Should Literature Be Political?

Keynote address given by Njabulo Ndebele

First presented at the Open Book Festival, Cape Town

Njabulo Ndebele Keynote text: “Should Literature Be Political?

Should Literature be Political? This is a timeless question. It is best approached not with a view to giving definitive, timeless answers to it, but to open our minds to why we might be asking the question yet again. In Africa, it was asked in the 1960 and 1970s during anti-colonial struggles against British, French, and Portuguese colonialism.

In South Africa, particularly from the time of the 1976 youth uprising, this question was asked. The urgency of posing it increased intensely during the state of emergency in the mid-1980s when the apartheid regime escalated its repression. At the time, since the momentum of 1976 internal and external resistance to apartheid also escalated. The drama of conflict was clear: from a moral point of view, the state represented evil, oppressed black citizens, with increasing numbers of sympathetic white South Africans represented good.

No dramatic conflict could have been clearer and more defined. It had the clarity of a soap opera: strong bold lines of action and little subtlety. Mass protests, mass arrests and killings; mass poverty of the many; extreme wealth for the few; he enormous power of the state in defense of a small population of whites, against an enormous powerless labour reservoir of black people.

In this situation, the call for literature was to be one of the “weapons of struggle”. Writers became known as “cultural workers”. Poetry, particularly in performance, flourished. Perhaps the evocative power of verbal resonance that speaks more through image than description, collaborated with body language on the performance stage to evoke the moment of heavy immediacy. And the end of it all was as heroically peaceful as the violence of repression and resistance that brought it about had been colossal.

The formal handing over of the instruments of state to the new government of Mandela occurred with all the pageantry of spectacle: the swearing in of the new President who made his “never again” speech, and the fly past of military aircraft and the four helicopters bearing the new flag had thousands among the guests gasping and shedding a tear. A film with a good ending. But there may have been a price! Since then, South Africa has enjoyed freedom in a new democracy for the last eighteen years.

Should literature be political? Why should we be asking this question again?

In the historical circumstances just cited during which the question enjoyed some currency and prominence, it appears to have been asked in circumstances in which as struggles against highly organised forms of violent oppression increased, those struggles themselves took on some violent forms of expression. Complex and deep humanistic reasons behind the quest for freedom, and the resonant moral and ethical value that justified that quest, seemed in danger of being reduced to what could be seen as no more than escalating acts of vengeance.

The call for reflection on such questions invited some impatience, and even charges of betrayal. In difficult moments of transition, reductive simplification may trump complexity and nuance.

It is as if moral complexity, a major source of literary value, is contrasted with political agency, whose capacity for reductive simplification, may devalue the ennobling tendencies of literature. Can the oppressed, rightly fighting for their freedom, be themselves demeaned by some of their actions in the course of their own legitimate struggles? Answers to this question may result in the sense of either reductive farce or redemptive tragedy. Have we reached such a stage, not only in world history, but in the experience of individual countries? The implication is that political literature devalues, while non-political literature ennobles.

In truth, this situation presents us with a paradox. It is that non-political literature can be intensely political not so much in its postures but in the expressive value it earns through exploding simplification. The African Child by Camara Laye, first published in 1954 in French about an African boy growing in his village in Guinea. In ever expanding circles of experience, he passes from innocence in his home and ends up in France where he becomes a world citizen. In the evocation of a life ideologically degraded by colonialism, Camara Laye and later Chinua Achebe, delineated ways of life that had their sense of self: an identity that did not require justification. In a colonial environment, such a literary rendering of African life was a radical act of self-assertion. Its deepest politics was in rendered hegemony.

Published in 1960, God’s Bits of Wood, by Ousmane Sembene is about a strike by railway workers along the Bamako (Mali) to Dakar (Senegal) line. Self evidently heroic in character, it nevertheless does more than depict worker heroism. At the same time that the workers are engaged in a struggle symbolic of the wider anti-colonial project, we also see them in their entire human landscape, oftentimes ennobling, at other times demeaning, even from their own actions. These two books dramatise illustratively the continuum between political literature and literary politics. Both novels achieve an artistic transcendence that politicises and depoliticises all at once.

The risk of moral devaluation may increase even as legitimate political struggle gains momentum and urges closer the achievement of the humanistic goals for which it was waged. How are ethical and moral values to be rescued in a situation in which children witness in a circle of the burning body of someone they have set alight after having denounced her as a collaborator in what has been called “the first necklace killing” in the 1980s?

We urge closer to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies that political of all non-political novels. Much later, it would be established that the murdered woman was not what she was purportedly killed for. At a tragically painful moment we rediscover human folly and why we call for and endeavour to create fair political and legal processes to mitigate that folly.

There isn’t a great deal in South African literature that can be called “political literature” in the sense of a literature that dramatise political activism. We are more likely to see literature that “politicises” through the deepening of awareness as in Camara Laye’s book. Who really, are the people who voted for democracy in 1994? Who and what have they become since then? Different answers are emerging.

Many tell their stories through biography or autobiography, “setting the record straight” through the “facts” of their lives. Others, such as in Kopano Matlwa’s Coconut, challenge new prejudices held by some of South Africa’s new citizens about other fellow citizens. So do Zuki Warner’s characters in her Men of the South, some of whom grapple with their hidden sexualities Car-jackers in Sifiso Mzobe’s Young Blood, have an intriguing human face. Their lives are subject to a code of conduct whose ethics disturbingly resembles those of “normal society”. Perhaps partly through literature in its deeply reflective politics, the politics of texture, we live in the time of literature that politicises as it depoliticises.

I am thinking of a book: Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon. It is not a novel. But its compelling message makes a strong case for our times; our times of novels that politicise and depoliticise. When novels do this, they unearth the life just below the surface, and shock us into recognising its robust reality where before we could not entertain the possibility of its existence.

The aim of Slow Violence is to make us aware of pervasive yet hidden acts of large scale on-going violence that are not immediately discernible, yet whose impact will be devastating down the future of our history: the violence of environmental degradation, among others; of corruption; of the depreciation of morality through weak and uncultivated leadership. “Assaults on a nation’s environmental resources frequently entail not just the physical displacement of local communities, but their imaginative displacement as well…” It is such “imaginative displacement” that leads to public blindness.

To counter such contemporary tendencies, we need writing that explodes willed invisibility so that we can see with an awareness that recognises the dangerous present and at the same time enables us to project our minds and imaginations far ahead to prevent the tragedy of long term consequences.

This kind of reflective capacity could very well be one of the fundamental values of modern society. It is the source of responsibility, compassion, tolerance, endurance, patience, and beauty. Africa has to cultivate it with an urgency that must permeate the entire political and social life of a continent increasingly impatient and desperate for renewal.

And so, why do we ask this question again, at this time? Should literature be political? Maybe we sense the need for a kind of reflective activism whose coherence only literature may render with some believable conviction. Maybe we yearn for renewal.

Njabulo Ndeble 2012