‘Anodyne’ Cambridge history still hits the mark

The Cambridge History of South African Literature, edited by David Attwell and Derek Attridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012.

The Cambridge History of South African Literature

“South Africans”, David Attwell and Derek Attridge agree, “generally understand what they disagree about” (p. 5). This description of testily shared common ground is fitting both for the country's fraught history, and for the literature the nation can never quite contain. The struggle between argument and comprehension must have challenged the editors of The Cambridge History of South African Literature (CHSAL). Michael Green has noted that there is “no point to the book if it doesn’t stir up trouble”,i but this series is rarely brought to task for its polemics – these distanced surveys of the field tend to attract criticism for their toothlessness rather than for their bite. How, then, might such a complex and partisan history be described in terms that allow the so-called “Beijing reader”, an international reader perhaps unfamiliar with the field's in-fighting and local controversies, to make sense of the country's literary history? In striving for neutrality and clarity amidst such fractious debate, there is always the danger of simplification or sanitisation. To their great credit, however, and doubtlessly in large part through their decision to “cede authorship to a collective” (p. 10), Attwell and Attridge have produced a history that is accessible and even-handed while largely maintaining the necessary texture to interest more specialised readers.

In the introduction, the editors are at pains to situate themselves in relation to previous histories, and to explain how they intend to avoid those volumes’ idiosyncrasies and lacunae. Cornwell, Klopper and MacKenzie, in the Columbia Guide to South African Literature in English since 1945 (2010), go so far as to claim that any attempt to write an “integrative” history is but “an optimistic gesture in the optative mood – the expression of a political ideology rather than an objectively existent state of affairs”.ii Attwell and Attridge do not deny that such an integrative approach might pose problems, claiming rather that “the story of each of the country's literatures appears in a different light when viewed in the context of others” (p. 4). They offer a model based not on integration as such, but on complementary proximity. Ivan Vladislavić, describing Staffrider magazine's collage-like aesthetic, describes why this can prove so fruitful:

Here was a South Africa in which Meadowlands and Morningside were on the same page, where Douglas Livingstone of Durban and Mango Tshabangu of Jabavu were side by side, with nothing between them but a stretch of paper and a 1-point rule. The resonance of such a simple idea is almost impossible to recapture now, but in the demented, divided space of apartheid it was bracing. All the other borders the magazine crossed between fiction and autobiography, written and spoken word, lyrical flight and social documentary rest on that first idealistic gesture. The magazine belongs to all who live in it.iii

 The invocation of the shared space of the page as a first step towards societal inclusivity is powerful, particularly when combined with the closing gesture towards the country’s constitution. The particularity of collage lies in its ability to maintain a fruitful tension between unity and disunity, to “never entirely suppress […] the alterity of the […] elements reunited in a temporary composition”,iv and it is a similar tension that animates this volume.

Attwell and Attridge have organised the book into six parts, bookending four chronological sections with an opening section on orature in indigenous languages, and a final one that mixes languages and time periods across seven thematic essays. Each section is preceded by a concise introduction giving article summaries, and key historical information about the period. Reading chronologically offers only one possible route through the volume, and ample cross-referencing points to alternative pathways that cross languages and periods.

The CHSAL begins with an excellent piece by Hedley Twidle, tracing the history of the Bleek and Lloyd Collection from the original transcriptions of ǀXam narratives in the 19th century to their contemporary reimaginings in film, poetry and the graphic arts, and revealing a complex weave of voice, agency, and power. This section bears an implicit tension between oral forms and their textual representation, making Twidle's article a fitting starting point. Russel H. Kaschula then describes the importance of context in understanding Xhosa izibongo and the iimbongi that compose and perform them. This flexible poetic genre has been used to praise everything from chiefs to major corporations, indicating its role as a barometer of power. Izibongo have found a new lease of life with the spread of digital technology, a trend also visible in Mbongiseni Buthelezi's description of “Umshini wami” (“My Machine [Gun]”) being released as a cellphone ringtone. Manie Groenewald and Mokgale Makgopa's essay on oral culture in IsiNdebele, siSwati, Northern Sotho, Tshivenda and Xitsonga is weaker, and seems to bear the dual strain of an excess of material to cover and a paucity of existing scholarship. It nevertheless provides an inroad into a fascinating and under-researched area of South African literary studies.

