Examine the representation of the relationship between language and power inSouth African Literature

Essay, 2001

14 Pages, Grade: B



1. Introduction

2. Language problems in South Africa

3. Literature and language in South Africa
a) White writing
b) Black writing

4. Background of authors and plot
a) Sol Plaatje
b) Nadine Gordimer

5. Language and power in South African literature
a) Mhudi
b) The House Gun

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

‘The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe.’[1]

This quote by the Kenyan writer Ngugi expresses the exceedingly important relationship between language and the individual in general. This relationship is gaining even more importance for a continent such as Africa, in which large parts of the native population were oppressed by European colonial powers for centuries. One important instrument of oppression was definitely language and the feeling of European superiority resulting out of cultural traditions, such as literature. In South Africa, where two major colonial powers were fighting for supremacy and many different native ethnic groups were combined in one state, the question of language would almost naturally provoke conflicts and crisis. In this essay, I should like to have a closer look at this delicate relationship between language and power in South African literature with the example of a Black and a White African writer, Sol T. Plaatje and Nadine Gordimer.

2. Language problems in South Africa

In his historical overview, Leonard Thompson already describes the South Africa of the 18th century as a ‘linguistic Babel’[2]. Afrikaans, a simplified form of Dutch and at first only used in oral communication, would gradually develop into the lingua franca of South Africa. Today, its greatest competitor among European languages is English and both languages, together with nine African languages, belong to the eleven official languages of the postapartheid South African State. The right of every South African to use the language of his or her choice is now embedded in the constitution. However, the situation of having eleven official languages is truly unique world-wide. One of the most pressing question is whether there is a necessity to agree on a single language as the official one, with the other ten languages receiving an equally high status, in order to support the current process of nation-building? If so, should it be English, Afrikaans or one of the African languages? A decision for English or Afrikaans would include many advantages because a high percentage of people in South Africa already speak one of these languages, although not as a first language and, of course, they would offer the possibility to communicate internationally, especially English. On the other hand, English and Afrikaans are the languages used for oppression during the last centuries and many Africans refuse this idea. However, there would arise as many problems with the choice of an African language as with one the European languages. They are usually regional languages and spoken only within a restricted area. Thus, people with Zulu as native tongue would have to be convinced to learn Tswana for example, in order to make a national communication possible.

How strong individual feelings about languages are, were clearly demonstrated in the Soweto uprising of 1976. It was triggered off by the former apartheid government, who tried to enforce Afrikaans as the official language in schools and decided that half of all subjects should be taught in Afrikaans. The townships of Soweto were inhabited predominantly by Blacks and the uproar against governmental plans to introduce the language of the oppressors in high schools developed into nation-wide protests after a thirteen-year-old was killed by the police. This uprising showed for the first time that the problem of language should be taken seriously and how closely it is related to other forms of apartheid such as social inequality and the questions of democratic rights for everyone. Finally, the Ministry of Bantu Education gave in and left the decision in what language pupils should be taught with the schools. In the postapartheid South Africa of today, flexible concepts for education have to be found and the general policy of bilingualism is supposed to be maintained.

3. Literature and language in South Africa

The next question to be asked is: what does this complicated and complex situation imply for the position of any writer in South Africa and how is the relationship between languages and people reflected in his or her work? Or why is still the majority of South African literature published in English and by white writers although less than ten per cent of South Africans speak English as their main language? In order to have a closer look at the position of the writer, I should like to make a distinction between Black and White writing.

a) Black writing

‘The relationship between language and national culture cannot be too strongly emphasised. Like other peoples, black Africans possess a rich and living heritage in philosophy, ethics, religion and artistic creation, the deepest roots of which are embedded in the rich soil of African languages.’[3]

