Nadine Gordimer – Student, writer and activist

By George Bizos SC, assisted by Samantha Brener, both at the Legal Resources Centre.  Delivered in the Great Hall of the University of the Witwatersrand on 18 May 2017

Nadine Gordimer was a world-renowned writer. She has been richly praised by many of the world’s most respected voices.

The independent Newspaper in London published the following – “Gordimer has undoubtedly become one of the World’s Great Writers . . .  Her rootedness in a political time, place and faith has never dimmed her complex gifts as an artist; her partisanship has not compromised her artistic distance.  Great writers can retain political faith; they can believe and create.  This is an important message for all aspirant writers of the next century.

Cecil Abrahams of the Chicago Tribune commenting on “My Son’s Story”, Nadine’s ninth novel, wrote “The novel abounds with the fine turn of phrase, the ironical twist that opens up thought to further exploration, the uncanny ability to enter the varied recesses of the human mind . . .MY SON’S STORY proves that in a changing society such as South Africa, Nadine Gordimer is well placed to portray “the fullness of life”.

The Star-Telegram wrote: “Only very lucky readers are familiar with 1991 Nobel Laureate Gordimer’s work. Join them.”

Margaret Atwood, herself a literary giant, wrote in an obituary for Gordimer “Despite her minute size, she was a huge presence – a voice of rectitude that spoke above the political din, addressing itself to our common humanity…. It’s difficult to imagine the history of the South African novel, indeed of the 20th-century political novel without her”.

Stephen Clingman, says about her “Nadine Gordimer is a most extraordinary observer of her society”.

I am very grateful to Clingman, whose work “The Essential Gesture” provided substantial assistance to me in writing this speech.

Nadine was born in 1923, to immigrant parents in a new place, and her formative years were spent in the mining town of Springs on the East Rand. Her first piece of fiction was published when she was thirteen. Between the time of that first piece and her death, Nadine wrote 15 novels, and a number of short story and essay collections. Her work was translated into at least twenty languages.

During her life, she received the Booker Prize, the Commonwealth Writer’s prize for the Best Book in Africa and, of course, the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was one of only four Wits alumni to have received a Nobel Prize, and of the four, she was the only woman. Karen Lazar wrote about her receipt of the Nobel Prize: “Instead of complying with the custom of being walked down the carpet to receive her award in Stockholm by a member of her government, she chose instead to be accompanied by a literary comrade from her “government-in-waiting”, the ANC’S … Mongane Wally Serote, this being 1991 and transition underway.”

Nadine Gordimer: The Student

Nadine’s time at the University of the Witwatersrand lasted one year only. She registered as an occasional student in English Literature and English Language in 1946. When asked, much later in her life, whether she ever considered doing an undergraduate degree, she dismissed the idea, saying that at 20 years of age, she had already read much more than was on the degree reading list. Although she was a student for only a short period of time, she maintained connections with universities in South Africa, and was closely associated with the National Union of South African Students, a national student body well-known for its opposition to apartheid.

I started my university career in 1948. The vast majority of the students were white, with very few Africans, Indians, Coloureds, Chinese South Africans and a very small number of Africans from neighbouring states. A substantive number had postponed their tertiary education to join the South African Army during the Second World War between 1940 and 1945. We were led to believe it was a war to end all wars. Then the National Party took power in the 1948 general election. The win for the National Party was a huge disappointment for a number of students, including those that had experienced the war, and hated the prejudice that Nazi Germany stood for. There was protest at Wits against the apartheid government. These students were calling for fundamental change.

During a sitting of parliament, Prime Minister Malan was asked about the situation at the university of the Witwatersrand: why black and white students were sitting in the same lecture hall; why white women and black men were walking around campus arm-in-arm? This was contrary to policy! His response was that he had been told by the University that those doing such things were “a small group of leftists”, and that they would be dealt with.

The next day there was a protest meeting at the Great Hall, at Wits University. I was in the front row. I raised my hand and stated unequivocally that if demanding equal treatment with our black fellow students made me a leftist, I was proud to be one. The next day the front page of the Transvaaler read “Linksgesind, en trots daarop. So het George Bizos gese”. This made me popular with most of the students. Nadine congratulated me on the speech.

