The Irony of Apartheid

In my first year of university studies, reading for my majors in English and Theory of Literature, I was asked to write an essay on how transitions are made in the South African short story genre. The transitions refer to those which may or may have not been reached by characters portrayed in these stories. I selected and focused on apartheid as a central theme. Most of the short stories I read were located at some stage during the era of legislated racism in South Africa.

Simply put, in layman’s terms, how could a character possibly make a transition in a typically South African short story? Well, in the era of apartheid, readers could debate amongst themselves whether or not a racist, white or black, could transform himself into a lover of what is known as the “other” in postcolonial literary terms. Or the oppressed, or abused “other” could learn how to work and live with her oppressor under adverse conditions.


While these stories are specific to the South African landscape, they still carry universal appeal as racial prejudice has been part of most citizens’ past and is still prevalent today in a variety of ways.

For my essay, I selected five stories. One of these stories is located outside of apartheid and at the turn of the new millennium. The five South African writers are Nobel Laureate, Nadine Gordimer, Zoe Wicomb, Maureen Isaacson, Ivan Vladislavic, Es’kia Mphahlehle and Richard Rive.


For the benefit of the international reader, not entirely familiar with the South African genre, I will give a short biographical background of each of these writers who are all prominent in the South African literary environment.

In an earlier blog post, I had already introduced you to Zoe Wicomb, who lives, teaches and writes in Scotland. You can find that recent post under the title, THE PROCESS OF READING.


Prior to writing this essay, my dear mother presented me with a detailed anthology of short stories, OMNIBUS OF A CENTURY OF SOUTH AFRICAN SHORT STORIES, edited by Professor Emeritus of the University of KwaZulu Natal, Micheal Chapman. This is a voluminous and detailed collection of South African Short stories, listed chronologically from the earliest oral tales of the San people, the first inhabitants of the country, to stories written just before the turn of the new millennium.

Here are the opening and closing lines from this heavy anthology which features no less than 126 stories!

” This “Omnibus” makes available the stories from three best-selling anthologies” A CENTURY OF SOUTH AFRICAN SHORT STORIES, edited by Jean Marquard; the revised edition of the same title; edited by Martin Trump; and most recently Micheal Chapman’s entirely new selection in THE NEW CENTURY OF SOUTH AFRICAN SHORT STORIES”. ( from the Introduction)


” ‘If Jan had been here,’ says Simon,’Marlene knows what he would’ve said? He’d have said:”Now what is now so half-and-half funny, madam?” ‘ ” (frome Marlene van Niekerk’s “Labour” )

micheal chapman

My short story selection was also made from BEING HERE, CROSS-CURRENTS, Nadine Gordimer’s SELECTED STORIES and Zoe Wicomb’s YOU CAN’T GET LOST IN CAPE TOWN.



Nadine Gordimer is one of only two South African authors to have been awarded both the Man Booker and Nobel Prizes for Literature. She has published at least ten short story collections during her long and distinguished literary career.
The most recent honour awarded to Ms Gordimer was the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France).

Ever since she published her first short story at the age of fifteen, she has been particularly critical of how the white South African minority has oppressed the black majority. What she said about the South African condition during the apartheid years is poignant;

“Learning to write sent me falling, falling through the surface of the South African way of life”.

Elsewhere, Gordimer is described as ” a fine, descriptive writer, thoughtful and sensitive”.


As a reader, I became familiar with Maureen Isaacson, not for her writing of short stories, but rather for her tight editorship of the books page of the South African newspaper, ‘The Sunday Independent’. Through the years, this page has been a valuable source of information and education to me.


Maureen Isaacson has been recognised for her talent as a journalist, having been awarded the 2009 South African Literary Award for Journalism in the Print Media category. Having won no major literary awards she has, however. served as a judge for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, Africa region, in 2008, and for several years for the Sunday Times Alan Paton non-fiction award.

Unlike Nadine Gordimer, Maureen Isaacson’s childhood in Johannesburg was cloistered and segregated within the confines of areas restricted to whites. Like myself, she embraced the new and desegregated South Africa. A lot has changed since those early days of liberation. Like Gordimer, Isaacson is well travelled, but considers South Africa home.

