A Critique of Njabuolo Ndebele's Criticism of Protest Fiction: Introduction

Theophilus T. Mukhuba, Ph.D., Principal Tutor in English in South Africa, University of the Witwatersrand

In his critical writings contained in his book, Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Essays on South African Literature and Culture, Njabulo Ndebele argues that because black South African writers during the struggle years persistently write about the political environment and the conditions in which they find themselves, they therefore made political statements rather than successful literature. He contends that in the process of doing so, they have disregarded the artistic value of literature.

In March 1984, Staffrider, a South African literary magazine, published an article entitled 'Turkish Tales and Some Thoughts on South African Fiction' in which Ndebele singles out Mothobi Mutloatse, Sipho Sepamla and Miriam Tlali as examples of writers who harmed South African literature. This accusation, as this essay will attempt to show, is largely unfair because his own fictional works cannot really be differentiated from those which he criticizes for their overtly political content. In fact, it appears that Ndebele strives to draw a distinction between himself and these writers on theoretical grounds alone.

He does so by offering alternative forms of literary expression which are not acceptable to all writers, since literary composition does not necessarily have to subscribe to any particular school. In practical terms, as we shall see, there is often very little to choose between his fiction he produced during the Apartheid era and the fiction of those he criticizes.

In advocating a particular form of literature, Ndebele overlooks the fact that a writer does not write in a vacuum. The writer cannot divorce himself from his environmental influences, and these influences more often than not manifest themselves in his work. Perhaps the question that needs to be asked is: "What is literary art and what form should it take?" The answer to the question would surely vary from critic to critic, but it must be pointed out that those who aspire to answer the question should guard against being too prescriptive. It should be pointed out that the term 'literature' has been defined broadly throughout the ages as anything in print. Rene Wellek (1990) in a chapter called "What is Literature?" traces the various different definitions relative to certain periods and concludes by observing that:

In all of these cases literature is used very inclusively. It refers to all kinds of writing, including those of erudite nature, history, theology, philosophy, and even natural science. Only very slowly was the term narrowed down to what we today call 'imaginative literature': the poem, the tale, the play in particular. This is a process intimately connected with the rise of aesthetics [1978:19]

Hernadi (1978) states that the question 'what is Literature?' is a basic yet troublesome question and that it cannot be answered to anyone's complete satisfaction. The history of literature studies bears the hallmarks of numerous critical attempts to define literature. It therefore suffices to acknowledge that, in view of the divergent views expressed on the nature of literature, the commonality in opposition is that literature is a relative form of expression. A surface position on what literature is, is that it is largely shaped by the conditions within which it is produced. An example of the relativity of the term literature can best be noticed in African literature.

Shava (1989) argues that in African literature there is considerable comment on the issue of commitment. He ascribes this to Africa's colonial experience and the fact that political commitment has tended to be more pragmatic than theoretical. Fanon (1968) points out that twentieth-century writers espouse commitment in different ways. He argues that colonialism created cultural disorientation, alienation and economic domination for Africans.

Taking his cue from Fanon, Chinua Achebe maintains that it is the task of the African writer to help his society regain its lost dignity, identity, values and customs:

What we need to do is to look back and try and find out where we went wrong, where the rain began to beat us. The writer cannot expect to be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done. In fact he should march right in front. For he is after all ... the sensitive point of his community. [1975:44-45]

Ngugi wa Thiongo argues for a deeper political involvement.

...literature cannot escape from the class power structures that shape our everyday life. Hence a writer has no choice. Whether or not he is aware of it, his works reflect one or more aspects of the intense economic, political, cultural and ideological struggles in a society. What he can choose is one or the other side in the battlefield: the side of the people, or the side of those social forces and classes that try to keep people down. What he or she cannot do is to remain neutral. Every writer is a writer in politics. The only question is what and whose politics? (1981:58).

This assertion highlights the view that literature is always produced to propagate a particular social and/or political agenda. Because the political situation in South Africa dominates all aspects of life in the country, commitment among black writers has been seen as a necessity. As Nazareth (1972:22) points out:

Apartheid affects every aspect of a person's life like a virulent form of cancer. Hence many South African writers [and, I would say, nearly all black and 'coloured' South African writers] are concerned with fighting Apartheid, with demonstrating how monstrous Apartheid is, with showing how it dehumanizes everybody.

It cannot be denied that the form of literary expression advocated and practiced by most Black South Africans and as preached by the likes of Ngugi has its detractors. Ndebele and Nkosi are at the forefront of the onslaught on protest literature. Nkosi complained about the general method of black fiction writers thus:

What we do get from South Africa and what we get most frequently is the journalistic fact parading outrageously as imaginative literature. We find here a type of fiction which exploits the ready-made plots of racial violence, social apartheid, interracial love affairs which are doomed from the beginning, without any attempt to transcend or transmute their given social facts into artistically persuasive works of fiction. [Nkosi: 1965, 126]

In his critical writings contained in Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Essays on South African Literature and Culture, Ndebele echoes this idea. The argument against Ndebele's criticism of South African protest literature has nothing to do with the validity of his argument. On the contrary, I think, to some degree and a different scenario to Apartheid permitting, much sense can be derived from his opinions about literary art. What one may object to, however, are the unwarranted attacks on black South African writers such as Miriam Tlali, Sepamla and Mutloatse. So, although one may agree with some of the points he makes, other of his claims are quite inappropriate. On this question of 'inappropriateness' this article bases its argument.

Furthermore, I intend to make an examination of Ndebele's collection of short stories entitled Fools and Other Stories and a short story called 'Death of a Son', with a view to making a comparison between these works and the 'protest' fiction of the writer-critics he attacks for 'making cases' in literature when they should, according to him, be engaged in 'storytelling.' This comparison demonstrates that Ndebele's contention that 'the moralistic ideology of liberalism has forced our literature into a tradition of almost mechanistic surface representation' (1984:46), is a crude judgment on those he regards by implication to be hapless victims of this tradition. He thereby denies them any sense of creative intervention. Although I agree with the assertion that 'the moralistic ideology of liberalism' has had a tremendous influence on protest fiction, I strongly object to the notion implied in his statement that protest fiction is simply a hand-maiden to this 'moralistic ideology of liberalism'.

It is important to note that Ndebeie is not alone in his perspective on black South African protest fiction. In his near-veneration of Ndebeie as both critic and writer, Michael Vaughan reinforces Ndebele's criticism in this regard as 'a striking innovative enterprise' (1988:24). He also adds to this praise the words: 'I feel he has changed the orientation of my own thinking about literature considerably'(1988:24).

It is interesting in this regard to observe that Ben Okri, winner of the 1992 prestigious Booker Prize for his novel The Famished Road, has the same critical view of African protest literature:

I don't think writers should hammer their own personal political viewpoints in their novels; that is bad manners and just plain boring. You can generally detect the sympathies of a writer through the reflecting mirrors in their works. (Exact Source unknown)

Okri, like Ndebele, obviously holds the view that too much political content in literature debases it in terms of artistic value. In asserting his point, Okri argues that "one of the most awkward things about African literature has been the preponderance of politics" (ibid.) But Okri shows an insight different from that of Ndebeie when he adds that this development is not surprising because the African writer's condition on the continent is very different and difficult, full of pain and suffering. He understands that writers want, more than anything else, to change things. Ndebeie conveniently allows this reality to escape him. After all, an acceptance of Okri's perception would nullify his opinion about literature.

A Critique of Njabuolo Ndebele's Criticism of Protest Fiction


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