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People Top 5
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- March 26, 1984
- Vol. 21
- No. 12
A Radical South African Novelist Writes Paeans to Revolutionaries and Awaits a Racial Apocalypse
Within this scene of colonial privilege, the talk is not of gold prices and the stock market, but of treason trials, censorship and secret police. Visitors here are sometimes monitored by South Africa's notorious Special Branch. The hostess herself, a tiny, fine-boned woman named Nadine Gordimer, 60, enjoys a powerful, and precarious, position: She is both South Africa's most critically acclaimed contemporary novelist and one of the most vocal antagonists of her homeland's white-minority government. "There's only one way the struggle can end in this country and that is in black majority rule," says Gordimer. "I don't think it's going to come about painlessly."
This uncompromising vision is the driving force behind Gordimer's writing, which Donald Woods, a liberal white anti-government newspaper editor who fled South Africa in 1977, calls "absolutely devastating to the system." In dozens of short stories and in novels such as The Late Bourgeois World, Burger's Daughter and July's People, Gordimer has eloquently exposed the human costs of apartheid, the official policy of racial segregation that keeps South Africa's 21 million blacks—70 percent of the population—at the bottom of the social heap by denying them the vote, restricting their movements and employment, and, in some cases, imprisoning them without trial.
The revolutionaries, racists and well-meaning liberals of Gordimer's novels owe their vividness to her own varied experience. "I have an identity as a white African, which is far different from being a white South African," says Gordimer, who, through her politics and friendships, has become familiar with life both in Johannesburg's pristine suburbs and in the wretched, poverty-stricken Bantustans—internal "homelands"—that have become dumping grounds for almost half of South Africa's black population. She has fraternized with black radicals and worked to salvage the careers of banned poets and playwrights. Over the years her views have moved from liberal to radical. Her militancy stands in stark contrast to the gently progressive views of her literary compatriot, Alan (Cry, the Beloved Country) Paton. "Up until the time I was arrested, Gordimer was way to the left of me, too," says Donald Woods. "I had been a stodgy establishment liberal who was radicalized only after the police bumped off one of my closest friends [Stephen Biko, 30, a black political leader who died while in police custody in September 1977]. But Gordimer is a radical intuitively."
She is a delicate but imposing presence, her weathered face as lean and her manner as controlled as her prose. She is not given to small talk. "She can be generous and warm, but a lot of people find her too intellectual," says Helen Suzman, a member of the opposition Progressive Federal Party in Parliament. "She doesn't tolerate fools well, and she can be extremely cutting. It frightens people."
For the past 25 years Gordimer has lived in Parktown with her art dealer husband, Reinhold Cassirer, 76, a Jewish refugee from Hitler's Germany who shares his wife's views, if not her outspokenness. "He sometimes says, 'How incredible to have run from racial persecution and ended up here,' " Gordimer says wryly. But this afternoon her husband is in London, and Gordimer has taken time off from inspecting the galleys of her new short-story collection, Something Out There (to be published in the U.S. this spring by Viking Press), to discuss what it means to be a white opposition writer in South Africa.
It has, at times, been an ordeal. Many of her friends have been harassed, imprisoned or driven into exile. Although all of her eight novels are now available in South Africa, three were banned for periods up to 12 years. Most recently Burger's Daughter, a sympathetic portrait of a young revolutionary, was carted out of stores in 1979 and condemned by the government as a "full-scale attack against the Republic." After an international outcry, the ban was lifted three months later.
Still, Gordimer has never faced the threats or the other horrors inflicted on Woods, who was personally "banned"—officially ostracized from public life—after publishing editorials and investigative reports on Biko's death in his paper, the East London Daily Dispatch. "Nadine's insulated because she's an artist," says Helen Suzman, who notes that Gordimer has never gotten personally entangled in South Africa's volatile political web. "She's a threat in the realm of ideas," says Joseph Lelyveld, the former New York Times Johannesburg bureau chief. "The government can live with that." Gordimer believes that what the regime fears most is simple, gut-level writing easily understood by the masses of poorly educated blacks. "If a book is highly inflammatory but sophisticated, who is it going to influence?" she says. "Among South African whites, it will only influence those people who already have these ideas in their heads. It will have little influence on South African blacks because most will not be sufficiently literate to read sophisticated literature. And most blacks who are well educated are already dedicated to the revolutionary struggle anyway."
While growing up in Springs, an archetypal colonial gold-mining town in the Transvaal, Gordimer was never taught to question the status quo. One mile from the comfortable white company town where she lived stood the compounds, a collection of window-less barracks guarded by police, that housed black tribesmen brought in to work the mines. As the only child of apolitical Jewish parents, a Lithuanian immigrant watchmaker and his English wife, Nadine, like her friends, was instructed that the "mine boys"—an exotic collection of earringed, blanket-swathed laborers—were subhuman creatures. "The reasoning was they were savages who were going to jump on every little white girl and rape her," she says.
