The New Black Literature in South Africa

Leong Yew, Research Fellow, University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore

It was easier to write about the past… because the past created ready-made stories. There was a very clear line of demarcation between good and evil, you see? Black was good; white was bad. Your conflict was there. There were no gray areas…. We no longer have that. In this new situation, black is not necessarily good. There are many black culprits; there are many good white people. We have become normal. It’s very painful to become normal.

Zakes Mda (quoted in Swarns)

For a long time now South Africa demonstrated some of the most horrifying consequences of colonialism. Racial inequity through Apartheid has been the dominant discourse through which many of the social problems there have been framed. Unsurprisingly the postcolonial literature that was written during Apartheid reacted to the injustices of the policy and brought figures like Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee, Athol Fugard, and Alan Paton to literary prominence. But what is happening now in South Africa’s literary scene after Apartheid?

In a recent article in the New York Times, Rachel Swarns examines the increasingly visible world of the black South African writer. While Apartheid-era literature was largely preoccupied by the theme of violence against the blacks by the ruling white population, black writers in the post-Apartheid South Africa have seized the initiative in writing stories about more complex issues beyond racial politics. For instance, these black authors have variously worked on the following themes:

There were a number of black South African authors in history, for example, Sol Plaatje is thought to be the first in his cohort to have published an English novel entitled Mhudi. In the 1950s Can Themba and Nat Nakasa wrote about life in the townships and Apartheid before being exiled, culminating with the protest literature of the 1970s and early 1980s. However, what set the new black South African authors apart from their predecessors are very different experiences. A number of them had to readjust to life after returning from exile, to cope with being placed within a new black elite, and to be witness to problems like political corruption and ineptitude.

To discuss these authors further, I provide an overview of the authors and the information in the New York Times article about their works.


Swarns, Rachel L. "South Africa's Black Writers Explore a Free Society's Tensions." The New York Times, June 24, 2002.

Related Websites

Postcolonial Web Rupublic of South Africa OV Africa OV

Last modified: 11 July, 2002