Transient literatures and maps

During apartheid, literary magazine 'Staffrider' flourished from its ability to represent multiple social visions. However, it struggled to achieve the same in democratic South Africa.

Covers of Staffrider magazine.

“Staffriders” are young working-class men who hang their bodies on the sides and on top of moving trains. By doing this they are playing with ideas of death and danger in attempting to avoid the electricity and the force of the moving train’s speed that moves the train. Staffriding is rooted in apartheid’s extractive economy and its demand for cheap black labor. Staffriders are the byproducts of an overcrowding influx of human labor moving from platform to platform in a rush against time to stamp their clock sheet ahead of the boss.

They live on working-class economic margins, due to their unstable relationship to wage labor which prevents them from affording the cost of a train ticket. Overworked, underpaid, and with dompasses controlling their mobility, these young men respond to their precarious status by taking chances with time. As Mike Abrahams observes, “here timing is a matter of life and death.” We call them staffriders because they represent a particular consciousness of institutionally outlawed black men. Black men who see spaces of danger and potential death as spaces of self-redefinition. When the founders of Staffrider decided to name this experience in a magazine, they sought to use literature as a way to foreground this metaphor or consciousness, which visualizes and collates the conditions creating a staffrider.

From 1978 -1993, Ravan Press published Staffrider in Johannesburg, South Africa. Staffrider began as a non-racial literary and cultural magazine which the conversations of the Mpumalanga Arts Group in Hammarsdale had birthed. Head of Ravan Press and editor of Staffrider Mike Kirkwood, recalls writers in the Natal province who felt the dominance of metropolitan literary centers had made them invisible. In their regionalist concern, they emphasized the urgent need for a publication which could archive the transient cultural period that was emerging alongside the Black Consciousness Movement.

Staffrider gave writing groups the liberty to express and represent multiple social visions. Writers represented these in the form of short stories, autobiography, and spoken word. They created their visions through documentary photography and by using graphics from Southern Africa, including those of South African exiles. Thus, writing groups such as the Azanian People’s Writers Association (later known as Medupe Writer’s Group), the Ga-Rankuwa Writer’s and Artists’ Association, the Mpumalanga Arts of Hammarsdale, the Diepkloof-based Creative Youth Association, the Katlehong-based group, MADI Arts Group and several others, were formed. These writing groups used the function of art primarily to produce black experiences which counteracted apartheid’s racist anti-worker social vision.

In a collection of essays entitled Task and Masks: Themes and Styles of African Literature, Lewis Nkosi argued that South African writers could not surpass politics or express an imaginative transcendence of reality. Later on, in The Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Essays on South African Literature and Culture, Njabulo Ndebele made similar critiques, observing that literature as an art form was absent, but present in saturation within the political sphere. The overarching critique was of the use and characterization of literature as a weapon of struggle. This was evident in the way that details about the everyday were dominant, and in the binary treatment of unequivocal plots by writers.

According to Ndebele, one could see Staffrider as complicit in perpetuating constrained literature, because Staffrider represented reality in a culturally-determined form and produced a centripetal literary code. A code which largely relied on political backdrops and the dominance of symbolic gestures like the authority of an experience.

Observing this same literary debate in South Africa, which Ndebele elaborates, Erhand Reckwitz notes (alongside earlier critics like Lewis Nkosi), that there is a dominant view about South African writers struggling or refusing to move beyond social experience as the driving force behind their literature. Writing is culturally determined by the political situation, so the writing moves from that political axis. The symbolic gesture is therefore to react to reality. But simply seeing this magazine as a sum total of reactionary ideologies, and as representing an immature symbolic stage prevents us from recognizing the transient cultural moment producing the magazine. And dangerously, it creates a false dichotomy that leads us to adopt conservative definitions of revolution and art as stagnant categorical concepts.