Books changed her life and began to awaken the aspiring adolescent writer to the racial injustice around her. "If you read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, and you see how workers are treated, and you're living in a Transvaal mining town," she says, "you begin to think, 'My God, who are these thousands of mine boys? Where do they come from?' It had never occurred to me that they had wives or children. Eventually, I realized that it was not a God-given decision that blacks did menial jobs or that white children had toys and shoes and black children didn't. From that, one next begins to question the attitudes of the churches, and inevitably one is led to politics and the government. When I was 18 and first had the vote," she adds, "the Communist Party was the only nonracial party in South Africa. So I got my vote, and I cast it for the Communist Party."
Gordimer's rebellion remained a lonely one until some of her short stories came to the attention of Afrikaner poet Uys Krige. An intellectual and "a wonderful talker," Krige introduced her to Johannesburg's small bohemian population and put her in touch with a New York literary agent. In 1952 Simon and Schuster published a collection of her short stories and gave her a $1,000 advance for her first novel. By then, Gordimer had married and divorced her first husband, an orthodontist, and was living in a tiny apartment in Johannesburg with her infant daughter, writing furiously by day and socializing with equal intensity by night.
During that watershed period, she recalls, "all the racial barriers from my childhood broke down." Her evenings were a succession of gatherings with artists, writers and political activists who shuttled illegally between Soweto—the black slum outside Johannesburg—and the white districts of the city. Alcohol was plentiful, despite harsh liquor laws. Her closest friends included a young Afrikaner radical later jailed for subversion (she became the model for Burger's Daughter) and a black journalist who carried on a love affair with a white woman in open defiance of the government's Immorality Act. Gradually, however, disillusionment set in. "We thought that by ignoring the color barrier we were destroying it," she says. "But this attitude was totally mistaken because the moment the black friend or black lover walked into the street, he or she had to carry a pass—and abide by racist laws."
A government crackdown in the late '50s and early '60s exploded what Gordimer calls "the liberal dream." In rapid succession, her circle was stunned by a series of highly publicized treason trials, the massacre by police of more than 60 unarmed black protesters at Sharpeville and the surveillance, banning and jailing of many of her friends. Demoralized, Gordimer and Cassirer, whom she had married in 1954, considered taking their family—now three young children—into exile in Zambia. "But it dawned on me that in Zambia I would be just another white stranger," she says, "whereas here, even if somebody cut my throat tomorrow—which I don't think will happen—at least it's on my home ground."
Gordimer remained in South Africa to write a series of increasingly radical novels, marked by a blend of what British author and critic Anthony Sampson has called "sensuous awareness and political authenticity." Her characters range from the middle-class, tin-pot bomb makers of The Late Bourgeois World to the loathsome, lustful racist of The Conservationist. Growing steadily more pessimistic about South Africa's future, in 1981 she wrote July's People, a vivid tale about a white family that is saved from the cross fire of a South African revolution by its black house servant.
Gordimer believes the apocalyptic scenario described in July's People—a final, bloody showdown between blacks and whites—is a more likely possibility than most South Africans are willing to admit. More moderate observers, including Alan Paton, now 81, hold that the government is progressing step-by-step toward racial equality. Gordimer, by contrast, calls South Africa's newly approved constitution—which creates three racially distinct chambers for whites, Asians, and people of mixed race, but ignores blacks completely—a "disaster" that can only deepen black resentment. (Indeed, Prime Minister P.W. Botha recently vowed that blacks would never be enfranchised in South Africa.) She rails at the continued forced removal of thousands of people from tribal villages to Bantustans and attributes what few concessions have been made not to a growing sense of justice among whites, but to fear of black terrorism. Although many people feel that the South African Army is powerful enough to stave off revolution, Gordimer insists that beneath their complacency, South African whites are slowly slipping into "a state of siege."
Should a changeover to black majority rule occur, peacefully or otherwise, Gordimer says she is prepared to accept the consequences. "Of course things will be worse for whites and perhaps middle-class blacks," she admits. "But it depends on how you look at progress in society. I know lots of white people living in countries that have become independent black nations. They grumble and get exasperated because their washing machines and refrigerators don't work. The changes are pretty unlivable if you're used to middle-class life. But who among the mass of black people ever had a washing machine or refrigerator? The same whites grumble about the schools—but what kind of education did black children ever have? One has to ask oneself: Shouldn't a society's benefits be shared equally?"
Like many politically defiant writers, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Athol Fugard, her opposition has been the lifeblood of her work, yet the anguish of her life. Ten years ago, for instance, after her son, Hugo Cassirer, then 18, was called up by the army, she advised him, despite her vehement opposition to the regime, to comply with the order rather than face imprisonment. The frustration of never being able to identify with a government in her own country, of never having anything to vote for, of viewing the police as her enemy, has taken its toll, as evidenced by Gordimer's air of brooding dismay. Yet she remains driven, channeling her anger not into open resistance, but into meticulously documenting her world. "The great value of artists is that they are people who can illuminate great truths without marching in the streets," says Donald Woods. "And they should be by their typewriters rather than marching." In that Gordimer remains resolute. "Nothing," she says, "is ever going to stop me from writing what I want to write."
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