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  • Emma Barnes

South Africa and Literary Power

Updated: Mar 24


Throughout my PhD research, one of the highlights was being introduced to the work of South African writer, Zakes Mda. After several recommendations, his novel The Heart of Redness (2000) finally found its way onto my bookshelf and furthered my interest in South African literature.


When starting this project, I was reminded of Mda’s words:


“If you are truly telling a South African story then it will be political — because you are dealing with people who lead political lives in an environment which is highly politically charged” (Mda, 2013).

This statement, delivered by Mda to Sue Grant-Marshall in an interview for Business Day, encapsulate the impossibility of apolitical South African literature. In the interview, Mda explains that whilst South African authors may not intend to craft novels that directly respond to the politics of the settler state, historical, social, political, and economic contexts cannot help but permeate the minds and words of those writing. Son of the founder of the Pan-African Congress of Azania, A. P. Mda, and family friend of Nelson Mandela, Mda's life is marked by an intense occupation with the politics of South Africa. As such, themes of racial dominance, exploitation, and the trauma of apartheid feature throughout his oeuvre. Mda’s emphasis on the inseparability of South African literature from its contexts of writing captures well one of the key aims of this project: to examine how and why modernism provided, and continues to provide, a politically-charged mode of representation for South African writers.


In turning to modernist texts borne out of the post/colonial contexts of South Africa, the project considers how literary modernism offered – and continues to offer - a medium through which writers could respond to the settler state’s turbulent colonial history, and provide mediums through which to question and challenge its changing social, political, cultural and economic landscape. Examining South Africa’s literary connections and networks within and beyond the African continent, this project considers modernism within the broader, global purview of an increasingly interconnected world.


The project shines a spotlight on the works of modernist writers frequently omitted from the canon of modernist literature, including writers as diverse as Olive Schreiner, Sol T Plaatje, H.I.E. Dhlomo and Lewis Nkosi. Outputs will include new edition of Schreiner’s The Story of An African Farm, a co-edited collection that showcases Schreiner’s global presence and literary influence, and a book that aims to explore the relationship between South African writers and Bloomsbury modernism.


Together, the team intends to tell another South African story – one of its rich, literary history, and its role in shaping global modernisms.


Mda, Z., 2013. Point is the Tale, Not the History.