Nadine Gordimer, 1923-2014
• One of Africa’s most formidable writer-activists passes on
The widespread sorrow which greeted the death, at 90, of the South African activist, novelist and short-story writer, Nadine Gordimer, is a tribute to the social benefits of personal courage and the value of politically-relevant art. In an era where literary, musical and other artistes appear to have found compromise more profitable than commitment, Gordimer represents a distinguished coterie of writers who consistently spoke truth to power.
Her life reads like the fiction for which she became world-famous. The daughter of European immigrants to South Africa, Gordimer was brought up in a social context of racial privilege which she could have accepted like millions of fellow-whites in the racist enclave. It is a tribute to her moral integrity that she refused to do so, devoting all of her adult life to exposing the contradictions of apartheid and fighting for its complete eradication.
In novels like July’s People (19810, Burger’s Daughter (1979), The Lying Days (1953), Occasion for Loving (1963), and short-story collections like Face to Face (1949) and The Soft Voice of the Serpent (1952), Gordimer explored the ways in which a system of institutionalised racism brutalised both its victims and its ostensible beneficiaries, and thus created a society in which real progress was impossible. These and other works celebrated the inner strength of individuals who found the courage to look beyond stereotypes and prejudice, regardless of the seeming justifications of race, ethnicity and social class. The courage and artistry with which she wrote were rewarded by distinctions and honours from all over the world, culminating in the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.
Gordimer also walked her talk. She joined the African National Congress (ANC) at a time when the apartheid regime branded it a terrorist organisation, and treated its members as such. At great personal risk, she hid fugitive ANC leaders and was an outspoken advocate of its goals. She never lost an opportunity to denounce apartheid for the abomination that it was whenever she was outside the country, over time becoming one of the most respected anti-apartheid voices in the world. It is no surprise that when Nelson Mandela left prison to world-wide acclaim in 1990, she was among the first set of people that he wanted to see.
Unlike many politically-committed and socially-relevant writers, Gordimer was not an uncritical follower of the causes she supported. As an ANC member, she was well aware of its numerous flaws, but argued that it was counterproductive to criticise it while remaining outside its ranks. When President Thabo Mbeki infamously questioned the cause of HIV/AIDS, she openly disagreed with him, in spite of his impeccable credentials as a hero of the liberation struggle. She lamented the crime and xenophobia which have come to characterise the ‘Rainbow Nation’, and was particularly scathing of the current Zuma administration’s attempt to clamp down on freedom of expression through its so-called Protection of State Information Bill.
Nadine Gordimer was, in essence, the fullest manifestation of the engaged artist, one for whom art could not but function at its best within the ambit of the society that was its context. As she claimed, “To be a writer is to enter into public life.” It is an example that recommends itself to the African writers who are her literary descendants. Gordimer did not set out to “oppose” the authorities of her day in order to obtain a reputation; she did not seek to undermine the status quo for its own sake. She chose the route she embarked upon because it was so obviously the right thing to do. It was not easy. It was not convenient or comfortable. But it was right. Too many of Africa’s upcoming writers seem not to possess the courage of their convictions that is required to follow moral courses and causes, regardless of how difficult or unpopular they may seem. In Gordimer, they have a sterling example of what to do and how to do it.
May her soul rest in peace.