I was elected four times to the Students Representative Council of the University of the Witwatersrand and represented Wits at the student assembly of the National Union of South African Students in 1953. At the organisation’s congress that same year, NUSAS’s affiliation to the International Union of Students became a controversial issue. Notice had been given that NUSAS should disaffiliate from the international organisation. More than enough votes had been secured that the motion would pass. We were encouraged to support the motion on the basis that the International Union of Students was an instrument of the Soviet Union (among other reasons) and were told that it would be preferable to join a democratic organisation, such as the International Student Conference. I argued that we should not assist those who wanted to create division in the world – between East and West, capitalist and socialist, rich and poor, that we should remain non-aligned and that the International Student Conference was a creation of the CIA. At the time I had no hard evidence to support this. Years later John Didcott, who was by then a judge, told me that it had been exposed in Time magazine that the CIA had formed and financed the International Student Conference. Didcott was appointed a judge of the Natal Provincial Division in 1975 and in 1994 he joined the Constitutional Court bench.

From 1948 onward, there remained anti-government feeling amongst the students. Although I was elected four times to the SRC, I was never an office bearer. The position of head of the SRC was, at the time, taken up by great names such as Philip Tobias, Sydney Brenner, Harold Wolpe, Godfrey Getz and Richard Goldstone.

I remained at Wits for my second degree, and thereafter became a member of the convocation committee. I have always considered myself a Witsie.

Although Nadine remained at Wits for only one year, she regularly attended protest meetings. She and I were friendly through my years of serving on the SRC. We discussed various issues, and she often gave suggestions about how she felt things ought to be done. In later years, she moved into a house that was just walking distance from Wits.

I have wondered to myself whether the treatment of women at Wits at the time may have contributed to Nadine’s estrangement from the University. I recall an incident where a Professor Scholtens told the first year class of law students that, out of a first year class of 45, only a third would be promoted to second year. There were three women in the class. Scholten’s words were “…and if they are women, they might as well give up”. Of the three women, two failed, and the one that passed became a teacher instead of practicing law. Of course, Nadine was not registered for the law class, but it is this kind of approach that she would not have tolerated.

In a similarly interesting story, during my time at law school, we reached that time of year when the law dinner was to be held. The law school did not allow black students to come to the dinner. The usual practice was for the student body to contribute 100 pounds for the guests. This year, 1952, the SRC, of which I was a member, passed a resolution in protest, that the usual 100 pounds would not be given, and that students would be asked not to attend the dinner. We won the round! The black students were allowed to attend, and 8 of them arrived at the dinner. The senior judge was Judge Ramsbottom. Far from being embarrassed by their presence, he had conversations with practically all of them.

There was a law passed in the early 60s, providing that Universities were prohibited from receiving black students unless applicants could prove that they wanted to study something that was not being taught by the newly-established black universities. Students became rather adept at choosing first year subjects that were not taught at these newly-established universities.

Through all of this, Nadine was on the fringe of things. But she nevertheless spent much time discussing what ought to be done in order that equality could be introduced.

Despite never having completed an undergraduate degree, by the time of her death, Nadine Gordimer had accumulated honorary degrees from Yale, Harvard, Columbia, the University of York, the University of Cambridge, University of Leuven in Belgium, and the University of Cape Town, amongst others. She received an honorary doctorate from this university hosting us this evening, the University of the Witwatersrand, in 1984.

Nadine Gordimer: The Writer

Gordimer’s first book was launched in a small bookshop in Pritchard Street. It was on sale for 9 shillings. I could not afford to purchase the book at the time, but I was present at the launch. And she was praised.

One of Nadine’s most important commitments in her life was to the creation of a common community of writers. From early in her career, she befriended the best black writers of the 1950s, most of them based in Sophiatown, writing for periodicals such as Drum. They included Nat Nakasa, Ezekiel Mphahlele, and Can Themba. She was the founder of COSAW – the Congress of South African Writers – a non-racial organisation of anti-apartheid writers.

