Achmat Dangor: From LitNet’s archives

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Photo of Achmat Dangor: Naomi Bruwer. Photo source:

Achmat Dangor passed away on 6 September 2020. Below, LitNet shares an article that was published in October of 2004 on LitNet titled "Tasting the sweet fruit of literary success".

The Man Booker Prize for fiction was announced earlier this week and was awarded to Alan Hollinghurst for his novel The Line of Beauty. South African novelist and poet Achmat Dangor was on the shortlist. Jean Meiring recently spoke to him.

In 1973, at the height of apartheid, Achmat Dangor was banned from writing because of his anti-state activism as a student. "The order specified I wasn't allowed to prepare anything for publication," he explains, with wry amusement. 

On first impressions, Dangor is the last person one would suspect of being a revolutionary firebrand. His laughter trickles easily. His raven hair is carefully parted and he peers at me through demure gilt-rimmed spectacles. As we meet for coffee on a pallid London morning, one might be forgiven for mistaking him for an especially bookish, yet dapper, favourite uncle.

South Africa in the 70s and early 80s is a distant country now, and Dangor has come a long way. Often the apartheid state proved an ineffectual Big Brother, giving him years of near seclusion (he was forbidden to meet with more than one person at a time) to develop his craft. He spent these years writing furiously.

"Writing became something of an obsession for me - much more than a mere desire. I came to need to write."

Yet, despite a long and varied writing career, it is Dangor's latest novel Bitter Fruit, published in South Africa in 2001, which has allowed him to burst onto the literary scene in the United Kingdom. Together with last year's Booker finalist Damon Galgut and novelist Zakes Mda he forms part of a vanguard of new post-apartheid writers who are following in the footsteps of Gordimer, Coetzee and Brink.

Bitter Fruit is the story of a so-called coloured family from Johannesburg who discover - inevitably - that the new democratic South Africa is no Eden. Silas and Lydia Ali's world fractures as they come to realise that they cannot shroud their memories of those apartheid years in cloaks of rainbow-hued optimism.

Lydia had been brutally raped by a member of the security forces. At the opening of the novel, Silas - now a lawyer working for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) - recognises the perpetrator Du Boise at a supermarket checkout.

"One of the spurs for the story was a closed session of the TRC which dealt with the sexual abuse of women. Somehow - irregularly - a transcript was posted on the internet. I saw this and immediately contacted a friend at the TRC and said: 'Get it off.'

"I realised then that of course these women's stories would never be heard. In a sense, they are all personified - represented - by the character of Lydia." 

Dangor speaks with the rich, ringing cadences one might expect from Bitter Fruit's Silas. "I'm still trying to get used to the way his name is pronounced here in the UK: Sigh-lass." Silas Ali, veteran of the struggle against apartheid, would surely have a choice f-word reserved for such affectation.

Many people have claimed that the voice of the coloured community is vastly under-represented in post-apartheid South Africa. With a sense of perverse irony that still attends South Africa, Dangor relishes unravelling the racial strands of his family history. "People who don't know South Africa often look at me in disbelief," he says with a conspiratorial giggle. 

"In the 1890s my great-grandmother, Katerina de Bruin, a Dutch woman, married my paternal great-grandfather, an Indian. Inevitably, she grew to become part of the coloured community, a true Maleiervrou. Also inevitably, there came a time when it was impossible for her to identify as a white person. They lived in the then Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga), near the Swaziland border, in a little place called - of all things - Amsterdam. There they ran Dangor Wholesalers."

But it was in Newclare, a coloured township outside Johannesburg, that Dangor first got to know the mad patchwork quilt that was apartheid. His year of birth, 1948, coincided with the parliamentary victory of Hendrik Verwoerd and the National Party - the architects of grand apartheid.

As a young boy brought up in the Muslim faith, Dangor had his head in the clouds. "I was a difficult child," he explains, "and it was decided that I'd go and live with my grandmother." He adds, as if by explanation, "I was one of nine siblings."

"It was a very feminine household. My grandmother's was one of the last houses without electricity. So at night all the women in the house would sit reading by the light of paraffin lamps."

Contrary to the apartheid government's mistaken projection of the coloured community as an obvious and largely monolithic ethnic category, it has always been as startlingly varied as a kaleidoscope. "My father spoke thirteen languages. I grew up bilingually. Until the age of seven I spoke my mother tongue, Afrikaans, and Sotho. But it was decided I'd receive my schooling in English. Still, I started out writing in Afrikaans, also translating some of Leopold Senghor's poetry from English into Afrikaans. My wife Audrey is Scottish and can't understand Afrikaans, but when I speak to my mother, I slip back into Afrikaans."

At the age of sixteen Dangor spent a year in Cape Town working as a clerk on the docks. Here he spent much of his time writing. Having won a scholarship, he read a degree in literature at Rhodes University, where his activities as a student politician, and as a member of the illicit writers' collective Black Thoughts, eventually "earned" him his banning order.

A spell of several years at the cosmetics company Revlon followed, where he was involved in the design of components. Despite the banning order, Revlon managed to persuade the authorities that it was necessary that Dangor travel widely. In the early eighties he became involved in the United Democratic Front (UDF), a branch of the broad struggle to dismantle apartheid, and in 1986 Archbishop Desmond Tutu invited him to head up the Kagiso Trust, an organisation set up to channel funds to the victims of apartheid.

"I held this position until the early nineties, and then became a director of the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund."

When his banning order was lifted in the late 70s, Dangor started publishing extensively - both fiction and poetry. In 1978 his first book, a collection of prose entitled Waiting for Leila, won the Mofolo-Plomer Prize in South Africa.

When asked where he finds the time to write - he has just moved to Geneva to take up a directorship at the United Nations Programme on AIDS - Dangor gently shakes his head. "I always write, everywhere, constantly taking notes on little pieces of paper. Later I transfer them to a computer."

His face flickers into a smile. "There was a short interlude, from 2001 to 2002, when my wife worked for the United Nations in New York. I accompanied her, and was a kept man. I wrote fulltime: a childhood memoir, which I want to revisit."

And, appropriately, it was his wife, Audrey, who informed him of his Booker shortlisting. "I was in the middle of a somewhat gloomy UNAIDS meeting. I told her I'd call her back, and switched my phone off. My colleagues soon noticed I was distracted, though. I told them."

Our interview has sped past. A taxi is purring outside to take Dangor to the BBC for a recording for the Man Booker ceremony. He invites me to accompany him upstairs while he gets his bags.

I ask the obvious parting question.

"My uncle Abdul - or Abe - had a Jewish friend Bert. They were gay and lived together in Johannesburg. As a young boy I'd often visit them - go around to their flat and clean for them. My next book is about a boy confronted by this memory of the extraordinary intermingling of cultures."

As Dangor is ushered to the waiting cab, he bids me farewell, in Afrikaans.

Also read:

Jakes Gerwel Memorial lecture: Imagining a post-apartheid future


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