At the Edge

The Writings of Ronnie Govender

by Rajendra Chetty (Author)
©2017 Monographs X, 176 Pages


Ronnie Govender’s works are significant in the construction of a South African national identity. The purpose of this book is to engage critically with race, class and resistance through a collection of essays on Govender’s oeuvre. His writings are re-invigorated by close reading within the context of postcolonial and critical theory. Govender recalls the resilience of the multiracial community of Cato Manor whose democratic coexistence and mutual respect comprise a model for the new nation. As a memory work, his texts recollect private and community identity in the wounded spaces of colonial and apartheid oppression. Events of the past should be interpreted in a creative and imaginative way and literature enlightens it best.
Govender’s unique performative prose reconstructs and resurrects the lives of the residents of Cato Manor, their vitality and humour, pain and humiliation: a vibrant, racially integrated community destroyed by the South African apartheid regime’s notorious Group Areas Act. The book seeks to redress that marginalisation and awaken readers to the bravery and creativity of a small, defiant community in the face of forced removals and social injustice. This book reveals Govender’s central concern for human dignity—his innate sensitivity to the unspoken pain of oppressed people.
The book invites the reader to connect and contrast Govender with a range of contexts and intertextualities—from post-colonial to African continental, from the diasporic to the politically analogous. Govender’s radical shift from colonial obeisance theatre to a revelation of raw existence and authentic living is reflected by questioning, dis-comforting and aggrieving.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. Resistance and Reconciliation: Post-1994 South African Indian Writings
  • Chapter 3. Transactional memory in At the Edge and other Cato Manor Stories
  • Chapter 4. Beyond Calvary: I Did It for My God
  • Chapter 5. Over My Dead Body: Dispossession and Relocation
  • Chapter 6. ‘Poobathie’—Colour, Caste and Religion
  • Chapter 7. ‘1949’—Race and the Colonial Agenda
  • Chapter 8. Ayakanoo: Bucket Carrier
  • Chapter 9. The Lahnee’s Pleasure: Revisiting the Crime Scene
  • Chapter 10. Coolitude, Indenture and ‘Swami’
  • Chapter 11. Interview with Ronnie Govender
  • Conclusion

← viii | ix →


This is the first full-length work to appear on Ronnie Govender. One of the greatest joys of writing about Ronnie Govender’s works is that I came to know him as a gifted man of the theatre and letters. He was always gracious and generous with his time and knowledge. In this book I acknowledge my respect for him as a playwright and author. I note with deep appreciation Kamalam Govender’s caring nature and wonderful sense of hospitality.

In the course of researching and writing this study, I have been helped immeasurably by the input, friendship, and generosity of others, and I owe thanks to many. This book would not have been possible without generous funding from the National Research Foundation and the United States Fulbright Scholar Program.

My debt to my research assistant, Matthew Curr, can never be repaid. There are no words to thank Matthew adequately for his extraordinary talents and skills, for many hours of interviews and transcriptions and for more than once finding material that I did not know existed.

I am unusually blessed with the friendship of Jaspal Kaur Singh of Northern Michigan University whose critical eye and significant insights have been invaluable. Rosemary Gray of the African Renaissance Institute at UNISA, aided my work in considerable ways and made many important suggestions to ← ix | x → enhance the text. I have enjoyed the warm support of a kind and close friend, Renato Tomei, of the University for Foreigners of Perugia. Renato designed the cover for this book, using the brilliant photograph of Ranjith Kally. I am grateful to Kalim Rajab for facilitating the consent to use the photo for the cover.

There are no words to thank adequately the helpful librarian at the Mowbray campus, Pippa Campbell, for her valued support.

The wonderful team of Jennifer Beszley (Production Editor), Meagan Simpson (Acquisitions Editor) and Michael Doub (Editorial Assistant) at Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. gave their wholehearted support and commitment to this book from the very first time that I suggested the project. I sincerely thank them.

I leave for last my greatest debt. Neither my career nor this study would have been possible without the considerable sacrifice of my mother, Thangamma Chetty, who although she had so little, managed to give me, so very much.

Rajendra Chetty

Cape Town

← x | 1 →

· 1 ·


I have long felt the need to research and celebrate marginalized writers in South Africa. After years of apartheid and over two decades of freedom, the works of these minority writers have still not received the recognition they deserve. Was this neglect merely an oversight or deliberate marginalization by the old white government and equally complicit universities that had the power to devalue texts by non-whites in their mission to create ‘the little white South African canon’? This question is inextricably tied to the Ronnie Govender story, which this book attempts to tell.

In the early 2000s, I began interviewing South African Indian writers as part of a research project to compile a seminal text on this particular sub-genre of writings. The writers included Ronnie Govender, Ahmed Essop, Farida Karodia and Shabbir Banoobhai. Ronnie Govender had written over twelve plays, internationally acclaimed short stories, a highly praised novel and a compelling autobiography, yet his work does not seem to have come to the attention of mainstream critics. His first book of short stories, At the Edge and other Cato Manor Stories (1996), won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for the Best First book in Africa. My first meeting with Ronnie did not go well:

‘Mr. Govender, I am doing a project on Indian writers and I shall be grateful if you would kindly allow me to interview you’. ← 1 | 2 →

‘Indian writer? I’m not an Indian writer. For God’s sake, I wasn’t born in India. I am as South African as anyone else born and naturalized in this great country…’

This admonishment was salutary. After I outlined the reasons for my project, he heard me out, not so brusquely as the first time, but still with some impatience.

Ronnie wrote this poem, long before Thabo Mbeki’s celebrated speech, ‘I am an African’:

I have been called
An Indian,
South African Indian,
Indian South African,
Char ou
Who am I?
I am,
Like my father and my mother and their fathers
And their mothers before them,


X, 176
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (November)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. X, 176 pp.

Biographical notes

Rajendra Chetty (Author)

Rajendra Chetty is a leading postcolonial scholar and has written extensively on commonwealth literature; critical pedagogy; and race, class and marginalization. His seminal works include South African Indian Writings in English (2002) and the Vintage Book of South African Indian Writings (2010). His co-edited works include Indias Abroad: The Diaspora Writes Back (2005); Indian Writers: Transnationalisms and Diaspora (2009); and Trauma, Resistance, Reconstruction in Post-1994 South African Writing (2010). He is the President of the English Academy of Southern Africa, was awarded the Fulbright visiting professor scholarship to the USA in 2015 and received the 2016 Medal of Honour from the South African Education Association for his research.


Title: At the Edge
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188 pages