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Apartheid and racism in children’s literature

19 May 2012

Apartheid and Racism in South African Children's Literature, 1985-1995Apartheid and Racism in South African Children’s Literature, 1985-1995 by Donnarae MacCann

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book, as the title suggests, is an examination of children’s literature published in South Africa between 1985 and 1995, and consists for the most part of a series of book reviews.

The problem is that I haven’t read most of the books that it reviews, so this is not really a book review, but rather some thoughts on the subject matter of the book. I’ve only read one book that it covers, and that is Witch woman on the Hogsback by Carolyn Parker.

So if it deals with books that I haven’t read, why did I bother to read it?

The main reason is that I myself have tried writing a children’s book set in the apartheid period, which thus deals with apartheid and racism. So I was curious to see what the authors said about the topic, and I’m interested in the topic generally.

The book is harshly critical of most of the books it reviews, and not having read most of the books, I’m not really in a position to judge how valid the criticisms are. There is an epilogue dealing with two books that come in for praise: Let it come back by Karen Press and Chain of fire by Beverley Naidoo.

The authors of Apartheid and racism in children’s literature are American, and I found this a little off-putting. Sometimes it appeared from what they had written that they had very little first-hand experience of how apartheid actually worked. Actually very few South Africans could claim to know how apartheid actually worked, because even those who lived through the entire period could only experience a tiny fraction of what was going on, and thus their perceptions were fragmentary. In addition, of course, the education system was designed to brainwash people into accepting the system as normal, and to that extent the American authors, coming from outside, will have a different perspective, which can be useful. Someone once likened this to someone walking into a smoke-filled room, where all the windows are closed and lots of people are smoking pipes and cigarettes and cigars. And the newcomer says, “Wow, it’s stuffy in here, why don’t you open the windows?” And someone in the room responds, “What do you know about it? You’ve just walked in.”

So an outside perspective can be useful, but also has its own shortcomings.

I found the best part of the book was the final chapter and the epilogue, where the authors give positive reviews of books they thought were good.

The authors say (p. 117):

When our literary critiques point to political and economic information, this is not to imply that the narrative should incorporate fact-laden material, but only that the novel should not distort it for white supremacist purposes. So how do the novelists cover the socio-political backgrounds they introduce? In a word, even in the post-1994 noverls, Blacks are portrayed as essentially unready for self-rule.

I was glad to read that at the end, because when reading their reviews of the books, it seemed that one of their main criticisms was that the authors had failed to include fact-laden material, and I was thinking that nothing could be more boring for children than filling the book with statistics.

The authors criticise some books for portraying children growing up in a situation of urban gangsterism, and say that this implies that all blacks are gangsters, or at least prone to gangsterism. Not having read the book, I don’t know, and I don’t really like reading such “urban realist” books, even when they are written for adults (I recall reading one, set in America, called Last exit to Brooklyn). One thing that does strike me about that, though, is that most of the authors are white, and I wonder how they can write about black children growing up in such a society when the white authors would be largely insulated from it by apartheid.

And that makes me think about my own attempts at writing children’s books.

My book is set in 1964, which was at the height of apartheid, before any of the architects of apartheid had expressed even the slightest doubt about the rightness of what they were doing and the kind of society they were trying to create. And part of my aim in writing was so that children of future generations could have some kind of an inkling of what it was actually like. Teenagers in the late 1990s had very little idea, and were already growing up in a different world.

But I’m white, and in the apartheid years it was difficult enough for white people to meet and get to know black adults, much less children. When adults write books for children, they must write about children they know, and much of it must be based on their own experience as children. And as a child, and even as an adult, I did not really encounter black children. The black people I encountered were adults. It was not until the late 1990s that I had much to do with black children and teenagers, and that was after apartheid, and so their experience was different.

So when I tried to write a novel about children in 1964, most of the viewpoint characters are white. And that means that if any children were ever to read the book, white children would probably be able to identify more easily with the viewpoint characters than black children. And there are some features of apartheid life that are described in the book, without being questioned. I suspect that McCann and Maddy might interpret this as approval of the system, and in a sense upholding it.

For example, at one point in my story the four children who are the main characters have to catch a train. Three of the children are white, and one is black, and they have to separate to travel in different coaches. Now at such a point it might be possible to have the children discuss the evil of segregation in public transport, but I don’t think that would be child-like behaviour. For children it is just one of the things that they have to live with an an adult-controlled world, and that they have to deal with as best they can. And for child readers in later periods, it can inform them that there was segregation in public transport back in those days, and when it caused problems to children, they did not question it, but found ways of getting around it.

But when children encountered manifest injustice, such as forced removals, they often did question it, because children tend to have a quite well-developed sense of what is fair and not fair. The problem for white children in that period was that they were generally insulated from it, by upbringing, education and laws like the Group Areas Act. So in trying to write a children’s novel about the period, one has to contrive a way of overcoming those barriers that doesn’t make the narrative contrived, artificial and so unconvincing.

McCann and Maddy criticise many of the novels they discuss because the contact between black and white children is in the context of the master-servant relationship. In a friendship between a black child and a white child, the white child’s parents are usually the employers of the parents of the black child, and that usually makes the relationship unequal from the start. I think it is a valid criticism, but how does one overcome it?

In my own story I tried to do this by making the black child the eldest of the four, and also the one most directly affected by the problem at hand, which is to warn his father, who has been banished to a far part of the country, that the police are plotting to have him killed.

But in trying to write this story, I realise that I was writing more for white children than for black children, and that part of the aim was to question the tendency of some whites to think that “apartheid was not so bad” and to pass on that attitude to their children.

