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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 8. Ayakanoo: Bucket Carrier


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· 8 ·


Amongst many degrading and dehumanising systems that humiliated the oriental ‘pagan’, who had the unpleasant task of emptying them, was the bucket system of sanitation. Although Indians frequently paid the same municipal rates or higher than what whites paid, water-borne sanitation was denied areas such as Cato Manor for an unreasonable period. White residents therefore were living at a higher standard than Indians for less, and were, in effect, being subsidized by Indians. In miniature this abusive white privilege is the arrangement of the lahnee living off the labour of the coolie. This exploitation did not have the marks of Wilberforce’s (1839) love of fellow human beings, or the mood of amazing grace or the bright light of Christian love. It should also be noted that although the bucket system was transferred from India where the lowest caste took care of the night soil, many such as the character Ayakanoo, came to South Africa to escape such a fate.

Indians had to clear faecal matter by employing latrine workers from their own communities. Govender provides a fictionalised account of this social degradation and its corrosive influence on the psyche of a latrine worker, and the collective community consciousness, in ‘Saris, Bangles and Bees’. He ironically plays on the popular white song in order to contrast the jollity and enjoyment of life for some and the pain, marginalization and destitution ← 109 | 110 → of the many. Through his...

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