Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

To Every Miracle Its Gods: Mongane Wally Serote's Gods of Our Time as a Post-Apartheid Perception of Black Experience

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

To Every Miracle Its Gods: Mongane Wally Serote's Gods of Our Time as a Post-Apartheid Perception of Black Experience

Article excerpt

Gods of Our Time,1 published in 1999, is Mongane Wally Serote's second novel. His first novel, To Every Birth Its Blood, published in 1981, was one of a plethora of novels by black South African writers2 who recorded the events of June 1976 which are known as the Soweto schoolchildren' s uprising. These novels document the formation of schoolchildren's cells in the South African townships to protest against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in their secondary schools and the evolution of these cells into units of underground resistance against the oppression of the apartheid regime. Many of the children were killed during 'the Struggle',3 many were imprisoned and tortured by the South African Police, but many crossed the border into the neighbouring states of Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, Angola, and Swaziland to be trained in the arts of guerrilla warfare. Mongane Wally Serote's third novel to date, Scatter the Ashes and Go,4 narrates the circumstances of those same schoolchildren who, after the demise of apartheid, have returned to a South Africa that cannot be compared with the one that years earlier they were forced to leave behind.

The Soweto schoolchildren' s uprising of June 1976 is perceived in retrospect as a major watershed in South African history and the beginning of the end of apartheid. Yet fourteen years were to pass before Nelson Mandela walked from Victor Verster prison in February 1990, a free man, and only in 1994 did the African National Congress win South Africa's first democratic general election. What happened on the ground in the meantime, however, has not received the same degree of attention by creative writers as did the events of the second half of the 1970s. This is due possibly to the intensified oppression of the apartheid authorities during the 1980s and the subsequent increased strictures of censorship. Also, writers like Sipho Sepamla, in novels such as A Scattered Survival (1989),5 turned to look at the effects of apartheid on the daily existence of black townspeople, rather than focusing on 'the Struggle' per se. From the vantage point of the early post-apartheid dispensation and with the benefit of hindsight, Mongane Wally Serate has filled in glaring gaps in the record. Gods of Our Time is set in Alexandra, Tembisa, Atteridgeville, Sebokeng, and other parts of rural and urban South Africa during the mid-1980s.

In many ways, Serate' s representation of different periods in the recent history of apartheid South Africa are not reflected in the content or even the style of the novel. Like To Every Birth Its Blood, Gods of Our Time is a complex novel whose narrative threads are intricate and difficult to trace. The entrances and exits of the numerous characters seem random and almost coincidental. This gives the novel a sense of spontaneity and moments of intensity, but the overall impression that remains with the reader is a blur of characters and events, a morass of experiences, feelings, and ideas in which it is difficult to discern any dynamic or direction. This clearly is the author's intention; the spontaneity of the character's behaviour is symptomatic of the madness and chaos of the moment. Serate describes the relationships between the young people in the townships as they are forced further and further underground by members of the South African Police, the South African Defence Force, their agents, and black informers. Ultimately, most young people find themselves asking to be assisted to cross the border into the African National Congress (ANC) training camps in the front-line states.

However, similar activities have already been narrated in novels about the June '76 Soweto uprising. Indeed, Serate leaves his reader in no doubt that the "gods" in the title of the novel are the young people and the women of South African townships, with 'freedom fighters' like Steve, Sizakhele and the narrator himself, Moses Motsamayi, in supporting roles. This was not new at the time. …

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