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Post-apartheid writing and posthumous books

5 July 2019

At our Neoinklings literary coffee klatsch yesterday Val and I mentioned that we had been enjoying reading books by Zakes Mda. Before 1994 a lot of South African writing was “protest” literature — protest against apartheid and similar writing. Even before 1994 people were wondering what South Africans could write about after the end of apartheid. Professor Njabule Ndebele wrote a paper about the re-discovery of the ordinary.

Well I think Zakes Mda has rediscovered the ordinary in writing about post-apartheid South Africa, though what he writes is still very much protest literature, but instead of protesting against apartheid he protests against crony capitalism and the Aristocracy of the Revolution. And what fascinates me is that he wrote a lot of these books before Zuma became president. Was he been prescient, or was he exaggerating and satirising tendencies that later became so obvious that they could no longer be satirised?

I’ve written a review of another novel by Zakes Mda, here: Black Diamond: Yuppie life in the new South Africa. Now Val has just finished, and I have just begun, The Heart of Redness. It promises to be an interesting story, and jumps between the past and the present. One of the peripheral characters is Sir Harry Smith, sometime Governor of the Cape Colony, an arrogant man, described by one of his biographers as a bungling hero.

So I think Zakes Mda strike the right note for South African writing post-apartheid. Whenever I’ve tried to write fiction, I’ve got stuck in the apartheid era. It’s the world I grew up in, the world I understand, where the line between good and evil seemed to be a lot clearer than it is today. Oh, and my children’s book about the apartheid era is going cheap this month.

Janneke Weidema noticed that the Zakes Mda book I had brought along was a library book, and it seems that a lot of the books in our local municipal library seem to be toss-outs from deceased estates, and the ones they don’t keep they sell at R2.00 apiece — we have got some interesting books that way too. And that led on to our major discussion topic for this month — what do you do with your books when you die, or what do your heirs do with them?

I recalled that in looking up wills for family history research I found the will of a Walter Bagot (who turned out not to be related), in which he named a friend as a kind of literary heir, and said he was to be allowed to “take such of the books from my library as he shall select” and dispose of the rest in any manner he saw fit.

I also recalled that I had once spent a term at an Anglican theological college, St Paul’s College in Grahamstown (now the College of the Transfiguration in Makhanda). While I was there there was a “loot”. A clergyman had died, and his heirs gave his theological books to St Paul’s College. The books were placed on a table in the library, and the students were allowed in one at a time. Each one could take one book, and this process was repeated until all the books had gone.

Another book I’ve been reading is The Road to Miran. It’s about an art and archaeology student who travelled around central Asia looking for relics and ruins of Buddhist culture on the old Silk Road, which was the main trade route between China and the ancient Roman Empire. The Silk Road split and passed to the north and south of the Taklamakan Desert, and it is inhabited today by the Uighur people, who are mainly Muslim, and ruled by China.

Christa Paula, the author, travelled by bus, train, taxi and camel. Parts of the route were forbidden to foreigners. She would ask people how to get where she wanted to go, and would be told, “It is forbidden”. So she would ask “What should I do?” and the answer would be “Buy a ticket,” so she did, on the principle that it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

Her journey was in 1989, the year of the Tianamnen Square massacre, even when democracy was breaking out in many countries. To those of us who grew up with the Cold War and Apartheid democracy sometimes still seems like a novelty, an impossible dream come true, and then one stops to think that that was 30 years ago. When Christa Paula wrote it she was a student, but now she would be nearing retirement. And it was interesting to read about the apartheid in China. The inhabitants of the region are the Uighur people, and there was a special celebration of Uighur-Chinese friendship. But Christa Paula once was embarrassed to find herself at an event that was strictly for Han Chinese only — no natives or foreigners allowed.



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