Post-Apartheid Violence and the Institution of Literature

By Brendon Nicholls

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It may seem anomalous, or at least unfashionably premature, to embark upon a critique of a liberated South Africa so soon after forty years of a reprehensible normative xenophobia have come to a close and the country’s first democratically elected government has assumed legislative power.

Notwithstanding the untimely spirit of its inception, this essay arises out of a cautious sense that Apartheid and its consequences may not be so readily consigned to the past. However, since I have a great respect for what is at stake in the New South Africa, I have elected to offer my opinions on post-Apartheid society in a calculatedly pedestrian and idiomatic sense. If, as one of the drafters of the South African Interim Constitution noted, the purpose of that document was to level the playing fields, then my essay marks an uneasy suspicion that the goalposts continue to shift, notwithstanding the ostensibly benevolent aim of the current ANC government.

In my definition, the term post-Apartheid signals a certain liminality; that of the ever-receding end of the old regime within which the new dispensation can never entirely realize itself as such. This definition might seem at face-value to be a contretemps,an excessively pessimistic view of contemporary South African society that serves to dissimulate a basically conservative literary-critical politics. I prefer to read the term post-Apartheid as a recognition that the teleology implied in the very naming of Apart-heid could never aspire to sustain the privileged plenitude of a white Afrikaner self-presence founded on a differential of originary separateness. I would go so far as to suggest that the most convincing representations of the New South Africa reaffirm this originary contamination within Apartheids metaphorics of rupture.

Perhaps then, one wants nothing like a clean break from a past predicated on the ubiquitous fabrication of sanitized politico-economic and socio-sexual domains, for which ethnic or racist inscriptions formed both the limits and the impasses.I shall investigate a little of the trajectory of a perpetually unbecoming new as it pertains to the institution of literary study in several South African universities, and indeed, in a British university. Within this considerably delimited frame, I hope to offer some sort of an answer to the question of whether or not literature contains the propensity to mediate political violence.

Restricted as the focus of this essay is, it is nevertheless informed by a retrospective sense of how deeply implicated in political violence the South African academy has been. Last year, a South African newspaper carried an article which claimed that 60 percent of all South African engineers had, at one time or another during the 1980s, worked either directly or indirectly for Armscor, the South African arms manufacturer. Precisely what links were operative in this collaboration, how such links might have influenced Apartheid funding policies in relation to educational institutions providing training for covert military vocations, and the implications for the comparatively cloistered environment of literary studies – these considerations are beyond the telegnostic scope of this essay. It will suffice, though, to remark in passing that the student newspaper of my first university carried an article condemning that university for carrying out research from which the South African Defence force would allegedly have benefited.

Like many of my white male peers, I had begun my own tertiary education with the intention of avoiding military conscription indefinitely. Perhaps the range of choices available at that time now appears less well-defined and a little more ideologically suspect, but in the political climate preceding Mandela’s release from incarceration, ontological categories were so discrete and self-evident (black and white) that ideal fictions were lived as truth under erstwhile categorical directives. In the intervening period, one might say during the transition, the composition of the English Literature course at my first university has changed immensely, in terms of its syllabus, its course structure and, most importantly perhaps, in terms of the demography of its student constituency.

The watchword in South African Universities today is Transformation. However, the difficulty which a number of universities confronted when they undertook to Transform was that in an exceptionally polarized society, Transformation in higher education only assumed its significance according to whether one participated in the process from a position of shored-up privilege, the converse position of institutionalized exclusion (recent political enfranchisement notwithstanding), or indeed from any position on the spectrum in-between. It would be reductive to infer that the spectrum here refers solely to former racial categories. Other factors have contributed in no small measure to the current crisis in higher education: the colour of one’s money, access to and exclusion from educational institutions, vast disparities in the quality of available schooling, differing expectations of a University degree, the quality of study materials and learning conditions afforded by one’s home, community and history. And if we interrogated each of these factors a little more closely we could then return by a more or less accurate route to the intricate machinery of subjection and resistance during the Apartheid years and to the deceptively simple logic of racial binarism: black is black and white is right. Further, if we were to read South African higher education symptomatically for forms of political violence, we might uncover metonyms of that larger historical narrative which we could conveniently term Apartheid.

I shall not attempt anything quite so ambitious here. Rather, I will focus on three apposite localized moments that register some of the crises obtaining in a far more complex social fabric. In September of last year I applied for a lectureship in South African literature in an historically Afrikaans University, and I was invited to attend an interview for the position. This university, a former preserve of a privileged white minority, was undergoing Transformation. The black student constituency of this institution had grown considerably and community outreach programs had already been implemented. My interview panel consisted of the head of the English department, a senior professor, a lecturer, a member of faculty and a member of the University Council. Two questions from this interview continue to trouble me. Firstly, How might your postcolonial sensibility be of use in making an author like Shakespeare relevant to our black second-language students?. And secondly, How would you deal with the heart-rending problem of white second-language students who refuse to read the syllabus material?

