At the Margin of One/Many Languages

Essays on South African Literature

by Peter Horn (Author)
©2015 Monographs XIV, 236 Pages
Series: Cultural Identity Studies, Volume 29


The essays collected here are responses to books of poetry and prose published during the transition period from the apartheid regime of the mid-1980s to the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994. The volume comprises a variety of texts written during the crucial mid-1980s – the time of the «Emergency» and the height of oppression – up to and including the installation of the first freely elected South African government in 1994.
In the years of anti-apartheid struggle, the immediate political conflict was pre-eminent in the minds of many poets but extended to broader concerns about race, writing and colonialism, such as the debate about the imbongi (African praise singer) as the true antecedent of the contemporary African poet. After the end of apartheid new challenges came to the South African book publishing industry and, thus, to South African writers, as they tried to make sense of the past and draw tentative lines into the future. The works of J. M. Coetzee, Njabulo Ndebele, Kelwyn Sole, Sandile Dikeni, Vincent Swart, Heather Robertson, Patrick Cullinan, Seitlhamo Motsapi, W. P. B. Botha and more are read against this changing social and political landscape.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • PART I The Imperative to Imagine the Unimaginable
  • Writing a web of nations
  • Orature, literature and the media
  • The imperative to imagine the unimaginable: J.M. Coetzee’s Doubling the Point
  • “Nothing less than the writing of our own texts”: Njabulo Ndebele’s Rediscovery of the Ordinary
  • Challenging the metropolis as the marketplace for Third World literature
  • The voice of the poet: “The blues is you in me”. The class and culture specificity of emotion
  • “Where we stride above the fading, insistent mutter of the dead”: Kelwyn Sole’s Projections in the Past Tense
  • “That invention of the working class”: Sandile Dikeni’s Guava Juice
  • “Standing armed on our own ground”: Barry Feinberg’s Gardens of Struggle
  • Vincent Swart or the malaise of South African poetry
  • Poetry to sing at Rosies and All that Jazz: Heather Robertson, Under the Sun
  • The poet has nothing but his voice: On the poetry of Tatamkhulu Afrika
  • The spaces between: Tatamkhulu Afrika, Maqabane (Mayibuye 1994)
  • At a certain distance from hell: Patrick Cullinan, Selected Poems 1961–1994
  • “The purple pink salt of songs without heads”: Seitlhamo Motsapi’s earthstepper/the ocean is very shallow
  • PART II The Difficulties of Memory
  • Dostoevsky in Cape Town: J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg
  • I am dead: you cannot read. André Brink’s On the Contrary
  • The difficulties of memory: Christopher Hope’s Serenity House
  • The mysterious patterns of everyday life in a colony: Christopher Hope’s The Love Songs of Nathan J. Swirsky
  • A house/a story hanging by a thread: Ivan Vladislavic’s The Folly
  • The genealogy of shame: Etienne van Heerden’s Ancestral Voices
  • The myth of the wave: Mike Nicol’s This Day and Age
  • Trying to make sense of the past: W.P.B. Botha’s The Reluctant Playwright
  • Bibliography
  • Acknowledgements
  • Index
  • Series Index

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The contributions collected here are responses to books published in the period of transition from the apartheid regime to the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994. The volume comprises a variety of texts which have been written from the middle of the 1980s (the time of the “Emergency” and the height of oppression) to the installation of the first freely elected South African government in 1994. Some are book reviews, some were talks or lectures and others were short reflections on individual writers. As a member of the United Democratic Front and the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW) and as a poet and writer I was involved intimately both in the political changes and in the development of literature in South Africa at the time and the texts reflect my involvement.

At the time, at least until 1990, that was not always easy. Everything I published in English between 1970 and 1990 was banned for possession.1 South African censorship also meant that all banned persons’ writings were automatically banned in South Africa, that thus virtually the entire prose oeuvre of black writers was banned; poets experienced censorship as the virtual destruction of their own unfolding culture; the threat of banning was a constant inhibition to the South African writer, in the very moment he wrote; he was continually harassed by the thought, will the censor allow this, will my publisher be courageous enough to print this volume of poetry, under the threat of heavy fines and loss of capital? Vincent Swart, silenced while he was alive by a banning order, can now be heard again, but there are no ears to hear his poetry. South African readers and South African critics are very selective in their memory, and even the academic research into the South African past seems to have forgotten much. ← ix | x →

The government also did everything it could to separate white writers from writers of colour. Until 1990 the Group Areas Act, which provided for the establishment of racial ghettos, was next to the various Pass Laws perhaps the act most resented by blacks, because by its provisions about 67% of the land was given into the hands of the whites, because by the means of its provisions hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to give up their homes and move to other areas, because it concentrated blacks in dormitory cities with a total lack of amenities plus a huge increase of fares and often in rents. The poetry of our country was cut into segments by race, class, language and censorship. The easiest to overcome was the barrier of language: if you were really interested you could learn English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Sotho. The barrier of censorship could only be overcome by going on a holiday to Swaziland or the UK (if you had the money that is). The barriers of race and class were the most difficult: to overcome them, you had to change your attitudes and your life. And that, for many South African, is still a major challenge.

It was not sufficient, however, simply to condemn apartheid in the abstract. Like Tatamkhulu Afrika one needed to see the stark reality of the life of the majority. The modern city produces derelicts as it produces rubbish: it throws away the containers of goods it has consumed with the same ease as it throws away men and women it has used to produce them. It creates the homeless, street-children, alcoholics, beggars, whores, bergies, the unemployed and criminals as necessary waste products of its cycle of production, mindless of the misery of those who are discarded.

