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Nadine Gordimer's Politics

In Johannesburg, in 1949—the year I turned seventeen—my mother and three or four others launched a publishing company called Silver Leaf Books. It did not last long. It published only three books, two of which were soon forgotten. The third, Face to Face, was a volume of short stories by a young writer named Nadine Gordimer. The title did not become widely known, but the stories did. The collection was soon republished in New York under a new title: The Soft Voice of the Serpent.

Nadine Gordimer, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, was born in the small town of Springs on the Witwatersrand, where her father, a Latvian-Jewish immigrant, had a jeweler’s and watchmaker’s business. When I first met her in Johannesburg in 1949 she was married to Gerald Gavron. His family, the Gavronskys, were of Lithuanian-Jewish origins, like my own. (A cousin of his, Helen Gavronsky, became famous and much honored as Mrs. Helen Suzman for her persistent stand against apartheid in the South African parliament.)

Nadine and Gerald divorced. While living in a small flat with her infant daughter, Nadine wrote her first novel, The Lying Days, which was published to great acclaim. Its epigraph is a quotation from W.B. Yeats:

Though leaves are many, the
  root is one;
Through all the lying days of my
I swayed my leaves and flowers
  in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.

She was still in her twenties when she “withered into the truth.” From then on, her rise was steady and steep.

She remarried in the early 1950’s. Her second husband, Reinhold Cassirer, belonged to the well-known German-Jewish family which included the philosopher Ernst Cassirer. Reinhold’s mother was known for her marvelous collection of Impressionist paintings. Reinhold himself was a businessman, divorced, the father of three children. He and Nadine had a son.

The Cassirers bought a house in Parktown, one of the older of the grand suburbs to the north of the city. They live in it still. Its walls are white, its roof, windows, and doors black: a somewhat austere house, outside and in, though the pictures are original Impressionists. It stands on a height and has a grand view northward over a wide valley. In the center of the lawn rises a small rocky koppie—a hillock—overgrown with stiff wild grasses: an intrusion of Africa in the European suburban garden.

Marriage, childbirth, travel, moving house—none of these interrupted Nadine’s steady output. Book after book appeared, one every two years or so, in a regular pattern, novels alternating with collections of stories. In recent years there have also been some collections of speeches, lectures, articles. The leaves have been many indeed.



Nadine Gordimer has said that she writes about people, not ideas; but her work has a large political content, not simply because she has dealt with her own contemporary reality, which was the reality of apartheid, but because she has long been troubled about whether, and how, the races in South Africa can and should live together.

In 1959, when she thought of herself as one of the liberal minority threatened by two opposing nationalisms—white supremacism and Africanism—she wrote an essay entitled “Where Do Whites Fit In?” In it she asked, “What are we to do? Shall we go? Shall we leave Africa?” Some wanted to leave at that time, she noted, and some “have gone already.” She herself, she said, fluctuated between a desire to be gone and a desire to stay.

She did stay, but many of us left.

Indeed, in 1960, whites began to depart in droves. It was a crucial year in South African politics. In March, 67 black demonstrators were shot dead by the police at a protest demonstration in the township of Sharpeville. Soon afterward I was visited by an acquaintance, a Jewish academic and Trotskyite revolutionary, who told me that an underground terrorist organization was being formed which he urged me to join. His reasoning, in brief, was this: it was obvious that peaceful means would not bring about the radical change that was required. If I wanted proof, I need look no further than the failure of my own father, Bernard Friedman.

As a member of parliament, my father had tried to persuade the opposition United party to adopt firmly anti-racist policies, but the party refused, so he resigned from it. He also then honorably resigned his seat in parliament and stood for reelection as an independent in his own constituency, the mainly Jewish district of Hillbrow, supposedly one of the most liberal in white South Africa. A number of young Left-radicals tried to help him win. They wanted his voice to be heard in parliament, and had he managed to be reelected, they might have waited to see if he could rally behind him a new and stronger opposition. But he lost the election by a few hundred votes.

Did that not show, my Tempter argued, that most whites were going over to the Nationalists, the party of oppression? Armed struggle was the only way. If I had ever been serious about wanting to change South Africa, I must act now with him and his group. It would be dangerous, but the cause was worth dedicating one’s life to. It was, he reminded me, the cause of “justice and humanity.”

