Time and Alterity in South African Writing

André Brink, J.M. Coetzee, and Zakes Mda Revisited

by Paulina Grzęda (Author)
Monographs 326 Pages
Series: Modernity in Question, Volume 18


The Covid-19 pandemic has thrust us all into a warped, disjointed ‘coronatime,’ which has both uncontrollably accelerated, and interminably decelerated, or got frozen. Just like the pandemic, this book provides a chance to reevaluate neoliberalism’s temporal regimes of growth, decline, deceleration and acceleration. South Africa and its contemporary literature are a perfect background against which to think about temporality experimentally. Focusing on three South African authors, André Brink, J.M. Coetzee and Zakes Mda, the book examines contemporary South African revisioning of time and alterity. Through some of the previously unexplored texts, it studies what living in a post-conflict, post-revolutionary and highly traumatized society entails for one’s perception of time and otherness.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter I: The Persistence of History and South African Literature
  • Chapter II: Alterity, Time and De-​temporalisation of Difference: the Alter(nat)ing Temporalities of Post-apartheid
  • Chapter III: Magical Realism and Temporalities of Post-apartheid: Utopian Longings of the Transition Period
  • Chapter IV: Towards the Ethics of the Alter(nat)ing Temporalities of Post-apartheid: Alterity and Time in Writings by Zakes Mda and J. M. Coetzee
  • Chapter V: Trauma, Alterity and Temporalities of Post-apartheid in South African Autobiographical Writing: Trilogy of Fictionalised Memoirs by J. M. Coetzee
  • Chapter VI: South African Autobiographical Writing as Autophylography?: Memoirs by André Brink and Zakes Mda
  • Epilogue: Now, For South Africa’s Future to Come?
  • Works Cited
  • Index

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How the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Changed Our Perception of Time

Perhaps, the topicality of the concerns of this book, namely our contemporary perceptions of time and alterity, could not have reached a more climatic moment. The outburst of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 has ushered us all into a warped, disjointed ‘coronatime.’ Globally, the pandemic has structurally reconstructed people’s perception of time. Interestingly, this distortion of time has been double-channelled, as there is a widespread sense that pandemic temporality has both uncontrollably accelerated, and interminably decelerated, or even come to a standstill, got frozen. This has created confusion and unprecedented consternation. In an early article on ‘coronatime,’ Pardes observes:

The virus has created its own clock, and in coronatime, there is less demarcation between a day and a week, a weekday and a weekend, the morning and night, the present and the recent past. The days blend together, the months lurch ahead. And while so much of the pandemic’s impact has landed unequally across geography, race, and class, these distortions of time feel strangely universal.

(Pardes 2020)

The enforced lockdown has brought about a sudden paralysis of socioeconomic relations worldwide. It has drastically interrupted the regular flow of activities around the globe. In the span of a few months, many businesses were forced to shut down, numerous social and economic, as well as cultural and academic projects were suspended, massive cancelations were put in place and international travel was temporarily brought to a halt. Globally, people have reported losing the daily track of time, feeling that days melt, months evaporate and years freeze. In a study devoted to the evolving perceptions of time during the UK COVID-19 lockdown, Ruth Ogden proves that increasing stress, reduced task load and decreased social interaction have brought about a generalised sense of the slowing of the passage of time (Ogden 2020). The lockdown has also produced a baffling sense of space-time fusion that even Harvey could not have anticipated in his famous postulates about the postmodern emergence of time-space compression, whereby spatial and temporal distances are condensed or entirely elided (Harvey 1990). As our our homes have been transformed into a workplace, children’s school and the only space for rare social interactions, we have all painfully experienced the collapse of our traditional spatio-temporal ←9 | 10→co-ordinates. Indeed, the lockdown has simplified and unified our sense of social temporality; yet, all this against the backdrop of radical uncertainty. As Pardes notes, the months of repeat routines, confinement and lack of any sense of novelty have produced a “quarantine paradox,” whereby weeks spent shut indoors stretch infinitely, yet in hindsight they are barely remembered (Pardes 2020). This has led some people to report feeling deprived of “temporal agency,” one of our fundamental cognitive competences, which anthropologist of time, Felix Ringel, defines as “the ability to structure, manage and manipulate our experience of time” (Ringel 2020).

