When J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians was published in 1980, it marked a literary paradigm shift. Until then conventional wisdom dictated that South African novels could bear witness to the truth of apartheid only through realism. Whereas South African dramatists had developed over several decades a highly stylized and experimental theater that drew from both African performance modes and European models, fiction writers stubbornly stuck to a faithful reproduction of South African experience. Reflecting realist aesthetic commitments, and ignoring the mix of experimentalism and political engagement in South African theater, they held that art was not for its own sake, but a weapon in the struggle for freedom and human betterment.

Then came Coetzee.

Waiting for the Barbarians upset the expectations of many readers and critics who had grown accustomed to documentary representations of South Africa from the country’s interpreters. The novel was seen as the height of self-indulgence: life under apartheid demanded that writers create a translucent window through which the outside world could see authentic oppression. Some critics claimed that Coetzee’s use of allegory was an escape from South African reality because the novel, set in a nameless empire and lacking specificity of locale and period, was susceptible to an ahistorical and apolitical reading. The question of the author’s political commitment was raised not only in response to this novel but all his subsequent ones. Even Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer weighed in that Coetzee’s work, and indeed Coetzee himself, abhorred all political and revolutionary solutions. While acknowledging that Coetzee’s work was magnificent, and commending his superb and fearless creative energy, she rapped him on the knuckles for a mode of storytelling that kept him aloof from the grubby and tragic events of South Africa.

What others saw as a failure to represent lived experience appeared to me—I was then living in exile—as a refreshing way to re-imagine South Africa and transcend the repetition of the horrors reported every day in newspapers. Waiting for the Barbarians addressed the brutality of colonialism in a timeless manner and extended the borders of “empire” far beyond those of South Africa: to the rest of Africa, Asia, Europe, Australasia, and the Americas. Springing from the particular circumstances of South Africa, it spoke to a universe in which the state became increasingly terroristic in its defense of imperial values. The timelessness was rendered all the more striking to me when one of my students at Ohio University asked if the novel was written after 9/11. When I asked her to explain her question, she listed a number of events in the novel that had direct parallels to what, in her view, was happening in the United States: the increasing defensiveness and paranoia of an all-powerful empire, the state of alert and panic, civic freedoms curtailed in order to deal with the terrorism of the barbarians who come at night and create havoc, the lack of due process for those suspected of being barbarians, dissenting citizens assailed as unpatriotic. Coetzee writes of “patriotic bloodlust.”

I left South Africa in 1963 to join my father who had escaped from jail that year and crossed the river to the neighboring British colony of Basutoland. There, he lived as a refugee while working as an attorney. Over the years I became increasingly frustrated with writing about a South Africa that was becoming a distant memory. I could no longer benefit from the wealth of stories that were created by the absurdity of the apartheid system.

The inxile writers—those who operated from within South Africa, yet were figuratively exiled from the mainstream of South African life because of apartheid marginalization—only had to take a slice of life as it unfolded in the streets where children were dying from police bullets; in the bedrooms where police flashlights were shining into people eyes at midnight searching for those engaged in illicit interracial sex; at the workplace where qualified blacks were lorded over by less qualified whites and demeaned through racial slurs; in the suburban kitchens where black maids and nannies pined for children they had brought to this world but had not seen for months or years while they raised the white children of their “madams”; or in prison where black men served time for failing to carry their identity documents with them, or being in an urban area in defiance of laws that confined them to the labor reserves euphemistically called “homelands.”

Here was a first among South African authors: a writer with an imagination that creates worlds rooted in immediate reality while also transcending it.

This “reportage fiction” required very little imaginative intervention because the apartheid system itself crafted the most wonderfully absurd narratives. They were all there for the taking by the inxile. As an exiled writer, I envied them greatly because they were living within these narratives and could therefore capture the evolving nuances of the language of the streets as it adapted to changing situations.

Realism could no longer serve me. I would still write works set in South Africa, and they would still be political works because I did not think it possible to write an apolitical story about South Africa, a highly politicized society where apartheid’s attempts at social engineering touched every aspect of life. Even a love story could not avoid politics because apartheid governed the private areas of a person’s life. It determined whom you could or could not love subject to dire punishment, where you could live, what jobs you could do, all depending on a hierarchy of complexion that was established by the state as a matter of political expediency.

To be sure, I had already been using allegorical and other stylized modes in my theater because they enabled me to draw from ancient sources or oral literature in my interrogation of contemporary society. Waiting for the Barbarians awakened me to new possibilities for writing fiction. Here was a first among South African authors: a writer with an imagination that creates worlds rooted in immediate reality while also transcending it.

