Ndebele's Literary Position: The City and Politics

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

Ndebele claims to have come to his realisation about the over-politicized nature of contemporary black South African fiction after he had read the Turkish writer Yasher Kemal's stories. In the article "Turkish Tales...', he points out how he was jolted into a new awareness of literature and particularly the way South African literary works seem to project a city perspective. 'The city' he points out, 'appears to have held a tyrannical hold on the imagination of the average African worker' (Cromwell, 1992:16). This assertion is prompted by his belief that protest fiction is about the writer's fascination with his immediate political situation — a very bad one in most cases — and it also seems to involve an inability to change such circumstances.

One must note that Ndebele does not take an historical perspective on the situation in South Africa. With the advent of industrialisation in South Africa, particularly after the First World War, black people migrated to the cities. It is in these cities that they became direct victims of oppression.

The contact between the black man and the white man resulted in the white man establishing his superiority through the use of arms over the black man and this obviously led to the domination of the white man over the black. The white man built cities after the discovery of rich minerals, and it was the wealth that the city symbolised that lured the black man. To ensure his survival particularly in the city, that black man had to conform to the white man's ways, and this made him vulnerable to direct exploitation and oppression. Consequently, the black man's bitterest experiences of exploitation and oppression have always been in the city. Although the black person is subjected to quite similar circumstances of exploitation and oppression, regardless of where he lives in South Africa, the city dweller is closer to the unfortunate reality of exploitation and oppression, and usually he can express the bitterness, frustration, fear and hope of the black people. When he projects his experiences and observations in his writings from a city perspective, the black writer is normally using the city only as a microcosm of the whole country.

Ndebele argues that because protest fiction is on the whole a portrayal of bitterness in an urban setting it therefore tends only to propagate strong political statements or simply invokes pity from the white liberal by drawing his attention to the plight of the black man in urban South Africa. But what Ndebele conveniently fails to point out is that such literary projections are not necessarily a reflection of the writer's ignorance about other aspects of life in South Africa as a whole. It is just that the black writer who writes in the English language is almost invariably located in the city, and his public is usually also found there. In response to Ndebele's criticism, Sipho Sepamla made some interesting observations when I interviewed him on 6 May 1992. He pointed out, for example:

Writing is a spontaneous exercise, and because of this, the writer is almost overwhelmed by the environment within which he writes.

He added that he understood Ndebele's criticism since it reflects this fact. He also pointed out that it is all very well for Ndebele to advance his type of literary perspective since he spent most of his formative years in Lesotho, a rural and urban environment in one. Ndebele thus straddles two worlds. While he is South African by birth and spent his childhood here, he has lived for much of his adult life in a different setting than the black writer who, like Sepamla, has borne the brunt of oppression directly. Most of his literature is about expressing immediate feelings and experiences, directly and/or indirectly, feelings and experiences not based on foreign influences.

In an article entitled 'Evaluating Protest Fiction', Gareth Cromwell defends the artistic integrity of the writers that Ndebele criticizes. He explains that literature is diverse and that every literary concept has a 'degree of specifically literary sophistication'. He also shows an understanding of why black protest fiction is almost inevitably projected from a city perspective. Having explained why this is so, he concludes by observing that:

It is not at all surprising that social experiences in most 'protest literature' recur and are projected from a city perspective. Cities have always been vehicles and the centre-stage of (social) change in general. [1992:12]

Cromwell obviously implies here that it is legitimate for literature to be projected from a city perspective if the situation warrants it. In a society like the former South Africa, black people have had their social existence distorted or suppressed by a system perpetuated in the name of western civilization which has the city as its most prominent centre and force for change. It is quite understandable, therefore, that urban black writers would try to address their reading public and their own situations through their writings. These writings were certainly a sharing with their reading public of a common realistic experience.

Clearly one must not suggest here that their reading public consisted of black people only. Of course their works were also read by a small portion of the white community: the so-called 'white liberals'. But one must note that black writers like Sepamla vehemently stress that their intended public was the black reader.

