Narrative Responses to forms of discrimination in South African literature


Comparative Literature can be used as a tool of analytical investigation by comparing texts that differ in authorship but having similarities in terms of the content they deal with. Analysis of literary texts using comparative literature can give us the opportunity to see how authors deal with their subject matter/content. It is even more interesting a study when themes are almost similar.

In this essay I will show that both Mob Passion and Country Lovers’ contents are informed by similar conditions; a similar context within which both narrative texts were produced even though the writers’ handling of their subject matter were informed by their own unique personal experiences of this similar condition they were subjected to.

While separate development in South Africa sought to separate black and white people, in Mob Passion Can Themba (1924 – 1968) shows us how devastating tribalism, which the policy of separate development in South Africa upheld, can be detrimental in its quest to uphold the ideal of a pure tribe. This is shown when a relationship takes place between Linga who is a Letebele and Mapula who is a Mosotho, for Mapula’s uncles this cannot be accepted. Themba does not give us the opportunity to get the feel of Linga’s family’s opinion on the matter, there is no time for that, all this is happening in the urbanised area – the outskirts of the reef, where life is fast paced and harsh.

A reading of Nadine Gordimer’s short story Country Lovers (1980) reveals that the narrative is about a girl who has an intimate relationship with a white man but due to the situation that the event take place in, she is not a candidate for a long-term relationship with him. For intimate relationships across the colour line in apartheid South Africa were considered immoral and were forbidden. The man does not pursue marriage with her, she becomes his secret girlfriend and when she falls pregnant with his baby he takes the life of their baby away as a way of removing the evidence of what took place between the two of them. A careful reading shows that Thebedi and Paulus relationship’s evolution from a childhood friendship across colour lines as well as master servant-relation to that of secret lovers is ultimately destroyed by the very barriers it seem to elude from the onset.

Context of the narratives in question

According to Chapman (1996: 237) the novel against apartheid received more critical attention than similar protests in the short story. This notwithstanding, the 1950s and 1960s witnessed various and exciting development in short story fiction and confirmed the short story as the most popular and prolific form of imaginative writing in South Africa.

Chapman maintains that Nadine Gordimer (1923 – 2014) was a leading practitioner of the short story form during this period. Chapman maintains that Gordimer shifted the short story from the colonial adventure yarn to a sophisticated art of implication. this is true of Country Lovers for this narrative does not concern itself with adventure, it concerns itself with the social construct of the old South Africa.

Following its inception Drum of the 1950s mark the substantial beginning in South Africa of the modern Black Short Story. Chapman maintains that prior to its appearance between 1951 and 1958 of over 90 stories (printed in Drum) only a few by black South Africans existed outside ‘anonymous’ oral tradition of folk tale: around 1930 R.R.R. Dhlomo in the Johannesburg-based magazine ‘The Sjambok’ had published several ‘moral’ sketches involving situations in the gold mines.

Through Drum’s short story competition over 90 stories would appear in it between 1952 and 1959 (see Chapman 2001: 183). Mob Passion falls within those golden years of Drum. This short fiction marks Can Themba’s first attempt at short story writing and it is forcefully a powerful piece of story telling. Written in 1953 and submitted to Drum Magazine short story competition, the piece won Can Themba the first prize.

Without delay I shall now proceed to compare Mob Passion and Country Lovers. I shall analyse the two short stories in terms of form and theme. Firstly I shall focus on each of the short stories separately. This way I shall be able to show, separately, how each of the narratives is structured in terms of the narration flow. My discussion will reflect how each of the texts communicates their content. My discussion employs narrative propositions in order to make bare their formal elements naked. I then proceed in separate expositions of the narratives to explore how the subject matter is dealt with. Lastly I bring the two narratives closer to each other in an attempt to draw similarities and differences in their respective authors unique approaches to as far as dealing with content is concerned.

Narrative proposition: Mob Passion

1. Linga Sakwe and Mapula have a secrete love affair.

2. The family soon discovers the Secrete love affair.

3. Alpheus and Frans, Mapula’s uncles are enraged by the discovery of her love affair with a Letebele.

4. Ra-Thabo, Mapula’s father gets beaten up under mysterious condition.

5. Members of their community are curios to know who had done this terrible thing.

6. Alpheus and Frans uses this opportunity to lie to the community by falsely accusing the Matebele of committing the grievous act and by also informing the community that one of the Matebele has gone as far as drugging their niece to have an affair with him in order to turn him into his wife.

