situation is a limited one, she inserts quotations into her text that confirm, supplement or contradict her own poems. One of these quotations describing a black working class woman (p.97) is juxtaposed with a poem in which the poet expresses her affection for Lady Anne but also refers to her "totale stralende nutteloosheid" [total radiant uselessness] (p.96). By inserting this reference to the black working class woman the poet questions her own position as a privileged white woman writing about another priviliged white woman. The quotation also deliberately exposes the class and racial divides present in the gender consciousness evident in the volume's focus on women. Krog's brutally honest interrogation of her own subject-position as a white Afrikaans woman writer in the late eighties is another example of the fused postcoloniality of Afrikaans literature in which elements of oppositionality (the political struggle) and complicity (the postmodernist subversion of dominance and centrism) are combined.

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Riana Scheepers

Die ding in die vuur

critic by Louise Vijoen

Like the collection of stories by Huismans, Riana Scheepers' collection of short stories Die ding in die vuur [The thing in the fire] was also published in 1990. Whereas Huismans' text is representative of the oppositional impulse, Scheepers' stories show that these impulses co-exist with affirmative tendencies exploring new possibilities for postcolonial writing in Afrikaans. The collection combines a European narrative tradition (as manifested in the use of several postmodernist strategies) with an African narrative tradition (references to the Zulu oral narration as carried forth by women) to forge a new narrative strategy for the South African situation. Apart from this the difficult process of transculturation is achieved through an intricate interplay of focalisations that leads to the dismantling of privileged and patronising vantage points.

Most of the stories included in the collection are situated in rural KwaZulu-Natal where Scheepers grew up and later taught as a university lecturer at the University of Zululand. The title of the collection of stories refers to the 'thing' that will give one horns on the head if one listens to stories before the day's work has been done, according to the Zulu narrative tradition (p.76). It is also part of this tradition for the 'ugogo' or storyteller to spit in the fire after the story has been told to destroy all the fictional images called forth so that they cannot give her listeners nightmares (p.81). To further emphasise the influence of the Zulu narrative tradition on this collection of stories, it is preceded and concluded by traditional storytelling formulas in Zulu. In "Abantu oNgoye" [The people of oNgoye] several stories are combined to create a composite ideological picture of the oNgoye massacre that took place on the campus of the University of Zululand in the mid-eighties. The first story is told by an external narrator who describes the founding of the University of Zululand as an ethnic university by Verwoerd; the second by an 'ugogo' or traditional storyteller who recounts the massacre from the perspective of the rural inhabitants of Zululand; the third by the external narrator who tells the story from the view point of the students attacked in the massacre; the fourth by an I (reminiscent of the author Scheepers) who is trying to find out what really happened. The agile alternation between different narrative modes, ideological viewpoints and the author's relinquishing of a controlling perspective are narrative strategies adapted to the multiculturality of the South African situation.

Other stories in the collection chart the diverse forms of colonization still experienced by women in the remote rural regions of South Africa. In the story "Ruil" [Exchange] a white shopkeeper who emigrated from Scotland to rural KwaZulu-Natal abuses the financial and sexual power he has over the black women left impoverished and alone in their villages by the migrant labour system, exchanging a small jar of Vaseline for the sexual favours of a black woman. Although this is a potentially degrading situation for the woman, the narrator recovers the dignity of the woman by stressing her nobility at the expense of the shopkeeper's depravity. The story concludes with this image of the woman: "Haar nek en haar skouers het die trots en rysigheid van 'n vrou wat weet dat haar inkope goed afgehandel is" [Her neck and shoulders are proud and tall like that of a woman who knows that her shopping has been well done] (p.17). In the story "Tweede kind" [Second child] the wife of a white missionary and a thirteen year old black girl abandoned by her people on instruction of the Isangoma (witch doctor) give birth at the same time in a remote missionary hospital. Because the girl dies and her baby cannot keep down cows milk, the missionary's wife is asked to breastfeed the black baby. She grudgingly gives her "borste vir die barbare" [breasts to the savages] (p.21), as she terms it, bargaining with God to make her own son even stronger than he would have been if she fed him herself. Although the black girl (condemned by the power of the male Isangoma) and the white woman (negotiating with a patriarchal God) are both subject to male domination, this story shows that gender does not necessarily unify them in a glorious sisterhood but that it is definitively intersected by race and class. The story "Dom Koei" [Stupid cow] describes the practice of female circumcision from the uncomprehending perspective of a white student who sees the victim of such a circumcision brought to the rural medical clinic where she is doing postgraduate research. The story forces the reader out of a position of cultural ignorance by placing him/her in the same position as the white student through a confrontation with a graphic word-picture of the circumcision-wound. While the black nursing sister is treating the mutilated girl, the student is sent to free a cow that got caught in a wire fence outside the clinic. She vents her feelings of incomprehension, shock, disgust and anger on the defenceless cow who becomes symbolic of the girl: "Jou simpel fokken dom koei" [you dumb fucking stupid cow], she screams at the animal. The narrative places the student, the narrator as well as the reader in a position of voyeuristic power in relation to the silent and defenceless victim, almost implicating them in this colonizing abuse of women.

