July 27, 2014

A Chronicler of the Apartheid: Nadine Gordimer

Sonya Surabhi Gupta

THE South African Nobel-prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer, one of the most powerful voices against apartheid, died at the age of 90 on July 13, 2014 at her Johannesburg home. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney called her one of the great “guerrillas of the imagination” and granting the prize to her in 1991, as her country finally began to dismantle the racist system her works had so poignantly explored for more than 40 years, the Nobel Committee recognised her “magnificent epic writing.” Indeed, nobody knew as well as she did how to describe the reality of apartheid-era South Africa, and she did it through her complex novels that explored the human cost of the racial conflict. As a white South African who hated apartheid, she also played a political role in her country's troubled history. Nadine was born in 1923 near Springs, a mining town near Johannesburg. Her father was a Latvian while her mother was from a London family of Jewish origins. She was educated at a Catholic convent school, but as she mentions in her Nobel acceptance speech, “in the small South African gold-mining town where I was growing up…my school was the local library. Proust, Chekhov and Dostoevsky… Only many years later was I to realize that if I had been a black - I might not have become a writer at all, since the library that made this possible for me was not open to any black child.” She said her first story published in a literary magazine when she was 15 grew out of her reaction as a young child to watching the casual humiliation of blacks. She recalled blacks being barred from touching clothes before buying in shops in her hometown, and police searching the maid's quarters at the Gordimer home for alcohol, which blacks were not allowed to possess. In a lecture titled “The Inward Testimony” delivered at the Town Hall in Kolkata on November 10, 2008, she recalled how political awareness came early to her through these segregationist experiences and shaped her as a writer: “I was the child of the white minority, blinkered in privilege. But because I was a writer, I became witness to the unspoken in my society. Very young I entered a dialogue with myself about what was around me; and this took the form of trying for the meaning in what I saw by transforming this into stories based on what were everyday incidents of ordinary life for everyone around me: the sacking of the backyard room of a black servant by police while the white master and mistress of the housed looked on unconcerned; later, in my adolescence during the ’39-45’ War, when I was an aide at a gold mine casualty station, being told the white intern who was suturing a black miner’s gaping head-wound without anaesthetic: ‘They don’t feel like we do’.” Her acute indignation against racism also made her see the caste system in India as intensely segregationist and in the lecture at Kolkata she underlined this commonality stating that “South Africa’s victory over apartheid, in which South African Indian freedom fighters had an important role, finds South Africa left with the land itself still mainly in the title deeds of the white minority and colour, if not caste, remains a source of prejudice and pain.” Referring to the common legacy of colonialism under which creative writers have produced their works in the two countries she said that “there is a strangely interesting and in some instances contradiction in the situational similarities of South Africa and India, as seen in their literatures. Both revealed the distortions brought about in the human personality by a long era under colonialism, the reduction of a people into ‘The Other’ and at the same time the discovery within themselves of forms of resistance that defeated the self-appointed masters, finally.” Gordimer became active in the African National Congress after the Sharpeville massacre which is considered a turning point in the history of South Africa. On March 21, 1960, without warning, South African police at Sharpeville, an African township near Johannesburg, shot into a crowd of about 5,000 unarmed anti-pass protesters, killing at least 69 people and wounding around 200. The apartheid government banned political meetings and also banned both the Pan Africanist Congress, which had organised the action in Sharpeville, and the African National Congress. The arrest of her best friend, Bettie du Toit, in the Sharpeville massacre spurred Gordimer's entry into the anti-apartheid movement. Thereafter, she quickly became active in South African politics. She helped Mandela edit his famous speech "I Am Prepared to Die” given from the defendant's dock at the Rivonia trial after he was arrested in August 1962 and was serving a five year sentence, accused of counts of sabotage, furthering communism and aiding foreign powers. In fact, Nadine was one of the first people Mandela asked to see when he was released in 1990 and she later had the honour of accompanying him to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to him in 1993. Though she never considered herself a political writer, hers was a work committed to the freedom of her people. Three of her books and her anthology of South African black poets were prohibited by the Pretoria regime, which she courageously continued opposing as a lifelong member of the ANC, for which she worked actively, carrying out the most diverse, and many times risky, tasks in the underground resistance. The first book to be banned was A World of Strangers (1958), the story of an apolitical Briton drifting into friendships with black South Africans in segregated Johannesburg in the 1950s. The Late Bourgeois World (1966) was banned for a decade. In 1979 Burger’s Daughter was banished from the shelves for its portrayal of a woman’s attempt to establish her own identity after her father’s death in jail makes him a political hero. The other novel to be banned was July’s People (1981) whose plot revolves around the Smales, a liberal white family living who in the wake of a fictional civil war in which black South Africans have violently overturned the system of apartheid, are forced to flee Johannesburg to the native village of their black servant, July who provides them shelter. Her 1987 novel, A Sport of Nature, prophesied the end of apartheid and included a liberation leader based on Mandela. Gordimer went on to publish 15 novels as well as several volumes of short stories, non-fiction and other works, which are available in 40 languages around the world. A defender of freedom and creativity, in the post apartheid she did not shy away from criticising the ANC under Jacob Zuma, expressing her opposition to a proposed censorship law. Referring to the writers’ integrity she acknowledged in her Nobel acceptance speech that there is a paradox: “In retaining this integrity, the writer sometimes must risk both the state's indictment of treason, and the liberation forces' complaint of lack of blind commitment. As a human being, no writer can stoop to the lie of Manichean 'balance'…Yet, to paraphrase coarsely Márquez's dictum given by him both as a writer and a fighter for justice, the writer must take the right to explore, warts and all, both the enemy and the beloved comrade in arms, since only a try for the truth makes sense of being, only a try for the truth edges towards justice…” While on lecture tours, she spoke on matters of foreign policy and discrimination beyond South Africa. For instance, in 2005, when Fidel Castro fell ill, Gordimer joined six other Nobel prizewinners in a public letter to the United States warning it not to seek to destabilise Cuba. She never stopped condemning the blockade and US hostility but, above all, she maintained always a consistent, efficient and resolute struggle for the freedom of the Cuban Five anti-terrorists. She succeeded in getting the New York Times to publish a statement in 2007 denouncing the injustice committed against them. In the statement she said: “In the responsibility for human justice, which, I believe, must be upheld and expressed by all citizens of our world, I condemn the continued prosecution and incarceration of the Cuban Five by the United States of America. This travesty of justice, perpetrated by what claims to be the world’s example of democratic standards, has now been pursued for almost a decade…I feel compelled by human concern and values, and by my awareness of how justice was travestied in my own country, South Africa, in like ways during the apartheid era, to raise my voice in protest at the persecution of these five Cuban men.” Gordimer’s untiring fight for equality of rights of all men and women, her commitment to the poor and the dignity of people, her magnificent literary perception converted her into something more than a Nobel Prize winning author. Nadine Gordimer became an institution in the unceasing search for morality in our times.