The second section, “Exploration, Early Modernity and Enlightenment at the Cape, 1488–1820”, opens very strongly, with Malvern van Wyk Smith's account of the Lusiads' afterlives in South African literature. The figure of Adamastor, and the Cape's split personality as the bearer of both Storms and Good Hope, have provided rich conceptual models for writing in English and Afrikaans. As with the volume's other successful pieces, Van Wyk Smith avoids excessive bibliography, using well-chosen textual examples to give a feel for the texts in their context. Carli Coetzee focuses on Dutch-language writing at the Cape, and the role the Dutch East India Company (VOC) played in shaping it. This is skilfully tied to an analysis of how the “archival turn” has affected late- and post-apartheid literatures. Ian Glenn discusses travel writing and natural history from French, German, Scottish, and English sources, revealing voices often at odds with the colonial project. He finishes with the biting and timely observation that “the writers and observers who did most to shape a postcolonial critique, by their observations, the records they left at the time and their self-critical reflections, have been the most shabbily treated by those wielding the late twentieth-century version of that legacy” (p. 176).

Part three deals with “Empire, Resistance and National Beginnings, 1820–1910”, and the standout piece is Elleke Boehmer's “Perspectives on the South African War”. Using examples from journalism, fiction, and poetry in both English and Afrikaans, she records how “[l]iterature […] registered in sensitive and revealing ways the private, shifting, and morally divided subjectivities of South Africans across the protracted period of conflict” (p. 248). Beginning with responses to the war in the metropole, from music hall songs, via James Joyce, to Kipling's exhortation to “pay-pay-pay” the Soldiers Families Fund, she then shifts to South Africa, where, “by addressing war conditions within the war-torn colonies and republics themselves, [these authors] can be seen as beginning to write the nation of South Africa” (p. 256). She notes that the war continues to be used “to interrogate but also to catalyse new notions of South African nationhood” (p. 260), a reminder of violence's changing yet ever-present role in shaping national identity.

Laura Chrisman writes on “The Imperial Romance”, drawing attention to issues of class, race, gender, and economic gain through treasure chests, a “Romantic presentation [that] mystifies the process of capital accumulation, removing the mining industry from view” (p. 241). Chrisman gestures towards the “new and global phase of consumption” brought about by these texts' digitalisation, and more detail on this would have been welcome. H.P. van Coller's account of “The Beginnings of Afrikaans Literature” is clearly based on a comprehensive understanding of the topic, but this sometimes impedes the article's momentum, as the quantity of texts mentioned leaves little space for a sense of their content. Nevertheless, Van Coller's analysis of the gradual formation of Afrikaans language and literature remains finely nuanced, and in refusing to give a definite single point of origin for Afrikaans, he retains the sense of competing forces that characterised the language's formation.

Bhekizizwe Peterson's “Black Writers and the Historical novel: 1907-­1948”, which opens the fourth section on “Modernism and Transnational Culture, 1910-1948”, gives a sound analysis of the tensions between modernity and tradition facing black South African authors' first forays into the novel form. He describes the use of allegory in these texts, a mode that “tend[s] to flourish in periods experiencing profound social transformation” (p. 301), to achieve, in Albert Gérard's words, a “politically innocuous way of conveying the lessons that the past held in store for the present” (African Language Literatures, p. 196). This is immediately followed by Gerrit Olivier's “The Dertigers and the Plaasroman”, in which he uses the critical and aesthetic debates between N.P. van Wyk Louw and D.J. Opperman to describe the development of the Dertigers against the “insular tendencies of Afrikanerdom” (p. 315), before tracing the history of the plaasroman in Afrikaans. Although the cosmopolitan poetry of the Dertigers struck the first blow against the (in Van Wyk Louw's opinion) “gemoedelike lokale realisme” of the plaasroman writers, the genre has proven surprisingly resilient, resurfacing in the 1970s and continuing up to Marlene van Niekerk's Agaat, “an extended wake at the deathbed of the farm novel” (p. 322).

