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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 10. Coolitude, Indenture and ‘Swami’


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· 10 ·


The inhumanity of indenture forms a vital context for Govender’s work but particularly so for the sustained appeal for humanity in his neglected, yet highly significant play, ‘Swami’. The following harrowing account of the effects of indentured labour stands out as testimony to true conditions of indentured labour in many parts of the British Empire: a system of gross human exploitation which demonstrated how far architects of English supremacy would go to enforce their power globally:

Chief Justice Beaumont, was ‘haunted by the malnourished indentured labourers he had seen in Demerara: creatures so worn by illness and starvation as to appear at first sight actual skeletons, every bone visible, perfectly fleshless, their legs appearing like long stilts, their very buttocks almost entirely exposed and worn to the bone, and the faces showing their terrible appearance of a skeleton’s head, only lighted up in their great hollow orbits by eyes that yet reflected a dull glimmer’. (Torabully, 1992: 55)

Few readers could miss the similarity of this description to Conrad’s portrayal of skeletal Congolese labourers in Heart of Darkness or horrifying photographs of emaciated figures of Jewish survivors of Nazi death camps. The grasp of imperialism globally has replaced the singular control of the British Empire: the transatlantic alliance continues to re-assert its imperium in new and ← 137 | 138 → grotesque ways across the world, as evidenced by revolutions on either side of the Atlantic...

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