Papers delivered at various conferences or other occasions

Killing a Story: The Discourse of Cannibalism in the History and Literature of the Basotho


This paper explores the theme of cannibalism in the historical and literary texts relating to the Basotho. It points to the link between cannibalism and the historical period the lifaqane, which was an heroic epoch gone out of control. It shows how the repression of cannibalism is inscribed in the founding moment of the Basotho nation, therefore how it links to Basotho identity. Other aspect explored is the link between cannibalism and the supernatural (the use of human flesh in medicine and ritual), but also on how cannibalism was used as literary motif by the SeSotho within the contesting ideologies of traditional SeSotho world views and Christianity. It further touches on the problem of the historicity and factuality of cannibalism, as well as its link to the mouth as performative instrument in story telling.


The Tsonga people of South Africa has a custom of spitting into a fire after telling a story. It is a way of killing the story so that it does not follow them into their dreams. [1]

A character which often features in these stories is the ogre, half human and half animal, and living on human flesh. The ogre, or cannibal, belongs to realm of the animal rather than human society. He, or sometimes she, lives in the wilderness, outside of society. As part of the animal world, and associated with the lion and hyena[2], the cannibal becomes also part of the sacred world[3].  The lion is often seen as a transformed shaman in the cultures of the hunter-gatherers[4] and this belief was possibly shared by the Bantu-speaking groups such as the Tsonga or the Basotho. The word for cannibal in SeSotho “modimo” also refers to God. The cannibal of tales and religion, though, is different from the cannibal in history and it is part of the intention of this article to explore the link if there is any.

A further question is what is the link between the telling of stories where the mouth is such an important performative instrument (stories are told with the mouth) and the motif of cannibalism itself (as one eats with the mouth). Within pre-Christian societies where associative links between things had a determining impact this is an important question. I ask this question as historical cannibalism, possibly a food economy somewhere between hunting and gathering and the domestication of cattle[5], as occurrence on syntagmatic level of consciousness moves further and further into the associative realm – into the realm of stories and discourse. I’m interested in the transition and differences between “real” event, which can never be recaptured in its full presence and which we cannot talk about without doubt, or without questioning the motives of our sources,  and the associative chain which is brought about as it moves further and further into memory and the unconscious. As distance develop between historical event and ourselves it becomes metaphor for more and more things. C. Richard King[6] for instance discusses the problem of the association of cannibalism with capitalism on the basis that it is a mode of consumption depending on the exploitation of an underclass in diacritics. Through the same use of associative thinking (a less politically correct) relationship between oral societies and cannibalism can be made as the mouth is foregrounded in both. In these stories a cannibal or trickster often eat the grandmother or the children. These stories play with the desire for omnipotence as the children to whom they are told desire to introject the grandmother who tells the story[7].

While associative thinking is tolerated (as current literary theory shares much with the type of thinking operative in pre-Christian times, except that it retains Christian petty morality) the factuality of the original event comes more and more under question on the basis that the past cannot be brought back into full presence, but also because it is ideologically suspect. Cannibalism is seen as an invention of missionaries to justify the imposition of their world view on their heathen subjects and is part  of the conspiracy by the West.

It is in the light of the above that the similarities and differences between history, folklore, ritual, mythology and literature as discourses, and the process whereby history becomes folklore through the dream-work of displacement and condensation becomes important. For this paper the question of the reality or the correctness of the events described is not as important as the fact that the presence of the theme in SeSotho texts point to it as a constituent of the unconscious identity of the people.

The link between the “real” and the associative points to a link between the syntagmatic (historical event)  and the paradigmatic (unconscious associations). This link is very pertinent to the literary, historic and folkloric discourses of Lesotho, where there was a cannibalist historical moment in the 1820s, where the ogre is an important folkloric character[8]  and where at the metaphoric level the people of Lesotho are being cannibalised by the South African mines and South African imperialism.

In this paper the theme of cannibalism will be looked at historically and as theme in the folklore and literature of the Basotho where as part of the group mythology it is one of central elements of the Basotho identity formation[9].

Cannibalism in Basotho History 

The Basotho are people living in a small mountainous country called Lesotho in the centre of South Africa, but who managed through patronage of Great Britain to remain politically independent from South Africa, although they are economically sustained by wages earned by the men on the South African gold mines. As a nation the Basotho came about as a merging of many smaller and dispersed tribes during the unsettling wars of the nineteenth century, especially during the lifaqane (difaqane in Zulu, from the name of the Mfengu refugees. Mfengu derives from the word fenguza expressing “their need for sustenance” or meaning “we want”[10]), when the wandering refugee tribes fleeing the Zulu king Shaka (especially the AmaNgwane under Matiwane and the Matebele under Msilikatze, who in their turn dispersed the AmaHlubi under Pakalita) invaded the territories occupied by the Basotho.

Thomas Mofolo described the lifaqane as follows in his book Chaka[11]:

Ahead of Chaka’s armies the land was beautiful, and was adorned with villages and ploughed fields and numerous herds of cattle; but upon their tracks were charred wastes without villages, without ploughed fields, without cattle, without anything whatsoever, except occasionally some wild animals. Wild dogs and hyenas roamed about in large packs following or flanking Chaka’s armies, and stopping wherever they stopped in the knowledge that that way they would obtain food without sweat or labour, provided free by someone else. The land became wild and unfriendly and threatening; the smell of death was upon the earth and in the air. The fields lay fallow for lack of people to plough them, because the moment someone dug his field, Chaka would see him, and that would be the end. Where villages once stood was utter desolation, the ghostly sight of which one’s hair stand on end.

It was at that time that, on account of hunger, people began to eat each other as one eats the flesh of a slaughtered animal; they hunted each other like animals and ate each other; they started because of hunger, but afterwards continued with their cannibalism out of habit. The first cannibal was a Zulu called Ndava, who lived near the place where the city of Durban now stands.  And then after a few years the persecutions and sufferings from the east climbed over the Maloti mountains and entered Lesotho, and there too cannibals came into being because of hunger. This is the worst of all the evil things of those days, and that too arose because of Chaka, originator-of-all-things-evil.

The missionary Ellenberger[12] states that in this period the cannibals were present everywhere in the area where the BaSotho lived. He calculated that there were about 4000 of them and that in the period 1822 to 1828 about 288 000 people died being eaten by their fellows[13].

The tribes who indulged in cannibalism according to Ellenberger were the Bakhatla of Tabane, and especially the Bakhatla ruled by the chief Rakotsoane at Sefikeng, the Bamaiyane, the Bafokeng of Ratjotjosane, who lived in a cave on “the spurs of Mautse, facing Leribe” and the Mazizi at Sekubu. The district of Mangane (Bloemfontein in modern times) at the end of 1822 “was infested with cannibals” [14]. In a cave at Mohale’s Hoek there was a brotherhood of twenty-seven cannibals under the leader of Motleyoa. At Sefate and on the banks of the River Nkoe (Cornelius Spruit) there were villages of cannibals. The Sotho who were not cannibals were the bigger tribes who managed to retain their food supplies, especially their cattle. They were the Batsueneng of Khiba, the Bamokoteli under the leadership of Moshesh and the Baphuthi of Mokuoane.

According to Basotho tradition the great Bakuena chief and travelling sage, Mohlomi, prophesised the coming of the lifaqane and cannibalism on his death bed with the words “After my death, a cloud of red dust will come out of the east and consume our tribes. The father will eat his children. I greet you all, and depart to where our fathers rest”[15].

The prophesy was inspired by an encounter he had among the Bamahlabaneng who lived in the Zoutpansberg area in the north of South Africa during one of his travels. The  encounter is described as follows:

Mohlomi arrived at one of their villages unexpectedly about noon. The sun was very hot, and every one in the village slept. Nothing was to be seen but the cattle lying in the shade, and one heard no sound but the barking of the dogs and the buzzing of the flies. But little by little the inhabitants came out of their huts, and the chief appeared and invited Mohlomi to sit down in the shade with his people. To their great horror, he offered the travellers some human flesh to eat[16].

According to Ellenberger cannibalism amongst the Basotho originated among the Bakhatla who intermarried with the Bavenda whose custom it was to eat prisoners of war. The Bakhatla “hunted their fellow-creatures, caught them in traps, and declared all they caught to be prisoners of war”[17].

Cannibalism is attributed to the lifaqane with the invasion of Nguni groups under firstly the AmaHlubi under the king Pakalita, fleeing from the invading AmaNgwane of Matiwane who was dispersed by Chaka. Pakalita in his turn disperses the Batlokoa of queen Mantatisi who in her turn create havoc under other Basotho tribes such as the Bafokeng of Tseele, then the Bafokeng of Patsa, the Bamolibeli of Ramatekoa, the Bamokoteli of Moshesh at Butha-Buthe, the Bahlakoana, the Makhetha and Batloung, the Bahlakoana and the Bafokeng of Patsa whom she attacks raiding their cattle and destroying their harvests. She became “a giantess with one eye in her forehead, who loosed swarms of bees in advance of her soldiers” [18].

But Ellenberger also states that “cannibalism” among the Basotho was present even before the invasions by Mantatisi, Pakalita  and Matiwane. When the Bafokeng’s livelihood was destroyed in raids  by Matiwane’s father, Masopha, they formed, under their leader Letuka, “into bands of robbers, trekking about the country with their women, children, and cattle, and robbing and murdering such as were not strong enough to resist”[19]. They attacked the Bamaiyane who formerly protected them “and utterly ruined them, driving them ultimately to cannibalism” [20].

Another event points to the fact that cannibalism came about due to cattle raiding among Basotho themselves is the ruining of the Bafokeng of Makholokoane by Moshesh’s brother, Mohale. After raiding their cattle  Mohale taunted them with the advice “to eat each other” after which “the ruined tribe immediately became most bloodthirsty cannibals, and a terrible scourge to the country”[21]. They preyed on women and children who in the early mornings searched for edible roots and bulbs on the river-banks and then drove them across the Caledon river to a cave in the spurs of the Mautse. Here they slaughtered, skinned and ate  their prisoners. They made clothes of the skins[22] .

When Moshesh was besieged by  the Batlokoa at Butha-Buthe, he and his people decided to move to the mountain near Quiloane. He broke through the Batlokoa by diverting their attention with the help of the Zulus of Sepetja, “a clan of brigands and cannibals” [23] who surprise-attacked the Batlokoa at the night inflicting heavy loss on them. After this the Batlokoa decided to abandon the siege and Moshesh migrated to Thaba-Bosiu. On this journey some of the people were falling behind including Moshesh’s grandfather, Peete. These were attacked by a band of cannibals. When the rescue party came to help them all they found was blood and some garments.

At Thaba Bosiu, Moshesh increased his following “by collecting round him the fragments of tribes and broken men whom war, famine, and cannibalism had scattered far and wide” [24]. Many years later, in August 1843 (and reported in the Journal des Missions of 1843 [25]), as part of a policy of reconciliation, Moshesh expressed his regret for the taunt by his brother directed at the Bafokeng “to eat each other” in the presence of Rakotsoane’s cannibals and he said “We, the masters of the country, did drive you to live on human flesh, for men cannot eat stones” (Ellenberger 1992:218) [26] .

Rakotsoane, a Bakhatla chief who lived at Sefikeng and ruled over several villages, a man of “gigantic stature, whose fierce eyes were hidden under dark, bushy eyebrows” [27] and therefore resembling the ogre of the folklore, was the leader of the cannibals who ate Peete, the grandfather of Moshesh, during the retreat of the Bamokoteli from Butha-Buthe in 1824 [28].

Moshesh’s eldest son could not be circumcised until his ancestor’s grave was purified, but there was no grave to purify.[29] In 1828 Moshesh ordered Rakotsoane and his followers to Thaba Bosiu where he rubbed the purification offal over them as they were “the tomb of the departed” [30] and he gave the cannibals some cattle to stop their custom to eat people. This event stands out as the beginning of the end of cannibalism in this area, although it continued “in out-of-way places” as late as 1836 [31]. The event is also commented on in a popular song by Letsema Matsemela “In the time of cannibals”:

This song reminds me of the old days,
When I was still a boy, I Letsema;
I found places named with the names of cannibals,
So when I asked the older people to tell me,
Why in the end (they) are named in this way,
They said, “There cannibals stayed.”
“So what finished them?”
They said, “King Moshoeshoe slaughtered cattle,
And collected them all.
Then on arrival he gathered them at his home,
He said, ‘Look, men, the food to be eaten,
it’s these cattle –
You shouldn’t eat people,’ and they understood”[32]

This incident points to an interesting substitution of cattle for people as food supply, something which needs extensive exploration and relates to questions of the relationship between human and animal sacrifice in ancient times[33].

In  black culture there is a strong link between cattle, people and ancestors. The head of the family, for instance, is buried in the cattle-fold and the slaughtering of cattle at ceremonial occasions is symbolic of the eating of ancestors (see Pauw[34]). As in Christianity the eating of bread and the drinking of wine during Holy Communion points to the symbolic consumption of Christ’s body. It points to the resolution of  oedipal conflict in the assimilation of the father’s body in a universal recurrence of what Freud termed the “original sin”[35] or the killing of the father by the brotherhood. In Sotho culture the dead is buried in an ox-hide and an ox is killed for the purification of those who are present at the funeral and the gall-bladder of the ox is attached to a wrist of the person who prepared the corpse. The master of the ceremony has the right to take the skin and the head of the animal,  while the flesh is eaten by all those present.  The cattle of the deceased are made to pass over the grave, and afterwards are sacred to the family [36]. Cattle further constitute the bride-price men has to pay in order to acquire women and it is for this reason that cattle are a sought-after commodity and cattle-raiding becomes part of the culture an essential element of conflict. It played a very strong role in the lifaqane.

Cannibalism and SeSotho literature

A link between cannibalist practices and Sesotho litsomo (oral tales and myths) is drawn by one of the Christian converts whose confession combines apocalyptic motifs with motifs of social rebirth as happens in the tale of Kholumolumo[37]  (this tale is important part of Basotho initiation[38]). The convert, who was a cannibal, stated :

The hand of the Amangwane was heavy on the land; all the tribes were at war with each other, and every one was a fugitive. Day by day men began to eat men, and I too tasted human flesh. From that time I shunned my fellows, dreading to be eaten too. What horrible days followed that on which I cut off the arm of my mother’s brother and cooked and ate it! I also ate my father’s brother, every bit of him, and many others. Even as Ezekiel saw in a vision the dried bones of a whole nation draw near to each other and assume form, so, with terror, do I see the bones I have picked reunite with their fellows and rise up in judgement against me. I see the figure of one with a reim round his neck; another rises from the earth with my knife in his breast; a third appears without an arm; while another indicates an old pot wherein I cooked his flesh. Woe is me, I am afraid! I am Kholumolumo, the horrible beast of our ancient fable, who swallowed all mankind and the beasts of the field[39].

The cannibal is a figure in the heroic epoch of Basotho history and features widely as folkloric figure in the oral tales of the various South African groups. The hero, and the heroic, is in essence part of literary terminology and applied to literary texts such as epic literature derived from oral lore and embedded in a particular cultural and historical milieu, which is very different from the Christian epoch in its values and world outlook. The term is used by H.M. Chadwick & Nora K. Chadwick[40] who derived it from Hesoid’s fourth stage in human development. This stage  referred to a period of universal warfare and mass migrations of people[41]. Rather than exploring the term in relation to its cultural milieu, the Chadwicks narrowly explore it in terms of the formal aspects[42]  of Homeric and Teutonic narrative poetry and the relation between the oral and the written. They do, though, see that heroic poetry is part of a bigger heroic age.  D.P. Kunene saw that the  concept could be used to describe traditional Basotho poetry in his book Heroic Poetry of the Basotho[43]. Although the boasts he investigates are not quite in the form of Heroic epic poetry, it is clearly situated in an African heroic milieu.       The following are elements of the Heroic Age as found in Basotho culture and traditional literature (and also present in the later historical literature by converts such as Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka[44]):

  1. An aristocratic milieu determined by ancestry. Ancestor worship plays an important part in SeSotho religion. Memory of ancestors are kept alive through genealogies which are an integral part of the boasts. The boasts laud own achievements and glories of ancestors especially in combat. They are often produced in a state of intoxication.
  2. The identity of the individual and family are more important than nations, although empire building[45] or the incorporating of more and more tribute-paying tribes became increasingly important.
  3. Warfare and cattle raiding are essential parts of life (at the annual first fruit festival of the Zulu the enemies to be attacked in the coming winter are identified[46]),
  4. Social values are bound up with courage (determined by physical strength), cunning (as exemplified by the trickster figure in the folklore) loyalty, generosity and revenge.
  5. The heroic worldview is tragic, if not absurdist. Witchcraft, magic and omens play a determining role.

In an Heroic Age the eating of parts of a slain enemy on the battle field to internalise the bravery of the enemy, or to use parts of the human body for medicine and various other rituals[47]  are quite common and are described in novels such as Thomas Mofolo’s  Chaka[48]  and in Blanket Boy’s Moon by A.S. Mopeli-Paulus and Peter Lanham[49].

Factuality when writing Chaka was not as important to Mofolo as the literary structuring of the novel, and he uses the idea of the magical use of human flesh in the text as part of his characterization techniques. It is a book about evil personified by the character of King Chaka. By indulging in this practise of taking in human flesh for the sake of power King Chaka sells his humanity or soul as becomes an example of evil. It also had the ideological by-product, as Mofolo was a Sotho and Chaka a Zulu, of making King Chaka into the originator of cannibalism. The taking in of human flesh is part of the initiation of the protagonist to Evil.  The  tragic king sells his soul to attain power by choosing the murder of his mistress Noliwa. Her body became an ingredient in the medicine which gave him power. The fact that the king has a choice creates a degree of tension in the developing plot[50].

Blanket Boy’s Moon (1953) by Lanham and Mopeli-Paulus, a picaresque adventure story, is about the refugee from the law, Monare, who according to traditional custom was ordered by his chief to commit a ritual  murder  (liretlo) so that the body parts of the victim could be used for a “medicine   horn” necessary for the establishment of a new village[51]. Under the new colonial rule this practise is outlawed and Monare becomes a sought-after murderer. The book is essentially about the clash of colonial and traditional values and the lireto is used as an ingredient in the plot to illustrate this dilemma.

Another interesting example of the use of body parts for magical purposes comes from the great text of the lifaqane, namely the History of Matiwane and the Amangwane Tribe as told by Msebenzi to his kinsman Albert Hlongwane[52]. This is not a Sotho document, but is derived from an Amangwane account, and it is interesting in that, unlike most of Sotho literature, Moshesh himself becomes implicated in cannibalist practices, or at least in the use of human flesh for medicinal purposes. The text is an historic account by an oral bard (with many of the formal features of the heroic epic as defined by the Chadwicks) of the Amangwane migration across the Drakensberg and the various battles they engaged in. It describes how Madilika flees with the a spear in his body to Moshesh. His body is found close to Thaba-bosiu, Moshesh’s mountain fortress, by Basotho herders and Moshesh orders them to scrape up “everything, even the very soil”[53].  Ellenberger records that Matiwane accused Moshesh of stealing the corpse “in order to make medicine of it” [54].

Most of the information we have of cannibalism derives from missionaries[55]  and missionary-educated Basotho. The missionary presence in Lesotho points to a great turning point and conversion from heroic values to the values of Christianity and this turning point is strongly present in the Sesotho literature (which was mainly a product of missionary educated authors). Much of this literature was somehow influenced by earlier missionary articles. The question could be asked to what extent is the theme of cannibalism part of a missionary and racist conspiracy, derived from fundraising motives of missionaries. In order to secure needed funds it was necessary to exaggerate the condition of the “heathens” to the missionary societies in Europe funding them.

It is clear reading Ellenberger’s text, which is based on innumerable oral accounts[56] by BaSotho informants (as well as other missionaries’ accounts), that a great degree of displacement and condensation regarding historical events occurs as inevitably happens when material based on memory and telling is used. He often refers to informants he knew and interviewed personally such as  Mabokoboko[57] and Neme[58]. The question of the “reality” of the reports of cannibalism could only be settled by archaeology. All the places where so-called cannibals lived are known and the evidence should still be there[59]. The point, though, is that the theme of cannibalism is widely present in SeSotho literature and this literature seems to indicate a great connection between the repression of cannibalism, and the heroic world of which it was part, and Basotho identity. Moshesh’s reconciliation with the cannibals, changing their eating habits, and incorporating them into what became the BaSotho nation exemplifies this founding moment of BaSotho identity.

  1. Motsamai’s accounts[60] of recorded escapes from cannibals is an attempt to record testimonies of survivors of an apocalyptic moment (and is possibly a forerunner to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission). It must be pointed out that there was a strong mystic presence in the historical lore of the Basotho, even before the missionaries came, in the figure of the travelling sage Mohlomi (who probably served as the model for the mystic protagonist of  Thomas Mofolo’s Moeti wa Botjhabela[61].

But cannibalism itself in the heroic world seems to point to an extreme form of mysticism. The word for cannibal in SeSotho, “Modimo,” (or “Molimo”) is also the word for God, hyena[62]  and Ancestor (also according to Ellenberger for “Invisible Being”) and explains how strongly it is tied up with the supernatural, that which is beyond reason, but also the melancholic[63] origins of these people in the time of the difaqane. The Basotho saw God as a “malignant spirit, invisible and wicked; a pitiless master, residing in a subterranean cavern, always working evil” [64].

The cannibal, like God, is invisible, in that the victims can never testify, can never bring evidence of what happened to them unless they escaped. And then it is always a question of the truth. Does the blood and garments found by the search party for Moshesh’s grandfather, Pete, constitute evidence of cannibalism?

The reality of cannibalism is a “reality” of conjecture and stories. Stories that should be spit on so that their invisible, but threatening presence, could be killed.

[1] C.T.D. Marivate, Tsonga Folktales: Form, Content and Delivery (Volume One). (Pretoria: M.A. Thesis. University of South Africa, 1973), pp. 26-27.

[2] As in E. Motsamai’s  Mehla ya madimo (Morija: Sesuto Book Depot & Press, 1954)

[3] “As soon as human beings give rein to animal nature in some way we enter the world of transgression forming the synthesis between animal nature and humanity through the persistence of the taboo; we enter a sacred world, a world of holy things.”  G. Bataille 1984. Death and Sensuality. Walker and Company, New York

[4] See David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson Images of Power (Johannesburg: Southern Book Publishers, 1989), p.132.

[5] I say this on the basis that cannibal stories are universal, and on the presumption that there is an historical unconscious (real) operative in their telling. Cannibalism must have been practised in different parts of the world at different times.

[6] C. Richard King, “The (Mis)uses of Cannibalism in Contemporary Cultural Critique,” diacritics, Vol 1, No. 1 (2000) pp. 106-123.

[7] See popular story of the trickster who cooks and eats the grandmother “The story of Hlakanyana” from  George McCall Theal, Kaffir Folk Lore. (Leipzig: A Twietmeyer and London: W. Swan Sonnenschein & Co. 1884), pp. 84-110.

[8] Although in many stories predating the real historical cannibalism. The same stories occur in many Bantu languages pointing to the possibility of having been part of Bantu society before it dispersed at various stages or to extensive intermarrying and contact. If these stories are rooted in some historical real it is in a distant past and extensively transmuted by the dream-work operations of condensation and displacement)

[9] (reading Freud one has to acknowledge that at unconscious level it is a central element in the human identity formation which so much depends on the introversion of others and the outside world. Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), p. 72 and pp. 116-117.

[10] Henry Francis Fynn, The Diary of Henry Francis Fynn  (Pietermaritzburg: Shuter &  Shooter, 1986), pp. 22-23.

[11] Thomas Mofolo was born in 1876 and died in 1948 and was educated at the Morija Mission. He wrote the novels Moeti wa Botjhabela  (Morija: Morija Press, 1907)

and Pitseng (Morija: Morija Press, 1910) before  Chaka appeared belatedly in 1924. It was apparently partly written in 1910. Thomas Mofolo, Chaka (Oxford: Heinemann International, 1988), p. 136.

[12] D. Fred. Ellenberger, History of the Basuto: Ancient and Modern (Morija: Morija Museum & Archives 1992).

[13] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p. 218 and p. 225.

[14] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.219.

[15] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.97

[16] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p. 94.

[17] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.218.

[18] William F. Lye and Colin Murray, Transformations on the Highveld: The Tswana and Southern Sotho (Cape Town & London: David Philip, 1980) p. 37.

[19] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.122.

[20] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.122.

[21] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, pp. 128-129.

[22] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, pp. 218-219

[23] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.145

[24] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.150

[25] S. Rolland, “Station de Béerséba – Lettre de M. Rolland, sous la date du 10 aoút 1843”, Journal des Missions évangéliques de Paris, Vol. 18 (1943), pp. 401-414.

[26] This story is often recounted in Sotho books, but some times with significant differences. Peete, the grandfather of, Moshoeshoe, was eaten by members of the Nthatisi and  Rakotsoane clans during the starvation caused by the difaqane. Mopeli Paulus and Lanham writes:”when Moshoeshoe was told of the eating of his grandfather by these tribesmen, he said, “The people of Nthatisi and Rakotsoane Clans have chosen themselves to become the grave of my grandfather – leave them! Let them be! For if I order them to be killed, then shall I also be ordering the destruction of my father’s grave.” A.S. Mopeli-Paulus  and Peter Lanham Blanket Boy’s Moon (London: Collins 1953) pp.302-303.

[27] Arbouset in Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.219.

[28] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.227.

[29] This event has a counterpart in the European philosopher Montaigne’s discussion of cannibalism in his Essays.  He writes about cannibals in Brazil who use to feast on their  Prisoners of War and being taunted by one such prisoners: “These muscles…this flesh, and these veins are yours, poor fools that you are! Can you not see the substance of your ancestors’ limbs is still in them? Taste them carefully, and you will find the flavour is that of your own flesh.”  (Michel Eyquem Montaigne, Essays (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981), p.117.

[30] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.227.

[31] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.228.

[32] David B. Coplan, In the Time of Cannibals: The Word Music of South africa’s Bastho Migrants (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994), p.3.

[33] This reminds of the  King Minos, who became judge of the underworld, whose wife mated a bull from which a half human, half bull Minotaur was born. The Minotaur lived on being fed an annual tribute of seven Athenian youths and maidens. The myth as a condensation contains the elements of  the human, the bull and cannibalism and an inversion of the animal eating human beings.

[34] B.J.F. Pauw, Sex, Custom and Psychopathology: A Study of South African Pagan Natives (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951), p.97.

[35] Sigmund Freud, The Origins of Religion (Harmondworth: Penguin Books, 1985), p.216 and p. 330 and 385.

[36] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.262.

[37] Long ago, they said, there appeared a marvellous monster, with a long tongue, which ate all the people, which ate all the animals. This monster would pick up a man at a distance or a thing at a distance by means of its long tongue, and swallow it. It swallowed people alive, and an ox and any animal the same, all things indeed which walked. It roamed about the earth thus, until it finished human beings and animals. Because of the weight of its belly, it sat down, and gathered in by its tongue only.

When all the people were finished up and the animals likewise, a single pregnant woman escaped, and hid herself. She was confined whilst still in hiding, and delivered of a male child. That child puzzled his mother much, even when he was still young. He was hardly born before he had teeth. He quickly asked his mother where the people had gone, and his mother told him. Then he fashioned a bow, he fashioned arrows broad like a razor and sharp and said: “Mother, lead me to that monster, that I may kill it. ” His mother refused, but at length her son overcame her, and she took him.

When they were still a long way off, Kholumolumo saw them. It stretched out its tongue and tried to lick them up but the boy stabbed its tongue and cut it; it tried to lick them up, he stabbed its tongue and cut it; it tried to lick them up, the boy stabbed its tongue and cut it; it tried to lick them up, he stabbed its tongue and cut it, and so he went on cutting it; it grew shorter and shorter, and they came nearer and nearer. Kholumolumo nearly went mad with pain and with desire to swallow a human being. It was in a furious rage, its eyes became red, they were as blood, but the weight of its belly overcame it, it could not stand, it could not fight. The boy kept on coming nearer and nearer, and at length he killed it. And then he took a knifeand plunged it into its belly.

The greatness of that monster’s  belly was more than Basutoland of those times, that is to say, that the boy could not see the other side of it. He saw only the side he was on. When he pierced  its belly a person screamed from inside and said: “Do not pierce me, make a hole over there.” When he tried to pierce there, a dog howled; when He wanted to pierce in a different place an ox bellowed. In the end he just made a tear without listening to the cries of those in the belly. Out came people, cattle, dogs – everything living took the opportunity to come out. Then all the people thanked that boy, and they even made him their chief.  But soon jealousy arose among the men who had been saved by the boy, at being governed by a boy, and finally they murdered him.

Thomas Mofolo The Traveller to the East (Nendeln: Kraus reprint 1973) pp.35-36.

[38] Lord Raglan in Jocasta’s Crime: An Anthropological Study (London: Watts & Co, 1940) pp. 106-107 described myth as the spoken part of the initiation rituals. It links to initiation as  individuation, the birth of the hero  as individuation process The initiation ritual, according to Raglan is the symbolic recreation of the world at regular intervals, after the physical birth of the individual followed by social rebirth in initiation. This recreation or rebirth of the world is especially pertinent after apocalyptic moments. Senkantana, is also model for Thomas Mofolo’s  main character in Moeti wa Botjhabela  (Morija: Morija Press, 1907) as someone in search of social rebirth..

[39] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, pp. 225-226.

[40] The concept “Heroic Age” is explored extensively in H.M. Chadwick and Nora K. Chadwick’s The Growth of Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932).

[41] The concept also had currency in psychoanalysis. See Otto Rank’s The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (New York, 1914).

[42] These definitive aspects are the fact that Heroic poetry is primarily narrative stories of adventure and composed for entertainment consisting of a uniform type of verse unbroken by stanza’s which includes direct speech, with vivid description, an abundance of epithets, concentrating on a brief period of action, focussing on individuals in an aristocratic milieu with references to both historical and unhistorical elements.

[43] D.P. Kunene, Heroic Poetry of the Basotho (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971)

[44] Thomas Mofolo, Chaka (Oxford: Heinemann International, 1988).

[45] According to the missionary Ellenberger, The History of the Basuto, the lifaqane  had its origins in the policy of the Mtwetwa chief,  Dingiswayo, to “unify” or subdue all the surrounding independent tribes. Dingiswayo gave protection to the young Chaka of the Zulus who became a commander in Dingiswayo’s armies. Dingiswayo did not support Chaka claim to his father Senzagakona’s position when Senzagakona died, and Chaka betrayed and killed Dingiswayo in a war against Zwide. He continued to pursue the policy of the conquering of neighbouring tribes, but with much more cruelty.

[46] Fynn, Diary p.305.

[47] Such as initiation. “They were given a kind of porridge to eat, in which, it is sometimes said, a little human flesh was boiled, in order to render them bold and courageous. They were also, of course, inoculated with the powder from the horn, with a view to rendering them invincible in battle.” Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.282.

[48] The book achieved international fame when it was translated into English in 1931 by F.H. Dutton and again in 1981 by D.P. Kunene (I used the 1988 edition of this translation for this presentation). The book is historical fiction and was accused of containing “exaggerations” by  N.R, Thoahlane in the Leselinyana la Lesotho in February 1927 while the Reverend S.M. Malale questioned the historical correctness of the book in July 1928 [see Daniel P. Kunene Thomas Mofolo and the Emergence of Written Sesotho Prose (Johannesburg: Ravan Press 1989) p.xiv) to which Mofolo replied: “I  am not writing history, I am writing a tale, or I should rather say I am writing what actually happened, but to which a great deal has been added, and from which a great deal has been removed, so that much has been left out, and much has been written that did not actually happen, with the aim solely of fulfilling my purpose in writing this book “(Kunene, Thomas Mofolo, p. xv).

[49] A.S. Mopeli-Paulus  and Peter Lanham Blanket Boy’s Moon (London: Collins 1953) A.S. Mopeli-Paulus, born in 1913, is a descendant of the great Basuto chief, Moshoeshoe, and was member of the Ruling House in Lesotho. His co-author Peter Lanham was a pioneer in radio broadcasting in South Africa. Both of them were active as soldiers in the Second World War.

[50] Chaka’s potency is improved by a medicine containing “the liver of a lion, the liver of a leopard, and the liver of a man who had been a renowned warrior in his lifetime” (Mofolo Chaka p.14) and it was “constantly” added to his food (Mofolo Chaka p.14) and for ultimate power he has to sacifice his beloved, Noliwa, so that his warriors could “eat food mixed with medicines containing the blood of someone” (Mofolo Chaka p.100) that he loves dearly.  In this way this book portrays Chaka as the original emblem of the cannibalism which came to plague the Sotho as their food supplies and cattle were destroyed by the invading Zulu armies. The formation of empires and kingdoms through the violent absorption of smaller tribes seems to be symbolised by cannibalism.

[51] With the establishment of a new village, according to ancient custom, a medicine horn must be prepared “to ward off bewitchment, and ensure prosperity and success to the new community.” (Lanham & Mopeli-Paulus Blanket Boy’s Moon p.98). This medicine horn required “as one of its  magic ingredients the blood and flesh of a man of the Bafokeng clan” (Lanham & Mopeli-Paulus Blanket Boy’s Moon  p.98).

[52] N.J. van Warmelo (ed.), History of Matiwane and the Amangwane Tribe as told by Msebenzi to his kinsman Albert Hlongwane (Pretoria: Department of Native Affairs, Ethnological Publications, 1938)

[53] Van Warmeloo, History of Matiwane, p.45.

