restricted access Introduction: South African Fiction after Apartheid
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Modern Fiction Studies 46.1 (2000) 1-9

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Introduction: South African Fiction After Apartheid

David Attwell and Barbara Harlow

The "remaking of South Africa," while it was preceded by a generation of armed struggle against a system of state violence, was heralded by a period of "talks"--secret exchanges and public negotiation. The "postapartheid narrative," in other words, is in significant part the story of the emergence of a culture of debate, "umrabulo," 1 issuing in a series of protocols, white papers, parliamentary bills, and in 1996 a Constitution. The story is one that was both consensus building and controversy generating.

On 2 February 1990, then president F. W. de Klerk had addressed the South African Parliament in Cape Town, announcing the release of political prisoners and the unbanning of proscribed political organizations, and describing the "process of negotiation" to be of the "highest priority" (Republic). A year earlier, the South African writer and jurist Albie Sachs had delivered a literary paper to an African National Congress in-house seminar in Lesotho; under the title "Preparing Ourselves for Freedom," Sachs proposed that "our members should be banned from saying that culture is a weapon of struggle" (239). He went on to propose a banning period "of, say, five years" (239). Then, in 1990, the [End Page 1] negotiations did indeed begin, and culture was obliged by historical circumstance to find other arenas in which, if not to struggle, at least to compete. And in 1994, the first ever democratic elections were held in South Africa. In May 1994 Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the country's president, at the head of a strongly ANC government. Mandela's first--and only--term ended in 1999 when new national elections were held, and Thabo Mbeki succeeded Mandela as South Africa's president. But the decade from 1989 to 1999--from "talks about talks" to the second election--had in the meantime discovered and denied, vilified and vindicated, revealed and reviled South Africa's past, and sought to right wrongs and write a Bill of Rights. In the process historical premises and cultural practices were established that have come to influence importantly both literary agendas and political prospects, the drafting of a narrative, in other words, that not only grounds a "new [or transitional] South Africa" different from its past, but that must come to terms with that past under the "new dispensation."

A great deal has been said about the so-called "miracle" of the South African transition. The corollary to the notion of a miracle is the continuing legacy and discomfort of compromise: the effort to rebuild a society whose underlying social relations and even attitudes remain substantially unchanged. The pressure is on to find the resources, policies, and vision to "bind the nation together" and to take its people decisively from a traumatized past to a reconstructed future. But, as hard as one might strive for healing and reconstruction, the past stubbornly manifests itself. The most striking example of this tension lies perhaps in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Through public testimonies of human rights violations, the TRC has sought to promote reconciliation by providing reparations to the victims and amnesty to the perpetrators. As such it seeks to entrench a new public morality, one that was made possible by a negotiated settlement, by compromise. But this project has its flaws. For one thing, it makes no provision for natural justice; forgiveness in the name of peace has been elevated above justice in the name of principle. For the good of the nation, victims have often been obliged to accept a moral and material settlement that is less than satisfactory. For another thing, by emphasizing individual acts of abuse, it has tended to obscure the systematically abusive social engineering that was apartheid. Therefore, apartheid's legacy remains evident in extensive poverty, educational deprivation, and a warped criminal justice system which, because it was developed as an instrument of political oppression, seems incapable of dealing with ordinary crime. [End Page 2]

If the TRC is potentially a heroic ethical project, then...