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KwaZulu-Natal Writers PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 05 March 2007 01:35

KwaZulu-Natal Writers

Pat Louw – University of Zululand


Who are KZN writers? Lindy Stiebel has addressed this question in her recent paper on literary tourism, and I have confronted it afresh in my work on the three writers: William Plomer, Daphne Rooke and John Conyngham. I don’t think Plomer would have considered himself a South African writer, much less a KZN one. In his biography of Plomer, Peter Alexander relates that:

In the years after he left South Africa in 1926, he would bristle if anyone described him as a South African; his birth there, he liked to say, was merely an accident, and he would quip, ‘I once had a cat which had kittens in the oven, but no one mistook them for biscuits. (Alexander 1990: 292)


Thus Plomer places his identity very firmly in England. However, he did live and write in South Africa and made an important contribution to the South African literary scene. The title of his first autobiography, Double Lives, reflects the way his early years alternated between Africa and England. He was born in Pietersburg, in 1903, and almost died of malaria soon afterwards. This caused his parents to take him to England, as they were warned that “if he were to reach his first birthday he would have to be taken to a better climate” (Alexander 1990: 1). This set up a pattern of alternating living between Africa and England which continued for some years. He spent a few happy school years at St John’s Johannesburg, and extremely unhappy ones at Beechmont in England, for example.


In claiming Plomer as a KZN writer therefore, we must share him, not only with England, but also with the different areas of South Africa. To use the old terminology, he lived in the Transvaal as well as the Eastern Cape. The time he spent in KZN was divided between Entumeni, near Eshowe, Zululand, and Sezela on the Natal South Coast, interspersed with brief trips to Durban. From the outset, the idea of the Zululand terrain captured Plomer’s imagination. When his father first received a letter about the Entumeni project, he sent this letter on to William, who was living on a sheep farm in the Molteno district at the time:

This letter he sent on to me, with the suggestion that if I liked the idea I should meet him in Natal; we could then go on together and see the place for ourselves. The first and most startling fact was that the place was described as ‘one of the oldest trading stores in Zululand’. Zululand! That was a word to quicken my interest, and raising my eyes from the letter to the bare and ochreous mountain over against the house at Marsh Moor I seemed to see a softer, warmer landscape of sub-tropical verdure springing from a more generous soil then that of what Pringle had called ‘Stormberg’s rugged fells’ (SA auto: 149).


Plomer’s expectations about the Zululand landscape were fulfilled when he and his father travelled up to see the trading store: 

We travelled north up the Natal coast from Durban by train through the cane-fields. The platforms of the little stations were thronged with Indians, and sometimes through a clearing in an orange grove or mango orchard could be seen some white temple, small and ornate. After we had crossed the swirling Tugela the train wound up the serpentine line through the fertile hills and a tunnel of ‘natural forest’ to Eshowe, the capital of Zululand.

Eshowe, by the way, is a word of three syllables, with each ‘e’ as in ‘end’ and the accented ‘o’ as in ‘show’. The name is onomatopoeic, to evoke the sound of a wind among leaves. A conspiracy of leaves, whispering, sighing, and muttering, surrounded the hotel where we spent the night. In the morning they were seen to be as dense as in a tropical scene by the Douanier Rousseau. The verandahs were caves of ferns, creepers, and flowering plants, and an immense avocado tree was covered with heavy and innumerable fruit. The continuous dulcifying rain, pattering among stiff or flexible foliage and dripping and dropping into overflowing cisterns, had gradually ceased, the hot sun rose, and while steam and fragrance rose from the earth we climbed into a rickety flivver with a young Norwegian, and drove out to Entumeni with chains on the tyres, churning at times through deep clay, red and gluey, up gradients of a remarkable steepness.

Perhaps Entumeni bewitched my father and me: it brought us into harmony for once (Plomer 1975: 150).


Life at the Entumeni trading store was not easy for the Plomers as it was considerably run-down when they first arrived there, and they had to work hard to improve conditions. However, it had its compensations. Plomer enjoyed the physical beauty of the young Zulu men and women who visited the store, and the company of a dignified old Zulu man who addressed him as “umtwana ka Kwini Victoli” (child of Queen Victoria)! He also writes lyrically about the landscape:


We were not too busy to enjoy very much the surrounding landscape. Open, fertile, and undulating, with clusters of dome-shaped African woven huts, with groves and thickets and streams and patches of cultivated land here and there, it was haunted by distinguished birds – toucans, hoopoes, humming birds – and by small mammals like the galago. It invited saunters of the ‘nature trial’ variety which we were not free to take. From the very first we were pleased with the climate, which never ran to extremes. Almost perpetual sunshine one took for granted, but at the end of a hot summer’s day, a dense, refreshing mist would sometimes rush upon us from the south and steep everything in an opaque and silvery silence (Plomer 1975: 155).


