Comparison and Contrast of Stories by Ndebele, Tlali, and Sepamla

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

My argument is not that Ndebele wants black fiction to be devoid of politics per se. As I have pointed out earlier, one finds his argument to be inappropriate as he himself writes in almost the same vein as those he criticizes. His stories also contain strong political overtones, as do the stories of those he criticizes.

Michael Vaughan seems correct when he observes that in Ndebele's critical writing,

we find the presence, or at least the reference to, wider discourses of the local society. The discursive pressure of the African population, the wider society of the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the alienated, the impoverished, but also the combative, the resilient, the resourceful and the inventive. [1988:5]

But Vaughan stops short of acknowledging that writers such as Sepamla and Tlali also portray these aspects in their writings. The inference is that it is only Ndebele who capably adapts his works to wider discourses of the local society. This inference can be proven wrong by reference to the works of those that Vaughan criticizes by implication and Ndebele mentions by name.

For example, Sipho Sepamla's short story, 'King Taylor', in the anthology Forced Landing, bears the hallmarks of Ndebele's definition of storytelling and Vaughan's approving observations on Ndebele's writings. 'King Taylor' is a story which Sepamia is particularly proud of as he regards it as the manifestation of his professed literary perception of 'writing about the condition of man'.

The story revolves around a black man called Mandlenkosi Thela, who is forced by the ever-worsening conditions of his existence as a black man to change his name to 'King Taylor' so that he can at least be exempted from some of the many humiliations that are always visited upon him. In a racially fragmented country like South Africa, different races were still accorded different status and treatment. The black man was by law, placed at the lowest rung of this social hierarchy. As King Taylor, he thinks he will qualify to be accorded the treatment meted out by the system to the so-called coloureds, and this is presumably better than being a black man. King Taylor soon realises that this is not the case, as he continues to receive the short end of a system based on racial division and designed to keep him powerless in every sense and therefore easy to control. He is forced to witness his own degeneration as his life becomes increasingly meaningless. Finally, Taylor summons the last ounce of resistance when he realises that he is systematically being deprived of his human identity. As Taylor recounts the painful memories of the darkness and futility of his existence, he slowly comes to grips with the man in him.

Interestingly, this is what Ndebele thinks literary fiction should be about: the portrayal of 'interiority' rather than the superficial portrayal of 'exteriority'. Through 'King Taylor', it is almost as if Sepamla duplicates and propagates Ndebele's idea of literary fiction. After the furniture people had repossessed his bedroom suite, Taylor remarks: "People look at you on the outside. In time I've come to know this truth..." (1987:90). This revelation is remarkable for a man who at one stage of his life wanted to gain from the death of his son after a car accident. This attempt to gain from a tragic occurrence is a reflection of moral depletion and mirrors his own sense of worth.

The man within surfaces with the realisation of his worth as a person. He concludes by saying:

... there is a lot that has been happening in my mind. You see the 'pass' is me. Not the identity. The 'pass' is my skin-top. Yet no one can touch the man underneath the skin. That is him saying: "Go back to Majuba"... I know it won't be easy "to bring from the dead" Mandlenkosi Thela. And that man has to rise from the grave. And he will (1987:90).

It is quite obvious that in the end Taylor, though still living under the same conditions of 'modern slavery', reawakens to the realisation of himself as a man, regardless of his outward circumstances of life. He is therefore cleansed of artificiality and this enables him to shed the spirit of defeatism.

Taylor can be compared to Zamani in Ndebele's 'Fools', who also undergoes a period of moral depletion and lives a hopeless, meaningless life. In both characters there is a remarkable growth of perception. In 'Fools', Zamani develops a new awareness of his existence especially after the burly white man lashes at him repeatedly with his whip. He savours a kind of victory that is won without physical force:

The blows stopped; and I knew I had crushed him. I had crushed him with the sheer force of my presence. I was there, and would be there to the end of time; a perpetual symbol of his failure to have a world without me. And he walked towards his car, man without a shadow. The sun couldn't see him. And the sound of his car when he drove away seemed so irrelevant. There he went: a member of a people whose sole gift to the world has been the perfection of hate. And because there was nothing more in them, they will forever destroy, consuming us and themselves in a great fire (1983:276).

Ndebele's power of description is clearly unquestionable, but there is something more to it: the above words by Zamani are a political indictment. In fact, the whole story can be judged to be a political exposition, something that Ndebele goes to great pains to refute as unartistic in literature.

The story also deals as much with the 'exteriority' of the situation as it deals with 'inferiority'. As a proponent of the portrayal of 'inferiority' in works of fiction, Ndebele over-exerts himself in his criticism. In a paper titled 'The Rediscovery of the Ordinary', in which he states his observations of new writing, a writing that had emerged from the South African townships, Ndebele states:

One can come to the conclusion that the conversion of the spectacle has run its course. Its tendency either to devalue or to ignore interiority has placed it firmly in that aspect of South African society that constitutes its fundamental weakness (1986:150).

The implication of this statement is that black South African literature, because of its supposed ignorance of 'inferiority, relegates itself to mere reportage, because surface reality is presented as it is without the injection of artistic creativity. Ndebele's criticism, though often sound, becomes rather confusing as his theory of literature does not apply wholly to his own fictional works. Perhaps the contradictions between his theories and his practical fictional works are deliberate, but he does not let on about this.

