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Biography in the African context can take many forms, from brief entries in a biographical dictionary or obituary in a newspaper to multivolume studies of single individuals. It can encompass one or many subjects and serves both to celebrate the famous and illuminate obscure lives. Biographies can be instructional as well as inspirational. Sometimes, it is hard to draw a line between biography and autobiography because of the way a work has been compiled. An attempt is made to understand this vast range of forms, with reference to social and political biography. The main focus is on work produced since the 1970s, with examples drawn from all regions of sub-Saharan Africa (although Southern Africa is better represented than others, as is English-medium material). Matters that preoccupy biographers everywhere, such as the relationship between writer and subject and the larger relationship between biography and history, are raised. Biography can be an excellent entry point into the complexities of African history.

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Biographical portrayals of Mandela have been strongly influenced by his own self-representations, beginning with his trial testimonies in 1962 and 1964. Authorized narratives about his life that were consolidated during the 1990s reflected Mandela’s political priorities at that time. In the unitary subject that these stories project—in the “unchanging man” whose story they told—their protagonist is a patrician-born aristocrat whose values and codes of behavior are shaped by his upbringing in the culture of a royal court. In important respects, though, this understanding of Mandela is at odds with earlier treatments of his life for which he had been a willing collaborator. Several of the biographical interpretations written in the early 21st-century draw upon archival evidence and prompt serious revisions of established or conventional understandings of Mandela’s life, particularly in terms of the validity of biographical investigations that emphasize consistency and order. Questions persist in the early 21st century as to whether Mandela’s experiences as a political prisoner and his role in constitutional negotiations will be subjected to such archive-based research, and whether the final stages of his public life will undergo an assessment.

Article

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.