The Congress of South African Writers nurtured many young poets who presented their first poems there. Amongst them was Seitlhlamo Motsapi’s brilliant first volume earthstepper/the ocean is very shallow. Motsapi’s critique of post-colonial Africa and the untameable dynamics of his poetic voice convinced many critics. Other members of COSAW were Pascal Gwala, Sipho Sepamla, Wally Serote, Oswald Mtshali, James Matthews, Heather Robertson and many more. Walter Saunders and I published many of them for the first time in Ophir.2 ← x | xi →

In the years of the anti-apartheid struggle the immediate struggle was pre-eminent in the mind of many poets. A typical poet of the struggle was Sandile Dikeni with his book Guava Juice. One of the major debates of the time was that between such “committed” poetry and poetry which in the first instance was attempting an aesthetic mastery, and whether it was possible to combine the two. There were those, too, who expressed the fear experienced by the white tribe somewhere at the Southern end of the continent, those who are at home in an English-speaking colony in South Africa. One of those is Patrick Cullinan, a master of his craft, a poet who can write well. Nevertheless, if one compares Wopko Jensma’s “Johburg Spiritual” or Serote’s “Johburg City” with Cullinan’s “Johannesburg November”, one notes the distance of Cullinan from what after all is the reality of South Africa.

Even J.M. Coetzee could not entirely evade the discussion of the “duties that fall on a South African writer” in the struggle against apartheid. Poems written during the anti-apartheid struggle reflected the need to destroy apartheid. Barry Feinberg’s Gardens of Struggle was already looking back at the struggle. But even then some writers were trying to make sense of the past and drawing tentative lines into the future. “Revolutionaries […] are not always busy fighting. They are also busy loving, jilting each other, being envious of each other”, a sentiment which for the first time appeared in Njabulo Ndebele’s Sol Plaatje Memorial Lecture of 1984. It is interesting that Coetzee in his review of Nadine Gordimer’s The Essential Gesture immediately zeroes in on the question: “What is a writer’s freedom?”, and quotes her: “He must take, and be granted, freedom from public conformity of political interpretation, morals and tastes”. He singles out the “more insidious” threat which comes from a writer’s “conformity to an orthodoxy of opposition”; “he is alienated … by all political language”.3 Perhaps now that the urgency of struggle is over, it is time to reread Coetzee without prejudice and discover that he has some very important things to say to ← xi | xii → a new South Africa. Now that the time has come to silence the weapons the time has also come to imagine the unimaginable: the ethical person who perceives all violence as violence against himself and who understands that “community has its basis in an awareness and acceptance of a common justice”.4

One of the major debates revolved around the concept of the imbongi (African praise singer) as the true antecedent of the contemporary African poet. The attempt to revive the imbongi, however, only works as long as there is community to listen. Although Africa produced one of the earliest writing cultures, in these debates Africa was seen as a continent of orality. That overlooks the fact that the designation of certain African cultures as lacking the ability to write, is itself a colonialist and ethnocentric gesture, which denies the non-alphabetic sign the name “writing”, like the one which denies any culture other than the one resembling one’s own the name of “human”. To the defenders of orality, even the demise of writing, reading and printing since the invention of media like radio, phonograph, film and TV seemed to introduce a new age of orality. If Africa were indeed an “oral” continent, then the metropolis would be the only marketplace for Third World books.

After the end of apartheid new challenges came to the South African book publishing industry and thus also to South African writers. The interest for South African material, which had reached a high during the apartheid, diminished considerably. This was visible in the question of some outside of South Africa, who had seen South African literature mainly in terms of the anti-apartheid struggle: what do we write now that apartheid is dead? As if South African literature had ever been limited to struggle poetry. The problem was that South Africa is not among the twenty top book-buying nations of the world and that South Africa, as we entered the 1990s, was largely a bookless society. Even libraries are often missing in areas with a mainly black clientele and there are many schools with a non-existent or deficient school library. South African publishing in addition has no weight ← xii | xiii → on the world market. While we have musicians, writers, poets, dramatists who are world-renowned, we hardly have a reading public.

I hope that these critical appraisals of some of the South African books produced in an important period in South African history will contribute to a new awareness of the riches of South African literature. It may also contribute to an enhanced understanding of the actual and potential role of literature as a constitutive part of cultural identity in any region or nation.

Johannesburg 2014

1 “Banned for possession”: the strictest form of censorship in apartheid South Africa. Possessing such a publication was a criminal offence.

2 Poetry journal, 1966–74.

3 Coetzee in his review of Nadine Gordimer’s The Essential Gesture. In: J.M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point. Ed. by David Attwell. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press 1992: 382.

4 Coetzee, Doubling the Point: 340.

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XIV, 236
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (November)
poetry prose transition period race colonialism
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. XIV, 236 pp.

Biographical notes

Peter Horn (Author)

Peter Horn was previously Professor of German at the University of Cape Town and since his retirement is Honorary Professorial Research Associate at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He has published seven volumes of poetry, including Poems 1964-1990 (1991), An Axe in the Ice (1992), The Rivers that Connect Us to the Past (1996); two volumes of short stories, My Voice is under control now (1999) and Walking the Road of Death (2014); and one volume of essays, Writing my Reading (1994). He has also published translations of South African poetry: Kap der Guten Hoffnung. Gedichte aus dem Südafrikanischen Widerstand (1980). In addition, he has published widely on German literature, including books on Kleist, Hölderlin, Celan and Rilke.


Title: At the Margin of One/Many Languages
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251 pages