What is striking is that the characters in Ndebele's works are presented similarly to those of some of the writers he criticizes. Another example of this is Mojalefa in Miriam Tlali's 'The Point of no Return', also in Forced Landing, who shares the same aspirations and radicalism as Zani in Ndebele's 'Fools'. They both show insight into the plight of the black man and try to change the status quo.

The 'Point of no Return' is a story about Mojalefa and his friends who are about to embark on a defiance campaign against the government of the country. Though there is very little action in the story, a good deal about prevailing conditions and the black man's experiences are revealed through the dialogue between Mojalefa and his wife.

Mojalefa's wife, like the female characters Ntozakhe and Nosipho in Ndebele's 'Fools', is portrayed as a force of moderation and humanism, typical features in African society. Mojalefa, unlike Zani in 'Fools', is aware of his limitations and his strengths. He acknowledges to Bongi, his wife, that he is only "Éa small part of the whole", that the struggle for emancipation must be a concerted effort.

Even though just a small part of the whole, he is determined to be part of the sacrifice. He is adamant about his intentions, especially after he has witnessed the apartheid system's cruelty. One instance of this is when his father built a big house and the white superintendent of the township had asked to see it. After he had seen it, the white superintendent said to Mojalefa's father:

"John, you must have spent a lot of money to build and furnish it so well. But, you should have built it on wheels! ... It should have had wheels so that it may move easily" [1987:146]

This is a reference to the forced removals of blacks from certain areas designated for whites. This experience launches Mojalefa onto a journey of self-discovery. He finds himself and vows to do something about his situation.

One other common aspect in the works of Ndebele and those he criticizes, is the treatment of Christianity. Christianity in the South African situation is portrayed as an inherent ill in society because it is seen to preach obedience and tolerance to oppression.

Mojalefa tells his wife about his father and how his father is disappointed with him. He says:

"You see, as a preacher, he has to stand before a congregation every Sunday and preach on the importance of obedience, of how, as Christians, we have to be submissive and tolerant and respect those who are in authority over us under all conditions. That we should leave it to the hand of God to right all wrongs. As a reprisal against all injustices we must kneel down and pray because as the scriptures tell us, God said: 'Vengeance is Mine'". [1987,18]

In 'Fools' Ndebele also seems to hold Christianity in low esteem. It is mocked as much as it is in Tlali's 'Point of no Return'. This can be seen in a letter Ntozokhe wrote to Zani in which she tells him about responsibility and foolishness. She writes:

You cannot convince people of your truths by telling them of their foolishness. Just like the Christian missionaries! They are so convinced of their truths that they have become foolish. [1983:86]

Ndebele continues his attack on the Christian faith by attacking the most important pillar of Christianity, Jesus Christ. Nosipho tells Zamani in a conversation that:

If there is one woman I'll never be, it is the woman in the Bible who washed Jesus' feet and then wiped them dry with her hair. Nor, if I were a man, would I want to be Jesus either. The world is too big for me to be carrying its sins. Jesus is the greatest sin of self-righteousness the world has ever seen" [1983:86]

It is also important to note that Ndebele makes little, if any, mention of the fact that the writers mentioned in this article including himself, were influenced by the Black Consciousness Movement - hence the common damnation of Christianity and the political radicalism of characters in their works who are obsessed with grasping their own political destinies.

In an article in which he traces the beginnings of protest literature, Kelwyn Sole writes:

The late 1960s and 1970s saw the articulation of a combative, challenging ideological and political perspective among the radical black intelligentsia in South Africa; the ideology of Black Consciousness. Black Consciousness stressed inter alia the need for black unity in the face of apartheid, the need for political and psychological liberation and self-reliance among black people, a stress on what were conceived of as positive black values, such as a humanistic and communalistic approach to life, and a preoccupation with the rediscovery of black history and culture. [1988:66]

Sepamia and Tlali both agree that they write with the intention of projecting all that Sole says. If, in their literature, they write ail this, then what does one make of Ndebele's contention that they write their fiction for a white liberal readership and to solicit pity from those liberals?

In a hard-hitting response to attacks like Ndebele's on her works, Tlali, in a speech delivered in Amsterdam, contends:

To the Phillistines, the banners of books, the critics... We black South African writers (who are faced with the task of conscientising ourselves and our people), are writing for those whom we know are the relevant audience. We are not going to write in order to qualify or fit into YOUR definition of what you describe as 'true art'. Our main objective is not to receive ballyhoo comments on our works. What is more important to us is that we should be allowed to reach our audience. Our duty is to write for our people and about them... We would like to reflect our hopes, desires, sacrifices and endurance in our present in a manner that we know will appeal to them...[1984:26]

Before Ndebele even ventured to criticise the black writer for his unconventional style of literary art, writers like Mutioatse had already stated their intentions with regard to the method which they will apply in their works. This was a conscious defiance of existing literary conventions with which they were obviously quite familiar. In his introduction to the anthology Forced Landing, Mutioatse (1987) defiantly makes the point that black protest fiction writers will deliberately ignore a so-called literary convention in pursuit of telling their stories their way, critics or no critics.

One wonders, with this self-conscious assertion of the composition of their work, where then, lies the justification for Ndebele's criticism?

A Critique of Njabuolo Ndebele's Criticism of Protest Fiction


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