Short Transitions

Here is a note I wrote a few years ago before Jacob Zuma came to power in a still-divided South Africa.

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

It is a remark on the ironies of apartheid and the attempt by seasoned South African short story writers to make transitions and reach (positive) thresholds through their narratives and characters.

“Irony us often regarded as a key feature of South African short fiction.” Still today, is this not true? If you disagree, you are welcome to comment. Nevertheless, back then I discussed the implications of that statement using a few notable short stories to substantiate my agreement with the claim.

Conventional short stories have a beginning, middle and end, but in the South African context, authors deployed irony to highlight the misery and injustice of apartheid.

coloured woman

A popular post-modern deviation used by writers to shift time in their narratives away from painful remembrances, is the use of in medias res, where their stories start in the middle.

Animal metaphors and racial stereotyping are used to foreground the irony of apartheid.

In “Six Feet of the Country” by Nadine Gordimer, 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 protagonist, 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 in the uniquely 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 hibridity, homogeneity and equality.

Each text listed here is post-colonial, searching for new alternatives to racism and the alienating effects it brings with it. Transition becomes 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.

aparheid south africa 1

Andre Brink has said that “post-colonialism offers exciting challenges because the post-modern text is never read in its own right.” He also wrote that;

“There is a dimension to the present experience of transition – the discovery of Africa!”

In response to this magnanimous statement I discussed the short fiction of South African authors, showing how they used irony. My emphasis was on the work of Nadine Gordimer, Richard Rive, Es’kia Mphahlele, Zoe Wicomb, Ivan Vladislavic and Maureen Isaacson..

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”.

district six 1

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

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

“Rain” by Richard Rive, a bleak narrative of a cold and wet Cape Town setting, metaphorises the hopeless, desperate, lonely and sad life of the naive Coloured protagonist, Siena.

Through the device of in medias res happier days are recalled when Siena and her lover meet in rural surroundings. The landscape serves as a metaphor for the desolation of apartheid.

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

de villiers st

Transition is ironically encountered by the antagonist, a blaspheming Jew, attempting to sympathise with Siena. 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” by Es’kia Mphahlele the irony of apartheid is shown from the outset. “Mrs Plum” is sarcastically address as “Madam”.

Colour highlights the irony of apartheid;

“So the suburbs were full of blackness.”

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

richard rive

Wise, and a charitable educator, “Mrs Plum” is a sympathetic white liberal. Irony courses through this liberal who patronizes the story’s protagonist, Karabo, to the point that it contributes to her empowerment.

Karabo empoweringly encounters her transition and reaches a threshold after attending the “Black Brow Club”. Harsh realities still linger;

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

The ironic use of the dog metaphor 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 evoked 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 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 with 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” by Zoe Wicomb the narrator’s mother antagonizes her daughter’s flight from apartheid. She returns when things improve. Ironically, the mother stays behind, becoming the true inheritor of a landscape poisoned by apartheid.

Daughter and mother are conscious of their physical characteristics. In Derek Attridge’s Writing South Africa 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 post-colonial world, broken mirror in hand, reproducing itself in puzzling distortions.”

Wicomb argues that the problem of their identity undermines national identity. There is 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 this problem as she alleges that the country is infected with “disrespectful foreign ways”. She is right. We recall the colonising influences of the British when they invade our land with their languages and culture.

Disapproval is shown towards youth who use education to revolt against apartheid and colonialism, thus empowering themselves.

The narrator hates her motherland, dreaming only of her foreign home. 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.”

She will have real events to write about.

white wall

“Journal of a Wall” by 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”.

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

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

ivan vladislavic

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.”

Even in suburbia vast, rural landscapes are alluded to, metaphorically displaying post-colonial 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 symbolising the white man’s isolation and alienation in Africa. His sense of despair deepens after his neighbours sell their home. 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” by Maureen Isaacson gives a post-modern impression of South African life at the turn of the millennium. Written in the 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.

cape town

The minimalist prose displays images of both the old and new South Africa. Key words used include; “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.”

In view of the transitional theme featured here, we can see how authors use both conventional and deviational writing methods to highlight the features of irony in their texts.


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