Ntongela Masilela's “New African Modernity and the New African Movement” is one of the volume's more polemical pieces, and also one of its most problematic. He argues that the generation of African writers using English in the first half of the twentieth century managed only an “incomplete transformation” (p. 337) of “[European modernity] to a form of modernity that would emerge from the democratic imperatives of African history” (p. 325), and concludes that “[a]esthetically and cognitively, African literature in the African languages is supreme in relation to African literature in the European languages” (p. 337). The idea that absolute transformation produces better results is dubious in itself, and the question must be asked: which aesthetic and cognitive standards are being invoked to attribute this supposed supremacy? Although one can only hope Masilela's prediction that literature in African languages will receive the attention it deserves is correct, the notion that to achieve this necessitates denigrating English-language literature is less convincing. Tony Voss' comparison of “Refracted Modernisms” in the careers of Roy Campbell, N.P. van Wyk Louw and H.I.E. Dhlomo reveals interesting links between the three authors, and Craig MacKenzie's discussion of the pulls between the metropolitan and the local on Douglas Blackburn, Pauline Smith, William Plomer and Herman Charles Bosman is characteristically lucid.

The fifth section, on “Apartheid and its Aftermath, 1948 to the Present”, is by far the longest. Although some of the essays in earlier sections compare writing in different languages, it is here that the links between the country's literatures becomes more overt. Given this, it is surprising that Attwell and Attridge chose to put Hein Willemse's and Louise Viljoen's articles, on “Afrikaans Literature, 1948-1976” and “Afrikaans Literature after 1976” together. Although this gives a sense of continuity, it also downplays the intersections between this tradition and the others. Both essays give good accounts on the development of Afrikaans writing, under, against, and after apartheid; Willemse focuses on “shifts in literary approaches” (p. 430), while Viljoen describes the new challenges that Afrikaans writers had to meet, firstly in the wake of the Soweto uprising, and secondly after the ANC were unbanned in 1990. Willemse covers prose, poetry, and drama, drawing attention to how for most Afrikaans speakers in the period, “the language and its literature became two potent symbols of cultural empowerment”, while becoming for others “the derided sign of black disempowerment” (p. 446). Viljoen, although worried the kind of overview she provides “is an homogenising construct imposed on a body of literature that has increasingly come to reflect the heterogeneity of the Afrikaans-speaking community in South Africa” (p. 470), provides a multi-layered picture of recent trends in Afrikaans literature.

Peter Horn's “Popular Forms and the United Democratic Front”, complementing Thengani H. Ngwenya's useful article on “Black Consciousness Poetry” that precedes it, explores the role of resistance writing, paying particular attention to performance poetry. It is both sad and fitting that following these descriptions of resistance comes Daniel Roux's “Writing the Prison”. This is one of the volume's richest and most tightly-argued pieces, showing how “writing from and about prison resisted the power of the apartheid state, even while it was conditioned and mediated by the rituals and architecture of apartheid penal institutions” (p. 546). More provocative is Roux's “corollary aim”, to “insist on the heterogeneous nature of South African prison literature: a diversity that is often muted, or deliberately forgotten, in the service of new hegemonic narratives about the post-apartheid state” (p. 546). For Roux, political prison writing leaves the speaking self in a conflicted position, torn between speaking the “‘inside’ of the self, inescapably encountered in the deracinated ‘inside’ of the prison” and the urge to “speak as a ‘we’, a category that is officially forbidden by the penal system and yet also produced by it” (p. 549). This “we” is further complicated by a split between writing by political prisoners and that done by “ordinary convicts”. Roux considers these “uncanonised” prison writings as revealing of the hierarchies and constructions of the “hegemonic narratives of the post-apartheid nation” (p. 546), and suggests that it is to these that criticism should now turn.

Christiaan Swanepoel's assessment of “African Languages and Publishing since 1948” is tirelessly optimistic in the face of what still comes across as a depressing situation. He outlines the themes and concerns that have preoccupied writing in a variety of languages since 1948, discussing novels, plays, and poems, as well as radio dramas and translations. Although perhaps the “tragedy of Southern Bantu literature” (p 607) to which Janheinz Jahn referred in 1966 has not come about, the “numerous circulars from the provincial education departments and announcements regarding major funding injections by the Department of Arts and Culture” (p. 627) Swanepoel describes do not sound like very concrete assurances of commitment.

