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At the Margin of One/Many Languages

Essays on South African Literature


Peter Horn

The essays collected here are responses to books of poetry and prose published during the transition period from the apartheid regime of the mid-1980s to the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994. The volume comprises a variety of texts written during the crucial mid-1980s – the time of the «Emergency» and the height of oppression – up to and including the installation of the first freely elected South African government in 1994.
In the years of anti-apartheid struggle, the immediate political conflict was pre-eminent in the minds of many poets but extended to broader concerns about race, writing and colonialism, such as the debate about the imbongi (African praise singer) as the true antecedent of the contemporary African poet. After the end of apartheid new challenges came to the South African book publishing industry and, thus, to South African writers, as they tried to make sense of the past and draw tentative lines into the future. The works of J. M. Coetzee, Njabulo Ndebele, Kelwyn Sole, Sandile Dikeni, Vincent Swart, Heather Robertson, Patrick Cullinan, Seitlhamo Motsapi, W. P. B. Botha and more are read against this changing social and political landscape.
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“Nothing less than the writing of our own texts”: Njabulo Ndebele’s Rediscovery of the Ordinary


It took a few years before Albie Sachs made widely known the sentence: “Revolutionaries […] are not always busy fighting. They are also busy loving, jilting each other, being envious of each other”, which for the first time appeared in Njabulo Ndebele’s Sol Plaatje Memorial Lecture of 1984.1 Such is the richness of Ndebele’s cultural thinking that it is even now feeding the debates around cultural policy with ideas first formulated ten years ago. The inherent authority of that thinking for me became apparent for the first time when I met Njabulo Ndebele at the Jubilee Conference of the English Academy of South Africa in 1986, when his keynote address “The English Language and Social Change in South Africa” sustained and enriched the debate in every discussion group in which I took part. The collected essays of Ndebele, Rediscovery of the Ordinary,2 confirm amply the impression which the encounter with the one or the other individual essay had already formed in my mind: reading it we meet one of the most potent thinkers in the arena of cultural politics in South Africa.

Writer’s organisations and cultural initiatives are inherently fragile, given the very sensitive egos of artists, and the history of “The Writers’ Movement in South Africa”, included in this volume, testifies to the many initiatives in the past being abandoned or breaking up over matters of principle or in the clash of incompatible personalities. It is the quiet authority ← 41 | 42 → and the incisive thinking...

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