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Radicalised while she read

by
17 November 2023

Rod Garner marks the centenary of the birth of the Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer

Alamy

“I AM a white South African radical — do not call me a liberal.” This definitive statement was made by Nadine Gordimer in an interview given to The Times in 1974. It reflected the same clarity of purpose and self-understanding as informed much of her public speaking to global audiences, and inspired the readers for whom she symbolised the conscience of a nation enduring the worst of times.

Gordimer defined herself as a radical because she was committed to a world in which, as her literary mentor Dostoevsky had insisted, “We are all responsible for all.” From an early age, she resolved that no one should be denied, by virtue of race or colour, either the necessities of life or its opportunities.

The world responded by according her a Nobel Prize in 1991, 15 honorary degrees (including one each from Oxford and Cambridge), and making her a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur — the highest French order of merit. In her own country, she faced hostile opposition, and some of her books were banned.

 

BORN on 20 November 1923, in Springs, a mining town outside Johannesburg, to Jewish immigrant parents caught in an unhappy marriage, Gordimer had a childhood that was a mixture of simple pleasures — tea shops, soda fountains, Saturday matinées at the cinema, and trips to the beach — and an unquestioning adherence to the common creed of her white community: that black people were naturally inferior, not clean, and not to be hugged. Different in kind, they lived apart on the edge of town, huddled in an urban slum.

Looking back, Gordimer described her early years as a “sad, confusing world in which to grow up and live . . . where whites were afraid, resentful, and in denial”. Her political “awakening” came through books and authors. Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust, D. H. Lawrence, Edward Said, and especially her hero, Albert Camus, fired her moral imagination with their ideas concerning love, a shared humanity, and the part played by a writer as a “responsible human being”.

In 1945, after a desultory convent education, Gordimer went on to study literature at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg. Amid a sea of white faces, she encountered a few black students, who were wrestling with life’s deeper questions. From such discussions, and the unease that she had felt as a child passing the harsh compounds where black goldminers lived, her mind was set.

A segregated, disenfranchised, and powerless majority required more than sporadic blankets, food, and medicine from the “open hearts” of white liberals who had closed their minds to everything else in a political system that required young blacks to call a white child’s father “Baas” and “Master”. She left college without a degree, in the year that the National Party won a general election and implemented apartheid, mandating absolute separation of the races.

A brief first marriage in 1950 led to the birth of a daughter, Oriane. Her second marriage, just three years later, to Reinhold Cassirer — an art dealer, and refugee from Nazi Germany — lasted until his death in 2001. Their son, Hugo, was born in 1955.

Gordimer’s novels and short stories challenged the strictures and humiliations of apartheid, and imagined possible futures for a united nation beyond censorship and violence. As her international reputation grew, she refused generous invitations to settle permanently outside her own country. She joined the banned African National Congress (ANC), gave refuge in her home to its fugitive leaders, and lied concerning their whereabouts when authorities came knocking at her door.

 

THE struggle was a long one. Along the way, Gordimer witnessed and chronicled the hardships and hatreds that constituted the bitter fruits of apartheid. Promoting the work of neglected and banned black writers, she sought in her own writing to enter the world that they inhabited, to understand their experience and reflect it clearly and unflinchingly, so that her country could never feign innocence concerning its crimes.

This was her “essential gesture” as a writer: to set down the truth — the reality of life — even when it conflicted with her own sympathies, or those of friends and critics. Professing no religious faith, she saw godliness in a way that she could understand and respect in the courageous witness of Archbishops Trevor Huddleston and Desmond Tutu.

A turning point came in 1990, when the ANC was recognised as a legal opposition. Nelson Mandela was released from prison four years later. Gordimer was one of the first people he asked to see as the nation witnessed the dawn of a new day. The liberation struggle was over, but poverty and unemployment, along with inadequate housing and education provision, still had to be addressed.

A culture of corruption would also manifest itself under new black leadership in the form of greed, nepotism, and the abuse of trust at the highest levels of government. Gordimer had foreseen such eventualities in her writings. She was a realist: the human stain that Christianity traditionally described in terms of original sin was not the exclusive preserve of whites.

In the years after apartheid became history, she campaigned against the spread of HIV/AIDS in South Africa, and the paltry amounts of money which went towards its prevention in a country where more than four million have been infected: “If HIV budgets are relegated to a footnote, all we shall have left is a graveyard.”

Gordimer died, aged 90, in Johannesburg, on 13 July 2014. She left behind a body of work which constituted a social history of the nation, and legitimised a human longing for a freedom that has yet to be fully accomplished, and whose absence still leaves many black lives impoverished. No blame for this accrues to her. She saw herself as the keeper of a lighthouse.

The analogy was not to be pressed too far, however, and it would not necessarily “cast the beam of light that will save the individual, or the world from coming to grief on the rocks”. Many prophets before and since would concur.


Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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