Her short stories have been published in several journals, magazines and anthologies.


Ivan Vladislavic’s work has been published and translated widely and has won many awards, including the University of Johannesburg Prize and the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award for non-fiction. He lives in Johannesburg.

ivan vladislavic


Until his death in 2008, Es’kia Mphahlele was one of South Africa’s most eminent writers and teachers. A few years ago, I read his autobiographical novel, DOWN SECOND AVENUE, which chronicles the life of a black South African youth, from his early life, living on the rural outskirts of the country’s legislative capital, Pretoria, to his heart-stopping years as a teenager in the Johannesburg slum township, Alexandria, to his years as a college student. In the realm of autobiography, DOWN SECOND AVENUE, to my mind, can be listed as an African classic alongside similar works by Nobel Laureates, J M Coetzee and Wole Soyinka.

When Dr Mphahlele died, he was widely mourned within the post-liberation South African diaspora, and it is worthwhile highlighting aspects of his life from extracts of a fitting eulogy written by Dr Pallo Jordan, a former minister of Arts and Culture.

Mphahlele was the illustrious author of two autobiographies, more than thirty short stories, two verse plays, a number of poems, two edited anthologies and essay collections.

Already a teacher during the 1940’s, a founding member of the ANC Youth League, Dr Mphahlele was part of a group of African thought leaders who drafted an African response to the Atlantic Charter which was drawn up by Winston Churchill and FDR Roosevelt. Dr Jordan remarks that Mphahlele was lost to the world of political leadership, because his heart and mind remained passionately in education, rather than politics.

Widely recognised and reviled as the architect of apartheid, Dr H F Verwoerd, as then minister of Native Affairs, was instrumental in setting up the Eislen Commission on Native Education, essentially a litany of recommendations for setting up an inferior system of education for black South Africans. Dr Mphahlele was amongst a small and prominent group of educationists who opposed Verwoerd’s discriminatory policies on education. As a consequence of his staunch opposition to Verwoerd, Mphahlele was banned from teaching in 1952.


What became South Africa’s loss, ironically became the USA’s gain, as Mphahlele left SA to take up a number of university teaching posts during years of exile. Amongst the many international awards and several honorary doctoral degrees he received, Mpahlele was awarded the Les Palmes Academiques medal from the French government in recognition of his contributions to French language and culture.

Dr Jordan described Es’kia Mphahlele as ” soft-spoken, humble, urbane, cosmopolitan, erudite and exuding ubuntu “.


richard rive

Born in District Six, Cape Town, brutally murdered in his segregated home on the Cape Flats, Richard Rive has long been one of my favourite authors. Not only has his literary work informed and influenced my own reading and writing, it contextualises my own life and cultural heritage as a Capetonian, born and bred. I will never forget the sad, yet realistic word pictures of District Six, Cape Town, and its rural environs which remain ingrained in my own consciousness.

Richard Rive is best known as a writer, but was also a teacher. He is best known for his short stories. They are critically acclaimed for ” their great imaginative and technical power, skilful use of leitmotifs and realistic dialogue “.





The statement “irony is often regarded as a key feature of South African short fiction” is true. In this discourse I discuss the implications of this claim in several short stories to substantiate my agreement with it.

The conventional short story has a beginning, middle and end, but in the South African context authors deploy irony to highlight the misery and injustice Apartheid causes.

A popular postmodern deviation used by writers to shift time in their narrative away from painful remembrances, is the use of “in medias res” where the story literally starts in the middle.

Animal metaphors and racial stereotypes are used to foreground the irony of Apartheid.

In “ Six Feet of the Country” (Gordimer, N 1983: 69) situational irony is used to highlight the white settler’s existential angst in a life of apparent bliss. When considering this form of irony we observe that South African writers have something in common. They are learned, and like their protagonists, are all victims of Apartheid and racism. They empower themselves to write the stories of the disenfranchised and disillusioned while their characters are unable to do this. They narrate what Athol Fugard calls the pain of lived reality (de Kock 2008: 6) in the unique South African landscape.