What one finds rather disturbing is Ndebele's claim in 'Turkish Tales' that he became aware after reading the Turkish writer Yasher Kemal's stories, that he 'did not remember ever coming across as compelling an imaginative recreation of rural life in a body of literature in South Africa'. If one wants to do justice to Ndebele and his criticism, this statement can only be ascribed to his desire to transform the scope of literature in South Africa. However, such an assessment can also be construed as a gross oversight on the part of Ndebele. This is not to take anything away from Kemal and his efforts. On the contrary, his stories can no doubt be regarded as great literary art. But to use Kemal's stories as a departure point for an analysis of black South African literature is to display lack of understanding of 'protest literature' and its origins and influences. It is also an oversimplification of perspective. Kemal writes about peasant life in Turkey as a matter of choice. Of course he does speak for the suppressed rural peasantry in Turkey. But he is also acknowledged to be a Turk by every description. The black South African writer, on the other hand, was denied his identity and the full expression of that identity. Unlike Kemal, the black writer is part of the experiences he portrays and not just a sympathetic observer who only gets involved through his writings.

Kemal can certainly embark on literary explorations in his native land but perhaps the black writer does not have this degree of choice. This statement does not in any way imply that the black writer became artistically stereotyped because he kept harping on one topic by allowing the preponderance of politics in his writings. The black writer's feelings on this can best be expressed by the answer given by Mbongeni Ngema in an interview on television about the state of drama in South Africa. He said: "As an artist I will write about change when I see change."

Ndebele is not alone in his insistence that fiction writers should tell stories rather than simply document their observations. Writers such as Lewis Nkosi and Michael Vaughan share the same literary perspectives.

One is inclined to agree with Ndebele and these writers on this point. My disagreement is with their assertion that so-called protest writers do not ascribe to this pre-condition of literary art. At a later stage this article will try to show that those writers mentioned by Ndebele as writers who do not fall within the "school of writers as storyteller", can actually be seen to be precisely what he says they are not.

It is the contention of this essay that Ndebele's unjustified attacks on Tlali, Matshoba, Sepamla, among others, only serve to reveal his biased judgment. In the follolwing section, I shall show that Ndebele's works also contain direct and overt political statements much in the same manner as the works of those he criticizes. It would seem that this renders his attacks on them unjustified.

As we shall see, Ndebele certainly does not practice what he preaches. His fictional works during the Apartheid era violate his own literary rules. It is clear that in the midst of his literary intellectualization, Ndebele misses certain crucial points. Were he aware of these, one wonders if he would have ventured into this type of critical discourse. One of them is that the search for true identity does not really stop in the discovery of 'inferiority' as he thinks; it begins with the realisation of, and portrayal of, harsh reality. Only when harsh reality is seen for what it is, does the illusion brake. And this is precisely what protest fiction writers do.

A Critique of Njabuolo Ndebele's Criticism of Protest Fiction


Achebe, C. Morning Yet on Creation Day. London: Heinemann, 1975.

Cromwell, G. Evaluating Protest Fiction" English in Africa, Vol. 7, No.1, March 1980.

Gordimer, N. (Source unknown).

Hernadi, P. What is Literature? London: Indiana University Press, 1978.

Mackenzie, C. "Njabulo Ndebele and the Challenge of the New." (Unpublished paper)

Mutloatse, M.(ed.) Forced Landing. Braamfontein: Ravan Press,1987.

Nazareth, P. Literature and Society in Modern Africa. Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau, 1972.

Ndebele, N. Fools and other Stories Braamfontein: Ravan Press, 1983.

Ndebele, N. 1991. Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Essays on South African Literature and Culture. Johannesburg: COSAW.

Ndebele, N. "Turkish Tales and Some Thoughts on South African Fiction", Staffrider, Vol.6, No.1, 1984.

Ngugi, T. Writers in Politics. London: Heinemann,1981.

Nkosi, L. Home and Exile. London: Longmanns,1965.

Okri, B. (Exact source unknown)

Sepamla, S. "Personal Interview with the Writer," Johannesburg, 6 May 1992.

Shava, P,V. A People's voice: Black South African Writing in the Twentieth Century. London: Zed Books, 1989.

Sole, K. "Culture and Politics and the Black Writer: A Critical Look at Prevailing Assumptions", English in Africa, Vol.10, No.1, May 1988.

Tlali, M. Interview with the Writer, 20 October 1993.

Vaughan, M. "The Writer as a Storyteller?" African Studies Seminar Paper. March 1988.

Wellek, R. A History of Modern Criticism, Volume 8. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Postcolonial Web Rupublic of South Africa OV Africa OV Njabuolo Ndebele

Last modied 24 July 2005