1 Postcolonialism and Afrikaans literature

Louise Vijoen, Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, University of Stellenbosch

Part 1 of the author's " Postcolonialism and Recent Women's Writing in Afrikaans," which first appeared in World Literature Today and which appears here with the kind permission of the author and Dr. William Riggan, editor of that publication. Copyright, of course, remains with the author and World Literature Today. Many thanks to Eric Dickens for suggesting the inclusion of this important essay.

Although cynical words have been spoken about the current popularity and academic marketability of postcolonial theory, it cannot be denied that it has provided valuable new perspectives on the world's so-called 'marginal literatures'. One's understanding of postcolonialism is largely determined by the way in which the prefix post- in postcolonialism is read. If it is read as a reference to temporal succession and even supersession, the term postcolonialism applies to that which follows after colonialism. If however colonialism is defined as the way in which unequal international relations of economic, political, military and cultural power are maintained, it cannot be argued that the colonial era is really over. Moreover viewing colonialism as "a homogenuous thing of the past" (Thomas 1994: 13) in the hope of achieving a break with a blameless present, poses the risk of obscuring the historical, geographical and political specificity of totally different forms of colonization. Anne McClintock has also argued that the reading of postcolonialism as that which follows after colonialism divides history into a series of teleologically-directed phases that progresses from the pre-colonial via the colonial to the post-colonial. This description of history as a linear march of time falls into the same trap as the metanarrative of western historicism by arranging world history around the single binary opposition of colonial/postcolonial (1993: 292-293).

The writers of the well-known book on postcolonialism The Empire Writes Back (1989) seem to avoid these pitfalls by defining postcolonialism as that which undermines colonialism rather than that which follows after colonialism. They extend the use of the term postcolonial to cover "all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization until the present day" and assert that literatures are made distinctively post-colonial by the fact that they "emerged in their present form out of the experience of colonization and asserted themselves by foregrounding the tension with the imperial power, and by emphasizing their difference from the assumptions of the imperial centre" (1989: 2). Emphasising attributes like synchretism, hybridism, disruption and polyglossy in postcolonial texts, they see postcolonialism as a potentially subversive presence within the colonial itself. They also declare that "South African writing clearly demonstrates that the political impetus of the post-colonial begins well before the moment of indepedence" (1989: 83).

The objections most frequently raised against the theory of postcolonial literature proposed by the writers of The Empire Writes Back, are also those which affects its applicability to Afrikaans literature. Their totalising view of postcolonial literature as a homogenuous category disregards the differences between highly diverse geographical, historical and cultural contexts like those of the African countries, the Carribean islands and former settler colonies like Australia, New Zealand and Canada (Williams & Chrisman 1993: 13). Even though it is conceded at the outset of The Empire Writes Back that the focus will be on the literature produced in English or 'english' in the former British colonies, criticism has been levelled at the exclusivist embeddedness of its postcolonial theory in English. It soon becomes clear that this English-based definition of postcolonialism cannot adequately describe the full variety of literatures produced in languages and literary traditions other than the English. Because of its rootedness in English The Empire Writes Back's account of South African literature is limited to that written in English which is then described in terms of a simplistic binary division that obscures the heterogeneity of the languages and literatures in South Africa. It is argued that the white English literature of South Africa can be compared to the literature produced in settler-colonies like Australia, Canada and New Zealand while the black English literature in South Africa can be more fruitfully compared to the literature of other African countries (1989: 27), thus revealing a nostalgia for the 'apartheid' of binary divisions between black and white (Jolly 1995: 21). By disregarding the literature produced in the black languages and Afrikaans, the writers of The Empire Writes Back paint an incomplete picture of the literary scene in South Africa (a country in which eleven languages have been given official status since the advent of democracy in 1994). Their description also ignores the interaction between the different literary systems in South Africa. This is an important oversight in the South African situation in which the Afrikaans and English literatures were institutionally privileged because these languages had official status in pre-democratic South Africa while black languages were not afforded the same status and means of literary production. Presenting writers who use English as the sole representatives of South African literature (albeit implicitly) also leaves the non-English reader of The Empire Writes Back with the impression of a theoretical imperialism Ahmad argued against in another context.

From this it becomes clear that a variety of "historically nuanced theories and strategies" (McClintock 1993: 303) will have to be developed to describe the specific position of Afrikaans literature in the context of postcolonialism. Recent attempts to describe the history of white supremacy and racism in South Africa draw attention to the fact that its complex origins can be found in the long drawn out process of colonization first by the Dutch and then the British, the subjection of different peoples in territorial victories and the subsequent enslavement of black people (Worden 1994). In South Africa this developed into a systematic and legalized racial discrimination in the course of the nineteenth century that finally affected the economical, social and political structures of the whole country. Although white supremacy was also prevalent in other colonial territories such as the British colonies in Africa, Asia and America, it started declining after 1945 with the rise of the independence movements. In contrast with this white supremacy became stronger in South Africa from the late forties onwards under the apartheid government established with the coming into power of the Nationalist Party in 1948 (Worden 1994: 65-120).

