- An Interview with Jeremy Cronin
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The work of South African poet Jeremy Cronin illustrates uncommonly well the difficulties and dangers of writing in, and in relation to, the institutions of the state—in particular, states in which freedom of expression can be taken neither for granted nor at face value. Cronin was incarcerated for political activity against the apartheid state, and his early poetry attests—in theme and form—to the tenacity with which literary discourse is able to confront the limitations put upon public expression and the private sphere by a totalitarian state. The erstwhile cadre in the freedom struggle is today a leading parliamentarian and high-ranking member of the ruling party in postapartheid, democratic South Africa. Cronin's poetry now finds new ways of engaging with the state, attesting to the tensions in the relationship between an aspirational developmental state and its expectant subjects in an age of global neoliberalism—an age in which the state is an increasingly less powerful agent, though never one without power to intervene in the lives of its citizens.
Born in 1949 in Durban, Cronin was raised in a middle-class white family in Simonstown, on the Cape peninsula south of Cape Town, and in Rondebosch, a white Cape Town suburb, where he attended a Catholic high school. He served his military conscription in the Navy (headquartered in Simonstown), in a period before the large-scale campaigns against military service, and entered the University of Cape Town as an undergraduate student (of philosophy, with English and French) in 1968. He soon became involved in radical student politics at the historically overwhelmingly white [End Page 515] university and, his political conscience heightened by involvement in student protests, was recruited into an underground cell of the South African Communist Party (SACP), which had been banned by the apartheid government in 1950. Cronin studied in France between 1972 and 1974, completing a master's thesis on Jean Jacques Rousseau under the cosupervision of Pierre Macherey and Etienne Balibar. He has spoken to Helena Sheehan about being particularly influenced by a kind of Sartrean existential Marxism during this period. Returning to teach philosophy at the University of Cape Town (where he coedited a volume entitled Ideologies of Politics), Cronin continued to work covertly for the SACP, among other activities producing and distributing an underground newspaper. It was for this illegal activity that he was convicted—he pleaded guilty—of conspiring to further the aims of the banned liberation organizations. (For the apartheid state, seventeen editions of the proscribed organ constituted, in effect, seventeen acts of sabotage.) He served seven years in prison. Six months into his sentence, his first wife, Anne-Marie, died suddenly of a brain tumor from which Cronin had not known she was suffering.
Cronin began composing poetry while in detention awaiting trial. Many of these poems, along with those written secretly in the notorious Pretoria Maximum Security prison, smuggled out or memorized to be written down and revised after his release, were published in 1983 as Inside, in progressive South African publisher Ravan Press's groundbreaking Staffrider series. An expanded edition was published in Britain, by Jonathan Cape, in 1987. The collection's title refers to Cronin's incarceration, while alluding to his poems' status as acts of solidarity with those political prisoners then languishing inside apartheid jails, as well as to the poet's own interiority (there is a moving sequence of poems exploring the poet's childhood memories and on the subject of his wife's death). The opening poem, "Poem-Shrike," effects an imaginative escape for words, as the poet launches a metaphorical paper missile over the prison walls, a statement of his intention and capacity to render brutalized bodies—and language—dignified. Inside proclaimed the arrival of a powerful voice of witness and invention whose ability to render extraordinary the details of ordinary lives, and whose adeptness at capturing the polyphony of South Africans' vernacular [End Page 516] speech, constituted not merely verisimilitude but a political act of faith, a demand for a space for an imagined future community...