Coming to Terms with the Past – Reconciling Gender Issues

Female Protagonists in Male Authored South African Fiction

Bachelor Thesis, 2008
25 Pages, Grade: BA



In the latter part of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century it has become more and more common for men to write feminine literature. Although this seems like a contradiction, Monica Bungaro points out that “in principle, men can be feminists,” but as she continues “they cannot be women.” (Bungaro, 2005: 48) Representing the oppressed Other is always precarious, particularly when you are a member of the oppressing class. Consequently, even the male feminist inherently carries the burden of being an oppressor of women and his representations will necessarily be scrutinized to a larger extend than similar works written by women. In this paper, I will venture an analysis of such male authored representations of the feminine as I explore two male authors’ construction of female characters and their “imagined perspective of the opposite sex.” (Morgan, 1994: 1)

For this paper I have chosen to work with the novels Imaginings of Sand by André Brink and Achmat Dangor’s Bitter Fruit1. These authors represent two different demographics, Whites and Coloreds respectively. Not only do they have different skin colors, they each take departure in two different eras of post-apartheid South Africa. After decades of apartheid rule, the country’s first democratic election took place on April 27th 1994. To most South Africans, this day represented the beginning of the new South Africa; the Rainbow Nation that was to unite all races under one democratic government. The euphoria of this truly significant event left its mark on contemporaries such as André Brink who had witnessed the liberation struggle and criticized the apartheid regime for years. The first novel he released after 1994, Imaginings of Sand, is thus marked by the enthusiasm that denominated the time. Brink himself describes the year of publishing as “… a time when the newness has not quite worn off but the euphoria of freedom has begun to give way to a more realistic assessment of where we have come from, where we are now, and where we may be heading for.” (Brink, 1996: 1)

The positive outlook that André Brink presents in Imaginings of Sand from 1996 has turned somewhat somber in Achmat Dangor’s 2001 novel, Bitter Fruit. The dream of the Rainbow Nation that began in 1994 seems all the more distant in the twenty-first century. Lifting the veil of racial intolerance has revealed an equally deeply rooted discrimination of women which exists across race lines. According to Graybill, “patriarchy has been described as the one truly nonracial institution in South Africa.” (Graybill, 2002: 101) In Bitter Fruit, the TRC has embarked on its mission of unraveling the South African past through the sharing of traumatic stories of apartheid. Needless to say, these stories have brought back memories of a country divided by racial hate but also by the suppression of women.

This paper will examine the female experience of the post-apartheid era as described by two male authors and explore the different female figures which they portray. Although the main characters come from different backgrounds both racially, religiously, and socially, Kristien and Lydia both reclaim the power that has been taken from them by the men in their lives. Kristien is trying to shape her self-identity in South Africa, while Lydia is trying to find her identity as something other than just the rape-victim that her husband defines her as.

In this paper, I want to explore the representation of women in two male authored novels. To disclose this, I have divided this paper into three sections. The first is entitled Reconciliation through Memory or Amnesia? as this topic dominates the discourse of both novels. I will thus explore the characters’ opposition to patriarchal history, amnesia2, as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as they take control of their own stories. The second section deals with the female body and includes topics such as rape and the significance of the womb, which will proceed into the final section, entitled The Future for Women in the New South Africa. This chapter deals with the authors’ representation of their female protagonists’ future prospects in a country which still places women in an inferior position, especially as victims of rape and as determined by the status of the men who surround them3. As we shall see, these chapters intermingle since the separation of memory from the body and the memory of the past from the future is virtually impossible.

As I am exploring the representation of women, my main focus will be on the characters of Lydia, Kristien, and Anna while other female characters also feature in my analysis. Kristien and her sister represent the white community, while Lydia belongs to the Colored minority. I will also incorporate some of the male characters in order to explore their relationships with these women and look at the relations of power between them. The male characters in these novels try to “fulfill their patriarchal duty, (…) play the role of a man among men” (Dangor, 2004: 121), however, not all of them succeed at this.

I will start with a short theoretical section on postcolonial feminism and men writing as women to account for some of the terms applied later in this paper. I will then proceed with a short historical overview of the post-apartheid era in South Africa with special emphasis on the TRC and the women’s hearings.4

The Third-World Womanand the Male Authored Female

In a colonial discourse, those subject to the dominant power have no means to speak for themselves and are thus represented by others. Considering South Africa in particular, the apartheid regime took over the country after the colonial powers had left and officially accepted white as the proper skin color. This meant restricting Blacks and Coloreds from public places and denying them basic human rights. Therefore, an actual de-colonization process did not take place until the late twentieth century with the abolishment of apartheid, which means that from a postcolonial perspective the country is still in the making.

