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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 7. ‘1949’—Race and the Colonial Agenda


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‘1949’ is placed towards the end of Ronnie Govender’s collection of short stories, At the edge (1996). Bookended as it is between ‘Poobathie’ at the start of the collection and ‘Over my dead Body’ at the close, ‘1949’ contains elements of both tales: racism, colonial induced savagery and prejudice. But it reflects the humanity, hope and heroism of these parenthetically placed tales as well. Dumisane dies heroically defending his landlord’s family against armed groups of vigilante Zulus whipped up by a third force intent on turning Black against Indian according to the old colonial strategy of divide and conquer. Govender balances forces of hope against those fired by blind rage. In this respect alone the narrative describes many scenes in many countries and times where anger overrides reason. However, his tale is not merely a struggle tale of the anti-apartheid era but a short story for every season: it is an archetypal South African story as much as Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country and Zakes Mda’s Heart of Redness. Govender’s reputation may be established by his play, ‘The Lahnee’s Pleasure’, but is assured to a large extent by ‘1949’. Both narratives depict the humiliating scene of colonial boss patronising non-white staff. In ‘The Lahnee’s Pleasure’ Mothi dances for the owner, while in ‘1949’ Dumisane sings for the English employer at his grand home in Kloof. The act of Blacks performing for the colonial boss...

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