7. Alpheus leads the community to avenge Ra-Thabo.

8. Linga is killed by the angry mob led by Alpheus.

9. Mapula kills Alpheus.

10. The community regrets its actions.

The narrative proposition reveals that story builds up into a climax that ends up in the bloody martyrdom of an innocent whose crime is that of loving someone of a different ‘tribe’. I shall now discuss the order of the events of this narrative as they take place.


From the narrative propositions above in Mob Passion the events that take place in the narrative are organized in their successive chronology. At the outset of the narrative there is harmony, then there is an introduction of conflict then there is confrontation and then there is a climax.

Starting with the meeting between Linga and Mapula in the train at Industria train station and their boarding off the train at Witpoortjie the narrator presents the setting within which the characters move and interact and after orientating us, the narrator goes on to present the conflict thus bringing up an element of conflict into the narrative. The two are in love but the relationship is threatened by it being discovered by the different ethnic groups to which the two lovebirds belong. The boarding off the train serves as a preparation to the introduction of the conflict that lurks at the discovery of their affair and their aspiration to get married. In the narrative much time is given to the latter, where the problem of tribalism is laid bare to the reader.

Then afterward the narrative shifts its focus to Mapula’s home where her brother tell their uncles, Alpheus and Frans, about the rumor he heard about Mapula of her going out with a Letebele who plans to marry her. Alpheus and Frans are enraged by this discovery. Matebele and Basotho are rivals, they should not mix, this I their stance to the matter. In that instance as they are digesting the foul news, Mapula’s father is brought home injured. Outside the community gathers to find out who had done such a terrible thing to the unconscious Ra-Thabo.

Alpheus and Frans uses Ra-Thabo’s mysterious injury as an excuse to find and kill Matebele, but more specifically the one that has a relationship with their niece. They work out a scheme to enrage the community. Stepping outside, thanks to Alpheus oratory which Themba does not run short on elaborating on it, the curious community is told that it was Matebele who had hurt Ra-Thabo, moreover they tell the community that one of these ‘Matebele’ has drugged and bewitched Ra-Thabo’s daughter Mapula into having an intimate relationship with him. Subsequently, back in the house the two liars had arranged that as Alpheus speak to the inquiring community Ra-Thabo should be brought out in pretense of being send to the hospital in the presence of the community to fuel their anger up.

Their plan works out for the community is enraged b y what the Matebele has supposedly done to Ra-Thabo when they see him being taken out in. The community sets out for vengeance. Alpheus leads them to seek out the Matebele.

Their mob soon runs into Linga and Mapula. They first run into Linga who had left Mapula behind in the outskirts of town under the tree because the latter complained of sore feet. He was scouting the area where he and Mapula were enjoying themselves under a tree to see how they could get back home. They ask him whether he had seen a Letebele around the area, he denies it and all the time he speak to them in a fluent Sotho, just right there when he thinks he has eluded the mob Mapula comes running to him thinking that the mob of people around him wants to hurt him. Just then Alpheus and the mob realizes that they have been talking with the man that they have sought to hunt and kill. They instantly kill Linga. Maoula kills Alpheus in turn. The narrative ends with the community retreating away from Mapula’s wailing. The reader will realize that the scene where Alpheus enrages the community is also given a substantial space like the opening phase where the reader gets introduced to the conflict in the narrative. The narrator makes the hatred that Alpheus and Frans have towards Matebele clear in what we can call the second part of our narrative, or to be consistent with our narrative propositions above this would be in narrative proposition no 2. This hatred signifies the animosity that the Russians – the Ba-sotho migrant workers who in the 1950s’ banded together against the city-slick Tsotsi.

Mob Passion, serves as a vehicle to show that vigilantism is wrong and secondly that inter-tribal division which was specified by the yesterdays apartness/apartheid government which divided black South Africans according to language and ethnicity in terms of settlement in the homelands contributed to the separation that the people practiced once in the cities. The narratives shows how this separation contributed to the violence that occur between people of various indigenous when inter relationships occurred. We have to remember that the government had also put in place the immorality act, which can be seen as a hire state of preventing inter racial relationships. Our discussion of Country Lovers will dealt with this aspect.