Essays by Rita Barnard and Michael Titlestad close this section, and both cast backwards into the collection, and forwards into South Africa's immediate literary future. Barnard's piece, “Rewriting the Nation”, is bursting with the possibilities and problems of healing and memory, of sutures and scars, and of moving beyond the “post-apartheid” category. It describes transnationalism, a resurgence of class anxieties, the rise of genre fiction, and other new directions in writing after apartheid. Perhaps the most intriguing possibility is that of South African literatures in French, Portuguese, or Lingala, brought by immigrants and refugees from other parts of Africa and beyond. Perhaps later editions of this history will have even more ground to cover. She ends by asking if, in light of recent literary production, the “ultimately politically motivated critical project” of scholars of South African literature might need to be replaced by a “new conceptual framework” (pp. 671, 670). In view of recent government measures towards increasing censorship, perhaps this call for outright substitution might be thought somewhat hasty. The need to speak in the silences imposed by the government remains, and this will surely form part of South Africa's “(only theoretically and tenuously unified) national canon” (p. 671). Nevertheless, the prospect of a parallel engagement with the country's literature, operating on different terms to those of national identity, can only be welcomed.

Titlestad describes how “South Africa's post-apartheid cities – in all of their emergent complexity – have proved to be the key sites for engaging and representing the nation's transformation” (p. 692). This essay brings together English and Afrikaans writing very effectively, looking back at the “Jim comes to Jo'burg” trope before describing literature's unique ability to “mediate between analytical maps and particular pathways of meaning” (p. 679). Writing the postapartheid city, he claims, has demanded new “tropes, devices and conceits” from those of earlier literature. The novels he discusses share a “spirit of heurism” with those of previous decades, but they also seek “new ways of seeing and coming to terms with a fluid and often excessive, fullness of life” (p. 692).

The CHSAL's sixth and final section spans historical periods and linguistic traditions over seven thematic essays. Michael Green looks at “The Experimental Line in Fiction”, outlining some of the “new ways of seeing” Titlestad describes above. He begins with Sol Plaatje's Mhudi, a “flagrantly hybrid work” (p. 788), before moving on to describe the growth of experimentation in fiction as pressures of political immediacy lessen. Meg Samuelson’s “Writing Women” deftly traces the history of writing by female authors, from Olive Schreiner and Nontsizi Mgqwetho through to recent “chick lit” and thrillers by authors such as Zukiswa Wanner and Margie Orford. Andrew van der Vlies's finely-tuned description of South Africa in the “global imaginary” shows the ways in which “[r]eception is always interested” (p. 697). By tracing the complex interplay between artistic production, publishing, distribution, and criticism, he shows how internal and external factors work symbiotically to produce a constantly evolving image of the country.

Leon de Kock's thought-provoking piece describes the practical and ethical issues surrounding translation, a practice that is, “in many senses, the story of South African literature writ large” (p. 755). This practice is more than just literary, rather, it is “the very matter of subjectivity and identity [that] are under translation, in transit, a shuttling of being which is engaged in complex trade-offs and double binds, promises and compromises” (p. 754). Peter D. McDonald writes elegantly on “The Book in South Africa”, framing the debate with J.M. Coetzee's attempt to run a class on the history of the book at Cape Town University in 1980. The combination of clarity and detail he provides suggests that in the article's preparation, as for Coetzee's students, “there was, indeed, much ferreting” (p. 800).

David Johnson's essay on “Literary and Cultural Criticism in South Africa” closes the collection. There is an amusing hubris in giving the last word of the CHSAL to the critics, those who Tyne Daley says “never actually go to the battle, yet who afterwards come out shooting the wounded”. Johnson shows how the critical themes that emerged in the earliest criticism of the early-to-mid 1800s in many ways set the tenor of the debate to come. Early criticism was proximate to religious discourse, attempted to promote writers from the Cape, was ready to “disagree ferociously over literary judgements”, and tried to “quarantine writing off from politics” (p. 819). He contrasts the “ill-tempered debates” around Lewis Nkosi and Steve Biko and Afrikaans criticism's “oedipal disputes” with the “relatively sedate body of criticism” produced by South Africa's English critics from the 40s to the 70s. In closing, he calls for a reinvigoration of the “minority tradition” of criticism, that maintains a “keen appetite for polemic and critical debate, a desire to relate literature to ‘the political’ (broadly conceived) and a related concern with how South African literatures articulate with South African nationhood” (p. 835).

