Postcolonialism and women writing in Afrikaans

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

Part 2 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.

The parallel between the relationship man-woman and the relationship empire-colony or colonizer-colonized has often been cited in postcolonial theory as well as the "double colonization" of women in colonial situations (see Holst-Petersen and Rutherford 1986). Some writers even feel that imperial, colonial and postcolonial discourses can largely be seen as "allegories of gender contests" (Williams & Chrisman 1993: 18). Although this reduction of the one to the other obliterates historical specificity and difference, it can be said that the history and preoccupations of feminism show certain similiarities with that of postcolonialism. Early feminism, like the oppositional form of postcolonialism, tried to subvert structures of domination while both feminism and postcolonialism have tried to write back the marginalised into the dominant discourse (Ashcroft e.a. 1989: 175-176).

These superficial similarities between postcolonialism and feminism should however not blind one to the fact that the feminist struggle is not neccesarily coterminous with the struggles for political freedom characteristic of oppositional postcolonialism. It has been shown that some post-colonial nationalisms have entrenched rather than dismantled the power of patriarchy so that women's struggle against domination often continues in these contexts. Much has been said and written about the continuous dialogue between race and gender which considerably complicates the discourse of postcolonialism as far as the situation of women is concerned. In the process considerable attention has been given to the need to avoid totalising strategies which eradicate difference and presume the unity of concepts like the 'third world woman', the 'black woman' and the 'white woman'. Even more than elsewhere scholars in postcolonial feminism have been forced to elaborate their own subject positions in an attempt to establish the historical specificity of their discussions and to avoid the impression of a theoretical colonization. In contexts of oppositional postcolonialism (like the South African in the past decades) the dialogue between race and gender often centered around questions like: which comes first, gender or race? should one's first loyalty be to gender issues or the political struggle of the racially oppressed? It was not uncommon for women writers to feel pressurised to give their political (racial) loyalties priority over their gender loyalties. The debate around this issue in South African literature has been lively with academic feminists sometimes arguing the case for feminism and the gendering of race against prominent writers (see Lenta 1988).

Without discounting the fact that other categories of writers have contributed significantly to the establishment of a postcolonial discourse in Afrikaans, it is striking that previously marginalised discourses (women's writing, gay writing and popular literature) have become increasingly important in interrogating the discourses of power in South Africa. It has been suggested by more than one critic that Afrikaans women writers can play an important role in transforming South African culture in the postcolonial context. André Brink maintains that Afrikaans women writers have already shown the ability to utilise feminism's strategies for the subversion of fallocratic systems (1990: 4) while Kenneth Parker argues that their freedom from any obligations towards the masculinist discourse of the Great South African Nation has already led to experimentation with ways in which to write the new South Africa (1994: 4-5). It must however also be noted that the category of mainstream Afrikaans woman writer does not as yet include coloured or black women despite the fact that more than half of the speakers who use Afrikaans as a first language are coloured people. Although one can point to a few Afrikaans texts by coloured or black women published in anthologies like I Qabane Labantu. Poetry in the emergency (1989), no novels, collections of short stories or volumes of poetry exist in mainstream Afrikaans literature. This silence can undoubtedly be read as an indication of the double colonization effected by Afrikaner cultural domination on the grounds of race as well as gender. Some of the other reasons for this silence have been pointed out by Beverly Jansen: the double oppression of coloured and black women in the apartheid society as well as in the family, an inferior education system, debilitating socio-economic conditions that sapped women's creative energy, the preference for English because of political resentment against Afrikaans as language of the oppressor and the neglected status of the oral tradition used by many of these women (1985: 79-81).

Although the category Afrikaans woman writer displays racial homogeneity (in contrast with that of the men writing in Afrikaans), this does not simplify the position of women writing in Afrikaans with regards to race. Afrikaans writing by women until the sixties was influenced by the ambivalent position of Afrikaans women who were part of a group who felt themselves colonized by white British imperialism but who also colonized black South Africans. Therefore it is not strange to find that Afrikaans women's writing up until the sixties displayed patterns of affiliation to Afrikaner nationalism and racial supremacy. It is also interesting to note that women writers achieved considerable prominence in the Afrikaans literary system despite gender oppression, although this does not necessarily imply a well developed feminist discourse (Van Niekerk 1994: 5). Since the sixties, but especially during the seventies and the political emergency of the eighties, Afrikaans women writers have occupied a strong place in the tradition of dissidence against the apartheid regime in Afrikaans literature. Although they are the racial 'others' of women of colour, most of those writing since the sixties have chosen to 'betray' (a term used by Trinh in referring to the "triple jeopardy" of writing women, 1989: 104) their own race in identifying with the liberation struggle of black people in their texts. Their position is therefore not unlike that of white settler women in previous centuries whose narrative stance was considerably complicated by their alignment with colonized blacks but simultaneous entrapment in the discourses of imperialism and patriarchy implicit in the mere act of writing in a colonial context (Driver 1988: 12).

My discussion of the following examples of Afrikaans women's writing since the beginning of the eighties will try to demonstrate that an engagement with the problems of race, class, gender and writing constitutes a common element in the postcoloniality of Afrikaans women's writing. The complex social, historical and cultural positionality that emerges from these texts again indicates that it would be a mistake to regard even the small Afrikaans literature as a monolithic entity. The power of recent Afrikaans women' writing writers lies in the multiple voices that enunciate a complex subjectivity and that enable their texts to speak to diverse audiences (see Henderson on black women's writing in America, 1993).

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