Each text is a discourse of Apartheid and the patriarchy which hovers over South Africa from before nineteen forty-eight when the National Party institutionalised racial prejudice, to after nineteen ninety-four when the country finally plunges head first into hybridity, homogeneity and equality.

Each text is postcolonial, searching for new alternatives to racism and the alienating effects it brings with it. Transition is important in these texts. Most characters encounter transition, but do not always cross the threshold from old to new. This deliberate authorial hesitation contributes powerfully to the key feature of irony in the texts.
In Writing South Africa (Attridge, D 1998: 25) Andre Brink says;

“ Postmodernism offers exciting challenges because the postmodern text is never read in its own right”.

He writes that; “ there is a dimension to the present experience of transition – the discovery of Africa! “


We discuss the short fiction of South African authors, showing how they use irony. Emphasis is placed on the work of Es’kia Mphahlele, Zoe Wicomb and Ivan Vladislavic.

In “ Six Feet of the Country ” racism is criticised against the background of rural South Africa. The white farmer’s racist complacency is foregrounded using derogatory words such as “baas” and “boy” (Ferguson, D 1995: 245).

Situational irony in this conventional short story, shows how the white man, deferred by the black man, inevitably finds no happiness in this idyll of rural privilege and patronisation.

The protagonist’s transition is made when he begrudgingly helps an old black man give his dead son a dignified burial (p 252). No threshold is crossed as the farmer remains racist towards rural Africans.

“ Rain “ (Rive, R), a bleak narrative of a cold and wet Cape Town setting, metaphorises the hopeless, desperate, lonely and sad life of the naïve, Coloured protagonist, Siena (Malan, R, ed 1994: 11).

de villiers st

‘In medias res’ recalls happier days when Siena and her lover meet in rural surroundings. This serves as a metaphor for the desolation of Apartheid.


The negatively stereotyped Coloured male is foregrounded as a scapegoat of the Apartheid struggle.

Transition is ironically encountered by the antagonist, a blaspheming Jew, attempting to sympathise with Siena (p 16). There is no transitional moment for her. Everything remains the same. Preferring his white privilege, the shopkeeper does not, however, reach a threshold.

In “Mrs Plum” (Mphahlele) the irony of Apartheid is shown from the outset (Chapman, M, ed 2007: 339).

Mrs Plum is sarcastically addressed as “Madam”.

Colour highlights the irony of Apartheid;

“So the suburbs were full of blackness” (p 339)

Black is negatively connoted, yet it is the “white”, a connotation of purity, who is inhumanely racist.

Wise, and a charitable educator, Mrs Plum is a sympathetic white liberal. Irony courses through this liberal who patronises the story’s protagonist, Karabo, to the point that it contributes to her improvement (p 341).

Karabo empoweringly encounters her transition and reaches a threshold after attending the “Black Brow Club” (p 345). Harsh reality still lingers;

“ A master and a servant can never be friends “.

The ironic use of the dog metaphors emphasises enslavement and possessed property for which Africans must work very hard to attain. Tonal irony shows how Karabo’s relationship with Mrs Plum becomes circumspect.

Situational irony is invoked when mistress and servant are momentarily united against the degeneration of Mrs Plum’s daughter who rebels against her mother and enters into an illicit interracial relationship with a black man. Irony deepens as the daughter rejects education and loses her emotional and intellectual freedom in submitting to the traditional black man. As Mrs Plum goes to jail to “stand up for what she believes” the change in Karabo is enforced. She gives advice to a pregnant friend, reacts cruelly to her metaphorical oppressor, the dog, whilst revolting against the grotesqueness of abortion and the hideous act of giving “white’ dogs a serene burial.

Opposing Apartheid much earlier, Mrs Plum’s transition is reached already, however, she unwittingly reaches a threshold when she visits Karabo to plead for her to continue her domestic duties. Karabo’s newfound bargaining powers and Mrs Plum’s desperation enforce an era of mutual understanding and respect.

