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Against Normalization: Writing Radical Democracy in South Africa

Against Normalization: Writing Radical Democracy in South Africa

by Anthony O'Brien

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At the end of apartheid, under pressure from local and transnational capital and the hegemony of Western-style parliamentary democracy, South Africans felt called upon to normalize their conceptions of economics, politics, and culture in line with these Western models. In Against Normalization, however, Anthony O’Brien examines recent South African


At the end of apartheid, under pressure from local and transnational capital and the hegemony of Western-style parliamentary democracy, South Africans felt called upon to normalize their conceptions of economics, politics, and culture in line with these Western models. In Against Normalization, however, Anthony O’Brien examines recent South African literature and theoretical debate which take a different line, resisting this neocolonial outcome, and investigating the role of culture in the formation of a more radically democratic society.
O’Brien brings together an unusual array of contemporary South African writing: cultural theory and debate, worker poetry, black and white feminist writing, Black Consciousness drama, the letters of exiled writers, and postapartheid fiction and film. Paying subtle attention to well-known figures like Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head, and Njabulo Ndebele, but also foregrounding less-studied writers like Ingrid de Kok, Nise Malange, Maishe Maponya, and the Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera, he reveals in their work the construction of a political aesthetic more radically democratic than the current normalization of nationalism, ballot-box democracy, and liberal humanism in culture could imagine. Juxtaposing his readings of these writers with the theoretical traditions of postcolonial thinkers about race, gender, and nation like Paul Gilroy, bell hooks, and Gayatri Spivak, and with others such as Samuel Beckett and Vaclav Havel, O’Brien adopts a uniquely comparatist and internationalist approach to understanding South African writing and its relationship to the cultural settlement after apartheid.
With its appeal to specialists in South African fiction, poetry, history, and politics, to other Africanists, and to those in the fields of colonial, postcolonial, race, and gender studies, Against Normalization will make a significant intervention in the debates about cultural production in the postcolonial areas of global capitalism.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“An important, topical, beautifully written, challenging, and always interesting book. Delicately melding close reading with political vision, O’Brien presents a carefully contextualized introduction to South African writers of the last two decades and includes a consideration of their many genres.”—Margaret Daymond, editor of South African Feminisms: Writing, Theory, and Criticism, 1990–1994

“In this rich and astute book, Anthony O’Brien introduces his readers to an array of writers and relates them to global, cultural, and political concerns. Subtly responsive to the increasing complexities both of postcolonial theory and culture in post-apartheid South Africa, Against Normalization advances postcolonial analysis on several significant fronts by embarking on a truly comparative approach to South African writing.”—Rob Nixon, author of Homelands, Harlem, and Hollywood: South African Culture and the World Beyond

“O’Brien brings together both familiar and unfamiliar literary and cultural material in South Africa without failing to wrestle with the enormous critical and theoretical problems concerning what connects and differentiates these diverse currents of literature, theater, and critical theory in South Africa.”— Biodun Jeyifo, Cornell University

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Duke University Press
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Post-Contemporary Interventions
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Writing Radical Democracy in South Africa
By Anthony O'Brien


Copyright © 2001 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2571-0

Chapter One

Radical Democracy and the Electoral Sublime

This is being written just after the fourth anniversary of the first free election in South Africa, on April 27, 1994: a date celebrated around the world. Majority rule since 1994 has already produced tangible benefits. According to the estimate of the political scientist Tom Lodge, the achievements of the first free vote include

a primary health care program that has already significantly reduced infant mortality, three million people supplied with piped water, half a million electrical connections a year, the significant spread of home ownership among the relatively poor, and wage rises that have beaten the (declining) inflation rate. ("Besieged in Mafeking" 3)

Lodge points out, however, that this path is put in question by the government's adoption of GEAR, with its neoliberal prioritization of growth over redistribution-to the outrage of cosatu, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (the ANC's principal ally), which argues for an alternative, Keynesian macroeconomic policy. Recent discussion of an ANC merger with Inkatha, Gatsha Buthelezi's right-wing Zulu nationalist party, suggests similar turmoil in the politicalsphere.

