Gordimer’s legacy lives on

Saturday July 19 2014

A photo taken on January 21, 1980 shows South African writer and anti-apartheid activist Nadine Gordimer. AFP

In Home and Exile and Other Stories, South African writer Lewis Nkosi notes that “when I joined the paper, Drum was a curious institution… it was the symbol of the new African cut adrift from the tribal reserve — urbanised, eager, fast-talking and brash… Drum had an exciting bunch of young writers who considered it a mark of great honour to get into trouble with the authorities as often as possible while in pursuit of fact and photograph… Drum sent its black reporters to attend white churches in order to test the white Christians’ adherence to the principle of brotherhood in Christ.

Predictably, several things happened to reporters, including a hot chase of a photographer down a street by a group of angry churchmen. Simultaneously, the Johannesburg police were called out to defend besieged Christendom.

They rounded up Can Themba, Drum’s most mischievous reporter and charged him with vagrancy and trespassing. In the following issue of Drum, Themba complained that “he had been manhandled, sworn at, prosecuted and reviled: All because an African wanted to pray!”

That is the kind of social environment in which that Nadine Gordimer, the South African literary giant who passed away on July 13, 2014, cut her literary teeth.

Drum had Can Themba, Henry (Mr Drum) Nxumalo, Todd Matshikiza, Casey Motsisi, Nat Nakasa, Lewis Nkosi and many others. These “Drum boys” lived by the dictum “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse.” They also worked with the famed Ezekiel (Es’kia) Mphahlele, arguably the most diligent, if somewhat austere scholar among the Drum writers.

Unlike Can Themba and the other “Drum boys,” Gordimer did not have a black skin.


She was born to Jewish immigrant parents on November 20, 1923. Gordimer’s differences with Themba and others at Drum didn’t end with the skin colour. Many of her contemporary compatriot black writers led boisterous lives with a dangerous penchant for the dramatic, even spectacular.

Hard-hitting and harshly satirical, many African writers were like mad visionaries who wrote aggressively, with contempt for authority — all laced with visceral narrative force. Writers at the time wrote “protest” literature to fight against the humiliating conditions Africans were subjected to under white minority rule.

Gordimer, considered by some of her critics as a privileged white writer, took an unusual path as she led a quiet but fierce assault on Apartheid and white supremacy though she had a white skin herself. Gordimer’s life was full of paradoxes. She somehow seemed to “keep her cool” in her writing even as she fought against injustices.

She seemed to live by the decorum: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” She had a unique writing style. In one of her essays, describing the events of the September 11, 2011 terror attacks on America, she writes, “Terror pounced from the sky and the world made witness to it.”

She differentiates the journalist’s job from the writer’s. Meaning is what cannot be reached by the immediacy of the image, the description of the sequence of events, the methodologies of expert analysis … Kafka says the writer sees among the ruins different things than others … it is seeing what is really taking place.” Gordimer called this “witness literature.”

Writing in the Guardian, Aminatta Forna that “witness literature is fiction, not non-fiction, an interplay of sometimes real events or a context that is real, with fictional events and characters, combined with the aesthetic qualities of fiction.”

Gordimer was an expert in “witness literature” — creating real characters with real dilemma, have their doors knocked in middle of the night by the dreaded Apartheid police. Gordimer has left footprint on the sands of time with dozens of titles of published books.

Face to Face was her first published collection of stories in 1949 and. The Lying Days was her first novel published in 1953. As expected, her writing rubbed the apartheid regime the wrong way and three of her books, A World of Strangers (1958), The Late Bourgeois World (1966) and Burger’s Daughter (1979) were banned in South Africa at different times during the apartheid era.

Gordimer sealed her place among the great literary giants of the world when she was awarded the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature earlier, she had won the Booker Prize in 1974 for her novel, The Conservationist.

Like many other writers who have passed on, her legacy lives on — no writer truly dies.

The writer is CEO, Phoenix Publishers.