Problems related to the concept of A National South African Literature

AND a proposal.

In a discussion of problems related to the concept of “a national South African literature”, I indicated ways in which the “various South African literatures” can be conceptualised and approached.

The various ethnic literatures that constitute the South African literatures are an integral part of the country’s heritage and cultures and cannot be summarily discarded as in the case of Afrikaans by certain sectors of the political hegemony, specifically amongst the African Nationalists.

In order to better understand our literary and cultural heritage, and our historical and colonial past, literatures produced by liberation movements and writers such as Sol Plaatjie, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela, should appear alongside the works of writers such as W A de Klerk who writes under the influence of Nazi ideology (Clare 2010). It is imperative to our understanding, and qualified and informed acceptance or rejection of other literatures not familiar to our community of languages and culture.

steve biko

A national literature currently exists in South Africa, even though the oral traditions of story-telling of certain indigenous groups such as the Khoi and San (not Khoi-San), in their own languages, are not yet fully and formally recognised. It is, however, in danger of disintegrating, mainly as a result of the deterioration of the country’s educational standards, and mainly due to bureaucratic incompetence and an under-utilisation of the literary, linguistic and language resources available within the educational institutions of the country’s provinces, and an over-emphasis of South African English as a dominant language of choice in the discourses of engaging with the different cultural and language groups of the country.

The various ethnic languages that constitute South African literatures are an integral part of the country’s heritage, and in the case of Afrikaans-language speakers, cultures cannot be discarded by sectors of the country’s political hegemony.

In order for a national literature to be fully concretised and for it to exist in South Africa, the oral traditions amongst indigenous Khoi and San cultures must be formally recognised and gazetted. It is in danger of extinction, mainly due to the deterioration of educational hierarchies, buceaucratic incompetence and the under-utilisation of literary, linguistic and language resources available within regional education institutions.

Whilst it is a necessary tool for learning, trading and communication across language and cultural barriers, South African English has been over-utilised as a dominant language of choice in the discourses of cultural engagement.

From the outset, Western colonisers since Jan van Riebeeck and later Dutch and English settlers, imposed their languages and cultures on indigenous nations and cultures. Further, imperialist ideologies of the British Empire were imposed upon a developing Afrikaner nation. The indigenous nations were thus forced to seek freedom and independence to develop their cultures and way of life. This, in turn, was exploited in the extreme by the National Party.

jan vrbck

Self-proclaimed literary scholars were guilty of ignorance and racism in formulating their ideas of what a national literature should look like. Although prejudiced by a colonial view of the “other” the contributions of Bleek and Lloyd (Chapman 2003), however, were invaluable in planting the seeds of literary translations of indigenous stories. Still, today Antje Krog (Chapman 2011) and others continue this tradition of translation, a necessary tool in developing a national literature.

Numerous claims have already been made about the existence of such a national literature. Narrow, bilingual, Eurocentric definitions of South African literatures by scholars such as Purvis and Besselaar have been replaced by contributions from scholars such as Gerard, Andre P Brink JM Coetzee, Es’kia Mphahlehle and Zakes Mda. Gerard argued that a national literature is linked to a a nation “whose unity was established by the fact that all its members speak the same language.” It is a problematic definition, because in the context of South Africa, its members speak different languages. This problem can be addressed through education, where the the learner (no longer the pupil, or scholar) is taught formal subjects in English alongside adopting second and third languages to aid their cultural development.

Consequently, National Minister for Higher Education in South Africa, Blade Nzimande, is already promoting and perpetuating this ideal, however, it presents a further problem in that not all indigenous languages have been fully and properly developed for and beyond the class room.


Here, the role of literary scholars, educators and publishers, fluent in these languages, whether as first language, or second language speakers, is crucial in ensuring that such development can take place. The continued development and evolution of the Afrikaans language is crucial in ensuring that such development can take place. The continued development and evolution is also crucial, because it remains the language of choice amongst certain indigenous cultures, even though their adoption was negative as a result of colonialism and enslavement.