[54] Van Warmeloo, History of Matiwane, p.45.

[55] Most of the early reports on cannibalism appearing in French and German missionary magazines such as Journal des Missions évangéliques de Paris  and Berliner Missionsberichte in the 1830s and 1840s.

[56] D.F. Ellenberger was born in 1835 in Switzerland and becoming a missionary with the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society in 1856 and came to Lesotho in 1860. He was active at the mission station at Bethesda, and he was in charge of the organisation of the mission’s printing operations. He trained Adophe Mabille printing skills which were used in the printing of the  church newspaper Leselinyana la Lesotho (important for South African literary history as it serialised much of the early literary texts in SeSotho) at Morija in 1863. After war between Lesotho and the Freestate farmers, Ellenberger had to leave Bethesda to Masitise. During this war Lesotho requested protectorate status from Britain, and the Sotho became British subjects. He had a great interest in the traditions and history of the Sesotho and collected a large amount of documents (printed documents but also transcriptions of Sotho oral traditions in his Masitise Archives. TheHistory of the Basotho: Ancient & Modern was a synthesis (with the help of a variety of people participating: his wife, JC MacGreggor the assistant Commisioner in the Leribe district) of the material he collected during his life. It contains the history of the Sesotho up to the period of 1830, before the modernising influences of the missionaries which started in 1833.

[57] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.221.

[58] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.220

[59] Politically, though, this is a taboo area. Trying to find out what the state of archaeology is with regard to cannibalism I was told that nothing has been done in this area. In South Africa archaeology is very much focussed on the “origins of man” type of excavations or the more popular hunter-gatherer rock art sites.

[60] E. Motsamai Mehla ya madimo (Morija: Sesuto Book Depot & Press, 1954)

[61] Thomas Mofolo’s Moeti wa Botjhabela  (Morija: Morija Press, 1907)

[62] In Motsamai’s Mehla ya madimo the cannibal is on the same level as another man-eating creature, the lion – which in the lore of the hunter-gatherers whose lands the Sotho occupied, and whom the Sotho have cannibalised in a political, but also literal sense, is strongly associated with the transfiguration of the shaman.

[63] In the psychoanalytic sense of people experiencing loss and trauma on a massive scale through the incessant wars.

[64] Ellenberger, History of the Basuto, p.239

Catastrophe and beauty: Ways of Dying, Zakes Mda’s novel of the transition

Maybe all the catastrophes that have happened in her life have affected her eyes, so that she is able to see beauty where there is none (Mda, 1995a:142)

In our language there is a proverb which says the greatest death is laughter (Mda, 1995a:153)

1. Ways of Dying as novel of the transition

Transitional literature refers to literature produced in or about periods when societies experience extensive ideological, political, economic and institutional changes. The transition is in many ways traumatic and productive. In literature it can lead to specific literary features. Such periods produce a literature of mass meetings and processions: a literature depicting a group psychology and mass omnipotence asserting itself against a State which has lost legitimacy. The confrontation between the masses and the state often leads to violence, death, arbitrary repression and persecution. The inversion which happens when the people take control of the state’s functions, and the visibility of the people in mass gatherings on the street evokes images of carnival. The breakdown of the old order is accompanied by a resurgence of repressed instincts embodied in images of violent death, birth and sexuality. This resurgence of the repressed in turn implies regression: a loss to some extent of the reality principle (so that the form of this literature is surrealism, the dream, mysticism and images of infantile omnipotence). Death and rebirth, the apocalyptic and the carnivalesque combine. This paper explores these features of the transition in Zakes Mda’s novel Ways of Dying (1995).

Ways of Dying (1995) describes the period between a Christmas and a New Year sometime between 1990, when negotiations for change in South Africa started, and 1994, when South Africa became, through elections, a democratic country. It therefore deals with the period of transition in South Africa. The transition itself is a product of a repressive decades, which preceded it. The text recollects these decades through continuous flashbacks. It describes the transition and the past as it was experienced by the two main characters, Toloki and Noria. They both came, although at different times, from the same unnamed rural village to an unnamed South African city. Years later they meet coincidentally at the funeral of Noria’s second child, after which they re-establish friendship. This is the point where the text starts. It then develops around the question of how it came that Noria’s five-year old child died at the hands of comrades.

2. Images of the transition in the text

The text evokes many images of transition through references to “those days” in contrast to “these days” or “today”. Sentences with “those days” are often qualified with “people of his colour” or “people of his complexion”. These phrases evoke the typical exclusions experienced by Africans during the Apartheid period: “In those days, they did not allow people of his colour onto any of the beaches of the city, so he could not carry out his ablutions there, as he does today” (1995a:112). “People of his complexion were not allowed to buy houses in the suburbs in those days” (1995a:116). “Funerals were held only on Saturday and Sunday mornings those days, because death was not as prevalent then as it is at present” (1995a:136) “Most people did not even have the necessary qualifying papers. Their presence was said to be illegal, and the government was bent on sending them back to the places it had demarcated as their homelands” (1995a:112).

From the rigid Apartheid of “those days” the text narrates the small changes which occur as the resistance to Apartheid intensifies, as petty Apartheid laws disappear, and as people find new ways of survival. This culminates in the period when the dismantling of Apartheid is negotiated, and a new, democratic future becomes eminent. Typical images of these social changes are:

· The emergence of the informal sector of the economy. The main character, Toloki, is described as one of the first to buy a trolley for grilling meat and boerewors, and to make his living selling his produce on the sidewalks in the city (1995a:113).

· The movement of Africans into “White” areas through new strategies. The rich Nefolovhodwe “used a white man, whom he had employed as his marketing manager, to buy the house on his behalf” (1995a:116).

· The appearance of informal settlements, “squatter camps”, and the repeated attempts by the government to destroy these, only to find that they are rebuilt overnight again “Bulldozers would move in and flatten the shacks, and then triumphantly drive away. Residents would immediately rebuild, and in no time the shanty town would hum with life again. Like worker bees, the dwellers would go about their business of living” (1995a:136).

· The emergence of vigilante groups and street committees.

Stagnation, intensified repression and resistance further mark the period of transition. In the “eighteen years” that has passed since Toloki lived in his first shack very little has changed:

It is strange how things don’t change in these shanty towns or squatter camps or informal settlements or whatever you choose to call them. (1995a:138).

Instead of change for the better, things become more violent and complicated:

The situation is even more complicated these days, what with the tribal chief wreaking havoc with his hostel-dwelling migrants. (1995a:138).

The transition is a period of extensive bloodshed and killing, evoking images of both the apocalypse (“there are funerals everyday, because if the bereaved were to wait until the weekend to bury their dead, then mortuaries would overflow” 1995a:136), and carnival (the serious funeral situation becoming comical in the overcrowded cemetry as “hymns flow into one another in unplanned but pleasant segues” 1995a:136).

The transition, though, does not only mean death, but also rebirth. This rebirth is only implied in the strategic ending of the text with the arrival of a new year: a new year with on its immediate agenda a stay-away for a whole week as the people want to make “a strong statement to the government that it is high time that they took the negotiations for freedom seriously” (1995a:161).

The new year points to the liberation that is at hand. “Women are singing… Their song is about the freedom that is surely coming tomorrow” (1995a:159) and “the freedom that was surely coming soon” (1995a:172). This future liberation is a product of death and sacrifice. Death becomes an assertion of eminent victory, an instrument of re-birth, a sign of collective power with the individual fading into the omnipotent idea of freedom. This is explained in the text with reference to the jubilation of the Young Tigers at the political funerals which “is due to the fact that part of the message of the songs is that the people shall be victorious in the end” (1995a:159).

The future, though, is pregnant with new divisions, betrayals, disillusionment and repression. Mda uses the portrayal of a meeting in order to represent the new order. The meeting assumes the form of a the ritual repression of the real. He foregrounds the difference between the ideal and the real by depicting the affluence of the leaders of the political movement who arrive in a “Mercedes Benz” and an entourage of other cars at the meeting as against the poverty of the inhabitants of the informal settlement. The meeting ends in a disillusionment for the character Noria when a promised public apology by the comrades for the necklacing of her son is not forthcoming. She is warned not to speak to anyone about it, while the “bejewelled” wife of the leader smile “benevolently” at her. After the meeting the women of the settlement are reproved for serving the leaders “bread and cabbage” (1995a:163).

The political group demands silence, repression, complete unity. In this way the future is made to contain in itself the past. Noria must remain silent so that no one will point fingers and say “You see, they say they are fighting for freedom, yet they are no different from the tribal chief and his followers. They commit atrocities as well” (1995a:167).

But a repressed past also returns in a more positive way with a return to creativity: a creativity rooted in a traditional and rural past. A certain normality reasserts itself when the business man, Nefolovhodwe, arrives with the figurines sculpted by Toloki’s father, Jwara. Jwara’s ghost visits his wealthy friend Nefolovhodwe and forces him to take the figurines to his son Toloki, because “he could not rest in peace in his grave, or join the world of the ancestors, unless the figurines were given to Toloki” (1995a:192). This is the beginning of an archaeological process (“Nefolovhodwe rounded up a few labourers, and proceeded to excavate the site of the workshop” 1995a:194); it is a physical recovery of what is repressed, and in terms of the ideology of the text this signifies the spiritual wealth of the rural past:

These figurines which are returned to Toloki are seemingly “useless” (1995a:195). They represent the material manifestation of the past speaking silently as objects to the present, but the meaning of what is said is unclear and it has no apparent value to the people in the present, except as an image of the past, as commodity for white art dealers or in producing laughter amongst the children of the informal settlement. Is it possible that implied in this episode there is an allegorical reference to the Post-Apartheid future as a period when the repressed artefacts of the past (the art and literature which was looked down upon for being tribal) will become visible again: “They decide that they will keep one of the figurines in their shack, next to Toloki’s roses, to remind themselves where they came from” (1995a:198). These figurines are returned to Toloki at a time when Toloki himself starts drawing again while Noria is singing to him, repeating the ritual of Noria singing to his father in the past. This repetition of the introduces the oedipal themes of the novel which will be dealt with more extensively in the next section.

3. The text as dream

There are many references to dreams in the text. The text itself can be interpreted in terms of the typical form and content of the dream: formally using the dream device of condensation and on content level it is oedipal. The oedipal of the dream is specifically African in the way it links the dream to the ancestors. The dream is seen as communication from the world beyond and as a source of art and literature. The father, Jwara, for instance used Noria’s singing, to communicate with the beings of his dreams and to create their images in the form of figurines. While Noria sang “he shaped the red-hot iron and brass into images of strange people and animals that he had seen in his dreams” (1995a:23).

On a formal level the novel uses the dream device of condensation, the device in which “a sole idea represents several associative chains at whose point of intersection it is located” (Laplanche and Pontalis 1985:82). It is a device which combines various images into one image.

The harbour city in this text, for instance, combines various incidents reminiscent of the recent history of different South African cities into one city: The train violence and attacks by migrants on nearby settlements are associated with the Vaal Triangle (Gauteng), the carnival with Cape Town, the tribal chief and his followers with Durban. The harbour city therefore becomes an allegorical image of all South African cities in the late Apartheid era. The names of the people from Toloki’s home village derive from various language groups: Xhosa, Sotho and Venda, making it a Pan Africanist Village. The narrator is also an instance of condensation. The narrator is the collective alter-ego of Toloki, but also the voice of the group. In its omniscience it embodies the omnipotence of the group. It focalises on Toloki in the village as well as the city. The text itself states:

It is not different, really, here in the city. Just like back in the village, we live our lives together as one. We know everything about everybody. We even know things that happen when we are not there; things that happen behind people’s closed doors deep in the middle of the night. We are the all-seeing eye of the village gossip. When in our orature the storyteller begins the story, “They say it once happened…”, we are the “they”. No individual owns any story. The community is the owner of the story, and it can tell it the way it deems it fit. We would not be needing to justify the communal voice that tells this story if you had not wondered how we became so omniscient in the affairs of Toloki and Noria (1995a:8).

The collective narrator, though, is not an innocent one. Like the group this collective narrator is not inhibited in terms of mindless primal drives. Freud writes: “A group is impulsive, changeable and irritable. It is led almost exclusively by the unconscious. The impulses which a group obeys may according to circumstances be generous or cruel, heroic or cowardly, but they are always so imperious that no personal interest, not even that of self-preservation, can make itself felt” (1985a:104). When Toloki opens his eyes on Boxing Day the following thoughts traverse the narrating text (they are both those of the communal narrator and of Toloki):

we go for what we call a joll. All it means is that we engage in an orgy of drinking, raping, and stabbing one another with knives and shooting one another with guns (1995a:20).

The group voice is cruel, persecuting what it conceives as different from itself “we always remarked, sometimes in his presence, that he was an ugly child” (1995a:26).

As an “all-seeing eye of the village gossip” the narrator is also an eye present in Toloki’s dreams: “Toloki has nightmares that night. He is visited by strange creatures that look very much like the figurines that his father used to create” (1995a:108).

There are many oedipal undertones to this dream. The “crystal clear and sparkling glass” (1995a:108) figures point to purity and signifies Toloki’s wish (“looking longingly at the scene” 1995a:108) to be part of the realm of the holy, to be part of the the creative interaction between his sculpting father and the singing Noria. This oedipal aspect is present in his shame (“sees himself, made embarrassingly of flesh and blood”) at desiring the woman who was his father’s link with the creatures of the dream. His father, described as “a towering handsome giant in gumboots” (1995a:23) is both an ideal and his opposite.

The oedipal identification with the father is intensified as the father stifled his creativity, and never gave him any recognition for his achievements in art. The father is the source of his negative self-image. Noria, called a “stuck-up- bitch” by his mother, and by himself (“one thing that Toloki used to be jealous about even as a small boy, was that we all loved the stuck-up bitch, for she had such beautiful laughter” 1995a:26), becomes a transposed mother of his oedipal and sexual desires. The drunk perceiving Toloki dreaming asks: “Who is she, ou Toppie, the woman you have wet dreams about?”. The wet dream becomes a recurrent motif, contradicting Toloki’s own vision of himself as a holy man, even intervening with his daily activities:

The dream haunts Toloki … It makes something rise in the region of his groin. It is violently kicking inside his pants. Toloki bends forward as if responding to the rhythms of oration and mourning. But what he is really doing is hiding his shame. People must not see that he has disgraced his asceticism by having dirty thoughts running through his mind, and playing havoc with his venerable body (1995a:146).

At other places in the text Noria is called “this powerful woman who killed his father” (1995a:101) thus embodying his own oedipal wish for the death of the father. The hold that Noria, as a little girl, had over his father enhances her image in his mind, makes her a “goddess”. His desire for the woman who had this power over his father points to the unconscious oedipal ambivalence of identification with the father, but at the same time “deep bitterness”(1995a:95). The “hatred” (1995a:95) he felt towards Noria is transformed into desire and elective love (amour fou) at the end of the plot.

The love between Toloki and Noria in which the plot resolves itself is also associated with a “dream-like state”. It is through the mysticism of love that they transcend their historical predicament:

They dazedly rub each other’s backs, and slowly move down to other parts of their bodies. It is as though they are responding to rhythms that are silent for the rest of the world, and can only be heard or felt by them. They take turns to stand in the basin, and splash water on each other’s bodies. All this they do in absolute silence, and their movements are slow and deliberate. They are in a dream-like state, their thoughts concentrated only on what they are doing to each other. Nothing else matters. Nothing else exists (1995a:180).

Time in the text also belongs to the realm of the dream: Noria’s two pregnancies last 15 months each. The second child is not conceived by a mortal man, but by “strangers that visited her in her dreams” (1995a:140). Another dreamlike occurrence is when Toloki’s apparently illiterate father leaves a hand-written testament at his death (1995a:102). The death of the father itself evokes dream images: after years in a trance in his workshop his body is found:

And there was Jwara, sitting as they remembered him, but with his biltong-like flesh stuck to his bones. His bulging eyes were staring at the figurines as before. Glimmering gossamer was spun all around him, connecting his gaunt body with the walls and the roof (1995a:102).

A paradox between text time and story time, adding to the dream-like nature of the text, occurs on page 101 when “Toloki remembers how his father died” (1995a:101) at a point in the story when he has not as yet been informed about his father’s death.

The themes of the dream and the oedipal link with the theme of beauty in the text: beauty is the product of the dream in the midst of catastrophe. The dream has at its basis the oedipal rejection of Toloki by his father. On page 61 this rejection with strong oedipal undertones is portrayed. The passage brings to the fore Toloki’s search for recognition from his father which is at the same time an identification and competition with the father: The father says:

“So, now you think you are better? You think you are a great creator like me?”

To which Toloki answers:

“I want to be like you, father. I want to create from dreams like you.”

To which the father replies:

“Don’t you see, you poor boy, that you are too ugly for that? How can beautiful things come from you?” (1995a:61)

4. Beauty

Beauty in the text is often placed in squalor: “There she is, Noria, in a rubble of charred household effects next to her burnt down shack. A lonely figure. Tall and graceful. Sharp features. Smooth, pitch-black complexion – what in the village we called poppy-seed beauty” (1995a:43) and “She looks beautiful, this Noria, standing surrounded by debris, holding flowers of different colours” (1995a:44). In contrast to Noria, Toloki is always referred to as stupid and ugly by his father. When Toloki and Noria walked to the school as children, strangers would stop them and say: “What a beautiful little girl” (1995a:64) but comment on him: “He looks like something that has come to fetch us to the next world” (1995a:64). After winning a prize in a national art competition sponsored by a milling company, Toloki for the first time in his life “felt more important than everyone else” (1995a:27), but he is rejected by his father with the words: “Get out here, you stupid ugly boy!” (1995a:28). Toloki then walks out “with tears streaming down his cheeks” (1995a:28).

On page 142 Noria calls Toloki “a beautiful person” on which the narrator, shifting the focus to Toloki’s thoughts, remarks: “he has been called ugly and foolish all his life, to the extent that he has become used to these labels. But he has never been called beautiful before” (1995a:142). Because the text is focalised through Toloki’s eyes his “ugliness” is never experienced by the reader. The text rather produces an empathy towards his loneliness and imaginings. The text continues: “maybe all the catastrophes that have happened in her life have affected her eyes, so that she is able to see beauty where there is none” (1995a:142). When Toloki calls his father’s figurines “ugly” (1995a:196), Noria rebukes him: “Toloki, the figures are not ugly. Remember that my spirit is in them too. And we must never use that painful word – ugly” (1995a:196).

The period of Apartheid has been dominated by the internalisation of the negative – but it was also productive of beauty in that it produced, ironically, the beautiful poverty of Toloki and Noria: “They make a strikingly lovely picture against the sunset” (1995a:165). This kitsch image is part of an inversion process: a writing back to White Culture. The art dealer, in reference to the figurines of Toloki’s father, said that they looked “quite kitschy” (1995a:196). But the ultimate inversion is the wishful imaginings of Toloki and Noria around the Home and Garden wallpaper to her shack. The inversion becomes literal in the journal title. Through these imaginings they parody kitsch white lives:

They walk out of their Mediterranean-style mansion through an arbour that is painted crisp white. This is the lovely entrance that graces their private garden. Four tall pillars hoist an overhead trellis laced with Belle of Portugal roses. A bed of delphiniums, snapdragons, cosmos, and hollyhocks rolls to the foot of the arbour. Noria and Toloki take a brief rest in the wooded gazebo, blanketed by foliage and featuring a swing” (1995a:104).

5. The transition as Hallowe’en

The main character, Toloki (Xhosa derivation from the Afrikaans “tolk” meaning interpreter), evokes the image of an unreal being embodying the transition as an unreal historical time. He wears a black costume and top hat, hallmark of his profession as Professional Mourner, and which he got from a shop renting out “period” costumes to the theatre world. The text defines these period costumes as costumes used in plays “that were about worlds that did not exist anymore” (1995a:21) or belonging not “to any world that ever existed” (1995a:21) thus emphasising the unreality of this historical period. The costumes are further evocative of “New Year carnivals” (1995a:21) (an indirect reference to the nature of the book itself), but then a carnival that is reminiscent of the terror of Hallowe’en. The text makes this link explicit when it states that the costume has once before been used by Americans for a Hallowe’en party (1995a:21). Many macabre images of arbitrary and senseless killing, as well as of laughter, further develops this textual linking of the transition with Hallowe’en. The deaths of people are often described in terms of games and fun. A white man burning a worker laughs; a black “crony” of the white man explains “that the white colleague was merely laughing because it was a game” (1995a:57) and the text states “To him the flames were a joke. When the man screamed and ran around in pain, he thought he was dancing” (1995a:57). The community “danced around the burning shack, singing and chanting ” (1995a:58) when they revenged themselves on thugs who had been terrorising them for a long time. Their realisation that they had become “prosecutors, judges and executors” (1995a:58) left them with a “numbed” (1995a:58) feeling. Shadrack’s “hell-ride” to the mortuary where he was forced by right-wingers to have sex with a corpse of a young woman was done “because it was a fun thing to do” (1995a:133). When the right-wingers dropped him at his taxi again they thanked “him profusely for the good time he had given them” (1995a:133).

The many deaths of the text, pointing to the fact that in this historical nightmare, dying was a way of life, points to a society that has regressed; a society where the law is illegitimate or completely absent. The perpetrators of the crimes in this lawless society were allowed not to grow up, and this is evident in the fact that they cannot distinguish between their fantasies (ideologies) and reality. The reality principle is absent. The political reality itself has taken on the form of a nightmare. Senseless violence permeates everything and everybody, also children, and as in the Hallowe’en festivals the children become the instruments of the dead. This raises the question of the innocence of children, especially as many of the protagonists of this Hallowe’en are grown-up children.

6. The Innocence of Children

The text questions the innocence of children. It makes it clear that their innocence is not in the fact that they are not capable of being most violent tools in the hands of faceless historical forces, but in the fact that they do not really know what these acts that they participate in mean and signify. The theme of children is interestingly explored in the episode depicting the necklace death of Noria’s child, Vutha the Second, at the age of five.

At this age Vutha was already a “veteran” (1995:167) in the struggle “an expert at dancing the freedom dance, and at chanting the names of the leaders who must be revered, and of the sell-outs who must be destroyed. He could recite the Liberation Code and the Declaration of the People’s Rights” (1995:167). His feelings of infantile omnipotence is encouraged by the “Young Tigers” who “always praised Vutha for the strength of his throw. They said that if a stone from his hand hit a policeman, or a soldier, or a hostel vigilante on the head, he would surely fall down. Vutha was proud of this praise that came from older and battle-scarred cadres” (1995:169). His feeling of omnipotence further derived from his ability to manipulate his mother: “It established him as a hero among his peers. Sometimes it went to his head, hence his practising his stonethrowing skills at Noria’s shack whenever she punished him for being a bad boy” (1995:169).

This infant, unable to know his own limitations, is further given “political education” (1995:169) about the “nature of oppression” (1995:169). The text states that “Much of this information floated above the heads of the children” (1995:169). Because they do not know the difference between good and evil, and they are capable of both, they are innocent. As they cannot understand the content of their political education, they are also not able to understand the implications of their betrayal when they communicate information to the hostel dwellers about the planned attack on them. When discovered by the Young Tigers, they are transformed into examples: implying that they become signs to the community. The form of disciplining is necklacing [“They called all the children to come and see what happened to sell-outs” (1995:177)]. The act of disciplining consists in producing terror; necklacing is itself an infantile form of execution – pointing to the fact that the mind of a crowd is no different from the mind of a child. This is brought out when it is the four-year old Danisa who innocently, under the orders of the Young Tigers, becomes the executioner of her friend Vutha:

Danisa and the child who had been given the honour of carrying out the execution struck their matches, and threw them at the tyres. Danisa’s match fell into Vutha’s tyre. It suddenly burst into flames, the crackle of burning flesh, and the blowing wind. He tried to run, but the weight of the tyre pulled him to the ground, and he fell down (1995:177).

7. Conclusion

With The Ways of Dying (1995) Zakes Mda produced an intricate analysis of the historical nightmare of “death producing” (Peterson in Mda 1993) Apartheid. Mda is different from the black writers of the seventies and eighties in that he roots his plots not only in the “streets, schools, prisons, rallies and other public places” (Peterson in Mda 1993) but also in the family, or the disintegration of the family. In this his works have the ability not only to deconstruct the past, but also the future, seeing that the future carries with it the small details of the personal narratives of the past, and these past narratives contain determining signs which go beyond Apartheid and which is shared by all humanity.


Freud, S. 1985. Civilization, Society and Religion, Group Psychology, Civilization and its Discontents and Other Works. Harmondsworth : Penguin Books.

Laplanche, J. & Pontalis, J.-B. 1985. The Language of Psycho-Analysis. London : Hogarth Press.

Mda, Z. 1995a. Ways of Dying. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Mda, Z. 1995b. She Plays with the Darkness. Florida : Vivlia.

Mda, Z. 1993. And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses. Johannesburg : Witwatersrand University Press.

Mda, Z. 1990. Marotholi Travelling Threatre: Towards an Alternative Perspective of Development. Journal of Southern African Studies, 16 (2) : 352-358, June.

Mda, Z. 1980. We Shall Sing for the Fatherland and Other Plays. Johannesburg : Ravan Press.

Nadeau, M. 1978. The History of Surrealism. Harmondsworth : Penguin.

The Centre for the Study of Southern African Literature and Languages (CSSALL): Literary Studies in Post-Apartheid South Africa

The Centre for the Study of Southern African Literature and Languages (CSSALL) was established at the University of Durban-Westville, Durban, in 1994, the year in which South Africa became a non-racial democracy. It was established in order to reflect the transformation of literary studies in this new political reality. This article surveys the activities of the CSSALL as well as the philosophy behind its establishment and the particular theoretical contribution it wishes to make in the study of South African literature.

The CSSALL is the first unit in South Africa to exclusively research South African literature. In the apartheid period the different language literatures of South Africa were studied as belonging to different nations. There were separate departments at universities for the literature produced in Afrikaans, English and African Languages. South African English literature was studied as a subsection of broader English literature (British, American, Australian, African and West Indian). In the new political dispensation South Africans have shared citizenship, are one nation. This prompted the idea of the study of the literatures in the different languages as one literature, as belonging to the same system. The CSSALL was established in order to explore the literatures in the different languages as one system, as a multilingual intertextual and comparative discourse.

The CSSALL is one of the products of the intense political and educational struggles at the black universities in the period before the establishment of the non-racial democracy in South Africa. Democratisation of the university structures at all levels, and developing new curricula which reflect the ideals of a non-racial society, were very high on the agenda of the various committees and groups fighting against the old order. When the new progressive rector, Prof. Jayram Reddy, was appointed he initiated and supported the planning of the CSSALL. In 1988 Johan van Wyk, Pieter Conradie (both from the Afrikaans Department) and Nik Constandaras produced an 800-page, and multilingual, anthology of South African poetry, doggerel and verse, SA in poësie/SA in poetry. This anthology contained poems in English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Tswana, Sotho and Xhosa. The anthology was strongly influenced by the ideas of Pierre Macherey. It does not contain the most aesthetically pleasing South African poems, but rather traces the different ideological formations present in the development of South African poetry. The work on this anthology gave Johan van Wyk the means to explore the comparative and intertextual research of South African literature further, and he took the lead in the planning of the CSSALL with the close co-operation of individuals from various departments in the Arts Faculty. Many of the scholars participating came from a Marxist or psychoanalytic background and were critical of Nationalism. The problem was then the relationship of the CSSALL with the founding moment of the new South African nation. The South African focus, rather than being based on national narcissism, used the shared history of South Africans, and the relationship between literature and this history, as its point of departure. This is a history of conflict and difference happening in one geographical area and evolving into an increasingly inter-dependent economy. The research of the CSSALL is very much focused on this historical process as it is manifest in literature

The CSSALL has two permanent members of staff (Johan van Wyk and Jean-Philippe Wade), one research assistant, 15 doctoral and 30 masters students and 15 honours students. Sixty one students have completed their studies with the CSSALL in the last four years. Much emphasis is placed on teamwork with colleagues from other departments and universities. This teamwork is manifest in its projects. These include:

a.) The production of the journal Alternation containing articles on the different Southern African language literatures, but also more general theoretical articles. The fourth volume is currently under construction.

b.) An interdisciplinary conference every two years. The first one was called “The Dancing Dwarf in the Land of the Spirits” (1995). The title is a reference to an Egyptian expedition to the South of the African continent. This expedition returned to the court of the pharaoh Harkuff with a “dancing dwarf from the land of spirits”. In ancient times the area below Sofala was known as Wakwak, the “land of the shades” inhabited by the Khoisan. It is possible that “the land of the spirits” indicated by this Egyptian hieroglyph is the same as this “land of the shades”. The image of the dancing dwarf forms an interesting intertext with current studies on the trance dances by hunter-gatherer shamans. We thought the dancing dwarf is an interesting metaphor for South African literature and our activities. The focus of the conference was on different micro-areas, or formations, which constitute a South African literary history.

The second conference was held in September 1997. It focused on “The body, identity, repression and sub-cultures in texts from Africa”. The idea was to gather papers together that would form a basis for a theory in which the body, and the movements of power in the body, would be central. This entails the study of “inspiration”, trance and states of possession in the production of oral literature. The concepts, though, should also explain some of the phenomena in modern literature. Such a theory links traditional African explanations of power to psychoanalytic models of the psyche. Freud’s early writings saw the psyche in terms of electrical movement. This conforms with the traditional African view of the body in terms of power.

c.) A project for the translation of African language texts into English. Andreas Z Zungu’s USukabekhuluma and the Bhambatha Rebellion is the first to appear in this series. Dr ACT Mayekiso from the Zulu department at the University of Durban-Westville translated this text just before her death in 1996. It is about the rebellion by the Zulu people against the imposition of taxes in 1906. USukabekhuluma, was the main strategist behind this uprising. He was also called Chakijane after the trickster figure in Zulu folklore. He received his training as war strategist during the Anglo-Boer War when he acted as spy on both the British and Boer sides.

d.) A computer database containing about 32 000 bibliographic entries of interest to South African literature research.

e.) The development of a South African literature encyclopaedia in CD ROM and book form. This project will be the product of intensive co-operation with other researchers in field both within and outside of South Africa. In order to achieve this we recently set up a South African literature listserv.

f.) A condensed and extensively illustrated history of South African literature aimed at scholars and students. Through this project we hope to lay the foundation for the study of South African literature as a whole.

g.) Various theoretical projects. These concentrate on problems of literary history when dealing with a multilingual society, problems of identity formation in such a heterogeneous society and texts, Colonial literature and ideology. The next section will elaborate on some of these.

Theoretical projects of the CSSALL

A group of South African researchers interested in South African literary history explored the feasibility of a comprehensive South African literary history at a colloquium arranged by the CSSALL and called “Re-thinking South African literary history” in 1995. Literary history is one of the main theoretical interests of the CSSALL. Many participants at the colloquium complained about the totalizing tendency of such a project: the fact that many micro-areas of comparative research in South Africa would be ignored, that as a new ideological narrative it would gloss over the various conflicts and differences in South African literature. The shortcomings of such a totalizing narrative literary history already materialized in Michael Chapman’s Southern African Literatures (1996), the first South African literary history attempting to cover the literatures in the various South African languages since Manfred Nathan’s South African Literature of 1925.

Chapman described his book as a “moral narrative” based on a “common humanism”. Chapman states:

Without diminishing ‘difference’, it has been important to examine the potential of a common humanism, whether in the utterance of an ancient Bushman or a contemporary metafictionalist. It has also been important, in an intellectual climate currently favouring decentered subjects, to recover an ‘African’ justification for the accessibility and sociability of communication as well as for the moral agency necessary to effect change (430)


What the scars of the emergency have left on the study is a concern for a social contract between writer and citizen that is humanising and democratising in its obligations (430)

This approach with its roots in a humanising middle-class morality is somehow reminiscent of Victorian pietism and didacticism. Chapman does not explore the complex relationship between “morality” and “literature”. To him there is no unconscious to morality or dark side to the democratic, representative values that he promotes in literature. It is not strange therefore that he pleads for a realist form of literature. He finds it difficult to relate to modernism, or to understand it in its historical context. He rejects particularly Afrikaans modernist texts for not giving attention to the political realities of South Africa. Modernism in Afrikaans developed in the 1920’s in reaction to the narrow-minded demands for socialist realism in service of nationalist politics of the time. The recent magic realist novels of Zakes Mda, She plays with the darkness and Ways of dying, points to a similar reaction in black literature to the simplistic dichotomies of struggle literature.

The CSSALL’s approach to South African literature is different to that of Chapman. It is not normative or evaluative in terms of aesthetics or ideology. It rather attempts to explore why a particular literary or ideological phenomenon, or text came into existence: what type of institutions, discourses, social conflicts and economic systems made its emergence possible. In this it owes a lot to Pierre Macherey and Michel Foucault. Ultimately, though, the aim is to produce our own theoretical approach and developing our own terminology and using South African material. The first naive attempt in this regard is the book Constructs of Identity and Difference in South African Literature (Van Wyk 1995). This text focuses too narrowly on Afrikaans literature in an attempt to explore the relationship between this literature to nationalism and the working class. The text combines Marxism, semiotics and psychoanalysis. From a semiotic point of view it uses the concepts of iconic and indexical signs to describe different forms of identity formation. Nationalist identity, for instance, is based on a discourse of similarity and has an iconic form, while socialist identity assumes a causal relationship between economic circumstances and identity and is therefore indexical. From a psychoanalytic point of view, the text sees nationalism as related to melancholia. Central in nationalist discourse is an imagined loss of pre-oedipal omnipotence symbolized in the image of the father. In the second last chapter “Identity and difference: Some nineteenth and twentieth century South African texts” the approach is more comparative. It compares aspects of the heroic world view of the Zulu with the European-derived Calvinism of the Afrikaner pioneers in texts such as N.P. van Wyk Louw’s Die dieper reg and H.I.E. Dhlomo’s drama “Dingane” (from his Collected works.)