Often, when these budding young writers found themselves in trouble with the apartheid laws, Nadine sent them to me for their legal defence. I worked on a pro-bono basis defending them. They were often charged with ridiculous things.

I remember one such referral in particular. A young poet had written a sonnet for his lover. In it, he’d said two things. The first ten or twelve lines were a recitation of the terrible things that apartheid had brought to his life. The last two lines – the end of the poem – were an expression of his love for his girlfriend. The poem was found in her home and the poet was arrested. The allegations were bizarre. The man was charged with a criminal offence under the Terrorism Act. The offence carried a 5 year prison sentence. Nadine Gordimer sent the case to me, requesting that I defend the poet in court. I did so, and managed to convince the magistrate that it could not possibly be a criminal offence for a poet to express love for his partner. He had not said anything destructive. The poem was simply an expression of his feelings. As wide as the Terrorism Act was, he surely could not punish a poet for expressing his love? The magistrate acquitted the man, with Nadine sitting at the back of the court room, watching the case.

Nadine’s work as a writer has led to our paths crossing in strange, unexpected ways. One ordinary day Nadine phoned me up. She said “George, I have a guest from the US. She is doing a film of one of Andre Brink’s books.” The book was “A Dry White Season”. The producer had wanted Marlon Brando to play the role of a well-known lawyer defending a young black man charged with a political offence. However Brando had refused to play the role – he had found the script flat, and decided the piece was not for him. The producer came to South Africa, looking for input on improving the part of the lawyer defending political cases, so that she might convince Brando to play the part. Nadine arranged for her to see me, to give input into how a political lawyer might behave. I spent some time answering her questions. Nadine gave much input because she had spent a great deal of time watching me argue in court. We described a specific account to the producer. A young man had made a confession and given evidence against his best friend. Members of his family had told me that the young man had been beaten by the police, and forced to give evidence. While asking the young man questions on the stand, I asked him to turn his back to the audience, and to lift his shirt. His back was covered in half-healed parallel welts. He admitted that the investigating officer had done this damage to his body, as an act of coercion.

This very scene found its way into the film adaptation of “A Dry White Season”. And Marlon Brando accepted the role of the lead lawyer.

Nadine Gordimer: The Activist

The relationship between her writing and her social responsibility was one of the central questions of Nadine’s life. Her involvement in the struggle against apartheid took a number of forms, some of which intertwine with my own story. She often attended political trials. She sat with the public at the back of the court house, watching proceedings unfold. She would discuss the cases with me during breaks. She was making notes, thinking of and remembering things she would later make use of in her written work.

She often assisted me, playing the role of behind-the-scenes editor of crucial pieces of writing and speech during the struggle against apartheid.

In 1963, the ANC leadership were arrested at their headquarters – Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia. Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Dennis Goldberg, Rusty Bernstein and Bob Hepple were taken into custody by police. Thus began the work of Bram Fisher, Vernon Berrange, Joel Joffe, with Arthur Chaskalson and myself on the defending the Rivonia trialists. In the lead up to the trial, the UN General Assembly had passed a resolution, by one hundred and six votes to one, demanding the abandonment of the Rivonia trial. We decided it was necessary to publicise the resolution both locally and internationally. Similarly, at the time of the trial, we decided it was necessary to promote the international campaign for the release of the detainees by providing personal detail to local and foreign journalists. We had each accused write up autobiographical notes about themselves, about their families, their political beliefs, and their underground work. Nadine Gordimer, by then an established authoress, reviewed and edited these autographical statements. She did a marvellous job. These statements were duplicated and distributed, in the hope that they would assist in dispelling negative perceptions about the accused that had been created by the apartheid-sympathetic press.