I prefer to see Staffrider as one example of a literature best suited to further advance a particular time in South Africa, and its legitimate social interests. I prefer to view its shortcomings as lessons to learn, about both the conscious and unconscious blind spots that feature in our use of language. This magazine is also an object of discursive attention. It objectifies how our literary system can shift away from being a literature of witnesses who constantly deploy language as a means to a political end, rather than as an end in itself. Literature as an end in itself is what would achieve Nkosi’s imaginative transcendence.

Staffriders’ editorial policy took its approach from the writing groups who started their own internal collective editing process during their early formation. At that time it was felt that the editing standards that writers adopted in association with other writers reflected the demands of the time. Therefore, the collective editorial process at Ravan Press decentralized the purpose of language and by extension, also literature. Self-editing and sharing the decision-making process with people outside the press was therefore prioritized instead.

The collective writing groups who represented the practices of this transient cultural era via literature made early contributions directly. However these art collectives experienced heightened police harassment in the 80’s, which marked the start of a slow death for township-based cultural groups. Group contributions were disintegrated by the effects of this harassment. Editing then shifted  towards featuring the work of individual staffriders who initially came out of these collective cultural groups. From what I observe as their use of united-front-like strategies and tactics, I think the nature of Staffrider’s organizing did not allow these writing groups who initially formed the backbone of the early issues, to overcome the tragedy of state repression. They failed to break the stalemate of differing political and social visions in post-apartheid South Africa. My conversation about the magazine with former staffrider and graphic artist, Muziwakhe Nhlabatsi, shapes some of my observations about Staffriders’ inability to land firmly in the post-apartheid era. Aside from its transient nature, Nhlabatsi shared how the end of apartheid marked a shift and end in the funding of magazines like Staffrider, due to the view that the problem propelling such a magazine had been resolved, despite lingering differences about the political and social vision of a democratic South Africa.

Staffriders’ readership was concentrated in the urban metropoles. These places, like Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban, had higher literacy rates. The magazine’s readership formed outside the networks of bookshops, commercial book fairs and festivals, largely mirroring the anti-institutional sensibilities that founded the magazine. Staffrider circulated among its broader creators and subjects of concern. It circulated through the surrealist interventions organized by the individuals, writing groups and graphic artists who worked for the magazine. Copies of each issue would reach peripheral centers in Bloemfontein, Kroonstad, and neighboring Southern African countries such as Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland. Staffrider also circulated internationally across Canada, Netherlands, England, Germany and Australia.

In an essay published by Chimurenga, Vladislavić writes:

The most striking thing about the magazine, even today, is its sense of place. The topography is clearly more important than the typography. Every contributor is tagged to a town or township, sometimes to a cultural group (the Kwanza Creative Society of Mabopane East, the Guyo Book Club, Sibasa). The first editorial made it clear that this arrangement aimed to support writers with a ‘direct line’ to their communities, although those writing and publishing as ‘unattached individuals’ were also welcome. The idea was to reflect and reinforce community mobilization around culture in the wake of ’76.

The submissions that reflected this sense of place included those coming  from: Rustenburg/Kimberley, Westville in Durban, Katlehong, townships such as Mamelodi, Sebokeng and Evaton, Gugulethu, Soweto, Sharpeville, Kwa-Thema and other parts of the country.

Staffrider archives this impermanent topography of people attempting to place themselves back in a contested history. It is a variant of literature that emphasized the symbolic enactments of political language as the objective and locus of power. It is important that we resist the urge to un-see its contributions. This includes its capturing of the momentum of South Africa’s transient culture of resistance against apartheid. It did so by insisting on using a rubric which was irrelevant to the tasks the magazine itself set out to accomplish.

We ought to shift our interests towards creating the necessary conditions to produce a new literary code, system and culture that speaks creatively to our collective human predicament today. Here, predicament can include politics but I use this word more to suggest an urgent intellectual project that is not arrested by the image of politics. This iteration and call is for a practice of freedom which abandons reality as the only space from which we project South African literature.

Further Reading