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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 6. ‘Poobathie’—Colour, Caste and Religion

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‘POOBATHIE’—COLOUR, CASTE AND RELIGION

Ronnie Govender is too wise a narrator, too adroit a thinker, to present a Manichean polarity of good versus evil in his writing. Instead, he presents a nuanced and complex view of his fellow human being: one which avoids the ‘good guys versus bad guys’ mentality of mainstream prejudice exhibited freely in so many areas of political policy. So, in his tale of ‘Poobathie’, one of the more plangent parts of At the Edge, Govender interrogates his own community: their stubborn retention of the class system and their own blindness about skin colour. Govender himself explains that to this day in India a dark complexion is rated more poorly than a fair skin. Parents of fair children consider themselves more fortunate than those of dark off-spring. Poobathie is a young girl who is so dark that ‘people say’ if she were not smiling in the dark and showing her white teeth, nobody would be able to discern her. Govender, blind in one eye and dubbed ‘cock-eye’ is sensitive to gossip and the dangers of the tongue. He begins his tale by pointing out that ‘there are no depths to the unkindness of people who say such things’. In such rejoinders and almost invisible asides, Govender avoids being only a protest writer and attains the status of artist: a critical thinker who refuses to take sides and who is willing to point out social ills in all...

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