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KZN Literary Tourism reviews contemporary South African fiction and poetry.  Reviews are done by academics and members of our KZN literary community (contact us if you would like to review for us).  View reviews as articles or list.

Shakespeare and the Coconuts on postapartheid South African culture PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 13 March 2013 09:54

By Natasha Distiller
Review by Marko Rezajkula

This book explores the complex and relevant concept of cultural identity in post-colonial or post-apartheid South Africa. Distiller does this by examining South Africa’s long standing and complicated relationship with the English language and Shakespeare as a signifier of that culture and literary education. She illustrates this through South Africa’s rich Shakespearean literary and political history, dating back to the early colonial mission schools, claiming that important writers and thinkers had an intellectual as well as emotional connection to his writings.

The term “coconut” in its rawest form indicates someone who is black on the outside and white on the inside, and according to Distiller is a concept reliant on old colonial-Apartheid binary logic in which one is “either/or”. Either authentically African and everything it entails, or European/white and everything associated with it. This binary logic is easily understandable due to the ongoing socio-economic inequality, as well as the violent and oppressive past.  With this book she hopes to reclaim the coconut by attempting “to challenge the negative implications of the accusation of ‘coconuttiness’, while still retaining an awareness of the histories of power that gave the term its bite.”  This “reclaimed coconuttiness” is a version of South Africanness , which cannot be captured by binary logic, and is rooted in the country’s history, yet rarely acknowledged.

The book’s investigation of the complex history of English and Shakespeare in South Africa since the mission schools  and what it meant for the new class of Africans, concludes that owning these, was not only a means of social, economic and personal advancement  during colonial times but also useful for opposing the  Apartheid system. Many local writers, notably Solomon Plaatje, appropriated Shakespeare as a means of shaping their political views, which aimed to attack the colonial system by illustrating its shortcomings, as well as a means  of preserving their own local culture and language. Such is the example of Plaatlje’s translation of A Comedy of Errors into Setwana.  These writers show that there existed a rich Shakespearean tradition in South Africa.

The use of Shakespeare in post-apartheid South Africa, however, reinforces  values we should be moving away from  and which are very limiting in terms of the possibility of a South African identity. Some writers emphasized   the rejection of colonial imports and history in search of an authentic African literature and experience. Such a view promotes the idea that the figure of the ‘coconut’ is an agent of ‘whiteness’ who will inevitably suppress or reject his or her African roots in hope of socio-economic advancement or acceptance. However, the idea that, “To be black one cannot own English and modernity is reductive and ignorant of a very rich and important local history.” Other writers attempted to draw parallels between Elizabethan England and Africa which, despite its intention, depicted African life as premodern, chaotic or barbaric. Such parallels invoked the justification of the colonial system rather than questioned its implementation.


Spud – Exit, Pursued by a Bear PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 10 December 2012 08:58

By John van de Ruit
Review by Tomas Masojada

Before reading the book, the title suggests that there shall be some sort of ending and finality about it. The quote, “Exit, Pursued by a Bear”, is one that John Milton (Spud) and his English teacher (The Guv) – a poetry fanatic - often announce to each other and is extracted from Shakespeare’s play, A Winter’s Tale. The quote has reference to death in this play but on the other hand it is an appropriate title for the fourth “Spud” book because it refers to his departure from school and the end of his final year. The title also implies that this may be the last book in the series that has delighted so many young readers.

The novel is written from the point of view of the protagonist – Spud Milton – and records his daily life as a student as well as his hilarious time at home in his diary.The entire series is targeted at a younger age group between the ages of 13 and 18 as it captures teenagers’ minds. Thirteen year olds are about to encounter High School and for them the “Spud” series provides a wildly exaggerated version of what high school will be like, thus increasing their excitement and eagerness. This is not to say that readers over this age group would not enjoy this popular series. An informal register is used as it is a personal diary format.

John van de Ruit’s ability to empathise with this student has made this book and series such a great success. This strength has allowed readers to feel the pressure that Spud feels throughout his grade 12 year and gives us the ability to relate to the boy that most South African teenagers now know so well.

I found the previous Spud novel, Learning to fly, not as great as I anticipated it would be. However, Exit, Pursued by a Bear was a huge improvement and I thoroughly enjoyed it.


The English Major’s Daughter, PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 07 November 2012 12:42

By Rubendra Govender

Review by Betty Govinden

From the very first page of the novel, The English Major’s Daughter,  by Rubendra Govender [Bambata Publishing 2012], we realize with some horror that we are dealing with a rather “dysfunctional” family.  Indeed, the epithet has become somewhat staid these days.  As the story unfolds, and to the very last page,  we appreciate that  there are many layers of dysfunctionality.

The patriarch of the family has the rather high-sounding name of  MAJOR RONALD PARKER-SWANN.  He  gives his self-description as “Major Parker-Swann, Retired British Intelligence Officer, and Special Forces Combat-Trained Soldier, now Resident in Bazley Beach.” But  he is hardly the commanding male figure or adequate role model that his name might suggest. Major, as he is called, even  by his wife and daughter, is  aberrant,  erratic, bumptious, double-dealing, dishonest, exploitative,  racist and sexist – one of T S Eliot’s “hollow men”.   Major has reduced his wife, Majorie, to becoming an alcoholic wimp, being  totally loveless and manipulative towards her and their  daughter. Marjorie  kowtows to her husband’s every whim, and succumbs without contestation to this suffocating and oppressive relationship.

The family, which comprises Major, Marjorie and Caroline, the teenage daughter,  are expatriates from England, and had settled in Kenya.  But they are “expatriates” is a deeper sense in that they do not have a sense of belonging, a sense of home. Even the domestic space they share is hardly an inner sanctum providing shelter from the vicissitudes of the world outside. By the early 1990’s they decide to move at short notice to South Africa.  Major does seem “out of place” in Africa, and is only interested in it as an exotic destination and  how it will serve his own selfish interests. It is clear that Major has decided to come to South Africa more out of expediency, for what he  can extract from it:


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