Brink (2009) at the forefront of the process of a “decolonisation of the mind”, in the used of his own first language, Afrikaans, opens up his texts to the possibilities of new interpretations of our histories and cultures through the method of translation. This has unfortunately been confined to the English and other Western European languages. Translation of such studies  in postcolonial texts should proceed in the indigenous languages. Through the search for solutions by scholars such as Krog and the late Mphahehlele to concretising a national literature, one solution lies in the translation of literary works of all officially recognised languages. Krog’s translation of indigenous oral poetry is invaluable.

The histories of social, cultural and linguistic differences between various indigenous communities and the differentiations made between white settler communities of European descent and African indigenous populations has created many divisions within the country. Further, South African literatures should be distinguished from Southern African literatures as not all African literatures and cultures are indigenous to the South African nation-state.

coetzee and brink

There is also a deterioration of spoken languages amongst most cultures owing to the adoption of American materialistic and ideological values, and as a consequence, American dialects. Further, while Afrikaans remains the language of choice amongst the Khoi and San, it is still perceived as a language of oppression amongst the majority of cultures and even amongst scholars.

The replacement of the bilingual definition of South African literatures by multilingualism, however, remains a positive trend. Our history of Afrikaans and English cultures and languages are being viewed from the perspectives of indigenous African languages which still possess rich oral traditions.

The exposure of indigenous languages and literature to European influences and the influence of these indigenous languages and literature on European languages, mainly in English, is not problematic. It has contributed positively to the development of South African English and Afrikaans. There are always linguistic possibilities within the African indigenous languages as these cultural groups adapt to Westernised methods of production and culture. This can be measured against the anti-Western (and anti-African) rhetoric of South African State President Jacob Zuma, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) commander-in-chief Julius Malema.

julius-malema three

According to Professor Andries Oliphant the term “nation” signifies a human group with a common language, culture and history, conscious of forming a community and residing in a unified, sovereign state.” The definition is correct, but problematic in the South African context as communities remain divided along racial, cultural and linguistic lines, and through the difficulty  of understanding second and third languages. Where there is an understanding of other languages, it is regional, for example in the North and Western Cape Provinces, the Afrikaans language is widely understood, in KwaZulu-Natal, Zulu is understood amongst most African residents, while in the Eastern Cape, the dominant language remains isi-Xhosa.

The South African Constitution, recognising thirteen languages, has begun the process of understanding languages across cultural and regional lines, but the development of multilingualism remains slow.

The relativist view, which is opposed to the essentialist view of nationhood, is best suited to the conception of a nation-state in South Africa, as it is subject to change. With the country’s democratic constitution being only twenty years old, South African languages and cultures are still in an evolutionary stage. Such evolution, however, remains stunted by the actions of state, where the ruling African National Congress, like its predecessor, the National Party, are accused of suppressing the development of cultures and its languages, and the freedom of expression, all of which is essential to the development of a wholly inclusive national literature. Hegemonic ideology remains a priority over and above the development of languages and culture.

PW Botha

The concept of a nation-state is not hindered for now as it is enshrined in the constitution that the country is subject to sovereign rule by all its people who are equal before the law. The abuse of power entrusted by the citizens of statesmen and women to rule over them is problematic as it hinders the nation’s development as a unitary state. The proposed nationalisation of all the country’s national, commercial and private resources by Malema and the EFF will undoubtedly stunt this development.

julius the baas

The claim that linguistic and cultural diversity found amongst people within the state renders any claim to the the existence of a national literature untenable, is not agreed upon. I reiterate that emphasis on education and the practice of translation of literary works across languages will make it possible for a national literature to evolve.

People of different cultures and languages are talking amongst one another and to one another about issues within the nation of which  there is a thread of common interest and cause. Such examples include health, HIV and Aids, poverty, unemployment, sport and recreation, the access of information and the freedom of expression and speech.


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