Should the previous government not have separated people in the township according to tribes such instances that occurs in Mob Passion would not have taken place. Mob Passion is a response towards the division that black people were subjected to in Townships after the rise of the nationalist government into government in ’48. we must remember that the Drum ensemble to which Themba belonged adapted real events into fictitious rendition of what real and occurring in the backyard of the apartheid machine.

Chapman notes [sic] there is a little distinction between Drum fiction and Drum journalism. Chapman maintains that both the ‘story’ of black life is paramount as the facts of the decade in that (my italics)– Mass removals, the Immorality act (which we will have much to discuss in the next half of this paper), the bans of social mixing, the destruction of Sophiatown were transformed into pot-boilers that suddenly bubbled over into serious, haunting commentaries on the human motivation and behaviour (1996: 240).

Against this background Mob Passion can once more be seen as making relevant commentary on South African society in terms of its distribution. Mob Passion foreground the fact that in the old South Africa our nation was not only separated according to race, but also according to different indigenous groups in how people were located in the reserves, in the Township, by locating different indigenous groups to different areas in the Townships according to language and culture. This narrative speaks against the detrimental effects of separation according to tribalism.

Country Lovers

I shall discuss Nadine Gordimer’s Country Lovers and in the last part of this essay I shall bring the two texts dealt with in this essay side by side in an attempt to show differences and similarities in terms of formal aspects and thematic contents inherent in the texts. According to Chapman(1996: 235) in the 1950’s Gordimer (1923- ) mixed with the Sophiatown’s literary figures such as Bloke Modisane, Nat Nakasa as well as Can Themba whose work we have dealt with above. This is interesting to know, this supports a supposition that we may erect at this point in our discussion of her – that he insight into the black experience was not informed by a biased media, she had a direct experience of hearing about the black experience from her fellow writers of the 1950s. We see this black experience is illuminated upon in her principal character – Thebedi who exists in a time advanced by three decades to that of Mapula, that is if we take the into account the period when the publication of Crimes of conscience 1991 – the collection of short stories to which Country Lovers belongs.

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In Country Lovers Thebedi’s character serves not only as a reflection for of a black experience under the white rule in South Africa but it also questions the subjection of women under the patriarchal system. Like in Mob Passion the events in country Lovers are narrated in their chronological order. However unlike in Mob Passion in this narrative the events are narrated over a period of years.

Narrative propositions: Country Lovers

1. Thebedi and Paulus are childhood friends.

2. Thebedi and Paulus fall in love.

3. The focus of their relationship ends being sex.

4. Njabulo asks Thebedi’s father to have her as a wife.

5. Thebedi falls pregnant with Paulus’s child.

6. Njabulo marries Thebedi.

7. Paulus is angry at Thebedi’s pregnancy.

8. Paulus kills the baby.

9. Njabulo assumes that the baby had died from natural causes, he buries it.

10. The police come to the farm and dig body out.

11. Paulus is charged with homicide.

12. Charges are dropped against Paulus.


In country lovers the narrative, as I have already mentioned, unfolds over a period of years in which Thebedi and Paulus Eysendyck grow up together on a farm and later have a relationship. Paulus is white and he is a son of the farmer who owns the farm where Thebedi stays. Sometimes Thebedi does odd work in the house of the Eysendycks.

The affection that Paulus has for Thebedi soon blossoms into love. It is interesting that Gordimer does not spell it out but through her economy of her lyricism is able to bring to the attention of the reader exactly what evolves out of the affection mentioned above. The evolution of the relationship into a love affair is implied through the thoughts and actions of the central character’s focalization who at certain moments takes over the narrating from the principal narrator. The narrator, the principal that is, goes on to illustrate the division that exists between black and white children as far as accessibility to education is concerned. Both Thebedi and Paulus are central characters in this narrative just as Mapula and Linga are in Mob Passion.

We see through the growth of these central characters the different worlds to which each is subjected to in terms of the privileges of race functioning as a defining category in terms of the quality of schooling one receives. Here the politics of white and black in south Africa are specified.

