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At the Edge

The Writings of Ronnie Govender

Rajendra Chetty

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.

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Chapter 1. Introduction


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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:

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