The voice of the coloured writer in contemporary Afrikaans literature

1. Politics and social commitment

After the transition to majority rule Afrikaans lost its privileged position. It now has to vie with ten other languages for a place under the African sun. For the prophets of doom its future looks bleak; they pessimistically predict that English will become the lingua franca of the new South Africa. However, their fears are allayed and their arguments to a large extent invalidated by the creative strength and the innovative impulses emanating from Afrikaans literature.

The social and political revolution which has taken place in South Africa is not only a major source of inspiration for Afrikaans writers, it has also liberated them from the straitjacket of apartheid. Contemporary Afrikaans literature provides a unique chart of the human topography of present-day South Africa. Especially significant is the fact that since the process of democratization Afrikaans literature reflects more brightly than ever the full colour spectrum of the rainbow nation. Black and brown writers get publication opportunities - the publishing house Kwela is the prime breeding place of new talent - which they simply did not have before: “die opeense verskyning van die een pragtige Afrikaanse prosawerk na die ander uit die gemarginaliseerde gemeenskappe [is] die literêre wonder van die jare negentig.” (The sudden appearance of the one beautiful Afrikaans prosework after the other from the previously marginalized communities is the literary miracle of the nineties.) writes Wium van Zyl (Die Burger 1997). For this reason it is regrettable that neither in John Kannemeyer's Op weg na 2000: Tien jaar Afrikaanse Literatuur 1988-1997 (On the road to 2000: Ten years of Afrikaans literature 1988-1997) nor in the latest edition of Perspektief en profiel (Perspective and profile) edited by H.P. van Coller not more attention is paid to the contribution of brown writers to contemporary Afrikaans literature. In this article a survey will be undertaken of the proseworks written by coloured authors in the nineties.

A political and social agenda

Abraham Phillips was the first coloured prosewriter of the nineties generation. He made his debut in 1992 with Die verdwaalde land (The lost country). This little book caused a big stir. In the introduction it is explicitly stated that the book would not have been written if the political balance of power had not shifted. The frequent references to the release of Nelson Mandela underscore this point. Die verdwaalde land is an autobiographical work in which Ronny provides a factual account of his family’s efforts to discover what happened to his brother Selula. The latter vanished without a trace. While the booklet’s express aim is to uncover the truth, its scope extends far beyond Selula’s mysterious disappearance. Die verdwaalde land describes the impact of apartheid on the coloured community and how it affects the lives of ordinary people: the powerlessness and humiliation felt by the man-in-the-street, his suffering and anguish but also his courage and tenacity in the face of the brutality and impunity with which the forces of law and order go about their business. Phillips interpretes the events from a Christian perspective. Die verdwaalde land ends with a plea for forgiveness: “Die bruin en swart mense sal moet vergewe om moreel reg aan hul geskiedenis te laat geskied. Dis ook nie net ter wille van die nageslag nie, maar dis die enigste manier om wit mense te laat besef dat wat hul voorvaders gedoen het, die verkeerdste ding was wat ooit kon gebeur het.” (The brown and black people will have to forgive in order to morally do justice to their history. It is not for the sake of their descendants, but it is the only way to impress on the white people that what their ancestors did was the worst thing that could have happened.) (Phillips 1992: 67). The power of Phillips’s testimony lies in its documentary nature and its disarming simplicity. His tale comes straight from the heart and is told without embellishment or literary pretense. It makes this little book into a very powerful and touching document humain.

In his second book Erfenis van die noodlot (Inheritance of fate) (1993) apartheid is pushed into the background. Saartjie Steenberg lives with her grandparents in the coloured community of Biesiesvlei. When Karel and Omers, two happy-go-lucky characters, come and live in a shack in their yard Saartjie is thrilled. Karel and Omers are always up to something; life is never dull when they are around. One day they push their luck too far and unintentionally kill the local Jewish shopkeeper. They are convicted of murder and executed. To Saartjie this comes as a tremendous shock. After the death of her grandparents she moves to Cape Town to start a new life. Erfenis van die noodlot is about the good, the bad and the ugly in a small community. However, as the characterisation is too flat and the story-line too thin, it fails to be entirely convincing.

