South African literature, literary works written in South Africa or written by South Africans living in other countries. Populated by diverse ethnic and language groups, South Africa has a distinctive literature in many African languages as well as Afrikaans (a vernacular derived from Dutch) and English.
See also African literature.
Although Afrikaans had emerged as a distinctive language by the mid-18th cent., Dutch remained the official language in government and was compulsory in the schools. The pressure of nationalism led finally to the legal recognition of Afrikaans in 1925, and it replaced Dutch completely. There soon emerged several authors writing in Afrikaans. Notable among them was C. J. Langenhoven, who wrote novels and poems, translated the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam into Afrikaans, and wrote the words of the national anthem. His efforts led to the compilation of an Afrikaans dictionary.
Other well-known Afrikaans writers were the poets Christian L. Leipoldt, Christiaan M. van der Heever, and Eugene Marais. A. A. Pienaar under the pseudonym Sangiro wrote nature stories. Uys Krige was extremely versatile; his works include novels, short stories, poems, and plays in both Afrikaans and English. Important poets who have written in Afrikaans include W. E. G. Louw and his brother N. P. van Wyk Louw, Adam Small, and Elisabeth Eybers. In the 1960s novelist André Brink, novelist and poet Breyten Breytenbach, and poet Ingrid Jonker were among the Afrikaans writers who broke with conservative literary norms and wrote critically of apartheid. Brink and Breytenbach also wrote in English.
At first the limited local market retarded the development of an indigenous English-language literature. With the growth of the publishing industry, an increasing population, and the spread of education, a vital literary community developed in the mid-20th cent. In addition, many African writers, divorced from their ethnic heritage, began to write in English. One of the best known among the English-language novelists is Olive Schreiner, author of The Story of an African Farm (1883); she is considered the first great South African novelist.
Other important novelists include Sarah G. Millin, whose major work is God's Stepchildren (1924); William Plomer, who wrote Turbott Wolfe (1925); Alan Paton, whose novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) was widely acclaimed in America; and Elizabeth C. Webster, who won an English prize for Ceremony of Innocence (1949). Roy Campbell is known as a South African poet, although he lived in England after 1926. Besides numerous other works, Stuart Cloete wrote Turning Wheels (1939), a story of the Great Trek, which was made into a film in the United States. Other internationally known works include H. V. Morton's In Search of South Africa (1948) and Episode in the Transvaal (1955) by Harry Bloom, who also wrote the book for the first all-African opera, King Kong (1958).
In the 1950s and 60s the magazine Drum was an important voice for African writers such as Lewis Nkosi and Ezekiel Mphahlele. Mphahlele wrote Down Second Avenue (1959), an autobiographical account of life in one of Johannesburg's African townships, and Voices in the Whirlwind (1972), a collection of essays about South Africa. Other writers who gained prominence in the 1950s and 60s include Jack Cope, Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head, Dan Jacobson, Peter Abrahams, Alex La Guma, Sonya Rollnick, Laurens Van Der Post, David Lytton, and Athol Fugard. Many of these writers deal with the conditions of apartheid in South Africa. In the 1970s and 80s writers such as Miriam Tlali, Dennis Brutus, and J. M. Coetzee gained recognition for their eloquent protests of their racially segregated society.
See South African Writing Today, ed. by N. Gordimer and L. Abrahams (1967); S. Gray, South African Literature (1979); U. A. Barnett, A Vision of Order: A Study of Black South African Literature in English, 1914–1980 (1983).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: South African Literature