In recent research by the CSSALL the focus is more and more on how institutional changes are depicted in South African literature. Changes of particular interest are the changes involved in the transition from a heroic/ pre-colonial society to one in which Western institutions became central. For this the analysis of oral histories such as the text History of Matiwane and the Amangwane Tribe as told by Msebenzi to his Kinsman Albert Hlongwane (1938) becomes central. The comparative terror of pre-colonial oral societies and societies based on Western institutions (with reason as the founding principle) is of interest here. The terror of reason in its history is both genocidal and productive. In the name of civilization and progress hunter-gatherers were exterminated, while educational programs imposed on heroic societies transformed them into a middle class one marked by the institutions of private property, the nuclear family, Christianity and representational politics.

An interesting moment in the history of reason in South Africa is the white working class and socialist discourses around the industrial uprisings in the period 1910-1924. Ivon Jones described the uprising in 1922 as “the first great armed revolt of the workers on any scale in the British Empire” (Hirson 1993:81). Many of these socialists described themselves as rationalists and belonged to rationalist debating societies such as the Heretics. What is interesting here are the formulations of a counter empire. They manipulate discourse of civilization and barbarism in such a way that the capitalist system becomes equal to that of the so-called barbarism of heroic societies. The appropriation of Darwinist evolution theory combined with historical materialism features strongly in these discourses. In a completely different context, the first Zulu author, Magema M. Fuze, in his The Black People and Whence They Came (1979, first published in 1922) combined genealogy, a prominent feature of praise poetry, with evolutionary theory and genetics. Through this he hoped to challenge the beliefs of his Christian and colonial masters.

The notion of civilization (which is a product of a history of terror) is inseparable from its opposite, namely regression. To the white socialists this was evident in the First World War. Fuze also used an image of regression in his text. He inserted an anecdote about the Thusi clan who became baboons living in the veldt after becoming weary of cultivating crops. This is a variation of a theme that were globally prevalent at the time, for instance in a text such as Freud’sCivilisation and its discontents. More recent and relevant to us is Foucault’s Madness and civilisation.

As part of Colonial ideology Reason was instrumental in genocidal projects against the colonized. But this death drive of Reason also turns against itself. This is evident in the many intrigues in the Communist Party of South Africa during the early Stalinist period and the texts referring to these make for interesting discursive analysis.

The CSSALL’s focus on history is in many ways absurd. As one of the nineteenth century informants of Callaway in the book The Religious System of the Amazulu (1970) declares: “there (is) no going back to the beginning” (1970:18). There is in African explanations a concern with the immediacy of visible things and the present. The past is no longer part of the visible and is therefore irrelevant. Callaway’s informant describes the irrelevance of the origins of things by referring to a stalk that is discarded after the maize grains have been plucked. The grains are of value, not the stalk. Even explaining the visible, though, can be a form of arrogance.

In South African literature there are very old visible records in the form of rock paintings by hunter-gatherers. These are the oldest writing in the region and raises the question of man’s transition to the semiotic realm. This question also relates to burial. When did human beings become aware of death, when did a rock or something from the natural environment become a tool, and is this metamorphoses or shape shifting not metaphor, the basis of poetry? Is poetry (opaque signs) not older than language (transparent signs)? The conception of language as a transparent sign system is one of the products of the Enlightenment and the orientation to the measurement of things, and the need to name things in their difference to other things.

The African turn against history, and the embracing of the abundance of the immediate, is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s notion of tragedy from his early The birth of tragedy. This text to me is of central importance to the study of South African literature. Nietzsche wrote this text as a critique of the programs of Naturalism in literature in the late 19th century. Naturalism was an attempt to bring the newly emergent social science forms of reasoning into literature: it wanted to portray the effects of poverty and heredity in the world. It wanted to illustrate science. As such it inspired many movements in literature concerned with development and upliftment. Tragedy on the other hand does not see poverty, but rather the omnipotence of the satyr. The satyr figures behind all the constructs of civilization and represents the counter civilization, the futility of civilization. The satyr is image of popular music, dance, sexuality and the inevitability of death. It stands against all blueprints and programs which wants people to conform to the image of reason. The satyr and tragedy express the abundance of nature. Callaway’s Zulu informant states “Just as we married many wives saying, ‘Hau! we cannot deny ourselves as regards the abundance which Unkulunkulu has given us: let us do what we like” (24) expresses the philosophy of Nietzsche and the world outlook of the satyr. A further example of the tragic in Africa is the king who embodies the heroic consciousness of the individual psychology and its “imaginary” omnipotence. At the king’s death with the tribe as satiric chorus tragedy is enacted, individual and group psychology interacts in an interplay of consciousness, abundance, power and death.

Nietzsche’s chorus of satyrs is another version of Bakhtin’s carnival. And South Africa, like many other postcolonial countries, is one in which carnival plays a central role. It is a country of mass processions, marches, toy-toy, public oratory and mass-gatherings. This is not only part of recent black culture: The 1922 worker uprisings on the Witwatersrand and the Voortrekker Centenary in 1938 amongst others point to white carnival culture, point to continuity between white and black cultures in this regard, and the need for comparative analysis. These mass gatherings and carnivals express the omnipotence of the group who again is ideally mirrored in its martyrs and leaders. It is a society in which different carnival formations, different formations of lawlessness, contest with one another.

Postcolonialism, although recognizing hybridism, has been hampered by a narrow focus on the European language literatures from the colonies. Language here also referring to the language of Reason. I believe that a whole renaissance could come about through the study of First Peoples languages and traditions – not as something anthropologically different, but as something very much continuous with and relevant to postmodern industrial existences. In the magic realism of Zakes Mda the return of a rural and traditional repressed is a rediscovery of spiritualism and wisdom. In conclusion I would like to oppose this wisdom to reason. The CSSALL in future will more and more explore the tensions between wisdom and reason. Wisdom can be silent, and contradictory. It belongs to pre-colonial, heroic and oral cultures. It does not have any final answers. It does not want to master nature. It uses anecdotes and poetry.


Callaway, H 1970. The Religious System of the AmaZulu. Struik. Cape Town

Chapman, M. 1996. Southern African Literatures. London: Longman.

Dhlomo, H.I.E. 1985. Collected Works. Johannesburg: Ravan.

Foucault, M. 1982. Madness & Civilisation. London: Tavistock.

Freud, S. 1985. Civilisation, Society and Religion, Group Psychology, Civilisation and its Discontents and Other Works. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Fuze, M.M. 1979. The Black People and Whence they Came. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.

Hirson, B. 1993 “The General Strike of 1922”. Searchlight South Africa. No. 11, Oct., p. 63-64.

Louw, N.P. van Wyk. 1947. Die Dieper Reg. Kaapstad: Nasionale Pers.

Macherey, P. 1980. A Theory of Literary Production. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Mda, Z. 1995a. Ways of Dying. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Mda, Z. 1995b. She Plays with the Darkness. Florida : Vivlia.

Msebenzi (edited by Van Warmelo) 1938. History of Matiwane and the AmaNgwane Tribe. Pretoria. Government Printer.

Nathan, M. 1925. South African Literature: A Critical Survey. Cape Town: Juta.

Nietzsche, F. 1956. The Birth of Tragedy. New York: Anchor Books.

Smit, J. Van Wyk, J. and J-P Wade. 1996. Rethinking South African Literary History. Durban: Y Press.

Van Wyk, J.1995. Constructs of Identity and Difference in South African Literature. Durban: CSSALL.

Van Wyk, J. Conradie, P and N. Constandaras. 1988. SA in Poësie/SA in Poetry. Durban: Owen Burgess.

Zungu, A..Z. 1997. Usukabekhuluma and the Bhambatha Rebellion. Durban: CSSALL.

The Difaqane, Christianity and Pan Africanism

This paper engages with a formation of texts embodying the interplay of the heroic and the colonial; it is part of a personal project to come to terms with the values of the European enlightenment. It does not attempt to represent the difaqane or Pan Africanism in its own terms of truth. It is further as much inspired by Nietzsche, Freud and Marx as it is by African and colonial authors. Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, the three masters of suspicion, all point to the zenith, and the crisis, of the epoch of reason: they all dealt with the unconscious of Bourgeois reason. But at the same time they, except for Nietzsche, wanted to make their exploration of this unconscious part of the project of reason itself. The anthropology of Africa played its part in the crisis of reason and the return of the repressed. Through postcolonial studies, such as Mary Louise Pratt’s The Imperial Eye the anthropological process is reversed. The subjectivity which produced European ethnography is itself made into an object. One can speak of an ethnography of the European writing. In postcolonial studies, especially in its attention to colonial documents, one certainly has become increasingly aware of the terror of bourgeois reason and its capacity to genocide. But one has also become aware of how bourgeois reason, often representing itself as resisting capitalism, ingrained itself in the twentieth century’s nationalisms of Africa: of which Apartheid was one example. It is no longer a question of whether one should or even could resist the terror of bourgeois reason. That struggle was lost in the wars that mark the transition from the heroic to the colonial. Pre-colonial Africa did not have prisons, borders, political parties, churches, hospitals, magistrates’ courts and all the institutions with which bourgeois reason makes its presence felt in the world. A sense of loss and melancholia is part of one’s reading of the documents relating to the pre-colonial in South Africa – this period has become the space of the Other for most South Africans: a period to be forgotten and repressed. The early African authors such as Mofolo, Plaatje and Dube actualise in part the early stages of this repression.

An early embodiment of the interplay between bourgeois reason and the heroic is the tragic figure known from the historical texts as Jacob. Jacob originally was a member of the Ndlambe tribe who lived on the borders of the Cape Colony. As a young man Dutch farmers captured Jacob, during one of their incursions into the country of Ndlambe, and made him into a laborer. He worked long enough for the farmers to “acquire a fair knowledge of the Dutch language” (1986:180). After escaping back to his country he frequently had to “interpret for his countrymen in their dealings with the Dutch” (1986:180). His knowledge of the Dutch farms also came in handy in cattle raids into the colony. During one of these raids he and his comrades were caught by some of the farmers. Fynn writes:

Some argument ensued as to whether the prisoners were or were not to be shot. One was actually set up as a mark, and several shots fired at him before he was killed. The other, however, and Jacob, owing to their knowledge of Dutch, were spared. They were each then tied to a horse and the horses made to canter to a Dutchman’s farm, whilst a Hottentot riding behind flogged them with a sjambok as often as they failed to keep up. Owing to the severe sjamboking they received, Jacob’s companion died. Shortly after this Jacob managed to escape, once more running back to his own country (1986:181).

Sometime later he and companions tried to sell an elephant tusk at the mission station at Theopolis. Unknowing to them, a new law prohibited Africans to cross the Fish River boundary. A Khoikhoi man forced Jacob to leave without any payment for the tusk. Jacob recompensed himself by making of with some cattle, but was caught and sent to Cape Town on the troop ship the Salisbury. Isaacs writes about this journey:

The voyage was a boisterous one and occupied forty days. As Jacob suffered severely from the inclemency of the weather the commander of the vessel, Lieut. King, knocked off the irons with which he was manacled, gave him clothes, and otherwise occasionally indulged him with an allowance of grog (Fynn 1986:181).

The colonial powers sentenced him to Robben Island. In 1822 Captain W.F.W. Owen were instructed to survey the south-east coast of Africa. He took Jacob on board as interpreter and later transferred him to the trader Farewell. At St. Lucia, on the Natal coast, he deserted to Shaka’s royal city where he became one of the “night guards of the isigodlo (royal harem)” (Fynn 1986:183). He often entertained King Shaka with stories of the abelungu (white people). These stories “excited in Shaka no ordinary anxiety and solicitude to see” the Europeans (Fynn 1986:187). When the first Europeans arrived in Shaka’s territory in 1825 Jacob became “interpreter to His Majesty on all occasions in his interviews with the white people” (Fynn 1986:187). The relationship of the Europeans with Jacob was good until Shaka forced him to participate in the first diplomatic mission to the Cape Colony. Isaacs (in Fynn 1986:187) writes that on the return of this mission “he plotted with the Zulu chiefs, Sotobe and Mbozamboza, to give Shaka an unfavorable opinion of the Cape authorities… From that period Jacob created in us a suspicion that he was a dissembler…He became the perfidious and designing villain which we had predicted” (188)

Not long after this Dingane assassinated Shaka. Under Dingane’s rule Jacob again was ordered on a diplomatic mission to the Cape – this time to accompany the European, John Cane. Jacob went as far as the land of the amaMpondo, refusing to go any further due to fear. Cane reported this to Dingane who fined Jacob ten head of cattle and again ordered Jacob to go with Cane. After this second mission to the Cape, Jacob reported to Dingane that “the Europeans of the Cape Colony, on the advice of Cane were about to attack the Zulus” (1986:188).

The actual content of what Jacob reported to Dingane, according to Fynn, is of interest to the general theme of this paper. He reported that he met people on the frontier who told him:

there was no living so near the white people; that at first the white people came and took a part of their land, then they encroached and drove them further back, and have repeatedly taken more land as well as cattle. They then built houses (i.e. missionary establishments) among them, for the purpose of subduing them by witchcraft; that at the present time there was an umlungu – and a white man’s house, or missionary in every tribe; that they had even got as far as the amaMpondo (St. John’s Cave) that lately no less than four kings had died, and their deaths were attributed to the witchcraft of the abelungu as all the izinyanga (doctors) or prophets had predicted it; that during his stay at Grahamstown the soldiers frequently asked which sort of country the Zulus had; if the roads were good for horses; if they had plenty of cattle; and had said ‘we shall soon be after you’; that he had heard a few white people had intended to come first and get a grant of land as I, Farewell, King and Dambuza had done; they would then built a fort, when more would come, and demand land, who would also built houses and subdue the Zulus, and keep driving them farther back as they had driven the Frontier tribes (Fynn 1986:196)

Jacob was prophetic in his opportunistic revenge on Cane. Dingane, though, eventually sacrificed Jacob in favor of the Europeans. Jacob clearly saw the encroachment symbolized in the fixity of the buildings: the church and the fort. During his early encounters with Europeans he experienced alienation in the form of labor, slavery and prisons. As an interpreter he was the prototypical Pan African, one who subverts through mimicry. His fear of the Cape Colony possibly was embedded in his memory of the earlier crossing after which he was imprisoned. He crossed once too often the ensnaring boundary between the heroic and the colonial.

The story of Jacob is a small segment in the narrative coinciding with the period of the difaqane (mfecane in Zulu). The difaqane was a time of mass migrations and displacements of people starting with Dingiswayo’s attack on Matiwane in 1818, and Matiwane’s flight with his people across Natal to the Bergville district, into the Caledon Valley and into the northern districts of the colony itself, unsettling people as they went. Those refugees not reduced to near animal existence aggregated around Shaka and Moshoeshoe. The difaqane as a process of aggregation was a unifying state-building: a brutal repression that was at the same time an imposition of centralized order.

The difaqane should be understood in heroic terms. Radically different views on death, killing, war and rights dominate in such a heroic culture. War, and mass displacement of people, also occurred in bourgeois and Christian Europe. Waterloo happened only three years (1815) before Shaka’s attack on Matiwane in 1818. Europe’s exportation of its surplus peoples to the colonies, amongst others the British settlers of 1820 to South Africa, coincides with the difaqane. This colonization coincided with an extensive resurgence of missionary activity. The missionary intervention came at a time when Africans were not aware of the full extent of the turmoil in Europe itself.

The masses of refugees produced by the African difaqane became the first converts at the mission stations. At these mission stations their children received education. This period of turmoil and destruction became the unconscious source of early written literature by Africans in South Africa. The parents of the founding figures of African writing were nearly all refugees from the difaqane. At the mission stations they were initiated into writing, printed literature and the values of Christianity. The difaqane’s “legacy” (Kunene 1989:173) therefore was amongst other things the early writers, many of whom were founding members of the ANC, such as Sol Plaatje and John Langalibalele Dube. These authors wrote about the difaqane from the newly acquired logo centric Christian point of view. See the texts Mhudi (Plaatje), Jeqe the Bodyservant of Tshaka (Dube) and Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka.

Thomas wrote about the period of the difaqane from a Christian position. The first chapter in his book Moeti oa Bochabela, “The Darkness of Old”, points to Mofolo’s struggle with a memory of a past which contradicts the idea of Africa’s, “Original Innocence” (Kunene 1989:70).

D.P. Kunene refers to the “Faustian element” in Mofolo’s third novel Shaka. The fictitious diviner Isanusi to him is the counterpart of Christopher Marlowe’s Mephistopheles (1989:127)

In Western literature the various Dr Faustus/Mephistopheles figures embody the knowledge and evil combination. Similarly, in the Mofolo text the figure of Shaka is both an innovator (knowledge), but also the “epicentre” of the difaqane (evil). This is the recurring image of Shaka in South African literature. As innovator, illegitimate child and exile, Shaka is the other to the Zulu. When fleeing from his father , Shaka, in Mofolo’s text comes to the realisation that “on earth the wise man, the strong man, the man who is admired and respected is the man who knows how to wield his spear, who when people try to hinder him, settles the matter with his club. He resolved that from that time on he would do as he liked: whether a man was guilty or not he would kill him if he wished, for that was the law of man” (1931:42).

The Christian authors introduces notions of evil and guilt in their depictions of the difaqane – making it impossible to see the difaqane in its own heroic terms. This blindness is especially evident in the work of white scholars in recent years. In the debates sparked of by Julian Cobbing, scientific ‘objectivity’ hardly veils an underlying Christian morality. Carolyn Hamilton’s The Mfecane Aftermath (1995) is the latest example where memory and collective guilt combines in scientific history.

An urge to re-present the past – give the difaqane presence in the present, with contemporary scapegoats, haunts the essays in Hamilton’s book. It defines its object in terms of agency, namely who were responsible and what role did Europeans in relation to Africans play in this turmoil. The European and African intertext in difaqane documents are of interest in so far as it points to the difference between the heroic and the colonial – a difference which is located in the absence and presence of institutions such as prisons, churches, boundaries, etc.

Dingiswayo, patron of Shaka as a youth, whose reign started in 1795, was an early example of a king who used his knowledge of Europeans to strengthen his own reign. It was during his reign that the process of the difaqane started. Shaka, as a general in Dingiswayo’s armies, introduced the short spear with new military organisation. As a youth Dingiswayo fled, after a plot to kill his father was discovered. During exile he became a guide to a European trader, Dr Gowan, who was eventually killed by Phakathwayo. Phakathwayo saw Gowan as an “unnatural animal” (5). Dingiswayo inherited the gun and horse of Dr Gowan and returned to his home area where he overthrew his brother Mawewe as king. In his wars he traded ivory (and possibly the captives as slaves) for military assistance from the Portuguese at Delagoa Bay.

In 1828 Shaka’s armies moved southward, according to Fynn to “exterminate the whole of the tribes between him and the Colony” (Fynn 1986:144). Fynn alludes to the arguments and differences of opinion he had with Shaka regarding this campaign “I told him it was my opinion that if he wished to be on amicable terms with the Colonists a war with the Frontier tribes, as then going on their borders, could not convince them of his being peacefully disposed” (1986:145). These dialogues are of special interest for what they betray of difference between the heroic and colonial forms of consciousness. There is the mentality of the Europeans, rooted in the slave consciousness of Christianity (Engels in the Origins of the Family have pointed out how the Christian notion of love is rooted in the slave society from which early Christianity sprung) confronting the sovereign and tragic figure of Shaka: and he is tragic, as was the protagonists from the Greek tragedies because of his omnipotence, his excess of life. It is an omnipotence of the oral command, the oral voice and body, confronted with the powerful instruments, the gun, medicines and writing of a people with a slave and Christian mentality: a mentality marked by its fetishisation of life; life the one aspect in which Shaka was not omnipotent – the only thing that distinguished him from God, which made him not real, made his power imaginary. Fynn suggests that Shaka’s mourning of his mother is a mourning for his own coming death. He is God – the only individual psychology embodying the people – every time he sentences a subject to death he rehearses his own fate. The theatricality of life is everywhere inscribed (see Dhlomo).

The Christian notion of innocence pointing to the Christian way of conceptualizing violence and cruelty is in a sense irrelevant.

African mythology also has its idyll. In Basotho custom, according to D.P. Kunene, there is a place called Ntswanatsatsi where the first Basotho came from the earth’s womb. As the place where the sun daily rises it is also a place of regeneration and purification (1989:69). Mofolo identifies this place in Moeti oa Botchabela with the Christian heaven. It is the place whereto the hero Fekisi must journey to meet the Christian God. D.P. Kunene then asks the important question:

How can the Basotho’s Original Innocence abide within a foreign ideology and a foreign conceptualization of Being (1989:70).

Magema M Fuze writes about the pre-colonial idyll:

All the people lived independently, without interference and free from disturbance and quarrelling among themselves (1979:25)


If a quarrel arose between two clans, the males would meet at a pre-arranged place, armed with shields and many spears. As soon as they met they would throw their spears at one another, each one shouting ‘Heiye!’ as he hurled his spear at the enemy. When one was wounded, those of his side would run away. And at the same time those who had inflicted the wound would stand still and refrain from pursuing those who were running away, and then depart for their homes. The following day messengers would be sent to express regret. There was no enmity between them (1979:25).

In contrast to this the Shakan period was one of extreme violence, of the conscious idealisation of war. It is argued that authors like Fynn and Isaacs exaggerated the violence of the period in order to encourage the colonisation of Natal by the British. This is not completely convincing. Images of violence are also prevalent in the works by African authors, such Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi. This is also the case in the most interesting and important, but largely undiscovered text, by the oral poet Msebenzi’s History of Matiwane and the AmaNgwane Tribe recorded by the missionary Albert Hlongwane, and edited and translated by N.J. van Warmelo (1938). Fuze himself foregrounds the violent nature of Shaka’s warfare. The Zulu attack on the Ndwandwe’s he describes as a “fight of death” (1979:48) which was greatly due to Shaka’s order that “each man was to carry a short stabbing spear together with only one spear for throwing as the army was about to engage” (1979:48). Sol Plaatje in Mhudi describes the destruction of Kunana, capital of Barolong in revenge of the killing of two Matabele tax collectors Bhoya and Bangela by the Barolong:

It was clear, from that moment, that the sun of the peacemaker had set, never to rise again, for by the faint light of the new moon they noticed with horror that the Matabele were not fighting men only; they were actually spearing fleeing women and children. Ra-Thaga saw one of them killing a woman and as she fell back, the man grasped her little baby and dashed its skull against the trunk of a tree (1988:32)

In Msebenzi’s History of Matiwane the images of violence are integrated into a heroic world view. Matiwane’s praise reads:

Matiwane, our royal bird with the red knees

Red-eyed, and red on the lips

From drinking the blood of fighting men (1938:62)

Battle scenes are described in great vividness:

and (they slew so many that) the soil produced numerous pumpkins (later on), and over the corpse of the chief the amaNgwane and the Hlubi joined in battle all in a great turmoil (1938:36)

To Deleuze pre-Capitalist cruelty is tied up with the question of memory. He speaks of cruelty as “creating a memory for man” (1984: contents page). Cruelty in the Deleuzian sense would be part of the encoding, the marking, activities of pre-capitalist societies, it is inscribing a repression, which is a memory, on the human body in the absence of an alphabetic script. The type of cruelties of the difaqane became obsolete as writing as an institution as well as other institutions, marked by their fixity (the school building, the church, the magistrate’s court and the prison) became established. The loss of pre-capitalist cruelty became replaced by the cruelty of alienation. Mass cruelty in the Shaka period was especially prevalent with the death of his mother, Nandi. The campaign against the amaMpondo was necessary “to erase his wounded feeling for the mother he had lost” (Fynn 1986:147). This cruelty is an expression of the sovereign’s helplessness in the face of death that reminded him of his own coming death.

Towards the end of his life, melancholia seems to afflict Shaka. According to Fynn he composed the following interesting poem referring to himself in the third person:

Why do they not kill him as they did his father?

Why do they not kill him as they did his father?

They hate him.

The calf of the hated one, like his father,

The calf of the hated one, like his father

They hate him. (1986:153)

Mazisi Kunene’s epic poem Emperor Shaka the Great (1979) is an example of a Pan Africanism seeking its roots in the memory of a pre-colonial past. He dedicates the poem “to all the African martyrs from Algeria to South Africa who have shared the great dream of a great Africa for all its children” (1979:xii). The poem, about the exemplary genius of Shaka, counters from an Africanist perspective the “white chroniclers” who “had very little understanding of the Zulu society and its motivations” (1979:xxiv). It is essentially then a counter-memory of the Ancestors: “After the night has covered the earth/ Rouse us from the nightmare of forgetfulness/ So that we may narrate their tales” (1979:1). In its details Emperor Shaka the Great (1979) is a brilliant correction of the White chroniclers. In its visionary aspects, though, one cannot help feeling that also this poem is a misreading of the heroic culture of the past, especially in comparison to Msebenzi’s testimony.

Apart from being rooted in resistance to European colonialism, Pan Africanism evokes an image of continental unity, one in which the notion of borders and nations have disappeared: a futuristic image in which all the major cities of Africa are connected with highways, supersonic railway links, and computer networks.

As resistance Pan Africanism evokes an image of memory – it is psychological – implying the loss of an essential collective self through colonialism: it is concerned with trauma and the past. In order to move into the future it is necessary to remember this past, but memory always distorts, condenses and displaces; it is difficult to determine exactly what is lost. The past is a construction marked by forgetting: forgetting what was never there.

There is an urgency to move away from the fictions of the past and to talk into the “elephant-ears of future times” (1979:2) to use an image from Mazisi Kunene. We need, if Pan Africanism is our dream, the genre of science fiction. In this science fiction, images of the past could be inscribed as part of the sacred memory of Africa. This science fiction must always investigate itself in terms of its ambivalent relationship to the trappings of the European enlightenment – in terms of tragedy- the tragedy of Jacob.


Callaway, H 1970. The Religious System of the AmaZulu. Struik. Cape Town

Deleuze, G & F Guattari 1984. Anti-Oedipus. The Athlone Press. London.

Dhlomo, HIE 1977. “Nature and Variety of Tribal Drama”. English in Africa. 4(2).

Dube, J 1951. Jeqe the Bodyservant of King Tshaka. The Lovedale Press. Lovedale.

Fuze, MM 1979. The Black People and Whence They Come. University of Natal Press. Pietermaritzburg.

Fynn, HF 1986. The Diary of Henry Francis Fynn. Shuter & Shooter. Pietermaritzburg.

Hamilton, C 1995. The Mfecane Aftermath. Witwatersrand University Press. Johannesburg.

Kunene, DP 1989. Thomas Mofolo and the Emergence of Written Sesotho Prose. Ravan Press. Johannesburg.

Kunene, M 1979. Emperor Shaka the Great. Heinemann. London.

Mofolo, T 1931. Chaka. Oxford University Press. London.

Mofolo, T 1907. Moeti oa Bochabela. Morija Press. Morija.

Msebenzi 1938. History of Matiwane and the AmaNgwane Tribe. Pretoria. Government Printer.

Plaatje, ST 1988. Mhudi. Heinemann. London.

Pratt, ML 1994. Imperial Eyes. Routledge. London.

Schoeman, K 1995. A Thorn Bush that Grows in the Dark. South African Library: Cape Town.

Beskawing en die etnografiese diskoers in die Suid-Afrikaanse letterkunde

Met die opkoms van postkoloniale studies het NP van Wyk Louw se teoretisering van die nasionale teenoor die koloniale in sy opstel “Die rigting in die Afrikaanse Letterkunde” uit Berigte te velde (1971) weer aktueel geword. In die opstel verwys hy na die genre in die Afrikaanse letterkunde wat gerig is op die voorstelling van die gebruike, geskiedenis en verhale van “inheemse stamme” as tipies koloniaal. J.C. Kannemeyer in sy Geskiedenis van die Afrikaanse Letterkunde Band 1 (1978) verwys telkens na hierdie tekste as antropologies of etnografies. In hierdie artikel word aspekte van hierdie genre vlugtig binne die konteks van postkoloniale studies ondersoek.

Die koloniale aard van die antropologiese genre was vir Van Wyk Louw problematies. Die genre is vir Van Wyk Louw “fragmentaries” deurdat dit ’n Afrika-Europa-gespletenheid verwoord en gekenmerk word deur tekste sonder die universele eenheid van die beste van die “metropool”.

Ironies het N.P. van Wyk Louw in sy gedig Raka (1941) die geheimsinnige en eksotiese van Afrika geneem en self ’n soort antropologiese teks voortgebring. Hy het egter sy teks ge-“universaliseer” (sien sy kommentaar oor die verskillende interpretasiemoontlikhede van Raka in Rondom eie werk 1970) en in dié opsig op ’n interessante wyse tot die koloniale genre bygedra.

Vanuit ’n postkoloniale perspektief word die figuur, Raka, ’n simbool van koloniale indringing en bedreiging van ’n ongeïdentifiseerde oerwoudkultuur. Die gedig betrek dan die wyse waarop koloniale magte ingegryp het om die pre-koloniale lewenswyses en kulture van kleiner volke onherroeplik te vernietig. Raka kan vergelyk word met George W. Stocking se voorstelling van ’n koloniale mag as “a mad and blind force, acting with uncontrollable force in unforeseen directions” (1991:49).

Ook Van Wyk Louw se gedig “Sfinks” het betrekking op die koloniale:

…Hy heers, en hoor

gebede en klagte nie; en ken geen pyn

of trots of vrees van sterflikheid – verloor

in ’n dooi Godsdroom wat elke ding verklein;

en die wind van duisend jaar het oor die poot

se magtige nael ’n smal duin opgestoot (1975:52).

Vergelyk John Davidson se gedig “St. Georges Day” waar die duur van die Britse Ryk voorgestel word deur middel van die beeld van ’n sfinks:

The Sphinx that watches by the Nile

Has seen great empires pass away:

The mightiest lasted but a while;

Yet ours shall not decay (Brantlinger 1988:229)

Die Sfinks as beeld beliggaam die universalisering van koloniale waardes, gebruike en instellings. Die koloniale godsdiens, taal, politieke en regsstelsel verplaas die van inheemse volke.

Die waardes wat geüniversaliseer word, word saamgevat in die begrip “beskawing”: dit is ’n allesomvattende begrip wat beduidenis kan hê op hoe ’n mens eetgerei gebruik tot die vorm van ’n politieke stelsel. Die begrip dui uiteindelik op die herskikking van die wêreld in die beeld van westerse rasionalisme, en westerse instellings.

Teenoor tekste wat uitdrukking gee aan die beskawingsduur is die apokaliptiese tekste. Tekste oor die verval van beskawing het sterk na vore gekom in die laat-negentiende en vroeë twintigste eeu en is afkomstig uit uiteenlopende diskursiewe formasies. Onder die tekste is Stoker se Dracula (1979) en Freud se “Civilisation and its discontents” (uit Civilization, Society and Religion, Group Psychology, Civilization and its Discontents and Other Works 1985). Die apokalitiese, volgens hierdie tekste, dui op ’n omgekeerde kolonialisering: die onbewuste in die vorm van die vampier of in die vorm van Freud se onvergenoegdes wreek hulle op die rasionele orde van die Weste. Nietzsche het die ommekeer in The Birth of Tragedy (1956) gevier in terme van die terugkeer van die Bacchantiese inhoud wat sentraal is tot die tragedie van die rede.

N.P. van Wyk Louw se Raka (1941) sluit aan by die apokaliptiese genre, maar verwoord ’n omgekeerde situasie: ’n oerwoudbeskawing word binnegedring en vernietig deur ’n instinktiewe, blinde mag van buite.

Dié tema van die oerwoudbeskawing is nie uniek binne koloniale diskoerse nie. ’n Voorbeeld is die talle tekste aan die einde van die negentiende en die begin van die twintigste eeu deur argeoloë en skrywers oor die enigma van die ontstaan en verval van die Zimbabwe-beskawing. Die tekste is geproduseer binne die konteks van die Hegeliaanse voorveronderstelling dat die Afrikaan onmagtig is om iets duursaams tot stand te bring (vgl die hoofstuk oor Afrika in Hegel se The Philosophy of History, 1956).

Binne dié konteks ontken die skrywers ’n Afrika-oorsprong tot hierdie ruïnes. Zimbabwe was vir hierdie vroeë skrywers ’n teken van ’n oerblanke (Feniciese) teenwoordigheid in Afrika. Vir S.J. du Toit (Die Koningin van Skeba,1963) is die Zimbabwe-ruïnes ’n okkultiese raakpunt van verskeie beskawings- en nie-beskawingstekste: Die Bybel, Egipte en moderne koloniale geskiedenis, die mondelinge oorleweringe van die Sjona- en “Boesmantoordokters” word deel van dieselfde narratief.