Die Messiasbende (The Messiah gang) (1997) is Abraham Phillips’s third prosework. This story about a group of homeless people who are addicted to methylated spirits, is a plea for understanding and compassion. These down-and-outers are human beings after all. Too much attention to the anecdotal and the melodramatic leaves too little space for the exploration of the tragic side of these withered lives. In spite of Phillips's obvious empathy and the worthiness of his cause the syrupy packaging puts an all too melodramatic gloss over this sad subject matter.

Apartheid and social concerns also feature as important themes in the novels by E.K.M. Dido. Rugdraai en stilbly (Turn your back and shut up) (1997) is the successor of Die storie van Monica Peters (The story of Monica Peters) (1996). The latter weaves a tale of love across the colour line during the harsh apartheid years. The two lovers, Eric Richmond and Monica Peters are anti-apartheid activists. After their marriage they are forced to flee the country. They find a safe haven in England. When years later the ANC is unbanned they return to South Africa where they continue working for the party. This commitment costs Eric his life. Nevertheless, the novel ends on a positive note with the election victory of the ANC and the triumphant appearance of Nelson Mandela in Cape Town. The struggle has not been in vain: “Almal wat hulle lewe vir hierdie land neergelê het, is vandag gelukkig” (All those who have sacrificed their lives for this country, are happy today) (Dido 1996: 12). South Africa is a country which fulfills God’s purpose by demonstrating: “… hoe mense van verskillende rassegroepe, kulture, gewoontes en geloofsoortuigings saam in liefde en vrede kan leef “ (… how people from different races, cultures, customs and religious convictions can live together in love and peace) (Dido 1996: 15). Die storie van Monica Peters is a plea for racial equality and an ode to love: the love between Eric and Monica, the love for South Africa and the love between the different peoples of South Africa. Through the power of love the barriers separating the different racial groups are removed. 

How easily and how badly this love can go wrong is the subject of Rugdraai en stilbly. Already after a couple of months the marriage of Bernie with her fairytale prince Randall is turning into sheer hell. He is continuously away from home, has numerous affairs and regularly beats up his wife. Mainly for the sake of her son, Bernie stays with Randall. Finally, in utter desperation, she seeks the help of the social services department. A marriage counsellor manages to put the derailed marriage back on track. The future looks rosy again. This novel is definitely no fodder for militant feminists. Moreover, the lack of psychological consistency makes the characters too unpredictable to be covincing.

Phillips and Dido use unsophisticated storytelling techniques. That their books, despite the lack of depth and the obvious absence of skilled craftsmanship, still manage to draw an appreciative readership is mainly due to the passionate conviction and the appealing naivety with which they tell their tales.

On the margin of society 

Clive Smith's Bly te kenne, Braam (Nice to know you, Braam) (1997) and S.P. Benjamin's Die reuk van Steenkool (The smell of coal) (1997) attain a much higher level of intrinsic literary quality. Once again family problems are the central issues. Both stories are told by child narrators who have to cope with their first sexual experiences. They go through a process of initiation but the adult world they gain entrance to has nothing paradisiacal. When their childhood heroes tumble from their pedestals only scepticism and distrust remain. In Die reuk van steenkool, in which realistic scenes seamlessly shift into surrealistic ones, this suspicion also concerns the new black government. The recently elected black political leadership does not inspire confidence. No improvement in the living conditions in the coloured townships can be expected from it.  

That man more than ever needs guardian angels is amply demonstrated in Benjamin's latest work Die lewe is 'n halwe roman (Life is half a novel), a collection of interlocking short stories. Unfortunately, the angels, who somewhat needlessly, make an appearance in the prologue, are not up to their task. 

Most stories are situated in the Happy Valley squatter camp where living conditions are appalling. The dwellings are corrugated iron shacks without amenities and with only a few broken-down pieces of furniture. Some short stories are set in a more prosperous white neighbourhood. All main character are maimed by life. Their circumstances are very precarious. There is no safety or security for them, with the biggest threat coming from their immediate family. The tragedy of an almost animal-like existence is given even sharper contours by the longing for or the memory of a happier life. Benjamin portrays his characters, the weak in society - a number of them are mentally handicapped - with sensitivity and compassion. His concise writing style renders with blunt directness the grimness of this desolate world.