In “A Trip to the Gifberge” (Zoe Wicomb) the narrator’s mother antagonises against her daughter’s flight from Apartheid. She returns when things improve. Ironically, her mother stays behind, becoming the true inheritor of a landscape poisoned by Apartheid. Daughter and mother are conscious of their physical characteristics (p 164). In Writing South Africa (Attridge) Zoe Wicomb talks about the shame of having one’s body stared at and of those females who have mated with the coloniser. She says;

“Miscegenation, the origins of which lie in a discourse of ‘race’, concupiscence, and degeneracy, continues to be bound up with shame, a pervasive shame exploited in Apartheid’s strategy of the naming of a Coloured race, and recurring in the current attempts by coloureds to establish brownness as a pure category, which is to say, a denial of shame. What the case of Baartman shows is how shame stalks the postcolonial world, broken mirror in hand, reproducing itself in puzzling distortions.”

u can't get lost in ct

Wicomb argues that the problem their identity indicates undermines national identity. There is a dependence on the old economic, social and epistemological structures of apartheid. She argues that different groups created by the old system do not participate equally in “the category of postcoloniality”.

The aunt’s racially influenced remarks highlight a greater conundrum as she alleges that the country is infected with “disrespectful foreign ways”. She is right. We recall the colonising influence of the British when they invade our land with their language and culture. Disapproval is shown towards the youth who use their education to revolt against Apartheid and colonialism, thus empowering themselves.

The narrator hates her motherland, dreaming only of her foreign home (p 174). She refuses to be labelled derogatorily, subtly referring to her Khoi and Griqua heritage.

Deciding to stay on in her native country, thus making her transition, the narrator cautiously negotiates her threshold. She is not isolated and empty, and won’t have to “make up those terrible stories” (p 182). She will have real events to write about.

“Journal of a Wall” (Ivan Vladislavic) alludes to boundaries, conflict and restrictions. Threatened by racial transition, the white narrator creates personal boundaries and even considers flight. The previous narrator leaves South Africa because of Apartheid. This narrator considers leaving as Apartheid ends. He is stereotypically characterised; observant, security conscious, yet ironically blind to areas of concern which he avoids. Preoccupied with sport on the television, he avoids watching upsetting township violence – “I was upset enough” (Chapman, M, ed 2007: pp 707, 708 Omnibus of South African Short Stories).

There are ironically no colour boundaries, or racial stereotypes when the narrator turns to drinking to curb his depression.

The author shifts time back from the thirty-first to the eighteenth of May in order to narrate the ironical construction of a barrier between his neighbours and himself.

Tonal and situational irony is evoked as he recalls;

“I knew when I saw that perfect dune, white as flour, spilling over the kerb and pavement, that the foundations would be laid that day.” (p 712)

Even in suburbia, vast, rural landscapes are alluded to, metaphorically displaying postcolonial tensions. The colour white is satirically used to refer to race. We feel its textures and layers and we are also aware of the significance of one painted white dot on a brick (pp 713, 714) symbolising the white man’s isolation and alienation in Africa. His sense of despair deepens after his neighbours sell their home (pp 718, 719). He ironically deserves isolation and loneliness, having always been impartial to the pain of others during the Apartheid years. Neither a white liberal, nor a conservative, he makes no transition and never reaches a threshold!

“Holding Back the Midnight” (Maureen Isaacson) postmodernistically shows South African life at the turn of the twenty-first century. Written in present tense, it juxtaposes a black president against an affluent, influential circle of apartheid-era white businessmen and politicians, reluctant to embrace change.

Irony is presented satirically, situationally and tonally. The white men still believe that they are strong and powerful. They are emasculated, aged and resistant to change. The minimalist prose displays images of both old and new South Africa, key words being; “Old Johannesburg, Soweto City, Old Order, Recycle, Organic, New Year’s eve”.

While the stereotypical white characters make no transition, the narrator, in a mixed marriage, makes her transition. Yet, like her white peers, her threshold is not reached as the new millennium and its uncertainties are delayed for as long as possible;

“ … there is still one minute to go.” (p 800)

In light of the transitional theme, we see how authors use both conventional and deviational writing methods to highlight the feature of irony in their texts.

* Look for my next essay on narrative strategies of characterisation which will be pressed later this week.


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