Reading non-fiction across South Africa’s unfinished transition.
I began working on this project in 2007, a time I remember very clearly since I was starting my PhD and living in Johannesburg during the first great era of ‘load shedding’. I would pilot a tiny, bright green Isuzu buggy with a hole in the exhaust and no second gear up Constitution Hill and over the brow of Hillbrow, round the taxi rank and across the tracks to the Johannesburg Central Library.
After I had parked underground at GAME, found a desk and ordered up some books via a laborious card index system, the power in the whole CBD would invariably go down: all the traffic lights out, the city suddenly plunged into a mood of civic disorder but also a strange euphoria. I would then have to thread the Isuzu back through the chaos. Sometimes traffic police would roll down their window and say: ‘Your car…’ and I expected the worst because it was unroadworthy in so many ways. But the follow up would normally be: ‘I like your car. Is it for sale?’
Load shedding, then Polokwane and the downfall of Thabo Mbeki, then outbreaks of xenophobic violence against African nationals in 2008: it was a moment when the story of post-apartheid South Africa modulated into a more dissonant, diminished key. For some it was the onset of a more fractious and difficult ‘second transition’, as it became clear that the truths and reconciliations of the Mandela years were in some ways illusory, and that the 1990s project of social reckoning and reconstruction had not been nearly deep, honest or durable enough. As an over-stressed national grid struggled to cope and the rolling blackouts continued, it seemed like the whole national project was teetering on the edge of massive system failure. But there were also lots of nice candlelit dinners.
At the time, I was reading across a wide range of non-fiction from or about South Africa: dense and passionately researched biographies, memoirs, essays, narrative journalism, social history and more. I was overwhelmed by the ambition and richness of non-fictional forms across 20th century and contemporary South Africa, particularly since this is a place where the most important intellectual work has often taken place outside of formal institutions: in marginalised, covert, non-academic or exile spaces.
This book is an attempt to give more critical attention to all those kinds of writing that get classed under the dull and inadequate term ‘non-fiction’. It is drawn to those works which are not carriers of pre-existing information but creative treatments of actuality: restless, unstable and even experimental mixtures of the found and the imagined, the received and the wrought.
My alternate title for the book was ‘Unusable Pasts’, which is meant to signal all those stories that don’t fit easy templates of nationalist or public history-making. I am intrigued by those works that can in some way honour the strangeness and resistance that past lives and events should offer to our current desires and projections; that resist the crushingly predictable narrative shapes, orthodox vocabularies and punctual timescales of much public discussion; that seek to reveal human lives as complexly symptomatic of the past, not as simply emblematic of it.
At the heart of the project is Njabulo Ndebele’s insight that the death of apartheid (and the coming of democracy) should be imagined not as an event but a social process: on-going and uneven, happening in different ways and at different tempos, split across institutions and individuals, ranging from the most public languages to the finest tissues of subjectivity, and one that will reach across generations.