From this landscape emerged Plomer’s first major literary work, Turbott Wolfe. Zululand’s social landscape gave him the material on which to base his criticism of the racial divisions in South Africa. When the novel was published in 1926, it caused a ‘hullabaloo’. Plomer writes in his autobiography: “Turbott Wolfe had rubbed the open wound of South African racialism” (170). The publication of this novel also marked the end of Plomer’s sojourn at Entumeni. His entry into the world of writers with the publication of his novel was followed by his close association with another of KZN’s writers: Roy Campbell.


In describing his meeting with Roy Campbell, Plomer gives a brief description of the urban landscape of Durban in the 1920’s:

I invited him to lunch with me at Twine’s Hotel, where I used to put up. With its shady balconies overlooking the palm trees of the Esplanade – nowadays crammed with traffic, but quiet enough, in June 1925, for the passing jingle of a rickshaw-puller’s ornaments to be audible – the hotel had, like the Durban Club next door, an air of Victorian Colonial homeliness.


Plomer and Campbell got on well initially, and Campbell asked him to help him to produce a literary magazine, Voorslag. Consequently, Plomer joined Campbell and his wife, Mary at Umdoni Park, Sezela, on the South Coast of Natal, where they were living in a bungalow in the bush near the beach.  Umdoni Park was an estate belonging to a rich sugar-planter called Reynolds. The house the Campbell’s were staying in is described thus by Plomer:

It has a veranda on three sides and was built on a seaward slope overlooking the Indian Ocean. There was no garden: the house stood in a clearing in the bush, and steps led down in front to the railway line and a path of deep, dry, white sand through the bush to the beach, only a few yards away.


Peter Alexander describes the way of life of the Campbells and Plomer, based on an unpublished letter from Plomer to Edward Garnett in late 1925: 


In the afternoons they would walk in Umdoni Park, going down to the nearby beach to swim and fish, or take particular pleasure in strolling through the forest of umdoni trees that gave the place its name. These grew in a large valley, absorbing so much water with their roots that no other tree could grow with them: ‘umdoni’ is Zulu for ‘thirst-tree’. Smooth grass between the great trunks made the floor of the forest easy to walk on, and at intervals they came on patches of blue lobelias. Brilliantly coloured birds, sunbirds and rollers, flashed against the dark foliage, and small dark-eyed vervet monkeys peered out at the intruders; the effect was one of strange, dreamlike beauty (Alexander 1990: 101).


This was a period of intense creativity and intellectual activity for both Plomer and Campbell, but it was short-lived. A crisis in the management of Voorslag, and the conflict of views between Campbell and the sponsors, led to Campbell leaving Umdoni Park and going to Durban. Soon afterwards, Plomer left South Africa, as he had an opportunity to visit Japan with Louwrens van der Post.


Plomer never lived in South Africa again, but he visited it once more, in 1956 when he was invited to address a writer’s conference at the University of the Witwatersrand. When the conference ended, he revisited Entumeni, and found it “greatly changed and improved”. “It was a strange, disconcerting experience,” he wrote. “I could not imagine how we ever went there or stayed as long as we did.” The contrast between the wealth and poverty of the inhabitants of South Africa, and the police violence which he witnessed, appalled him.


‘Men being absent, Africa is good,’ he was to write in one of the remarkable poems the visit sparked off. The beauty of the country impressed him anew, and he was soon describing himself as ‘a returning exile’, though what he called ‘the dryness and the staring sun’ made him long for English clouds again (Alexander 1990: 295).


Plomer was a highly versatile writer. Apart from his novel he wrote much poetry, he was a reader for Jonathan Cape and wrote librettos for Benjamin Britten’s operas. Some critics feel however, that his withdrawal from Africa and the landscapes in which he lived there had a detrimental effect on his imagination, and in referring to the poem “The Taste of the Fruit”, Alexander writes:

Much the most moving of Plomer’s late poems, its power makes inescapable the sense that Plomer had risked impoverishing himself aesthetically by cutting himself off from South Africa, and that even a brief return to the country had enriched him (Alexander 1990: 297).


From Plomer I must turn to a younger contemporary of his, Daphne Rooke, who was born in 1914. Rooke has a few things in common with Plomer. Like him, she was born in the Transvaal – in Boksburg. Her grandfather founded Pietersburg, the town where Plomer was born. During the 1930’s she worked as a journalist in South Africa, but moved to Australia after marrying Irvin Rooke, an Australian. She later moved to England. Rooke’s novels include A Grove of Fever Trees, published in 1946, Mittee, published in 1951 and Ratoons, published in 1953. Like Plomer, she wrote a novel dealing with an inter-racial relationship: Greyling’s Daughter. This was banned by the South African government. After this banning she stopped exploring themes of identity and psychological conflict, and turned to themes of historical interest, such as Diamond Joe, which is set in Kimberley.