Later on in the trial, Nelson Mandela showed us, for the first time, the statement that he intended to make from the dock. His closing words stated that he was ready to die for what he had done. After some discussion between Nelson and the legal team, I proposed that Nelson change the final lines to state that he hoped to live and achieve his ideals, but if needs be was prepared to die. We agreed. Nelson then gave me permission to take a copy of his statement to Nadine Gordimer. At the time, Anthony Sampson, editor of Drum in the 1950s and good friend of Nadine’s, was staying with her. Sampson also knew Nelson well. I asked Sampson to review the statement. He withdrew to Nadine’s study. After an hour and half, he returned, having re-ordered the contents of the statement. He noted that, in order to have maximum impact, it was necessary to move many of the impactful paragraphs to the start, since busy journalists were likely to read the first few pages, and then skip straight to the end of the statement. We took his advice. Both Sampson and Gordimer were most impressed by the statement.

During the 1960s, Nadine Gordimer’s political consciousness was being fully explored in her fiction. She was particularly fascinated by the story of Bram (a shortening of “Abram”) Fischer. When he was brought to trial, she attended proceedings. She wrote two non- fiction pieces about Fischer, and her interest in him persisted and resulted in her seventh novel, Burger’s Daughter. This novel is an excellent example of how personal knowledge can be translated into fiction. The book’s jacket describes Burger’s Daughter as “a brilliantly realised work [in which] Nadine Gordimer unfolds the story of a young woman’s evolving identity in the turbulent political environment that has culminated in present-day South Africa. Her father’s death in prison leaves Rosa Burger alone to explore the intricacies of what it actually means to be Burger’s Daughter…. Nadine Gordimer’s subtle, fastidiously crafted prose sweeps this engrossing narrative to a triumphant conclusion”.

During the latter half of the Rivonia trial, it became clear that the security police had evidence the Bram Fischer was one of the senior leaders of the Communist party, and was actively involved in the underground movement. They did not arrest him at the time. However, on 23 September 1964, Bram Fisher was arrested and charged under the Suppression of Communism Act. I was one of Bram Fischer’s legal counsel in his trial. Following Nelson Mandela’s example in the Rivonia Trial, Fischer chose to make a statement from the dock. We worked on the statement very carefully and in great detail, and included a very important explanation as to why Bram was making a statement from the dock rather than from the witness box. As I had done with crucially important documents before, I asked Nadine Gordimer to review his statement, and she helped contribute to its final form.

My most difficult and unpleasant case was the Delmas trial. In total, the matter ran for more than four years, from August 1985 to November 1989 – we spent four hundred and twenty days in court (excluding time spent arguing appeals of the judgement). Twenty two men had been charged with treason, terrorism and furthering the objectives of unlawful organisations. Ultimately, and with bitter disappointment on our part, five of our clients were convicted. We then had the task of arguing in mitigation of their sentences. One of the people we asked to give evidence in mitigation was, upon my insistence, was Nadine Gordimer. She faced vigorous cross-examination about her political beliefs, but she did not waver. She did not apologise for being a supporter of the policies of the ANC and its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, as well as of the use of force. She supported economic and other sanctions. She was an active supporter of the United Democratic Front. This testimony showed her absolute fearlessness. On their way home that evening, her then husband, Rienhold Cassirer remarked that it was perhaps wise that she stay at a friend for the night, for fear that the security police would be looking to pick her up. She ignored this advice, and she was not picked up by the security police. It was already the 1980s, the writing was on the wall for the apartheid government, and they were likely concerned about the worldwide protests that would inevitably follow.

When the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, and Nelson decided to accept the shared prize, both Nadine and I were invited to accompany him to Oslo for the award ceremony. Nelson’s daughter, Zenani, was also part of the delegation. Relations between the Mandela delegation and the de Klerk delegation were not at all times absolutely genial. When asked by journalist to comment on the award of the prize to both, Zenani said “my father deserved it”. Things got worse. Nelson had expected that in his acceptance speech, President de Klerk would acknowledge the evils of Apartheid. Instead he said that both sides had made mistakes, which infuriated Mandela. At the Prime Minister’s dinner that evening, Nelson made a scathing attack in response. Later, Pik Botha came up to me and said “please tell your president that from now on my President will speak last. He wants an opportunity to answer the things that your President has said”.