The study of postcolonialism has gradually extended into a feminist study of women’s roles in colonial discourses, which often place them at the margins. Postcolonial writing attempts to defy racial stereotyping that is determined by the colonizer, and similarly a feminist discourse ‘writes back’ to the oppressor, which in most cases would be a patriarchal figure. The conception of the colonial experience as gendered implies that, in a patriarchal society, the conditions are markedly different for men and women. Third-World women are thus doubly oppressed, both by the colonizers because of their ethnicity but also by colonized men because of their gender. This is what is referred to as a double colonization (McLeod, 2000: 175-177).

Additionally, speaking for women does not necessarily mean speaking for all women alike. Even within a feminist discourse Third-World women remain unrepresented and sometimes even play the role of the villain in Western feminist fiction5. Recently, women from formerly colonized nations have criticized the concept of the ‘universal woman’ who is rendered capable of representing all women across culture, race, class, religion etc6. According to Gayatri Spivak acknowledging the subaltern female’s existence as an unrepresentable entity is more just to her, as any attempt to represent her will distort her voice7. Spivak also notes that the Third-World woman appears only as someone who needs to be rescued by Western women (McLeod, 2000: 186). We see an example of this in Imaginings of Sand when Kristien asks the domestic worker, Trui, to start addressing her by name rather than Miss, which she associates with a hierarchy imposed by colonial rule. As the following dialogue shows, Kristien, in the course of the novel, proceeds to challenge the social order by implying familiarity between herself and the Colored servant:

“‘You should have been my mother. (…) Do you know about your ancestors and mine?’ (…)

‘I know nothing about nothing. Leave the dead alone. (…) I have my people, you have yours.

That’s the way it’s always been in this country.’ (…) ‘But now things are changing. (…)

The Lord made us near family. (…) We can learn to live like family.’”

(Brink, 2000: 170)

Here, Kristien assumes that she can grant Trui the same privileges that she, as a white woman, has enjoyed. Her interaction with a Colored woman cements her role as the savior of the Third-World woman. Generally, as Sue Kossew points out, in Imaginings of Sand “Afrikaner women […] are imagined as rebels, as victims, as ‘sisters’ of their black servants rather than as complicit in the discourses and myths of Afrikaner nationalism…” (Kossew in Knapp, 2000, 52) This paragraph, which serves as a concluding statement by Brink’s main character, clearly shows what Kossew is suggesting:

“Dragged across plains and mountains – just like those others, the nameless dark servants – barefoot helping to preserve the tribe, loading the guns, healing the sick and wounded, fighting and dying alongside the men, then returned to the shadows while the men assumed what glory there was. (…) Theirs the monuments of ages; ours, at most, the imaginings of sand.”

(Brink, 2000: 332)

In Ouma Kristina’s version of history, we encounter a universalized version of the family tree of South African women. According to her and her granddaughter, these women’s sufferings were based solely on gender. Meg Samuelson finds this to be an ahistorical repetition of the patriarchal discourse which works only “… in service to a nation-building discourse that articulates itself through the idiom of ‘global sisterhood’” (Samuelson, 2007: 28) and thus brings us back to our starting point. This conclusion of Ouma Kristina’s stories also makes Adrian Knapp argue that the novel “… significantly plays down the implication of women in the country’s atrocious past.” (Knapp, 2006: 52)

The novels that I have chosen for this paper have another dimension to them when it comes to representing women. Both are written by men, which makes their representation of the female characters all the more complicated. The authors’ positions as White and Colored men respectively necessarily place them in a position where their credibility is questioned. The feminine symbols that Fiona Probyn points out in Coetzee’s writing such as “maternity, writing the body, [and] silences” (Probyn, 2002) are omnipresent also in Imaginings of Sand and Bitter Fruit. By portraying the intimate thoughts of their female characters and speaking through these women, authors such as Brink and Dangor are writing the feminine8. Feminists have operated with a clear distinction between sex, which denotes the biological difference between man and woman, and gender which refers to the more complex distinctions made between the masculine and the feminine, and these authors make the latter category even more nuanced. Feminized writing creates a platform for men to criticize the masculine and patriarchal practice9 which is evident in both Imaginings of Sand and Bitter Fruit.