It would be difficult to place the CHSAL comfortably in this polemic lineage. Although some essays are more contentious than others, the effect of the volume in its entirety is more that of an uneasy truce than of a battlefield. As such, it is likely to fail Michael Green’s test of stirring up trouble. What is much less certain, however, is whether this test is the right one to set. “Time”, David Brewster once suggested, is “the only anodyne of sorrow”, and the temporal distance from South Africa’s state-segregated literary past has allowed the editors to achieve an even-handedness that exemplifies the slow, but visible progress that has been made in healing past ills. The CHSAL is by no means vapid or innocuous, but it is anodyne in the sense that it lessens a sense of misfortune, soothes pain. While some may find fault in a perceived lack of commitment, others will appreciate the book’s lack of overarching dogmatism, and the possibilities for differently oriented debates this can bring.

The authors were encouraged “to inform, to contextualise, to soften the sectarian impulse and to focus on narrative”, to give the “Beijing reader” a handle on the country’s literature. As Attwell notes, the reader in need of this context is now as likely to be in Benoni as Beijing, and can be productively thought as “simply the reader of the future, wherever she is located”.v Toning down sectarianism could be seen as a misrepresentation of South African literary discourse, but the CHSAL strikes the right note by objectively describing charged debates. In the midst of changing economic and diplomatic relations between South Africa and the rest of the world, the CHSAL presents, in all their complexity, South African literary studies as they move ever further beyond the period of transition.

In assembling this volume, Attwell and Attridge did not “see [their] task as especially revisionist; it is, rather, the fulfilment of a long-held aspiration” (p. 4). The kind of intervention this volume represents will probably not cause any sudden rupture, or provoke a knee-jerk response, but it provides a foundation of complementarity and cooperation that will have a longer-lasting and eventually more productive effect. The CHSAL is a collage of languages and voices, in which “the parts can be seen in all their uniqueness but in the context of the whole” (p. 9); the essays match and clash, producing unlikely pairings and unexpected discordances. It depicts discrete, yet mutually informative literatures, sharing the space of the page under the banner of South African Literature, and in bringing them together, the Cambridge History performs the kind of idealistic gesture on which future studies should be founded


i Michael Green, cited in Imke van Heerden, “For the reader in Benoni, and the reader in Beijing”: UK launch of the The Cambridge History of South African Literature’, <> [Accessed 14/04/2012].

ii Cornwell, Gareth, Dirk Klopper & Craig MacKenzie, eds. The Columbia Guide to South African Literature in English since 1945 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), p. 3, cited in David Attwell and Derek Attridge, The Cambridge History of South African Literature (Cambridge: CUP, 2012), p. 9.

iii Ivan Vladislavić, ‘Staffrider’, Chimurenga Library (March 2008) <> [Accessed 6/01/2012]

iv Group μ eds. ‘Collages’, Revue d’Esthetique, nos. 3-4 (Union Générale: Paris 1978) 34–5, cited in Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1986), p. 47.

v David Attwell, ‘The Many Voices of South Africa's Past’, Mail & Guardian, 02/03/2012 <> [Accessed 10/03/2012]

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Hedley Twidle says:

Thanks for this detailed and thoughtful piece Graham. I think that you enter into the spirit of the project, while also pinpointing its inevitable shortcomings. Where are the other reviews Kelwyn – I have not seen many? All best.

Kelwyn Sole says:

This does strike me as one of the most even-handed reviews I have seen of this book so far. My own feeling is that the essays therein vary from the pretty good to the pretty awful (no names!).
One or two things, however. I don’t like the word ‘objective’ used at any point in an essay about such a contentious field as SA lit. Neither do I think all critics refrained from ‘being on the battlefield’, especially during the apartheid period
I have also noticed, talking to fellow academics, that they tend to get most upset about essays in this book which they believe do not adequately reflect their own contribution to the issues at stake.
This is sad: it may reflect that, these days, academics tend to get more upset about their own personal, sometimes reflected glory than the principles involved in the ‘contentious debates’ of the past (and present?). Talk about the professionalisation of the university…