I asked him whom they would attack. Anyone, he replied; that was the nature of this kind of warfare. Strikes had to be random, in order for it to become known that anyone at all could be the victim at any moment. “Children, too?” I asked. Both he and I had them. “Yes,” he said, “children, too.”

I took my children to England. We were settled in London when one morning I read in the newspapers that a time-bomb had been placed in the Johannesburg train station and had killed a woman and maimed a child for life. Later I heard that my would-be Tempter was among those arrested and charged with the crime. In due course he was sentenced to a long term of imprisonment, and his chief accomplice, an Englishman, was hanged.



Over the next two to three decades South Africa became the most reviled state in the world. Of all bad governments, South Africa’s was deemed to be the worst. Anti-racism became a major political cause in the West, especially in the United States. At the same time, and partly as a result, the African National Congress—the ANC—gained popularity in Western Europe and America.

Formed in 1912 as a pacific movement to work toward black emancipation in South Africa, the ANC had been taken under the wing of the Communist party in the early 1930’s; it was banned in 1960, as the Communist party itself had been ten years earlier. From then on the ANC became dedicated to violent means, the “armed struggle.” In the 1970’s and 1980’s it was funded generously by the Soviet Union, Scandinavian governments, and the World Council of Churches. Its Communist ideology and Soviet connection did it little harm in the West. Nor did the fact that its adherents in South Africa were exploding bombs prevent governments from seeking to establish friendly relations with its exiled leaders.

The view from abroad was that as the white South African government was the bad guy, the ANC—the only widely-known black South African resistance movement—must be the good guy. Its imprisoned leader, Nelson Mandela, became the most famous and favored political martyr in the world. Popular opposition to apartheid rose everywhere, issuing in sports and cultural boycotts, sanctions, the withdrawal of air services, the picketing of South African embassies, a campaign of divestment. Has ever public disgust expressed itself so universally, so persistently, so passionately, so actively?1

As South Africa rose ever higher in the world’s consciousness, so did Nadine Gordimer’s reputation. I do not mean to imply that her reputation rose only because of the strong political stand she had herself taken against the South African regime; but politics hugely enhanced that reputation.



By the time I began to revisit my South African family regularly in the later 1970’s, Nadine had lost sympathy with liberalism and had become a “radical.” I myself found that some things in the country had changed for the better; most noticeably there was a rise in black prosperity. Nadine and Reinhold disagreed with me that this was a good thing. Reinhold said, “The blacks should not become prosperous. It would be better if they became poorer because then they would make revolution.”

In December 1976, the Cassirers invited us to their farm, which lay some miles to the west of Johannesburg (it is the original of the farm in Nadine’s novel The Conservationist). That evening Nadine took me for a walk through the fields and we talked about terrorism, a subject in which I had begun to specialize. She asked me about Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the Italian aristocrat, publisher, and left-wing revolutionary, whom she had met. How had he come to blow himself up while trying to bomb a pylon in northern Italy—was it deliberate or accidental? Nobody knew for sure, I responded, but it was almost certainly accidental. Was it true that he had been a patron of terrorist groups in Western Europe? Yes, it was true.

We then went on to speak of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who recently had been expelled from the Soviet Union and had spent the first few days of his freedom in West Germany with his fellow Nobel laureate, Heinrich Böll. Relations between them had quickly become strained and Solzhenitsyn had hurried away. (Perhaps, I thought but did not say, Boll had patiently tried to explain the glories of socialism to Solzhenitsyn and found him obstinately unreceptive.) Nadine and I both expressed surprise that anyone ever thought the two of them would get along. But whereas my sympathies were with the Russian for his stand against the Soviet regime and his years in the gulag, hers were with Böll.



During one of my visits, Nadine took me to a meeting of the Johannesburg branch of International PEN. At such meetings, she said, writers read passages of their own work, often works which were banned. The first reader that afternoon was a black poet. (“He belongs to what I call the motherfucker school of poetry,” she had warned me.) Nadine herself read a piece from one of her novels that had been temporarily banned or embargoed. Then it was my turn. She introduced me and told the audience about the banning of one of my books. “So she has suffered too,” she said.2

Nadine was an enthusiast for PEN. Not long after that meeting, however, when I was back in London, she cast her vote with a majority of members for the dissolution of the Johannesburg branch. The membership had been swollen by more black writers—some of whom had been enrolled without having published the number or type of works required by the rules of International PEN; and the black members, themselves under political pressure, insisted that PEN be dissolved on the grounds that it was a “white institution.” A number of white members, including Nadine, bowed their heads and the branch was closed.