After the abolishment of apartheid the focus on human rights in South Africa has increased and for this reason women’s rights, too, have become a topic for even male authors. These men, however, do not have the same objective with their writings as feminists do. African men writing the feminine generally do not attempt to assume the authority to write as though they were themselves women, but they wish to cast women in different roles than those stereotypical of the African literary tradition. This discourse can seem threatening to some feminists who argue that “by giving voice to the ‘voiceless’ Other, these men could be seen as, albeit unintentionally, re-inscribing female silence.” (Bungaro, 2005: 50)

In the twenty-first century, the male authored female has become an increasingly more popular character. When men write the feminine, their characters no longer play the role of the Other, but rather that of mediator between the two sexes. As Morgan explains it: “Of central importance (…) is the dialogue between women and men in an effort to understand representations of gender in the past and their possible revision for the future.” (Morgan, 1994: 8) The danger for both male and female writers lies in speaking for women as a group and thus creating a universalized image of women. Male authored feminism in the postcolonial context is yet another step away from the patriarchal discourse of the colonizers.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Women’s Hearings

In 1994, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up as a political initiative on behalf of both the ANC10 and the NP11 in order to help the South African people come to terms with the country’s traumatized past. Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Commission sought the truth through hearings of victims of the apartheid regime as well as perpetrators. The significance of these hearings, which took place from 1996-1998, was that they were broadcast on national television so that all South Africans could bear witness to the testimonies. The hearings were mostly composed of Black and Colored men, who gave accounts of their oppression by white people in powerful positions. Necessarily, this only represented a small fraction of the population and the image that was pieced together in this way was represented only this demographic. The few women who did testify spoke only of the hardships suffered by their husbands, sons, and other family members (Graybill, 2002: 102). In a submission by Beth Goldblatt and Shiela Meintjes, they press for a change in the status of women as secondary victims to the violence committed to their male relatives. After repeated protests over the lack of gender specific hearings that would allow for the experiences of women to be disclosed, the TRC turned their focus towards creating a safe space for women to testify. This resulted in three hearings held exclusively for women in three different regions of the country to enable the most varied representation. Despite this, however, many women were still left silent12.

Specific for the women’s hearings was the topic of rape and its consequences for those assaulted. The hearings were held in camera and the victims would testify only to female commissioners. As Lucy Graham points out, even though the “‘women’s hearings’ were supposed to guarantee a ‘safe space’ for women (…) many of those who came forward found their stories reproduced in a sensationalist manner” (Graham, 2002: 17). This, as well as the social implications of such confessions, might explain why not many women testified before the Commission. By speaking about their abuse, these women were exposing themselves in more than one sense of the word. They also exposed themselves to the scrutiny they would face from their surroundings long after they left the meeting halls. “Given the general assumption of South Africans that sexually abused woman somehow deserved it, many women chose not to speak out.” (Graybill, 2002: 104) We see this attitude described in both Imaginings of Sand and Bitter Fruit, and I will thus return to this issue.

Ana Miller stresses the fact that the TRC was a compromise not only between political parties but also a compromise between victim and perpetrator on what constitutes the truth. In this way, the recording of these testimonies would prevent the stories from going untold and ultimately result in a renegotiation of the past with the aim of reconciliation between all parties. Amnesty hearings were thus held to redeem those who had committed politically related crimes during the apartheid era.

The final TRC-report operated with four kinds of truth: factual and forensic, personal and narrative, social and dialogue, and healing and restorative truths. This paper will concentrate on the truth characterized by the personal narrative13, which is central to both novels. This, however, will be with certain reservations since the testimonies were heavily edited and thus in a sense constitute a grand narrative14. In Ana Miller’s terms, these “universalized Eurocentric” or “generalized models of trauma” (Miller, 2008: 146-147) risk discarding the importance of the individual experience.

Much can be said about the methods of the TRC15, but it did, however, create an outlet for stories that would not ordinarily have been told. The personal stories of life during the apartheid era are surrounded by much trauma but in silencing these narratives, however, the healing effect of mediation is disregarded in favor of internalizing one’s pain which has dramatic consequences for Brink and Dangor’s characters. The attempt to silence the past is what disrupts the Ali family in Bitter Fruit and in Imaginings of Sand, the silencing of women throughout history and at present has lead to identity loss for Kristien and her sister.

Reconciling with the Past through Memory or Amnesia?

