There is no room for individual identity in South African literature

The following sample essay on There is no room for individual identity in South African literature. Literature has often been used as tool to capture a sense of the self in society. The issue has clearly had pertinence in South Africa since the introduction of apartheid policies. Apartheid was the system of legal racial segregation imposed by the National Party government of South Africa between 1948 and 19931. Under apartheid whites were given a political-racial identity which was synonymous with superiority.

The ‘coloured’ characters in Athol Fugard’s play ‘Boesman and Lena’ were left helpless by the racism, as Lena’s song illustrates when she sings about how ‘Boesman’ is not merely a name, it is also a label and an identification of one’s culture.

The sense of individuality appears to have been superseded by the need to conform in a malicious, segregated society. The thought of being exposed to such a hostile land is discussed in poems such as ‘Landscape of Violence’, where Currey uses a simile to liken the politics of South Africa at the time to ‘hailstorms’, showing just how crippling the results of prejudice can be.

Indeed, those ‘caught outside’ the comfortable life of the elite are depicted as having only a horse to shelter them from the hail. Racial prejudices are by far the most obvious restriction on personal identity; the characters I have studied are defined first and foremost by the colour of their skin. Though Afrikanerdom saw itself as culturally distinct from the English-speaking South Africans, both groups exercised apartheid policies to persecute black or coloured Africans, forcing them into subservience.

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The fact that Fugard’s ‘Boesman and Lena’ begins with ‘A coloured man… uggests that everything from that moment forward has been as result of his skin colour. Fugard goes further to show that Lena is highly disadvantaged as a result of being coloured; her dreams of reinventing herself are met by Boesman’s ‘What do you think you are? A white madam? ‘ highlighting that there are distinct limits to her possibilities. Outa is ever only referred to by Boesman as a ‘kaffir’, disregarding any personality the character might have and basing his prejudice purely on his social status.

In ‘Landscapes of Violence’, Currey endorses Fugard’s view that apartheid catalyses the loss of identity when he writes that ‘racial attitudes, [are] like snakes… And every brown and white child wakes/Beside a sloughed-off love one day’, the simile here suggests danger; racial attitudes will creep up, and just like the bite of a snake infiltrates your blood bit by bit, they will infiltrate ideology. The metaphor of the shed snake skin suggests the racial hatred in South Africa is a manufactured phenomenon which has stolen innocence from the previously integrated society.

The dehumanising and depersonalising effects of apartheid are shown yet even more clearly in Unto Dust, where Oom Schalk Lourens likens black people to animals. He states his horror that white people may be ‘laid to rest… just anyhow, along with a dead wild cat, maybe, or a Bushman’. Even the seemingly accepting Lena, in a fit of frustration tells Outa to ‘stop that baboon language’, implying that she sees him as a being incapable of human speech, and therefore perhaps incapable of feeling human emotion.

However, writers such as (Mbuyiseni Mtshali) in ‘An Abandoned Bundle’ have chosen not to explicitly describe people in terms of their race, and it could be argued this is due to the lack of need; the reader will be able to assume race from the conditions described. Yet, providing a more likely alternative, explanation also is found in the Suppression of Communism Act (1950) which is was in effect the legal gagging of opposition to the apartheid government2.

Others such as Herman Bosman, who, in the words of Christopher Heywood possesses a “light touch even when dealing with heavy issues3”, address the injustices of racial attitudes in a more subtle way. In ‘Makapan’s Caves’ Lourens appears to have “genocidal racism4” when collating black people with a cattle-destroying plague (‘I could never understand why [the Almighty] made the kaffir and the rinderpest’). It should perhaps be noted here that the use of the word “kaffir”, although totally unacceptable in today’s society, would not necessarily have raised even the most liberal eyebrows in 1930.

Nevertheless, Lourens is considered racist because despite defying expectation placed on him by caring for Hendrik, Nongaas is fatally wounded because Lourens automatically assumes him to be the enemy due to his race. Though these images of racism have made Bosman’s stories unpopular to a modern readership, I feel that to take this view is to fundamentally misunderstand the narrative distance between Bosman and Lourens. In the vast majority of Bosman’s stories, explicit authorial intervention is limited exclusively to the “Oom Schalk Lourens said” which punctuates each story’s prefatory statement.