Because of apartheid's entrenchment of the white supremacy associated with colonialism, some writers on colonial discourse and postcolonial theory refer to South Africa under the apartheid regime as a colonial regime (Ashcroft e.a. 1989: 83) while others describe it as a neo-imperialist system (Carusi 1990: 96). It must however also be taken into consideration that many Afrikaners (Afrikaans-speaking whites) regarded themselves as a people colonized by Britain because of the mythologisation of events like the Great Trek in the 1830s and the wars waged by the Boer Republics against Britain in the nineteenth century. For these people the declaration of a Republic by the Nationalist government in 1961 signalled the beginning of postcolonialism in the historical sense of the word (Worden 1994: 87-88, Carusi 1990: 96). Using the terminology of colonial discourse one would be able to say that Afrikaans-speaking whites or Afrikaners had a double status in the course of South African history, that of being the colonizers as well as the colonized. Another complicating factor with regard to Afrikaans literature is that precisly this moment in Afrikaner history (the advent of the "postcolonial" Republic of South Africa in 1961) also marked the beginning of a tradition of dissent against Afrikaner nationalist power by Afrikaans writers (John 1995: 11).

The situation is made even more complex by the peculiar situation of the Afrikaans language. Afrikaans is a separate language that developed out of the Dutch spoken by the first colonizers of South Africa (the Dutch East India Trading Company that established a refreshment station at the Cape in 1652) with demonstrable influences of Malay, Portugese, Khoi, High and Low German, French, Arabic, black languages and English (Ponelis 1993: 99-120). On the one hand it can be seen as a foreign language connected to the colonization of South Africa by the Dutch; on the other hand it can be seen as an indigenous language that developed in Africa and carries a name that literally means "of Africa." Since the turn of the century Afrikaans has been closely linked with the rise of Afrikaners from what they regarded as colonization and oppression by the British. The language was often used as an argument to culturally legitimate the right to existence and separateness of the Afrikaner nation in its rise to political power finally achieved with the electoral victory of the National Party in 1948.

Afrikaans also came to be identified with the oppressive ideology of apartheid because of events like the Soweto riots in 1976 that centered around the enforced use of Afrikaans in black schools. On the other hand Afrikaans is not the exclusive property of whites in South Africa. More than half of all the speakers who use Afrikaans as a first language are coloured people (also referred to as black in the context of the political struggle, see Willemse 1987: 237) who were excluded by the racist basis of Afrikaner nationalism. It is therefore also the language of those who could be seen as the colonized because of racial oppression. Voicing the "double identity" of Afrikaans, the black Afrikaans writer Hein Willemse stated in 1987 that one had to accept "that Afrikaans is at once the language of the conqueror and the language of the oppressed" and argued for the continued use of Afrikaans as an instrument in the struggle against apartheid (1987: 239).

In its earliest stages in the late nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century Afrikaans literature functioned as a tool in the political struggle of the Afrikaner against British rule. This process of de-colonization partly effected through Afrikaans literature was at the same time a process of colonization because it excluded and oppressed Afrikaans-speaking people of colour as well as others. It is also known that the institutionalisation of Afrikaans literature was supported by the Afrikaner nationalist project and that it lent status and legitimacy to that project in its turn. Although Afrikaans literature has been called "a faithful bedfellow of Afrikaner nationalism and Afrikaner identity" (Willemse 1987: 241), it would be a mistake not to recognise the counter-hegemonic strain present in Afrikaans literature since the beginning of the sixties. Although Rosemary Jolly argues convincingly for the need to recognise the heterogeneity of the South Africa literary landscape, her own analysis tends towards a view of Afrikaans literature as the monolithic representative of Afrikaner nationalism thus constituting Afrikaans literature as the "other" of struggle literature in South Africa (1995: 22-23). Even though she implies the heterogeneity of Afrikaans literature by referring to the predicament of black Afrikaans writers, she mistakenly states of the well-known dissident writer Breyten Breytenbach that "writing against apartheid in his first language seems impossible" for him (1995: 22). Since his debut in 1964 Breytenbach often voiced his criticism of the apartheid government in literary texts written in Afrikaans. As such he formed part of a strong tradition of dissendence in Afrikaans literary texts from the early sixties onwards that counter-acted the Afrikaner nationalist nature of earlier Afrikaans texts. During the eighties this tradition became so strong that it became the dominant strain in Afrikaans literature rather than a marginal one.

To undercut the confusing variety of different postcolonialisms Mishra and Hodge distinguish between two kinds of postcolonialism viewed as ideological orientations rather than historical stages. Although they make the mistake of racializing the distinction between settler and non-settler literatures as Jolly has pointed out (1995: 22), their differentiation between an oppositional and a complicit postcolonialism can be useful in a description of Afrikaans literature's postcoloniality. Oppositional postcolonialism manifests most clearly in literatures striving for autonomy and political independence; concern with race, a second language and political struggle are the fundamental principles of this form of postcolonialism. Complicit postcolonialism is implicitly present in colonialism itself although not overtly political in nature; it refers to the always present tendency towards subversion in any literature subordinated by imperial power structures and cultural domination, tending to manifest in 'postmodern' features like fracture, interlanguage and polyglossia (1993: 284-290). Experience has shown that Afrikaans literature has functioned both oppositionally (in open support of the political struggle) and complicitly (in the tendency towards the rupture and decentering of all totalising discourses), thus tending towards the "fused postcolonial" in its construction of postcoloniality (Mishra and Hodge 1993: 288). The heterogeneity of Afrikaans literature thus necessitates the telling of several smaller narratives which take into account local historical contexts in order to avoid obscuring generalisations and ever new forms of imperialism (whether it be on the grounds of language, race, gender, sexuality or theory).

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