Die okkult en die bonatuurlike was ’n gewilde bron van inspirasie in die laat-negentiende eeu en het veral gestalte gevind in die “toordokter”-figuur. Vergelyk Patric Brantlinger se insiggewende hoofstuk “Imperial Gothic: Atavism and the Occult in the British Adventure Novel, 1880-1914” uit die boek Rule of Darkness (1988). Die assosiasie met die bonatuurlike dra by tot die beeld van ’n “donker” Afrika.

Martin Bernal se omstrede teks Black Athena (1988) sluit aan by die diskoers oor oerbeskawings in Afrika. Volgens hom word daar nie genoeg aandag geskenk aan die verhouding tussen die klassieke Griekse beskawing en Afrika, veral Egipte, nie. In soverre die postkoloniale geïnterpreteer kan word as ‘n antropologie en argeologie van die “beskawings”-diskoers, is Black Athena (1988) een van die sentrale tekste binne postkoloniale studies. Black Athena(1988) is ook ‘n voorbeeld van die ironiese ommekeer of terugskryf aan die imperiale sentrum: Afrika wat deur Hegel geag is as sonder die “beskawingsgees” word die oerbron van die beskawing.

Die “beskawing” word self ’n diskursiewe objek in tekste soos Mary Louise Pratt se The Imperial Eyes (1994) en Foucault se Madness & Civilisation (1982). Pratt se The Imperial Eyes (1994) is ’n voorbeeld van ’n teks wat ’n antropologie van die Westerse koloniale rasionaliteit daarstel deur juis daardie tekste te ondersoek waarin die nie-Europese gemeenskappe as antropologiese objek voorgestel word.

Die kritiese terugskryf aan die imperiale sentrum word uitgebreid ondersoek in Leon de Kock se Civilising Barbarians (1996) . In hierdie teks bespreek hy die tekste van laat-negentiende-eeuse Xhosa-bekeerlinge en die wyse waarop hulle die beskawingsdiskoers vir eie doeleindes aangepas het. Die diskoers word ’n subtiele ondermynende mimiek.

Interessante voorbeelde van hierdie soort nasionalisties-gelade mimiek is die Zoeloe-skrywer, J.L. Dube se tekste Isita Somuntu Nguye Uqobo Lwakhe (1928) (Die vyand is die self) en Ukuziphatha Kahle (1935) (Goeie maniere). Veral Ukuziphatha Kahle (1935) is ’n naïef-gedetaileerde indeks van hoe om op te tree in beskaafde geselskap (maar aangepas vir die Zoeloe-konteks). Die teks is so indirek ’n onkritiese antropologie van Westerse gebruike gemik op die bevordering van Zoeloe-nasionalisme en geletterdheid. Hierdie teks is tipies van hoe die waardes, gebruike en instellings van die “beskawing” aangepas word deur die verskeie nasionalismes wat ontstaan in die volgstroom van die koloniale heerskappy (interessant sou ’n vergelykende studie wees tussen hierdie teks en soortgelyke artikels uit die Huisgenoot van die periode).

Die mimiek het ook betrekking op die literêre modelle wat deur Viktoriaanse koloniale skrywers daargestel is en deur Afrikaanse en swart skrywers nagevolg is. Die avontuurverhaal in die vorm van bv. Rider Haggard se “King Solomon’s Mines” (Three Adventure Novels: She, King Solomon’s Mines, Allan Quaterman 1951) is vervorm tot tekste soos S.J. du Toit se Die Koningin van Skeba (1963), Thomas Mofolo se Chaka (1931), Sol Plaatje se Mhudi(1988) en J.L. Dube se Insila KaTshaka (Vertaal as Jeqe, the Bodyservant of Shaka, 1930) en meer onlangs die oeuvre van Credo Mutwa. Baie van hierdie tekste het die doel om die Westerse leser bekend te stel aan die geskiedenis en gebruike van die Afrika-volke. Dié tekste bevat die fantasieryke elemente van Haggard, maar is terselfdertyd ’n korrektief op Haggard. Sentraal in die tekste is avontuur, die stryd om oorlewing in die Afrika-wildernis. Oorlewing teen roofdier en vyand word bepaal deur fisieke krag en die noodlot. Die verhale het min karakterbeelding, uitgebreide gebruik van stereotipering, met ’n sterk teenwoordigheid van die bonatuurlike.

Die avontuurverhaal was die populêre teenpool van die ander dominante genre van die negentiende eeu, nl. die huishoudelike realisme. Gerig op veral die jeug, beskryf die avontuurverhaal die wedervaringe van die held in geheimsinnige en verafgeleë wêrelddele waar hy hom kan losmaak van die morele en politieke voorskrifte van Europa en vry kan wees van die kompleksiteite van verhoudings met wit vroue volgens Brantlinger (1988:11). Die avontuurverhaal se funksie was aanwakkering, dagdroom, wensvervulling. Brantlinger skryf dat die avontuurverhaal die verhaal is

(that) England told itself as it went to sleep at night; and, in the form of dreams, they charged England’s will with energy to go out into the world and explore, conquer, and rule (1988:11).

Die antropologiese genre dui op verhale wat antropologiese situasies verhalend, in plaas van wetenskaplik, aanbied. Die funksie is lerend: dit wil die leser bekendstel aan die gebruike en denkvorme van die swartman. Dit is verhale wat gewoonlik geskryf is deur antropoloë self, bv. Holmer Johanssen, of sendelinge en sendelingkinders, Bv. G.H. Franz, Otto Schwelnuss en Oswald Pirow. Hierdie is figure met ’n intieme kennis van die antropologiese onderwerp, en wat as administreerders ten nouste verbonde was met die formulering van beleid ten opsigte van die swart bevolking.

In aansluiting by die lerende funksie van hierdie tekste is die inleidings wat ’n opvallende kenmerk van hierdie verhale is. Die inleiding maak vir die leser ’n deur direk oop op die ideologiese motiewe van die verhale. Gewoonlik verwoord die inleiding die intertekstuele verband tussen die verhaal en die historiese feitlikheid daarvan. Otto E. Schwellnus skryf in die voorwoord van Maripane (1957) dat die teks gebaseer is op die “voorgeskiedenis” van die Bapedi van Oos-Transvaal soos sorgvuldig aangeteken deur die Berlynse Sendinggenootskap: veral die sendelinge: Wangemann, Merensky en Nachtigall. Intieme kennis word gewoonlik beklemtoon deur die feit dat die skrywer grootgeword het met sy onderwerp. Schwellnus stel dat hy al “meer as dertig jaar gelede afskeid van sy Pedi-speelmaats op Arkona aan die skilderagtige Wolfsberg, geneem het, om sy sy breedgetrapte kaalvoete permanent in ’n paar grootstedelike skoene te forseer” (1957:6). Oswald Pirow in die inleiding tot Sikororo (1952) stel dat sy speelmaats tot en met sy negende jaar uitsluitlik “Bantoetjies” was en dat die boek ’n poging is om sy jeugdige indrukke en bygelowe, aangevul deur die lees van wetenskaplike tekste, waarvan ’n hele lys aangegee word aan die einde van die inleiding, “op ’n enigsins wetenskaplike grondslag te rangskik”.

Oswald Pirow was die minister van Justisie in die Dertigerjare. Die hoogtepunt van sy loopbaan volgens die Suid-Afrikaanse Biografiese Woordeboek (1987) was die deurloods van die Wysigingswet op Oproerige Byeenkomste van 1930 met die doel om “te verhoed dat Swartmense deur Kommunistiese agitators teen Blankes opgerui word” (1987:631). In 1942 is hy die stigter van die Nasionaal-Sosialisties geïnspireerde Nuwe Orde Party. Die doel vanSikororo (1952) is om gewone lesers insae te gee in die wêreld- en lewensbeskouing van die “Bantoe”. Hy kursiveer die volgende in sy inleiding: “Grondige en simpatieke kennis van die Bantoe is die eerste en onvermydelike vereiste van ons voogdystelsel” (1952:4-5)

In Moloisi die wyse (1945) deur G.H. Franz, hoofinspekteur van Naturelle-onderwys, word die hoofkarakter, Moloisi die ou man met stertriem en sakkie van aapvel, die leermeester en wysgeer wat vir die sendeling “die hek (oopsluit) na daardie pragtige tuin van die Basotho-volkslewe, materieel sowel as geestelik” (1945:4). Hy leer deur die gelykenis of allegorie. Die allegorie in hierdie teks, soos die verhaal van die plaaskwagga en die veldkwagga, het betrekking op die koloniale situasie en die gepaardgaande aliënasie: die plaaskwagga probeer die natuurkwaggas oorreed om van hulle vryheid afstand te doen om op die die plaas te kom werk. Die verhaal begin met die vraag: “waarom stuur Raphiri sy kinders nie skool toe nie” (1945:35). Die implikasie is dat daar ’n ideologiese verband is tussen koloniale onderwys en arbeid en die verlies van vryheid. Aan die einde mymer die sendeling by homself met die vraag of “beskawing” nie dalk “slawerny” is nie (1945:43).

In “Molati se ontgroening” uit Franz se Verhale van Hananwa (1965) word die seun van die hoofman weggestuur deur die oumense van die stam om te gaan leer in ’n westerse skool:

Laat die volk hierdie seun na ’n skool stuur, sodat hy kan leer. Die tye het verander. Die ou skole is vir die ou tye, die nuwe tye het nuwe skole (1965 )

Wanneer hy terugkom met sy wit broek, baadjie van baie kleure, die hoed skuins op die kop en ’n dun rietjie in sy hand (1965:8) praat hy ’n taal wat hulle nie verstaan nie: “Ek het baie geleer. Ek kan oral woon en baie geld verdien. As julle wil hê dat ek hier moet bly en julle hoof wees, dan moet julle my betaal” (1965:9). Die sendeling se hulp word ingeroep en die volgende dialoog volg:

“Ek wil terug na witmanstad, waar daar lewe is.”

“En wie sal jou volk leer, sodat hulle kan lewe?”

“Hulle sal nooit soos die witmense word nie.”

“Nou praat jy die waarheid, want almal wat soos die witmense wil wees, sal wegtrek en in die agterbuurte van die witman gaan woon.”(1965 )

Hierdie verhaal het ’n sterk simpatieke, maar paternalistiese, siening van die tradisionele swart persoon, en ’n ewe sterk afkeur van die swart geleerde. Die onderliggende vrees vir mimiek is duidelik. In die verhaal “Die beskawing” uit Moloisi die wyse (1945:83) word die impak van die tikmasjien op die tradisionele gemeenskap voorgestel:

Dit is ’n matsini om te skryf. Sien julle, dit is nie die gavere van die Maisimane wat die oorlog wen nie. Dit is hierdie ding. Met hierdie asgaai kan jy ’n man baie ver doodmaak” (1945:83).

Na afloop van die Anglo-Boereoorlog tik ’n swart geleerde ’n boodskap aan die Imperiale regering namens die ongeletterde hoofmanne. In die boodskap vra die hoofmanne om hulle vryheid in ruil vir die hulp wat hulle die Britte tydens die oorlog aangebied het. Die boodskap word egter deur blanke administreerders onderskep en hulle dwing die hoofmanne om die skuldige geleerde te straf. Die gegewens word so aangebied dat dit vanuit die mond van ’n naïewe swart verteller self kom. Die swart verteller, as onderwerp van die skrywer se ideologie, moet self die weersin van die regeerder verwoord wanneer die tikmasjien, as bevrydingswapen, ’n taboe word.

Die verhaal se afkeur van swart geleerdheid sluit aan by die uitsprake van blanke politici van die tyd. J.G Strydom waarsku soos volg op 18 Mei, 1938 in The Cape Times: “If the Government went out of its way to civilize and uplift the Native in an unnatural manner, the White man would not be able to maintain his superiority” (Hoernle 1945:1). Brantlinger identifiseer ’n soortgelyke afkeur van die geletterde “inboorling” by die Brits-Koloniale letterkunde. Die weersin dui op ’n paradoks binne die koloniale ideologie: aan die een kant is daar die roeping om die gekolonialiseerde volke te bekeer tot die Christelike godsdiens en die Westerse beskawing, aan die ander kant is daar die onwilligheid om die “beskaafde inboorling” op gelyke voet te aanvaar. Die koloniale skrywer sien die mimiek van die “beskaafde inboorling” as oneg; bekering is onmoontlik: “the idea of imitation makes a mockery of the idea of conversion” (Brantlinger 1988:60). Die stereotipe edelheid van die inboorling word voorgestel as iets wat verlore gaan in die proses van beskawing. In die tekste bly die gekolonialiseerde inboorling “noble…as long as they remain wild but…drunken, dissolute buffoons when they become half-civilized” (Brantlinger 1988:64).

Daar is in die tekste ’n onderliggende erkenning dat daar moontlik iets drasties verkeerd is met die “beskawing”, dat ’n lewensvreugde deur die proses van beskawing tot niet gaan. George W. Stocking beskryf die antropoloog Malinowski se weersin in Westerse ingryping as ’n afkeur van die “convention-bound, middle-class ‘morality mongers’ and parochial ‘petty inquisitors of primitive life’ whose fanatical zeal to prune and uproot ‘had choked off the natives’ ‘joy of living’by suppressing the institutions that gave ‘zest and meaning of life’” (Brantlinger 1988:50-51). Die verlies van prekoloniale lewensvreugde het miskien meer uitgestaan teen die agtergrond van die verskrikkinge van die Eerste en Tweede Wêreldoorloë toe die vernietigingspotensiaal van die beskawingstegnologie duidelik geword het. Die verlies van die primitiewe lewensvreugde is iets wat kollektief gedeel word deur die mensdom, en is daarom ook iets intens persoonlik: deel van elke mens, soos Freud aantoon (1985).

Afrika word teken van die Tuin van Eden en het regressiewe assosiasies. In S.J. du Toit se Koningin van Skeba (1963) word Oos-Afrika geïdentifiseer as die geografiese lokaliteit van die Tuin van Eden. Meer psigologies is die paradys of in Otto Schwellnus se Maripane (1957). In die Voorwoord skryf Schwellnus: “Selfs die karakter Maripane is nie heeltemal versin nie, maar geïnspireer deur eerw. Nachtigall se aantekeninge oor ’n jong Pedi-vrou wat drie-en-twintig jaar lank alleen ’n Robinson Crusoe-bestaan in die wildernis naby die sameloop van die Olifants- en die Steelpoortrivier gevoer het” (1957:6).

In Schwellnus se teks word die omgewing van haar alleenbestaan deur die teks verbind tot die “grot van geeste, Marimatle” (1957) waar die god, Modimo, die eerste mense geskep het. Die paradyslike dui op die voledige integrasie van die karakter met die omgewing as sisteem. Alles in die omgewing word omskep binne ’n bestaansekonomie gerig op oorlewing. Sy maak egter vir haar ’n pop as alter-ego. Deur die pop word ’n denkbeeldige gemeenskap geskep, word taal, teken van beskawing en kultuur, aan die gang gehou: die pop word die een aan wie haar daaglikse ervarings verhaal word. Volgens Brantlinger word die psigologiese of karakter in die koloniale avontuurverhaal onderdanig gemaak aan aksie; die onderdrukking van karakter is ’n onderdrukking van taal. In die koloniale verhale is daar die “impulse…to submerge language, reason, selfhood in the destructive element of death” (1957:54).

Ten spyte van die ideologiese verheerliking van die primitiewe in sommige tekste kan die Westerse rasionalisme nie met tradisionele instellings saamleef nie. GH Franz se figure is nie verteenwoordigers van onafhanklike prekoloniale volke nie: dit is mense wat onherroeplik oorwin is, hulle is onderdanig, hulle gebare en stem is komieklik. Van Wyk Louw beskryf die situasie in Berigte te Velde (1971):

Die Bantoe en die kleurling is deur ons nog skaars raakgesien; ons het hulle so effens as vyande beskrywe, toe weer later simpatiek-humoristies vanuit die burgerlike standpunt gesien; maar hulle moet nog in ons literatuur verskyn as mense, in boeke wat nie met eenvoudig-liberale “oplossinkies” kom nie, maar met die ganse las van die noodlot van ons nasie (1971:14-15).

In die Afrikaanse letterkunde, selfs vandag, is daar nog nie werklik geworstel met die problematiek van swart nasionalisme nie.

Die problematiek van die tradisionele in die konteks van die rasionele word voorgestel in Holmer Johanssen se “Vurayai” uit sy Die Swerftog van die Helena (1963). Die antropoloog-verteller (“Ek was dié tyd baie besig met ’n nuwe sensusopname van ’n naburige kapteinskap” 1963:152) raak betrokke by ’n Sjona-familie wat onder ’n vloek lewe omdat die man weier om ’n bees te slag vir sy gestorwe vader. Die vrou se borste sweer en sy kan nie haar derde kind voed nie (die vorige twee het ook gesterf). Die antropoloog en sy vrou kan die baba red, maar is hulpeloos teen die gelowe van die groep.

’n Tipiese koloniale situasie word beskryf in B.J.F. Laubscher se Sex, Custom and Psychopathology :

I soon learned that the native has a decided fear that the white man will restrict or abolish his tribal customs, once he knows all about them. Experience shows that many of his customs have been abolished on account of the difficulties they presented to native administration, as well as their cruelties. I have in mind the ceremony and sacrifice of the “Black Bull”, which was practised by the Bacas, and which was stopped by my friend, Colonel Woon, and a troop of South African Mounted Police. In this ceremony the bull was thrown to the ground and some of the tendons in its legs were cut. The wounded animal was then chased, hobbling along, while the Chief or one of royal blood ran alongside the animal, cut a hole in its side, plunged his hand in and killed the animal by squeezing its heart. Colonel Woon…and his troop of South African Mounted Police arrived at the Chief’s kraal a day before the ceremony was due to take place. They sat there with their rifles across their knees and threatened to “eat up” the hostile kraals should the ceremony be performed, and that was the end of the ceremony of the “Black Bull” (1951:xiii).

Seks tussen kolonialiseerder en gekolonialiseerde was ’n intens ervaarde taboe wat as ’n vorm van regressie beskou is. Brantlinger verwys na “The nightmare of going native” (39). Dit is ‘n gewilde tema in die naturalistiese romans van Sarah Gertrude Millin. Dit verteenwoordig uiteindelik die apokalips vir die kolonialis. In P.W.S. Schumann se Hantie kom huis-toe (1955) word die armblankedom ’n beeld van die regressie. Hantie verwoord haar skokkende indruk van die armblankedom soos volg:

Kompleet nes ’n bobbejaan! Of liewer…raai doedels, toe ek hom die eerste maal sien, toe laat hy my dink aan die grootste een van daardie Boesmanbeelde, wat ’n mens in die museum in die etnologiese afdeling sien. Jy weet dies van wie Lydia, toe ons laas in die museum was, so ewe onskuldig gevra het of hulle dan ook opgestop is (1955:12).

Blanke werkers het hierdie apokaliptiese element in die beskawingsdiskoerse van die tyd uitgebuit in hulle beroep tot ’n wit beskawing in Suid-Afrika en in hulle onderhandelinge tot bevoorregting as werkers in veral 1922.

Die diskoers van die beskawing kan gesien word as oorvleuelend met die krisis in die kapitalistiese wêreld. Vir Cecil Rhodes was Britse Imperialisme ’n veiligheidsklep teen sosialisme in Brittanje:

in order to save the 40 000 000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced by them in the factories and mines (Brantlinger 1988:34).

Uiteindelik is die antropologiese objek ’n uitvloeisel van die ideologie van kapitalistiese ekspansionisme. Die ideologie van die rede is die ideologie van representasie (van meting en klassifikasie), van die kommoditeit wat ’n prys en ’n utiliteit is. Die antropologiese teks is nie net die kommodifisering van kollektiewe begeertes wat ervaar word deur middel van die ander nie, dit het ook die funksie om die ander te kommodifiseer. Bestaansekonomieë verteenwoordig deur beide die Boesman en die armblanke is die gevaarlike moontlikheid, die taboe van die beskawing.


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De Kock, L. 1996. Civilising Barbarians. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, Lovedale.

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Schwellnus, O.E. 1957 Maripane. Johannesburg: Dagbreek.


Hedonism in the Margins: Dolf van Coller’s Die Bieliebalies

1. Hedonism and Literature

Hedonistic texts form an important part of literary subculture since time immemorial, and also have a marginal presence in South African literature. This article is focusing on the folk novel Die Bieliebalies (1993) as an important contribution in Afrikaans to this subculture. The importance is foregrounded through the links that is established between this text and Bakhtin’s notion of the carnavalesque in Rabelais and his world (1984) and Nietzsche’s understanding of tragedy as integral to bacchantic rituals in The birth of tragedy (1956).

Literary hedonism refers to texts in which excessive pleasure is depicted as highest purpose of life, as the meaning of life itself. Nietzsche refers to it as “Excess revealed as truth” (1956:46) and as an expression of the “exuberant fertility of the universal will” (1956:104). In the hedonist text the emphasis is on excessive sex, drinking and eating. This is the material from which Van Coller’s Die Bieliebalies (1993) is constructed, although transposed to the familiar, but hardly explored, Afrikaans context of escort agencies, small-town restaurants and hunting weekends.

2. Nietzsche

Nietzsche’s The birth of tragedy (1956) is a profound critique of the theoretical person and that, which also emerged in our time as the dominant institutions and discourses: democracy, scientific optimism and utilitarianism. He writes:

Could it be possible that, in spite of all ‘modern ideas’ and the prejudices of a democratic taste, the triumph of optimism, the gradual prevalence of rationality, practical and theoretical utilitarianism, no less than democracy itself which developed at the same time, might all have been symptoms of a decline of strength, of impending old age, and of physiological weariness (1956:21).

Against reason he places wisdom, against optimistic philosophy he places tragedy.

The tragedy, according to Nietzsche, supposes pessimism about human attempts to exert power over nature through reason and the transcendental ego of the individual. In contrast to the logical schematism (1956:91) of reason, expressed through the notion of representation (the depiction of the material through measurement, or in politics where politicians and their parties represent in quantifiable way the aspirations of particular interest groups), tragedy is an expression of wisdom. Wisdom is founded in an acceptance of contradiction as an essential part of nature; it recognizes the instinctual, powers, which transcend the human mind, the unknown and the unconscious. Nietzsche states the possibility that “Perhaps there is a realm of wisdom from which the logician is exiled?” (Nietzsche, 1956:93).

Wisdom is a humble acknowledgment of human helplessness in the context of an illusory world. Hamlet personifies this wisdom and it explains why he cannot act, why he cannot come to a decision. Wisdom is marked by nausea in tragic hero: “nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint” (Nietzsche, 1956:60).

Wisdom implies an order that is different from the regime of reason (personified by Socrates and Euripides) with its blue prints for change in the world: “Socrates conceives it to be his duty to correct existence” (Nietzsche, 1956:87) and he refers to Euripides’ “audacious reasonableness” (Nietzsche 1956:84) and “rationalistic method” (Nietzsche 1956:84).

Despite the “nausea” at the absurdity of existence, tragedy is marked by a joy in the incomprehensible abundance and fertility of nature. The underlying principle of this abundance, and of life itself, is the mortality of the individual. Death frames individual life as a dream and an illusion.

Reason attempts to reduce the abundant diversity of life to uniformity; the human being as reasonable master over nature becomes the only acceptable image of the human being. This is expressed in petite bourgeois morality plays in which the audience see themselves represented on the stage, a mirror image of themselves and their values:

Through (Euripides) the everyday man forced his way from the spectators’ seats onto the stage; the mirror in which formerly only grand and bold traits were represented now showed the painful fidelity that consciously reproduced even the botched outlines of nature (Nietzsche, 1956:77).

Oppositions, right and wrong, rather than the acceptance of contradictions forms the foundation of petite bourgeois morality. It is therefore a morality of rights. Against this in tragedy there is no definite right or wrong: “all that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both” (Nietzsche, 1956:72).

Against the petite bourgeois caricature Nietzsche places the drunken satyr of tragedy. Tragedy becomes a product of the dream and of intoxication (Nietzsche, 1956:33). Dionysus, the god of wine, is also the god of tragedy:

Either under the influence of the narcotic draught, of which the songs of all primitive men and peoples speak, or with the potent coming of spring that penetrates all nature with joy, these Dyonissian emotions awake, and as they grow in intensity everything subjective vanishes into complete self-forgetting (Nietzsche, 1956:36).

Part of the “self-forgetting” in an intoxicated state, and also important for Die Bieliebalies (1993), is the bonding that occurs between human being and human being and between human being and nature (Nietzsche, 1956:37). The satyr is an embodiment of this union: he/she is an expression of the joy and abundance of nature:

The metaphysical comfort – with which, I am suggesting…every true tragedy leaves us – that life is at bottom of things, despite all the changes of appearances, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable – this comfort appears in incarnate clarity in the chorus of satyrs, a chorus of natural beings who live ineradicably, as it were, behind all civilization and remain eternally the same, despite the changes of generations and of the history of nations (Nietzsche, 1956:59)

Van Coller’s Die Bieliebalies (1993) is an expression of the indestructible presence of pleasure in existence, in spite of dominant moral discourses and blue prints and in spite of the life-threatening consequences of the excessive behavior. The character Vaatjie (meaning wine barrel or tubby) is infected with Aids for instance.

For Nietzsche (1956:61) the satyr is symbol of sexual omnipotence in contrast to the cultured, civilized person, he represents the limits of logic, embodies the wisdom which transcends logic, the wisdom which is associated with art and tragedy. Tragedy is an art form, which expresses the symbiosis of existence and nature. Tragedy is a ritualized perception:

…the mystery doctrine of tragedy: the fundamental knowledge of the oneness of everything existent, the conception of individuation as the primal cause of evil, and of art as the joyous hope that the spell of individuation may be broken in augury of a restored oneness (Nietzsche, 1956:74).

Reason places the human being against nature, it wants to master nature, is a discourse of power, is founded in the transcendental ego of the individual. Die Bieliebalies (1993) work with the contradiction between the human and nature within the institutions and blue prints of reason: it portrays the satyr, ironically, in the costume of the small-town lawyer. E. Britz (1994) describes, from a feminist perspective, Die Bieliebalies (1993) as one of the most chauvinistic, sexist and racist texts in Afrikaans. Feminism, as a political program (like the Christian pietism from which it derives) has a particularly repressive attitude against the portrayal of the human body (especially that of women) as nature, as sexual. It further presupposes the rationalization of institutions of society on the basis of equality and uniformity.


3. Bakhtin


Bakhtin’s notions in Rabelais and his world (1984) relate closely to that of Nietzsche, although it focuses on a different historical period, namely the early Renaissance. In stead of the satyrs of antiquity he refers to the renewing and utopian energy of folk humor. Like Nietzsche (in his arguments against naturalism and literature in the service of the social sciences) he sets humor against the dogmatic bombast of official ideology: “In … official culture there prevails a tendency toward the stability and completion of being, toward one single meaning, one single tone of seriousness (Bakhtin, 1984:101). Folk humor, marked by blasphemy, the bodily and the sexual (“reveling in oceans of strong drink, pools of sausage, and endless coupling of bodies” – Bakhtin, 1984:xix) affirms the abundance of nature (“The leading themes … are fertility, growth, and a brimming over abundance” Bakhtin 1984:19). The feast, which is a celebration of this abundance, is for Bakhtin central to folk culture and points to social renewal: “…for a time (people) entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality, and abundance”. It points to the abolition of dominant dogmas, it plays with the contradictions between ideal and reality within an existing order, and emphasizes the relativity of truths: “All the symbols of the carnival idiom are filled with (the) pathos of change and renewal, with the sense of the gay relativity of prevailing truths and authorities” (Bakhtin, 1984:11). Folk humor derives from the familiarity of the market-square and is dominated by the portrayal of the grotesque body, the body as fertile nature, as excessive, as open; the mouth, anus and vagina is essential to life as interactive process between inside and outside, human being and human being:

… the grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world… the stress is laid on those parts of the body that are open to the outside world … the parts through which the world enters the body or emerges from it, or through which the body itself goes out to meet the world. This means that the emphasis is on the apertures or the convexities, or on various ramifications and offshoots: the open mouth, the genital organs, the breasts, the phallus, the potbelly, the nose. The body discloses its essence as a principle of growth which exceeds its own limits only in copulation, pregnancy, childbirth, the throes of death, eating, drinking or defecation (Bakhtin, 1984:26).

What is high is brought down low: “To degrade … means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy, and birth” (Bakhtin, 1984:21). It is the body, as image of collective life, against the bourgeois ego of the individual: “The material bodily principle is contained not in the biological individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people, a people who are continually growing and renewed” (Bakhtin, 1984:19).

4. Van Coller’s Die Bieliebalies: story as feast

As Bakhtin points out carnival originated at the market place, in economic activity. In the exactly hundred episodes of Van Coller’s Die Bieliebalies (1993) the economic also plays a central role. The characters are broadly divided in two opposing groups as represented by two economically competing law firms: the law firm of Loekie and the one of Buks. But there is also the portrayal of countless subgroups, which have only incidental contact with the law firms. The economic rivalry is responsible for the tension and main story line in the text. It regularly alternates though with the escapades of other characters that are not, or only indirectly, involved with the two central opposing groups. Van Coller in this way succeeds to make a whole town part of his book as an extended feast. Feast becomes an expression of the characters’ lives. Eating, drinking and sex in excess are the main motifs in the text and is present in every episode. Time and again the sexual is determined by economic motivations, as contained in the image of a “finger in a wet purse” (1993:68). The economic focus though is completely different from a ponderous naturalistic exploration of social impoverishment; the economy is rather part of fate where characters survive through trickery embedded with humor.

5. Die Bieliebalies as utopian freedom

Within a context where non-sexist and non-racist ideologies (increasingly expressions ironically of extreme racism and sexism) are dominant dogma, Die Bieliebalies (1993) is one of the most liberating texts in Afrikaans due to its utopian perspective. It is a participatory perspective, a worldly perspective which makes it transcend sexism and racism. The narrator as voice of the people does not satirize; as objective omniscient narrator he does not place himself above that with which he is jesting. Through the use of folk speech (jokes, idiomatic expressions, pranks and slang) the narrator identifies himself with the folk; he belongs to the amoral, ambivalent laughter of the people; “The people’s ambivalent laughter … expresses the point of view of the whole world; he who is laughing also belongs to it” (Bakhtin, 1984:12).

As expression of the utopian, the texts narrate the highest degree of pleasure possible, the unconstrained freedom that transcends repressive reason. During one of the weekend hunting expeditions the characters “reached that stage where their behavior becomes totally uncontrolled” (Van Coller, 1993:61).

6. Regression

The unconstrained freedom (which is also a regression; the savage, which awakens in the overly civilized, the satyr that behind all civilization remains an essential part of humanity) is best depicted in episode 70. In this chapter the “boys” during a hunting expedition surrender themselves completely to drinking until they were “blue” (Van Coller, 1993:99). They feast for the sake of life. As in primitive rituals they smear themselves with the blood of antelope:

It looks as if they dipped (baptized?) their hands in blood and smeared it across their cheeks and necks. Most of them are naked and the blood lies in strokes across their stomachs and legs. They dance insanely around the fire and sing and scream (Van Coller, 1993: 99-100).


Joop looks the worst. He drank of the warm antelope blood. His mouth, throat and chest glimmers with blood. He cuts the throat of the first antelope with his sharp Bigfoot Kershaw and then holds his big beer glass for the thick blood to spurt in. Then he adds three double brandies and gulps it away in one draught. Then he taps again and each one had to take a sip (Van Coller, 1993:100).

Interesting is the black assistant’s commentary on this regression: “If the white man is like this, then one with a black skin stays far away” (Van Coller, 1993:100).

7. Death and the highest degree of pleasure

Joop is the character, although not as central as Loekie or Vaatjie, who expresses best the central theme of the text, namely the highest degree of pleasure. His thoughts are focalized on as follows: “Oh fuck, it was great, the boys together. A woman will never know what such a weekend alone with the boys means” (Van Coller, 1993:105).

Joop also embodies the price that is to be paid for the excessive indulgence, the physical economy of pleasure, but also the unavoidable ritual of nature, namely death. From memories to the weekend, and the pleasure he derives from it, his death flows. His death is a consequence of laughter. The combination of laughter, death and sexuality reminds strongly of Nietzsche’s view thereof as origin of tragedy:

He thinks of Bubba’s big white drilling bum while he screws, and starts laughing without reason. He laughs and laughs until it changes into a coughing fit. The heartburn pushes up in his throat. He thinks of all the farm sounds they had to make every time Wynand phoned his wife and his laughs louder. He coughs and coughs and starts to gasp for breath.

And then came a terrible burning pain. He grabs his chest and brakes. The truck slides across the sidewalk against a streetlight (Van Coller, 1993:105).

8. The grotesque and the petite bourgeois

Van Coller (1993:100) uses the word grotesque, which is central in Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival, to describe the bodies of his drunken characters. In the grotesque realism of the carnival the focus is on the feasting, eating, drinking, discharging and sexual body. Like Nietzsche that used the figures of Socrates and Euripides in his implied critique of nineteenth-century naturalism, Bakhtin contrasts the petite bourgeois realism of the nineteenth century with the grotesque realism of earlier centuries. He states that grotesque realism was replaced by

moral sententiousness and abstract concepts … The result is a broken grotesque figure, the demon of fertility with phallus cut off and belly crushed. Hence all these sterile images representing ‘character’, all these professional lawyers, merchants, matchmakers, old men and women, all these masks offered by degenerate, petty realism (Bakhtin, 1984:53).

