Ndebele's Criticism and Counter-Criticism

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

Writers of protest fiction write from an artistic viewpoint that Ndebele seeks to debase because he objects to the content of their works. He would obviously assert that his whole argument is based on the universality of literary art — that its broad acceptance derives from true human reflections and not from specific geographical, social or political situations. It would also seem that he implies that the most vital art in a literary work comes when the writer deals with wholesome emotion in human relationships. Such emotion, he claims, Kemal does to perfection. Ndebele argues that, unlike Kemal, protest fiction writers are excessively preoccupied with urban culture and its concerns. This implied avoidance of rural life in fiction constitutes for Ndebeie an unawareness of the richness that such portrayals may yield to literary art. Ndebeie concludes his argument on this point by pointing out that

In general, writers in the cities seem to be clear about one thing: that their writings should show of themselves and their writers, a commitment to political engagement. [1984:43]

This statenment is by inference an attempt to drive black South African city writers to the closed morality of conventional artistic literary beliefs. For the sake of upholding the artistic quality of literature, a writer must portray his reflections in a certain way and thereby maintain the conventional form of literary writing.

If Ndebele insists on his tireless propagation of a type of literary tradition in South Africa, he must clearly see that literature is so wide and varied that to try and confine it to a particular tradition for whatever reason, would be like trying to confine the wind to a particular direction.

It is also interesting that Ndebeie makes no mention whatsoever of black South African writers who write in the vernacular. I think he omits mentioning them precisely because their writings largely concern rural life. If he mentioned them he would have had to acknowledge that rural life is portrayed in black South African literature and that there are many streams of literary art. Or are we to surmise that so-called conventional literature can only be produced in English?

The fact that city writers write in English and that others, both in the city and the rural areas, write in their vernacular, can only be ascribed to the readership. The reading public available to the city writer who writes in English is a literate readership. The city is also a home for different ethnic groups, black or white, and the English language plays a major role in communications between the different ethnic groups who live together in the city. It would be pointless for a writer who wants to address city dwellers and non-city dwellers to write in Zulu or Sotho, for instance. It is all a question of who the intended reader of a particular literature is.

Ndebele also overlooks the fact that literary art is best appreciated when the writer does not pre-plan his subjects and the manner of portrayal. Like any other art, a literary product must be the end-result of something which began with an inspiration. And what can better inspire an artist than his most pressing emotions or feelings? As the artist is rooted partly in his concrete material existence, he will definitely be influenced by his surroundings, which serve as an unlimited source of inspiration. Otherwise, we will be forced to create a literary art trapped within the confines of conventions that therefore deny ourselves the right to be different and do things differently in terms of literary expression.

Taking note of his critics, Sipho Sepamla says in an interview about protest fiction: 'They must take cognisance of the historical perspective that is governing the present-day writer'. He goes on to say: 'It is important to be aware that the present-day Black south African writer always expresses immediate experiences. Your Dostoyevsky, your Kafka are people we are not exposed to. And again it should be borne in mind that writing relates to tradition' (1981:43). Sepamla obviously means that protest-fiction writers base their writings on a tradition they have created in the circumstances within which they found themselves. Sepamla's argument can be advanced if one adds the fact that no literary tradition is complete in itself. Every tradition includes some elements of other traditions. To stress a particular form of literary art at the expense of another, as Ndebele does, is to do an injustice to the general trend of literature.

In response to the complaints of Sepamla, Tlali and Mutloatse about the criticism they have received from certain critics, Ndebele appears to contradict himself when he attempts to assert his critical position. He acknowledges that Tiali, in her novel Amandla, was 'not just reporting, she was telling a story' (1984:47). However, he goes on to criticize her for agreeing with what Sepamla said in the same interview when he asserted the importance of the reader. What Sepamla actually said was: 'We must go to the people, for it is the man in the street we must listen to' (Ibid.). A blurring of positions? One wonders.

Ndebele next argues that the three writers seem to have established a premise that fiction that has overt political content is what "the man in the street" really wants to read, and how right he is! Surely Ndebele would agree that the literate black man who can be regarded as the reader of literary works, is largely found in the cities. This is not to say that one cannot find literate black readers of literature in the rural areas, but the black man who can identify with the experiences portrayed in protest fiction is almost invariably urban. After posing the theoretical question that if Sipho Sepamla were to listen to the man in the street, he would hear something different from what he claims, Ndebele claims another sort of mandate from the man in the street. This mandate derives from his assertion that black people have a tradition of storytelling which is not necessarily informed by the struggle against apartheid.