The story "Oor die pornografie van geweld in die Afrikaanse prosa: 'n outbiografiese steekproef" [On the pornography of violence in Afrikaans prose-writing: an autobiographical sample] raises the question of literary violence as opposed to literal violence in pre-democratic South Africa. In this postmodernist collage of intertwining discourses a discussion about violence is conducted with two men, both Afrikaans writers who have written on violence. One of the stories included in the collage contrasts the situation of a white woman's inexperience of violence with her black housekeeper's daily exposure to violence. Another story in this collage describes an attack on the black woman's kraal in which her little brother as well as the 'ugogo' or storyteller dies. Not only does this story reflect on its own implication as example of the European narrative tradition in the literary exploitation of violence, it also comments symbolically on the endangered position of the African oral tradition (the killing of the 'ugogo'). As such Scheepers' collection of short stories is not only aware of the variety of narrative possibilities available for the creation of a South African postcolonial discourse but also of that which threaten to impoverish or destroy it.


Marlene van Niekerke

Triomf

critic by Louise Vijoen

Marlene van Niekerk's novel Triomf was one of the first literary texts in Afrikaans to be published in what can literally be called 'postcolonial South Africa'. Incorporating references to the first democratic election in South Africa in April 1994, it appeared only a month or two after the election. The novel recounts the monotonous daily lives of a family of poor white Afrikaners, showing how apartheid failed even those it was ideologically designed to benefit. The family lives in the Johannesburg suburb ironically called Triomf (Afrikaans for triumph), built on the ruins of the black township Sophiatown that was demolished in the fifties by the social engineers of apartheid to create a suburb for the white working class.

It is gradually revealed that the Benade-family of Triomf is a gross caricature of the nuclear family and all the values it embodies: the old man Pop, his "wife" Mol and their "relative" Treppie are actually siblings while the epileptic Lambert is their son (it is not clear whether Pop or Treppie fathered him). Treppie's scheme to establish a refrigerator repair business having failed and Lambert not being able to finish school or hold down a job because of his epilepsy, they depend on welfare pensions for theri livelihood. The suspense in this novel comes from the buildup towards Lambert's fortieth birthday and the election while the reader also waits for the unsuspecting Lambert to find out the truth about his father and mother. The family prepare themselves to escape to the North in their beat-up Volkswagen Beetle if "the shit hits the fan" after the election, but the end of the novel shows the remaining members of the family (Pop has died in the interim) still caught in the same circumstances as before. Nothing has changed and the final moments of the novel depicts them looking at the constellation of Orion over the roofs of Triomf, without a north they can escape to.

Underneath its naturalistic surface the novel is richly symbolic. On a political level the incestuous and inbred Benade-family becomes symbolic of the extremes to which the apartheid philosophy of racial exclusivity led. The novel also discloses the historical circumstances that led to their condition (their ancestors were landowners forced off their land during a depression to become impoverished workers in the railways and garment industry in the city). Their history and family set-up leads to a situation in which anyone outside the family is regarded with the utmost suspicion, prejudice and contempt (as manifested in their crude racism towards blacks and their disgust with the 'dykes' who live across the road). On a religious level the family consisting of two brothers and sister together with their ironically innocent son can be read as a symbolic perversion of the myths of origin found in several world religions, the trinity and sacrificial lamb of Christian religion, the different images of the devil as well as the idea of an apocalypse. The novel also drives the idea of the Freudian family romance to grotesque extremes, going so far as to have Lambert accidentally kill his 'father' Pop.

Although this novel is not exclusively occupied with gender issues it demonstrates more eloquently than any feminist treatise could the position of women in such conditions. The objectification of Mol, the sister of Pop and Treppie and mother of their child Lambert, reaches atrocious depths. She is emotionally, verbally, physically and sexually abused, especially by her brother Treppie and her son Lambert. She is the sexual tool of all three the men and her status as a (sex) object is underlined by the fact that their beat-up car is also called Mol. Racially she is part of a group who considers themselves superior to blacks (her position is symbolic of the failure of the ideology of white supremacy); she is of a class looked down upon by other whites and Afrikaners (as is evident from the reaction of the young Afrikaans couple who tries to recruit their votes for the Nationalist Party) and she is of the gender oppressed by the patriarchal system prevalent in the race and class configuration in which she finds herself.

