Millennium Post

Literature and the Last Liberator

Literature and the Last Liberator
When Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1991, she was the first South African writer to bag the prestigious recognition. At that time, the racist apartheid regime was still not abolished and what Gordimer had written about in all her work was how terrible it had been for the people, especially the black people in the country. And she had written about Nelson Mandela, who had been released from prison just a year earlier, in 1990, after serving a 27-year-long sentence.

It’s practically impossible to imagine South African literature without the man at the centre of its political imagination. It’s the man who split the colour white into its prismatic components; gave his country the sobriquet of the rainbow nation. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had delivered South Africa from the ‘state of being apart’ – from itself, from its humanity, from its soul. No novel, no play, no poem, no song was perhaps without at least a passing reference to Madiba, the great soul, the man with a mission. Not just Gordimer, who shared a very special bond with the first democratically elected president of the country, but perhaps every writer, poet, dramatist born or bred in South Africa had his or her literary and political anchorage in the man. It was responding to the challenges of overcoming the apartheid, of depicting its myriad horrors, of its ritual ignominy that united South African literature, which gave the still nebulous washed out Anglo-colonial musings a radical makeover, made it from an overtly white and racist enterprise into an instrument of revolution – personal and political, and black. In fact, it was Mandela’s inspiring speeches at various watershed moments of his life that form in a way the crux of the canon of contemporary political thought in South Africa. Besides the brilliant
Long Walk to Freedom
(1994), his autobiography, in which he recounts the details of his life as a child in Cape Provence, his university education, rising to the cause of the anti-apartheid movement and the 27 long years spent in prison, he had also come up with The Struggle is My Life (1990), his first book that was essentially a compilation of his writings and speeches between 1944 and 1990. Conversations with Myself (2001) was his most recent anthology of speeches, interview transcripts, friendly discussions and banters with those who surrounded him later in his life and as well as critical letters to the government.

Gordimer, who met Mandela in 1964, had to say this about Madiba: ‘To have lived one’s life at the same time, and in the same natal country, as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a guidance and a privilege we South Africans shared. I also knew the privilege of becoming one of his friends. I met him in 1964, during the Rivonia Trial, when he was being tried for acts of sabotage against the government, and I was present in court when he was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1979, I wrote a novel, “Burger’s Daughter,” on the theme of the family life of revolutionaries’ children, a life ruled by their parents’ political faith and the daily threat of imprisonment. I don’t know how the book, which was banned in South Africa when it was published, was smuggled to Mandela in Robben Island Prison. But he, the most exigent reader I could have hoped for, wrote me a letter of deep, understanding acceptance about the book.’

Gordimer further writes that when in 1985, the apartheid President P W Botha offered Mandela his freedom if he unconditionally renounced all violence as a political instrument, Mandela wrote back and his reply was read out by his daughter Zindzi, at a huge stadium in Soweto: ‘Let him renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle apartheid. Let him unban the people’s organisation, the African National Congress. . .  I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free.’ Other than Gordimer, the other Nobel laureate from South Africa, J M Coetzee, too, had been shaped and formed by Mandela’s overarching political vision, even though he offered a more skeptical portrait of the anti-apartheid movement and its post-apartheid nightmarish aftermaths. Though Coetzee left South Africa for Australia several years back, still the days of blaze and nights of fights in Cape Town, Pretoria, Johannesburg informed his dreams and fired up his writerly spirit. Cats prowled the streets of his imagination and Mandela sat high on a thorny throne of revolutionary ideology. Unlike Gordimer, Coetzee had also his share of criticisms stored for Madiba. While praising his revolutionary single-mindedness, the author of
Disgrace, Life and Times of Michael K, Waiting for the Barbarians
wrote eloquently about Mandela’s ‘insufficient’ resistance to post-apartheid free-market capitalism and his being ‘blindsided by the collapse of socialism.’ Yet Coetzee also speaks affectionately of Mandela’s ‘gracious common touch’, ‘Victorian ideals of personal integrity and devotion to public service.’ Coetzee says it all when he writes that with Mandela, ‘the concept of greatness retires into the historical shadows,’ a sentiment he shares with the US president Barack Obama, another master orator, who in his memorial speech for Mandela called him the ‘Last Liberator.’

It is, however, a disgrace of another order that Mandela’s legacy, at least in Anglophone literature, has been mostly reclaimed by white South African authors such as Gordimer and Coetzee, leaving out from the bigger picture literary taskmasters like Njabulo Ndebele, whose The Cry of Winnie Mandela offers the other side, as it were, of the man, the myth, the legend. Moreover, the global dominance of English has also cast into shadows the writings in Afrikaans and other African languages. Authors like Andre Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, still occupy a second tier, and their immense literary contribution and reflections on Mandela and the wider state of affairs in South Africa, Africa and the global dance of equality remain limited to area studies or African literatures courses in universities.

Mandela must be placed alongside Frantz Fanon, since if the latter gave the blacks their vocabulary, the former gave them voice and walked them to the dream of freedom. Truly, Mandela represented the audacity of hope, as Barack Obama has said it beautifully in his own words.
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