But there was something else that I saw in Coetzee, something more than his capacity to write beyond the immediate context. Although during those revolutionary times I was riled, like many others, by what I considered a misrepresentation of the extra-textual reality that informed Coetzee’s fiction—in the novel the barbarians have no voice, everything we know about them is mediated through the old-fashioned paternalistic liberal perspective of the protagonist or the highly jaundiced and jingoistic perspective of the antagonist; the barbarian’s guerrilla offensive is ineffectual and it is only through the agency of a natural disaster (the water turns salty), rather than of revolutionary action by the oppressed themselves, that the oppressor is driven away—I was fascinated by Coetzee’s close attention to characterization.

For many black South African writers, the only literary models were the nineteenth-century realists. Theirs was the only literature in English to which we were exposed by the educational system. Whereas in drama, for some reason, we did explore modernists like T.S. Eliot and George Bernard Shaw, and naturalists like Ibsen and Strindberg (in addition to the ubiquitous Elizabethan bard), in fiction the only writers that were extensively prescribed were George Eliot (particularly Silas Marner), Charles Dickens, and the Brontë sisters. That is why we wrote, as critic Lewis Nkosi once noted, as if the modernists and postmodernists never lived.

Nineteenth-century realism was defined by its mix of an omniscient narrator and close attention to characterization. In our contemporary fiction we retained the omniscient narrator because it gave us the storyteller’s freedom to render opinions and judgment and summarize at will, as stories in the oral tradition are wont to do. But our fiction was sustained by big dramatic moments of oppression, with scant attention to characterization and psychology. Yes, the actions of our characters may have been motivated, but rarely were these motivations dynamic. The black characters were oppressed and driven by the quest for freedom; the white characters were oppressors and driven by the quest to oppress. With a few exceptions, the motivations were imposed externally by the apartheid system.

I was later to learn that motivation alone does not make a believable character. There is something beyond motivation that provides characters their emotional and intellectual depth.

In 1984 my play, The Road, won the Christina Crawford Award of what was then called the American Theater Association and was read on stage at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco. Theater educators and scouts gathered and offered their critiques. I was taken aback by one particular comment: according to one critic, the Afrikaner character was a thorough scoundrel without a single redeeming feature.

In the play a black laborer traveling the length of the district repairing farming equipment for Afrikaner farmers encounters an Afrikaner farmer who runs out of gas on his way to enjoy the nightlife of Maseru, Lesotho, with its casinos and strip clubs, all of which were forbidden in Calvinist South Africa. Soon a conflict over the shade of a tree develops between the two. The laborer then learns that while he drudged in the farms for his family back in Lesotho, the Afrikaner regularly slept with the laborer’s wife, who was supplementing the family income as a prostitute. The laborer is shocked to learn that his wife is a prostitute and that she and the Afrikaner regularly engaged in bestiality with the laborer’s pet dog. The Afrikaner turns out to be a pathetic whimpering fool who nevertheless dispossesses the laborer of everything he owns at gunpoint.

The play is highly allegorical, for allegory is the mode of oral literature and folklore in that part of the world. South African theater was allegorical long before Coetzee. Its humor was in its absurdity, which was largely the absurdity of the Afrikaner character and everything he stood for. So, what more did the San Francisco critic want from it? What redeeming attribute could an Afrikaner character possibly have, especially after oppressing me for more than three hundred years?

It was only later when I attended William Miller’s screenwriting class at Ohio University that I realized I had failed to explain this character. And I was hardly the first black South African writer to err in this regard. Since the motivations that we created for these Afrikaner characters were structural and institutional, we failed to explore the complex psychology that influenced an entire life course. Everything was laid out for us, like parts of a formula; there was no ambiguity. Everything fit with the model of an Afrikaner that had been established in our collective imagination; nothing more existed. I had, therefore, deprived the San Francisco critic of the pleasure of projecting his own feelings on the character’s motivations.

A friend of mine, the German filmmaker Pierre Hoffman, once told me that during apartheid he and his fellow European storytellers envied us because we had everything laid out for us in black and white, with a clear line of demarcation between heroes (black) and villains (white). Their confrontation was ready-made, already scripted by the state as its various agents (our characters) worked hard to enforce institutionalized racism. Hoffman’s was really a snide remark on our narrative strategies. Everything was indeed black and white: we ignored the grey areas, even though life taught us that they did exist.

Of course in the experience of a liberated South Africa we have come to appreciate the grey areas. Some of our politicians who were once larger-than-life heroes of the liberation struggle have turned out to be the worst villains—moral degenerates, rapists, and embezzlers. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings demonstrated that even some of those Afrikaners who were known to us as the most heartless agents of the apartheid state possessed redeeming qualities. We began to understand what drove the particular Afrikaner to torture and murder black youths when other Afrikaners did not, what made him a tool of the state’s violence when his neighbor was not. For the first time we had some idea of the motivational dynamics that drove these individuals, though we still found their behavior inexcusable and reprehensible.

