Periodization in South African Literature

By Loflin, Christine | CLIO, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Periodization in South African Literature

Loflin, Christine, CLIO

South African literature has been a fragmented and divided subject, categorized by race, language, ethnicity, and geography into multiple, mutually isolated streams of literary histories. This multiplicity is the result of the complex history of colonization and domination in South Africa. The white minority government of the National Party, in power from 1948 until 1994, further encouraged the fragmentation of South Africa into segregated areas under apartheid. They established a policy of censorship, which not only prevented the publication of many books by authors within South Africa, but also effectively kept works written by authors in exile from circulating within the country. Now that South Africa has entered a new era in its history with the election of Nelson Mandela to power, South African literature and literary study are being revised and reconsidered. Questions about the construction of a South African national literary canon and its periodization are central to a rethinking of South African literature.

Literary history is usually the province of literary scholars in universities. In South Africa, English departments have historically emphasized British literature, paying little attention to local South African literature until the 1970s and 1980s. Influenced by Q. D. Leavis and others, South African English departments developed a curriculum based on a "great books" approach, which left little room for an appreciation of South African literature. Thus, there were few studies of South African literary history until very recently.(1) A review of anthologies and essays from the 1950s through the 1980s exposes the roots of the current debates over South African literary history. A trend toward utilizing the dates of historical events to demarcate periods for literary history (rather than characteristics of the literary texts themselves) also emerges; I will examine a few examples from two periods to suggest how such periodization might be useful for a study of South African literature.

Anthologies of South African literature have tended to represent only a fraction of the literature. In the past, the emphasis was on white South African literature in English or Afrikaans. For example, Guy Butler's anthology, A Book of South African Verse (1959), includes only white English-speaking writers. In his introduction, Butler places this poetry within the context of British and other settler literatures, rather than in relation to other South African literature, claiming that writers look to Europe for inspiration and influence. Butler finds this kind of insularity throughout the different literatures of South Africa: "Each has developed along its own lines, suspicious and often tragically ignorant of the others."(2) Because of this mutual isolation, Butler claims that English verse from South Africa is "devoid of literary nationalism" (xix). At this stage, Butler does not find a "South African literature" at all, only a conglomeration of mutually isolated streams of literature.

In the 1960s, after the Sharpeville massacre and the following increase in government oppression of black South Africans, many African writers were forced into exile, banned, or imprisoned. In the 1970s, new writers such as Oswald Mtshali and Mongane Serote found themselves without role models, "as if there had never been writers before in my country."(3) The works of these writers were collected and analyzed under the term "the new black poetry," later called "Soweto poetry." These writers, influenced by Black Consciousness, African oral praises, American beat poetry, and African American jazz,(4) demanded a new interpretive framework for their poems. The new poetry was both a written and an oral genre, drawing on traditional African oral forms. In studies and anthologies of these writers, such as Michael Chapman and Achmat Dangor's Voices From Within: Black Poetry from Southern Africa,(5) a vision of black South African poetry emerged which traced the roots of contemporary poetry back to the earliest recorded praise songs of the San and the Khoi people. …

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