Triomf, as well as a spate of other novels probing the hidden corners of the Afrikaner psyche in a process referred to as "Afrikaans literature's own truth commission" (Swanepoel 1995: 102), signifies an important element in Afrikaans literature's postcoloniality. In her paradoxical ability to evoke feelings of revulsion as well as compassion for the degenerate Benade-family, the writer illustrates the intricate relationship between the colonial and the postcolonial that has to be negotiated when writing the new South Africa. Van Niekerk's novel demonstrates an awareness of the fact that the colonial cannot be eliminated from the postcolonial in a simple act of political amnesia and that the past has to be confronted rather than evaded when constructing a postcolonial discourse in South Africa


Lettie Viljoen

Klaaglied vir Koos

critic by Louise Vijoen

Lettie Viljoen's first novel Klaaglied vir Koos [Lament for Koos] was published in 1984 during a time of increased militarisation and political repression by the South African government. The narrator in this short novel is a white woman whose husband unexpectedly leaves her and their four-year-old child to join in the armed struggle against apartheid. She angrily confronts the reader with these facts on the first page of the novel as she registers her fury at being left behind by her husband, declaring it to be the starting point of her narrative. (It is interesting to note that anger has been inspirational for more than one Afrikaans woman writer. A few years earlier the poet Antjie Krog declared in one of her poems: "Ek skryf omdat ek woedend is" ["I write because I am livid"] (1980: 23).) After spending time in hospital to recover from the shock caused by her husband's departure, the narrator slowly puts her life together again. After living through a nadir of emotional estrangement and inertia, she slowly comes to terms with her feelings of rejection and inadequacy, regaining her independence and the confidence to live her own life.

The psychic trauma that provides the stimulus for the writing of the novel foregrounds the narrator's feelings of inferiority, guilt and inadequacy. The novel demonstrates that her trauma is related to the way in which her subjectivity is constructed in terms of gender, race and class relationships. Her gender identity is mainly constructed in terms of the differences between her and her husband. He is described as intellectual, capable of thinking in macro-political terms, intolerant of contradictions or ambivalence, prepared to go to war and sacrifice the safety of his bourgeois home and nuclear family to achieve his political ideal of freedom for the oppressed. According to her own analysis she is a vessel filled with ideological content by her husband who dreams of a whole that will accommodate ambivalence and contradiction, wants to entrench the confines of their nuclear family rather than break it open, thinks of opposing the regime but not of leaving their home and joining the war as he did. In comparison to his she finds hers a small life of no consequence (p.41), although she is subconsciously warned by an image of herself and her husband like siamese twins in a bottle that she should free herself from constituting herself as her husband's 'other' (p.53). The narrator's racial identity is constructed in terms of her relationships with black people and also manifests in feelings of inferiority and triviality. She feels that her own life as a white woman is less meaningful and consequential than those of black men and women involved in the struggle against oppression. She sees their culture as more sustaining, their people's history as richer in texture and less perverse than the sparse facts of her own history as a white person (pp.12,38).

Relationships determined by class also feature in the construction of the narrator's subjectivity. As the white owner of a solid bourgeois home, she stands in a relationship of economic as well as racial power towards the homeless couple Frans and Bettie, the destitute woman Sylvia whose house burnt down and the gardener Nevil who all knock at her door to ask for food or shelter and who depend on her goodwill for their survival. At first she hides from them in her house, frightened and silent (p.15), but eventually she is prepared to leave the safety of her bourgeois home to negotiate with them and even to join them: "Gaan ek voortaan nie meer van binne die huis onderhandel nie maar saam met die befoktes, die haweloses, die besittingloses, saans so my huis omsirkel, in waaragtige meelewing" [Henceforth I am not going to negotiate from inside my house, I am going to circle my house in the evenings together with the fucked, the homeless, the possessionless, in genuine empathy] (p.66). She finally achieves the solidarity with the dispossessed that her husband so desperately desired: "E*n met die laagstes...die sosiaal uitgeworpenes" [One with the lowest... the socially rejected] (p.66). Thus she succeeds in breaking out of the constricting patterns preordained by gender, race and class in pre-democratic South Africa.

The narrator registers her rebellion against the various forms of domination which gives rise to her feelings of inadequacy and inferiority on a narrative level. The novel disengages itself from traditional narrative patterns (interpreted by feminists as patriarchally determined) by subverting linear causality, closure and authorial control. The narrative outwardly follows the linear progress of the seasons but gives priority to the chaotic and unresolved inner life of the narrative as a structuring device. The novel also takes as its terrain the personal, the intuitive, the subconscious and the microphysical domain rather than the public. Whereas the narrator's husband fights the political struggle on a public level, she conducts her struggle in a private domain (symbolised by the bourgeois house and garden). Whereas her husband analyses the political situation in South Africa on an intellectual level (p.18), she experiences it intuitively in terms of an image. While recovering in hospital she sees the image of an ant's nest which she relates to the large number of oppressed workers in South Africa (pp.11,20,27) with whom she feels a subconscious solidarity when performing her domestic tasks (p.27). Thus image and fantasy often take the place of intellectual analysis and event in her narrative. At certain points in the narrative the concentration on the private and personal becomes a preoccupation with the microphysical. This is evident from the scientifically detailed descriptions of sexual organs during intercourse, especially the male organ during erection and ejaculation (pp.2, 7). The discourse of sexual submissiveness one finds elsewhere in the novel (she lies "down for" her husband, p.6) is subverted by these moments of masculine, scientific discourse in which the colonizing male gaze is momentarily returned. Thus the construction of the narrating subject at the intersection of race, gender, class and writing is interrogated on a thematic as well as a structural level.

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