That life in the squatter camps and in the black and coloured townships is all but idyllic is also the subject of the autobiography Ek, Joseph Daniel Marble (I, Joseph Daniel Marble) (1999). In the introduction the author insists that the reader will find nothing but the plain truth in his book. It sounds like an ominous warning. Joseph Marble grew up in Western and Noordgesig, two coloured townships of Johannesburg. Here the law of the jungle rules. Life is a naked struggle for survival. Gangs terrorise the townships and the family fabric has completely unravelled. Violence is commonplace and sex, even at a very early age, a commodity. Life is reduced to its most primitive form. In such an environment the individual is inevitably sucked into a whirlpool of criminal activity and immoral behaviour. This is also the fate of Joseph Marble. In the background the black struggle against the white government is being played out.

The pivotal event in Joseph’s life is his mother’s five year prison sentence. Together with his sister and brother, he is put in social care. His foster family treats him like a slave. Moreover, he is regurlarly beaten up. Not to be outdone he gives tit for tat. The author explicitly wants to draw attention to the unacceptable situation of children in social care. They are children who have been discarded. Small wonder that they end up on the rubbish dump of society.

Ek, Joseph Daniel Marble draws a dismal picture of life in the coloured townships. But even more than the shocking incidents, the naivety of the narrator, who barely seems to realize the unacceptability of his previous behaviour, is testimony of the complete absence of any moral norms. The plea for more attention to children in social care and the realisation that life has more to offer than violence and misery are the only rays of hope in a blunt text which uncovers with shocking directness the darker sides of life.

It is not surprising that one wants to escape from such an environment. Klapperhaar slaap nie stil nie (Coir does not sleep softly) (1999) is the first novel by Kirby van der Merwe. Coir is not a luxury article, it is used as a mattress filling. The title refers to the miserable living conditions of the coloureds. They live in bleak townships where violence and criminality are rife and privacy non-existent.

Kinta Januarie is a successful lawyer who has a tastefully decorated house in Cape Town. She has broken all ties with her family. When her father, who she has never known, falls into a coma and is hospitalised Kinta starts visiting him daily. An inevitable confrontation with her family and her past ensues. Complicating factors are Hans, a white friend of her father's, and Gustav, a hospital doctor who falls in love with her. Kinta befriends Hans, a former policeman, while with Gustav, who at her father's funeral is abducted and severely beaten up by a criminal gang, a rosy future looks in the offing. The clichés are strewn about in abundance.

What happens to Gustav, confirms Kinta's feelings about the coloured community. Moreover, her digging in her father's and Hans's past and her meetings with her brother and sister only have anecdotal significance because they do not lead to a re-appraisal of the choices she has made. The possibility of a dramatic conflict is thus nipped in the bud. Between the present and the past, Cape Town and the coloured townships no meaningful interaction takes place. Kinta remains as anaemic and sterile as the house in which she lives. The other characters too remain one-dimensional. As a result the novel fails to fully engage the reader’s interest.

Kirby van der Merwe definitely is a talented writer. In Klapperhaar slaap nie stil nie there are quite a number of beautiful passages. However, the different story-lines do not blend into a convincing whole. Nevertheless, the setting of the identity issue within the context of the transition process in South Africa makes this novel well worth reading.

While Kinta renounces her roots, Elias P. Nel celebrates with fondness and warmth life in the coloured community. Iets goeds uit Verneukpan? (Something good from Verneukpan?) (1998) falls into the category of regional literature. The short stories are set in a rural world with its pleasures and pains, its brutal honesty and its hypocrisy, its superstitions and its feuds; all this against the backdrop of an everpresent racism. Elias Nel has a sharp eye for human frailties. His short stories are hyperrealistic miniatures which candidly portray the people of Verneukpan. They also bathe in an atmoshpere of nostalgia as the writer repeatedly harks back to his youth. It is a time when the problems people had to deal with were still small-scale and therefore quite manageable. The language Elias Nel uses is Cape Afrikaans; it gives his short stories a strong sense of authenticity.