On an unprecedented scale, we have begun to endure the effects of what Guyer terms the “enforced presentism” of the postmodern-neoliberal condition, in other words, a sense of being stranded in the present, combined with the inability to forsee “the near future” (Guyer 2007, 410). Guyer has identified this sense of a reduction to the present accompanied by a strange evacuation of the temporal frames of both the near past and the near future as one of the most disturbing phenomena of our contemporary dispensation. She has also summarised this emphasis on a very short temporal focus as severely inhibiting not only our “reach of thought and imagination,” but also our capabilities of “planning and hoping, of tracing mutual influences, of engaging in struggles for specific goals, in short, of the process of implicating oneself in the ongoing life of the social and material world that used to be encompassed under an expansively inclusive concept of ‘reasoning’” (Guyer 2007, 409). Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic has made it impossible for millions of people not only to plan ahead for their near future, but also to imagine a future that would differ from the present.

Paradoxically, however, the coronavirus pandemic has also brought about an unprecedented technological, biotechnological, and digital acceleration that even Paul Virilio could not have imagined when describing the social acceleration characterising today’s high-speed societies (Virilio 2008). The COVID-19 crisis has forced us to appreciate how dependent we are on the twenty-first-century technologies such as AI, the social media, the internet of things, e-learning platforms, 3D printing, etc. Within a few weeks, 1,5 billion students worldwide have switched to remote learning (Khagram 2020), and companies from all sectors including such giants as Google, Amazon, Nike, or Facebook have hustled to virtualise their business operations, in many cases embracing the so-called “work from anywhere” models that had previously taken decades to settle down (Choudhury 2020). The coronavirus has also ushered this new technology paradigm into healthcare, concentrating global efforts on the accelerated timeline for the development, manufacturing and distribution of a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19. As a result, there are currently three vaccines approved for ←10 | 11→use in the UK, and several dozens of candidates currently in stages of clinical trials (as of January 15, 2021). What historically took decades to be accomplished (the chickenpox vaccine took 28 years to develop), has now been made possible within less than a year. At the same time, the unequal global distribution of access to healthcare and technology, has deepened social inequalities at a pace unimaginable only months ago. Even the publishing industry has been affected by this epochal transformation. Within less than 3 months since the outburst of the pandemic, on the 24th of March, Slavoj Žižek announced that he had published a book about coronavirus, Pandemic! COVID-19 Shakes the World. 6 weeks later Žižek’s book was already translated into a dozen of languages. Indeed, in The Sunday Times, Peter Evans recapitulated “the great coronavirus acceleration” as having “crunched years of behavioral change and tech disruption into months” (2020). According to Antentas,

The virus acts as an accelerator of tendencies, as a precipitator, like a wormhole where stages are skipped and in which the leaps forward also modify the final result. It is not a linear acceleration, but a syncopated, catastrophic one, which hastens a phase change.

(Antentas 2020, 316)

Khagram has even summarised the coronavirus pandemic as having accelerated the Fourth Industrial Revolution, “blurring the boundaries between the physical, digital and biological worlds” (Khagram 2020). Indeed, a number of analysts have lately observed the need to substitute the conceptual framework provided by the V.U.C.A model with an alternative concept, which Jamais Cascio neatly encapsulates in the acronym B.A.N.I (Cascio 2020, Garcia 2020, Grabmeier 2020). Developed within the military environment of the late 1980s, the acronym V.U.C.A was supposed to explain the intricacies of the post-Cold War world, which became increasingly: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Eagerly embraced by business and political leaders, sociologists and psychologists alike, the V.U.C.A model served as a common point of orientation, allowing people from around the globe to define the dominant characteristics of today’s world: an unprecedented social acceleration (volatility), unpredictability (uncertainty), the interconnectedness of the multitude of forces (complexity), and the increased potential for misunderstanding (ambiguity). Nonetheless, as Cascio, member of the Institute for the Future, asserts, the concept of V.U.C.A has recently lost its analytical purchase. In the midst of contemporary political mayhem, climate disasters, and the global pandemic, we desperately need a shift in paradigm, a new sense-making framework. What Cascio proposes as an alternative conceptual tool to better frame, understand and respond to the modern-day challenges is the B.A.N.I model (2020). Indeed, what used to be volatile has now become ←11 | 12→brittle; we do not experience uncertainty anymore, we have rather developed anxiety; complexity of the world around us has been replaced by non-linearity, as cause and effect seem to be increasingly disconnected in today’s non-linear world. Last but not least, we do not find contemporary developments ambiguous anymore, they are simply incomprehensible (Cascio 2020). It is Cascio’s belief that the concept of B.A.N.I. provides a much better-suited cognitive framework “to illustrate the scale of the disruptions, the chaos, underway, and enable consideration of what kinds of responses would be useful” (2020). Indeed, we are currently living in a state of emergency, in the midst of chaos.

