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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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“Standing armed on our own ground”: Barry Feinberg’s Gardens of Struggle


There is nothing more fundamentally political than the changing of perceptions of people.1 The forming of their perceptions through words and images in TV, radio, newspapers, films, pop songs, school syllabuses and university courses, to mention just a few perception manipulating instruments, is one of the most basic ways in which democracy can function as phantasmal wish-fulfilment without fulfilling the desires of the voters who put the politicians in power. It is the poet who, if true to his calling, changes these illusory images and replaces them by what he sees as the true story.

Barry Feinberg’s collection of poetry is a poetic history of the struggle which, while it was written, changed the perceptions of many of his readers about the true nature of that struggle: A Day at the Treason Trial (we might have met then in December 1956, but we didn’t until Barry Feinberg came back from exile), the Martyrs of Matola (January 30, 1981), the battle for Zimbabwe (No Cause for Alarm), the strike of the dockworkers in Durban 1973 (A counterpoint of marching feet), the fighters of Mkhonto we Sizwe (Ten targets reel under rage of vision, Powdered Typhoons unwind slowly, Gardens of Struggle, Standing armed on our own ground, Wilson (A tribute to the Luthuli Brigade on its 20th anniversary)), the Soweto rebellion (Where no seed bore fruit before), mementoes to some of the heroes of the struggle (This is Johnny, J.B. Marks: An Epitaph, Every Atom of his Substance...

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