I must admit that I did not immediately gauge the politics undergirding the second question.1 At its root is the anxiety of how to Transform a Literature department in an Afrikaans university without alienating an historical elite which for very obviously interested reasons is a lot more comfortable with Shakespeare than with the thought of reading South African literature. At the time, I attributed the hypothetical refusal to laziness or disinterestedness on the part of white Afrikaans students, and I answered, Well, you badger them by asking questions until they have to come up with a reading of their own, and then of course, this forces one to examine ones own position in new ways. I suspect that this answer may have jeopardized my application for the lectureship, but even if I had acknowledged the political interests and micro-aggressions at work in the questions, I doubt that I could have answered more sincerely. The upshot of the interview was that my application did not succeed.

The successful applicant began lecturing in the Department of English, and shortly afterwards received intimidating letters from a group of white students calling themselves Here 17 (Gentlemen or God 17), who objected to being taught Black Consciousness poetry by a black woman. When the lecturer concerned complained to her Head of Department that she had been the victim of racism, sexism and intimidation, he replied that she should teach the form of Black Consciousness poetry rather than its content. This collusion between the titular head of the institution of literature in a regional university and the discursive vestiges of Apartheid both legitimates the threat of physical violence upon the person of the lecturer by her students, and enacts a violence of its own by emptying out, de-authorizing,pedagogical authorities and subject-positions which the lecturer might wish to claim for herself.Equally, the collusion functions retroactively to evacuate the poetry of any potential Black Consciousness it might claim as an aesthetic of resistance.

In 1992, a student at the University of Natal-Durban, Knowledge Mdlalose, was excluded by the university on academic grounds, after a disciplinary hearing against him failed to result in punitive measures. The South African Students’ Congress, an organization of black students, boycotted and disrupted lectures and destroyed university property over a period of three days. One incident of assault occurred. What was at issue during the entire crisis was the agenda according to which Mdlalose had been excluded. The National Union of South African Students claimed that Mdlalose had abused his Students/ Representative Council privileges by utilizing a university minibus as a taxi and that he had been involved in a gang rape and incidences of intimidation in one of the residences. The university claimed that he had failed 18 out of 22 courses and that its decision had been motivated on purely academic grounds. SASCO claimed that Mdlalose was the victim of a racist university conspiracy which was bent on eradicating black student leadership. To my mind, the most interesting aspect of the crisis was the division that emerged between SASCO and NUSAS, which had been allies during the Apartheid years.

Initially, of course, it was Steve Biko who proposed the inception of SASO in order to meet the needs and interests particular to black students, and it was Biko, an alumnus of the University of Natal-Durban, who would go on to play a leading part in the founding of the Black Consciousness Movement. SASCO appears to have followed Biko’s precedent in its own, more recent, decision-making, although SASCO’s influence in student politics at the University of Natal-Durban appears to have waned substantially since the Knowledge Mdlalose incident. However, it remains a particularly vocal (and active) organization. Last year, SASCO again disrupted lectures and the damage to university property amounted to approximately R 200 000 / £ 30 000.2 One police officer and one student were injured, and 26 students were arrested.

In this most recent student protest, the divisions between SASCO and NUSAS appear to have increased. SASCO claimed that the Students Representative Council elections had not been held in a fair manner. In addition, elements within SASCO alleged that the president of the SRC, Frank Swart, was racist. Swarts colleagues within the SRC denied that he was racist and claimed that he had been victimized because he is white, and because SASCO had failed to win enough votes to be represented on the SRC. These two protests share a curious irony, inasmuch as the first centres on an individual named Knowledge and the second on an individual named Swart (in Afrikaans, of course, this latter translates as black). If Black Consciousness was a seventies resistance movement which orchestrated the strategic maintenance of a colour bar within student activism, then one might read the protagonists who name these two moments of crisis as contributing to an allegory which symptomatically exposes the difficulties of translating Black Consciousness into the no longer officially segregated – but still very much ideologically polarized – student constituency.3

Attention to how South Africa and South Africans are named is crucial to an understanding of how the micro-aggressions and macro-subjections of Apartheid persist at all levels of a university education. Moreover, the project of interrogating the institution of literary study and its relation to post-Apartheid violence is indefinitely complicated by the construction, or naming, of the New South Africa within metropolitan universities. During a plenary session of a recent graduate conference held at a British university, one of the visiting keynote speakers was asked if she had had any experience of addressing the other within herself. She replied, “Well, having grown up in Wales, and speaking a version of American English …” Evidently this answer placated the delegate who posed the question. I find nothing offensive in the speaker’s answer, but I would suggest that it rehearses the current postcolonial lesson of unlearning one’s privilege as one’s loss4 altogether too quickly, in an unexamined fashion.