Most of the coloured writers discussed so far deal in their literary works with the raw side of reality. Man seems barely able of warding off the punches thrown by life. Children too are mercilessly exposed to life’s vagaries. The individual is totally incapable of overcoming his own weaknesses or of improving his lot. Racism or apartheid is not given thematic relevance in a number of texts, despite the fact that they deal with the poor living conditions in disadvantaged communities. Most of the works analysed above convey a social rather than a political message.

In search of the roots of apartheid

The history of racism and how it affected the lives of the coloured people is the subject of the literary works by A.H.M. Scholtz, who is undoubtedly the most important brown novelist of the nineties. Scholtz is a born narrator whose first novel Vatmaar (A place called Vatmaar) (1995) was awarded a number of prestigious literary prizes. It also received the critical acclaim of reviewers and academics.

Vatmaar is the story of the inhabitants of the settlement with the same name whose origin can be traced back to the Anglo-Boer war. Vatmaar is a mixed area at a few kilometers’distance from the white village of Du Toitspan with which it has a rather uneasy relationship. 

Vatmaar provides a platform for different inhabitants, especially the older ones, to tell their stories. The result is a motley tapestry, brightly coloured by the personalities and experiences of the different narrators. Heilna du Plooy refers to Vatmaar as a polyphonic text: “Die opvallendste eienskap van die roman is die gebrek aan prioterisering van stemme (in die grootste gedeelte van die roman), die grootlikse gelykwaardigheid van sprekers en die interafhanklikheid van diegene wat praat en diegene wat luister.” (The most striking characteristic of this novel is the lack of prioritizing of voices (in the largest part of the novel), the assumed equality of the narrators and the interdependence of the person who talks and the one who listens) (du Plooy 1997: 79). A kaleidoscopic picture emerges of life with its ups and downs as experienced by the members of a marginalized community.

While for the inhabitants of Vatmaar life is not a bed of roses, their Christian faith allows them to cope with even the biggest setbacks. Their religion gives them strength and hope. This hope is seldom put to shame.The bad patches are seen as a test of character by the Lord after which a reward, mostly in the form of happiness and love, follows. Most stories, and the novel, have a positive ending. Vatmaar is modelled on the Cinderella fairytale. Is it perhaps a little too good to be true?

The novel mainly focuses on the past: the first half of the 20th century. It was a time when it was still possible for the races to mix and to intermarry. Nevertheless, most whites, in particular the inhabitants of Du Toitspan, look down on both the coloureds and the blacks and overtly show their racism. The most poignant scenes in the novel have to do with discrimination and exclusion. However, racism is not solely seen in black and white terms. Vatmaar too is not without its racism. The whiter your skin colour, the higher your status in the community.

The novel makes the point that there are good and bad people and that individuals have a good and a bad side but that they are all equal. Of course the non-racist inhabitants of Vatmaar have an integrity and nobibility which shames the white inhabitants of Du Toitspan. While Vatmaar is a historical novel - it depicts South Africa as it was in the period before apartheid - it also has a utopian quality: it shows what South Africa can be if racism is rooted out. Thus the past acts like a mirror in which the future can be glimpsed.

While Vatmaar is undoubtedly an important novel, it is not without blemishes. There are, for example, the lack of sophistication which repeatedly borders on naivety and the faltering focalisation which often results in structural and thematic inconsistencies. The writer repeatedly seems to lose his grip on the narration and on the characters, leading to fuzziness and contradictions. Nevertheless, Vatmaar tells a gripping tale about people of flesh and blood who really get under the reader’s skin.

Langsaan die vuur (Besides the fire) (1996) Scholtz’s second prosework, contains five biographies. The first one is of the slave Kasper Crudop and is situated in the beginning of the 18th century; the last biography centres on Kwela Modise and ends in 1982. It deals with the struggle against apartheid. The main characters are black or coloured. Inevitably the stories of these people also trace the history of race relations and especially of racism and apartheid in South Africa. 