When allies and enemies shift ground like this, the famous "transition" in South Africa is clearly still very much in transition, and characterized by fierce debates, not least over questions of culture. This chapter moves into those cultural debates and the discourse of the local, the national, and the global that frames them, along two different tracks: first, at the national level, an account of how South African writers saw the event of the first free election in 1994; second, at the local level, an account of a visit to one of the most important sites where an exciting new radical-democratic culture had begun to be formed in the eighties and was undergoing a significant change in the transition, the Culture and Working Life Project (CWLP) in black working-class Durban. The dialectical tension between established writers representing the vote as a new national act of representative democracy and the CWLP writing class establishing the act of writing as a new local act of participatory democracy is a tension that underlies all the readings of theoretical debates, individual texts, and groups of writers that follow in later chapters. Here an attempt is made to convey the texture and felt experience of both sides of this dialectic as a background for the discussions to follow.

Writing the First Free Election

To begin a book whose argument is that in this transition period, far from everyone pulling toward some mythical center whose most likely name would be liberal democracy, critical attention needs to be given to the most radical impulses in literature and culture in South Africa, their writing of new directions in radical democracy, it is logical to look at writers' reactions to that inaugural event of the first free vote and their personal responses to voting-the black writers for the first time. We can do this thanks to the foresight of the novelist André Brink, who in the weeks before election day 1994, asked writers "to keep a diary of that day and send it to the publisher as soon as possible after the event ... here was an opportunity for writers to test their word against, arguably, the most remarkable moment in their history" (S.A. 27 April 1994 8). Brink printed the responses of forty-five writers, including most of the best-known (notably absent are the radical worker poets of the Durban CWLP), in a volume entitled S.A. 27 April 1994: an authors' diary * 'n skryversdagboek. What the rest of the population thought about voting is undoubtedly more important than these few testimonies, and still fresh in the memory is the television coverage of the popular experience of the vote, the long queues, the stories of the old and sick coming in by wheelbarrow if necessary to cast their first ballot. But the specialized social work that writers do is the work of interpretation, and Brink's compilation is a unique chance to look at what he calls "the 'state of our literature' and the state of our humanity at this crucial juncture" (8). It is an opportunity to inquire into the role and the responsibility of the literary intellectual in constructing (establishing or subverting) a discourse of the nation, the new nation.

Benedict Anderson's anthropologizing of the nation as "nation-ness" summons up a tone point the persuasive historical image of citizens everywhere reading the same daily newspaper at the same time, defining for themselves in this way a horizontal belonging in space and time to the bounded "imagined community" of a nation of citizen-subjects as readers of the news (Imagined Communities 61-63). The 1994 vote, the foundational ballot that inaugurated a new democracy and with it, in many people's minds-if only because of repeated slogans like "the new South Africa"-a new nation, is more than a reading in common of putatively national texts like novels and news, ads and soap operas; it is a choreographed performance, a common act of writing, appending that common signature of the citizen, the x, which so strikes Nadine Gordimer's imagination in her account of the day. It is clear that Brink's compilation coheres, for all its diversity of tone, style, and opinion, around the discourse of the nation; for these writers, above all else, voting is primarily the key signifier of that discourse. The book therefore raises the question of what is being said, what is to be said, what needs to be said, about the current concept of the nation in South Africa. To found the nation on the ballot is already to privilege Western representative democracy as synonymous with the nation itself, in the same moment in which global late capitalism is assumed to be synonymous with economic rationality, and to risk foreclosing other conceptualizations of democracy, nation, culture, and social life. The most interesting responses in Brink's invaluable little book are those that mine the writer's awareness of the limits and ambiguities of the ballot as received truth, as the self-evident, commonsense metonym of democracy and freedom. The book in this way questions the somewhat archaic innocence about the ballot that marked 1994 media coverage, an innocence almost shocking in the overdeveloped market democracies, where there is widespread and justified working-class voter indifference to a process long lost to the professionals of the pro-capitalist electoral parties, media spectacle, and behind-the-scenes lobbying and deal making by big money.