Ndebele conveniently neglects to tell his audience about the other side of this issue. In his effort to prop up his argument, he leaves out a crucial dimension of the debate. What he conveniently forgets to add is that the storytellers and their audiences were part of the masses and were subjected to the same inhuman treatment as any black person in South Africa. He apparently also forgets to point out that the little time they had for entertainment was spent on moments that create an illusionary world which by the very essence of the joy it gives, mirrors their cruel and sad existence. It was a form of escapism which allowed for a fleeting expression of happiness. The moment they left the sanctuary of their illusions (the buses and the trains), they were once again confronted with the existing reality in a country governed by those who were hell-bent to make their lives intolerable.

In his claims and examples, Ndebele tries to use pieces of different jig-saw puzzles to complete a new jig-saw puzzle. In fact, the man in the street prefers the type of literary works written by those whom Ndebele criticizes. The man in the street wants to read about something with which he can really identify, something he can recognize, something that mirrors his own perceptions and his deep feelings. It is this reinforcement of his feelings and emotions that builds his resilience, if anything. Besides, in those stories that Ndebele claims appeal to the taste of 'the man in the street', the black man, contrary to Ndebele's claim, simply recounts some of his daily experiences — what he observes in the apartheid field of experience. He points out the absurdities of these experiences in the given situation in which he unfortunately finds himself.

In a paper delivered at the University of Bophuthatswana, entitled 'Actors and Interpreters: Popular Culture and Progressive Formalism', Ndebele also claims that the literary tradition of protest writers in South Africa has largely been influenced by its dependence on white liberal influence. He asserts that most of the literature produced by black South Africans is directed to the white liberal reader. This type of literature, he argues, serves the purpose of constantly reminding the white man about his attitude in the hope that he will realize this injustice and change for the better. When asked a question on this issue, Miriam Tlali refuted this assumption.

In my writings I never try to copy somebody or adopt principles set down by scholars... I have always remarked that I'd like to present my stories with the black audience in my mind and I have never really intended to write for a white audience. [1984:43]

Her pronouncement should serve to remind critics to do their homework first before going public with their criticism. Of course Ndebele would argue that Tlali's pronouncement is simply a defense against criticism of her work. But who really, for that matter, is Ndebele's intended reading public? If he can claim to write for a black audience, so can Tlali, because there is a great deal in common in terms of projection in their respective works, as will be shown in this article.

The many tales produced by black South African writers, Ndebele's included, show the startling conditions and effects of life in the then authoritarian, racially segregated South Africa. It was a world these writers knew intimately. It was a world, the reality of which ironically perhaps, white South Africans had been schooled to reject. Assuming that this is so, where then lies Ndebele's claim that protest fiction is directed towards a people schooled to reject it?

I do not want to ignore certain valid points Ndebele makes. Many of them are, in any event, common knowledge. It is true that black South African writers depended largely on white liberals to have their works published. After all many of these liberals owned the means of publication. But it it is false to claim that protest fiction was intended for consumption only by white liberals. In a paper entitled 'Njabulo Ndebele and the Challenge of the New', Craig MacKenzie looks at how Ndebele's 'ideas inform his own fiction'. On the issue of black South African fiction and its intended readership, he writes:

Ndebele evokes the sense of the writer's accountability to the majority African population, even if, as he acknowledges, the writing itself lands up in most cases in the hands of a white liberal readership. [1990:6]

This is so only if by 'accountability' Ndebele means that this type of literature serves to advance the black man's case in South Africa and as such becomes the political mouth-piece of the apparently silent majority. No wonder most of it was deemed undesirable and banned.

The silent majority were definitely the intended public of the protest fiction writers'. This literature was banned precisely because of that. It served to propel the black man to stages of awareness about himself and life in South Africa. And if this public willingly appreciates what it is fed, the critic should ask himself why this is so. The black readers consume this type of literature for entertainment and to whip up emotions in themselves which will probably make them overcome their sense of fear, powerlessness, distrust and lost spontaneity.