Miller talked of justification: characters should not be formulaically drawn as “good” or “bad” but as persons who are understandable in light of their experiences. He said, “Once we understand someone’s past and see what has made him who he is, we see how what he does is psychologically—although not necessarily morally—justified.”

This statement encouraged me to develop my portrayal of my Afrikaner characters. I had to extend myself to understand the Afrikaner, to put myself in his place, and when I did, I found the humanity in him. For too long the brutality of the system that he had codified into law (racial discrimination, “color bar” as it was called, was first introduced by the British) had made it impossible for us to imagine the humanity of the Afrikaner.

The pursuit of psychological justification helped me create more effective villains. Evil, caprice, and a lunacy imposed by circumstance were no longer enough to explain the oppressor. He now became a complex individual acting out of the totality of his being.

It was not difficult to find humanity in those I found politically or morally reprehensible. When we black children of South Africa were growing up, we were taught by our parents, but especially by our grandparents, that we were not fully human until someone made us human. Humanity, our elders believed, was not something you were born with. Rather, it was endowed by other people. You were therefore a person because of other people. They called this philosophy ubuntu in the Nguni languages and botho in the Sotho languages. And how do others endow you with humanity? By giving you bounties of compassion and generosity. (I have since added tolerance to this list, but I do not remember our elders mentioning that particular virtue.) When you thanked someone who had been compassionate and generous to you, you uttered the words: “You have made me into a person.” As a beneficiary of ubuntu you had to make others into people, too, by showering them with compassion and generosity. Through deeds of compassion and generosity you could attain a high level of humanity, a level that enabled you to show ubuntu even to the enemy.

“You are not a person,” was an accusation often heard directed at the inconsiderate, mean-spirited, and stingy. Responsible parents instilled the values of ubuntu in their children, but many of us discarded them and replaced them with anger when we were faced with a world that had no place for compassion and generosity, or when we got “civilized” and adopted the Western value of individualism. Alternatively, we practiced selective ubuntu, making into persons only those we liked and confining the rest into the realms of nonpersonhood.

Ubuntu has always been the principle that guided my creativity, and it functioned in tandem with Miller’s justification. I have long sought to treat my fictional characters with compassion and generosity, even those who are selfish or in some way villainous. I have adopted a voice that does not judge them. I leave the judging to the readers or the audience. In my playwriting days I had never thought of extending that ubuntu to my Afrikaner characters. Having to justify them forced me to show ubuntu to them as well. Compassion and justification work in tandem: once you get to know a character, you understand the reason for his actions and are therefore able to justify him.

I began this essay with Coetzee because his work influenced my decision to write novels after twenty years of plays. I was a writer-in-residence at the Durham Cathedral in the United Kingdom when Age of Iron was published in 1990. It was quite a departure from Coetzee’s previous novels: less allegorical, more lyrical, less stark—more figurative language than we had seen before in his work. And for the first time in his fiction we heard black voices that were both articulate and diverse. At last Friday speaks! (Friday was his tongueless character in the highly intertextual and metafictional novel Foe.)

In Age of Iron I was drawn to a character named Vercueil. I found nothing remarkable about him except for the fact that he had quite a rich odor. Just the fact of the smell fascinated me. I said to myself: “If Coetzee can create such a stinking character, so can I.” And I did. But mine had to stink for different reasons. Through a process of justification Toloki, my stinking character, became a professional mourner, and later featured in my first novel, Ways of Dying. I must add that I did not find much justification for Vercueil. But that was fine because he was a mere device to help us understand the protagonist—Mrs. Curren—who was thoroughly justified.

Thanks to Coetzee I had written my first novel, and thanks to Miller’s insistence on justification I had come up with a professional mourner, an angel of death who has served me well in my latest novel, Cion.

The combination of justification and ubuntu was my guiding principle when I wrote The Madonna of Excelsior. I remembered a scandal that rocked the small farming community of Excelsior in the South African province of Orange Free State in 1970. A group of Afrikaner men were found to have had sexual relations with black women, a violation of the Immorality Act, punishable by a prison sentence. These white men were all pillars of the community. Among them were provincial leaders of the ruling National Party, the very party that had introduced the Immorality Act and other stringent apartheid laws. They were business men, leading farmers, and even the pastor of the local Dutch Reformed Church—the establishment church of the Afrikaners whose doctrine was that apartheid was God’s law. Their shenanigans were exposed when the black women gave birth to a number of mixed race children. The resulting case at the local magistrate’s court caused so much embarrassment to the government that it had to be withdrawn, and that was the end of the matter.

This scandal was by no means unique to Excelsior. During those years there was one case after another of white Afrikaner men contravening the Immorality Act in order to sleep with black women. I was reminded of it when I took an aimless drive among vast tracks of sunflower farms in the Free State. I wondered what had happened to the people of Excelsior in the new nonracial, nonsexist democratic South Africa. What happened to the mixed-race children, to the black women and the white men? I went back to Excelsior to find out and was intrigued by what I discovered there.