The action was argued against, courteously and cogently, by Lionel Abrahams, a poet, critic, editor, teacher of creative writing, and outspoken opponent of the regime. In a series of articles that appeared in a South African literary journal, Abrahams took one side while a supporter of closure took the other. I collected the articles and sent them to International PEN in London (to which I then belonged), asking that they be republished in PEN’s own journal so that members in the wider world might discuss what had happened in Johannesburg. I expected the issue to arouse immediate interest and lively debate, since International PEN runs campaigns for freedom of speech. But my request was brushed aside.



In the mid-1980’s, I spoke on television from time to time on questions concerning international terrorism. My view was—and is—that there is no cause, actual or conceivable, which justifies the use of terrorism; to condone it in any circumstances is to co-author it. Directly or by implication I condemned the violence of the ANC.

Once, after I had said something of the sort on a South African television program, Reinhold Cassirer met a cousin of mine in Johannesburg and asked her: “Aren’t you appalled at what Jillian has been saying about the ANC?” “Not at all,” my cousin replied, “I agree with her.” “But doesn’t she know,” Reinhold demanded, “that Hitler was a terrorist?” “Of course she knows,” my defender replied, “that’s why she called her book on German terrorists Hitler’s Children.” But Reinhold was not mollified. To him “terrorism” was an unjustifiable activity which could only be committed by the Right; the Left, whatever means it used, was always justified by the ends it pursued and therefore by definition could not be guilty of terrorism.

The terrorism of the ANC had not crippled the regime, but bombs had killed a great many people, mostly black. Then, in the 1980’s a new horror was practiced by the militants in the townships: “neck-lacing.” A tire, filled with gasoline, was hung around the neck of the victim and set on fire. Men, women, and children as young as nine years old were burned to death by this method. Winnie Mandela, Nelson’s wife, held up a box of matches at a rally of ANC supporters and said that with these they would liberate the country.

The victims of necklacing were described as “collaborators” or “informers.” According to the burners, black policemen were the worst offenders. Other blacks were “collaborators” only in the sense that they had succeeded—against all odds—in business, or had become mayors of their townships; still others were wives, girlfriends, or children. On the principle of “no prosperity before revolution,” all were to be made afraid of taking any route to change except the one laid down by the ANC.

As long as the ANC was banned and its leaders imprisoned or in exile, its sympathizers reacted to condemnation of barbarities like necklacing by saying that “black-on-black violence is not the issue.” After the ban was lifted, the outbreak of murderous clashes in the townships between the ANC and the supporters of the Inkatha movement led by Chief Buthelezi resulted in a change of view. Black-on-black violence, ANC leaders now said, was a central issue. They demanded that the government do more to stop it, and accused the police (not without evidence) of inciting and assisting Inkatha. Still, to the Marxist ideologues in and close to the ANC, their own violence was good violence.

Among those Marxist ideologues, by this time, was Nadine Gordimer. In the course of her career she has written passionately against the burning of books; but she has not, as far as I can discover, written or spoken publicly against the burning of people.



It seems Nadine is not entirely comfortable explaining her own ideas directly. In a lecture she gave at the New York Institute of the Humanities, Nadine remarked: “Nothing I say here will be as true as my fiction.” The lecture was delivered in 1982, but it was republished in essay form as recently as 1989. In it she expounded her view—not contradicted in subsequent speeches and essays—that there is a need to have faith in socialism. Her argument, even if it is not “as true” as her fiction, deserves to be taken seriously, not least because there are still many intellectuals who find it difficult to accept that Marx has been proved wrong and the system bearing his name evil, and who continue to cling to some remnant of the old dream, for the same reasons that she does, out of the same desire.