Thebedi gets minimum education and is destined to become someone else’s wife not a mate in the Eysendycks farm house while Paulus gets the opportunity to go to high school and college. Initially the division that is erected by fate, by ideology of those who hold the reigns of power do not bar the two from falling in love during Paulus’ last year at high school. Unfortunately when the two start to sleep with each other their relationship’s only objective revolve around sexual gratification. When the relationship gets to this point already Paulus had slept with someone before:

He did not tell her about school or Town anymore. She did Not ask questions any longer. He told her, each time, when they would meet again. (see Country Lovers 1991: 20)

We can see that Paulus in control of what happens next this secret love affair that this relationship has turn out to be. His life through High School, his popularity in sports, his acquiring of drivers license and attendance at a College can be looked upon as a measuring bar to show progression in time (about two years) within the narrative discourse. When his ‘progression of time’ is deliberately aligned with that of Thebedi we realise that the farmer’s son is progressing in terms of acquisition of skills and knowledge essential in the real world is concerned and that the girl Thebedi life stands still. The powerful position that Paulus is in is also illustrated by the fact that at School and college he has sexual relationships with other girls, white girls. But the loyalty and dedication of Thebedi to him is undying and un-quivering. The farmer’s son’s position in the relationship is punctuated by his access to college education to study veterinary while Thebedi is left pregnant. This pregnancy explodes their relationship out of control. The pregnancy is an introduction of an element of conflict akin to the discovery of Mapula and Linga’s love affair when one get acquainted with the subject matter of Mob Passion.

Njabulo, a young man who also works for the Eysendycks in the farm

‘…asked Thebedi’s father for her.’ (1991: 21)

At this instance in the narrative the voicelessness and the powerlessness of Thebedi is foregrounded in that we can see that she has no control over what happens next. She is reduced to a status of an object. She gets married to Njabulo and soon gives birth to Paulus’ child whom her parents dot suspect that it is not Njabulo’s. Later on, upon his visit home during study term holidays, Paulus learns that the girl Thebedi has given birth. He goes to Thebedi’s homestead to see the child. He is enraged when he sees the child:

He struggled for a moment with a grimace of tears, anger and self-pity. She could not put her hand to him. (1991: 23)

Despite this reaction that we see exhibited by Paulus, the reader is shown that there is still some love left in the situation:

For a moment there was a feeling between them that used to come when they were alone down at the river-bed. (1991: 23-24)

I have already pointed out that the child brings in an element of conflict in the narrative discourse. Moreover Thebedi’s marriage to Njabulo creates a barrier which Paulus cannot permeate. But let us return to their baby, the baby is the ultimate results of the two lovers. She must not be seen, she must be kept a secret just like their affair. The child as the results of their act cannot be acceptable, at least not in Paulus world.

Thus here at this point in the narrative where Paulus tells Thebedi that the baby must not be seen we come to realize that he never loved Thebedi in the first place, why is not proud of the results of their act. He used her for sexual gratification. This fact is clearer when later on the farmer’s son kills the little one. Though he is soon tried for homicide, he escapes the clutches of the law on the grounds that there is no sufficient evidence o convict him.

Country lovers not only questions the dominance of whites over blacks in South Africa in terms of social hierarchy, but more specifically, through the characterisation of Thebedi, it flashes out the suppression of black women by men in the apartheid South Africa, whose status was subordinate to that of men. And in the light of the situation of Thebedi and Paulus’ secret affair the narrative acutely demonstrate how when the effect is heightened with the white male black woman relationship the imbalance of power relation is severe.

The narrative revisits fascination with the ‘other’. As we see with Paulus’ focalisation when the two lovers are in their ‘love nest’ – the riverbed, after taking the dip:

The schoolgirls he went swimming with at dams or pools on neighboring farms wore bikinis but the sight of their dazzling bellies and thighs in the sunlight had never made him feel what he felt now, when the girl came up the bank and sat besides him, the drops of water beading off her dark legs the only points of light in the earth-smelling, deep shade. (1991: 20)

Paulus Eysendyck’s frustration upon discovering Thebedi’s pregnancy is due to the barriers that have been erected around him by the apartheid ideology that preached purity of race. Despite his honest love for the girl Thebedi his family would never have approved of their relationship. So the relationship cascade to a state of sexual gratification in which Thebedi herself lacks a voice of choosing when and where but Paulus presides over her. Moreover the girl Thebedi’s situation in her own family lacks a voice still and this is shown to us when lobola1 negotiations are entered without her consent. She has no voice in both of these circumstances.

