The South African State of Emergency

AiW Guest: Jeanne-Marie Jackson

South Africa’s literary world, as part of the country’s broad current turmoil, offers evidence for more than just a shallow reading of cultural déjà vu. This evidence goes by the name of Salman Rushdie, who unexpectedly made headlines there (again) this year. During an event scheduled as part of the Time of the Writer festival in Durban on March 18th, a 40-year-old writer named Zainub Priya Dala was attacked for stating innocuously that she admired Rushdie’s style. Three men followed her to her car, held a knife to her throat, and called her “Rushdie’s Bitch,” before hitting her in the face with a brick. The attack made significant waves within two days when Dala recounted it to South African media, and Rushdie himself then Tweeted his support. Though the clarity of the event’s significance unraveled from there, both the attack itself and the literary-intellectual response to it reflect a sense of being on an historical treadmill.

Zainub Priya Dala. Image credit:

Zainub Priya Dala. Image credit:

Based on a number of cryptic Tweets by Dala herself at the end of March, PEN South Africa issued a statement reporting that she had been involuntarily confined to a psychiatric facility in retaliation for her admiration of Rushdie. There was an international public outcry, as PEN America affirmed PEN South Africa’s “outrage” and desire to “vindicate [Dala’s] rights and freedoms.” Outrage was the driving affect all along, in fact, right into the ensuing confusion about whether the mental hospital part of the story was true. Amid calls for a retraction from the PEN organization, Dala issued a statement of her own which revealed that she went voluntarily, though reluctantly, to the hospital for PTSD, but there felt “compromised by excessive medication.”

Her trauma is upsetting and it is a relief that she is safe and able to focus on promoting her first novel. What should also be troubling, though, for those of us with the luxury of distance from her experience, is the analytic impotence that it brought to light as an excuse for current literary-intellectual culture. What PEN wanted in Dala was a transnational literary hero, of the sort that the Rainbow Nation of yore supplied in abundance. But Dala was not it. It is commendable when the Executive Director of PEN America writes that “In expressing her views on Mr. Rushdie’s work Ms. Dala was engaging in intellectual discourse,” except that there is no exacting standard by which that is true. The outrageous part of the attack is that Dala said virtually nothing. She offered a brief expression of taste, and the violence it prompted is alarming both for its dogmatism and for the fact that it is such a hollowed revisiting of issues with a more robust intellectual history in South Africa.

Image from, used under Creative Commons licence

J.M. Coetzee

Many readers will already know the event to which I refer. In a 1989 episode that has been recounted many times before, Rushdie was the locus of a key argumentative moment in anti-apartheid writing. It involved, in brief, a rare and heated public disagreement between Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee over whether or not to revoke an invitation to Rushdie from the Congress of South African Writers (Cosaw) to speak about censorship in Cape Town. This dovetailed with the international outcry over The Satanic Verses, and a number of South Africa’s Muslim organizations called for severing ties with the controversial writer. A showdown over free speech followed: Gordimer, on behalf of Cosaw, saw no virtue in risking even one life for the sake of an idea, while Coetzee found Rushdie’s dis-invitation cowardly, provincial, and anti-secular. It is a riveting episode to read about and teach, a weighty overlap between literary content, intellectual discussion, and organizational decisions. Both within The Satanic Verses and in the South African argument about Rushdie’s role in the anti-apartheid struggle, the questions of what one would die for, what one would kill for, and the relation of symbolic to strategic concerns came to a pointed convergence.

In contrast, the intellectual context of today’s South Africa often seems to widen the gap between rhetoric and strategy, or even just between rhetoric and any responsibility for making real decisions. As events in South Africa replay themselves, the range of on-tap responses seems ever-more vapid. Statement after statement disappears into the ether of “awareness,” a closed circuit of saying the right things, in pained tones, and vague terms.


In the weeks in March and April during which the ZP Dala story unfolded, South Africa’s body politic saw a number of its limbs quite brutally severed. The overriding effect of this new, unofficial state of emergency is to reinforce the unsettling sense of public-intellectual decline amidst social inequality’s escalation. First, there was “Rhodes Must Fall,” a campus campaign that sought to remove a large Cecil Rhodes statue from its prominent position at the University of Cape Town. Though UCT initially condemned the movement as “reprehensible and regrettable,” it set off a furious chain reaction that to many was long overdue. On April 9th, the hulking bronze thing was lifted from its plinth.

Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Image credit:

Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Image credit:

Amidst the #Rhodesmustfall Twitter onslaught that continued after the statue was removed, a symbolic register of debate seemed well enough suited to the topics at hand. The questions that this campaign moved onto were largely of a significant rather than urgent nature: what other landmarks should be defaced, or removed? How quickly could the country re-name its national institutions, Rhodes University in particular? There was a noted op-ed by UCT professor Harry Garuba about college curriculum reform, which made reference to debates in late 60s Kenya about a more indigenized, less “English” canon of literary study. The take-away was that South Africans (and really, anyone interested in more inclusive learning) should return to the questions asked then.

Déjà vu, again. Meanwhile, things on the ground got more controversial. In an uncomfortably focused attempt to heed the country’s most radical position that all remaining “white” symbols should be destroyed, a group of people wearing African National Congress hats defaced a Johannesburg statue of Mahatma Gandhi. The official ANC line was one of disapprobation: “All of us have a duty to work expeditiously to correct all past injustices and acknowledge the pain of our people,” Parliament said. Jonathan Jansen, the first black vice-chancellor of the predominantly Afrikaans University of the Free State, for his part stayed conciliatory. “No, there is not a race war coming,” he assured the public in The Times newspaper, because “the overwhelming majority of South Africans, black and white, believe in a middle path somewhere between reconciliation and social justice.”

But the more “real” things got, the more such high-minded rhetoric seemed to highlight a dearth of cold, hard analysis. At about the same time as a spokesperson for the ANC’s arts and culture ministry was quoted saying that removing the Rhodes statue “marks a significant shift where the country deals with its ugly past in a positive and constructive way,” violent xenophobic tremors started far up South Africa’s Indian Ocean coast. As the attacks spread south to Johannesburg, the South African president Jacob Zuma gently noted that this must stop because “The majority of South Africans love peace and good relations with their brothers and sisters in the continent.” Another famous professor, Achille Mbembe, condemned the horror of it all and invoked The Hague in a series of rhetorical questions – thus, one deeply problematic situation was met with casual and, effectively, uncritiqueable references to a legal institution almost equally so. Even Robert Mugabe got in on the act, announcing that he was “shocked and disgusted.”

The problem here is that it is difficult to offer anything in place of all these platitudes. If pressed to pinpoint a root cause of South Africa’s current volatility, different people would surely offer different explanations and all, more or less, would be right. There is the failure of leadership, in the ANC and most everywhere else; there is the roughly 25 percent official unemployment rate (the unofficial figure is likely much higher); there is “neoliberalism”; there is racism, plain and simple. What they add up to, in public powers of analysis and response as a crucial barometer for our hold on reality, is a sense that we don’t have one.

The current wave of xenophobic violence recalls its 2008 precursor, and the attack on ZP Dala feels like a ghastly flashback to an earlier literary era. There is surely a connection between these events, in the sense that they are products of the same system of failed education, massive socioeconomic inequality, and a long legacy of South Africa being held apart from the rest of the continent. But there is no longer an intelligentsia that responds to cultural tensions as Gordimer and Coetzee did, with confidence in a clear connection between an immediate decision and a larger goal. The most satisfying responses to the current state of affairs have been from people with a pragmatic rather than discursive bent: the media mogul Trevor Ncube writing in the Mail & Guardian, for example, or the activist-academic Raymond Suttner’s book Recovering Democracy.

The best literary-theoretical analysis of South Africa’s situation is therefore a question: is the intelligentsia’s impotence a symptom, or a cause? The crusading pitch of PEN’s calls for justice in the ZP Dala affair – which were echoed almost verbatim in its statements condemning the xenophobic attacks a few days later – rings as generic rather than galvanizing. But to what extent is PEN at fault? Writers today are entreated to “add their voices” to the cause, but books that stake a claim, unlike in the 1989 controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses or indeed, in a career like Nadine Gordimer’s, are now left out of the conversation. Twitter activism reminds us that the possibilities for action have receded in inverse proportion to our urge to take a stand. Wherever the South African writer-intellectual has gone, he or she has taken easy optimism along for the ride.




Jeanne-Marie JacksonJeanne-Marie Jackson is an Assistant Professor of world Anglophone literature at Johns Hopkins University in the U.S., and received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Yale University in 2012. Her first book, South African Literature’s Russian Soul: Narrative Forms of Global Isolation, will be published by Bloomsbury/Continuum in October of this year. She is now at work on a second project called Landlocked: Africa, the Novel, and the Global Frontier, a contemporary theory of the form in southern Africa. In addition to academic writing, she has published work in n+1, Bookslut, The Literary ReviewLitNet, SLiPnet, and Art South Africa.


For more on the intellectual response to Rhodes Must Fall, see our post by Sarah Middleton on the Man Booker International Public Panel in the midst of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at UCT.

For more information and links on the Rhodes Must Fall campaign see #RhodesMustFall

Categories: And Other Words...

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