Lewis Nkosi expresses in his book considerable regret about the fact that such a high percentage of African literature is written in European languages. The Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o makes the explicit statement on the first pages of his book that Decolonising the Mind is his ‘farewell to English as a vehicle for any [his] writings.’[4] Although one can see from his next comment, in which he expresses his hope that he might ‘be able to continue dialogue with all’[5] by the old medium of translation that he is perfectly conscious of the disadvantages this step might bring. The limitation of readership will probably be high and exactly this was the reason for so many black writers to produce and publish their work in English. The question of what readership is addressed by which language is one of the most important aspects for African writers and creates a dilemma. This stems from the fact that African literature result to great parts out of anti-imperialist struggle. Thus, in order to fight against the colonial oppressors and being heard outside of their country, they had to use precisely the language of the colonialists, who oppressed them. At the same time, they excluded automatically the majority of their natural readership - their own people, who were not in command of any foreign language at all. Thus, in writing in a foreign language, the author finds himself in a separated position, he ‘lacks in this enterprise [...] the silent complicity of his people, [...] he is alone, operating outside the boundaries either his own society or that of his adopted language, [...].’[6] Nkosi even argues that the usage of the form of a novel is not appropriate to represent African society because this literary form has its roots in Europe. It focuses on the individual and progresses in constructing conflicts of this individual with his environment. Africa, however, looks back on a long tradition of story telling; its naturally developed art form is to be found in the oral tradition. In addition, these orally told stories had a totally different focus in stressing the harmonisation of the community rather than dwelling on crisis and conflict.

b) White writing

The position of the white writer in South Africa is definitely easier in this respect; they mostly belong to the privileged part of society solely because of the colour of their skin. The choice of a language is not their utmost problem, although writers with Afrikaans as their mother tongue rarely write in Afrikaans, but mostly in English. One recent exception was the novel triomf by Marlene van Niekerk, which was the first novel written in Afrikaans to win the foremost African book prize. However, these two European language systems are at least in some points related to each other, stem from comparable cultural background and are mostly ‘white’ languages. In addition, many successful white writers such as J.M. Coetzee were educated in Europe or the United States and out of this reason very close to European writing traditions and novel theories. White writers have to face different questions about their creative process and their position in South Africa. Nadine Gordimer reflects on these questions in her essays collected in The Essential Gesture. First of all, she stresses the responsibility and the task of a white writer ‘as cultural worker [is] to raise the consciousness of white people, who unlike himself, have not woken up.’[7] However, as this is subject does not belong to the language problem I do not want to expand on it too much.

4. Historicising the background of authors and plot

a) Sol T. Plaatje

To list all of Sol Plaatje’s achievements during his life would certainly go beyond the scope of this essay. Born in 1876, he was a founding member of the South African National Congress, he produced influential books about the political situation of the natives in South Africa, and he edited different newspapers and was concerned about the maintenance of his native tongue. In fact, he was taking part in writing the first Sechuana phonetic reader and he translated several works of Shakespeare into this language. In 1913, he went to England as a member of a deputation against the Native Land Act. This law which prohibited Africans from buying or leasing land ‘outside the reserves from people who were not Africans’[8] mostly influenced Plaatje’s political writing and activism. After this deputation failed, he stayed in England and also went to Canada and the United States. He returned to South Africa in 1924; at this time Mhudi was already finished and he was looking for a publisher, which took him until 1930 to find. He died two years later, in 1932. Mhudi describes a traditional society in transition and Plaatje’s main matter of concern was to rewrite parts of the South African history out of a native’s perspective. At the same time, this was the reason for him to choose English as language for his novel - he specifically wanted to address white readers. The plot of the novel is set in the beginning of the 1830s, a time when the Zulu kingdom was at the peak of its power. The story of Mhudi is based on the true historical fact that a chief called Mzilikazi split up from the Zulu and founded his own kingdom by using Zulu warrior methods and conquering several Sotho and Tswana chiefdoms. Plaatje describes in his novel the gruel warfare methods as well as the traditional tribal way of life and also the first contact of these chiefdoms with white settlers. These were Afrikaners who started trekking out of the British colony because of a growing dissatisfaction with the English rulers. Although Plaatje was mainly preoccupied with the question of land distribution, language played a crucial role in his writing as well.


[1] Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind, page 4

[2] Leonard Thompson. A History of South Africa, page 52

[3] Nkosi, Lewis. Tasks and Masks, page 3

[4] Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind, page xiv

[5] Ibid., page xiv

[6] Nkosi, Lewis. Tasks and Masks, page 6

[7] Gordimer, Nadine. The Essential Gesture, page 293

[8] Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa, page 163

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Examine the representation of the relationship between language and power inSouth African Literature
University of London  (Faculty of English Literature)
Literature in History: Race and Subjectivity in South African Writing
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ISBN (eBook)
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Examine, African, Literature, History, Race, Subjectivity, South, African, Writing
Quote paper
Evelyn Naudorf (Author), 2001, Examine the representation of the relationship between language and power inSouth African Literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/13452


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