Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 223-224
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Writing Radical Democracy in South Africa
Against Normalization: Writing Radical Democracy in South Africa, by Anthony O'Brien. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. xv + 298 pp. ISBN 0-8223-2571-3 paper.
Anthony O'Brien's Against Normalization . . . is a challenging, sobering response to the "normalization" of South African politics, literature, and culture. O'Brien sees the oft-touted "miracle" of South Africa's transition to democracy in 1994 as marking the "waning of the resonant insurgency and militant hope of the Mass Democratic Movement" (1) that had energized the debates of the last decade of the apartheid era. His book, therefore, scrutinizes work produced or seeded in the 1980s, and argues that its ideals of "radical democracy" have been superseded by a state "acceptance of neoclassical economic orthodoxy" that aims to remedy long-standing inequalities "in an ameliorative rather than a structural fashion" (4).
The book blends political and literary analysis in exemplary fashion. After an opening chapter balancing the achievements of South Africa's new delegatory democracy (represented by the 1994 election and responses to it) against the grassroots participatory democracy of trade union and other local cultural institutions (such as Durban's Center for Cultural and Working Life run by Nise Malange), O'Brien launches into lucid analysis of the work of Njabulo Ndebele. He demonstrates how Ndebele's role as thinker, writer, and now university administrator has been crucial, coherent, and remarkably consistent in taking South African literature beyond protest in the '80s and beyond apartheid in the '90s. Drawing attention to the Black Consciousness roots of Ndebele's thinking, O'Brien emphasizes that his celebrated essays on the "rediscovery of the ordinary" do not represent an invitation to white liberal color-blindism or the kind of multiculturalism [End Page 223] that lubricates the teaching machines of first world classrooms by introducing a diversity of texts; rather, the "discursive space of the classroom should be open to the contestation of Third World theory such as Ndebele's" (50).
Indeed, the most impressive feature of this extremely insightful book is the way that it makes plain how much South African cultural debate has to say about global cultural production. For instance, in the chapter that looks most like familiar studies of the empire writing back, O'Brien shows how Maishe Maponya's short play Gangsters responds to Beckett's Catastrophe and Havel's Mistake. Rather than merely rewriting those plays in a new setting still assumed to be peripheral, however, Gangsters much more thoroughly decolonizes the stage by making legible the previously invisible whiteness of Beckett's and Havel's work.
Subsequent chapters present similarly incisive readings of the poetry of Ingrid de Kok and Nise Malange, whose work O'Brien shows to be simultaneously local and "part of at least three international movements—anti-racism, labor, feminism" (210). As O'Brien says of Malange's "Nightshift Mother," the poem "works for women [. . .] as a local consciousness-raising group; at the same time, if we take account of its frame and context, it has quite a long geopolitical reach" (211).
No less effectively, O'Brien's chapter on Bessie Head, Arthur Nortje, and Dambudzo Marechera makes strikingly original claims for the way Head's work prefigures many of the issues of postapartheid writing, and how her correspondence with Michelle Cliff, Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison "forged [. . .] the links of a postcolonial feminist intertextuality, a kind of women's 'nation language'" (221). O'Brien's arguments reflect his careful reading of Derrida, Spivak, hooks, and Gilroy, but in keeping with his re-orienting of any center-periphery dynamic his most telling move links Head's concern with the ordinary to Ndebele: "[T]he letters Head wrote by candlelight in her small concrete house on a hillside in the sandveld are an anarchist-feminist intervention, with an unimaginably long memory and a revolutionary future, in the production of culture in Southern Africa" (236). O'Brien's book makes just such an intervention, and, like...