Part 5 – Some Thoughts On South African Science Fiction

I have been on the lookout for years for South African science fiction (sf) books, but, in 'pure' form – i.e. a science fiction book within an integral South African setting, it's a rare beast indeed. There have been a few Afrikaans science fiction books by authors such as Jan Rabie and John (not John M.) Coetzee, but these have tended to follow well-worn Euro-American sf themes from the past, e.g. inter-galactic travel and alien plants.

In English, Claude Nunes and Dave Freer have published science fiction books as South African residents. Again, though, South African settings do not appear to be integral to these books, so they do not seem to be strictly South African science fiction.

Nobel laureate John M. Coetzee's work, on the other hand, is largely set in a South African landscape. An early work of his, 'Waiting for the Barbarians' (1980), involves a mythical 'Empire' and a magistrate caught between the oppressive and brutal forces of Empire and the 'barbarians' supposedly waiting to invade. (At the time the book was politically controversial as the 'barbarians' were thought to be a thinly veiled allusion to the propagated political stereotype of 'die swart gevaar' (the black danger), with the forces of 'Empire' perhaps being the apartheid state.) This was and is an absorbing and disturbing fantasy, beautifully written, but is not science fiction.

With regard to science fiction in South Africa, the Science Fiction Society of South Africa (SFSA) has published two volumes of 'Best of South African science fiction' and is currently compiling a third volume. These compilations have been based on their annual short story competitions called the 'Nova', run since the nineteen seventies. Fiction from local writers is also published in the club magazine Probe, which has reached issue number 129 to date. Thus, there are some representative local short stories in these publications, but not a complete book written by a single author.

Black membership of SFSA has also been extremely limited thus far. Thus, when I attempted to find a publisher for my own YA sf book 'The stone chameleon' in South Africa, I was initially told by a potential publisher that marketing was a 'problem', as there was a perception that 'black people don't read science fiction'. (It was eventually published in 2004 after it had been 'passed' by designated black township readers.)

Black South African fiction until the end of apartheid had largely been in the area of 'protest' or 'Struggle' writing, i.e. fiction focused on the inequities of the political system, by authors such as Alex la Guma and Can Themba, amongst others.

However, this literature was largely banned and not published or easily available locally. Furthermore, black education was geared towards ensuring cheap manual labour and not literacy, so access to reading materials – which were also expensive on top of daily living needs – was generally limited. Magazines such as 'African Drum' and 'politically safe' scripted adventure photo-comics were available to read in township shops. (Mobile libraries would also pay sporadic visits but were poorly stocked.)

With the demise of apartheid there was a freeing up of available literature, some focusing on the pain of local historical reconciliation. In 2004, I decided to run a writing workshop under the auspices of the South African Environment Project, at a 'black' township secondary school called Oscar Mpetha High in Cape Town – mostly isiXhosa speakers, although preferring to work in English. When I asked about literary genres, the students revealed awareness of poetry, romance and crime novels, but not science fiction.

We had a discussion about science fiction and speculative fiction and spoke about the advances the country had made since Nelson Mandela became president. I then asked them to write on how the country might be in the future, say fifty years from now. Most of the students wrote short personal pieces not reflecting this theme, but were still poignant pieces reflecting relationships, ethnic identity and environmental concerns. Two students wrote present-day stories; the third, Noluyando Roxwana (17), wrote a story with a 'leap' to a monochromatic 'racial' future, exploring what loss of diversity might mean.

What was the 'engine' for the time leap?

A dream.

No, this was not a hoary use of a dream where all is restored on waking. The dreamer woke a changed person towards the end of the story. (I was also aware that dreaming amongst traditional amaXhosa can be a sacred vehicle for change, where contact can be made with ancestors, and, in this story, the future can be shown.)

What a wonderful time machine.

To the present, where I am currently reading a Zakes Mda novel called 'The Heart of Redness'. Here, dreams from the nineteenth century amaXhosa prophetess Nongqawuse roll on into post-apartheid South Africa.

Perhaps the beast I've been hunting is not so rare after all; it just looks a little different to what I was expecting. Okay, so it may be speculative fiction then, not science fiction, but I'm not going to quibble with labels when the animal is this good.

And it's true South African sf.

Nick Wood
03/03/06; Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand.

For Octavia Butler.

Noluyando's story The Drama of School and Home can be read under 'Oscar Mpetha' here.