Therefore, the answers to the question what constitutes acceptable literary art in South Africa, are varied and they should all be accepted as such. In a broad-minded evaluation of literary art in South Africa, Nadine Gordimer succinctly puts it thus:

I think that if you accept that for the writer, writing is his terrain..., because that is what he can do best, the question of protest writing — what it is, why anybody does it? - simply falls away and does not exist. Because to paraphrase "the poet is in the poetry", I think the protest is in the people. And if you write honestly about the life around you, the protest comes out of that. It is not a goal on its own (Source unknown).

This is the position that 'protest writers' have subconsciously assumed and have been forced to defend against attacks on their art by the likes of Ndebele.

For the moment, I wish to confine myself to showing the inappropriateness of Ndebele's criticism by analysing and showing the similarities between his fictional works and some fictional works of those he criticizes. In so doing, I hope to prove that his fictional works, if anything, fall within the same parameters of classification as the works of Mutloatse, Tlali and Sepamla.

Ndebele's major fictional work to date is undoubtedly the much acclaimed Fools and Other Stories for which he was awarded the Noma literary award. Fools and Other Stories contains five stories which deal with different experiences of black people. The first, entitled 'The Test', portrays a young black boy's world and how he relates to this world and those around him. In this story, minor but significant issues become major points of contention. The protagonist has to prove himself in a challenge against one of his friends. He has to prove himself by endurance. It is a test of strength against his rival to see who can best withstand the ferocity of the weather — in this case, rain and cold. An important dimension of this story is that of social commentary. Ndebele excels in depicting the lives of small boys in a dusty township through a particular event. Perhaps, by centering the story on small boys and exploring how they deal with their fears and troubles in a black township, Ndebele wishes to show the power of the seemingly helpless and innocent.

In the story, and in line with the tone of his criticism, Ndebele demonstrates the strength behind endurance and the satisfaction that can be derived from rising to the challenge to face hardship. Ndebele describes the boy after he had met the challenge thus:

He felt dry, but cold as he slipped into the blankets. He felt warm deep inside him, and as he turned over in bed looking for the most comfortable position, he felt all the pain. But, strangely enough, he wished he could turn around as many times as possible. There was suddenly something deeply satisfying and pleasurable about the pain. And as he slid into a deep sleep, he smiled feeling so much alive. [1983:29]

The protagonist obviously feels gratified at having overcome the odds stacked against him. It is likely that this is a literary assertion of Ndebele's critical perception that biack South African writers should write as 'storytellers' — as he must himself presumably be doing in this story. He contends that, on the contrary they are glaringly political in their writings.

Later this essay will show how Ndebele contradicts himself in this regard and other points of disagreement shall be raised. For the moment let us simply concern ourselves with analysing his stories.

'The Prophetess', the next story in the sequence, is written in much the same vein as 'The Test'. Ndebele achieves the same objective with this story as he does with 'The Test' — he celebrates the power of simplicity. The story is set in a township and revolves around a boy who is sent by his sick mother to a prophetess to fetch 'holy water', which she hopes will heal her. On his way home with the water the boy gets knocked down by a man riding a bicycle and the bottle with the 'blessed'water breaks. When the boy gets home he fills another bottle with water and takes it to his mother. She thinks the water is blessed and after she has drunk it she immediately says she feels better. In this story Ndebele accurately portrays not only a township setting, but he celebrates the power of the mind — that belief has a healing power of its own.

The third story, 'Uncle', is related by a small boy. In telling the story through the consciousness of a small boy, Ndebele excels in the portrayal of the simplicity of innocence in the midst of suffering. It is the story about the relationship of the boy (the narrator) and his uncle whom he holds in high esteem. The boy's uncle is a musician, and he visits the boy and his mother after a long time. He teaches the boy all the values central to their lives: the roles of the family, the ancestor's ethics, morality, sex and racial pride. The story is rather long and seems to have been deliberately inflated with apparently unnecessary descriptions of the township which make it approach the length of a novella in scope.

'The Music of the Violin,' which subjects the black man's values and attitudes to scrutiny, is a story about withdrawing from reality in favour of a world of artificiality and falsehood. In the process there occurs the distortion of people's existential modes as they substitute reality with artificiality. The story concerns a small boy, Vukani, his father, a school inspector and his mother, a nursing sister. They clearly belong to the aspiring middle-class and are proud of their status in society. Vukani does not like playing the violin because to him it is a source of constant humiliation and embarrassment.