“… A happy nation has no memory”, muses Alec. “That’s the problem with this country, we want to forgive but we don’t want to forget. You can’t have it both ways.” (Dangor, 2004: 86) He hereby suggests that memory and forgiveness are two mutually exclusive entities. Adrian Knapp also acknowledges the challenge that lies in connecting these binaries and explains it thus: “…socially, the remains of past injustice are still omnipresent everywhere in the country and pose a possible threat to the future…” (Knapp, 2006: 8) In South Africa, the memory of the country’s past is painful in many respects and surrendering to amnesia can seem the easiest solution. Memory, however, cannot be separated from forgiveness, as only the first makes the latter possible.

The TRC’s vision that speaking about and grieving the past leads to healing is questioned by Dangor’s leading lady, who has no interest in remembering her past trauma. According to Goldblatt and Meintjes, Lydia’s behavior is due to the fact that “[South African] society constantly diminishes women's role and women themselves then see their experiences as unimportant.” (Goldblatt & Meintjes, 1996) Since the first part of Bitter Fruit is more concerned with amnesia, it seems ironic that it is entitled Memory. However, this is one of the many allusions to the TRC that occur throughout the novel and often carry ironic connotations. The Commission thus plays a major part in the story line of Bitter Fruit. The novel is set just before the release of the TRC report, and the hearings occupy the minds of all the characters, especially those who still carry secrets with them. Consequently we see the characters gradually confessing to actions of the past throughout the novel, among them Alec, who has been carrying around the guilt of witnessing Lydia’s rape without interfering.

The opening line of Bitter Fruit suggests the inevitability of being faced with your past in a country such as South Africa, which is so preoccupied with memory, truth, and confession and where everyone has a past as either perpetrator or victim: “It was inevitable” (Dangor, 2004: 3). The Ali family’s life is dominated by the ghosts of apartheid and their problems all seem to have roots in the country’s apartheid past. These problems, however, have been suppressed for almost two decades when Silas accidentally runs into his wife’s rapist. When Silas meets Lieutenant Du Boise at the mall, the encounter brings back memories of his past in the ANC, which he has spent all his time trying to suppress. After years of denying the family tragedy, Silas again has to come to terms with the rape of his wife, Lydia, which resulted in their son Mikey, the constant reminder of their tragedy.

Silas works as a lawyer for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, however, he does not seem to be able to reconcile with his own past. He has “…his ancient way of dealing with things, which was to hug and make up, say nothing further about the problem, not matter how serious.” (Dangor, 2004: 107) This has caused him to suppress also the painful memory of Lydia’s rape, to which he was the captive audience. We learn that Lydia’s approach to their marital problems initially was quite the opposite, as she found that they “could not be dissolved in the tenderness of a touch; she needed words of reconciliation, spoken out loud.” (Dangor, 2004: 107) Their different ways of handling trauma has caused them to live in two separate worlds mentally: “… [the house’s] smallness making it impossible for them to escape each other physically. They had to create interior spaces of their own, private rooms of the mind in which to hide their emotions.” (Dangor, 2004: 107). As opposed to confessing their story, which is recommended by the TRC, Silas and Lydia opt for the directly opposite approach and silence their troubles so that family, friends, and colleagues are blissfully unaware of their situation. Analisa Oboe poses the question of whether “in the culture of black South African women, (…) strength and motivation lie in disclosure or secrecy” (Oboe, 67: 2007). Lydia obviously finds strength in creating “a zone of silence” (Dangor, 2004: 129), while creating, however, and outlet through her diaries.


1 In the two novels that I have selected, blacks are represented by minor characters only. This of course does not mean that their experience is of less importance to this subject. It would have been interesting to incorporate a Black writer and his Black characters into this paper also, but time and space confinements unfortunately do not allow for this.

2 I use the term ‘amnesia’ as an expression for the conscious suppression of memory.

3 As Goldblatt and Meintjes’ report explains how women’s status is very much dependent on their husbands, fathers etc. In the report, Jenny Schreiner explains how security policemen treated female detainees: “You’re thirty and you’re single, therefore there’s something wrong with you as a woman (…). They were attacking your identity with their own particular conception of what a woman is.” Attacking women’s identities as a means of oppression was common practice during the struggle.

