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  • The Growth towards a Truly African Quality in South African Children’s Literature
  • Jay Heale and Jean Williams (bio)

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In the mid-nineteenth century, Africans were depicted as innately greedy, bloodthirsty, brutal, despotic, lustful, and lazy; as naked, pagan, fetish worshippers and cannibals who performed grotesque and frenzied dances to hideous carved idols at the instigation of wizards and witch doctors; and as bizarre, barbaric, crude, queer, disgusting, wild, and indecent.

(Schmidt 14)

European readers were thrilled to read about colonial Africa as it offered mystery and that powerful ingredient, adventure. Titles such as R. M. Ballantyne’s The Settler and the Savage are indicative both of a fictionalized picture of Africa and of the assumed superiority of the European over the native. King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard swiftly sold over a hundred thousand copies. The whole continent, it seemed, was full of jungles, wild animals, and even wilder inhabitants.

For many years, the writers and readers of children’s books in South Africa were White, so the stories were about White children. In Corah’s School Chums by May Baldwin, a girl explains, “They do [End Page 87] not allow coloured girls at our schools, even if they are only a little coloured.”1Kit in Kafirland by E. M. Green explains how Kit, who remains “awfully decent” throughout, lives in a land where “Kafirs are like children: they work well enough as long as there is someone in authority over them. As soon as they are left to themselves they relapse into idleness.” The paternal, condescending assumption was that Africans were unintelligent and only fit to appear in books as domestic servants, rogues, or vagabonds!

Another common theme in these early books was that of a brave White boy accompanied by a small Black companion, and indeed, White children growing up on South African farms were often allocated a Black child of the same age as a companion. As recently as 1976, a book such as Tongelo by Catherine Annandale describes such a “veldt friendship” between a White and a Black boy, severed when the White boy goes off to an education never envisaged for his Black friend. Martin leaves Tongelo, promising that “No school is going to make any difference to us! It will always be the same.” And the author (whether wisely or sadly we are left to guess) adds: “But, of course, it never was quite the same again.”

The adult African in European children’s fiction was either portrayed as a “noble savage” or else a “stupid servant.” Any concept of “noble” disappeared swiftly after South Africa came under National Party rule. One stereotyped character to survive too long in literature was the witch-doctor, who was usually portrayed as wicked and malicious. African magic remains very real even today. The sangoma (diviner) and the inyanga (herbalist) are both still strong forces within African culture.

Separate Developments: English, Afrikaans, “Indian,” and “Bantu” Education

Different living conditions for Blacks and Whites within South Africa were set in place by the British administration under Lord Milner. However, it was the National government led by D.F. Malan which enforced racial segregation (called apartheid) between 1948 and 1994. The legislation allowed for significantly different levels of support for education. Each province had its own White, Colored and Indian education departments, while the areas reserved for Blacks had their own “Bantu” education which aimed at achieving lower standards. At one time, there were 19 separate education departments. Afrikaans became an official language of South Africa in 1925. The country was declared bilingual and equal status was therefore allocated to Afrikaans and English. The books of fiction approved for school use were those portraying good, polite, obedient White children who showed respect for authority.

As equal money was allocated for books in both the main languages, there was an upsurge in books written and published in Afrikaans, and a strong South African children’s literature began to emerge. Children of differing skin color and cultural backgrounds hardly ever met each other except in the pages of books. Although good money could be made if a book was “prescribed” for...


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pp. 87-93
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