What is perhaps more interesting is the way in which the speaker continued,
I recently spent six months in Cape Town researching post-1994 South African society. One of the things I wanted to do while I was there was to learn to speak Xhosa, but I was told that it was not taught at the university where I was working, and that I would not be able to find anyone in Cape Town to speak Xhosa with. I would have had to go out and do field work in the rural areas, which is again a regrettable neocolonial situation.
The speaker was clearly misinformed by her interlocutor. Xhosa is taught in at least two of the three universities in the Western Cape. Neither Cape Town nor its universities are devoid of Xhosa speakers and a considerable number of Xhosa speakers do not live in the rural areas.

Nelson Mandela and the majority of his colleagues who comprise the government of the day are perhaps the most conspicuous examples of Xhosa speakers who reside in Cape Town itself. I want to suggest that what the plenary speaker could not know, indeed was prevented from acknowledging, was the most immediately available instance of experiencing the other within her own discourse. Her statement is all too easily susceptible to the misreading that she inadvertently recuperates a very old colonial production of Xhosa-speaking subjects as rural, primitive, backward. Further, it was precisely this representation of the rural Xhosa that Nationalist Party propaganda re-produced in order to explain away the ethnic violence in Natal during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

At one point in 1989, so-called black-on-black political violence was claiming 1500 lives a month. Prior to Mandela’s release, the Nationalist Party could not permit its propaganda machinery to give any hint of the fact that the battle lines were drawn along political, instead of ethnic, lines. The violence could thus be misrepresented as the result of the age-old natural antipathy between the Xhosa tribe and the Zulu tribe, rather than the Nationalist government’s calculated fomentation of political antagonism between Inkatha and the then-banned and therefore officially non-existent ANC. And of course, Xhosa-Zulu violence could at least implicitly suggest that the architects of the Bantustan (Homelands) policy might not have been that far off the mark after all. I am suggesting, then, that post-Apartheid political violence may be perpetuated along telescopic lines of privilege and power which extend beyond the confines of regional or even national boundaries.

In conclusion, Jacques Derrida has written an article on Apartheid, titled in translation as Racism’s Last Word.Occasioned by an exhibition of the work of the Association of Artists Against Apartheid, which was to be presented to the first democratically elected government of South Africa, Derrida’s article claims that the exhibition exposes itself and takes a chance with time, it wagers and affirms beyond the wager and that it offers the rearview vision of a future for which apartheidwill be the name of something finally abolished (1985: 291). Derrida defines this last word in three ways:
THE LAST: or le dernieras one sometimes says in French to signify the worst …
THE LAST as one says also of the most recent, the last to date of all the worlds racisms, the oldest and the youngest …
THE LAST, finally, since this last-born of many racisms is also the only one surviving in the world, at least the only one still parading itself in a political constitution. (1985: 291-292)
Since 1985, when Derrida wrote these words, Apartheid has been superseded; it may indeed have beenracism’s Last Word. Nevertheless, in a calculated estimation, Apartheid’s aftermath suggests that its violences continue to havethe last word on South African politics, and on South African literature for that matter. The challenge consists, I think, in instituting a Literature which ensures that Apartheid’s severities do not continue to have the final say.

Brendon Nicholls is currently working on a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Essex.

References & Notes

Derrida, Jacques. (1985) Racism’s Last Word Critical Inquiry12 (Autumn 1985): 290-299..
Landry, Donna and MacLean, Gerald, eds. (1990) The Spivak ReaderNew York: Routledge.
1.  The politics of the first question is altogether more transparent, and it was the subject of some debate at a national Shakespeare conference in 1996. The debate was covered by a correspondent for the Southern African Review of Books,but it will suffice to offer a summary here. The conference was polarized into two camps: postcolonial and Marxist. The Marxist contingent claimed that the postcolonial emphasis on multiple, contingent identities and its well-publicized critiques of nationalism offers little to an emergent generation of black students who might not wish to see the promise of a new national identity extinguished so soon after the demise of a discriminatory dispensation which never allowed any notion of a black national identity to flourish. The postcolonial contingent claimed that Marxism was one of the dated master-narratives which had served its purpose in the antagonistic climate of the 1980s, but which now served only to further the theoretical interests of a small number of literary academics. As far as I know, the question of Shakespeare’s relevance to South African literary study and the more complicated question of a dominant Western canon were not broached.
2.  South African press reports of this incident are duplicated on the Internet, at the following address:
3.  The significance of the names was not lost on the students who participated in each incident. A poster displayed during the Mdlalose affair read, 18 out of 22 = no Knowledge. In the more recent incident, a backlash demonstration against SASCO contained a placard proclaiming This is the voice of the once silent majority. Since the placard voiced the sentiments of a student constituency which has never been anything like a political majority in South Africa, one must assume that its writer was punning on the name Swart.
4.  This is Gayatri Spivak’s phrase. Donna Landry and Gerald Maclean’s Introduction to The Spivak Readercontains a useful commentary on the phrase (1990: 4).

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