Skip to the content

Imagining the ordinary

Essay by Tonje Vold, who interviewed Njabulo Ndebele on stage during LitFestBergen 2020

The novel The Cry of Winnie Mandela by Njabulo S Ndebele explores the meaning of South Africa itself: can it be a home after all the violence, all the exiles, the forced removal and destruction, and if so, on what terms?  

The cultural and social lives of ordinary people stand at the heart of political processes. This is one of the main strands of thought that run through the literary and academic writing of Ndebele, South Africa’s famous author and intellectual. 

As an academic and fiction writer, Ndebele consistently points out how social practices, stories and cultures come to define economics, politics and history, not the other way around. The frictions and intersections of nation- and community-building, a sense of place and a sense of home, public representation and personal stories, formal and informal businesses, cultural and official calendars, are other poignant themes in Ndebele’s work. 

His own life tells a South African story of departure and return, where combinations of roots and routes come to form influential new ideas. Born in 1948, the very year the apartheid policy was launched, Ndebele escaped the limited “Bantu education” available to the black majority in the country because his parents sent him to a boarding school in Swaziland. 

In the 1960s, when South Africa’s apartheid policies hardened while other African nations faced decolonization, Ndebele studied at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. He became involved in the Black Consciousness movement, the political student organisation led by Steve Biko. He continued his studies in English and creative writing up to PhD level at Cambridge and Denver, and stayed in exile in Lesotho. 

Ndebele finally returned to Cape Town just before the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990. Since then, he has held top administrative positions at four of South Africa’s universities and now heads the prestigious Nelson Mandela Foundation. 

Since social life is the very content of politics, Ndebele maintains, authors need to be attentive to the rich nuances of people’s ordinary lives for literature to be politically relevant. As early as the 1970s, when South African literary writing was highly politicised, Ndebele boldly carved out a space for literature that was autonomous, inclusive of a variety of experiences and artistic forms, and yet derived its validity from society, from its relevance for the majority population in the context of harsh domination. 

A decade later, his now classic essay “The Rediscovery of the Ordinary. Some New Writing in South Africa” (1984) sparked a debate regarding the form, content and purpose of South African literature. Contemporary literature was at that point too narrow, formally and thematically, nurtured by what Ndebele calls “the spectacular”. The spectacular is associated with a documentary style, exteriority and lack of nuance. Importantly, the spectacular does not provide the majority in South Africa with knowledge but promotes a feeling of helplessness. 

Consistent with Ndebele’s earlier work, in the late 1990s he saw the transition from the apartheid regime to a democratic republic as a continuing social process, not an event. 

The work of the truth and reconciliation commission enabled the testimonies of ordinary South Africans to be heard and provided a rare and “living example of people reinventing themselves through narrative”, he said in 1998. But “the real challenge” was “to stimulate the imagination of its people through voices that go beyond the giving of testimony, towards creating new thoughts and new worlds”. 

Ndebele’s most famous literary work, the novel The Cry of Winnie Mandela (2003), probes the meaning of South Africa itself, and can be read in light of the importance of moving beyond testimony, beyond symbols and beyond the spectacular.

In the collective global memory, the event of the post-apartheid transition is the release of Nelson Mandela. What happened to Winnie and Nelson Mandela when the camera who followed the couple to their doorstep disappeared, one might wonder? However, Ndebele metaphorically flips the camera to point at the onlookers: what about you, the novel asks, what now, nation?

Contraposing Winnie Mandela’s extraordinary life with the “ordinary” lives of South African women exposes their entanglements. Four women tell their life stories in relation to, and addressed to, Winnie Mandela. All of them have been women waiting: for husbands away in the mines, husbands in exile, husbands who have abandoned them. 

The novel underlines the position of women, domestic life and women’s work in the history of old and “new” South Africa. With the same keen eye and interest Ndebele uses in his essays to analyse the meaning of social activities – black tourists resting at a game lodge, the skills involved in organising funerals, or the strengths of informal transport systems – he scrutinised waiting. As a South African activity, it is gendered, it signals strength, resilience and resistance, but it also involves loneliness, loss, hopelessness. As a gendered and literary activity, Ndebele roots it far back and in Western literature: the ladies are “descendants” of Homer’s Penelope.

Coming to terms with what Winnie meant to the narrators means confronting what the nation was, has become, and can be. “Is a country of so much dislocation still a home?”, one of the characters wonders. 

With Winnie as a prism, the contradictions between the old and new nation-building narratives of South Africa are exposed. Winnie is the hero activist, who is cast as a wife. She is the champion for justice, who stands behind murder and torture. She is the waiting wife, who has love affairs. She is the one whom Nelson returns to, and the one he divorces. The “mother of the nation” who refuses to bend. 

While Nelson spread Madiba magic, she became a truly contested character in the story of postapartheid nation-building. The novel thereby explores the meaning of South Africa itself: can it be a home after all the violence, all the exiles, the forced removal and destruction, and if so, on what terms?  

The imagination, interiority and nuances sought are truly here. As the essays may turn from cultural analysis to ask how energy and skills can be fuelled into politics, the novel about waiting does not end at a standstill. When Winnie Mandela finally answers the ladies, it is with a true cry. At the end of the book, all of them take off in Penelope’s car. 

The novel combines the metafictive, the documentary, and quotes from the truth and reconciliation commission. It is realist and imaginative fiction. It is a truly outstanding novel which manifests Ndebele’s ideas of what literature can do, the compelling contexts it provides, the styles and ideas it can contain, its infinite questions. 

The novel thereby stimulates the imagination far beyond what is ordinary, and far beyond the borders of South Africa, creating new thoughts and new worlds.

Share Content