This authorial marker is a vital tool because it immediately establishes a separation between author and storyteller. Apartheid has caused divisions further than a simple black/white divide though, seeping into groups of similar ethnicity. Marico Scandal presents a white man chased from his home by the villagers’ ‘scandalous story’. The sibilance of the narration emphasises the malicious nature of the remarks made by the Marico farmers.

The drastic action taken by Koos Deventer to stop Gawie getting involved with Francina causes Gawie to ‘leave Drogevlei and the Groot Marico for ever’. This shows the gravity of the accusation of being mixed race and the social stigma attached to such a label. Tragically, his paramour Francina is left alone and pregnant – something considered shocking due to the highly Christian outlook in South Africa – explaining Francina’s stern, purposefully monosyllabic assertions that “Gawie is white…

He is as white as I am. ” Similarly, in Fugard’s play, despite Lena’s compassionate attempts to sympathise with Outa, Boesman reinforces the distinction between the ‘coloured’ status and the old man’s inferior social standing; “he’s not brown people, he’s black people. ” To Boesman Outa is worthless and should have been a burden to his own class, ‘Go die in your own world! ‘ It is often forgotten, however, that the Whiteman’s identity is also predefined, and he too is unable to change it.

Whilst Fugard was watching a black woman walk ‘like a somnambulist’ beside the Swartkops river just north of the city one bitterly cold July in 1968, he realised that to her, he and his companions were ‘merely “white men”5’. Fugard, who was a poor white man himself, manages to get his own identity across by writing in a uniquely South African idiom, which reflects both the uncertainty and the potential of his culture by mingling English, Afrikaans and sometimes African speech.

An ear for dialect is one of Fugard’s strengths, and we are reminded of class markers in his own speech that locate him in the underprivileged communities6. While whites do not appear to suffer to the extent of coloured and black people in Fugard’s depiction, with the exception of ‘baas Robbie’, they are prohibited the luxury of identity. This may reflect the lack of interaction whites had with Boesman or Lena (who as coloured people were not even allowed to possess land in a white area), however I feel it is more likely to be intentional irony, twisting the employment of stereotypes used by whites onto them.

The absence of names was a feature of the literature which struck me as poignant. The poem ‘To a Small Boy who Died at Diepkloof Reformatory’ describes a small child, with the alliteration ‘oh lost and lonely one’ emphasising the child’s helplessness and isolation. Yet despite the poem being written as a direct elegy to him, the ‘boy’ is never given a name. This appears to be a reflection by Alan Paton on the distant, cold-hearted nature of the South African justice system.

The description of ‘judges, magistrates… lice, and sociologists, / Kept moving and alive by your delinquency’ suggests self-serving, corrupt officials fail the mistreated young boy. Undoubtedly the use of the indefinite ‘a’ in the title was intended, and could imply that this tragedy is by no means isolated (likewise with the title of the poem ‘An Abandoned Bundle’). The identical ‘here is the’ preceding both the ‘document of birth’ and ‘certificate of Death’ demonstrate the brevity and insignificance of the boy’s life in the eyes of the impersonal ‘clerks’.

Paton appears to lament the lack of emotion conveyed in the ‘document of birth’ – while for the needs of society the simple ‘where and when’ may suffice, the poet realises that these facts ignore the unique aspects of the child’s life and identity, viewing it as more important whether he felt ‘joy or sorrow’. Gender is another issue which has weight with regards to identity. All racial and ethnic groups in South Africa have long-standing beliefs concerning gender roles, and most are based on the premise that women are less important and subordinate men.

As Albert Wetheim remarks, Lena is ‘doubly marginalised’ for she is ‘as a coloured, victimized by whites… as a woman, victimized by a male and the assault of his fists’7 – furthermore Lena has been unable to fulfil her role as a woman, that of the child bearer. ‘A life of hardship and dissipation’ has arguably stripped Lena of genuinely positive emotion and when later talking to Outa she laments ‘once you’ve put your life on your head and walked you never get light again’.