Then Paulus’ homicide trial serves as an opportunity for Thebedi to lash out with lies when she is brought under oath at the witness stand. To avenge herself against Paulus sexual exploitation she lies by saying she saw him pour a liquid into the baby’s mouth before threatening to kill her if she told anyone of what he was about to do (see page 25). The court adjourns.

At the second court proceedings the case is dismissed for lack of evidence to convict the accused. To demonstrate the nature of the society within which this narrative takes place, during the court proceedings, Thebedi is not given enough chance to give her side of the story. This thuds her away as insignificant as far as giving of evidence to the case is concerned. A white man is on trial. Paulus gets away with it.

It is clear that the two narratives that I have dealt with have forms of suppression as their subject matter. Let us revisit them once more before we reach our conclusion. In Mob Passion the narrator deals with segregation between black people who belong to different tribes. He deals with the attitude of people who would go to any extend to up hold ethnic purity. We see that Alpheus and Frans do not approve of their niece going out with a Letebele. This is against their Sotho custom.

The relocation of black people to the township in 1950s under the group areas act2, which sort to vacate blacks from areas which were marked for white use, saw black people distributed, in the new locations, according language and tribes promoted separation amongst the people in that the people banded together according to language and tribes. In Mob Passion Can Themba shows the results of such a situation when we look at the effects when margins of those separated people come into contact because of love. In Nadine Gordimer’s Country Lovers, we are brought into close proximity with the barring effects of the policy of yesteryears – the immorality act. Initially when the relationship between the two lovers becomes intimate the two are guilty of crossing the colour lines in terms of what kind of relationships did the government allow. It, the apartheid monster, denied the people from having love relationships across the colour lines and to reinforce this it persecuted those who dare to do it. But in country Lovers something inhuman takes place when we witness the infanticide and one cannot stop but wonder just how far the tentacles of the apartheid ideology goes – for Paulus commits the greatest crime of all, murder. And because of the laws that have been put in place to protect him, he gets away with it. Do the people in Mob Passion get away with it? No we never find out, the murder at the end of the narrative represents a curtain closer. A kind of a wake up call sounded by Themba to the senseless violence that was taking place between blacks. Since the Ba-sotho’s core aim in banding together as Russians was to get rid of the Tsotsi Problem molded an ideology which at the hands of irresponsible and selfish characters such as Alpheus and Frans transform into a blood¬-thirst.

In country Lovers the relationship between Paulus and Thebedi serves as a vehicle to show the fatality of racial segregation. Their relationship cannot blossom like the same race relationship so it ends up recoiling itself into a sexual affair that explodes in pregnancy. But not only does country Lovers show us this, the narrative also reflect on the power relation bred by such a society. We see that the society in which this narrative has been set is also patriarchal in nature, for we see that Thebedi has no voice as a woman. And also the fact that she is black discredit her when at court for the law serves the interest of the whites.

Concluding remarks

In this essay, using comparative literature, I have discussed two short stories that deal with forms of discrimination in South Africa. The two narratives are set in the context of apartheid South Africa. The main aim as specified at the opening of this essay was to demonstrate how different writers might respond to a similar a stimulus.

The discussion of both Mob Passion and Country Lovers revealed that even though the two narratives are representations of the conditions brought forth by the ideology of separate development in South Africa, each of the works deals with a specific aspect of that ideology for each writer as an observer and a commentator responds to a specific experience. What unify the two texts is that they are responses brought about by the subjugation of the South African people into a repressive social.

© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2007


1. Dowry paid to the bride’s parents by the groom as an offering to the work they have done in the upbringing of their child who, given the circumstances brought about by the marriage proposal, graduates into a woman and an mother to her husband.

2. Following the Populations Registration Act in 1950 came the Group Areas Act, a piece of legislation intended over the years to divide every town and village in South Africa into separate racial zones, even though this would involve uprooting whole communities. (see Meredith, M. 1997. Nelson Mandela: A biography. Penguin Books.


Chapman, M. 1996. South African Literatures. London and New york: Longman

Chapman, M. 2001. The Drum Decade: Stories from 1950s. University of Natal Press.

Patel, E (ed). 1985. The World of Can Themba. Ravan Press.

Gordimer, N. 1991. Crimes of Conscience. Heineman.3542

To cite this article:

Kgokong, M.A. 2007. Narrative Response to Forms of Discrimination in South African Literature.