Van Coller, through the use of lawyers and bank managers (therefore figures from the petite bourgeois class) as characters, play with the genre. Without any internal or psychological characterization there is no sense of alienation, typical of character depiction of nineteenth century realism, present in this text. There is no guilt and no confessions, pointing to the individual bourgeois ego, in the text.

The exaggerated physicality of the characters makes them into caricatures, with the emphasis on the repulsive, degrading, and especially on “those parts of the body that are open to the outside world … the parts through which the world enters the body or emerges from it, or through which the body itself goes out to meet the world” (Bakhtin, 1984:26).

The grotesque body in its openness to the outside world is best portrayed in the figure of Joop in the hospital “connected to a diversity of tubes and stabilizing apparatus” (Van Coller, 1993:105). This grotesque scene jests with medical science and modern inability to see death as part of life:

(The opposition life and death) is completely contrary to the system of grotesque imagery, in which death is not a negation of life seen as the great body of all the people, but part of life as whole – its indispensable component, the condition of its constant renewal and rejuvenation (Bakhtin, 1984:50).

Death is therefore not only a negative fact, but is accepted: “Old Joop died the way he wanted it. After a few drinks, cigar in the mouth, his mates around him and a woman on each arm. I think he is happy where he is now” (Van Coller, 1993:115).

For Bakhtin (1984:179) there is a point of contact between the physician and the grotesque body (“The body that interests him is pregnant, delivers, defecates, is sick, dying and dismembered … it is the body as it appears in abuses, curses, oaths and generally in all grotesque images”).

Van Coller’s characters are marked by typical grotesque contrasts: Joop for instance is described as big in every way (“Everything about him is big: his head, hands, stomach and estate” 1993:11), except for his small penis. This small penis is central the grotesque portrayal of him having sex with his wife:

He hears Lena opening a Vaseline bottle: automatically he holds his middle finger in the air. He gives an enormous yawn. She twists the bottle around his finger, oils it well. He lies with the back of his hand flat on the bed and the middle finger straight up. He feels how Lena moves across him. He helps a little and then he is in. She is practiced and knows exactly what to do. Joop thinks of the hunting planned for the next weekend on his farm… He knows when she is close. He wants to shoot a warthog that weekend…He feels Lena jerking (Van Coller, 1993:70).

Vaatjie is the other clearly grotesque character. His name meaning “wine barrel” evokes associations with wine and fat, and reminds of the character Gross Guillaume or Fat William who according to Bakhtin (1984: 297) looked like a wine barrel: “this body resembled a wine barrel…Thus his figure was the symbol of bread and wine in bodily form. This two-legged creature representing the abundance of earthly goods was extremely popular”. Van Coller (1993:15) describes Vaatjie as follows: “Vaatjie is a block of a man; far over six feet. When he stands you could balance a glass on his stomach. It looks as if he doesn’t have a neck. His chin rests on his chest. His head cannot really turn.”

Vaatjie is especially interesting as the character that has to regulate the orgies and plan the pleasure. He is described as someone who is “in” with everybody who is important. He is the one who arranges the hunting trips and is already seen as “nearly a pimp amongst the whores” (Van Coller, 1993:16). At the brothel he organizes “like a cricket captain sending in his players to bat” (Van Coller, 1993:85). In the carnavalesque everything is inverted: a prostitute infects the enormous Vaatjie with Aids and he changes into a skeleton.

9. The New South Africa

Vaatjie’s Aids is the consequence of the zenith in his sexual escapades. This story-within-a-story is narrated in episode 96 to Loekie who is pre-occupied with a threatening strike and the temperamental “double codes” (Van Coller 1993:127) of the new South Africa. In this story Vaatjie is chosen by a “young thing” with the “most beautiful and soft body and most beautiful blue eyes that you have ever seen” (Van Coller, 1993:128) because “she only kisses special guys like him” (Van Coller, 1993:128). Her vagina becomes grotesque: the place of extreme stimulation, repulsion and fantasy: “And when I was ready, she climbed on top of me. Fuck, Loekie her cunt was tight. Tight but slippery and inside those little hands you always talk about” (Van Coller, 1993:130).

The “little hands” refers to Loekie’s fantasy and desire to screw a “coolie maid” (Van Coller, 1993:89) one day because according to folk tradition they have grotesque vaginas: “They say the Apache women have something like a small hand in there. Just when you enter with your prick this little hand grabs it with soft fingers folding around the head. They say it can make you insane” (Van Coller, 1993:89). Earlier in the same chapter there is reference to the sixth whore “a dark little one with pitch black flickering eyes” (Van Coller, 1993:86). When she introduces herself as Brazilian, Wynand shows his relief with the words “After all not black” (Van Coller, 1993:86). The racist abhorrence, but at the same time attraction to the woman, makes the political part of the grotesque game. Loekie whispers to Vaatjie “That now is how a Black should look like” (Van Coller, 1993:86).

The text plays with the political habits of the small town Afrikaner man within the context of a changing South Africa. Mostly Blacks are portrayed as servants and workers in a near-feudal system. It is best illustrated in the ritual joke where a loyal farm worker has to introduce himself at a party as “I’m Piet, Boss Joop’s kaffir” (Van Coller, 1993:18). Joop, who himself enjoys this ritual the most, is described as a nationalist who believes “that there should be a place for Blacks” (Van Coller, 1993:17). A racist way of life and political pragmatics are mixed to create funny situations. The new political situation creates possibilities for interesting inversions. In episode 53 Joop is angered by a white foreman whom he scolds as a “bad, useless fucking white man” (Van Coller, 1993:69) and this is followed by the near carnavalesque feigned appointment of the black Samson.

10. Representation

Nietzsche referred to the ordinary man who forced his way onto the stage to find there a petite bourgeois image of himself (“civic mediocrity … was given a voice” Nietzsche, 1956:77). The word “civic” evokes an image of the petite bourgeois order that became dominant since the French Revolution in the form of modern democracy based on the ideas of representation and individual freedoms and rights. Since then representation can be quantified in terms of numbers: majorities and minorities. Government is therefore, at least hypothetically, no longer arbitrary and unreasonable (the question, though, remains as to what degree a politician can re-present). Both Apartheid and Anti-Apartheid are products of political rationalization that has its roots in the sciences and its classifying methodologies.

Democracy is underpinned by the disciplinary institutions of reason: education, the law and values such as morality and sobriety.

Die Bieliebalies (1993) is described by Etienne Britz in a radio review as “the most immoral and politically repulsive book that appeared in Afrikaans in many years”. The book can only be considered repulsive if one assumes a representative link between fiction and the social and political reality; the degree of repulsion must be tested against the social reality: the number of readers repulsed. The number of readers of this folk text will therefore be decisive. Apparently from press reports it was a very popular book.

It is especially with reference to the depiction of women that the book is experienced as repugnant (although it describes mainly repugnant male behavior). The repugnance is defined mainly from an implied moral order founded in feminism: the woman that is depicted as sexual is dehumanized (nature makes the human less human). The woman becomes a victim of a male order.

Charles van Onselen in his historical texts New Nineveh (1982) and New Babylon (1982) showed how prostitution at the end of the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth century liberated Afrikaner women economically from the hold of the traditional patriarchal order. This is the material from which Totius constructed his nationalist Trekkerswee (1933, first published 1915). In Die Bieliebalies (1993) it is the economic power accompanying sexuality which are recurrently foregrounded, and which empowers women rather than making her a mere victim. The bickering of the male characters with prostitutes is economically founded, so is the use of the waitresses and secretaries of their bodies t0 achieve their purposes, as is the housewife’s acceptance of her shadowy role.

Traditional feminism postulated a homogeneous view of women (an unnuanced representation). It did not leave much space for a diversity of women’s voices; there is no room for the prostitute reduced to mere victim of the male order, to speak for herself. Shanon Bell (1994) pleads against these types of arguments (as in Nietzsche’s view of the heterogeneity of life), a pluralist, postmodern and carnavalesque sexual ethics based on democratic tolerance for sexual diversity. According to her sexual acts should be evaluated in terms of the absence of force and the degree of pleasure it gives (Bell, 1994:133). For the woman, in the role of the prostitute, pleasure as an experience of power, can be addictive. Charlotte Davis Kasl (quoted in Bell, 1994:133) writes:

The addictive part is the ritual of getting dressed, putting on make-up, fantasizing about the hunt, and the moment of capture. ‘To know that you could go out there and they would come running. What power! Men would actually pay for sex’… For women prostitution … that feeling of power, along with the excitement of living on the edge, is one of the hardest things to give up.

11. The panting novel (hyg roman)

In a certain sense feminism pleads for the revival of chivalry: the new knight is the man that conforms to feminist prescriptions for male behavior. The panting novel (a new genre of soft feminine? porn in Afrikaans) with its typical idealization of the sexual situation from a feminine perspective is an expression of this. Die Bieliebalies (1993) mocks this genre in the depiction of the character Ben White and his relationship with the attractive widow Ryke. Unlike the other characters White has a “body like an athlete (Van Coller, 1993:110). He is described as “courteous” when he drapes a Karakul coat over her shoulders. They eat by candle light, he opens the car door for her, kisses at the end of the night her fingers. In a very civilized way the sexual is continuously postponed. Their relationship becomes grotesque, because it is so different from all the other relationships in the book. At the end, though, Loekie regularly screws Ryke, newly wed to Ben White, in a hotel room.

12. Conclusion

Die Bieliebalies (1993) is a hedonist text with important philosophical implications. Its link to Bakhtin and Nietzsche made it clear. The discourse of rights, as feminism becomes more dominant, will come increasingly in conflict with the discourse of freedom (especially the freedom of speech). Die Bieliebalies (1993) is a celebration of excessive male freedom, but the women are more than just victims in this celebration. They are empowered in particular ways. Because literature is not reality, but always an imaginary and imaginative world, the pleasure it gives does not necessarily have gender differences.

This article is an adaptation of an Afrikaans version, which appeared in the journal Literator Vol. 19 no. 3, November 1998.


Bakhtin, M. 1984. Rabelais and his world. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Bell, S. 1976. Reading, writing & the prostitute body. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Britz, E. 1994. Die Bieliebalies: Botvierende, afskuwelike manlikheid. Skrywers en Boeke, Afrikaans Stereo. Sept. 29.

Nietzsche, F. 1956. The birth of tragedy. Anchor Books: New York.

Totius. 1933. Trekkerswee. Kaapstad: Nasionale Pers.

Van Coller, D. 1993. Die Bieliebalies. Mmabatho: Ukelele.

Van Onselen, C. 1982. New Babylon. Studies in the social and economic history of the Witwatersrand. 1886-1914. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.

Van Onselen, C. 1982. New Nineveh. Studies in the social and economic history of the Witwatersrand. 1886-1914. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.

Hordes, Institutions and Intertexts: Conceptualising a South African Literary History

The futility of laying down the foundations for something as ambitious as a literary history becomes apparent with the growing awareness of history’s trope-ridden nature. What will save this history from being as anecdotal as any ordinary adventure story? These thoughts came to me while reading J.M. Friedenthal’s Onder die Kannibale (1950): The story of a white-skinned savage (although with the reasoning power of a colonial hunter and anthropologist), who exploits the superstitious beliefs of a cannibal tribe, overthrows their chief and then trains them for war against an ancient white and “bushman” tribe in order to kidnap a princess. His jealous black wife and mother of the people whom he inherited when he usurped the cannibal chief then kills him. What is the meaning of this story published two years after the narrative of Apartheid officially began? Although the cannibalism is offensive to the central character, it is not repulsive to the implied author. The central character eventually is turned into the villain, with the original cannibal king returning triumphantly to power – and with the sympathy of the reader. In this paper I will be telling stories about stories, with the theory implied somewhere between the lines.

South African literary history inevitably consists of what is different, and what Enlightenment discourses have repressed: it leaves one space to explore the notions of the horde, the cannibal, ritual and trance without reducing it to the categories of Reason. Reason which in history, and literary history, since the late nineteenth century, is marked by a displacement of strategies from Darwin. To Darwin organic structures are the result of modifications of earlier forms. In order to understand something in its present form one needs to understand its history of transformations. History and literary history are the transposed allegory of evolution, or natural history. Literary history is founded on attempts to explain the emergence of the human mind, the emergence of reason from instinct. W.H.I. Bleek states with regard to his collecting of “Bushman” folklore that:

…it is clear from what has been already collected, that the folklore of all these nations is of great scientific importance, – of first-rate importance for a correct knowledge of the native languages,and indispensable, if a true record is to remain of the original workings of the native mind, and of the ideas inherited from their ancestors, as well as of the spiritual state in which they were before the advent of Christian missionaries (my italics)

Evolution is a particular discursive formation in South African literature, from the meditations on evolution in Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm to Eugène Marais’ The Soul of the Ape . Marais, the first man to do extensive field studies among baboons, wrote The Soul of the Ape in order to demonstrate the evolutionary continuity between animal cognition and human consciousness. He identifies the various forms of mentality: (1) instinct which is inherited and constitutes a fixed pattern of interacting with a very localised environment and (2) intelligence which is shared by humans and the chacma baboons and is based on causal memory, transferred through tradition, i.e. acquired through learning in infant years, and therefore not inherited. It evolves from an interaction with a variety of environments. He associates the acquisition of consciousness with pain and writes that we are driven to “euphoria-inducing drugs in an attempt to alleviate the ‘pain of consciousness’”.

Magema M. Fuze’s The Black People and Whence They Came was “the first major work ever written in Zulu by a native speaker of the language”. It was written at the end of the nineteenth century, but first published privately in 1922. Fuze, a Christian convert of the bishop Colenso, challenged the beliefs of his Christian and colonial masters by aligning himself, apparently, to the “stories” of Darwin. There is throughout his text a concern with “species” and “race” and “genealogy”. The translation of genealogy into genetics is implicit with some support from the Bible. He writes:

There is a great tendency among worthless white men to marry our girls, finding them beautiful, thereby breaking the established rule that each race should marry with itself only, in accordance with its creation .

The interest in species is also an interest in origins (see Fuze’s title: The Black People and Whence They Came) and in classification (the chapters dealing with the dispersal of the people and the various clans).

Fuze though tells a story that supports but also inverts Darwin. His starting point is a question which implies that devolution is also possible:

Pay heed to this: Why should the story not be true that the first person to be created was a baboon, and that in the course of time the baboons developed into humans such as us? Afterwards the people dispersed over the face of the earth. There is the account that states that the members of the Thusi clan are baboons, that becoming weary of cultivating crops, they went to live in the veld and inserted their hoe handles into their rumps, where they grew into tails.

Genealogy is one of the oldest concerns of the “literary”, pointing to “literature’s” roots in issues of identity, being, origin and continuity. Genealogy is for instance an essential aspect of praise poetry (in South Africa the izibongo). The izibongo are constructing individual identity in terms of the brave deeds signifying a particular life, but also in terms of an ancestry. Thomas Mofolo in Chakagives some idea of the context in which the izibongo emerged. Chaka as a young man becomes the hero of the women’s praises after he killed a lion. Mofolo writes:

In reading these songs the reader should remember that there is nothing more galling for a person than to be sung at by women in mockery and contempt, just as there is nothing so pleasant as when they sing one’s praises…

These two songs put a bad spirit into the young men and the warriors, for they saw that the girls would go with Chaka and that they would not be looked at. For in those days women were not attracted by a man, however good-looking, if he was a coward. The aim of every woman was to find a husband who was a real fighting man, a true warrior when spears were wielded or when occasions like these arose. However ill-favoured, such a man was loved, and songs were composed to extol him and bring into contempt all other men.

In a way we cannot blame them for this, for those were rough days, and a woman who wanted protection had to choose a man of that kind, who was feared by others, a brawny defender.

Kinship and genealogy (the magical transference of properties such as bravery from father to son) are central to the story of hordes. The horde is the embodiment of a group psychology tied up with the individual psychology of the hero, king or father that is repeated in the victorious son: “Malandela begot Ntombela, Ntombela Zulu, Zulu Nkosinkulu, Nkosinkulu Mageba, Mageba Phunga, Phunga Ndaba.”. The poetry of cattle people consists mainly of poems directed at the primal father and his various reincarnations. It is strongly oedipal, always re-enacting the struggle between the various sons, and between father and sons. The survival of the fittest is an essential principle and value. (The transposition of this allegory in modern literary history is in the concepts of influence and originality – the attempts to determine the same and difference, the obsession with relationships: literary histories read like family trees with the focus on the Primal Fathers and Mothers of each generation).

Recently Jeff Peires brought to light the text History of Matiwane and the Amangwane Tribe as told by Msebenzi to his Kinsman Albert Hlongwane. It is one of the most exciting discoveries for South African literature, history and anthropology. This undiluted example of oral history was published by the Department of Native Affairs and edited by the government ethnologist, N.J. van Warmelo. Msebenzi (born in 1850), was a son of Macingwane, who was a second son to the famous refugee warlord, Matiwane. Msebenzi received his poetic training from the old bard Siyikiyiki. He was instructed in the traditional poetry and history of the Amangwane tribe, and “was permitted to smoke hemp… a practice forbidden to other chief’s sons”. The Rev. Albert Hlongwane decided to “take down in writing what the old man had to tell and so save their tribal history from oblivion”. “He wrote morning, noon, and night, even by lamplight. Day after day, the old man’s words were laboriously written down as he dictated”. Van Warmelo emphasises that it is a verbatim report. He states:

This was proved to me often enough in going through the MS. with him, for not only were many passages obscure to him (Hlongwane), but there were words and phrases he did not know at all. Especially was this the case with the izibongo of the chiefs, of which only the smaller part was ever completely intelligible. Experience with such praises elsewhere leads one to regard it as normal that no more than a third should usually be understood by others than the trained reciters of poetry themselves.

N.K. Chadwick in her book Poetry and Prophecy made the remark that the oral book is the human being. Van Warmelo tells how he and Hlongwane went to Butha Buthe in March 1937 to see Msebenzi in order to explain some of the obscurities. He states “I camped there for several days and got as much as possible, but it was plain that he was getting old and that the answering of questions fatigued him very much. He is but another instance of valuable informants being approached too late”. Msebenzi’s history is important in the way it narrates incidents relating to the transition from a heroic epoch to a colonial one. The colonial period was one in which many of the customs of the heroic period were assimilated for its own purpose of dominating, but is essentially different from the heroic in the way it imposes institutions such as the magistrate’s court, the mission station, property and labour on the colonised. It anchors communities around stone buildings housing these institutions. The printed book, taught in a school of brick, points to the institutionalisation of literature as an imposed discipline within the context of the domination of Reason. This is different from the way in which praise and narrative were “institutionalised” in the heroic period.

There is an interesting passage in Msebenzi’s text narrating how Matiwane sent messengers to Mshweshwe indicating how praise poetry operated in a heroic society:

58 Matiwane now sent messengers to Thaba-bosiu to Mshweshwe, and when they arrived he had cattle slaughtered for them and whilst they were still cooking the meat they filled their hemp-pipes and praised their chief Gungunyathi (i.e. Matiwane). Now Mshweshwe had heard that there were some of the amaNgwane who said that he should be killed, but that Matiwane had refused, and so Mshweshwe had secretly sent emissaries to Shaka with the message:

59 “Sir, a certain chief has arrived here, namely Matiwane, who wants to kill me. I pray you to come and defend me.”

So there at Mshweshwe’s place were the Ngwane ambassadors, who now began to recite his (Matiwane’s) praises:

“Our royal bird with the red wings

With the red beak and the red eyes

Who went together with Bheje his younger brother.”

60 Now Shaka’s messengers (had arrived there and were sitting on the other side of the fence) and heard them and said, “Ha! but those are amaNgwane. Fill up the hemp-pipe, boy.” And so they in turn began to praise (their chief Shaka) as follows:

Shaka who shaka’s (unknown) himself

The precipice of stones of Nkandla


To shelter the elephants when the rain threatens

The Feather-devour-all at Nkandla


Which gobbled up all the amaPhela (a regiment) of Zwide son of Langa.

61 Thus the amaNgwane discovered that Mshweshwe had sent for help from Shaka in Zululand. And they fled without having touched that meat….

The text is a history of the amaNgwane people, or more specifically the history of their chiefs as their embodiment. The text starts with a list of the remembered chiefs: Ngwadi, Nsele, and Tsani who was followed by his brother, Mablengwane, until Tsani’s child Masumpa, brought up in secrecy after being conceived by Tsani with his sister-in-law, was revealed to the people and Mablengwane was driven out by sticks. The child is recognised as the legitimate heir on the basis of resemblance: “Sir, this lad resembles Tsani even down to his little toe, except that he is a bit smaller. Otherwise we might say: since Tsani is dead, when did he come to life again?”. The section on Masumpa is followed with his praise poem, indicating his importance as the father of Matiwane.

Matiwane is described as “an independent sovereign who was not under the rule of Shaka and subsequent to war with Shaka migrated with his people from the White Mofolozi to the Tugela River under the” Drakensberg, to the Caledon Valley, to Mbholompo in the Northern Cape. The continuous trekking is due to the threat of Shaka. Through the use of dialogue situations are dramatised and come to life. Matiwane is made to say: “…and now I am retiring in order to be further removed from Shaka, that he may not get me while still well fed, it were better that he reach me when hungry”. In their travels the amaNgwane themselves plunder other peoples, and bring them to submission. One of the praises of Matiwane describes him as “The sluggard that seizes the grain of industrious ones”.

When leaving the Caledon valley Matiwane kills his two brothers Hawana and Madilika for not agreeing with his intentions of migrating again. The death of Madilika is described as follows:

They threw a spear at him and he ran away with it still in his body, and bethought himself of Mshweshwe with whom he might hide and whilst he was going along the spear shaft shook about until at length his strength gave in .

The body of Madilika is discovered by Mshweshwe’s cattle herders and “they scraped up everything, even the very soil” the implication being that his body was used as medicine by the Sotho.

In the Northern Cape, Matiwane is confronted with the British Colonial government who demanded restitution of 7000 head of cattle for the people he has plundered in the area. This leads to a three-year long war between the British and Matiwane’s people. The British eventually overcame Matiwane by burning the forests. After this the tribe broke up, many seeking refuge with chief Faku of the amaMpondo, while Matiwane returned through Basotholand, where he was received with hospitality by Mshweshwe, to Zululand. In response to an invitation by Mshweshwe to stay on in Basotholand he says:

No, Mshweshwe, you kill no man, and I know that you will never kill me, but do you realise that it is I who am now going along with only two followers? You do not know what is here in my heart. Do not therefore take offence, Mshweshwe, and think I have refused your help. As for me I now return to Shaka, who summoned other chiefs against me, and drove me from my home on the Mfolozi, and who came to destroy me utterly, for I know that he will slay me, and I know also that you never slay any man, so that (if I stayed here) I would live and always have this sorrow in my heart.

Back in Zululand, Dingane (who has replaced Shaka as ruler) kills Matiwane. Matiwane became the name of the hill of execution during Dingane’s rule (also the place where Piet Retief and his men died).

The text shows how European government and law become an encroaching sub-text since the Mbholompo period. Paragraphs 96 to 105 from chapter 5 describes the pomp and ceremony by which Somsewu (Theophilus Shepstone) and the Magistrate assembled the amaNgwane (“not one warrior should stay at home, and all should come wearing their cowtails” at Oliviershoek in order to install Ngwadi as the next chief and to recall the brave regiments of the battle of Mbholompo. These passages indicate the colonial government’s appropriation of local customs (“Then two oxen were given with these words, ‘This is food for you, eat with your children (i.e. your men), they are a present from the white chiefs.”). In chapter 16 the chiefs Sidinani and Zikhali decide to resolve a conflict over land by taking it up with the white government in Ladysmith “the place whence we are governed”. The white officer resolves this dispute through reference to custom:

I shall please you both and neither will find fault with me and claim the country as his and ignore me, for I shall come to his assistance according to your own law. I give you thirty days from today when you leave here from my office, and you must go and cut clubs; don’t forget those thirty days, and that on the thirty-first day you must fight with sticks. For I know that, according to your custom, land is contented for, and he who is not strong has his land taken by him who overcomes him by force.

Despite the use of custom the discourse has changed: the rule of force has been supplemented with the themes of discipline and punish. In the first encounters between Matiwane and the white men words like “offence”, “indemnity” and “crime” appear. On page 112 Wezi, whose cattle had been seized by the amaNgwane, requests help from the Boers at Winburg. The question the Boers address to Zikhali, the one who succeeded Matiwane to the reign, is one that attempts to determine guilt: “Those people from whom you took their grain and cattle, what harm had they done?”. As punishment the Boers seized “cattle and children,… of the latter some were never seen again”. Zikhali himself became “the iron-bracelet wearer, who ornaments his wrists with iron bangles”. Labour, especially the selling of children to farmers, becomes institutionalised (see page 140). The text tells of a certain Mhlaba, who sold the son of his eldest brother. Unfortunately for him the elder brother became an “interpreter at the office” and brought a case against him. This points to the increasing importance of the magistrate’s court as the place from which people are ultimately governed.

The idea of land as fixed property becomes institutionalised. On page 156 Mkhumbeli, a brother of Matiwane, went down to Pietermaritzburg to pay “his respects to Somsewu” whereupon he is granted land “he put down boundary pegs to show where the area of Mkhumbeli was to end” .

New ideas about life and death are introduced with specific procedures of discipline and punishment. Chapters 18 to 21 narrate how Ngazana, son of Zikhali, murdered a European, the investigation that followed, the clues, the evidence, the arrests, the court case and the hanging.

The text, naively detailed, encapsulates not only the history of the horde (the events surrounding the travels of the refugee sovereign Matiwane), but the institutionalisation of life (law, labour, and boundaries) with the imposition of colonial rule. It is literature and history, a history that is dramatised by dialogue and interspersed with izibongo. Hegel in writing about Africa states that in the sixteenth century there occurred many outbreaks of “terrible hordes” who exhibited “the most reckless inhumanity and disgusting barbarism”. Fuze, on the origins of the African relate that according to the ancestors:

there were great rivers in the country where they formerly lived, which could only be crossed by boats. There, when children went to bathe, there appeared a monster known as Siquqamadevu(shaggy-haired monster). They said that it was a terrible animal indeed, because on arriving at a river where children were bathing, it would collect them all together without them realising what was happening – not by force but by kindness – by enticing them with tasty food, and giving it to them and providing them with amusement .

He interprets the monster as the ships of slave traders:

All of you can see for yourselves that there are no large rivers that could be navigated by ships in this country, and frequented by this enormous monster that used to move about collecting black children, filling its capacious stomach and then making off with them. This has reference to the ships of the Portuguese and other evil white men, going about hunting for black children bathing in rivers, to collect them and sell them to other white people to be turned into slaves, in order to acquire money.

The question is whether the eruption of terrible hordes in sixteenth century link with the slave trade (i.e. the European hordes disseminating from their own continental origin)? The point though that Hegel is trying to make is that Africa has no history (“What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature”. Spirit and history are products of universalising institutions (“In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realisation of any substantial objective existence – as for example, God, or Law – in which the interest of man’s volition is involved and in which he realizes his own being” and “This distinction between himself as an individual and the universality of his essential being, the African in the uniform, undeveloped oneness of his existence has not yet attained, so that the Knowledge of an absolute Being, an Other and Higher than his individual self, is entirely wanting”.

I do not necessarily want to dispute Hegel’s racist remarks, for it is exactly from the point of view of the “Unhistorical” and “Undeveloped” Spirit that one can begin a deconstruction of Western Reason, and its discursive baggage. The tale of Msebenzi clearly shows that Africans had a tradition of history (although not a universalising speculative type of history). When deconstructing the terror of reason the point of departure could be the ideas contained in the philosophical testimonies collected by Callaway in The Religious System of the AmaZulu . These testimonies state that the origin of the world is no longer known, except for the process multiplication which is described with the word “Dabuka” (meaning to “separate, or to spring or break off, from something by fissure or division. Thus the swarming of bees is an ukudabuka. The division of small tribes from larger ones – as the small tribes of Umahlaule and Unjan from the Abambo, the large tribe of Usingela; or as the Americans from the English – is spoken of as an ukudabuka. So if a village has become large, and the eldest son leaves the paternal kraal, and commences a new centre, that too is an ukudabuka.”. The origin (creator) Umvelinqangi (Europeanised as Unkulunkulu) is not worshipped::

For it is not worship, when people see things, as rain, or food, such as corn, and say, “Yes, these things were made by Unkulunkulu.” But no such word has come to them from him as this, “I have made for you these things that you might know me by them.” He made them that men might eat and see them and nothing more. Afterwards they had no power to change those things, that they might become the Amatongo’s (1970:17).

They worship those whom they have seen, i.e. the ancestors:

We worshipped those whom we had seen with our eyes, their death and their life amongst us.


there was no going back to the beginning, for people increased, and were scattered abroad, and each house had its own connections…

To us black men Unkulunkulu is as a stalk of maize. It may produce the ear, it may be plucked, and the stalk be left, and decay in the place where it grew; the grains of the cob are Onkulunkulu of houses, which now worship those only of their own family according to the order of their growth on the cob.

Without the presence of a punishing father or God there is terrible freedom, a living through the abundance of nature:

If anyone says, “It is not proper for you to do that; if you do it will disgrace yourself;” yet we do it, saying, “Since it was made by Unkulunkulu, where is the evil of it?”

Just as we married many wives saying, “Hau! we cannot deny ourselves as regards the abundance which Unkulunkulu has given us: let us do what we like .

These African allegories do not allow for the models of continuities and categories of classification presented by European Reason. For a South African literary history it frees us theoretically from the drive to look for an origin, while allowing us to explore dissemination instead: the dissemination of hordes, of poetry and narratives in their abundance and in their interchanges. The real threat to South African literature, and literature world-wide, is its entanglement with authorising institutions, is the war declared by Reason on Poetry.


Badcock, C.R., The Psychoanalysis of Culture, Oxford 1980.

Bleek, W.H.I., A Brief Account of Bushman Folklore. Cape Town 1875.

Callaway, H., The Religious System of the Amazulu, Cape Town 1970.

Chadwick, N.K., Poetry and Prophecy, Cambridge 1942.

Friedenthal, J.M., Onder die Kannibale, Johannesburg, 1950.

Fuze, M.M., The Black People and Whence They Came, Pietermaritzburg and Durban 1979.

Hamilton, C. (ed.), The Mfecane Aftermath. Johannesburg, 1995.

Hegel, G.W.F., The Philosophy of History. New York, 1956.

Marais, E., (introduced and annotated by Peter Henzi), The Annotated Soul of the Ape. Harmondsworth, 1990.

Mofolo, T., Chaka: An Historical Romance. London 1931.

Schreiner, O., The Story of an African Farm. London, 1924.

Van Warmelo, N.J., History of Matiwane and the Amangwane Tribe. Pretoria 1938.

A Custom he did not Sanction: Texts by Ivory traders, Isaacs and Fynn, in the Shaka period

The two authors most associated with the Shaka period (1818-1828, the period when King Shaka reigned over the Zulu) are Henry Francis Fynn and Nathaniel Isaacs, and both were intimately involved with the ivory trade.

Fynn, with a small group of people, came to Port Natal (later called Durban)( in 1824 to establish “communication with Shaka” on behalf of Lieutenant Farewell, an army officer-turned-trader, who joined Fynn at Port Natal shortly afterwards. Before this Fynn was part of a successful ivory trading expedition to Delagoa Bay while Farewell in 1823 made an unsuccessful attempt to establish a trading station at St. Lucia after seeing at Cape Town harbour a cargo of ivory on a ship from Delagoa Bay. It was Farewell’s view that the “ivory and gold dust obtained by the Portuguese at Delagoa Bay” were from Shaka’s territory. Returning from the unsuccessfull St. Lucia expedition Farewell, and another partner Lieutenant King, also an army officer-turned-trader, decided that Port Natal, about 150 miles south of Shaka’s main residences, would be a better trading location. Back in Cape Town Farewell immediately set to work to find volunteers, amongst them Fynn, for an expedition to Port Natal. He painted a fantastic picture of Shaka, the Zulu king, “whose cattle kraals were entirely made of elephant tusks”. Fynn writes that he was motivated to join Farewell because of “(t)ravelling and new scenes” rather than any “pecuniary advantage”*.

At the same time Lieut. King left for Britain to find financial support for the establishment of the trading station at Port Natal. Returning to the Cape in 1825 he met the 17 year old Isaacs on St. Helena, where Isaac’s uncle, S. Solomons was a merchant. King asked Isaacs to accompany him on a “voyage of speculative nature”. Isaacs writes about himself as follows:

my education has been exclusively commercial;…the counting-house has been my school, and my principal preceptor, an indulgent uncle. Taught, therefore, nothing beyond that which might qualify me for mercantile pursuits, I can lay no claim to the acquirements of literature, or the attainments of science; and as the motives by which I was induced to become the companion of Lieutenant King emanated from the impulse of curiosity, and the attractions of commercial speculation .

Fynn and Isaacs came to Port Natal two and three years after the British Settlers first arrived in South Africa to settle in the Algoa Bay area about a thousand kilometers to the south in 1822. Locating suitable places for British colonisation was therefor very much part of the discourses of the time.