As well as these questions, there is a fascination in the amazingly different experiences the writers had: Brink giving an impromptu lecture on a set book to one of his students standing next to him in the six-hour queue in a Cape Town rainstorm; Achmat Dangor guiding a French film crew around the dusty hamlets of the Northern Transvaal; Mzwakhe Mbuli voting in his old Soweto elementary school, Embuhleni ("in the place of beauty" in Zulu); Mike Nicol going down to vote in a childhood haunt, the Camel Rock Cafe, at the southernmost tip of the continent; Mazisi Kunene reluctant to vote at all because he "has voted with [his] life," then making a brilliant mistake and voting for the "wrong" person; while for Stephen Watson, his vote is as much the day-long climb to plant a native tree in the Cederberg as it is his dawn trip to the voting station. The stories criss-cross the nation-landscape itself becomes a metaphor, especially mountains and native trees-but the larger question is the narrative of the nation these essays represent. Indeed, the key concept here is precisely the concept of "representation," in the double sense of Vertretung and Darstellung that Marx discussed so often: in this case, political representation, as when I vote for someone to represent, to speak for me (vertreten), to be my delegate, my proxy, perhaps even my substitute, in the state and the law; and literary or historical representation (darstellen), as when I represent, re-present, myself by my story, my photo album, or my analysis of my life. The essays in Brink's compilation need to be read with both senses of "representation" in mind. The nation defined as a parliamentary democracy (its classic modern form) is built on political representation, and the responsibility of intellectuals is both to re-present the nation and to question its representation.

In this book, then, voting is a heavily loaded event, an event not to be distinguished from the discourse that surrounds it. There is a strong impulse to see the first free vote as the political Sublime, yet Albie Sachs (who does see it that way) entitles his piece "The Banality of Good." The writers feel they must both participate in the vote as a national ritual and stand off at some distance to define its meaning. How do they conceive that civic rite of belonging in an "imagined community," defined partly by a kind of simultaneous time, in which at the same time throughout all the regions and social milieux of the country the citizen-subjects perform the same act? What is the sense each writer gives to the content of this "new nation" born on April 27-do they conceive it similarly or are there important differences? In focusing on the vote as the birth of a new nation ("the birth of a flag," Achmat Dangor less piously names it), what terms of reference other than the nation-larger terms like the global economy, smaller terms like social classes and ethnicities-does this narrative of election day erase or suppress? What is the "Other" of voting, the suppressed term put in shadow by the electoral sublime? (To anticipate a moment, it seems mainly to be violence: violence, standing unconsciously perhaps for social conflict itself-in which its signifying function is challenged by the equally polysemic term crime-is the event the vote is willed to erase and replace.) What conflicts within the nation are repressed by the narrative of new birth and unified identity? In the other direction, the world was watching the vote, but what is the relation of the new nation to that larger world? Can the narrative of the national vote ignore the ways South Africa is "transnationalized" by global markets and global media, the IMF, the "donor community" and its busy high-end NGOS, changes in U.S. Africa policy? For some writers it may not be the concept of nation that is the determining one in understanding their vote, but an allegiance to something larger or something smaller than the nation-international imagined communities such as the fellowship of writers, or subcultural ones such as fallen militants of the armed struggle. A stunning example of the latter, not in this book but in a COSATU ad described in Eve Bertelsen's illuminating paper on the ads of the 1994 election ("Selling Change" 8), was the connection drawn by the graphics between the x of the ballot and the crosses on the graves of Steve Biko, Neil Aggett, and Matthew Goniwe. In other words, much can be learned from Brink's book about how the discourse of the nation operates in postapartheid South Africa. It is an interesting moment in the discursive field surrounding the event of the new nation's birth, a discursive field that is contested and heterogeneous and still open, both at the time of writing the "authors' diary" and now, to cultural reconstruction and development.