The KZN landscapes which Rooke commemorates in her literary work are, similar to Plomer, that of Zululand, Durban and the Natal South Coast. In particular, the landscape of Zululand seemed to be the catalyst which caused her creativity to unfold. Having grown up in Durban, and lived on the South Coast of Natal, she went to stay with her married sister on a farm in the Mkuze district of Zululand. This was because her mother, who was used to the bushveld of the Transvaal, didn’t like the lush vegetation of the coastal area.


In her introduction to A Grove of Fever Trees, Rooke describes the farm lying at the foot of the mountain, Tshaneni, which “has the look of a sphinx gazing out over the thornveld.” This is part of the Ubombo or Lebombo mountains, and one can see this mountain on the way to Mkuze.


Rooke was over thirty when she wrote the book, and was living in Johannesburg at the time. She says:

I wrote the story in an exercise book but put it aside because it was stilted. One morning, strap-hanging in a crowded bus on my way to the city, a sentence sprang into my mind: The thornveld rolls across the valley to the slopes of the Lebombo Mountains. That sentence unlocked a door. I knew exactly how the book should be written. When I tackled the story again I went on without faltering (Rooke 1989: 8).


Although the book deals mainly with difficult human relationships and family conflict, it is interesting that it was the description of place that was the turning point in the process of Rooke’s creativity.


The world that Rooke describes in this novel is a wild and violent one. In contrast to Plomer’s Zululand, hers is more wild and violent. She says:

At night from the ridge behind the cattle kraal you could hear hyenas laughing and sometimes there was the roar of lions in the dry bed of the Umsunduzi. The place teemed with snakes. There was a variety but usually we came across the izimfezi – black cobras I think they were. They often came into the houses and several people were bitten. We lost dogs and cattle to the snakes. I used to think of the Zulus in their huts at night, lying still when they knew an imfezi had entered and then softly touching the nearest person as a warning. The presence of the snakes put an edge on our lives. There was a sense of horror and constant watchfulness. At a tennis party I saw a woman get up and slaughter a puffadder with her racquet. She returned to her seat coolly, wiped the racquet on the grass and continued with her conversation. (7)


It is the incongruity of the wild surroundings and the sedate tennis-playing social world that makes the action of the woman above shocking and almost amusing in a grotesque way. This grotesque element recurs in the novel. It is as if the violence of the non-human world causes a corresponding wildness in the human behaviour of her characters. Snakebites, murder and hatred coexist in this world with the sphinx-like mountain and ghostly fever trees. The narrator describes the view from the mountain:


I have often stood on the great peak called Tshaneni and looked out across the arid basin. One can see the dark green of Major Elliot’s parklands and here and there the paleness of those sinister trees that the Germans named Ghost trees. Old Elliot hated the Ghost trees. He uprooted them from his land and planted acres of jacaranda and flamboyant. (10)


Rooke shows clearly here how the landscape is uprooted and changed by colonial intervention. The bright blues and reds of the exotic trees seem to indicate an attempt on the part of Major Elliot to blot out the natural colours of the African vegetation – to take over and especially to eradicate the Ghost trees, which seem to unlock him such an extreme reaction. It is as if the trees give a ‘sinister’ reminder of the Africa that is being suppressed by the newcomers, but which is waiting quietly for revenge.


The other novel set in Natal by Rooke is Ratoons, published in 1953. In an article on “The evolving depiction of Indians in South African fiction, Federick Hale(1986) writes: “Daphne Rooke’s Ratoons occupies a unique place in South African literary history as the first significant English novel that deals to a great degree with Indians in Natal.” This novel is strongly autobiographical, and it deals with her childhood years in rural Natal. Her family moved to a sugar cane farm called Longacres during the First World War. It was situated an hour’s journey by rail from Durban.


Although the canefields of the Natal south coast do not offer the wildness of the lion and hyena-infested territory of northern Zululand, the threat of snakes is similarly present. She conveys this threat in vivid kinaesthetic imagery:

Aunt Lucy always spent a month with us during the winter and for the rest of the year she lived in her big, ugly house on the Berea. She chose the cool weather for her visit because she had a horror of snakes. Once she had trodden on a puff-adder that lay beneath a newspaper. I was a baby when this happened but I know by heart what her feelings were when she put her bare foot on that paper. (Rooke 1990: 31)


The sense of horror is combined with a grotesque sense of humour as Aunt Lucy has another encounter with a puff-adder. The narrator shook with ‘a convulsion of laughter’ when she saw the snake so near to her Aunt, and enjoyed seeing her run up the veranda steps at a great pace. Rooke’s places are coloured by this combination of horror and comedy – descriptions of fearful experiences and laughter at the people who are unable to cope with them. Hale writes:

Few characters escape unscathed under Rooke’s acid pen. She has a keen eye for the human depravity which vastly outweighs the benevolence one might expect after readng her introduction to the South African edition. Indeed, much of Ratoons is written in the blood of assault and homicide, and the frenetic pace of this novel is fuelled by the vitriol of racial hatred. (Hale 1986: 2)


In contrast to the horror of the snakes we have the beauty of the sugar cane fields, which provide the setting and the central metaphor for this novel. The narrator describes them:

I like to remember those slow walks through the cane. There you have in your ears the sound of sighing cane and surf. In September when the rains come you see the green on the newly planted fields. At first it is only a tinge of green, but as the stools of cane take shape they look like a silken cover on the lands. When the year is out and the cane has been harvested the hillsides are brown beneath their burden of trash; and you wait again for the rains. Beneath the soil there takes place a wonder of regrowth as the ratoons spring from the cane-roots to make the fields green once more. It is then that the red flowers fall from the kaffirboom and leaves like hearts grow from the thorny branches. (Rooke 1990: 9)


Hearts and thorns, trash and silk, these are the elements of the place that Rooke creates in this novel. The new growth of the ratoons provide the sense of hope in this world of conflict and destruction.


The Natal sugar cane fields are central to the last novel which I shall discuss in this paper, and that is The Arrowing of the Cane, by John Conyngham. With this novel we are brought up to the present day, and to a writer who may be said to be truly a KZN writer.  Conyngham was born in Durban 40 years after Rooke was born, and lives in Pietermaritzburg, where he is currently the editor of the Natal Witness. Like Rooke, he spent his childhood on a sugar farm, but this was on the North Coast, near Kearsney, inland from Stanger.  Like Plomer, his schooling has alternated between Africa and Britain, having studied at Hilton College, Natal, and Haileybury College in Hertfordshire in England. Similarly his tertiary education took place in Pietermaritzburg, the University of Natal and Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied Anglo-Irish Literature. He has also went to St Petersburg, Florida when he won a scholarship to study at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.


The Arrowing of the Cane was published by Ad Donker in 1986 and was the joint winner of the 1985 AA Mutual Life/Ad Donker Vita Award, and winner of the 1988 Olive Shreiner Prize and the 1989 Sanlam Award. It was republished by Bloomsbury, Simon and Shuster in New York, and was translated into Swedish, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Conyngham has published two other novels: The Desecration of the Graves in 1991, which was short-listed for the 1991 M-Net Award, republished by Bloomsbury, and translated into Spanish; and The Lostness of Alice, which was published by Ad Donker in 1998.


In my opinion, The Arrowing of the Cane is one of the most evocative novels to have been set in KZN. Not only does it give a sense of landscape, but it also gives the atmosphere of the time – the time of political uncertainty and the threat of racial violence.  I will close with a quotation:

The cane is nearer now, just below the azaleas. Its expectant hush, like that of an impi before battle, buffets me as I pour my penultimate tot. Brutus snuffles out of the darkness, collapsing at my feet and begins to lick himself noisily. In the distance near KwaZulu several fires slit the darkness, their lengthening glows conjuring the advancing arrows into jagged silhouettes. I pour my last tot, a double. The cane is nearer still. Like a guileful predator stalking its prey, it advances whenever I am not looking, then freezes under my stare. With the hum cool and distant I have no ally. I must merely watch as my immobile attacker nears. Or conduct a tactical retreat, a retrograde action, which I do, moving through to my study as previously scripted.

…The arrowing cane has reached the veranda, its vanguard hushing along the flagstones. Both the mill lights and those of the company houses have disappeared, leaving only the filtered glows of the fires. Suffused with the orange light the plumes nod menacingly through the shutters like villains in a shadow play.

   My time has played out; only the depositing of the cylinder hasn’t yet run the gauntlet of the ratchets. The wheel keeps on turning, the film snickers on, tugging me into the eyepiece. I must be going now.



Alexander, P.F. 1990. William Plomer: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Conyngham, J. 1986. The Arrowing of the Cane. Cape Town: AD. Donker.

                       1990. The Desecration of the Graves. Cape Town: AD. Donker.                 

                        1998. The Lioness of Alice. Cape Town: AD Donker.

Plomer, W. 1993. (1926). Turbott Wolfe. Cape Town: AD. Donker.

1975. The South African Autobiography. Cape Town: Africasouth Paperbacks. 

                  1984. Selected Stories. Cape Town: David Philip.

Raymond, S. 1988. “An Assessment of William Plomer’s Writing.” Unpublished thesis.

Rooke, D. 1989 (1946). A Grove of Fever Trees. Diep River: Chameleon Press.

               1990 (1953) Ratoons. Diep River: Chameleon Press.         

               1957  Wizard’s Country