Teaching Africa: Sipho Sepamla, literary realism and ‘A Ride on the Whirlwind’

By AiW Guest: An anonymous academic labourer, somewhere in the South-East of England.

Recently I helped teach a course on South African protest and resistance literature. We looked at fiction and poetry from the late 1970s to the late 80s, from the Soweto uprising to the dying days of apartheid. We read the arguments about commitment and complicity, about realism versus symbolism, about artists as cultural warriors, about judging fiction by how successful it is as a form of protest and not as a literary text. We read about white liberal guilt.

This resonated. For I grew up and was trained as a liberal humanist. I’m white, male, middle-class, from the South-East of England – you could say I followed my destiny. And though I knew ideological interpellation may have played some role in my penchant for novels by melancholic, Euro-Atlantic, middle-class white men whingeing about emptiness or pining for a fictitious past of authentic, organic truth and beauty, I couldn’t, and didn’t, resist the belief that such novels really did express something universal and great. And important. But then, like so many others, I was post-structuralised. I saw otherwise. That modernism was also at the apex of the European enlightenment and its accompanying capitalist colonialist patriarchal, not to say supremacist, ideologies and statements; that liberal humanism had a literary twin, realism; that both were pernicious, blind to themselves and dangerous to boot. Simple. Or maybe not.

But even before I started teaching this course I was troubled by my lack of authority to tell this history, to convey the political significance and importance of this body of writing, (and that you take what work you can when your labour is casualised), about the possibility of applying, with students, European critical frameworks and modes of understanding to these texts, compounded by my knowing that such guilt is irrelevant, useless…

sepamla_whirlwindThe first novel we read was Sipho Sepamla’s A Ride on the Whirlwind (1981), a revised account of a pivotal moment in the anti-apartheid movement, the ‘tru-truth’ as Sepamla figures it, of the racial violence that began  on the 16th June 1976 in Soweto. A Ride on the Whirlwind voices a version of events not told in the liberal press, as Mzi – a freedom fighter and hit-man of the liberation movement, who we first see carrying a paper bag of gun parts and grenades hidden under a spray of lurid artificial flowers – is dispatched back to South Africa to assassinate a collaborator with the system.

Index on Censorship, 1983, 12: 12.

Index on Censorship, 1983, 12: 12.

Using genre – the political thriller – to interrogate fact, reporting and the silencing that attempted to bury the Soweto Uprising as a controllable ‘South African’ problem, Sepamla’s text was tellingly misread by the censorship board: initially banned after publication because of its ‘historical’, factual account and its ‘idolising of black insurgents’, the ban was later revoked after a successful appeal by the publishers, A.D. Donker – partly because Sepamla’s readership was considered too ‘unsophisticated’ and ‘not intellectual’ enough for the book to pose a threat, its ‘popular’ content deemed too indirect to incite revolutionary acts.

The students didn’t think it was very good. We talk about judgement: knowing that all forms of judgement derive from a position of power, and that with regards to literature, this position is one of a European bourgeois value system that helped to legitimate colonialism in general and apartheid in particular, do we risk these judgements – “It is badly written”, “the characters are thin and somewhat indistinguishable” – or do we treat this novel as special or exceptional, thereby excluding it from conventional critique, reading practices, and all that that may imply, waiting for the punchline to “when is a novel not just a novel” to arrive?

We think about critical sources. As part of his spirited defense of the novel that had been labelled ‘third-rate pulp’ in the conservative press on its release, Doc Bikitsha instead noted  that it was surprising to find such a book coming from Sepamla, who in previous poetry and prose favoured less obvious, more artistic routes than overt political activism (The Star, July 27, 1981). We think about availability. “Isn’t all instrumentalised art bound to be bad art?” We think about form. At issue here is that A Ride on the Whirlwind  is written in a realist mode, it is plot driven and formally unremarkable. Beyond the question of popularity or accessibility – of telling it how it is – if read as a realist novel, is A Ride on the Whirlwind not formally legitimising what its content is attempting to challenge? Or, is it by refusing the formal experimentation so beloved of the European tradition that the realism itself becomes the vehicle of its political purpose?

This immersion in formal concern – of these details about realism’s claims to authenticity, of its obfuscation of its own fictionality, partiality, subjective viewpoints – feels secondary to the kinds of questions A Ride on the Whirlwind demands of us in the seminar room in soggy Southern England. But it betrays further questions about the conventional role of literary theory in helping us engage with South African resistance literature of the 1980s, in investigating the positions we are offered, and those that we assume.

These are questions to which I have no answer. But it seems clear that in the UK academy and beyond much more attention needs to be given to South African literature that doesn’t fit into tidy theoretical discourses, that doesn’t illustrate critical theory, and that continues to challenge our most deeply invested systems of value.

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Part of an AiW series on teaching in African Studies. The first, by Charlotte Hastings, is here. If you teach a course in the field and would like to contribute, please do contact us africainwords@gmail.com



Categories: South Africa, Teaching Africa, Writers

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