He is torn between his desire to free himself from doing what he does not like, that is, playing the violin, and what he regards to be his duty to his parents; to obey and please them. A critical point in the story occurs when his parents want him to play the violin for their visitors, Dr Zwane and his wife, Beatrice. In a final act of defiance, the boy refuses to play the violin and his mother is shocked. Vukani's sister adds insult to injury by accusing her mother of pomposity, artificiality and selfishness.

All the stories in this collection except the title story, 'Fools', are told either in the first- or third- person, and the protagonist is a school boy on the brink of adolescence. In all the stories the boy is weak, timid, nervous and frequently humiliated, either by other boys or his mother. He is set apart socially from other boys in the township by virtue of his parents' education; the mother is a nurse in all the stories and the father is involved in school education. Ndebele's boy protagonists in these stories celebrate victory by defiance, endurance, and fulfilment — the boy refuses to play the violin, he takes an unauthorized, risky run in the rain, he is disobedient, and he sheds all belief in the supernatural. Each story ends on a note of triumph and fulfillment.

'Fools', perhaps Ndebele's best short story, tells about a middle-aged teacher, Zamani, who disgraces himself in the eyes of the community by raping a schoolgirl and embezzling church funds. The teacher's interactions with the girl's brother, Zani, gradually propel him to self-realisation. Zani comes to the township of Charterston fired up with radical political ideas and a mission to make the people aware of the oppressive system to which they are subjected. He wishes to prompt them to do something. Zamani, on the other hand, yearns for perpetual darkness. He lives life as it comes and tries to extract whatever he can from it for the sole purpose of satisfying his desires.

Whilst Zani is thwarted in his immature acts of protest, Zamani is rescued from his miserable and humiliating existence by the encounter with the aggressive white man at the picnic ground that provides him with the ultimate test of his existence as a black man. In a dramatic about-turn, he triumphs over brutality and emerges a mature man with increased awareness of himself and the terrible conditions of his existence.

'Death of a Son', another of Ndebele's short stories to which attention should be drawn, is about the cruelty of injustice. A man, Buntu, is stripped of his dignity as a person by his failure to stand and face the system. Buntu's son is killed by the police, and he is humiliated before he can get his son's body from them. It seems here that despite Ndebele's attempts to distance himself from much contemporary black South African literature, his stories in Fools and 'Death of a son' ascribe to Sipho Sepamia's idea of literature. In a personal interview in which Sipho Sepamla was asked what his central concern was in his writing, he responded: 'I write about the condition of man'.

The previous synopsis of Ndebele's stories shows that Ndebele also writes about the condition of man, more particularly, of the black man in South Africa. The subjects of apartheid and the necessity for struggle is not avoided in his stories. For a man who preaches the universality of artistic literary expression, he seems to have done very little to represent his ideas in his art. His stories include a strong component of overt politics.

In his writings he gives personalised accounts of the biack man's condition in South Africa — his humiliation, his fears, racial pride, his weaknesses and his strengths, and above all, the necessity to overcome. All this is portrayed as a direct consequence of the brutality of the apartheid system. Ndebele, like the writers he criticizes, obviously bases his stories on specific events.

He does acknowledge though, as do those he criticizes, that a writer cannot write in a vacuum. In the 'Turkish Tales...' article, in which he exalts the literary abilities of the Turkish writer Yasher Kemal, he admits:

What so readily seems to undercut the autonomy of art is its subject matter: the specificity of setting, the familiarity of character, recognisable events in either recent or distant history, and other similar factors that ground a work firmly in the time and space. [1984:44]

The target of this criticism, in my view, are works like those of Sepamla and Tlali. It should be pointed out here that the two short stories, 'Fools' and 'Death of a Son' in particular, are stark evidence of Ndebele's apparent confusion in the treatment of theory and practice especially when compared and contrasted with the works of those he criticizes.

He clearly does not practice what he preaches when he writes about the literary position he opposes. To him the pre-occupation of the black South African writer with the African experience has been largely superficial. This superficiality, he writes,

Comes from the tendency to produce fiction that is built around the interaction of surface symbols of the South African reality. These symbols can easily be characterized as ones of either good or evil, even more accurately, symbols of evil on the one hand, and symbols of the victims of evil on the other hand. [1984:44]

And because of the black writer's pre-occupation with this type of literary projection, he precludes one of Ndebele's most cherished ideas about literary art &mdfash; that of the writer as a storyteller. The component of storytelling must of necessity, according to Ndebele, always prevail in artistic fiction.

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