Continuity and Change in Postapartheid Fiction
- Louise BethlehemLouise BethlehemThe Hebrew University of Jerusalem
What language is adequate to describe the coming into being of the new South Africa? What literary forms does newness take? What promises does the new “postapartheid fiction” deliver (or fail to deliver)? For many observers, the May 10, 1994, inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the first democratically elected president of South Africa captured the optimism of the political settlement that ended apartheid. Writers finally seemed able to suspend the imperatives of a literary culture oriented primarily toward political struggle. Yet while regime change informs “postapartheid fiction” in the literal sense of the term, literary and political periodization do not wholly coincide. The divisive legacies of racism are not easily dismissed. This understanding informs a category of writing often called “transitional literature” that emerges in tandem with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC, 1996–1998) as the site where the new nation comes into being. Often autobiographical or confessional in tone, it remains bound up with the country’s racist past. Transitional literature thus points toward the ambivalent nature of the “post” in “postapartheid fiction,” which scholars argue functions here much like it does in the term “postcolonial.” Both prioritize the continued unfolding of a long historical sequence rather than a punctual transition that abrogates the reckoning with the past.
“Post-transitional literature,” in turn, includes fiction dating from roughly the second decade after the beginning of the political transition. A layered engagement with earlier writing and with the immediate past preserves the porous negotiation of temporality already at work in transitional literature. However, black writers in particular have stressed that the continuities between the apartheid regime and its democratic successor pertain less to the intertwining of temporalities than to political economy—given the nature of inequality in South Africa where class remains tightly bound up with race.
Postapartheid fiction is not merely the preserve of continuity, however. In South Africa, the preoccupation with race has given way to other vectors of subjectivity involving gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, youth culture, and autochthony or foreignness, as well as their intersections. New concerns focused on gay and lesbian subjectivities, HIV/AIDS, or on the possibilities of conflict and conviviality opened up by the desegregated and increasingly cosmopolitan character of urban spaces, have accompanied a changing literary market. Newness proliferates through the devices of creative nonfiction, eco-fiction, and genre fiction. Crime fiction has become more popular. Partly serving as the index of social disorder in South Africa and partly as the arena where this disorder is worked through in fictional form, crime fiction tacitly offers the prospect of redress—however remote. Speculative fiction similarly pits utopian aspirations against dystopian skepticism, in dialogue with Afrofuturism elsewhere on the continent. Intra-African lines of influence, and indeed of migration, announce new pathways for literary expression in English. Afrikaans literature has similarly come to assimilate transnational and diasporic motifs. Using the idea of “postapartheid fiction” to convey the exceptionalism—rather than distinctiveness—of contemporary South African writing may thus have run its course. This is itself a telling marker of how far South African literature has come since the fall of the apartheid regime.