The role of literature is always to speak the truth to power (Nietzsche), and even if it cannot pretend to ameliorate material problems it appears to have impact on the way readers respond to reality and even perhaps behave in the real world.
South African literature written during or after the TRC shows an increased interest in conceiving of the individual and communal subject in more complex terms than were offered under apartheid, and reach far beyond the old dichotomies of individual and society, fiction and reality, innocence and guilt. Space and time, too, are more often shown as crisscrossed with the movements and histories of others. The text itself is also more often haunted by questions about its own relation to representation.
This essay considers work written by several of South Africa’s major fiction writers who straddle the period of transition from apartheid to post-apartheid. Largely focusing on Nadine Gordimer, Njabulo Ndebele, Ivan Vladislavić and Zoë Wicomb, I comment on their vision of the role of literature, and on their practice. I also consider some of the prevailing critical assumptions current in post-apartheid South Africa, from naïve demands for optimism to critically sophisticated analyses of writers’ explorations of the ethical and psychic conditions of post-apartheid existence.