Njabuolo Ndebele's Relationship to the Liberal Humanists and an Evaluation of the Story-telling Tradition

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

Literature, like all the other art-forms, cannot really be seen from one point of view as it subscribes to different schools of thought, with the schools constantly at loggerheads in relation to technique and content of a narrative. But it must be clear here that the role of a narrative depends largely on (its persistence to complexity of a given historical situation) without exhausting itself by an indulgence or pre-occupation with the history itself, for then it will inevitably trap itself within that given historical time-frame. This then gives rise to a saturation of what to write about and we then end up with a genre whose main characteristic, it would seem, is repetition. This on the surface, is Ndebele's stated position.

This article will attempt to examine Njabulo Ndebele's relationship with the liberal-humanist tradition and how his theory of the storytelling tradition developed. To start with, I shall point out certain principles of liberal-humanism. Liberal-humanist literature is characterized by its claims to make itself the centre of literary perceptions. This type of literature sets standards of literary appreciation. Liberal-humanists have convinced themselves that art can only be judged by their own set standards and any literary work that falls outside the scope of their idea of art is dismissed as artistically lacking. They have made themselves the centre of literary aesthetics by promoting what they regard to be 'good art'. This 'good art' describes only their works or works similar to theirs. Every other type of literature that does not fall within this ambit is criticised as crude or immature literature.

In the South African context, liberal-humanist art pre-occupies itself by assessing the racial scenario in the country and the effects of deliberate, oppressive policies and how they affect the oppressed. Liberal-humanist literature in South Africa is, to a large extent, observation or research literature. Ndebele, in an essay titled 'South African Literature and the Construction of Nationhood', makes the following statement about liberal South African literature and its tendency to portray itself as a centre of literary aesthetics: "This is a literature emerging from a society that has perceived itself as history's primary agent in South Africa" (1991:23).

Liberal literature is projected in a leisurely manner from a position of privilege. It is, as I have indicated earlier, an art-form which has very paternalistic characteristics. In South Africa, liberal whites write about their understanding of the aspirations of the oppressed without doing anything constructive to help alleviate the suffering of the oppressed. Ndebele makes the same point, which, incidentally also shows his position in relation to them, when he writes in the same article that

If art plays an adversary role in society, asking disturbing questions, revealing unsettling feelings, attitudes, and experiences, then we will understand why it was writers who went further to ask the next two questions: How has what we have done to them affected them? How has it affected us? It will immediately be clear that the 'us' in the last question does not include the writers who are trapped in their own society. [1991:23]

As if this were not an observation on liberal literary artists in South Africa, Ndebele becomes clinical in his analysis and elaboration in emphasis of the above point by adding:

They were born within it; it sent them to well-equipped schools; it provided them with publishing opportunities; it sanctified their language through legislation and language academies; it gave them theatres, museums, art galleries, concert halls and libraries; it arranged for them special salary scales that ensure access to a range of cultural facilities as well as the ability to buy books and newspapers; it created literary awards to honour them, it also made possible for some of them to become critics and reviewers who influenced literary taste and declared standards; it protected them in law against the claims of the other, by assuring them of the privacy of residential areas legally inaccessible to the 'other'; thus ensuring they all socialized among themselves; it gave them passports to travel, they could meet other writers internationally; it sought to make them take for granted the elevated status of their citizenship and its attractive resulting comforts. Since they were concerned about the 'other' and the effects of the 'others' plight on their own humanity, theirs became a bi-polar existential reality of moral abhorrence accompanied by a physical inability to escape the conditions of that abhorrence. [1991:24]

In the above explication of liberal literature and its privileged status in South Africa, there is obviously a tinge of bitterness in Ndebele's tone. As Ndebele has correctly observed, the liberal white literary artists in South Africa, because of the conditions they have created or find themselves in, cannot escape from the cocoon which defines their literary scope. As a result, their literary art and perceptions are trapped into definable fixations. This article does not suggest nor does Ndebele, that liberal literary artists are totally incapable of seeing art outside the scope of their own literary limitations. I am simply stating a case about the historical conditions that inform the white liberal's perception and his art. By this I also hope to show Ndebele's relationship with liberal-humanists and by implication his refusal to be associated with them as his own criticism of their art testifies.

In this case, the question that needs to be asked is: If Ndebele's art is not influenced by the liberal-humanism of his immediate environmental conditions, as apparent in his distancing of himself from the liberal-humanists and what has come to be known as protest fiction, where then is it grounded? Ndebeie's artistic perceptions are rooted in the fact that a work must of necessity comprise two fundamental aspects; ordinariness and complexity. In an article titled 'Rediscovery of the Ordinary' Ndebele argues for ordinariness as an essential component of the "storytelling tradition" as opposed to current portrayals of "the spectacular" in South African literature.