Of Fynn we have a reconstructed “Diary”, with a complicated history. Its title as a “Diary” is a misnomer in that, unlike the Isaacs document, it does not consist of daily entries, and is based on memory. The first three chapters consists of a “Historical Introduction.” It describes Shaka’s youth; his growing up under protection of king Godongwana (later called Dingiswayo) of the Mthethwas, and Shaka’s assuming power over the Zulus after the death of his father Senzanzakhona. After this introduction the main narrative under the title “diary” follows in seventeen chapters. Only the first eleven chapters are relevant to the Shaka period. The first three chapters cover Fynn’s arrival at the Cape, his participation in the expedition to Delagoa Bay and meeting with Farewell on his return. In chapter 4 Fynn proceeds to Port Natal where he comes across Shaka’s regiments returning from a military campaign against the amaMpondo and Fynn conveys his intention of meeting Shaka to them. He also establishes his reputation as a healer after curing a woman with fever. In chapter 5 he and Farewell undertake a journey to Shaka’s palace and their spectacular reception is described. In chapter 6 there is an assasination attempt on Shaka and Fynn treats the wound with camomile tea. Shaka then grants land at Port Natal to the Europeans. Chapters 7 and 8 deal with three expeditions undertaken by Fynn to the Amampondo’s, and describes an elephant hunt provoked by Shaka in order to test the power of European guns. In chapter 9 the Europeans assist Shaka in a campaign against Sikhunyama. Chapter 10 deals with the death of Shaka’s mother Nandi and chapter 11 with the abortive diplomatic mission sent by Shaka to the Colonial government in the Cape and describes his disappointment and rage when they don’t return with the hair colouring oil which he desired more than anything else as it would give the impression of longlasting youth. This chapter also descibes Shaka’s campaign against the AmaMpondo, the death of Lieut. King due to illness and then Shaka’s death at the hands of his brothers. The rest of the book deals with Dingaan and is not relevant to our discussion.

Isaacs published a two-volume Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa (It originally appeared in six installments in the South African Commercial Advertiser between June and October 1832 and was published in book form in 1836 and republished in two volumes by the Van Riebeeck Society in 1935 and 1936). The Shaka period is covered in the first volume. The first 5 chapters deal with Isaacs’ journey to Port Natal, being shipwrecked in the harbour of Port Natal and meeting with Fynn and with Farewell at Port Natal. In chapter 5 Isaacs undertake an expedition to collect ivory for Farewell and he stops over at Shaka’s residence where he witnesses executions. In Chapter 6 he responds to Chaka’s request for a boat to cross the flooding rivers and he goes on a buffalo hunt, in Chapter 7 he discusses religion with Shaka and Shaka expresses his wish to have missionaries among the Zulu. In Chapter 8 Isaacs delivers a tent to Shaka and reviews Shaka’s regiments. Fynn and Farewell accompanies Chaka to war. In Chapter 9 Mrs. Farewell arrives at Port Natal. Quarrels develop between Lieut. King and Farewell. Isaacs from this point on works closely with Lieut. King in collecting ivory. Shaka executes 170 boys and girls from his seraglio for indulging in sex. In Chapter 10 Shaka states that he does not approve of Isaacs trading ivory directly with his subjects as the custom of trade would undermine his authority and weaken his subjects militarily. He granted Isaacs permission, though, to appropriate any ivory he found. Isaacs undertake an expedition into the interior in search of a tribe of cannibals who are also known elephant hunters. In Chapter 11 he and Lieut. King surveys the river Umlallas as an alternative trading settlement to Port Natal due to a quarrel between Lieut. King and Farewell. The two Khoi servants, John and Michael, rape the daughter of one of the chiefs and this enrages Shaka. As retribution Shaka forces Isaacs to undertake a campaign against the Umbatio (Umbeje) during which Isaacs is wounded. Chapter 12 deals with a strike of the shipbuilders and the missionary Kay’s “slander” against the Europeans at Port Natal. Chapter 13 with the death of Nandi, and 14 with the diplomatic mission sent by Shaka to the Cape Colony as he desired contact with King George. Chapters 15 and 16 with Shaka’s rage at the return of the mission. Lieut. King. dies. Chapter 17 portrays Shaka’s death and 18 is a history of Shaka and the Zulu.

Isaacs’ text, as mentioned, is a reworked diary with daily observations (so that one is far more aware of the weather on particular days, and the physical discomfort he experienced, as well as the immediacy of his fears in encountering the unknown). He makes an interesting reference to the process of writing the diary on page 138: “from travelling perplexities, and nearer objects every hour engaging my attention, I had forgotten my journal, omitted a day, but could not conceive that I had done so, until my friends told me of my oversight”.

Fynn’s “Diary” on the other hand is more memory-based. Fynn apparently felt “unable to put together the type of book his travels and adventures obviously called for” and he “invited and received the literary assistance of others”. His original notebook (started in 1824) was, according to a certain William Bazley, buried in his younger brother Frank’s grave by Zulus according to their custom of placing the personal possessions with the deceased in the grave. Retreiving it would have been considered a crime by the Zulus – a crime associated with murderers and sorcerers. Only a few scanty notes from the period 1824 when Fynn arrived in Port Natal and 1828 when Shaka died, survived. In 1830 he started to record his experiences “in the form of a continuous, closely written narrative” which eventually comprised 144 pages. This notebook was in a damaged state due to the fact that it was wrapped in the ear of an elephant, and because he sometimes used for ink a “certain white flower which, when bruised, turned black”. In the years 1859-1861 when he returned to Natal he continued to work on his material, but it was not complete when he died. Unfortunately this led to the interference in the text by the two twentieth century editors, Capt. James Stuart and D. McK. Malcolm. Capt. James Stuart is known as the recorder of important oral historical material on the Zulus of the nineteenth century collected in the James Stuart Archives and housed in the Killie Campbell Library. He died in 1942 before completing the editing of the Fynn material. Malcolm then took over and the first edition of the text appeared in 1951. In reading the text one is continuously aware of the interference of the editors. They for instance inserted passages from other writers into the text. On page 55 a letter from Lieutenant King to Earl Bathurst prompting resettling the settlers at Port Natal is inserted: “if Government were acquainted with its advantages, they would not hesitate to remove the unfortunate settlers thither”. This type of insertion might slant the text ideologically in a way not really intended by its original author. The editors further tried to make it possible for readers to locate the places referred to by referring to landmarks of the present (“where the present custom house stands” where the “Town Hall of Durban now stands” or the present “railway station”).

In this paper the focus is on the different ways in which the Fynn and Isaacs characterize Shaka, with the theme of ivory constantly in mind. Shaka is associated with the elephant or “living ivory”, as is clear in a number of Shaka’s praises or izibongo (“Elephant that when it left, the people of Langa followed,/ It turned back its head and destroyed men” and “He is as rough as the ear of an elephant” and “You are a horned viper! An elephant”. In the Dingaan period the Elephant is one of the King’s titles. His residence was called Umgungundlovu or the place of the great elephant. Shaka’s mother Nandi is described as “the great female elephant with small breasts, the over-ruling spirit of vegetation”. The association between king and elephant is further emphasised when Shaka sent two elephant tusks with the mission to the colony as “his mouth to King George” in other words his signature authorising the mission.

The fact that Isaac’s text has the immediacy of a diary, while Fynn’s the distance of reminiscences explains much of the difference between the two texts with the regard to the portrayal of Shaka. Fynn’s text shows a narrator intensely interested in the customs, traditions and history of the Zulu. This makes him much more sympathetic to the Zulus, than Isaacs for whom “commercial interests” is a central motif. Fynn does not try to judge the culture in which he found himself with the norms of “civilisation” as Isaacs constantly does. Fynn could even be described as someone gone native. Isaacs met Fynn for the first time when Fynn just returned from a harrowing expedition trading ivory amongst the AmaMpondos. He descibes Fynn as follows:

It is almost impossible to convey a correct idea of the singular appearance of this individual when he first presented himself. Mr. Fynn is in stature somewhat tall, with a prepossessing countenance. From necessity his face was disfigured with hair, not having had an opportunity of shaving himself for a considerable time. His head was partly covered with a crownless straw hat, and a tattered blanket, fastened round his neck by means of strips of hide, served to cover his body, while his hands performed the office of keeping it round his “nether man”; his shoes he had discarded for some months, whilst every other habiliment had imperceptibly worn away… (The above passage of Isaacs has also been inserted by the editors in Fynn’s diary 117).

The motif of dress is quite an important motif in Isaacs’ text as a number of passages shows. He expresses his apprehension when they arrive shipwrecked in the Port Natal harbour to be received by a group of six “in a state of nudity”, “We one and all concluded that the Europeans of whom we were in search had been massacred, and that the people we descried sought to decoy us”. Due to the shipwreck, though, Isaacs were himself “like the natives…almost in a state of nudity”. In 1828 Isaacs is part of a mission sent by Chaka to establish strong diplomatic ties with the Colonial Government of the Cape. When arriving in Algoa Bay, Isaacs and the ship-builder, Hatton, had to remain on the ship until they could “obtain some clothing to land in”. Isaacs indignantly reacts to the accusations made by the missionary, Stephen Kay, in his Travels and Researches in Caffraria (1833). In this book Kay claims that “incredible as it may appear, there are now in Caffraria, also, Englishmen whose daily garb differs little from the beast-hide covering of their neighbours” and who “embrace from eight to ten black wives or concubines!”

Inducing the British Government to colonise and civilise the region and pointing to the commercial benefits of such a colonisation is the most important apparent motive for Isaacs writing his book. He writes:

When the humble diary of my adventures shall have obtained a little publicity, the South-eastern coast of Africa, and the bay of Natal in particular, will occupy some share of the consideration of merchantile men; and that the time is not far distant, when the government of Great Britain may view the advantages which the port of Natal offers for the extension of commercial enterprize.

Historians tend to make much of this explicit statement when evaluating Isaacs’ and Fynn’s texts as prejudiced and unreliable historical sources and depictions of Shaka. Isaacs, though, is a complex and ambivalent figure making it difficult to know how sincere he was in his pleas for colonisation. Colonisation might have interfered in the near monopoly he and Fynn had in the ivory trade in the area. His ambivalence becomes apparent when he does not hide his disgust at the way in which the colonial bureaucracy received Shaka’s diplomatic envoy of chiefs at Algoa Bay in 1828. He refers to the “manifest want of courtesy”, the”insignificant display of paltry authority and petty power” and he applauds “the indignation of the Zoola chief” at the interrogation of the group.

When Isaacs arrived at Natal his thoughts betrays his fears and prejudices; he imagines being “wrecked on a desolate and savage coast, and cast in the days of my youth amidst a people whom I imagined not humanised”. Prejudice (judging before real knowledge) and its link to imagination is an important part of this text. An interesting example of his active imagination is his desire to own the unicorn in the possession of the chief Magie. He writes the more the chief Magie

particularised this animal, the more my anxiety to possess it increased, conceiving that I might attain some celebrity among naturalists, if I should be enabled to produce the wonderful creature known only, like the mermaid, to have existed in fable.

The unicorn turned out to be merely a goat which lost one of its horns. He further obsessively sets out on an expedition into the interior in search of a tribe of “cannibals” who specialise in elephant hunting.

Isaacs image of Shaka is formed after hearing Farewell’s accounts of the Zulu monarch’s cruelty to his subjects (“The account I had heard of Chaka, and of his execrable propensities, raised in me apprehensions of no ordinary magnitude, which were greatly increased, when I considered the little chance we had of effecting our escape from so inhuman a monster” .

The text describes a number of incidents showing Shaka’s cruelty. On page 62 a the execution of three criminals are portrayed:

On a sudden a profound silence ensued, when his majesty uttered one or two words, at which some of the warriors immediately rose and seized three of the people, one of whom sat near me. The poor fellows made no resistance, but were calm and resigned, waiting their fate with apparent stoical indifference. The sanguinary chief was silent; but from some sign he gave the executioners, they took the criminals, laying one hand on the crown and the other on the chin, and by a sudden wrench appeared to dislocate the head. The victims were then dragged away and beaten as they proceeded to the bush, about a mile from the kraal, where a stick was inhumanly forced up the fundament of each, and they were left as food for the wild beasts of the forest, and those carnivorous birds that hover near the habitations of the natives.

An entry of April 4 (1826?) describes a similar incident and Isaacs’ own reaction to it:

As soon as we had taken our seats on the ground, as near as we could discreetly, we heard him give orders for the execution of seven men, all of whom were taken from near the spot where we were seated. They were instantly seized and beaten to death, with other barbarous cruelties too revolting to detail, and which operated on me so painfully, that I was compelled to retire from so horrible and inhuman an exibition,

These incidents of cruelty circumscribes Isaacs’ insolence in relation to Shaka. He becomes the limit to Shaka’s omnipotence, and the fact that it was he that forgot to obtain the hair dye (symbol of longevity) for Shaka during the diplomatic mission is significant in this regard. Isaacs expresses in a number of passages his identification with the victims of Shaka’s rule. It was only 30 years since the French beheaded their king during the French Revolution. Isaacs in the text is a subtle rebel, on a number of occasions he acts against the wishes of the monarch. This brings elements of suspense, and even tragedy (-in the sense that it points to the limits of the otherwise all-powerfull king) to the text.

Tracing Isaacs’ “insolence” (a word he used to describe some of his own following when neglecting his orders) one finds in the next incidents:

1.) on page 60 he and a Portuguese visitor to Shaka’s residence “laughed at the vanity of the savage.”

2.) Isaacs ignores Shaka’s orders that no trading for ivory should occur with his subject chiefs as it is a custom he did not sanction.

3.) Isaacs refuses to participate in the general mourning after the death of Shaka’s mother Nandi and even shoots at the “murderous villains” who were sent out to kill all those who did not mourn.

One of the most interesting passages in the book describes how Shaka “familiarly smiled, shook his finger, gently touched my face, and observed, he did not notice that I had manifested any symptoms of mourning for his mother” during the first visit by Isaacs to Shaka after the death of Shaka’s mother.

Isaacs in the text is shown as both coward and as brave. He is wounded in a campaign against Umbatio (umBeje). When Shaka sees the wound, though, he says in jest that it is a “cowardly sign” as it shows that Isaacs had his back turned to the enemy. During Shaka’s reign returning Zulu soldiers were executed for having similar wounds. Isaacs also falls coveniently ill at times [Fynn for instance is kept hostage by Shaka (as guarantee for Shaka’s chiefs who participated in the mission to Algoa Bay) in the place of Isaacs because Isaacs fell ill. Isaacs, though, was not too ill to join the mission]. The climax between the contest of wills (that of Isaacs and of the monarch) occurs when Shaka is enraged by the failures of the returning diplomatic mission, but especially because the mission did not bring the dye which would turn the grey hairs in his beard black again in order to make him look young (as it was custom of the Zulus to kill their kings when they show any signs of age). Isaacs writes “Abuse towards me was now become common, and his repeated threats that he would kill me made me quite callous; I became so insensible either to his language or his gestures that I, at times, must have convinced him of my being heedless of his passion or power” and “I at last told the merciless savage, when he assured me of death, that I was a single individual only, and could not contend with his power; but that if he should kill me, my death would meet an avenging hand, which would fall heavily on him and his nation” to which Shaka laughed and said “the Maloonquan…is a spirited fellow, he fears not death.” .

The text does not make it clear, but it seems that Isaacs’ insolence attracted Shaka’s seraglio and again he seems to transgress “The king’s girls …issued from the pallace; their savage master was under the dominion of a more powerful chief than himself – Morpheus; at which time, these nymphs usually, if it be a wet day, gambol like ducklings in the water, and exhibit themselves in a variety of characters and attitudes. They gathered round me, and began to examine me with no little scrutiny, without perceiving my diffidence and displeasure, and heedless of the king, who if he had seen them, would have instantly put them to death, and in all probability have done me the honour of removing me from this “sublunary world,” without consultation, or having any acquiescence. They, however, on these occasions are pretty wary, and know when they can take such liberties with impunity.” . Earlier in the book Isaacs describes the execution of 170 boys and girls after dreaming about boys debauching his women.

Isaacs’s characterisation of Shaka is one-dimensional and formulaic. He is repeatedly described as an “inhuman monster”, “inhuman despot” and “unfeeling savage”. Towards the end of the text he writes “In delineating the character of Chaka, I have introduced the horrible deeds he perpetuated (to many of which I was an eye-witness), for the purpose of allowing my readers to draw their own conclusions; for my own part, I can only say, I am not aware that history, either ancient or modern, can produce so horrible and detestable a savage. He has deluged his country with innocent blood…” .

Fynn’s portrayal of Shaka is different. On page 29 he also gives examples of atrocities committed by Shaka, but it is only on page 135 when he writes about the massacres which followed the death of Nandi, that he refers to Shaka as a tyrant. In the preface he states that he is “not ashamed to confess” that a “long residence” amongst the Zulu “has endeared the people to him”. From the text it seems that a close relationship between Fynn and Shaka developed. This is something alluded to in Fynn’s izibongo printed in the beginning of the book where Fynn is described as “Tamer of the evil-tempered elephant” or in Cope as “Tamer of the intractable elephant”. The friendship between Fynn and Shaka was due to Fynn’s treating of a wound (with camomile tea) inflicted upon Shaka in an assasination attempt. Fynn was often allowed to see Shaka in the seraglio where they would discuss subjects of interest for hours usually about his alter-ego, the British monarch umGeorge, or the relative value of European arms, customs, utensils. It was an interest in ink that made him make enquiries about hair dyes [“One day, after the defeat of Sikhunyana, Shaka saw me writing a letter to Mr. Farewell. He asked me if the ink would wash off the paper. On my replying in the negative, he asked if it would stain a shield. I told him it would not, but the hair and the skin might appear slightly tinged. He thereupon threw a bottle of ink over a white shield to observe its effect…In the evening he asked how it was that Europeans had different coloured hair, and if there were no preparation to change its colour.” ]. He was extremely anxious for a dye and promised large quantities of ivory to anyone who would procure it to him. His fear of aging could be linked to his killing of elderly men earlier in his career as “they are of no use as they could not fight” after which his city “GibbeClackee” (Gibixhequ) was called.

Shaka, on his way in the campaign against the amaMpondo, stopped at Fynn’s residence (at Unzimkhulu). Fynn who was fluent in Zulu at this time writes that he was able to spend his time pleasantly with Shaka and that he had an “opportunity of minutely ascertaining the basis on which he acted”. He writes that in Shaka “delicate feeling” and “extreme brutality” were intimately blended”. The war against the AmaMpondo for instance was “to erase his wounded feeling for the mother he had lost”. At the death of his grandmother Shaka is described as crying “bitterly” and Fynn writes that when she visited Shaka, “he frequently washed her eyes and ears which were in a sad state because of her age; he also pared her nails and otherwise treated her as a father might his child. We could hardly believe that a man of an apparent unfeeling disposition could be possessed of such affection and consideration for others”.

In both Fynn and Isaacs’ texts Shaka is described as someone dancing with his people and as a composer of songs. In his youth as refugee amongst the abakwaMthethwa’s he gained a reputation as a “songster and a punster”. On page 149 Fynn gives a rough example of a poem composed by Shaka and on page 153 an even more interesting one in which Shaka refers to himself in the third person and it shows his tragic insight (or desire for death):

Why do they not kill him as they did his father?

Why do they not kill him as they did his father?

They hate him

The calf of the hated one, like his father,

The calf of the hated one, like his father,

They hate him

Something similar happens when Shaka reveals something of himself and his loneliness to Isaacs: “I am like a wolf on a flat, that is at a loss for a place to hide his head in” and he expressed his desire to “go to the other side of the water and see King George”. This was a veiled desire for the ultimate journey, the desire to die as he felt imminent death, the death of his mother brought his own mortality to his consciousness. The Europeans were part of this beyond, they were Shaka’s frontier, and were transformed from the fantastical beings of traditional lore into real presences.

The coastal tribes of Zulus saw the Europeans not as “human beings” but as a “production of the sea, which they traverse in large shells, coming near the shores in stormy weather, their food being the tusks of elephants, which they would take from the beach if laid there for them, and placing beads in their room, which they obtained from the bottom of the sea”*.

Poor white satyrs and nationalist blueprints  

I would like to express my appreciation for support received from NALN (the National Afrikaans Literary Museum and Research Centre).

1. Satyrs and civilization

In this article I am exploring the burden of “civilization” with reference to the depiction of poor whites in two Afrikaans plays: Hantie kom huis toe (first published in 1933) by PWS Schumann and Siener in die suburbs (first published 1971) by PG du Plessis. I will explore these poor whites in terms of Nietzsche’s concept of the chorus of satyrs in tragedy as “a chorus of natural beings who live ineradically, as it were, behind all civilization and remain eternally the same, despite the changes of generations and the history of nations” (1956:59) and Freud’s discontents with civilization who are images of “nature and its strongest urges” (Nietzsche 1956:65). Nietzsche, like Freud, shows the satyr/discontent as behind all civilization, as antagonist to civilization. In “Future of an Illusion” Freud defines civilization as “all those respects in which human life has raised itself above its animal status and differs from the life of beasts” (1985:184),  it is manifested in all the “knowledge and capacity that men have acquired in order to control the forces of nature and extract its wealth for the satisfaction of human needs” (1985:184), but also in repression or “all the regulations necessary in order to adjust the relations of men to one another and especially the distribution of the available wealth” (1985:184). Civilisation as a process implies repression and discipline from the individual, making every individual virtually an “enemy of civilization, though civilization is supposed to be an object of universal interest” (1985:184).

The Afrikaner (as European-descended Africans, and the first group to embark on an African nationalist struggle) occupies an interesting position within the discourse on civilization. The Afrikaner has been seen in the late nineteenth century as having “degenerated into white savages” (Brantlinger 1988:193). The Afrikaner, through a strong association with Africa, embodied an image of regression. Afrikaner nationalism, in the early twentieth century, was in part a movement against this image. It is within this context that the poor white in the two texts is of interest. The poor whites embodied the potential of degeneration against the attempts of the nationalists to maintain an image of “civilization”. Material poverty was only one dimension of the poor-white problem. More on the surface is the dimension of uninhibited violence, sexuality and music, their satyr-like existences.

When the characters in, Hantie kom huis toe (1955), are described as “poor whites”, they are seen mainly in socio-economic and political terms. The satyr element in the characters, their uninhibited sexuality and violence, are depicted as symptoms of poverty and the slum environment in which they  live. In the second play, Siener in die suburbs (1981), on the other hand, characters from the marginal suburbs re-enact tragedy: love, betrayal and death. Their bodies inscribed with the sexuality and violence of the suburbs seek, to no avail, to escape. They want to signify, or belong to a significant class, within the booming modern city – within “civilization”. One is not directly aware of a political message in this play. One suspects, though, that the author identifies, or even idealises, the sexuality and violence of the suburbs. He does not occupy any moral point of view concerning the situation or destruction of his characters.

2. Background

About 40 years separate the publication of Hantie kom huis toe in 1933 and Siener in die suburbs in 1971. Hantie kom huis toe (1955, eighth edition) was written in the 1930s: depression years – with poor whiteism a widespread social phenomena (300 000 from a total population of 1 800 000 of whites in South Africa were very poor). This prompted the Carnegie Commission to investigate the poor white question in South Africa. A five-volume report The Poor White Problem in South Africa appeared in 1932 (vol. I by Grosskopf and vol. II by Wilcocks used in this article). The depression also led to the then ruling National Party losing the elections in the Germiston Ward leading to the splitting of the party. This intensified the nationalist mobilisation by the newly formed, and more radical, Purified Nationalist Party. Hantie kom huis toe (1955) is written in the mode of a nationalist inspired naturalism.  Naturalism was introduced into Afrikaans and adapted to the specific nationalist needs by J.F.W. Grosskopf in the 1920s. Grosskopf studied theatre and politics in Europe just before returning to South Africa in 1914 when he participated in the rebellion of nationalist Boer generals against the government of General Botha who supported the British in the First World War. Grosskopf was also one of the contributors to The Poor White Problem in South Africa (see vol. I Rural Impoverishment and Rural Exodus 1932)  Naturalism was a perfect vehicle for expressing his nationalist concerns with the poor whites – especially using the insights of sociology as discipline.

The play by PG du Plessis, on the other hand, was published and performed in 1971, ten years after South Africa became a republic in 1961. Apartheid as policy was firmly established. It was before international boycotts became a reality.  At this time poor whites have already become a hidden aspect of society: a marginal minority . It was a time when the rift existing between Afrikaans authors and the ruling National Party intensified due to the implementation of stricter censorship laws in 1963 . The literary historian, J.C. Kannemeyer (1983), refers to the “polarisation” in the sixties and seventies between the writers on the one hand and the authorities, the church and the literary “establishment” on the other . He describes the authors of the sixties as a generation who broke away from the taboos and prejudices of traditional Afrikaner society and who changed the literary, moral, religious and political conventions. The emphasis on sexuality in Siener in die suburbs and the sacrilege at the end of the play, forms part of the literary struggle against the “establishment”.

3. Hantie kom huis toe

Hantie kom huis toe (1955) is a thoroughly political drama, more radical in its resolution of poor whiteism than the different blueprints produced by nationalist-inspired commissions and delegations. In its raw realism it inspired the avant-garde Afrikaans intellectuals (often with nationalist-socialist leanings) of the 1930s. A group of highly influential Afrikaners lived in Cape Town in this period: among them N.P. van Wyk Louw, considered by many as the greatest Afrikaans poet, his brother W.E.G. Louw (both of them acted in social realist plays such as Grosskopf’s As die tuig skawe (1926) and both gave advice in the staging of Hantie kom huis toe 1955) and the famous Afrikaans actress, Anna Neethling-Pohl  who acted the leading role in Hantie kom huis toe (1955) when it was performed in the Cape for the first time.

Anna Neethling-Pohl studied at Stellenbosch University. Among her courses was economics with J.F.W. Grosskopf as lecturer. In Cape Town her theatrical career started withplays like Hantie kom huis toe (1955). Later she moved to Krugersdorp where she met P.W.S. Schumann, the author of Hantie kom huis toe (1955). She worked closely with Schumann’s wife, a social worker in the Krugersdorp district, and encountered the type of circumstances from which the play developed. After Krugersdorp, Anna Neethling-Pohl moved to Pretoria where she was one of the founding members of the Volksteater (The People’s Theatre) in 1935. One of the aims of the Volksteater was to promote the idea of  a National Theatre Organisation. In 1938 she went to Europe. In Germany she was a spectator to  the big Nazi festivals. These became prototypes of the many historically inspired folk festivals in South Africa such as the Voortrekker Centenary of 1938. Anna Neethling-Pohl was instrumental in staging N.P. van Wyk Louw’s Die Dieper Reg (1938) for the Voortrekker Centenary. During the Second World War her husband was interred for his participation in the activities of the Ossewabrandwag.

In her memoirs (1974) she describes her boredom in the 1930s with the refined and civilized theatre productions of the day until she discovered Hantie kom huis toe (1955): a play which immediately addressed her “rebellious spirit”. She described it as a piece of realism, crude and raw, which was greatly applauded when performed, leading to the founding of the Cape Town Afrikaans Drama Society (Kaapstadse Afrikaanse Toneelvereniging).

4. Hantie kom huis toe and naturalism

  4.1 Decor

The decor of Hantie kom huis toe (1955) as described in the text is realistic, although the prologue, in contrast to the other three acts, evokes a dream-like atmosphere of wealth: The front stoep of a house in a Boland town points to the “good taste” (1955:7) of the owners who conserved “all the elements of Cape architecture” (1955:7);  “a motor car arrives” (1955:7) with its lights falling on the details: a couch, two chairs and pot plants on the stoep testifying to “the moderate prosperity and good taste of the inhabitants” (1955:7).

The dream-like atmosphere of the prologue relates to Hantie’s statement on p.64 that her past was like a happy dream. The car lights and the meta-theatrical   references of the prologue further emphasises this dream-like quality. Hantie, and Jan, in the prologue have just returned from a student performance of Langenhoven’s allegorical and historical play Die Hoop van Suid-Afrika. Hantie still dressed in her costume resembling the idealised-woman-of-the-people covers of the Kerkbode (The Church Messenger) acted the role of the “Hope of South Africa”. Hantie is an example of someone who has transcended the limitations of class by being removed from her poor white environment, Wesselsdorp where she was born and where she spent the first years of her life until her aunt took her away as a little girl.

The first act, in contrast to the prologue, introduces the hustle and bustle of the market at Wesselsdorp on a cold, windy and dusty morning. On the stage are bags and boxes of vegetables and fruit. A “native crosses the stage with a bale of teff on his head and chewing on a straw” (1955:22) among the shouting of auctioneers and the noise of workers and cars. It is the environment of the poor whites. The opening words by the aristocratic Mrs van Niekerk are: “here you can see the bare truth of poor-whiteism”(1955:22). These words embody the will to represent, the will to realism, of the play as a whole. It is representation which wants utilitarian value, it wants to teach about the social evils spawned by poor white surroundings.

The decor of the second and third acts  continues the representation of the poor white environment: The second act takes place on the stoep of old Abdool’s shop. Abdool is theIndian shop owner who makes his living from selling items to poor whites. The didascalia indicates the realist detail:

The shop is an old building, with rather small windows. In front of the door on the stoep is a pile of rope, a case of paraffin and a plough which serves as seats for the buying public, with other stock-in-trade (1955:43).

The third act moves to the home of Annie Oosthuizen in the squatter area, Lappiesdorp. The scene, lighted by a street lamp, reflects on Annie who “made no effort to make the place presentable, although she knew that visitors were coming” (1955:70). “An old paraffin tin placed one side to catch the water from roof-gutter is rusting. The couch made the left-overs of a motor car’s front seat, is in a state decay. Sheets hang inside the windows” (1955:70). Inside “the sound of a screeching old tin gramophone” (1955:70) is heard.

4.2 The Social Worker

Like Schumann’s wife, Hantie the main character of Hantie kom huis toe (1955), is a social worker “called”  to dedicate herself to the poor whites. The plot structure of the play is a variation (with many inversions) of that of the prodigal son from the Bible. A daughter, Hantie, returns to her lost poor-white family in the mining town of Wesselsdorp. She was brought up by a prosperous aunt in the Cape where she received her education and training as a social worker (at Stellenbosch University). It is the family that is lost, especially her real father whose identity becomes known at the end. The child, a daughter, returns, but she, through her education, has the power to intervene and to help them.

            Hantie kom huis toe’s (1955) appearance simultaneously with the Carnegie commission’s report on The Poor White Problem in South Africa in 1932 points to a literature and social-science intertext. The main character, Hantie, the social worker, indicates a special power and knowledge configuration in the world, especially the world of the nationalist who is ultimately concerned with the structuring and planning of social reality within an image of civilisation.

As a social worker Hantie represents the concern with the poor from a sociological and a nationalist point of view. The play with its sociological concerns, further emphasised by the main character, relates to the “scientific outlook” promoted in the manifestos of nineteenth-century naturalism. Naturalism, as depicted in Zola’s manifesto – the preface to Therésè Raquin (1867)shares the optimism of science: through the depiction of social degradation one comes to an understanding of the forces which produce that degradation and on the basis of that understanding one could implement social programmes which would rectify the situation. Alfred Vizetelly, Zola’s biographer, refers to science as “the greatest humanitarian agency” (1904:184) and to the “man who experiments, the man who dissects” (1904:184)  as one who increase and diffuse knowledge for “the benefit of the world” (1904:184). In the case of Schumann the aim was to produce an awareness of the poor-white problem amongst Afrikaner nationalists through naturalist theatre.

Naturalism as programme complemented the new disciplining social sciences of the nineteenth century: sociology, anthropology, criminology, psychology and genetics. Its aims were humanitarian and utilitarian. With its aim of making “manifest” “the imperfections and lapses of collective and individual life that seemed … to require remedying” (1904:184). The programme of naturalism made it inevitably a political form of literature, to be adapted in various ways by both nationalism and socialism as various brands of social realism in NaziGermany and Communist Russia show. Although the practice of naturalism by Zola himself, in his novels, never had an explicit political message. It rather developed as a defense against claims that his works are pornographic. It emerged from late nineteenth-century decadence and aestheticism.

Hantie, the university-trained social worker, comes from a poor white family: she is tied to them by blood. This tie, which links her subjectivity with the subjectivity of the poor whites, undermines the demand of objectivity and distance demanded by science. As social worker she is further also confronted with people outside of reason’s disciplining institutions, outside the dominant economy, outside civilization: people ultimately with their roots in existence economies and therefore free. The poor white is made to resemble the “baboon” (1955:11) or “those Bushman sculptures from the ethnographic section of the museum” (1955:11-12). These images speak Hantie and the author’s fear of social regression, of the Afrikaner “going native” of the distance which might emerge between the poor whites and the wealthy if they are not brought back into the fold of the nation. Her bond of blood with the poor whites represent nationalist image of nation as a family, and the need for intervention on the basis of family.

The play’s recommendation for the upliftment of the poor whites, embodied in Hantie’s subjection to her criminal father at the end, is implicitly different from the recommendations of the Carnegie commission. There is with Hantie an impatience with the “congresses” (1955:87), “commissions of inquiry”(1955:87), “deputations” (1955:87) and “blueprints” (1955:87) generated by the politicians.

Her work is the result of a calling to serve the poor amongst her people. This calling has a mystical and psychological cause as her mystical conversations with the Lord, her alter-ego father figure, show. The imaginary conversations with a father figure point to an experience of a lack of a father in her life. When she eventually meets her real father, the violent criminal, Hans Labuschagne, she finds him repulsive. God and evil become indistinct – the God she addresses in the following  are blurred with the father:

Him? – Then I have his blood in my veins? My flesh from His, and my nerves, my constitution, my spirit derived from his? Not a part of my body, or of my soul without his imprint…My Creator and my Moulder, who saw me even before I was, who knew me before my birth – is it your will, was it really your intention with me? (1955:91).

