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“An explosion of new literature”

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The perspective of the majority, who were brutally suppressed by the apartheid regime, has now become the norm in new South African literature, says professor Njabulo Ndebele.

Now chair of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Ndebele will be attending LitFestBergen in 2020. A former vice-chancellor and chancellor at various South African universities, he is also an essayist and novelist. Nadine Gordimer, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, has described Ndebele’s novel The Cry of Winnie Mandela as extraordinary. His main literary interest is however the ordinary in literature.

Njabulo Ndebele, In your essay The Rediscovery of the Ordinary, you encourage writing about ordinary black South African lives as a response to the debate during the 1980s about whether the arts should only be a tool for the struggle. How has the literary scene in South Africa changed since you wrote that? 

Since the essay was written, the national context in which new literary works are being written in South Africa has changed considerably for the better. There is something close to an explosion of new writing.

I think this is because  the majoritarian character of the once-oppressed is more visibly the norm in South African public life today. This majoritarian norm was officially, if brutally, hidden from view because of the overwhelming violent dominance of the apartheid state.

This norm is now the national context in which “the ordinary” plays itself out. This “ordinary” is about how South Africans, regardless of their background, respond in complex ways to being South African in a new country. Artists in literature, dance, drama, film, fashion, music, and visual arts are able express a transformative “ordinariness” which is uplifting.

In your book The Cry of Winnie Mandela, you write about the "waiting women" – all the women who, as a result of the segregation policies and discrimination, were confined to the home while their husbands were labouring far away, in prison, in exile or had simply left home and family. Why write about these women? And how did you, as a man, find this topic interesting?

“Waiting women” have been a predominant feature of social life in South Africa for more than a century. I found this topic engaging primarily because Winnie Mandela was their most visible manifestation.

I intuited her condition deeply not so much as a man, but as a writer. It was through the medium of literary art that my intuitions were seized. Through writing, I could feel my way through complex sensibilities – whether male or female.

We found one critique of your authorship while researching these books - and that is that you should write more fiction. It's been too long since The Cry of Winnie Mandela. When can we expect a new novel from your hand? 

The form which The Cry of Winnie Mandela took was unpredictable. I could not foretell what it became when I began it. Since it was published, I have largely engaged in public deliberation through the essay form. Some of those essays were published in the book Fine Lines from the Box.

My choice of writing form has been emergent than predetermined. I have been working over the years on a book, totally unexpected from me, about boxing in the Eastern Cape. I seem to work better with creativity-in-the-making than with predetermined form.

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