A 20-year Retrospective Author Fred Khumalo on Democracy

Mary Corrigall spoke to renowned South African author Fred Khumalo about the significance of the 20 year anniversary of the country’s democracy and how the literary imagination has evolved in that time.

The landmark 1994 elections, which brought democracy to South Africa, might have drawn a solid line between the country’s apartheid and post-apartheid eras, but it is one that award-winning author Fred Khumalo has constantly traversed in his literature. In his celebrated memoir, Touch My Blood: The Early Years (2006), which was adapted into a play by James Ngcobo in 2009, he revisits his youth and comes to terms with being forced to choose between becoming an activist or an artist.  In Bitches Brew (2007) and in the follow up to that novel, Seven Steps to Heaven (2008), he imagines a township community overshadowed by oppression but one that remains colourful despite this reality.  The new novel he is currently working on charts the present, but his literary output thus far has been characterised by a reflection on the country’s fraught past rather than its liberation.  

Mary Corrigall: The 20th Anniversary of democracy has prompted us to reflect back on what has occurred in different realms. How can this retrospection inform how the nation conceives of itself at this juncture?

Fred Khumalo: It might be an artificial marker, but it gives artists, writers and the consumers of art the opportunity to interact and speak candidly about the process of art production. It is through the arts that the nation gets to see itself. It is through art that society gets to know itself. In the mid 1990s immediately after the demise of apartheid there was a debate or even a non-debate that was preoccupied with what local writers would write about now that apartheid is gone. The inference was that South African writers’ imaginations were kind of confined or arrested by apartheid. They had been writing in reaction to apartheid. Now that apartheid is gone the artist, the writer, is free to explore other things and explore issues of identity and issues confront individuals rather than groups as it was in the past. The idea of good blacks and the bad whites was very reductionist. We as artists are now free to indulge in our personal issues if we want.

Have we really begun to write about apartheid?

There could be some truth to that question. If I look at my first novel Bitches Brew, the word ‘apartheid’ does not even appear in that text once. Yes, the story is set in the 1970s in South Africa. I am exploring the lives that were lived by individuals and how they were overshadowed by apartheid. But now that monster has kind of shifted, we can shine a light on individuals and understand how they coped with apartheid, without pointing out (anything about) the system.

You have said that Bitches Brew was a celebration of love. This ties in with a new desire to relay or retrieve a more balanced view or more positive aspects of life from that dark era. This has caused a backlash – not towards your novel Bitches Brew, but Jacob Dlamini’s Native Nostalgia. The act of retrieving remains a politicised one, does it not?

One tries to humanise those times. Even though they (my characters) were living their lives under the shadow of apartheid they still made love. They were fully fledged human beings that is what one is trying to do with these novels.

Some commentators, such as Ashraf Jamal has implied that this act of documenting and returning to our history as a literary topic has limited the scope of our literature, the imagination of our writers. 

I have not read any of Jamal’s writing on this subject. I think you are robbing the nation and the writers the space and creative imagination by telling them what they should or should not be doing. There are many ways of remembering. Our past is also subject to so many interpretations. I do not think it is right for one to impose any limits. After 1994 we did not break with the past and then decide to start to write about present and the future, because they are interconnected. Our imagination is vast and broad and is touched by our social existence that is connected to the past.

Are unspoken rules and the politics of representation, regarding who can write stories about other races, cultures, still in place?

When I started writing for Staffrider magazine there was the Congress of South African Writers, which was a non-racial group. There were unwritten rules such as that Nadine Gordimer is not qualified enough to write about black people. The allegation was that her black characters were like cardboard cut-outs because she doesn’t understand an African language and has not lived in the township and is not au fait with the social dynamics in the black community. I grew up in the township and I went to school with white people, but there are some dynamics still that happen in the white community that I interpret incorrectly. For that reason I would not dedicate much space to a Jewish character. I would be nervous to do that because I really don’t understand their rituals.

Doesn’t the act of writing create a space for us to learn about each other? What role has literature played in bridging the racial divides that apartheid set up?

The process of writing for me is about trying to find out about myself, my limitations as a human being, my family and my fellow South Africans. I am Zulu speaking and I have discovered things about black people from other (ethnic) groups by learning other languages. Yes, writing has a crucial role to play in bridging the gap between the different groups, racial cultural or ethnic, and through the exploring the art that we make.

Fred Khumalo, former editor of the Sunday Times Review, is a renowned columnist and author of The Lighter Side of Robben Island, Bitches Brew (for which he won the European Union Literary Award 2006) and Seven Steps To Heaven, among other novels. He has worked in various capacities for newspapers in South Africa and overseas and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University from 2011 to 2012.

Khumalo, together with Imraan Coovadia, is a guest author at New South African Voices: 20 years of democracy book reading & discussion on 24.06.2014 at the Goethe-Institut library.