There are a number of parallels between Lena and the ‘mother’ depicted in the final stanza of ‘An Abandoned Bundle’. Both are forced to continue living in a world which does not recognise the terrible tragedies of their past; the image of the ‘abandoned bundle’s’ mother ‘melting into the rays of the rising sun’ seemed to be presented through the eyes of the child, who would have been looking up at its mother’s face as she drew away. However, ‘melt’ may also suggest her fading away again into a crowd, an ‘innocent’ face concealing her terrible secret.

Comparably, Lena is not allowed to remember her lost child properly, due to Boesman’s inability to discuss it with her on a personal level. Parallels may also be drawn against Sally (from Casey Motsisi’s ‘The Efficacy of Prayer’) who, like Lena, dreams of breaking free from the restrictions placed on her by society. Her dream to ‘be just like Dan the Drunk’ comes true with the irony that the best Sally could become was something Dan the Drunk already was – and whilst he was underachieving for a white man, this was the best a black girl may hope for.

Athol Fugard is quoted as saying of ‘Boesman and Lena’, ‘It’s an examination of a relationship between a man and a woman in which the man is a bully. . . . I think my wife has been on the receiving end of a lot of that sort of greed and selfishness. 8’ Yet despite the guilt the author carries abuse is almost commonplace in South Africa. One in every three women in South Africa is in an abusive relationship, a woman is killed by her partner every six days and there is a rape every 35 seconds9.

Lena’s arrival on stage immediately sets up their relationship and their identities. As she follows Boesman onto the stage and asks ‘Here? ‘ both the action and the question are a deferral of power to him. In questioning Boesman she gives him the authority to decide her history and identity, and he is happy to occupy the seat of power in this relationship because he does not have to reflect on his oppressed life. Instead, he has become the oppressor, white man reincarnated. Lena is both bitter and ironic when she says ‘He walks in front. It used to be side by side’.

Yet, although she is conscious of Boesman’s faults, Lena remains inextricably tied to him, for she believes he holds the key to her past, and so her identity, for if she can be hit and bruised, then she exists. Lena in particular evokes sympathy in a modern western audience as Boesman’s cruelty becomes clear – this is despite Fugard’s intention to avoid the ‘basic issue that it is not as simple as Lena being the victim and Boesman the oppressor10’. Roy Campbell’s ‘The Zulu Girl’ describes a place “when in the sun the hot red acres smoulder, / Down where the sweating gang its labour plies”.

These depictions of a life ruled by labour are common, and Campbell hints that many women simply accept “the sullen dignity of their defeat”; although this certainly could not be said of Lena (“I want my life. Where’s it? “). In an interview in 1992, Fugard acknowledged that his life has been “sustained by women,” the first of whom was his mother, ‘a woman of such moral probity11’. Fugard’s respect for women is reflected in Lena’s strong character and desire that her life be witnessed, to go beyond resignation and despair in the secular world to which they are condemned.

Her escape through memory contrasts Boesman’s deep-rooted shame – the power in their relationship begins to shift as Boesman discredits himself through violence and cruelty towards Lena and Outa. Though Bosman’s stories rarely feature a central female character, possibly because whilst his stories tended to centre around the representation of society, women were considered to have little to no say on the African culture and were considerably marginalised.

However, when he does cast a lead female role they tend to be tough, assertive girls. For instance, Minnie from ‘Ox-Wagons on Trek’ manages to dream beyond her role as a farmer’s daughter and gained enough authority to refuse to marry Frans du Toit. The ‘satisfaction’ Minnie gains from such liberation is shown through the use of light-hearted language such as ‘romped’ and ‘splashed’. South Africa’s turbulent past has seen many a war, particularly between competing colonial powers trying to control it.

Bosman’s ‘Mafeking Road’ is set during this the Second Boer War (1899-1902), concerning a son killed for wanting to defect from the Boer to the British army. Though Bosman’s likely intention is to suggest the value of life is worth more than the shame Floris van Barnevelt would have felt, you cannot deny the sense of pride from being a Boer which comes through. Similarly, in his ‘The Affair at Ysterpruit’ (also set during this time, without a narrator) he says he does not care whether a Boer commander is cunning or competent, for ‘it was enough for [him] that [they] had fought’.

