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The Uncoiling Python

South African Storytellers and Resistance

Harold Scheub

Publication Year: 2010

The oral and written traditions of the Africans of South Africa have provided an understanding of their past and the way the past relates to the present. These traditions continue to shape the past by the present, and vice versa. From the time colonial forces first came to the region in 1487, oral and written traditions have been a bulwark against what became 350 years of colonial rule, characterized by the racist policies of apartheid. The Uncoiling Python: South African Storytellers and Resistance is the first in-depth study of how Africans used oral traditions as a means of survival against European domination.

Africans resisted colonial rule from the beginning. They participated in open insurrections and other subversive activities in order to withstand the daily humiliations of colonial rule. Perhaps the most effective and least apparent expression of subversion was through indigenous storytelling and poetic traditions. Harold Scheub has collected the stories and poetry of the Xhosa, Zulu, Swati, and Ndebele peoples to present a fascinating analysis of how the apparently harmless tellers of tales and creators of poetry acted as front-line soldiers.

Published by: Ohio University Press


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p. vii

List of Illustrations

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p. ix

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xvi

Why should one study the history of a people when they are moving dramatically and decisively into a new sense of identity? Because that new sense of identity is firmly rooted in that history, because one cannot understand one’s “new” identity in the absence of that identity of the past...

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Prelude: The Uncoiling Python

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pp. 1-15

The python is the operative image in this discussion of the place of oral traditions in the 350-year struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The Zulu people, Axel-Ivar Berglund has written, “are convinced that” the python is “the coolest of all the animals in the whole world,” a result of “the coolness of water, especially that of deep pools”; in addition, “there is the coolness related to calmness and an even temperament...

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1: Metaphor: Inevitable Encounters, Tools for Analysis

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pp. 16-39

When I was witnessing performances of oral stories in southern Africa, I slowly became aware of how meaning is generated. Storytellers and their audiences acquainted me with two essential aspects of analysis: a complex form of metaphor and a basic transformational movement. These, I learned, were the basic tools that lead to understanding...

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2: San Metaphor: “ . . . and feel a story in the wind”

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pp. 40-103

The core of this study of metaphor has to do with nineteenth-century San oral traditions. However, these analyses must be placed within broader discussions of other southern African artistic materials, including the Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, and English traditions. This is what ||kábbo, a San, said about storytelling: “I must first sit a little, cooling my arms, letting the fatigue go out of them...

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3: The Nguni Artist: The Collapsing of Time

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pp. 104-193

Nongenile Masithathu Zenani, a Xhosa storyteller, told me, “The art of composing imaginative narratives is something that was undertaken by the first people—long ago, during the time of the ancestors. When those of us in my generation awakened to earliest consciousness, we were born into a tradition that was already flourishing. . . . Members of every generation,” she said, “have grown up under the influence of these narratives.”...

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Postlude: Surviving 350 Years

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pp. 194-206

It was in 1976, when Desmond Tutu, who would later be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, had just been appointed the first black Anglican Dean of Johannesburg in South Africa, that he wrote a letter to then Prime Minister John Vorster, an Afrikaner, who had, as minister of justice, passed a law allowing for indefinite detention in solitary confinement without charge or trial...


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pp. 207-223


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pp. 225-233


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pp. 235-240

E-ISBN-13: 9780821443323
Print-ISBN-13: 9780821419229

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 794698922
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Uncoiling Python

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • South Africa -- Colonization.
  • South Africa -- Politics and government.
  • Folklore -- Political aspects -- South Africa.
  • Oral tradition -- South Africa.
  • Storytelling -- South Africa.
  • South Africa -- Social life and customs.
  • Apartheid -- South Africa.
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