“I am not a political person by nature,” Nadine Gordimer once said. “I don’t suppose, if I had lived elsewhere, my writing would have reflected politics much, if at all.”
That’s not how we’ll remember Nadine Gordimer, who died on Sunday in Johannesburg at the age of ninety. She was a tireless fighter who chose to speak up against apartheid in her short stories, novels and essays. For her, the transformation from witness to activist was an inevitable consequence of her writing:
“The fact that my books were perceived as being so political was because I lived my life in this society that was so much changed by conflict, by political conflict, which of course in practical terms is human conflict.”
Gordimer refused to accept a manner of living that was designed for her comfort but burdened others with incalculable suffering. Her parents were Jewish immigrants who moved to South Africa yet could not forget where they had come from. She witnessed the institutionalisation of apartheid when she was 25, just a few years after the defeat of the Nazis in the Second World War. Her intimate knowledge of both the consequences of racial injustice and the feeling of alienation was at the heart of her writing. This made her dangerous.
Her second novel A World of Strangers, published in 1958, was banned for twelve years; The Late Bourgeois World (1966) for a decade; and the ban on her most famous work, Burger’s Daughter, written in 1979, was lifted after a couple of months – only due to her international standing. She was a leading member of the ANC during the sixties and helped edit Mandela’s I Am Prepared To Die speech. It’s shocking to remember that she won the Nobel Prize in 1991, two years before apartheid finally crumbled. On receiving her award, she remarked: “And Mandela still doesn’t have a vote.”
But neither was Gordimer a political lackey; she did not support the anti-apartheid movement unreservedly and was sanguine about the reality of dismantling a system which was so ingrained in individuals. Her 1981 novel July’s People perhaps forecast many of the issues faced after apartheid as former oppressors became the oppressed. In No Time Like the Present, published in 2012, veterans of the apartheid movement reflect on the problems still faced by South Africa’s nascent democracy. She fiercely criticised President Zuma for his attitude towards HIV.
Perhaps it’s best to remember Gordimer by her own words – so strong, forceful, uncompromising and brave. You can read ‘The Second Sense’ (2007) at The Virginia Quarterly, her 1999 short story ‘Loot’ on the Nobel Prize website as well as 2007’s ‘A Beneficiary’ and ‘The First Sense’ (2006), both in The New Yorker.
Reading these, one cannot help but be struck: she made the personal political, while always aware that the political could only be personal.