Stellenbosh’ by Rudyard Kipling indicates this is true for British colonies too – the emphasis and repetition of the word ‘might’ signifies the disappointment felt by the soldier that his General would not allow them to answer ‘Brother Boer’s attack’. Kipling’s own son died in battle during the First World War after being continually encouraged by his father to fight for his country. South Africa has been home to various tribes since its birth, and the idea that you can take a sense of identity from your ethnic background is one which runs through all three texts.

Despite being ashamed of who and what he is, even Fugard’s Boesman can attribute some of his identity to his ethnic background – his use of sun to identify his bearings is something his forefathers would have done for centuries. However more imperative, as Stanley Kauffman astutely observed of the 1970 New York production of ‘Boesman and Lena’, is that this is a play in which the ground is important, ‘On this mud, out of which we all come, Boesman and Lena make their camp12’. All they have ever known is to use the earth, and whilst this is certainly more significant in Fugard’s plays, Bosman also gives credit to the African soil.

Bosman unapologetically uses terms like ‘krantz’, ‘withaak’ and the like without translation. We may speculate that it is this attempt to render the veld as ‘foreign’ as possible, in contrast to the tameness of English country meadows which filled popular literature at the time, yet there also appears to be a certain love for the land ingrained the in African soul. Bosman wanted ‘something more primitive’ to write about than the ‘too civilised’ Marico, with its tractors and roads. Similarly, Mrs. A. C.

Dube seeks to demonstrate patriotism at its utmost in her poem ‘Africa: My Native Land’ by denying it will ever cause ‘despair’. Africa is, to her, the ‘dearest Land ever known’, and worth fighting for ‘Till every drop of blood within my veins / Shall dry upon my troubled bones’. The lack of rhyme scheme gives the poem a sense of roughness, imitating the land it is describing. This physical description demonstrates how embedded Dube’s patriotism is, and this level of devotion to one’s country becomes even more moving in the context of struggle.

Lena’s struggle always brings her back to the land, ‘Boesman and Lena with the sky for a roof again’, as in her first monologue, delivered with urgent passion, she seeks to bring meaning to her life through location. Her ‘hard mother’ is something shared with every character, story or poem referring to South Africa; a binding point, a basis for a collective ‘South African identity’. Athol Fugard was labelled a ‘political playwright’ against his will, stifling his own sense of identity. It is thus interesting that his text provides the least hope for those whom society stereotypes.

Whilst it could be considered that the use of ‘coloured’ people an artistically exacting touch – as people of “mixed” blood Boesman and Lena are of indeterminate race, neither black nor white enabling the characters to represent all races – Lena does not manage to break from the oppression and impoverishment, suggesting a cyclic existence. Nevertheless, the 2000 film version of ‘Boesman and Lena’ contains flashback scenes where the couple are happy, and in one ‘transcendent’ moment Lena ‘starts singing, shuffling out a few dance steps at the same time’ before she ‘laughs triumphantly’.

However, Elegiac poem ‘For Richard Turner’ is to me the clearest example of the power of the individual, proving it is possible to make your voice heard within South Africa. Whilst its style is extremely personal, the presence of a name gives an extra poignancy. The way Turner is ‘banned; neither to be published/ nor quoted in any form’ and ‘forbidden to teach’, represents a persistent attempt by the state to prevent his influence on others.

While the line ‘a gunman called you to the door’ shows the juxtaposition of politics and a domestic setting, the state imposing its views on the lives of others, even in the face of death, Turner is the more powerful figure. Even if, in reality, Turner did not choose the circumstances of his death, he did choose to resist oppression, in spite of knowing the risks. Similarly Dhlomo’s belligerent harangue ‘Because I’m Black’ aggressively explains that ‘diversity means not disunion’, and speaks out against those who ‘harbour childish [delusions]’.

As individuals we find ourselves caught up in greater events, and must choose whether to look on passively, and ‘thrust (our cold hands)… into/ our ultimately private pockets’, or to stand up for what we believe in. As a country it is important to rely upon each other, rather than the state, for validation. Yet in a country with as rich and polarised a political history as South Africa, its literature find will it difficult to survive without ever really avoid focussing on the social contexts which have played such an integral part in the shaping of the country it is today.

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There is no room for individual identity in South African literature. (2017, Jul 06). Retrieved from

There is no room for individual identity in South African literature
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