Hantie’s idealism concerning the poor whites is contrasted with the frivolous conception of the poor whites of the wealthy  Afrikaners, embodied by the character, Jan, to whom she is engaged. The difference between Hantie and Jan is developed into two different interpretations of Afrikaner history. The wealthy Afrikaners romanticise, but at the same time belittle, this history. Jan, for instance, refers to the Afrikaner people in the dimunitive as “volkie”.  The text describes some of Jan’s nationalist utterances, such as the following, as “overstatements”:

Here are the people. Their ancestors were from long ago, from the trekking days which started in the time of the Dutch East India Company. They were not accustomed to the gathering of possessions or the pursuing of comfort or pleasure! Nature was their wealth, and freedom their only comfort and pleasure (1955:85).

In another passage Jan assumes that the poor white, Oom Krisjan, was a “bittereinder” in the Anglo-Boer war. Krisjan though does not even know what the word “bittereinder” means. Hestates that only the insane would fight for Paul Kruger, and then accuses President Kruger of corruption.

The non-heroic role of the poor whites during this war is also emphasised in the other characters. Hans, Hantie’s poor-white father, was a hands-upper in the war. Annie Oosthuizen who was in the concentration camps with her mother and sister, is half Anglicised and her sister married a Tommy (British soldier). All these examples in the text try to indicate a class rift, try to show  that the poor whites did not consider themselves to be part of the main narrative of Afrikaner history, or the Afrikaner nation as family.

One of the disillusioning lessons that Hantie has to learn is that she would not be able to approach the poor whites with preconceptions of the privileged class. They resist being objectified, labelled or patronised. Annie, the woman with whom her real father lives, rebukes her: “Look, Cousin, if you want to visit me then you must not call me ’sister’! I do not allow myself to be ’sistered’. Do you think you are the clergyman’s wife…” (1955:74) and  “I’m no ’blinking street woman’ and also not a ’poor white’” (1955:76) and: “It is the ’charities’ and the ’Distress’ and the ’Mayor’s Fund’ and all those type of people who are trying to make ’poor whites’ of us. My husband always said they are like the doctors who diagnosed a new ailment and now want everybody to suffer from it” (1955:76).

4.3 Satyrs in Hantie kom huis toe

The text, through the character of Annie Oosthuizen, states the difference between the “poor whites”, as diagnosed by the social scientists, and the reality as experienced by those diagnosed as “poor whites” (“I’m no ‘blinking street woman’ and also not a ‘poor white’” 1955:76). An alternative interpretative metaphor for them would be that of the satyr. The satyr is not an economic category, like the “poor white”, but is an antagonist to “civilization”. To Nietzsche the satyr is half animal, instinctual and image of “sexual omnipotence”(1956:61). The satyr as Other to reason is associated especially with alchohol and music (especially with the folk song in which “language is strained to its utmost that it may imitate music” 1956:53). Music goes beyond reason in that it does not need images and concepts, but passion, desire  and madness. Alcohol similarly dulls civilised reason.

In Hantie kom huis toe (1955) the poor white characters are linked both to nature and the instinct, while they, like Bacchae,  are also shown as nomadic. The Diedericks’ family lives in their hawker’s waggon. They are described in terms of their Voortrekker ancestry:

Nature was their wealth and freedom their only convenience. They moved here and there with their stock and animals, to where there was the best opportunities for survival. Just like their descendents today move here then there, from the Rand to the diggings, and from the diggings to the settlements, wherever instinct leads them (1955:85).

Alcohol and music are two recurrent motifs in Hantie kom huis toe (1955). Hans’ criminal activities consist of selling liquor illegally to the blacks and he has been imprisoned twice for this. He is repeatedly described as a drunkard. In the opening scene of the last act his simple-minded stepson, Andrew, is half-drunk. He is often referred to in terms of playing the guitar. Tant Grieta imagines the following possible idyllic future with Hantie:

If only we had some music on the farm! Aunt Lettie wrote that Hantie can play the piano beautifully. Then Krisjan can play the concertina and when Andrew comes to visit, every now and again, he could bring his guitar and we could have a good time (1955:54).

The gramophone player is a prominent part of the stage props in the last act. Annie describes the happiness  of the poor whites:

Listen there (the gramophone is playing a waltz, voices are heard). You saw how drunk Hans is tonight. It is him and Grieta dancing there. And small Grieta is sitting on Andrew’s lap and he is telling her how he cheeked the manager today. And she admires his masculinity (1955:81).

From the point of view of Hantie these poor whites are a people that is sinking, sinking until “they are out of reach” (1955:85). To Jan they represent a social disease (1955:87).The text itself repeatedly states that they are happy the way they are (“They are satisfied where they are, and the way they are. They cannot imagine that they are capable of anything better” 1955:16). The concern is therefore not with these people’s happiness, but with the image of racial regression that they represent. The poor white is described as looking like a “baboon” (1955:11) or like the “Bushman sculpture” (1955:11) in the ethnographic section of the museum. Mrs. Van Niekerk scolds tant Grieta for addressing her as “Missus” because she is also “a white person” (1955:23). When the poor whites are slipping out of reach, they are slipping especially into a satyr-like existence of alcohol abuse, uninhibited sexuality and unthinking violence.

5. Siener in die Suburbs

 5.1 The reception of Siener in die Suburbs

Siener in die Suburbs (1981) is one of the most popular and most performed Afrikaans plays. It was first performed in 1971 by PACT (The Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal) at the Breytenbach Theatre in Pretoria, then country-wide performances followed to all the major cities in South Africa. In the next two decades it was sporadically performed at smaller venues all over South Africa. It was also toured by the coloured group Cosair who performed it at black universities in the late seventies. In 1973 it was made into a film which was shown on TV4 in 1986 and in 1988 on the M-Net channel.

At a symposium in 1973 on the Sestigers, PG du Plessis stated that he wrote the play with a popular audience in mind (“the ordinary and warm blooded people” 1973:88). In an interview Du Plessis said:

I coloured the picture with the sadness and the exhilaration of the life I got to know during my teaching days in the suburbs – during the ducktail-era, when my pupils and I were young and part of the town where we lived old and rotten around us (The Cape Times 21/1/81)

The play in its early years was slated as “gutter literature” (see review “Siener uitgekryt as rioolliteratuur” TV editors of Oosterlig 22/7/86) and it is stated that “It was the first time that Afrikaners from the ghettos were depicted on stage and many were shocked: no such people were supposed to exist”. Siener in die suburbs, though had many predecessors. Many plays focusing on poor whites were produced in Afrikaans in the first few decades of the twentieth century. P.W.S. Schumann’s Hantie kom huis toe (1955) being the one usually mentioned. J.C. Kannemeyer, the major Afrikaans literary historian, makes this clear in his discussion of Siener in die suburbs (1981). He states that the play belongs to the tradition of Grosskopf, Fagan and Schumann (authors who were active in 1920s, 1930s and 1940s). The link with Schumann’s depiction of the “degenerate, and urbanised Afrikaner” (1983:440) is especially strong according to him. In Hantie kom huis toe (1955) there is the character, Gertjie, who like Tjokkie in Siener in die suburbs (1981) has premonitions of the future. Hantie kom huis toe (1955), though, portrays many different outdoor settings: the Boland house, the market at Wesselsdorp, the verandah of the Indian shop and Lappiesdorp. Siener in die suburbs (1981) on the other hand is limited to the claustrophobic space of a backyard in the southern suburbs of Johannesburg. There are also more deep-rooted differences: Hantie kom huis toe (1955) is explicitly political, and ties in strongly with the historical discourses of poor whiteism in the 1930s. Siener in die suburbs (1981) is only very indirectly political: and if it is political then the message is opposite to that of Hantie kom huis toe (1955). There is no message of upliftment in Siener in die suburbs (1981). Instead one senses a degree of identification with these marginal people and their futile attempts to signify within the broader  urban and modern world. They are embodiments of love, and the hurt and betrayal which accompany love. The choice of the poor whites has to do with Du Plessis’ concern with what he considers as “real” people in contrast to the hypocrisy, boredom and material wealth of the Afrikaner establishment.

At this time politics in South Africa was dominated by race (as represented by authors such as Breyten Breytenbach and André P Brink.) PG  du Plessis consciously reacted against this trend. In his contribution to the symposium on the Sestigers in 1973 he argued, in reaction to the demand for a politically-involved literature, for the search  of a “deeper reality” (1973:83), “fundamental patterns” (1973:83) which leads us beyond the politics of a particular time to the universal in the deeper chaos and the great myths of death, exile and love (1973: 84). He wants to move beyond “the showing and the knowing”  into the deep “unconscious” (1973:87). The political is conceived by him as part of conformism, the droning of the literary and academic establishment (1973:89).

5.2 Siener in the suburbs as tragedy

The representation of contemporary life in the New Attic Comedy of Euripides, according to Nietzsche, meant the death of  Greek tragedy.  Through Euripides “the everyday man forced his way from the spectator’s seats onto the stage; the mirror in which formerly only grand and bold traits were represented now showed the painful fidelity that conscientiously reproduces even the botched outlines of nature” (1956:77). Looking at it from this point of view, and also ironically when Du Plessis’ pleading for the “universal” is considered, Siener in die suburbs (1981) does not qualify as tragedy in the Niezschean sense. The characters seem to be representatives of contemporary South African life, although outcasts living in the southern Johannesburg suburbs and the decor is realistic in the greatest of detail.

All the acts take place in the backyard of Ma’s semi-detached house. On the right-hand side of the stage is the kitchen door, a small verandah, the kitchen window and a wall closing-in the backyard. Against the wall is an old hen-coop which acts as a storing-place of wood and Coal. There is a washing line with a few bits of washing.  On the left-hand side there is a garage with decaying wooden doors showing green paint of years ago. In the open garage is a jacked-up 1948 Buick without wheels. From the beam just behind the door there hangs a pulley with which the engine was removed earlier. Against the wall is the oil-drenched work-bench with the disentangled engine of the Buick .

The title of Siener in die suburbs (1981) refers to Tjokkie who was born with the caul and therefore has the ability to see/dream the future. In this he introduces the supernatural into the, apparently naturalist, play. His psychic powers is a “talent” – an ability to have access to the future – something inexplicable by scientific naturalism.

Tjokkie is also a dreamer in another sense – he dreams of living on the other side of the railway line, of having a better life. His anger at Giel for sleeping with his mother without being married to her and his anger at his sister’s unwanted pregancy, point to his highly moral character. He resists the sexuality which keeps his family, and the people of the suburbs, entrapped in their impoverished lives. Giel describes Tjokkie as being without love. He embodies a wish, dream and repression combination.

The antagonist in the play is the ducktail, Jakes. Jakes brings the alcohol and marijuana (“the drug of the truth” 1981:36) onto the stage. To him life is about “juice and love” (1981:31). On an allegorical level Tjokkie and Jakes could be seen as naturalist transpositions (or masks) of the Nietzschean opposites of the dream and intoxication central to tragedy. Tjokkie’s “crucifiction” by block-and-tackle in the car’s engine space, and his death under the car points to him as a reincarnation of the Dionysian god being torn apart. Jakes on the other hand is the voice which seeks “justice” (1981:54), and ultimately embodies Dionyssian justice:

Tiemie: Go away, Jakes. What do you want here?

Jakes: Justice.

Tiemie: Justice! Was it justice when you wanted to bring me into             trouble  on purpose? You never had any feelings for me.

Jakes: I had love. Lots of love (1981: 53-54).

A Nietzshean reading of the play would demand that these characters on an archetypal level become equated with the “demigods” and “drunken satyrs” as against the “everyday” persons of the New Attic Comedy. The “everyday” person of the New Attic Theatre was one of reason; one who wanted to comprehend the seemingly irrational notion of justice embodied in traditional tragedy: the “unequal” “distribution of good and bad fortune” (1956:80). The principle according to which Euripides operated was Socratic and its dictum is “knowledge is virtue” or “To be beautiful everything must be intelligible” (1956:83). Nietzsche refers to the “audacious reasonableness” (1956:83) of Euripides and states that “Euripides as a poet is essentially an echo of his own conscious knowledge” (1956:85).

            Siener in die suburbs (1981) is not a moral play, it does not dramatise an intelligible world of effects with intelligible causes. The whole play centres around a vision. Tjokkie’s talent to see the future is in itself something inexplicable. On the bases of this vision the character Giel bets, against all odds, his life’s savings on the outsider horse, Natty Tatty. Tiemie makes love to the ducktail, Jakes, although she despises the idea of a life with him in the suburbs. People act contrary to what they consciously want. Central to this absurd world is the motif of love: love for others, self love, self interest and sexuality, is what drives people, and inscribed into love is blood, pain and betrayal. Ma summarises this when she says:

I’m sitting between the kinds (of love), it seems to me. Where the one type hurts, the other makes good, where the one pleases, the other pains (1981:42).

and she warns against too much love: too much leads to hurt (1981:41).

Jakes refers to himself as “a goat for love” (1981:31) and it is on the basis of love that he demands his place within this family. When Ma asks him what he knows about love, he answers:

Because I jump the iron and because I’m a bit with-it the old lady thinks I do not know those things? My outsides are not nice to the old lady, but in my insides there are things working. Love is love (1981:45).

He points to the fact that the love coming from the insides is working a bit on the strong side in his and the old lady’s case (1981:46).

Tiemie points out to him that his so-called love for her was nothing other than a selfish search to have child with a mother of class. Love is irrational, its reasons might be construed from Jakes’ need for a family, for respect, whatever. The point is there is nothing that could be done to prevent the violence and hurt of love.

The last scenes are central to our reading of this play as tragedy. While the seven-single “Sugar-Sugar” is playing, Tiemie is killed by Jakes inside the house and Tjokkie kills himself underneath the car. Jakes appears with a bloody altar cloth which he throws in Ma’s face muttering: “There is your bloody love” (1981:56). Ma then says to herself “There is blood on it…there is always blood on it” (1981:56). The words on the altar cloth “God is Love” (1981:30) and the violence indicated by the blood signifies God’s (and by implication Reason’s) absence in the world, but also on a deeper level God’s presence in what is beyond reason. It states the deeper reality of Dionysian ecstasy. Blood and love, death and sexuality, are the intertwined instincts through which the amoral “artist-god” expresses “in the good and in the bad, his own joy and glory” (1956:22). It points to the triumph of pessimist laughter, the mindless omnipotence of the dramatist who tears his characters apart through Jakes,  the character who is seeking justice. The blood on his hands and the altar cloth is the answer to his search. “God is love” (1981:30) and “there is always blood on God’s love” (my reformulation 1981:56) are statements of universality. It is this universality, the always in Ma’s words, which  makes this play an example of a ritual rather than a depiction of a particular historical and sociological reality as  one finds in earlier Afrikaans naturalist drama.

While Jakes slaughters a screaming Tiemie in the last act the popular seven single of the sixties “Sugar, sugar” is playing. Music, especially folk music, represents “in the highest degree a universal language” (1956:101) to Nietzsche.  The music in Siener in die suburbs precede the last words (“There is always blood on it” 1981:56) which formulates the universal condition.

In Siener in die suburbs, Tjokkie and his half-sister, Tiemie, reject their suburbs environment, which implies a repression of the “urges” of “nature” . Tiemie, who does not know who her father is, is described as beautiful and intelligent. She was always in the A class at school. She therefore has the qualities to escape from the suburbs. She is repeating her own tragic history though in falling pregnant with the child of Jakes:

Tiemie: Little Brother, if I have this child now…it would be the same as me. I do not want it like that…I…I didn’t want it. I hated Mother too much about myself when they discovered the truth at school (1981:24).


Tiemie: Ma, I cannot marry Jakes. I do not want to live here. I do not want this life, also not the men, Ma. I do not want a husband who comes home drunk…if he comes home…being abused with little ones. I do not want to be old before my time. Ma, you know, they do not know about us…at work, they think we do not exist …they laugh when they hear of us, or they do not know where to look when they hear where I live. They are embarrassed about us – us. They do not know about us. They do not know how we live or what we feel. They do not know. I want to be known, Ma, I do not want to die like a dog, I want to be known…I so desperately wanted to be known (1981:26).

Tiemie is driven by the desire to be, to be representable, to be part of a class and a life where she would signify. She wants to transcend her “annihilation” as “individual”. She embodies the struggle between nature and civilization. Jakes formulates this struggle in Tiemie:

You are ashamed of your ducktail, but that is not all. You do not have the guts…You do not have the guts to say that you are crazy about a low class bastard. You do not have the guts to admit how you grabbed your ducktail on those Saturday nights (1981: 52-53).

Jakes also wants to enter the realm of representation: he wants a class mother for his child. Tiemie is that class mother. The way in which he is looked down upon by Tjokkie and Tiemie motivates his vengeance on this family. Tjokkie calls him a “nobody” and “low class”. It is against this background that he is searching for justice.

At the root of signification is the presence of the father. Tiemie’s search for meaning relates to the absence of a father: (“Little brother I don’t know who my father is” 1981:24). Jakes never felt as if he had a father (“I was never my father’s son” 1981:49), he feels that he will get the recognition he desires through a son (“He looks up to you” 1981:48). The hawker and gambler, Giel who lives with Ma in sin, exploits the social need for father figures by selling proverbs such as “What is a house without a father” (1981:15).

The father ultimately, though, signifies fate and death. In his vision Tjokkie sees a man at the gate, a man with a uniform, looking half-familiar. He sees himself leaving with this man, and inviting Tiemie to join them. This vision indicates his wish to re-unite with the dead father. It translates in his own and Tiemie’s death: he commits suicide underneath the car and Tiemie is killed by Jakes. The escape from the suburbs is ultimately an escape into death.

The only character who benefited from Tjokkie’s vision is the gambler, Giel. He placed all his money on the race-horse Natty Tatty, the grey outsider with not much of a chance to win – the ash-coloured duck of Tjokkie’s dream. This points to the role of fate in the lives of the characters. It is fate rather than naturalist determinism which is decisive. According to Nietzsche, Moira (fate) is “enthroned above gods and men as eternal justice” (1981:69).

Tjokkie explicitly refers to this fate and its relation to his “talent” to see the future: “One cannot play around with this. Just when you are trying to force the future in a direction, it will turn against you” (1981:29). The quest for clarity about the future amongst the different characters lead to greater uncertainty, and the eventual complete destruction of the family: Tjokkie and Tiemie are punished because they thought they were better than their surroundings, Ma and Jakes are punished because they loved too intensely. But ultimately the hubris and destruction are a universal condition: God is love and love is blood. Sexuality and death underwrite the imaginary world of life. It is this realisation, this pessimism, which makes Siener in die suburbs (1981) different from Hantie kom huis toe (1955).


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Vizetelly, E.A. 1904. Émile Zola: Novelist and Reformer. London & New York: John Lane.

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The Terror of Reason: Stereotypes and the Discourse on Stereotypes

In Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm there is a Darwinist view of time. It is firstly present in the narrative of the landscape with its traces of evolution: “stones – speaking of old things, of the time when strange fishes and animals lived that are turned into stone now”. Secondly it refers to the realm of people. In one passage, Lyndall, the main character, and embodiment of the enlightenment and reason, observes an African at the foot of a “kopje”. She describes him as having nothing on but a blanket, a “splendid fellow – six feet high, with a magnificent pair of legs”. The disturbing part comes when she asks: “Will his race melt away in the heat of a collision with a higher? Are the men of the future to see his bones only in museums – a vestige of one link that spanned between the dog and the white man? He wakes thoughts that run far into the future and back into the past” .

Unconsciously the text in this passage betrays a construction of knowledge that mimicked “the geographical and economical absorption of the non-European world by the West” and an ideology of progress that laid down the blueprint for the colonial “expropriation and incorporation of the other” (Young 1990:3). The South African colonial historian, George McCall Theal defined “progress” as “The extension of civilised authority over the native tribes, and/ The raising of those people to a sphere of usefulness”. Slavery became the necessary instrument – “a phase of education” according to Hegel and “a mode of becoming participant in a higher morality and the culture connected with it”. Hegel formulated this at a time (1830-1831) when the movement against slavery was already far advanced in the Cape Colony and elsewhere. His views on slavery deviate from the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the early Enlightenment. In contrast to Hegel, Rousseau wrote “the ‘right’ of slavery is seen to be void; void, not only because it cannot be justified, but also because it is nonsensical, because it has no meaning. The words ‘slavery’ and ‘right’ are contradictory, they cancel each other out” . Hegel is obsessed with time as progress – and progress as the spirit of reason and the elimination or “genocide” of unreason. Man in his natural condition, such as the natives in the colonies were often seem, came to embody “unreason”. The natural condition of the peoples, therefore, became the opposite term to progress and by implication reason. Hegel saw the natural condition as one which “itself is … of absolute and thorough injustice – Contravention of Right and Just” .

Africa according to Hegel is the “land of childhood … lying beyond the day of self-conscious history” and “enveloped in the dark mantle of Night” . Africans exhibit “the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state” and they are characterised by a “want of self-control” . As the other of progress the African in the African had to be destroyed completely. Genocide became the corollary of progress.

The discourse of progress is embedded in the discourse of reason. Reason, though, has its roots in the demand to do away with arbitrary rule. It stems from the right to demand a return on services. (Rousseau: “To speak of a man giving himself in return for nothing is to speak of what is absurd, unthinkable; such an action would be illegitimate, void, if only because no one who did it could be in his right mind. To say the same of a whole people is to conjure up a nation of lunatics; and right cannot rest on madness”) . Reason stems from the “social contract” (see the title of Rousseau’s book). The social contract is one of the aspects of progress – but a racial and evolutionary discourse, the discourse of progress, did away with the contract for the racially others. Whereas genocide is associated with progress, reason’s violence is terror. Blanchot said about terrorists: “they behave during their lifetimes not like people living among other living people, but like beings deprived of being, like universal thoughts, pure abstractions beyond history, judging and deciding in the name of all history” . This terror first manifested itself during the French Revolution – and the French invasions of other European countries which followed. Its brutal face is depicted in Goya’s series of etchings The Disasters of War on the French invasion of Spain in 1808. But the struggles of Reason idealistically defined human possibilities in terms of subjectivity and authority. It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who saw that a people which is “subject to laws, ought to be the author of them” . He formulated this possibility especially through an awareness of the freedom of the people outside Europe. For him, in reaction to this pre-colonial freedom, the revolution had to be different from, rather than a return to, the state of nature. The “state of nature” is therefore in a constant opposition to “civil society” in The Social Contract (first published in 1762). To be the author of laws implies not the absolute freedom of nature, but being restrained by the very institution authored. The state and history took on the appearance of reason – of something being authored. It took on the narcissistic image of the philosopher.

In the Cape the reign of reason was short-lived during the Batavian period of 1803 to 1806. It manifested itself in a number of decrees. Marriages were required to take place before a civil court and not in the church, unsectarian schools were established, Khoikhoin labourers were protected from ill-treatment and fraud by Europeans through an order that “no Hottentot should be engaged by a European, except under written contract entered into in presence of a landdrost” , land was set aside for the Khoikhoin, and the Batavian Republic was against the institution of slavery . When the British took control of the Cape in 1806 it was a defeat for the revolutionary ideas and especially “republican principles” were ruthlessly suppressed by Lord Macartney, the first English governor. Under totalitarian rule, European reason continued as progress. It became the object of moral societies, institutions, technologies of repression and discipline.

The final loss of their “natural state” for the Khoikhoin came in 1809 when the Earl of Caledon made “the whole of the Hottentots in the colony into legal subjection to the government” . In this they became the political equals to the Europeans – whereas before they were more free. This act meant the figurative disappearance of the “Khoikhoin” “men of men, people of pure race” . It interrupted the continuity of the Khoikhoin “making them play roles in which they no longer recognize themselves, making them betray … their own substance”. What remained was a construct of the Europeans – the stereotype: a manipulated image fixed and transmitted through the printed type.

The demise of the Khoikhoin is traditionally explained in terms of smallpox epidemics and the abuse of alcohol, rather than in terms of their discursive mass-murder through a law which made them equal to Europeans. (“The stereotype of the lazy, weak ‘Hottentot’, who was wiped out by the smallpox epidemics in the eighteenth century, or who drank himself to death”).

V.A. February in his text Mind your Colour: The ‘Coloured’ Stereotype in South African Literature complains about the endless “bacchanalian eulogies” with which South African literature depicts the Khoikhoin and writes further: “Culturally the ‘Hottentot’ characters emerge as amoral types, incapable of functioning as rational human beings”. In this statement February endorses the bacchanalian and the rational as binary opposition, and the morality that makes the “bacchanalian” amoral. He writes from the position of Reason and Progress.

Nietzsche launched his attack on the imaginary and dream realm of the ego, the law and the discipline of civil society from the position of the “bacchanalian” and elevated the Satyr to the level of the ultimate truth. The Satyr embodied the abundance and the excess of nature for which death is the necessary corollary.

Liquor signifies the ego losing control – it is also called spirits in order to name its manifold voices. Instead of stigmatising the stereotype, from the petit bourgeois position of a V.A. February, one should explore the values and beliefs of the Khoikhoin regarding liquor – in a way similar to Keletso Atkins’ reconstruction of the exchanges between the Zulu and European in nineteenth-century Natal from the point of view of the Zulu . She did this through a careful and intertextual reading of the silences of colonists’ reports as well as by looking at the oral tradition. February’s exposition tends to indulge in stereotyping as much as the texts he analyses. February, in locating the stereotype in liquor rather than in the loss of liberty, is complicit in the inquisition of reason – he becomes a judge in the name of Reason.

Liquor is further a means of socialisation. It bonds. On 29 April 1652 Jan van Riebeeck writes in his journal:

…the strandloopers, who brought with them nothing but lean bodies and hungry bellies, which we filled with some pearl barley and bread, and sometimes a drink of wine, wherefore we should also have some more rice, item arrack, wherewith to treat them and others from the interior, now and then, so as to make them the more attached to us…

Olfert Dapper’s text from the seventeenth century on the Khoikhoin Kaffraria or Land of the Kafirs, also named Hottentots (first published in 1668) contains a vivid description of the Khoikhoin giving themselves completely over to dance and drinking when peace was concluded at the end of the first war in 1659 between the Goringhaiquas and the Dutch colonists:

As soon as this compact had been concluded on both sides by word of mouth, the Hottentots were regaled in the Fort with bread, tobacco and brandy, from which they made themselves dead drunk. The others, as soon as they learned that the dispute was settled, also came running out of their villages with their women and children, until there were about two or three hundred of them, men, women and children, in and about the Fort.

After a short while Gogosoa himself, chief of the Goringhaiquas (Capemen), came with the request that he too wished to lay down his weapons together with Chief Chore. And now the Fort became so crowded that there was scarcely room to stand. Then at the command of Governor Riebeeck a whole cask full of brandy, with a wooden cup in it, was put down in the midst of all the Hottentots. Everyone now began to make good cheer, and to enjoy himself by drinking heartily. The women, too, who were all squatting down with their children, swilled down the brandy like water; although some, out of innocence, drank nothing at all, and others only a little.

When the men began to get giddy and their legs to stagger, so that often they fell to the ground, about two or three hundred pieces of tobacco, each an inch wide, were flung amongst them by handfuls to be scrambled for. Whereupon there ensued such a great clamour and din amongst them that they almost drowned all hearing, and the ringing of the ears became scarcely tolerable. Their uproar was no less violent when after that the same thing was done with bread. After all this scrambling was over, and they had drunk themselves full and were tipsy with the wine, they began to dance and jump about continuously with strange gestures and in a peculiar manner, almost like the bakers over here work the dough in the trays with their feet, by stamping, now with the one foot and then with the other, their buttocks sticking out, and the head always inclined on the one side to the ground. The women were no less jolly during the dancing of the men, clapping their hands and all along singing the self-same song of ha, ho, ho, ho, for wellnigh two hours on end. (1933:21).

More than a century later C.E. Boniface’s farce De Nieuwe Ridderorde of De Temperantisten (first published in 1832) appeared in a context far removed from the independent Khoikhoin of the seventeenth century. According to February it is one of the texts which established and popularised the stereotype of the “Hottentot” indulging in excessive drinking. This stereotype became “fixed in the minds of white South African writers …(up) to the present day”. It is based on historical events (the attempt of the Temperance Society to ban the use of liquor at the Cape) and caricatures recognisable historical persons who played a prominent role in the Temperance Society. People such as Dr. John Philip of the London Missionary Society (named in the play as the Reverend Humbug Philipumpkin), John Fairbairn, editor (named Sir John Brute) and George Greig (Goris Krikie) the printer and owner of The South African Commercial Advertiser as well as various other reverends and doctors of the Cape. The play is written at a time when the production of liquor was one of the major industries at the Cape and Boniface’s concern clearly reflects the threat of the Temperance Society to this industry and deep-structure of Cape society. This becomes clear in the seventh scene of the first act in the dialogue of the brandy distiller, Bob Going-Gone and Issegrim a solicitor. From this perspective the play suggests that it is unpatriotic not to drink whether you were European or African: “Ik zal drinken, wy zullen drinken en alle de goede Christenen zullen drinken uit loutere patriotismus” (“I shall drink, we will drink and all good Christians will drink from pure patriotism”)

In contrast to the learned and established citizens one has, as apprentice temperantists, the settler types from the lower classes. They are always in a drunken stupor: the Scottish Jack O’Groggy, the British Tommy Sipdrams and the Irish Andrew Everdry. On this level too are the Khoikhoin characters: Manus Kalfachter, who is knighted as representative temperantist of the people of Bethelsdorp, his concubine Griet Drilbouten, Klaas Galgevogel, Hans Droogekeel, Piet Dronkelap and Dampje Waterschuw. When the Khoikhoin characters are compared to the European characters it becomes difficult to see them as specifically being stereotyped as abusers of alcohol: everybody, eventually, even the Reverend Humbug Philipumpkin, is indulging. The specificity of Khoikhoin characters, that which positions them as stereotype, does not refer to the fact that they have an obsessive love for alcohol, but to their status in society – their class position as a disinherited and illiterate people. Whereas the settlers have their reverends and doctors – they have none. The abuse of liquor is a mere symptom in a narrative of disempowerment.

Spirits could be uplifting, a way of celebrating the abundance of life and nature, as in the instance described by Dapper – or it could point to an escape from an economically and morally repressive society. Olive Schreiner portrays this form of degradation in an interesting passage of recognition of the self in the other in The Story of an African Farm. In this the self (the poor white, Waldo) and the other (the Bushman boy) become mere surface phenomena to deep social determinants. Waldo narrates:

I was stiff and cold; and my master, who lay by me, offered me his flask, because mine was empty. I drank some, and then I thought I would go and see if the river was going down. I remember that I walked to the road, and it seemed to be going away from me. When I woke up I was lying by a little bush on the bank of the river. It was afternoon; all the clouds had gone, and the sky was deep blue. The Bushman boy was grilling ribs at the fire. He looked at me, and grinned from ear to ear. ‘Master was a little nice’, he said, ‘and lay down in the road. Something might ride over Master, so I carried him there.’ It was as though he said, ‘You and I are comrades. I have lain in a road too. I know all about it”.

Since the production of Boniface’s play in 1832 right into the Apartheid years (after 1948) Europeans have tried to contain and restrict the use of alcohol by Africans – without really attempting to understand the role of beer or alcohol in African society. One recalls Can Temba’s “Let the People Drink!” A story with basically the same theme and message as Boniface’s play. Temba the reporter-narrator states “The issue is no more whether Africans in general should be allowed to drink. THEY DRINK IN ANY CASE. The issue is whether they may drink legally” . The challenge is not to explore alcohol as negative stereotype, and pathology, but to investigate through literature the power of alcohol as agent of socialisation and limit to the culture of reason.

“Volcano needing constant watching”: South African white labour and socialist culture 1900-1924


In Memoirs of a Socialist in South Africa 1903-1947 (nd.) Wilfrid H Harrison reminisces about the white labour struggles of 1922 on the Witwatersrand. He refers to the 50,000 people who followed the Red Flag in the funeral procession of three strikers who were convicted to death (HK Hull, D Lewis and SA Long) and writes:

That is many years ago and we wonder what has become of those 50 000 people who followed those singers of the “Red Flag” to their graves. Obviously they have buried the axe, so to speak, and their indignation against Capitalist machinations. That all happened … in Johannesburg – the city of great storms in labour movement, which generally end in the proverbial teacup (48).

Nineteen Twenty Two was the culmination point of a period of intense struggle by the white working class in South Africa against the state and the capitalists of the time. D. Ivon Jones described 1922 as “the first great armed revolt of the workers on any scale in the British empire” (Hirson 1993:81). Martial law was proclaimed three times on the Witwatersrand in the period between 1913 and 1922 (Walker 1961:91). General Smuts saw Johannesburg as a “volcano that required constant watching” (Urquhart nd.:7). The period itself was described as one of “events of world importance” (Cope 1945:31). The gold mining industry at that time was the “fulcrum of world capital” (Hirson 1993:82). With reference to the strike of 1913 Gitsham wrote that “More or less truthful narratives of this event have appeared in every newspaper in the civilised world” (1926:34).

