Writer Imraan Coovadia, on lit magazine n+1‘s blog, writing about the tenplate for “the South African story” in Western media:

… In the run up to the [2010] World Cup even usually intelligent publications like Harper’s and the London Review of Books were replicating the hoariest clichés in sight. Each magazine had rented out space to its useful idiot. In the LRB, R.W. Johnson, who has long since turned himself into a cliché of the 1950s Tory, was promising nothing but corruption in this World Cup, along with violence and black magic (“producing [soccer] pitches that are unplayable because of all the lucky charms and folk medicines which have been jammed into them”), as well as the ritual slaughter of animals on the soccer field just before every game … I didn’t see any animals being slaughtered, and not a whole lot of witchcraft either, except the undeniable black magic of the vuvuzela.

Johnson denounced us from the right. In Harper’s Breyten Breytenbach, the radical Afrikaans poet, denounced us from the left (as “Fuckland,” to use his name for South Africa.) The Afrikaans-language establishment reveres Breytenbach ever more as he denounces them. But even if you weren’t skeptical about the poverty of Breytenbach’s vocabulary and the inflexibility of his thinking, you might wonder at the speed at which he went from denouncing the racial policies of the old government to denouncing the new dispensation. You might even ask whether Breytenbach’s style of denouncing everyone and everything doesn’t produce certain hazards of its own.

At least, by denouncing, Breytenbach revs himself up and creates a general frisson. The aged rock-and-roller and pseudo-intellectual Riaan Malan, author of the international bestseller My Traitor’s Heart, charting his break with Afrikaner nationalism, has simply been depressed in his capacity as a white man in Africa. In our future he sees nothing but “duisterness” (darkness). One might better see “duisterness” in our past, where Riaan Malan was born into privilege, than in a present where the government, despite all its faults, has brought water and electricity and housing and some measure of education and public health to the majority of the population. I suppose Malan has the honesty to wonder if this “duisterness” isn’t because he’s been neglecting his medication.

The point isn’t Malan, Breytenbach, or R.W. Johnson. It’s the great audience for their clichés. In fact white readers in the US and the UK., whether of the right or the left, of the colonial camp or the post-colonial, have generally been interested in how white people, so mysteriously like but unlike themselves, are doing in South Africa. It’s this long distance fantasy which, for good or ill, does most to explain South African literary culture from Nadine Gordimer and Alan Paton in the 1950s to John Coetzee in the 1990s. And a fantasy is nothing but a cliché.

For good reason the reality of the country is not capturable in a cliché of the left or the right. South Africa has a left-wing government, a left-wing doctrine of transformation and inclusion and equalization, a flourishing Communist Party and labour movement, and a right-wing way of doing almost everything. Politics, and business, and literature, and private medicine, and family life, and, yes, sport are run, by and large, in a conservative, hierarchical, and unquestioning mode, rigid with old school Christianity and patriarchy.

Further Reading

This is Congo

A long-awaited documentary takes a look at the state of politics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and highlights those who are working to build a new future.