A quick way to contextualize and historicize the writing of the 1994 election would be to scan images from the antiapartheid struggle that led to April 27 in the form of resistance posters and other art from the late 1980s, in collections such as Images of Defiance: South African Resistance Posters of the 1980s (South Africa History Archive, 1991), Art of the South African Townships (Gavin Younge, 1988), and Resistance Art in South Africa (Sue Williamson, 1989). These images tell many stories, but here they could stand simply as documents of the pain and hope that knew its moment of triumph at the polls on election day. Or these images might be thought of as part of the political unconscious of every writer in Brink's book as they went to vote. The nineteenth-century French theorist of nationalism Ernest Renan said that the soul or principle of a nation is constituted by two things: "one is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together" ("What Is a Nation?" 19). These images, like Civil War photographs or Toni Morrison's novel Beloved in this country, are part of that legacy. Renan, more acerbically, also pointed out that "Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for the principle of nationality. Indeed, historical inquiry brings to light deeds of violence which took place at the origin of all political formations" (11). These images, like those that shocked some Israelis in a recent television documentary showing the expulsion of Palestinians, should also not be forgotten. They represent the nation that went to the polls, in a different manner than the votes they cast that day but in no less representative a manner.

From the vantage point of their own vote in the polling booth, the writers with few exceptions choose, to represent the nation, two leading images that may seem oversimple but that clearly predominate in the book. One is the same image the media chose, of voters queuing outside the polls; the other is the image of the act of filling in the ballot paper. Both signify membership in the new nation. The dominant image of the nation in this book, it can be said, is the image of the nation as a community, in the close-up, human-scale form of the voters' queue. The community on the line is felt to enact or stage (another meaning of darstellen) the community feeling the writers hope the new nation will give them. Here it is, in a very important sense, on the queue, which is thus a metonymic representation of the new nation itself. It is the nation as festival or carnival, in part, with the food and drink runs made to supply all with refreshment; it is eavesdropping across languages on one's new cocitizen-subjects, as Marguerite Poland listens in to this dialogue about maids and madams in isiXhosa:

"My dear, if the pay went over twenty-five I'd fall on the floor as if I'd been stabbed!" Gusts of laughter between them. "Mine sleeps all the time! She really has no head. Every afternoon!" More laughter. I bump the speaker by mistake, leaning too close in my shameless attentiveness.

"Sorry sweetheart, sorry darling." She pats my arm conciliatorily. "Don't worry." Ahead, an older woman clicks her disapproval with a sidelong glance at a young girl in jeans and a big sloppy top. "These girls have no respect." She shakes her head. "Really!" Unrepentant, the young girl dances along the path beside the queue, thumbs up before her, "Sizodrayiva kahle ngeNew South Africa. Sithole ijekpot! [We will drive well in the new South Africa. We've hit the jackpot!]" (S.A. 27 April 1994 106-7)

Poland's scene on the queue is notable for her own curiosity about women's lives and African languages, a desire to bond amply rewarded by this moment of gendered togetherness. Of course, the new "jackpot" of community feeling the white writer has hit on the queue would not be there at all for someone who has no interest in learning isiXhosa: the scene announces at once that the possibility and the condition of community for whites is to pick up the burden of language as an act of entry into new nationhood, and for white women "madams" to come to terms with the real social relations they have with "maids." Brink's piece invokes the same hope by voting together with his gardener, whom he names at first from the white world of work "Atwell" and renames as they emerge from the polls "Jongibandla Bontsa" (34). The new nation needs new languages, new names, new signatures, new representations, if a new community is to emerge. It happens on the line, but can it happen so easily in the politics and economics of the republic?

Poland and Brink may simply be playing with illusions of freedom. The queue as metonym of national community does run into this contradiction, that it links in the rationalized, disciplinary social form of a serial line people who are linked as equals in no other way, and as Nuruddin Farah says in Sardines, "You can only love your equal" (148). But this is no ordinary line, as Nadine Gordimer resonantly writes:

Standing in the queue this morning, I was aware of a sense of silent bonding.... Here we all were as we have never been. We have stood in line in banks and post offices together, yes, since the desegregation of public places; but until this day there was always the unseen difference between us, far more decisive than the different colour of our skins: some of us had the right that is the basis of all rights, the symbolic x, the sign of a touch on the controls of polity, the mark of citizenship, and others did not. But today we stood on new ground. (S.A. 27 April 1994 51)


Excerpted from AGAINST NORMALIZATION by Anthony O'Brien Copyright © 2001 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Anthony O’Brien is Associate Professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York.

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