The Madonna of Excelsior was the first (perhaps, to-date, the only) novel by a black South African writer to extensively explore Afrikaner characters beyond the stereotypes of workplace boss, policeman, soldier, magistrate, and other agents of the oppressive apartheid state. Here we saw a range of characters, the good and the bad, functioning in family and home environments, people who had hopes and fears about the future. These characters were a result of my interaction with two real-life Afrikaners of Excelsior: a man who had been the lawyer for the Afrikaner men in the Immorality Act case and a young farmer who was born much later and was full of resentment because he had to pay for the sins of his fathers through affirmative action.

These were not the first Afrikaners I had known in my life. While a young man in exile, my best friend, Ali Semmelink, was an Afrikaner who had found apartheid so abhorrent that he left South Africa to live in Lesotho, where we met. Ali came from an Afrikaner family from the Cape, and was related by marriage to Andries Treunicht, well known in South Africa as an archconservative advocate for an even more stringent enforcement of apartheid laws. Yet Ali married a black Lesotho woman and they had three wonderful biracial children who are now adults.

This friendship and the research I conducted in Excelsior provided me with a better understanding of the interiority of the Afrikaner, which informed my novel. But in creating the fictional characters of The Madonna of Excelsior it was important that I not spell out their motivations and justifications explicitly to the reader, otherwise I would have ended up with characters that were simplistic and less intriguing.

The deadpan voice that I used in the novel was a result of my engagement with the paintings of the Flemish expressionist, Frans Claerhout, who relished in painting the vast landscapes of the Free State and the forlorn figures in naïve impasto. Claerhout saved me the trouble of describing the setting. Instead, each chapter opened with a description of a painting, and the figures in the painting, through a magical realist transformation, became the characters in my story. The humor and compassion that characterized Claerhout’s paintings transferred to my fiction. Since the story flowed from the paintings themselves, the voice had to be similarly naïve. While Coetzee draws on the Western canon, I used texts from my immediate sociopolitical context. This can be seen in The Heart of Redness as well, which features strong intertextuality with Jeff Peires’s The Dead Will Arise, with its voice that comes directly from the idiom of the Xhosa language, and also with the previously unrecorded texts of the oral traditions of my mother’s people, the Cwerha Gxarha clan that descended directly from the Khoikhoi, referred to as the Hottentots by the Dutch colonists.

I have always sought African forms of affiliation whenever they served my fiction well. In The Madonna of Excelsior, the idiom is from the Sesotho language. The matter-of-fact voice was not only informed by the Flemish expressionist but also by southern African folklore. It draws deeply from the storytelling modes that I learned from my grandmother, whose stories were set in our environment and featured characters we could recognize and identify with, yet who functioned in a world that imperceptibly became magical as the story developed. In my grandmother’s stories the supernatural existed comfortably with what could be called objective reality. I took early tentative steps towards integrating my grandmother’s magic in my literary fiction, though I did not have models in my own country for this sort of thing. Later I received permission to go as crazy with magic as I wished from the work of Gabriel García Márquez, who had learnt early on how to use his grandmother’s storytelling techniques.

Márquez’s novel Of Love and Other Demons had great impact on me. Set in the lush coastal tropics of an eighteenth-century South American seaport, it is the story of an ill-fated love affair between a Roman Catholic priest and a young girl, Sierva Maria. On her twelfth birthday she is bitten by a rabid dog, is believed to be possessed by evil spirits, and is confined to a convent where she undergoes exorcism. We learn that the girl had been brought up by African slaves with a mixture of Catholicism and Yoruba beliefs while her mother indulged in substance abuse and her father, a Marquis, wandered about the countryside aimlessly.

This is a dysfunctional family, described in a deadpan manner without authorial judgment, or judgment by the other characters in the narrative world. Even when Sierva Maria’s mother buys herself a slave and makes love to him on a regular basis the Marquis pretends not to know. I continue to hear my grandmother’s deadpan storytelling technique when the Marquis falls in love with a “lunatic” from the asylum and wants to marry her; when he is forced to marry a different woman from the nobility who stays a virgin for years because he doesn’t want to have children with her; and when, on the way from the funeral of the same woman after she has been struck by lightning, a storm of little paper birds falls like snow on the orange trees.

What I adore in this novel is that Márquez pushes realism to hyper-realistic extremes. He narrates magical happenings—just as my grandmother did—in a realist’s matter-of-fact narrative voice, and I, as a reader, never doubt the veracity of the events. Yet this is a highly socially and politically motivated fiction.

The book succeeds above all because of its deadpan, non-judgmental voice. It is the voice that I have tried to achieve in The Madonna of Excelsior and in all my other novels. That voice and the aspiration to justification are responsible for the portrayal of “the enemy” with empathy: as human.

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