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Lifestyle | South Africa's literary history, present, and future

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In the past, South African literature was characterised almost entirely by its relationship to apartheid.

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Those books that fell outside of such characterisation were largely overlooked, and the books which received the most attention, were those that fell under the title of anti-apartheid literature before 1994, or post-apartheid literature afterward.

In recent years, however, there has been a marked progression away from the confines of the country’s political history, toward a more varied and versatile literary landscape.

This is an exciting change for new South African authors as it means that they will be less restricted not only in their choices, but also in their readers, as they can explore topics of perhaps broader, at least different, appeal.

Out of the turmoil of South Africa’s history came some real masterpieces of political writing. In response to the terrible imbalance that apartheid imposed on the country there rose a wave of resistance writers.

From Alan Paton, writing from as early as 1948 (the year apartheid was made official), through the DRUM writers of the 1950s and the Black Consciousness writers of the 1970s. There was a lot to be said, and a lot of people willing to say it. It is this that defined the literature of the moment, and this that was to define the literature that would follow even decades after the breakup of the apartheid regime.

Some of South Africa’s most renowned writers belong to this period of South African literature. Names such as J.M.Coetzee, Antjie Krog and Zakes Mda are just a few which spring to mind.
These authors explored the transition South Africa and its people underwent in the wake of apartheid, and the difficulties faced in various different aspects of New South African life.

It is important to keep the literary history of the country in mind, but important also not to get bogged down in it. It is necessary for us to keep moving forward, and to shift focus somewhat, perhaps moving away from the specifics of our own socio-political past.

Excitingly, this has already begun. We see it in the comedy of John van de Ruit’s Spud series, in the sci-fi novels of Lauren Beukes, and in the crime fiction of Margie Orford. Even where these books do look back, they do so with eyes that see more than just racial inequality and political atrocities.

In the case of Beukes’s award-winning Moxyland, we are actually looking ten years into the future. We are seeing a drive toward expanding the literary horizon of the country, moving away from the political temperament that has defined it thus far.

Contemporary South African writers can choose to write in whichever style or genre they like, and be judged on the merit of their writing and storytelling, rather than on whether or not their work will have a political impact. In fact, readers may even respond better to works devoid of a political stance, and will be more likely to notice writing that offers something new and refreshing.

South Africa is not yet out of the grip of apartheid, and it will be relevant for many years to come, but in such authors as the three mentioned above, we see a new drive toward a different outlook, one which is perhaps more universally accessible. It is a trend that might pull South African writers out of their own past and into a future which they might share with the rest of the world.

This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution license.

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