Despite attempts by Cope, Harrison, Gitsham and others to “rescue” some of this “raw material of history and present it to the workers in readable form” (Cope 1945: preface), a veil1 was drawn over this period. According to Baruch Hirson these events was “removed from historical memory” (1993:74) because these strikes were found to be “racist” and “reactionary” (1993:74) W.H. Andrews on the other hand in the 1940s ascribed this forgetting to the “smooth and comfortable path of class-collaboration” (1941:3) taken by many of the labour leaders. The amnesia, though, also relates to the purges of the Stalinist period that intensely affected the South African communists in the early 1930s. The Russian Revolution oedipalised international socialism. Lenin significantly called one of his books Left Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder (Johns 1995:119). To him the many subject positions outside the Russian centre embodied this infantilism. It intensified struggles against the multiple subject positions within socialism, in order to homogenise every move around the directives from the parent Moscow. It created space for betrayal and persecution. Bernard Sachs describes very interestingly in his autobiography Multitude of Dreams (1949) how he uncontrollably laughed himself out of the Communist Party in these circumstances, while Edward Roux’s in S.P. Bunting: A Political Biography (1993) states that he wrote this book to purge himself of his self-disgust at betraying Bunting, the erstwhile leader of the Communist Party, during these expulsions.

The main focus of my article, though, is on the period in South African labour history before the oedipalisation intensified. The focus will be on the cultural aspects of this history in order to highlight an aspect of colonialism which has not received much attention: namely the role and the various subject positions of the European worker on the gold fields of South Africa in the period 1900-1924. I want to start with a short survey of some of the major strikes of the period by European workers.

1907: A strike developed over a reduction of wages and how many rock drills each white miner should control. The strike developed into violence and the British troops still garrisoned in the country after the Anglo-Boer War were called in to drive the miner’s pickets off mine property and miners back to work. During this strike poor white Afrikaners were encouraged to act as scabs, and in this way Afrikaners for the first time became a large group within the mining labour.

1913: Workers declared a general strike on the Reef after workers at the Kleinfontein mine in Benoni were ordered to work the same hours on a Saturday as on other days. Thousands of people assembled for a mass meeting on the Market Square, Johannesburg, despite a law that prohibited gatherings of more than six people in a public place. Mounted police and squadrons of the Royal Dragoons charged the meeting. The angry crowds reacted by burning down the office of the Star newspaper and the railway station. The Star was controlled by the mine owners. The next day the crowds gathered outside the Rand Club, headquarters of the mine magnates. The Dragoons shot into the crowd killing about twenty people.

1914: South African Railway workers went on strike due to threats of retrenchment. Seventy thousand police officers, soldiers and armed Burghers were mobilised on the Witwatersrand and Martial Law proclaimed with hundreds of trade union leaders imprisoned. The strike leaders were taken out of their prison cells at night “rushed by train with blinds drawn under armed guards to Durban, and bundled aboard the SS Umgeni, which was at once put to sea and made straight for England” (Andrews 1941:25).

1919: The Johannesburg Municipal Mechanics and Tramwaymen call out a strike because of threatened retrenchment. The strikers implemented new methods of struggle suggested by the Internationalist Socialist League. They took possession of the Power Station, the trams and town council themselves: “the power station was at work and the trams were running to the great delight of the humbler citizens of Johannesburg” (Andrews 1941:30). The strike committee, under its chairman, J.T. Bain, formed itself into a board of control, took possession of the Town Hall, and held its meeting in the Council Chamber with Bain in the Mayor’s chair. Everything was running smoothly with the Town Council homeless and helpless (Andrews 1941:30).

1922: The strike or revolt began in the coal mines with an announcement of a reduction of wages. It spread to the gold mines when a plan by the Chamber of Mines to retrench several thousand European workers became known. They were to be replaced by cheaper black workers. On 22 February the strike turned violent when the first skirmishes between workers and police took place. A number of strikers were imprisoned after this. On 28 February, strikers assembled outside the Boksburg prison and sang the Red Flag to their comrades inside. The police then fired on them killing a number. Thousands of people attended the funeral of the victims. The workers all over the Witwatersrand organised themselves into commando’s, while a Council of Action, under the leadership of Percy Fischer, did the planning of the revolt. A number of the trade union leaders were imprisoned in the Fort (where well-known communists educated their more nationalistic inclined Afrikaner fellow prisoners into the principles of the class struggle). In the days that followed workers stormed and burned down police stations, taking captive many police officers. Battles waged in Benoni, Boksburg, Dunswart, Brakpan, Jeppestown, Fordsburg, Booysens, Vrededorp, Newclare and Newlands. Two hundred people died.

2. Carnival and Oratory

Authors often refer to the industrial unrest during the first two decades of the century in terms of literary and biblical metaphors. Andrews speaks of “the story of trade unionism in South Africa” that is “dramatic” (1941:11). Herd states that the “story of 1922 has a classic form” (1966:14). The prelude is the months of unrest with rumbling undertones followed by several weeks of minor skirmishing that climax in “open and bitter fighting with rifles, machine-guns, artillery and armed aircraft” (1966:14). Gitsham sees the history of South African Trade Unionism as “filled with Romance, Tragedy and Comedy” (1926:3). The “story” that he tells in its incompleteness resembles a “flashlight photograph” (1926:7) and “many details will not bear a resemblance to some of the observed facts” (1926:7). The communists are often seen in terms of biblical images. Boydell describes Wilfrid Harrison as a “social and economic evangelist” (Harrison nd.:VIII) and as a “hot-gospeller of the bottom-dog” (Harrison nd.:X). One of the tasks of the newly found Communist Party of South Africa (established in October 1920) was to “establish the widest and closest possible contact with workers of all ranks and races, and to propagate the Communist gospel among them” (Johns 1995:121).

Reading the “story” in its many texts evokes images of spectacle and carnival: a carnival of mass meetings, funeral processions, ritualised marches and mob scenes. Herd, with reference to the street gatherings of strikers, refers to the “hurrying mob” fed on “exhilarating rumours” (1966:32) and to “an inflamed mob and thousands of sightseers” (1966:50). Captain William Urquhart, a senior policeman who wrote about the strike from personal experience, highlighted the carnival and spectacle aspects of the 1922 revolt in his book The Outbreak on the Witwatersrand (1922). He endorses the view of Colonel Mentz, the Minister of Defence, that the mob demand for a general strike was a licence to destruction. Urquhart describes how the strike was transformed into “amok” (1922:89) in Benoni:

Private houses were burned. A gunsmith’s shop was ransacked for arms and destroyed. The Arcade was wrecked. Bottle stores were looted. The houses of loyal citizens had been burned down. An artist at work in his studio had his own chisels driven into his head and back. Drunken men fired indiscriminately on women. Rioters entered a temporary hospital and threatened to kill the patients. Now that all seemed like an evil dream (1922:89-90).

Urquhart refers to the “shocking outrages” (1922:55) of the women commandos, who “drifted into unmentionable barbarities by rapid stages” (1922:55) especially against strike breakers or “scabs”. He describes how workers seized a shift boss at the Krugersdorp railway station and drove away with him out into the veldt where three women attacked him. While he was lying prostate they threatened to gouge out his eyes, and then stripped him, defiling his body, and leaving him naked on the veldt (1922:60). The exchange of identity, characteristic of carnival, also manifested itself when snipers disguised themselves in women’s clothing (Urquhart 1922:83).

The annual May Day processions (the first one was held in 1904) are the most obvious ritual that links the labour movement with carnival. Since 1913, though, marches increasingly became funeral processions or processions in memory of the “martyred dead”. In 1922 the police put the Simonds Street section, where a number of people died during the 1913 strikes, out of bounds of a procession of marchers. The marchers “wished to proceed along the street for sentimental reasons – ‘as shooting took place there in 1913 and 1914’” and they wanted to take off their hats as they pass along (Mickey Dunn in Herd 1966:32). The commando system, adapted from the Anglo-Boer War, and combined with the forms of regimentation learnt during the First World War, gave a military2 character to these processions:

a curious procession headed by a band of youngsters playing Scottish tunes. Behind them came a detachment of mounted police from central Johannesburg, Fordsburg and Denver. They were followed in turn by wagons loaded with women lustily singing the Volkslied, the anthem of the old South African Republic. After the wagon convoy came the cyclists and marching women wearing uniforms with conspicuous red crosses on the sleeves (Herd 1966:40)

The mass meetings addressed by orators is a special feature of the events of this period. It highlights the importance of the physical presence and rhetorical skills of leaders during the rituals, marches, meetings, strike actions, funerals and debating evenings in that period. It was essentially an oral and public culture. They delivered their speeches from platforms on the Market Square or other public places. The texts often refer to the styles of different leaders in addressing crowds. ES Sachs describes Bill Andrews as a “superb orator” who is “able to combine in his speeches cold logic with pathos, simple language with eloquence, dignity and humility” (Andrews 1941:5). J.T. Bain, a colourful labour leader who in 1892 was one of the founders of the first “ambitious attempt” at union organisation in South Africa, namely the Witwatersrand Mine Employees’ and Mechanics’ Union, is described as:

a first-rate platform orator, and could often be seen on a Sunday pouring forth a fiery Glasgow tirade to a crowd in the Market square. His hatred of the capitalists knew no bounds (Copend.:45).

Tom Matthews as a speaker often lost his temper, gesticulated and was “capable of fiery speaking which could rouse the workers to heights of enthusiasm” (Cope 1945: 93). He considered himself a rationalist and on one occasion delivered a complicated lecture on totem worship and the origin of religion. He had volumes of Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’ before him for reference, and elaborate notes. He did not prepare sufficiently, and found himself stuttering until he swept aside his books and notes, and launched into a furious denunciation of the capitalists and the Chamber of Mines (Cope 1945: 94). Another orator was Wilson-Wilson a well-known “Australian ‘spell-binder’…drawn into the strike because it afforded him a ready platform” (Walker and Weinbren 1961:24). Urquhart states that Percy Fisher “was an effective speaker; though he rattled off his message at express speed, he was lucid and indulged in a mordant humour at the expense of the capitalistic class” (nd.:67) and refers also to the “other preachers from strike pulpits” (nd.:67).

In Cape Town socialism was regularly preached from the plinth of Van Riebeeck Statue, Adderley Street. Cape Town also had a lively debating society which was often frequented by Cronwright and Olive Schreiner. Wilfrid Harrison, one of the colourful figures from Cape Town states in his memoirs: “Mass psychology…is funny stuff. They will be as calm and chuckle like cooing doves one minute, and are as ferocious as wild beasts the next, if one knows how to get them like that. There I used my years of experience as a mob orator to put the amusing side of the subject as much as possible, then a little serious talk, till they began to snarl, then think of something funny again. The effect is wonderful” (52)

Harrison describes S.P. Bunting as a long-winded and monotone speaker, with crowds not appreciating his “heights of Communist ideology” (71). Bunting retaliated by referring to the street corner revolutionaries and that “(i)t should NOT be our privilege to stand on a Cape Town dunghill and crow that we know better” (Harrison 101). He did this in the context of Sylvia Pankhurst who according to him was trying to push “‘her own little barrow’ against the colossal and successful Third International machine” (Harrison 90).

The meetings themselves often happened in the streets where the workers were addressed from Trades Hall balconies, or open pieces of land where boxes or the rooftops of cars were used as platforms. In 1922 while the leaders discussed the decision to go on strike, the “commandos remained faithfully at their posts with almost nothing to eat, listening to an unceasing torrent of oratory from the Trades Hall balcony” (Andrews 1941:34). Edward Roux describes how he accompanied his father as a child to a political meeting: “A crowd of a hundred or so gathered in the dark on an empty plot and listened to the speakers who spoke from an empty box lighted with a solitary lantern” (Roux 1993:67). Walker and Weinbren describe another meeting:

At about 3 o’clock a body of strikers from Germiston marched into town taking up a position on the Union ground. Here again a number of speeches were made from the room of the tramway waiting-room, at the corner of the grounds, advising defence of the federation.

Mr W.H. Andrews commenced an opposition meeting, speaking from a cab drawn up in the centre of the ground (1961:40).

Cope describes how a number of strike leaders arrived at night at the Germiston station, not knowing the road to the mine where a meeting was to take place, but

heard a distant but powerful voice roaring at them. It was Jimmy Coward. He kept up his shouts like a ship’s foghorn until the organisers had arrived at the meeting – a distance of more than a mile (79).


The song “The Red Flag” and the banner itself were important symbols at meetings and processions. It attained near religious value. Wilfrid Harrison describes his home in Buitenkant Street as a church where comrades gathered on Sunday evenings. Here he baptised his offspring on the Red Flag with the words “In the name of liberty, equality and fraternity I now dedicate my son to the cause of international Socialism” (Harrison 1947:16). He describes how the British labour leader, Keir Hardie, gave them a few lessons on how to sing the song “The Red Flag” to the more harmonious tune of “The White Cockade” (Harrison 1947:22).

This song “The Red Flag” punctuated every significant event, and was especially used to give courage in situations of distress: The secret arrests of strike leaders in 1914 became known when “some Labour men had heard strains of the Red Flag floating from a ‘Black Maria’” (Cope 1945: 156). In 1922, on “the evening of the 28th February, a number of strikers assembled outside the jail and, to cheer the prisoners up, sang the Red Flag” (Andrews 1941:33). The commandos were referred to as Red Flag commandos and they sang “the Red Flag behind the barricades and sandbags” (Cope 1945: 278). During the arrest of leaders “The prisoners raised a cheer as they were driven away and bystanders took it up. Then some of the crowd removed their hats and sang a verse or two of the Red Flag” (Herd 1966:65). At the hanging of the convicted strikers Long, Hull and Lewis, the prison seemed to be like a church with not a sound to be heard. The “great audience became silent as the three started on the path to death singing:

Then raise the scarlet standard high!

Within its shade we’ll live or die.

Tho’ cowards flinch and traitors sneer

We’ll keep the red flag flying here (Defence Committee 1922:37)

At the end of the founding meeting of the Communist Party in South Africa (October 1920) “the entire assembly of delegates and sympathizers rose to sing The Red Flag” (Johns 1995:125).

Worker newspapers often printed the Red Flag (The Strike Herald, July 2, 1913, The Strike Illustrated with Supplement, July 4, 1913; the Afrikaans version in . The “Eastern Record” , July 4, 1914 and printed in red in English on the back of the same edition) or alluded to in the doggerel. The song “Workers Awake” (The Strike Herald, June 28, 1913:6) refers to it in the context of carnival images:

Now the Red Flag flies from the housetops high;

The streets are all athrong;

And dancing children from the windows cry:

“Help is coming along.”

Then cheer upon cheer to heaven is sent,

And age forgets to frown,

When the men of Van Ryn on battle bent

Came marching to the town.

After the Russian Revolution the Red Flag symbolised the beginning of a new historical period. In the “I.S.L. Marching Song”, that was first published by the International Socialist League of Cape Town, the chorus sings:

So march on, O comrades, march till the day


Red glows the Flag of Revolt in the dawn!

So march on, O comrades, march till the day


Red glows the Flag of Revolt in the dawn!

(The International, June 6, 1919).

In Donald Snowdon’s volume of doggerel verse The Sniper’s Pencil. Red Lines from the Boksburg Gaol (nd.) there are poems such as “The Church and the Red Flag” about a conference of bishops and elders and churches of all denominations to discuss the threat of the Russian Revolution:

But in the crowds the workers gather at their meetings

And cheer them to the echo when they say:

Comrade Lenin, from the Russians, sends you greetings!

Raise the Red Flag and you’ll see the light of day (7).


3. Newspapers and doggerel

Doggerel, inspired by the various events, often appeared in the worker newspapers such as The Strike Herald, The “Eastern Record” and The International. These songs usually appeared under pseudonyms, or anonymous, with some of the songs taken over from American or British newspapers (such as The Machinist Journal). The popular song “St Peter and the Scab” (Strike Herald July 2, 1913) derives from Berton Brailey’s “The Scab” that appeared in thePopular Magazine (see Strike Herald Aug. 2, 1913). The Clarion is one of the labour newspapers that had a great impact since the late nineteenth century. J.T. Bain sold it on the Witwatersrand to the mineworkers. In the August 1894 edition of The Clarion he writes (under the pseudonym of “Snooks”):

In a few months the red van drawn by six oxen, and laden with Labour literature, and accompanied by one who has read the Clarion since its first appearance, will, we hope, be seen trekking the Reef from end to end (Cope 1945:45)

The newspapers were part of the public culture and the doggerel verse was intended to be sung. Although printed, it was used in oral contexts.

Apart from The International very little information exists on the other newspapers. The Strike Herald was a bi-weekly published by the Federation of Trade Unions and the Kleinfontein Strike Committee in 1913. It was edited by Ivon Walker. In his book 2000 Casualties (1961) co-authored with Weinbren, Walker describes a police raid on the newspaper, the arrest of the staff and the breaking up of the type matter already prepared. On July 31 of 1913 it became a daily only to be terminated at the end of the strike two days later. The “Eastern Record” described itself as a “people’s paper”, and was distributed in the East Rand towns of Benoni, Germiston, Boksburg and Springs between February 1914 and July 1915. It was the organ of the East Rand district committee of the South African Labour Party. In its last issue (31 July 1915) it stated “Time (is) not yet right for (a) paper like Eastern Record. But we have sown the seeds of socialism…Our socialist paper has stood its ground”. This newspaper is never mentioned in histories of socialism and communism in South Africa. Only one copy could be traced in the State Library, while the Strange Library in Johannesburg/Gauteng has an incomplete set on microfiche.

The “Eastern Record” was replaced by the more well-known The International. This was a weekly which appeared for the first time in September 1915 as a paper of the War on War League. This League established the International Socialist League of South Africa as its political party. Like the doggerel in The “Eastern Record” many of the verses in The International aimed at educating the workers into international socialism and anti-war policies. The objectives of the League were “To propagate the principles of International socialism and anti-militarism” (Cope 1945: 174) and “industrial unionism ‘on class lines irrespective of race, colour or creed as the most effective means of providing the necessary force for the emancipation of the workers” (Cope 1945: 179). These newspapers often referred to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg who inspired the anti-war activities of the League. It eventually became the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of South Africa. David Ivon Jones was the editor before he left for Russia in 1920. In Russia he became one of the first English translators of Lenin’s works. S.P. Bunting became editor in 1916 for a while during a short absence of Jones. From 1920 onwards Bill Andrews was the editor.

In 1919 the Communist Party bought their own printing press. Jewish families who came to South Africa from Russia at the beginning of the century supplied the money. They looked to The International for news on the Russian Revolution. Bill Andrews who was a skilled engineer and other comrades from the typographical industry installed the press. In 1922, The International was suppressed. The police raided and dismantled the printing office of the Communist Party. When Martial Law was proclaimed many of the regulations focused on newspapers (“No Person shall in a newspaper, pamphlet, or any other publication, or verbally, make use of any language which is calculated to spread false intelligence or to create alarm” (Defence Committee nd.:50) and “No person shall print, publish, or circulate any newspaper, pamphlet, leaflet, or other document containing words or information, or utter any words calculated to promote disaffection or ill-feeling, nor shall any person communicate such words or information” (Defence Committee nd.:50)).

The control of newspapers was an important element in the struggles between workers and capitalists. The power of newspapers goes beyond that of the mass meeting, it reaches many more people, and its visual presence gives it a sense of truth. One of the first trade unions in South Africa was the Printing Trade Union, and they were also one of the first to come out in strike in South Africa in 1889. In 1911 they engaged in an important strike in Cape Town. General Hertzog who would become the leader of the Afrikaner nationalists, suppressed this strike. Nasionale Pers, a big Nationalist publishing house emerged at that time with the development of Afrikaans literature. It is possible that they were strongly affected by the strike. The support of workers in the printing industry was very important in the strikes of 1913 and 1914 and in the production of worker papers such as The Strike Herald.

During the strike of 1922, though, Andrews complains about the non-committal of the S.A. Typographical Union. The Typographical Union continued to produce the Star and the Rand Daily Mail that were “putting out misleading reports and anti-working class propaganda” (Andrews 1941:40). When Andrews criticised them for this, they called on him and informed him that if any further criticism appeared in The International, the union will withdraw its members from the Communist Party’s printing office.

The worker literature of the period, especially the doggerel which appeared in the newspapers, addresses the daily events of importance to the worker struggles. I want to focus on the themes of Empire and civilisation contained in these discourses in order to explore some of the contradictions of worker subjectivity in that period.

4.  Empire, Civilisation, Reason

The theme of Empire should be seen against the background of the Anglo-Boer War on the one hand and the First World War on the other. The Anglo-Boer War, a “curtain-raiser” (33) for the First World War, was according to Lord Olivier motivated by the desire to “round off the Empire in Africa before it was too late” (Cope 1945: 55). It was a war of imperialism against Third World nationalism. It brought soldiers to South Africa from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. After the war many of them became workers on the Witwatersrand, bringing with them new ideas of labour and socialist organisation.

In these circumstances the mining magnates lived with the ever-present fear of a “militant and self-confident proletariat”, who, on the model of the Australian example, could “wrest power from their hands” (Cope 1945: :81). Percy Tarbutt, Director of the Consolidated Goldfields Company, stated:

the feeling seems to be one of fear that if a large number of White men are employed on the Rand in the position of labourers, the same troubles will arise as are now prevalent in the Australian colonies, i.e., that the combination of the working classes will become so strong as to be able to more or less dictate not only the question of wages, but also political questions by power of the vote (Cope 1945: 81)

Sir Bartle Frere foresaw a state of anarchy when the “more educated and misguided Boers, dominated and led by better educated foreign adventurers – Germans, Hollanders, Irish Home Rulers, and other European Republicans and Socialists – would become a pest to the whole of South Africa” (Cope 1945: 81).

During this period Afrikaner nationalism combined with communist internationalism. In the manuscript of a play called Nineteen Thirteen (author unknown, although adapted from poems by M Tate and Marie Pitt) a worker procession, singing the nationalist “Die Volkslied” but following socialist red flag, is described. Edward Roux writes about the power of nationalist discourse in the period by referring to the influence of his Dutch teacher, Miss Joubert. She told him as a pupil a good deal about the Anglo-Boer War and her experiences in a concentration camp. He writes: “Had I been living in an Afrikaans speaking environment among my father’s people who had also suffered these things, I might well have become a Afrikaner nationalist” (1970:9)

J.T. Bain, a prominent worker leader in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, fought as an intelligence agent with the Boer commandos He was caught and sent to Ceylon with other Boer prisoners of war. He saw the Anglo-Boer War as an attempt of the mining magnates to gain political power in the Transvaal in order to introduce “industrial slavery” (Cope 1945: 50) through the replacement of the organised white labour by a closely controlled black labour.

In the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Witwatersrand Disturbances, June-July 1913, Minutes of Evidence his name appears on a handbill that was handed in as evidence to the commission after the strike. The handbill ends with the following lines of doggerel:

Come in your thousands, Oh, Workers, Come!

Come and help us in the fight

For Freedom and for Right.

Cannot ye hear it, the roll of Freedom’s drum,

Stand ye by no longer motionless and dumb.

But come in your thousands,

Oh, Workers, Come! (38)

It is not clear whether Bain wrote these lines or whether he is quoting from some generally known song of the period.

S.P. Bunting, the first leader of the Communist Party of South Africa, came from an aristocratic family. His father was knighted in 1908. His conversion to socialism happened in 1913 when he witnessed how some of the mining magnates shot at the demonstrating strikers in the street below from the balcony of the Rand Club. When he came to South Africa he believed in the civilising mission of the British Empire. In 1909 he was the honorary secretary of the “White Expansion Society” whose object was to promote the improvement of conditions and the rapid expansion of a permanent European population in South Africa (Roux 1993:50). He changed to a non-racial position with the First World War and the establishment (in 1915) of the Internationalist Socialist League of South Africa. From this time onwards he committed himself to a Socialist International that is a “frontierless empire” (Roux 1993:22) and he became a pioneer in making the Communist Party non-racial.

With the First World War the theme of Empire came strongly to the fore again. Workers had to choose between fighting for the British Empire or to show solidarity with the international working class. The internationalism on the Witwatersrand was strengthened by the fact that the gold fields attracted people from all over the world. The Labour Representative Council, which operated between 1902 and 1905, consisted amongst others of the German Vorwardts Club, the Italian Socialist Club, the Jewish Socialist Society and the Friends of Russian Freedom. In 1913 the SA Labour Party affiliated with the Internationalist Socialist Bureau and endorsed the anti-war policy of the Bureau. When the war broke out on August 2, 1914, the Administrative Council of the S.A. Labour Party expressed “its protest against the capitalistic governments of Europe in fomenting a war which can only benefit enemies of the working classes, and appealing to the workers of the world to organise and refrain from participating in this unjust war” (Cope 1945: 162). In defiance of the Administrative Council, a section of the Labour Party around the newspaper The Worker “vied with the most arrant Jingoes in swinging the White workers behind the Botha-Smuts Imperialists” (Cope 1945: 162-163). The consequence was that “Branch after branch of the Party passed votes in favour of the war” (Cope 1945: 163). They organised “Labour Legions” which offered their services to the Government” (Cope 1945: 163). The majority of South African White workers supported the war and “(t)hey believed they had an interest in dying for ‘their’ Imperialists” (Cope 1945:163).

In reaction to this a War on War group broke away from the Labour Party with The War on War Gazette as its mouthpiece. This newspaper existed for about two months before being suppressed by the government at the end of November 1914. The “Eastern Record” and later The International, though, promoted the policy of the War on War group, and the International Socialist League.

The International Socialist League was a minority of radicals. Cope describes them as “middle-class professional men, clerks, clergymen and others whose mental honesty and humanitarianism had brought them over to the side of the workers” (163). Internationalism became a serious principle to them. S.P. Bunting in Sept. 17, 1915 addressed a “Message to Europe” “in all humility from this remote corner of the globe” (Johns 1995:51). He pleaded for the establishment of a “well-knit, united, executive International Socialist League” (Johns 1995:51) consisting of the various anti-war sections of socialists in Germany, Austria, Russia, Italy and United States. The organisation was to be under the leadership of Karl Liebknecht.

The principle of internationalism also meant extending the program of the league beyond Race. The spokesmen of the league stated:

an Internationalism which does not concede the fullest right which the native working class is capable of claiming will be a sham. One of the justifications for our withdrawal from the Labour Party is that it gives us untrammelled freedom to deal, regardless of political fortunes, with the great and fascinating problem of the native. If the league deals resolutely in consonance with socialist principles with the native question, it will succeed in shaking South African Capitalism to its foundations. Then and not till then, shall we be able to talk about the South African Proletariat in our international relations (Johns 1995:49).

Many of the verses in The “Eastern Record” and The International formulated the anti-war sentiments of the War on War group and attacked the pro-war policies of the Labour Party. The poem “Sons of Empire”, written by J.T. Bain, refers to the ‘Fat-Men’ and their tricksters” and “the Labour Party’s sergeants” who cry “‘come, come.’ / When the war is over,/ You will live and die in clover,/ ‘Neath the sunny cliffs of Dover” (The “Eastern Record” Oct. 10 1914:5) but the poet hears:

Of ANOTHER kind of music,

From ANOTHER kind of drum.

And it says “When the war is over

‘Twill be ‘Slums’ instead of clover,

‘Twill be ‘Hell’ instead of Dover

In the never-ceasing, still increasing

Slum! Slum! Slum!”

Despite the pitter-patter of the Labour Party’s


M.H.F. parodies, through reference to “The Red Flag”, the Labour Party’s support for the war in “The New Labour Hymn”:

And let the old Red Flag be damned,

The Union Jack is in demand,

Election day is drawing near,

We’ll keep the two flags flying here. (The International Oct. 1, 1915)

Merlyn (pseudonym of a poet who regularly contributed to The “Eastern Record”) writes of the “Drones of the empire, advocates of hell” who should go to the front in the war. He describes them as “THOSE men…/Who live on the strength of the workers’ might: /Those useless nonentities/…Democrats’ octopus, commercial weeds,/Trades union parasites, poisonous seeds” (The “Eastern Record”, Oct. 17, 1914).

The International Socialist League (at its first conference, January 1916, Johannesburg) saw it as their task “to prepare for a probable uprising of the proletariat at the conclusion of the war” (Johns 1995:59). The Russian Revolution in 1917 was seen as the beginning of the universal uprising of the working class. This led to ambiguous and opportunistic support for the uprising in 1922 which, contrary to the principles of the by then established Communist Party of South Africa, utilised the slogan “Workers of the World Unite for a White South Africa”. Urquhart writes:

The reader may justly question the feasibility of sincere co-operation in a revolutionary effort between even these extreme Nationalists and Bolshevists. The only ground they have in common is their hostility to the present form of Government. Moreover the ideal of “A White South Africa” is the very negation of communistic doctrine: it implies anything but “the rule of the proletariat” (nd.: 68)

He refers to the Third International at Moscow in 1920 when a plan to campaign in the British Colonies was discussed. Lenin advocated the exploitation of Nationalist uprisings and Trotsky pointed out that “five men in a room could cause a revolution by exploiting discontent irrespective of its original cause” (Urquhart nd.:68)

The white workers saw their impending retrenchment in 1922 as an attack on “civilisation” and it was often evoked in apocalyptic terms. Madeley, one of the labour leaders referred to “race suicide” (Urquhart nd.:36) and “national annihilation” (Urquhart nd.:36). The word civilisation and civilised is frequently used in the document The story of a crime: Being the vindication of the Defence Committee in connection with the trial by Special Criminal Courts without Juries of 195 men and 6 women arising out of the Strike on the Witwatersrand in 1922 which was produced as justification of the actions of the strikers. It refers to the “danger to free labour and the menace to the maintenance in this country of a Western Civilisation” (37) when the “slave labour system on the mines” (37) is extended.

Civilisation, reason and ideas of evolution and race were recurrent themes in the worker discourse of the period. Many of the leaders belonged to and participated in Rationalist Societies and described themselves as Rationalists. Edward Roux relates how his father read the publications of the Rationalist Press Association. His father became converted to free thought and atheism when “he was profoundly shocked to see rain falling on the sea, falling uselessly where it was not needed. In church he had been taught that all manifestations of nature were for the service of man” (Roux 1970:2). Roux himself joined The Heretics, a rationalist society established in 1911. At the first Conference of the International Socialist League (9 Jan 1916 in Johannesburg), one of the delegates, Colin Wade, “introduced ‘biological evidence’ which …intimated that the African could not develop intellectually as the white could” (Johns 1995:62). The workers often refer to Darwin. Various poems in the newspapers are allegories of evolutionary theory mixed with ideas of development contained in dialectical materialism. Compare poems “Original Co-operation” (The Strike Herald Aug. 2, 1913) which describes man’s development from cannibalism in allegorical terms. Many poems of Mrs Charlotte Stetson in the pages of The International exploit the theme of evolution. See for instance “You must alter human nature” opening with the words “There was once a Neotholic (sic) man” (Jan 21, 1916) and the poem “Survival of the fittest” (Feb. 4, 1916). To Stetson the world is a product of reason rather than nature: “The world to which man is born today/ Is a constructed, human, man-built world” (“To the single taxer”, The International March 10, 1916)

Socialist Revolution to the workers was the ultimate product of Civilisation and Reason. To be a striker was to “join the Ranks of Progress” (see the poem “Won’t you be a striker” from The Strike Herald July 26, 1913) and the workers are the “Heirs of Time” (The “Eastern Record” Sept 12, 1914). They referred to the anarchy and chaos of the capitalist system. The First World War, the military suppression of strikes and resorting to martial law were regression to barbarism3. Civilisation also meant free labour as against slave labour. Black labour was seen as a threat to the white labour, because it was not free. David Ivon Jones wrote about the black labour of that time as:

the lowest possible form of cheap, unskilled labour drawn from one of the most primitive peoples in the world, politically passive and industrially unorganized, recruited on indenture from the tribal reserves, and housed round the mines in closed compounds under strict police supervision with hardly a vestige of civil rights (Hirson 1993:83)

The Russian Revolution announced to the communists the dawn of the new period “destined to encircle the civilized world” (Bunting in Johns 1995:78). Roux made a map of the world showing in red all the countries that had established soviets – Russia, Hungary, Bavaria, north-west Germany. He put red dots everywhere where revolutionary outbreaks had occurred – Winnipeg, Clydesdale, and Johannesburg itself (Roux 1970:14).

The Russian Revolution, though, meant the end to spontaneous labour movement in that the international struggle from then on was directed by the Comintern, and often had more to do with the interests of the Soviet Union than international labour. Russia became a Counter-Empire which involved itself more and more with nationalist struggles rather than worker movements4. As spontaneity was replaced by control, popular poetry was replaced by dogma in the communist newspapers. Authors competed for the correct interpretations of Marx on the one hand and historic circumstances on the other. This article was an attempt to recover something of a lost and repressed legacy.


1. “the timid and reactionary leaders declared ‘never again’ and spoke of ‘drawing a veil’ over the events of 1922” (Cope 1945: 287)

2. Urquhart describes a commando called the Foreign Legion: “their military appearance was somewhat spoiled by the fact that the men smoked cigarettes as they marched” (46)

3. See the poem “These too were men” by TW Mercer:

How slow we learn! How slowly man out-grows

The traits of beasts that dwell in cave and den

And rises o’er the brutes, his history shows

4. See the Comintern formulation through Jimmy la Guma and Nikolai Bukharin’s of the Native Republic Thesis on the basis of the “revolutionary potential of an anti-imperialist national movement” (Drew 1996:20).


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