Geoffrey V. Davis. Voices of Justice and Reason: Apartheid and Beyond in South African Literature. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2003. xxx + 376 pp. $135.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-420-0836-6; $60.00 (paper), ISBN 978-90-420-0826-7.
Reviewed by Sue Kossew (School of English, University of New South Wales)
Published on H-SAfrica (September, 2004)
Black Writing from South Africa: Apartheid and Post-Apartheid Perspectives
This book's title comes from its epigraph by Nelson Mandela in which he states that the creative work of South Africa's writers, in particular, "continued to demonstrate, even in the darkest years [of apartheid struggle], that the South African voices of justice and reason would not be silenced." This urgent link between politics and literature forms the basis of the book's argument and methodology, providing a context for its analysis of the ways in which South African literature, particularly that written by its "black" writers and playwrights, maps the political change and social transformation in the transition from an apartheid to a post-apartheid society.
Geoffrey Davis's book aims to place South African literature within the broader scope of the "New Literatures in English" in addition to suggesting the importance of viewing South African literature within its wider historical and socio-political contexts. Despite his self-proclaimed position as an "outsider," a non-South African, as detailed in his preface, Davis has had an ongoing connection to South Africa since the 1970s and his approach to its literature and theater is by no means that of a naïve onlooker. He is, indeed, the compiler of a bibliography on South Africa (1994), co-editor with Anne Fuchs of the volume Theatre and Change in South Africa(1996) and editor of Voyages and Explorations: Southern African Writing (1994). His introduction explains how this book, Voices of Justice and Reason: Apartheid and Beyond in South African Literature, reflects his own particular interests in literary history, the sociology of literature, and cultural studies rather than focusing on literary theory (p.19). It is, in fact, this scholarly approach from outside the immediate South African "scene" that makes this book especially valuable for those readers who, like Davis, have what he rather modestly calls "limited" experience of the country and whose interests therefore are "rather different from those of a South African" (p. 19).
The main effect of this sense of informed distance is his emphasis on the contexts--historical, socio-political and literary--for the literary and theatrical texts included in his study. The study focuses on the work of black writers, including that of Matsemela Manaka, Mtutuzeli Matshoba and Richard Rive, who, in apartheid South Africa, used their writing to express their own political commitment and to draw attention to social and political injustices. Thus, each work is discussed against the background of the relevant apartheid legislation and government action that pertains to it, including the broad themes of racial classification and the effects of the "immorality act" that forbade sexual relations between black and white; the forced removals of black families from their land and the issue of migrant labor; and the effects of censorship, in general, under apartheid and the ramifications of this for "township" theater, particularly its use of experimental and "agitprop" techniques.
Each of these themes is discussed in relation to a specific text, so that, for example, William Plomer's novel Turbott Wolfe is discussed under the title of "The Politics of Love," and both Mtutuzeli Matshoba's "proemdra" (a combination of "prose, poem and drama in one," according to Matshoba) entitled The Seeds of War and Richard Rive's Buckingham Palace District Six are analysed in relation to black dispossession in rural and urban contexts. This, for me, is one of the strengths of the book as its careful historical and political contextualizing, provided side-by-side with analysis of the literary or theatrical text, enables the particularities of the texts to emerge alongside their socio-political impact. This makes them accessible to a non-South African readership while also illustrating the overall link between literature and politics and their status as resistance literature that underlies all the texts addressed in the book.
The scope of the study, while concentrated mainly on black theater, also encompasses some prose literature. This may be confusing for some readers and it could be argued that the book's overall structure and organization would have had more integrity--and would perhaps have enabled more in-depth generic analysis--had Davis used theater alone as his main focus. Similarly, it could be argued that there is some confusion in the way chapters engage and re-engage with a writer's work, for example, Mtutuzeli Matshoba's work is discussed in chapters 2 and 8, in different contexts--the first in relation to the theme of forced removals and land ownership, the second in relation to a short story written by Matshoba which is a resistant rewriting of history from a black perspective.
There is no doubt, though, that Davis's special area of study and passion is black South African theater and this book provides a valuable written account of the often fleeting theatrical performances that have reflected and, indeed, perhaps even stimulated social change in South Africa. Many of these performances have themselves become iconic and historic theatrical occasions, marking a cultural life in apartheid South Africa that was subject to risk, harassment and censorship. Davis's study is also of particular importance in its documenting of the changes in South African cultural, political and literary practices with the dismantling of the apartheid system. The chapter on the return of political exiles, linked to Matsemela Manaka's play Ekhaya--Going Home, is one that I found especially well focused, and the chapter "Theatre for a Post-Apartheid Society" gives an important overview of the transitional stage of South Africa's new nationhood. For those who were not present at these productions, Davis provides lively and informed accounts. One of these is a vivid analysis of Jane Taylor's production of Ubu and the Truth Commission based on Alfred Jarry's play Ubu Roi including a detailed description of William Kentridge's animations that accompanied the stage performance.
In summary, this is both a well-researched and accessible book whose careful research is made obvious in the clear contexts provided for the "resistance writing" that provides the scope of Davis's study. Its one weakness, from the point of view of a literary researcher, is the lack of an index, an omission that is surprising given the careful scholarship evident in the book. Perhaps in any future edition, this could be added.
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Sue Kossew. Review of Davis, Geoffrey V., Voices of Justice and Reason: Apartheid and Beyond in South African Literature.
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