Distributive Justice and the Blind Continent: A Study of Cross of Gold by Lauretta Ngcobo and Osiris Rising by Ayi Kwei Armah

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The search for justice is archetypal, a timeless all-encompassing human urge which finds expression in creative literature. Consequently, it is of no surprise to find justice a major preoccupation in the novels of black Africa. From the earliest communal works of Chinua Achebe, to current works written by Chika Unigue and other African authors living in the metropoles of Europe, the archetype has been explored in relation to locale, age, gender, religion, class and race. It is a topic that allows for unending debate because of its complexities, its controversies, and its foothold on philosophies stretching back into the period of the ancient Greeks. With regard to the ancient nature of the subject, for example, M.D.A Freeman, editor of Lloyd's Introduction to Jurisprudence, alleges: "Some of the earliest thinking about justice is found in Aristotle. It was he who distinguished between 'corrective justice' and 'distributive justice'" (523). Expounding on the first of these, corrective justice, Freeman goes on to identify it with "the law of tort"; that is, laws relating to "crooked" conduct (Rutherford and Bone 326), or civil wrongs such as breach of contract between persons, institutions and so forth. He proceeds to make an interesting observation: "Most contemporary writing about justice is about distributive justice, about the appropriate distribution of goods" (523, emphasis added). Of course the "writing" he refers to is the expository type, produced by professional lawyers like himself, but it is engaging to think that his observations could apply also to creative writing. One can easily imagine the legal minds poring over the minutiae of an equitable distribution of resources, while the literary minds seize upon the kernel of the idea and render it in terms of fantasy, highlighting those themes that are of most importance to their own societies.

A number of black African writers are actively engaged in this pursuit, and in many cases an absorbing theme is the link between distributive justice and knowledge. Reading through many African novels, one is struck by the regularity with which the degree of justice obtainable in a situation is allied to the balance of knowledge between the parties involved. Where there is an equitable distribution of knowledge, with both parties being relatively equally informed, there is a proportionately equal distribution of other social advantages, but where knowledge is one-sided then other things tend to follow suit. In fact, knowledge, or the want of it, appears to be critical in matters of fair play.

This may not be news in itself, but it is revealing to see how African writers re-cast it. Two novels provide elaboration. The first is Cross of Gold by the South African novelist Lauretta Ngcobo, which appraises justice for the African in the well-known colonial context; and the second is Osiris Rising by the Ghanaian author Ayi Kwei Armah, which appraises the same subject but within the modern forum. There is no evidence that the texts have been studied in this light before, or even studied as a pair. On the contrary, Cross of Gold seems to have successfully concealed itself from reviewers. The Companion to African Literatures, edited by Douglas Killam and Ruth Rowe, provides the only information that could be found aside from biographical details. It states: "In her first novel, Cross of Gold, Ngcobo laments the lack of options open to young black South Africans. Set in the 1960s, the narrative traces the progress of a young Zulu man, Mandla, through a chilling catalogue of institutionalized oppression towards his violent end as a freedom-fighter" This is plainly more of a summary than a critique, but it suffices to show that the issue of justice is paramount in the novel, even if researchers have failed to comment on it.

Osiris Rising is Ayi Kwei Armah's sixth novel. His earlier works are regularly attacked for their negativism and individualism, but Osiris Rising is evidence of a new vision first detected by the critic, Robert Fraser, some years back. …