Literature of South Africa

Chapman raises the question:

[W]hose language, culture, or story can be said to have authority in South Africa when the end of apartheid has raised challenging questions as to what it is to be a South African, what it is to live in a new South Africa, whether South Africa is a nation, and, if so, what its mythos is, what requires to be forgotten and what remembered as we scour the past in order to understand the present and seek a path forward into an unknown future.

South Africa has 11 national languages, Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Pedi, Tswana, Venda, SiSwati, Tsonga, and Ndebele. Any definitive literary history of South Africa should, it could be argued, discuss literature produced in all eleven languages. But the only literature ever to adopt characteristics that can be said to be ‘national’, is Afrikaans. Olivier argues, “Of all the literatures in South Africa, Afrikaans literature has been the only one to have become a national literature in the sense that it developed a clear image of itself as a separate entity, and that by way of institutional entrenchment through teaching, distribution, a review culture, journals, etc. it could ensure the continuation of that concept.” Part of the problem is that English literature has been seen within the greater context of English writing in the world, and has, because of English’s global position as lingua franca, not been seen as autonomous or indigenous to South Africa – in Olivier’s words, “English literature in South Africa continues to be a sort of extension of British or international English literature.” The African languages, on the other hand, are spoken across the borders of Southern Africa, e.g. Tswana which is spoken in Botswana, and Tsonga in Zimbabwe, and Sotho in Lesotho. South Africa’s borders were drawn up by the British Empire, and like all other colonies, these borders were drawn without regard for the people living within them. Therefore: in a history of South African literature, do we include all Tswana writers, or only the ones with South African citizenship? Chapman bypasses this problem by including ‘Southern’ African literatures. The second problem with the African languages is accessibility, because since the African languages are regional languages, none of them can claim the readership on a national scale comparable to Afrikaans and English. Sotho, for instance, while transgressing the national borders of the RSA, is on the other hand mainly spoken in the Free State, and bears very little relation to the language of Natal for example, Zulu. So the language cannot claim a national readership, while on the other hand being ‘international’ in the sense that it transgresses the national borders.

Olivier argues that “There is no obvious reason why it should be unhealthy or abnormal for different literatures to co-exist in one country, each possessing its own infrastructure and allowing theoreticians to develop impressive theories about polysystems”. Yet political idealism proposing a unified ‘South Africa’ (a remnant of the colonial British approach) has seeped into literary discourse and demands a unified national literature, which does not exist and has to be fabricated. It is unrealistic to ever think of South Africa and South African literature as homogenous, now or in the near or distant future, since the only reason it is a country at all is the interference of European colonial powers. This

~ by jeanehistoria on December 29, 2009.

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