Once again the Christian faith is a major source of consolation; racism and extreme poverty cause untold misery. Life is a struggle for survival. The happy end of most of the biographies gives them, as is the case in Vatmaar, a fairytale quality. The prospect of a better future makes all the hardship bearable: “Die wittes wil vir Afrika besit en regeer. Maar die wiel sal draai, dan besit Afrika die witmense. Die witmens sal nie - soos hy sê - sy wit bloed hou nie. Sy taal, ja, Afrikaans. Dit is ook onse taal en ook naby onse harte.” (The whites want to possess and to rule Africa. But the wheel will turn, then Africa will possess the white people. The white man will not - as he says - keep his blood white. His language, yes, Afrikaans. This is also our language and it is also close to our hearts.) (Scholtz 1996: 135). The book is a harsh accusation and at the same time an expression of hope.

Langsaan die vuur does not bring entertaining fireside stories. It draws a searing portrait of how people are victimised by racism and apartheid. A sharp contrast is evoked between the self-serving inhumanity of the whites and the altruism shown by the oppressed. The main characters live in a different era but the registration of past acts of injustice remains as necessary as ever. Langsaan die vuur tells stories which have to be told. The oral narrative style, not without a number of glitches, suits the stories perfectly well as it measurably enhances their authenticity.

Afdraai (Turnoff) (1998), A.H.M. Scholtz’s latest novel, is a chronicle of a coloured family, which covers most of the 20th century. The tale starts in the Anglo-Boer war. In the concentration camps coloured and Afrikaner women share the same fate. But even in those desperate circumstances some Afrikaner women behave in a racist manner. After the war the marginalisation of the coloured community takes ever cruder forms and finally becomes institutionalised in increasingly severe apartheid legislation.

Scholtz interweaves the threads of South African and Afrikaner history with the travails of a coloured family. Its history is a mixture of happiness and misfortune, love and unfaithfulness, desperation and hope. The nobility and perseverance, based on an unwavering faith, of the coloured protagonists is severely tested by the growing racial prejudices of the whites. Despite the predicament in which they find themselves, they never lose courage. However, reconciliation is only possible if the white man mends his ways. A too fragmented story-line and a melodramatic ending severely undercut Afdraai’s impact.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          The literary work by Scholtz tells the story of racism and how it affected the coloured community. It provides a necessary complement to a literary history which has been too white for all too long. Scholtz eloquently speaks for his community. His commitment always guarantees, despite the shortcomings, gripping literary works.    


The nineties generation of brown prosewriters has staked out an important claim in the Afrikaans literary landscape. That the style and the thematic content of these works is different from the prose written by white Afrikaans authors is not surprising. At the same time the colour distinctions are becoming blurred. S.P. Benjamin for example states that he wants to be judged on merit, not on the colour of his skin: “Ek hou nie daarvan as mens na my verwys as 'n bruin skrywer nie. Ek is 'n skrywer. Punt.” (I don't like it when people refer to me as a coloured writer. I am a writer. Full stop.) (Van der Fort 2000) When more and more coloured writers produce literary works of the highest standards, skin colour will become more and more irrelevant. 

The creativity and the talent of the new crop of brown writers is undoubtedly a substantial enrichment for Afrikaans literature. Moreover, their literary achievements put the debate about the future of Afrikaans into a whole new perspective.

Of course the harvest of new books and writers is also testimony of a glaring absence in Afrikaans literature. How many books by potential writers were not written? And should the books published today not have appeared two, three or more decades ago? Furthermore there is the nagging question whether the present publication opportunities coloured writers get, are not a belated attempt at re-appropriating the coloured community for the cause of Afrikaans? The sometimes exuberantly positive reviews seem to suggest that this might be the case. This would do the coloured writer more harm than good. A colour-blind critical process is necessary in order to keep the writers on their toes and to stimulate them to write literary works of the highest quality. That the coloured writers do not need preferential treatment or affirmative action programmes is perhaps the best proof of the intrinsic quality of their literary works.  

