chapter  16
13 Pages

Embodying the feral: indigenous traditions and the nonhuman in some recent South African novels

ByWendy Woodward

South African fi ction has long been crucially preoccupied with human identities, their performative qualities, the legalized contingencies of their racialized classifi cation, as well as their potentially redeemable transformations. In the last decade or so, however, such literary considerations have extended in particular in post-apartheid fi ction to the fl uidity and porousness of human identities in relation to those of the nonhuman. With one exception the writers considered here imagine such ferality in relation to indigenous worldviews, some of which have been reclaimed in notions of ‘heritage’ since the fi rst democratic elections in 1994 in South Africa. Indigenous magic is rendered unexceptional in the novels, even if the human body is reconfi gured, sometimes quite literally, beyond rational limits. As Zakes Mda, whose writing has been erroneously labelled magical realist, asserts: ‘I am a product of a magical culture. In my culture the magical is not disconcerting. It is taken for granted. No one tries to fi nd a natural explanation for the unreal. The unreal happens as part of reality’ (quoted in Fincham 2011: xxii). Similarly, representations of ‘reality’ in many of the narratives under discussion are not ‘unreal’ but an assertion of indigenous knowledges which were either disregarded or actively suppressed during the colonial and apartheid eras. 1

When Lauren Beukes, K. Sello Duiker, Thando Mgqolozana, and Don Pinnock deploy indigenous traditions in their novels, they locate their narratives in the recognizable present rather than nostalgically questing for a pre-industrial or prelapsarian moment. Expanding human knowledges through recourse to experiences of the nonhuman, possibly of the unreal, thus suggests ways of coping with negative aspects of our unsettled, adolescent democracy. In Zoo City (2010), Beukes has Zinzi and her sloth seek solutions to urban crime, ‘muti’ (traditional medicine) murders, and xenophobia. Sello Duiker has the girl-child Nolitye, a brave hero in The Hidden Star (2006), who rescues herself and other children from adult abuse. Mgqolozana’s Lumkile in A Man Who Is Not a Man (2009) suffers physically and psychically as he copes with the rigidity of Xhosa initiation rites. Pinnock’s Rainmaker (2010) imagines a Bushman spirituality contributing to transforming urban violence and gangsterism. In Ninevah (2011), Rose-Innes does not deploy indigenous tradition explicitly, but she has her protagonist turn feral as city space is redefi ned in relation to homelessness and ecologically destructive urban development. The feral in contemporary South African fi ction thus marks

a transitional space for bodies in resistance to the conventional notions of ‘progress’ and ‘civilization’ as ordering urban-industrial spaces.