4 I here apply the same terms used by John McLeod in his Beginning Postcolonialism (2000) while knowing that they might be somewhat vague. When I refer to Third World women, I refer to those “of the former colonies such as countries in Africa and South Asia which were economically under-developed and dependent upon the wealthy nations for their economic fortunes” (McLeod, 2000: 174), as McLeod defines it. I am aware, that there is no such thing as a universal Third-World woman and that the individual experience varies because of race, class, religion etc. I use these terms simply out of convenience and in order to create a clear distinction between First and Third World feminism.

5 In for instance Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in which the strong feminist Jane stands in contrast to her husband’s former wife, a Creole who is known to the reader simply as the mad woman in the attic.

6 The concept of feminism has been rejected by some Third World women who consider this term a Western invention. And there are necessarily significant differences between what Western and Third World women consider to be their rights as women and thus coining a term that will apply to both definitions is virtually impossible. Thus feminism in the Eurocentric sense of the word does not exist in South Africa, but in her desire to critique the inferior position in which society has placed her, she is thinking within the frame of a feminist philosophy. Feminism in itself is comprised of various theories that vary according to who defines it, but its common goal is to redefine the patriarchal definition of gender roles.

7 Similarly Wilkinson & Kitzinger note that: “Speaking only for ourselves, we leave Others to represent themselves. Instead of speaking for others, we maintain a respectful silence, and work to create the social and political conditions which might enable Others to speak…” (Wilkinson & Kitzinger, 1996: 10)

8 Writing the feminine is characterized by Thaïs E. Morgan as follows: “… male authors write the feminine by speaking in the voices and describing the innermost thoughts and feelings of women.” (Morgan, 1994: 2)

9 Morgan explains it thus: “The challenge here is understanding the precarious balance between men’s appropriation of the category of femininity in order to strengthen their own authority and men’s attempt to critique masculinity through adopting a feminine (…) position in the system of sexual difference.” (Morgan, 1994: 3)

10 The ANC (African National Congress) was banned in 1960 for criticizing the apartheid regime. During the apartheid era it became an underground movement that aimed to revolutionize South Africa. Initially, the movement consisted only of Blacks but in the early 1970’s other races were welcomed in (both Kristien and Silas are members though in very different manners). The movement thus grew steadily in numbers and provided it with bases in adjacent countries such as Angola and Mozambique. Their resorting to violence as a means to fight apartheid was criticized by many along with rumors of abuse within the organization. The struggle for liberation had high cost for many of the ANC members, who suffered both physical and psychological injuries caused by torture, violence, and rape committed by both enemies and comrades. (Goldblatt & Meintjes: 1996) The ANC was finally unbanned in 1990 and Nelson Mandela was elected its leader shortly after his release. (Roberts, 2001)

11 The NP (National Party) was a party consisting largely of people of Afrikaner descent who wanted white minority rule. They formed the government from 1948 until 1994. (Roberts: 2001)

12 This might be due to the fact that “… giving testimony in public can itself be a fraught and traumatic process” (Miller, 2008: 154), writes Anna Miller.

13 As Knapp notes, the narrative ”plays a central role in [the] process of social transformation, since it can be considered a medium in which society (…) is critically portrayed and in which the marginalised are given a voice to speak about (…) the past.” (Knapp, 2006: 8) He later goes on to say that “the main emphasis in fictive writing is put on re-imagination, whether it is one’s personal pas tor the past of the country as a whole.” (Knapp, 2006: 33)

14 As mentioned earlier, the Final Report was a compromise between the narrative of both victim and assailant. It was, however, also the version of the truth laid out by the TRC Commissioners, which makes Anna Miller raise the questions of “who has the power and who has the ability to interpret trauma? The (…) traumatized or ‘wise’ outside interpreters? How can an individual’s trauma be translated to others (…)?” (Miller, 2008: 155) The Commissioners assumed, to a certain degree, that one person can speak on behalf an entire group.

15 Attwell and Harlow among others criticize the Commission for example for its way of denying the individual the right to forgive and forget in their own time and instead redeeming human rights violators in favor of the nation as a whole. (Attwell & Harlow, 2000: 2-3)

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Coming to Terms with the Past – Reconciling Gender Issues
Female Protagonists in Male Authored South African Fiction
University of Copenhagen  (Institute of English, Germanic and Romance Studies)
South African Literature/Postcolonial Studies
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coming, terms, past, reconciling, gender, issues, female, protagonists, male, authored, south, african, fiction
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Kirstine Steno (Author), 2008, Coming to Terms with the Past – Reconciling Gender Issues, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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