Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Re-Examining Apartheid Brokenness - to Every Birth Its Blood1 as a Literary Testament

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Re-Examining Apartheid Brokenness - to Every Birth Its Blood1 as a Literary Testament

Article excerpt

We came to freedom in brokenness, and there has been no going back and patching of the things that were broken, mending them, examining them.2

LIVING WITHIN APARTHEID - the very expression betokening a type of dis-integration - was never a simple matter. While it is widely accepted and makes instinctive sense that that prolonged period of oppression, injustice, social dividedness, and legalized, cruel racism could not be undone in little more than a decade by repealing apartheid legislation and by the overdue institution of a democratic constitution, and that it still contaminates our society in its aftermath, the depth and extent of this socially and psychically traumatizing condition is yet insufficiently understood. I quote (as in my epigraph, above) from a recent interview with a South African writer, Sindiwe Magona, for the relevance of her observations to the point of view from which I shall in this essay be discussing Mongane Serote's 1981 novel. Asked whether she thought that our damaged society could ever recover from apartheid, she said:

Healing is possible. It is the only way. What needs to be done first is to go back and re-examine what happened really, and what it meant for people, and what it has done to them. It is only when that is thoroughly understood and acknowledged that other issues can be addressed. (44)

When asked whether the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had not succeeded in completing this task, Magona remarked:

People didn't start suffering when they were on Robben Island. There is a reason they landed on Robben Island: their lives before Robben Island were lives of suffering, and that is the suffering of all black people, and that is the suffering that hasn't really been addressed. (44)

Concerning the need to place the experience of apartheid as a daily reality (from the perspective of black South Africans) on record, Magona states that

the stories [should] be written, if not for the present, for posterity. It shouldn't always happen that when our offspring tries to understand why we were who we were, they only hear from the other side; they should hear from us, too. So people who were oppressed need to write, and write, and write, even though the majority of our people don't read. It is important to write [. . .] (45; emphases added)

It is in the light of the above remarks that the term 'testament' in the title of the present essay needs to be understood.

Two points frequently made when the inadequacies of the workings of the TRC are discussed are that beneficiaries of apartheid (the broad white population who had not resisted apartheid) were let off the hook by the TRC 's concentration on extreme acts; and that it allowed the system's 'big men' to shield behind operatives who committed the atrocities they did in terms of the policies or actual orders of the former.3 A point that is much less often raised is one on which I wish to concentrate in this re-exploration of Serote's novel, because I believe the author implicitly does so in this work, and I link it to aspects of the remarks by Magona' s quoted above. I refer to the fact that apartheid traumatization was not confined to those South Africans (and those close to them) who were subjected to atrocities such as murder and torture - the violation of human dignity affected all South Africans subjected to apartheid practices in their daily lives, at levels and in ways that are not readily justiciable in the present, and in a manner that is painful and awkward to acknowledge or even considered shameful. Hence, these are matters hard to articulate and discuss, let alone heal or publicly address. It is the value and importance of the novel as literary form (here I agree with Maria Pia Lara4) and the achievement of To Every Birth Its Blood ûiat it can and does enter this terrain and communicates its agonies. Serote's novel sensitively traces those humiliations and insults to people's dignity that were so invasively present throughout the apartheid era as well as depicting the constant, ongoing state of anxiety in which people lived, because at any moment the operatives of the apartheid machine might pounce on any one of the millions living in the country of their birth as non-citizens. …

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