In response to Sipho Sepamla's defence of protest fiction. Ndebele hammers his point home by declaring:

I have listened to countless storytellers on the buses and trains carrying people to and from work in South Africa. The majority of them have woven masterpieces of entertainment and instruction. Others were so popular that commuters made sure that they did not miss the storytellers' trains. The vast majority of the stories were either tragedies about lovers, township jealousies, the worries of widows; about the need to consult medicine men for luck at horse racing, or luck at getting a job or at winning a football match; or they were fantastic ghost stories... And we have to face the fact here: there were proportionally fewer overtly political stories. When they talked politics they talked politics. If any political concept crept into the stories, it was domesticated by a fundamental interest in the evocation of the general quality African life in the township... In all these stories and songs, I am made conscious of Africans in South Africa, as makers of culture in their own right. I am made conscious of them as philosophers, asking ultimate questions about life, moral values, and social being. [1991:33]

After this, I don't think that the point that Ndebele makes about the concept of storytelling needs belabouring. However, one should point out that Ndebele should not be misconstrued to imply that all black fiction has a total disregard for the concept of 'storytelling'. He acknowledges there is a small percentage of black South Africans who write stories that fall within the category of the storytelling format. What concerns him primarily is that protest fiction writers tend to write what Kaizer Nyatsumba, the journalist, calls "a genre of expository or journalistic fiction". This is a type of writing that is overwhelmingly concerned with an almost mechanical "surface" representation, making political cases, and, as Ndebele aptly puts it, "striking a blow for freedom".

In trying to establish a changed, relevant aesthetic for South African literature, Ndebeie does not claim this aesthetic to be a new one. Rather he acknowledges that it is an art-form that has both local and international links or origins. For instance, in asserting his views on ordinariness within the storytelling tradition, he claims to have come to his realization about the over-politicized nature of contemporary black South African fiction after he had read the Turkish writer, Yasher Kemal's stories. On the nature of Kemal's stories, Michael Vaughan noted:

Because Kemal understands the conventions of storytelling narrative so well, and because of his familiarity with local storytelling tradition, he can draw his reader into an "imaginative" yet critical reflection upon the social processes of rural Turkey/ [1988:187].

In the article, "Turkish Tales...", Ndebeie points out how he was jolted to a new awareness about literature, after he had read Kemal's stories, and particularly the way in which South African literature further 'journalistic and sloganistic ambience" in its representations. Protest fiction, he claims, is repetitive in nature and has the tendency to disregard certain aesthetic values such as "compiexity" and "inferiority". In its exhibitionist form, protest fiction records and provides supposed answers rather than posing problems, as Chekov would have literature do.

Though Ndebele claims to understand the nature of protest fiction and why it assumes the form it does, it is clear that he would rather protest fiction change its narrative style and adopt a literary technique worthy of artistic merit. Such fiction, he feels, should revert to the storytelling tradition. He is, of course, not saying that their works should totally be devoid of politics. After all, politics shapes social behaviour, and literature is historically induced social behaviour. Terry Eagleton, whose works one must assume Ndebele has read, given the similarity of artistic perception, writes:

The task of theatre is not to "reflect" a fixed reality, but to demonstrate how character and action are historically proceeded, and so how could they have been, and still can be, different. The play, therefore, becomes a model of that process of production, it is less a reflection of, than a reflection on, social reality (1983:65).

This, Ndebele would readily ascertain, is what makes writers like Yasher Kemal, Dikobe and others, great artistic writers. Their works, he would point out, form a "unified totality". Eagleton, in furthering his marxist perceptions on great art and artists, pointed out:

The greatest artists are those who can recapture and recreate a harmonious totality of human life. In a society where the general and the particular, the conceptual and the sensuous, the social and the individual are increasingly torn apart by the "alienations" of capitalism, the great writer draws these dialectically together into a complex totality. His fiction thus mirrors in microcosmic form, the complex totality of society itself (1983:28).

To go back to my earlier argument on liberal-humanism, one is reminded here of the nature of the concept. It occurs to me that liberal humanist literature, like protest fiction, despite their different styles of literary projection, are similar in their limited, stereotyped forms. Whereas liberal-humanist texts privilege the centre, emphasizing the "home" over the "native", the "metropolitan" over the "colonial", protest fiction emphasizes the obvious and politics over artistic complexity. Artistic stereotyping is a sure way of diminishing the artistic worthiness of literary works because surely, such works will be so bare and open that they will need no interpretation. After all, these works express themselves in such a way as to leave the reader in no doubt about their intention. I shall end here by quoting Alex Comfort in 'The Novel and Our Time', wherein he writes in a manner of propagating a fundamental aspect of the novel: "Interpretation rather than an attempt to convince, is the chief object of art" (1946:80).


Comfort, A. 1946. Art and Social Responsibility: Lectures on the Ideology of Romanticism. London: Falcon Press.

Eagleton, T. 1983. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Ltd.

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

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

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