“We were still wary of admitting, even to ourselves, that in a totally politicised society like South Africa, we had simply not gone far enough. Our very ‘literariness’ was beginning to turn into our own worst enemy.”
This statement by the late André Brink, topping the Daily Maverick’s digital newsletter on Monday morning after the litterateur’s death last Friday night, reminded me just how deeply Brink has become lodged in the collective memory of a culture of resistance in South Africa.
Brink was talking about the provocation writers face to oppose an oppressive ruling hegemony not only by talking back, but by engaging in forms of revolutionary “disobedience” that are more “active” than fanciful writing alone.
It is a challenge that writers in South Africa now, again, face as individual citizens try to square their social conscience with a ruling clique and a submissive white-collar capitalist economy that is running away with the money – and the core values of Mandela’s legacy. How are we resisting this? By moaning complacently on Facebook?
The challenges now are similar to what they were for Brink in the 1980s – to resist mendacity and to rise up in all possible ways against tyranny, in writing but also in activism – but the legitimation stakes are very different, rendering Brink’s political legacy difficult to fulfil.
The current governing party, masquerading as the African National Congress, but in reality a neoliberal grab-fest in cahoots with the wealthy upper crust of all colours (especially the faux-liberal white kings of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange), still commandeers the symbolic legitimacy of the struggle, the glorious green, black and gold of liberation. This alliance is the real meaning of “Proudly South African”.
Despite such an opaque coalition of power it is noteworthy that a nonconformist organ of dissent in post-apartheid South Africa such as the Daily Maverick so readily associates itself with an instance, from the 1980s, of André Brink’s social critique. And it raises a question that is vital under current circumstances: Is it possible to hold the current powers that be, or any future coalition of wealth and authority, to a Brink-style of scrutiny, and make it effective?
Here lies the rub – the rebellion that coalesced around literature, scholarship, politics, music and other forms of culture in the 1980s (when Brink made the above statement) actually worked. It actually came off. Brink was one of its key figures, in tandem with other forms of resistance and dissidence, such as the Voëlvry music revolution under the crazy command of artistic personalities like Johannes Kerkorrel and Koos Kombuis.
The anti-apartheid literature revolt, like its cognates in music, art, dancing, photography, sport and associated areas, helped to hollow out the legitimacy of the (then) establishment from within its core, as in Herman Charles Bosman’s story “White Ant”, in which termites eat up Jan Mankie’s wooden leg from the inside while he sleeps.
Of course, there were bigger political rebellions afoot, with which such cultural and community pursuits found articulation, notably, the armed struggle against apartheid, the mass movement of civil dissent gathered into the United Democratic Front, and concerted lobbying outside the country’s borders by anti-apartheid organisations.
Still, within that bigger context, the literature revolution, in several languages, was a meaningful campaign that helped to change a bad system for a better one, and aided in ushering in the Mandela revolution. Whatever else one may want to say about Zumocracy in the present tense, the Mandela “miracle” brought with it the very constitutional democracy that we now, again, need to mobilise to fight kleptocracy as our ruling spirit. (For an incisive view of the damage this obsession with common stealing has caused, see Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System.)
The engaged-literature insurgency of the ‘70s and ‘80s was a broad-based rebellion that linked up several key constituencies: Afrikaans writer dissidents (apart from Brink, people like Breyten Breytenbach, John Miles, Etienne van Heerden, Wopko Jensma, Marlene van Niekerk, Welma Odendaal, Adam Small, and others); “township” writers (Mongane Wally Serote, Mafika Pascal Gwala, Sipho Sepamla, Mtutuzela Matshoba, Njabulo Ndebele, Chris van Wyk, Andries Oliphant, and others); playwrights and actors (remember Woza Albert! and Asinamali, and theatre dissidents like Mbongeni Ngema, Percy Mtwa, John Kani, Winston Ntshona, Athol Fugard, Barney Simon and Mannie Manim, among others?); invested scholar-critics (Es’kia Mphahlele, Stephen Gray, Gerrit Olivier, Ampie Coetzee, Richard Rive, and others); photographers and artists (David Goldblatt, William Kentridge, Kendall Geers, Willem Boshoff); and so the list goes on. It amounts to an incredibly forceful aggregation of critical spirit.
The question is: Can we gather together such an accumulation of civil dissent again? Surely – if only for André Brink’s sake, and for the memory of his principled refusal – we should decline to sit back and let the thievery pass us by as if it’s just another day, business as usual? The writers, critics, commentators, flaneurs, photographers, spoken-word poets, painters and philosophers are out there, but they’re dissipating their energies on Facebook, subsiding under the exhausting pressures of consumption. How to find a base for more forceful action?
This, for me, is the challenge that Brink’s legacy dares us to confront. Can “we” constitute a new “us”, a new collective of civil dissent, spread out across the arts, academia, politics and the media, a critical zeitgeist that might find purchase in the linked geographies of globalised political lobbying, too? This is similar to the challenge that gets posed repeatedly by activist and scholar Raymond Suttner who, like his fellow former ANC loyalist Ronnie Kasrils, has become disillusioned with the cronyism of the Zuma era. We are “on the brink”, again, as Xolela Mangcu warned a few years ago – and the critical spirit we inherit from the author of States of Emergency needs to be mobilised if we are to live up to the spirit of his legacy.
In Brink’s formative years as a writer and an intellectual, the May 1968 revolution in the streets of Paris against capitalist, patriarchal authority set the tone. Sestiger writers such as Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, Jan Rabie and others, many of them resident in Paris at the time, embraced fresh modernist prisms through which to challenge formations of power. In the arts and in critical theory the air was thick with the spirit of uprising against narrow, heavy-handed forms of hegemony, both discursive and material, yielding figures like Guattari and Foucault in philosophy, finding allies such as the Cabrals, Senghors and Cesaires in anticolonial art and politics, and strengthening opposition to centrist money-grubbers everywhere in the neocolonial world.
This groundswell of legitimacy in oppositional politics, which underlay much of the newer energies in South African writing from the 1970s onwards, largely ran dry as political rebels became the establishment. The world changed. Transnational politics, not to mention global cultural forces, are now so bewilderingly diverse and flattening, and the (ever shorter) attention spans of the intelligentsia so thinly distributed, that anything but capillary rebellions, or micro-stages of resistance, seem all but impossible.
We do, however, still have the “essential gesture”, Nadine Gordimer’s description for the writer’s responsibility, as she phrased it, to “[enter] the commonality of society, the world of other beings who are not writers” (“The Essential Gesture: Writers And Responsibility”, Tanner Lectures on Human Values, University of Michigan, 1984). Brink, a close associate of Gordimer’s, would have concurred.
How to make this key gesture effective, in the Brink spirit – of witnessing, questioning, imagining, loving, critiquing – is a provocation that requires our most urgent attention, in all the forms we can muster.
How to do this, under changing conditions and ever more fluid cultural politics, has become one of the most challenging questions facing those of us who still believe that principled resistance via cultural and artistic means still amounts to something in the world. That is, if we are not to sell out to the enticements of global “glam” populism in which success is its own reward, and “likes” become the currency of social traction. Surely there is more? Let us remember the spirit of André Brink.