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Post-apartheid Literature, Film, and Society

ENGL 592.640

The struggle to establish a non-racial democracy in South Africa was not the bloodiest anticolonial struggle of the twentieth century, but it was the one that captured the global imagination most powerfully.  Upon his release from prison, Nelson Mandela emerged as one of the world’s most revered political figures.  The process of negotiation that led to the transition was seen, all over the world, as a hopeful sign that protracted conflicts could be resolved peacefully. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s inquiry into the human rights abuses of the apartheid era became a model for truth commissions in several other countries. South African writers like Fugard, Gordimer, Coetzee and Mda earned international renown for their literary response to this compelling historical transformation. But what is the future of South Africa and South African literature?  Has the new democracy lived up to its promise? Has it generated new forms of cultural expression?  These are the questions that animate this seminar.

We will start out by considering a few films and plays about the last years of the antiapartheid struggle (including a documentary about Mandela), before turning to three novels (Nadine Gordimer’s None To Accompany Me, Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying, and Ivan Vladislavic’s The Exploded View), which capture the broad social transformation from a racist to a democratic state in terms of its impact on urban space. Next, we will look at the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and sample some of the films, poems, novels, and memoirs it inspired. The key texts here will be Antjie Krog’s County of My Skull, and the films Forgivenness and Long Night’s Journey into Day. We will then read two excellent novels that respond in a more generalized way to the TRC’s work of excavating the past: Zoë Wicomb’s Playing in the Dark (which deals with the repressed legacy of racial passing) and Mark Behr’s The Smell of Apples (which deals with the dark secrets of the apartheid regime in the domain of the white family). We will then attend to a number of persistent issues that plague South Africa, as well as other postcolonial nations. These issues include the AIDS pandemic; land reform; poverty and crime; and, finally, migration and xenophobia. Our focal texts here will be J. M. Coetzee’s famous and controversial novel Disgrace, Jonny Steinberg’s fascinating investigation into a real crime in Midlands, Deon Meyer’s creepy crime novel, Devil’s Peak, the academy award-winning gangster film Tsotsi, and the moving AIDS film Yesterday (the first internationally successful feature film to be made in isiZulu).  We will end with recent science fiction: the popular film District 9 and Lauren Beukes’s cult novel Moxyland.  These texts will enable us to speculate about the future of South Africa and other postcolonial democracies.

Requirements for this course include a final paper of about 12-15 pages and a presentation in our closing “biographies project,” which will feature students’ research on the life stories of transformative individuals.  Please note that seminar participants are not expected to have any expert knowledge of South Africa, only a lively interest in the relationship between contemporary culture and politics. 

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