People's Literature: A Testament of Faith in the Untapped Creative Resources of South Africa's Excluded Masses

By Gordimer, Nadine | UNESCO Courier, February 1992 | Go to article overview

People's Literature: A Testament of Faith in the Untapped Creative Resources of South Africa's Excluded Masses


Gordimer, Nadine, UNESCO Courier


PEOPLE'S literature as a particular mode appropriate to the present is something most developed countries have no call for. Their contemporary literature is confidently middle-class--which is to say it may assume an educated reader with whom the writer shares terms of reference. The demand for a People's Literature seems to have been answered once and for all, and the need apparently satisfied, by the comic book, with the people's hero as an extra-terrestrial, and by oral folk poets--the wise-cracking commentators, disc jockeys and presenters of television and radio. Thus the semi-literature and illiterate appear to be uncomplainingly provided for.

But in developing countries the situation is different. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney's "government of the tongue" does not have the same constituency. In the post-colonial world in general, and in South Africa specifically, the illiterate and semi-literate now surround the cultural convention.

They have been called up by history.

They have been called up by justice. For over 300 years, not only were they excluded from any role in defining cultural norms; it was denied that they had any need of these let alone anything to contribute. If they could read, there were virtually no common references, no givens, between them and white writers, and few between them and black writers, the latter already upwardly alienated by education and the white-collar style of life it has implied. Now, beyond the opportunities to acquire knowledge of modern science, technology and administration, there is asserted the masses' right to enjoy the self-realization of literature. Here, where the responsibility of educationists is seen as exceeded, it is the writers themselves who are expected to take over.

The demand is for a particular fictional mode: subjects, narrative form, vocabulary to express ethics, mores and relationships that arise from the daily lives of peasants and industrial labourers where there has never been a mode stemming from their own level of consciousness. It means finding a format and distribution process that will bring books arising directly out of that consciousness into the ghettoes and squatter camps where there are no libraries, and into the farm huts where there is no money to buy books in the form of consumer luxuries.

It is formulated as a call for a People's Literature.

How does People's Literature differ from plain old social realism?

There is a basic distinction of the greatest consequence. Any writer may become a social realist by choosing a worker as his or her protagonist or hero. It is subject and treatment of subject which defines social realism, not the class of the writer.

But in South Africa, People's Literature is conceived as that written by, not about, the people. Thus it seems the responsibility for creating it is not even that of any progressive literary establishment.

Who are "the people"?

Virtually all blacks and so-called coloureds, who comprise the overwhelming majority of the population, qualify under the blunt definition of workers as those who, if they don't get up in the morning and go to work, won't eat: blacks don't have unearned income. But the image of "the people" has come to be symbolized more specifically in the features of farm workers, miners and construction workers: the rural people and the manpower they export under the migratory labour system to single-sex hostels in the industrial areas.

The image is appropriate. These workers stand, historically, at either end of that system established by the conflation of capitalism and racism; in between is the whole span of black labour yoked by the white man--factory workers, street cleaners, domestic servants. The agricultural workers on white farms are the lowest paid, having no statutory minimum wage; the miners and industrial workers are the freest on the way to economic emancipation, having organized themselves in powerful trade unions which will one day end the migratory labour system that brought them from country to town without the right to be accompanied by their families. …

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