Mandla Langa: Literary Traditions in South Africa

15 Mar 2016
Mandla Langa

By Mandla Langa, written for PEN America’s PEN World Voices Series. This is part of the PEN SA essay series on South African literature. If you are interested in submitting a piece, contact us on

The South African literary tradition harks back to the 19th Century with the most notable biography written about a black South African written by John A Chalmers on Reverend Tiyo Soga. There followed during the colonial times what was described as the colonial adventure stories by likes of Sir Rider Haggard, whose King Solomon’s Mines was to give the world a distorted and racist view of the indigenous Africans, a view which, alas, still prevails today. Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm, published in 1883, has been described as the founding text of South African literature. Although silent on the presence of Africans, it is credited with giving an “authentic” voice to South African writing.

There followed, since the establishment of the black press at such as Imvo Zabantsundu and Ilanga lase Natal, a freeing of black opinion, which decried the colonial dispensation; it must be remembered that it was the British colonial rule which gave the world the color bar, the precursor to apartheid.

There was the Anglo-Boer War, which led to some unremarkable books, in support or against it; so, too, were books and journalistic critiques on Cecil John Rhodes, most notably by Scheiner’s Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland. There were others that satirized the corruption of boere.

The ANC was formed in 1912 as a response to the Act of the Union of 1910; most educated black people, writers included, aligned themselves with the ANC for decades to follow.

There were writers with notable contributions, such as Sarah Gertrude Millin, whose views echo DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation; Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka novelizes the life of the Zulu monarch, Shaka. These were contemporaneous with William Plomer, Roy Campbell and Laurens van der Post.

In the post-World War II years people like Peter Abrahams came to the fore; so did E’skia Mphahlele, whose stories had the feel of reality as they were written by people who had experienced racism firsthand. One of the most important texts however was Cry the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton.

The 1950s saw the launch of the ANC’s defiance campaigns and the birth of magazines like Drum. Nadine Gordimer, who was to become a quintessentially South African voice and later win the Nobel Prize in 1991, published her short stories around this period. Many anti-apartheid magazines and journals were published. People fled into exile after the banning of the liberation movements in the 1960s. In 1965 Nat Nakasa, who was also part of the Drum tradition, died in New York, in exile. The 1970s saw the revival of voices once suppressed by censorship laws. Poetry was the dominant voice, people like Wally Mongane Serote, Breyten Breytenbach, Mafika Gwala, James Matthews and Don Mattera. Women poets and writers Gladys Thomas and Fatima Dike were the precursors to Antjie Krog, Gabeba Baderoon, Gcina Mhlophe or Phillippa Yaa de Villiers.

The writing tradition of South Africa today boasts a happy coexistence of the young and the old, black and white, where the late André Brink shares the stage with Keorapetse Kgositsile, Nadine Gordimer or the late Mbulelo Mzamane.

Today writers are concerned less with the evils of the past than with the challenges of the present; there is anxiety about a future which started as an expression of hope and optimism but is now being blighted by the excesses and corruption in high places. There is further concern over the unacceptably high incidences of crime, especially against women and children, rape having attained alarming statistics.

Having said that, South Africa is a land of hope where the youth – despite unemployment and the ravages of poverty and disease – look towards carving their own niche in society. There is then a mushrooming of writing of all forms by young people.

This is the way of the future.

(Image courtesy of Victor Dlamini)