In this lecture, Nadine conceded that she has been hesitant to criticize “the Communist system” because that can be understood, in South Africa, as a defense of the capitalist system “which has brought forth the pact of capitalism and racism that is apartheid.” Besides, in South Africa there were detentions, banishments, uprootings “to match, if not surpass” the gulag.

The example of South Africa, in other words, showed that capitalism was as bad as, or worse than, Communism. Yet Nadine also pointed out that South Africa’s capitalism “has been unlike anyone else’s,” because of the “many limitations” it placed on free enterprise by blacks.

The question she did not address was: could a system be called capitalist when the majority were hindered from participating in it? Implementation of the race laws required both the control of labor (job reservation, internal passports, work permits, etc.) and severe restrictions on the use of capital. Internal investment was limited by, for instance, the Group Areas act, which forbade members of any one racial group to own an equal or majority share in any enterprise or real estate situated in an area reserved for another racial group; and there was a general prohibition on investment outside of the rand currency area because the authorities feared an outflow of capital to the freer economies. In short, in its control of the lives of individuals, and particularly in its control of their economic life, apartheid bore a much closer resemblance to socialism than to capitalism. But this was not Nadine’s understanding.

Nor, in her view, would an “alternative” or “reformed” capitalism be desirable in a future, non-racial South Africa—the reason being that capitalism’s “avowed self-perpetuation of advancement for the many by creation of wealth for the few does not offer any hope to fulfill the ultimate promise of equality.” And, for her, “equality” remained the ideal. The way to that ideal, she asserted, was the path historically associated with Communism or state socialism. To be sure, this would have to be a reformed or “alternative” branch of socialism, since the other kind “since 1917 has turned out not to be just or humane either, has failed this promise even more cruelly than capitalism.” Still, only socialism upheld the ideal of equality, it alone could bring about “social justice.”

Yet was not the very attempt to create economic and social equality the cause of disaster? She did not deny it, but suggested that the attempt must have been made in the wrong way. Nor did she say how else it might be tried, only that some way could and should be discovered. An attempt had failed, but there must be another: “we must pick up the blood-dirtied, shamed cause of the Left and attempt to recreate it in accordance with what it was meant to be, not what 65 years of human power perversion have made of it.” Indeed, unless the West moved toward this unknown socialism, it would never be forgiven by the third world:

This is where your responsibility to the third world meets mine. Without the will to tramp toward that possibility, no relations of whites, of the West, with the West’s formerly subject peoples can ever be free of the past, because the past, for them, was the jungle of Western capitalism.



I disagree with all this. I recognize, of course, that Nadine feels as she does because she has lived among racial inequalities cruelly maintained by centralized control, and I believe that her desire for equality springs from generosity of spirit. But my heart sinks at her asking that lives be experimented with—yet again!—in vain attempts to realize an intellectual dream; and I do not share her dream. I cannot see how any sort of socialism can be compatible with freedom, or how without freedom there can be prosperity.

There is a danger that Nadine’s beliefs may influence the leaders of today’s ANC—of which she is a member—and will not help them face the necessity of reformulating their ideology and their program. Instead of being urged to “tramp toward” some socialist “possibility,” they need to abandon their schemes for nationalization, redistribution of wealth, and so on—the whole ragbag of ideological hand-me-downs they were loaded with under Communist tutelage—in readiness for participating in the government of a new South Africa. Nadine has called for whites to contribute their thoughts to the shaping of “a new kind of posited community, nonracial but conceived with and led by blacks.” If all those thoughts should lead only to another doomed and quite possibly violent experiment in socialism, the majority of South Africans will have a long wait yet for the morning.


1 Or so selectively. In all those years there was no similar public expression of feeling in the West against the Communist countries, where torture, slave labor, arbitrary imprisonment, summary execution were being carried out on a scale that dwarfed, even though it could not diminish, the wickedness practiced in South Africa.

2 That book of mine, first published in London, continued to be under ban in South Africa for years, until a Cape Town publisher applied for and won its release when the mildly reformist Botha government came to power. I had not much minded the banning because, as I said at the time, to have one's books banned in South Africa made one a self-respecting writer. In fact, all my books, fact and fiction, were banned or embargoed during a certain period. I did not see this as a cause of suffering—I suppose I had become too detached from South Africa by then—although I appreciated Nadine's sympathy.

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