All the temporal disjunctures outlined above have produced a generalised sense of rupture, bringing extreme disorientation, and they have been largely experienced as temporalities of crisis. Indeed, the COVID-19 has generated a crisis not only in public health, but also more significantly in our very capacity to make spatiotemporal sense of the world around us. Indeed, as the following book will explain in more detail, the manner in which people perceive time in moments of severe traumatisation, life-threatening situations, or economic upheavals bears striking resemblance to our contemporary readings of time and temporality during the coronavirus pandemic. Such a disorientating concomitance of heterogenous, non-linear, syncopated temporalities, at times decelerated, at times accelerated, which often overlap, sometimes come into friction, has become a dominant characteristic of the temporal set-up of many post-conflict, post-crisis societies long before the global outburst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, much of the postcolonial world has long experienced time as decidedly non-chronological, non-synchronous, and multi-layered multiplicity of pasts, presents and futures. South Africa seems to be no exception here. Quite the opposite, as my study proves, in many respects, South Africa serves as a perfect background against which to begin thinking about temporality experimentally. Perhaps, then, it would be hard to imagine a better moment that now to reach out for a study that explores the intricate questions of time, its experience, its perceptions, and its literary representations, as well as its insidious implication in the manner in which social and cultural lives are organised not only globally, but also more specifically in South Africa. Our experience of the pandemic has provided us with a training in temporal flexibility and spatiotemporal reconsiderations. It has offered us an opportunity, even if involuntary, to reevaluate neoliberalism’s temporal regimes of growth, decline, deceleration and acceleration. I do hope that the book you are holding in your hands right now will also allow you such an exercise in temporal re-imaginings of the world. In a widely commented reflection on the coronavirus pandemic, the Indian writer Arundhati Roy has laid out the challenge of the present moment:

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What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. […] Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality’, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

(Roy 2020)

I do hope that the following book whose principal concerns are situated at the very intersection of philosophies of time and alterity will provide readers with a conceptual infrastructure to allow shedding the burden of our prejudice, hatred, and avarice in a bold attempt to imagine the world anew.

The book’s primary focus remains the African continent, and more specifically South Africa; yet, as my analysis proves, temporality has been crucial to the ways in which difference and sameness have been constructed in a geopolitical context on a global scale. Thus, it seems that it is the very recognition of the embeddedness of one’s perception of temporality in power structures that can make time and its varied conceptualisations very efficient tools for addressing issues of inequality and approaching questions of otherness and alterity in historical terms. As my analysis will attempt to prove there is broad evidence that that only time-based approach to studying otherness, as opposed to race-based analysis, can lay the foundations for a more emancipatory collective consciousness, and as such, it holds an unparalleled ethical potential.

Trajectory of the Book

Biographical notes

Paulina Grzęda (Author)

Paulina Grzęda is Assistant Professor at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw, Poland. She researches alternative perceptions of time in postcolonial cultures (with a special focus on Africa), historiography, cultural perceptions of otherness, representations of trauma in film and literature, as well as links between literature and psychotherapy. She is also a certified coach and an inquisitive traveller.


Title: Time and Alterity in South African Writing