The coloured writers still face daunting challenges though. Kirby van der Merwe formulates their task as follows: “Ons, die skugter kinders van Apartheid staan by 'n grens. Ons bedryf 'n nuwe soort grensliteratuur: Ons het dapper mense nodig, wat 'n plek in die literatuurwêreld afbaken, want ons het die stories om te vertel. Ons moet voorbrand maak. Ons moet met die Saracen en die Casspir oor die vlakte aangedonder kom om stereotipes, verromantiserings en wanvoorstellings onder die stof te loop. Ons het verpligtings, teenoor onsself, teenoor die geskiedenis omdat ons kollektief die geheue van honderde jare se lewe en lye in ons onderbewuste saamdra. Ons moet rolmodelle vir die nuwe geslag wees. Boodskappers, rigtingwysers, gewetenswakkermakers. Ons moet ons geïnternaliseerde woede, ons sinisme en pessimisme omskep in 'n kreatiewe krag. En met oortuiging kan sê: Ons is geen reggesteldes nie, of kwota dit of kwota dat nie. Of touleier en agterryer nie. Ons sit agter die stuur van ons eie ryding. Ons het nie die T-hemp gekoop nie. Ons het die letsels wat bewys dat ons daar deur was. Dat ons daardeur is.” (We, the shy children of apartheid stand at a border. We write a new kind of border literature: we need courageous people, who stake out a place in the literary world because we have stories to tell. We have to prepare the way. We have to come thundering across the plains by Saracen and Casspir to make stereotypes, overromanticizing and wrong presentations bite the dust. We have an obligation towards ourselves, towards history because our collective is carrying the memory of hundreds of years of living and suffering in its uncounsciousness. We have to be role models for the new generation. Messengers, signposts, awakeners of conscience.We have to mold our internalised anger, our cynicism and pessimism into a creative power. And to be able to say with conviction: we are not the results of affirmative action neither of quota this or quota that. Nor are we servants or attendants. We are behind the wheel of our own vehicle. We haven't bought the T-shirt. We have the scars to prove that we experienced it ourselves. That we are through it.) (Van der Merwe 2000: Litnet). The first miles on this road have been driven, the horizon beckons.


Benjamin, S.P. 1997. Die reuk van steenkool. Kaapstad: Queillerie.

Benjamin, S.P. 1999. Die lewe is 'n halwe roman. Kaapstad: Queillerie.

Dido, E.K.M. 1996. Die storie van Monica Peters. Kaapstad: Kwela boeke.

Dido, E.K.M. 1997. Rugdraai en stilbly. Kaapstad: Kwela boeke.

Du Plooy, Heilna. 1997. Die literatuur self is weer voor - Vatmaar van A.H.M. Scholtz. Stilet. 9:2. September. 69-80.

Kannemeyer, J.C. 1998. Op weg na 2000: Tien jaar Afrikaanse literatuur 1988-1997. Kaapstad: Tafelberg.

Nel, Elias P. 1998. Iets goeds uit Verneukpan? Kaapstad: Tafelberg.

Marble, Joseph. 1999. Ek, Joseph Daniel Marble. Kaapstad: Kwela boeke.  

Phillips, Abraham. 1992. Die verdwaalde land. Kaapstad: Queillerie.

Phillips, Abraham. 1993. Erfenis van die noodlot. Kaapstad: Queillerie.

Phillips, Abraham. 1997. Die messiasbende. Kaapstad: Queillerie.

Die Burger 27 Desember 1997, hoofartikel.

Scholtz, A.H.M. 1995. Vatmaar. Kaapstad: Kwela boeke.

Scholtz, A.H.M. 1996. Langsaan die vuur. Kaapstad: Kwela boeke.

Scholtz, A.H.M. 1998. Afdraai. Kaapstad: Kwela boeke.

Smith, Clive. 1997. Bly te kenne, Braam. Kaapstad: Kwela boeke.

Van Coller, H.P. 1998. Perspektief en profiel. 'n Afrikaanse literatuurgeskiedenis. Deel 1. Pretoria: J.L. Van Schaik.

 Van Coller, H.P. 1999. Perspektief en profiel. 'n Afrikaanse literatuurgeskiedenis. Deel 2. Pretoria: J.L. Van Schaik.

Van der Fort, Shanaaz. 2000. Ek is nie 'n bruin skrywer, ek is net 'n skrywer. Rapport (Metro).

Van der Merwe, Kirby. 1999. Klapperhaar slaap nie stil nie. Kaapstad: Kwela boeke.

Van der Merwe, Kirby. 2000. Hoekom haal die kinders van apartheid hulle skouers op? www.mweb.co.za/litnet/seminaar:kirby.asp