Later note: My book has now been published, in e-book format, and you can find it here: Of wheels and witches.

cover picture with textAnother aim might clash more directly with MacCann and Maddy, who are also critical of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Desmond Tutu’s Christian approach to forgiveness. They criticise religion generally, and Christianity in particular, for aiding and abetting apartheid. But they also criticise it for its tendency to forgive and not vindictively punish the perpetrators.

It has been said that where apartheid is concerned, in the notion of “forgive and forget”, it is blacks who do the forgiving and whites who do the forgetting. Part of the aim of my story was to counter the latter — the present may not be perfect, but we should not forget the darkness from which we have come. But what about the forgiveness part?

In the 1980s there was much talk, especially among white Christians, about “reconciliation”. Black Christians were more likely to talk about “justice”. Several Christian denominations at that time had departments of “Justice and Reconciliation”, which was a kind of compromise, but very little thought seems to have been given to what such departments ought to do, or about the relationship between justice and reconciliation, or about why Christians ought to be concerned about either justice or reconciliation. Most of those departments spent most of their time in ad hoc responses to various crises, of which there were plenty in those days, what with states of emergency, troops in the townships, assassinations and the “third force”.

There was also a “National Initiative for Reconciliation”, which I am sure was well-intentioned, though I think that those who started it did not perhaps give enough thought to the theological implications of the name, for I had read a book called Up to our steeples in politics that pointed out that the one who takes the initiative in reconciliation is God, and that human attempts to reconcile people usually go awry. In addition to which, it seemed to me that most white peoples’ idea of “reconciliation” was a matter of reconciling black people to living under apartheid. What reconciliations should mean is that people who were at enmity turn from hating to loving, but as used by many in South Africa in the 1980s it would have meant trying to reconcile good and evil.

But even with all that in mind, when MacCann and Maddy say that “Tutu and the majority of the [Truth and Reconciliation] Commissioners were in line with the ‘confess and repent’ approach to truth finding. Unfortunately the world at large offered few rebuttals, unlike its reaction to ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the Balkans, Pinochet-led assassination practices, and other grave human rtights cases” I get the impression that they think that “a more excellent way” would have been an Operation Highveld Storm, involving the carpet bombing of South Africa’s cities and destruction of the infrastructure, as Nato did to Yugoslavia in 1999, and Israel did to Lebanon in 2006, rather than what St Paul had in mind in I Corinthians 13.

And that is where I finally part ways with the outlook of MacCann and Maddy. I think the Balkans would have been a lot better off with a touch of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission than with the vindictive “justice” meted out by all parties on their perceived enemies. But I’ve already written about that here: Nationalism, violence and reconciliation, so enough already.

You can download the first few chapters as a free sample, to see if you like it — like browsing in a physical bookshop.

View all my reviews

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 May 2012 11:33 am

    I find the premise of this book interesting: that it reviews children’s literature published during apartheid. I wish I could find a similar book reviewing TV ads in the 90’s pre- and post- 94. I seem to remember a lot of awkwardly placed individual black people in otherwise all-white casts, looking oh so happy.

    Like you, Steve, I haven’t read any of the books they review, but I’d like to!

    Your children’s book sounds fascinating – is it published anywhere? Or do you have an ebook/pdf version?

    This was a really interesting, entertaining and informative blog post.

    > it might be possible to have the children discuss the evil of segregation in public transport, but I don’t think that would be child-like behaviour.

    I’m inclined to first disagree with this statement, then agree, then disagree again. I watched “Kat and the Kings” at the Fugard Theatre recently, and the coloured characters were well aware of the segregation issues. However, they were late teens/early 20’s, which is a lot older than the children you’re talking of.

    > we should not forget the darkness from which we have come.

    Agreed. This raises some interesting questions about post-apartheid children’s books. Are they all based in some fantasy world? Do they speak about the world as some utopia? Do they bring in the darkness of the past so that kids may learn about it?

    Personally, while I’d prefer the utopia approach, I think kids are able to understand a lot more than we think they do, and so don’t mind some grim darkness (Grim Fairy tales are a good example!). But I’m speaking theoretically…I wonder if anyone knows of some kids books that address this?

    I guess for white South Africans, the narrative of “The darkness is out there somewhere, to be feared, and we might fight against it” (a la Harry Potter) just isn’t accurate (for most of us who do not have a struggle history, that is – which is most of us). A more precise, honest narrative is, “The darkness is within us, and confounds our courage, our humanity, and our sense of justice for all. We must face this darkness and transform it.” In this way, this kind of children’s book can creatively draw up spirituality to tell this tale.

    • 21 May 2012 6:36 pm

      Yes, I agree with you about the TV ads in that period, and it would be interesting to know how/why they were created that way. What were the advertisers hoping to get? It would hardly attract black consumers of their goods and services, and they looked as if they were intended to signal to whites that the times they are a’changin — but why would advertisers want to do that?

      I can send you the draft MS of my kids book, if you like. It’s on my hard disk somewhere, I think.

      And yes, late teens-early twenties could and did discuss segregation issues, but not so much 9-12 year olds.

      Post-apartheid childrens books — if they are set in the post-apartheid period, they could take a variety of approaches. One of the things is a new white privilege — not one that you have discussed before, I think. But white kids are privileged in that most of them have the opportunity to meet black kids at school, whereas most black kids do not have the opportunity to meet white kids at school. I’ve never seen a single white kid at a township school. But I asked the black kids at our church (one of whom attended the Stanza Bopape High School) if they knew who Stanza Bopape was. They didn’t. They didn’t know the darkness from which we have come. I think there is material for kids books in that, but it’s for a different generation to write them.

  2. 21 May 2012 11:34 am

    That last sentence should be: “In this way, this kind of children’s book can creatively draw upon spirituality to tell this tale.”


  1. Apartheid and racism in children’s literature | Notes from underground
  2. A children’s novel about apartheid | Khanya

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