South Africa has a rich and diverse literary history, with realism, until relatively recently, dominating works of fiction.Fiction has been written in all of South Africa’s 11 official languages – with a large body of work in Afrikaans and English. This overview focuses primarily on English fiction, though it also touches on major poetic developments.
The colonial adventure
The first fictional works to emerge from South Africa were produced by colonial writers whose attitude to indigenous South Africans was, at best, ambivalent, if not outright hostile.This is especially true of the writers of adventure-type stories, in which colonial heroes are romanticised and the role of black South Africans was reduced to that of enemy or servant.One such writer, Rider Haggard, wrote many mythical and adventure stories, beginning in the early 1880s. His most famous book is King Solomon’s Mines (1886), a bestseller in its day (and filmed several times up to the 1980s).Like subsequent novels such as Allan Quartermain and She (both 1887), its central character is the hunter Allan Quartermain, Haggard’s ideal of the colonial gentleman.Although Haggard wrote many other adventures and fantasies, it is his highly coloured African works that are still read today.
Olive Schreiner’s novel, The Story of an African Farm (1883) is generally considered to be the founding text of South African literature. Schreiner was born on a mission station and worked as a governess on isolated Karoo farms, an experience that informed the novel.The novel draws on the post-romantic sensibility of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and is still a key text in the formation of a truly South African voice.However, it has been criticised for its silence with regard to the black African presence in South Africa.Schreiner’s other work includes a critique of Cecil John Rhodes’s brutal form of colonialism, Trooper Peter Halkett of Mashonaland (1897), and the polemical Women and Labour (1911).
Douglas Blackburn, a maverick British journalist who came to South Africa when the Transvaal was still a Boer republic, had something in common with Schreiner. In several newspapers, he denounced British colonial attitudes as well as satirising Boer corruption.He wrote two novels set in this world, Prinsloo of Prinsloosdorp (1899) and A Burgher Quixote (1903), capturing with a great deal of sly humour the personality and situation of the Boer at the time.His later novel Leaven (1908) is a moving denunciation of “blackbirding” (the recruitment of people through trickery and kidnappings to work on farms) and other iniquitous labour practices, and Love Muti (1915) attacks British colonial attitudes.
The most prominent question asked of South African writers after the end of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 was: what will you write about since the primary topic has gone?Well, apartheid may have died, but its effects linger on, and as writers such as Coetzee have demonstrated, the issues of power that haunted the apartheid era are still in many ways with us.The early years of democracy were characterized by a new form of writing which literary critic Stephane Serge Ibinga describes as “honeymoon literature” or “literature of celebration”.One of the most acclaimed of these post-democracy writers is Zakes Mda, who worked for many years as a playwright and poet before publishing his first novels in 1995.He started with two novels, She Plays with the Darkness and Ways of Dying. The latter, the story of a professional mourner, won the M-Net Book Prize. His next novel, The Heart of Redness (2001), won the Commonwealth Prize; it contrasts the past of the 19th century, when the prophetess Nongqawuse brought ruin to the Xhosa people, with a present-day narrative.Ivan Vladislavic is another author pushing into the post-apartheid future, with distinctly post-modern works that play with the conventions of fiction as much as they speak about contemporary realties in South Africa today.He has published two collections of stories, Missing Persons (1990) and Propaganda by Monuments (2000), while his novels include The Folly (1993) and The Restless Supermarket (2001).One of the most irreverent voices to hit the South African literary scene over the past few decades is poet Lesego Rampolokeng. His poems are published in Horns for Hondo (1991) and End Beginnings (1993). A powerful live performer of his work, he has collaborated with musicians as well.K Sello Duiker was a young novelist who made a splash in South Africa with two novels that won him awards and critical acclaim, Thirteen Cents (2000) and The Quiet Violence of Dreams (2001). Set in the urban landscape of Cape Town, the novels see the world through the eyes of the underdog, a street kid in the first and an ostracised gay student in the second.Duiker’s third novel, The Hidden Star (2006), was the first quest story set in a South African township, moving between hyper-realistic, fantastic and magical worlds. It seamlessly blends a modern, realistic setting with ancient African myths and folklore, and it combines a naïve sense of humour with a deep reflection on the vulnerability of children in a hard world.But he did not live to see the novel published. South African lost a major talent when Duiker had a nervous breakdown and committed suicide by hanging himself in January 2005.Mark Behr has been one of the most compelling and controversial additions to the South African literary canon. His first novel, The Smell of Apples (1997), tells of white South Africans who were brainwashed by the apartheid system.Soon after that, Behr admitted that he had been a spy for the apartheid police while a student activist; a graphic illustration, if one were needed, of the divided loyalties felt by many whites in that period.Behr’s second novel, Embrace (2000), deals with the formative experiences of a young homosexual. Kings of the Water (2009) is the story of a man who returns to the family farm in South Africa for his mother’s funeral after 15 years in exile.Among Afrikaans writers now translated into English, notable works have come from Etienne van Heerden, particularly the marvellous Ancestral Voices (1989).The poet Marlene van Niekerk’s fictional work has made an impact worldwide, starting with her first novel, the hilarious and horrifying Triomf (1994). The novel was successfully adapted for the screen in a film of the same name, released in 2009. Triomf won the Best South African Film Award at the 2008 Durban International Film Festival, and earned Lionel Newton the Best Actor Award at the Tarifa International Film Festival in Spain in the same year.Van Niekerk’s Triomf was followed by Agaat (2004), which provides a window on a half-century Afrikaans landscape and the pathology of families. Agaat Lourier, with her stunted hand and cherished grievance is one of the brightest, most irresistible characters in African literature. The novel won the CL Engelbrecht Prize for literature and was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2008.Some quarters have observed that post-liberation writing has shifted from the representation of racial division to that of class difference, reflecting the new social fabric. In fact, writers have become interested in class relationships rather than race since the government’s black empowerment policy began to help black people join the circle of the white bourgeoisie, while the poor comprise both races, even though blacks still dominate this group.