Through her life, Gordimer’s identity and politics were challenged, and shifted as a result. Clingman describes how she struggled with “alienation and belonging in the 1950s, her politicisation in the 1960s, the radical challenge to her identity from the Black Consciousness movement in the 1970s, and a process of reconstruction in the 1980s whereby a new set of inner definition comes to match vastly changed external circumstances”. But, he says, “underlying all Gordimer’s changes, the flexibility of a mind growing stronger and more radical as it [grew] older, [was] the firmness of conviction”.

In 1963, Gordimer initiated her long-standing campaign against censorship, opposing the Publications and Entertainments Act of 1963, which empowered the Publications Control Board to deal with films, plays, objects, magazines and books. In a non-fiction essay on the matter, she speaks angrily about the “principle of mutilation of books through censorship”. She wrote with incredulity of the 102 people who, in terms of the Publications and Entertainments Act, were forbidden from making any communication whatsoever with the public, either through speech or written word.

After the 1963 Act, came the Publications Act of 1974. It was in terms of the piece of legislation that her novel Burger’s Daughter was banned. In June 1979, the novel had been published in England. By the end of June it had been embargoed in South Africa. By 11 July it had been banned by the Censorship committee. After an internal appeal by the Director of Publications, the novel was “unbanned” or “reinstated”. In April 1980, Nadine Gordimer was awarded the CNA Prize (a top literary award) for Burger’s Daughter. Her acceptance speech made her feelings clear. She says, revealing her seething anger at the treatment of her novel, others like it, and the work of apartheid regime more generally:

Censorship is the weapon of information-control, thought-control, idea-control, above all, the control of healthy doubt and questioning, and as such as much a part of the arsenal of apartheid as the hippos [armoured cars] that went through the streets of Soweto in ’76 … Censorship is necessary for the daily maintenance of racism – and the laws of our country are still racist, whatever fancy names we give them; the very changes that are being made to ease the chafing of those laws around the necks of the masses still reflect racist differentiation in the assessment of people’s needs and self-respect, from the comparative amounts spent on black schools and white schools and pensions to the special arrangements that have to be made, on occasions such as this dinner, to have blacks as guests in a white club”.

And later in the speech, she says, with admirable fearlessness:

A cultural counter-establishment is on the move beyond the government’s control, no matter how many writers’ telephones they tap, how many manuscripts are taken away in police raids on black writers’ houses, no matter how many books they ban. The cage is empty. The keepers are beginning to notice; God knows what they will do next. But the writers are singing in the words of Pablo Neruda: This is the song of what is happening and of what will be”

She was not one for mincing words. She hated censorship because her writing was her struggle against racism and injustice. Even less than a year before her death, Gordimer railed against censorship. She wrote publically and critically about the Protection of State Information Bill.

Her old friend, Anthony Sampson wrote of her, just before his death in 2004 “Nadine Gordimer was small and neat, with a bird-like vivacity and intensity. She talked as precisely as she wrote, telling stories dramatically, with acute observation and curiosity. But her sharp intelligence concealed a warmth and involvement that enriched her friends and gave her writing a deep compassion”.

My friendship with Nadine and her husband and children lasted a long time. After the release of Nelson Mandela, Nadine and I visited Nelson together from time to time. We both had things to discuss with Nelson about the future. Later, we visited one another, both at her home and at mine. She and her husband owned a farm, where we would spend Sundays together occasionally.

Nadine Gordimer was concerned about the acknowledgement of the humanity of people, irrespective of whether they were black, white, Jews, Greeks, or any other race, religion or grouping. This was a philosophy that both she and I understood and lived by. We shared this. In her novels, she almost invariably dealt with love affairs crossing colour lines. She wanted her readers to understand the normalcy of this love. This kind of statement was part of her protest against oppression.

The equally legendary South African writer, JM Coetzee said of her:

As a writer and as a human being, Nadine Gordimer responded with exemplary courage and creative energy to the great challenge of her times, the system of apartheid unjustly and heartlessly imposed on the South African people

Gillian Slovo, herself a well-known writer, and daughter of the late Joe Slovo and Ruth First said:

Politics, both large and small-scale, was Nadine’s subject. Speaking the truth was her passion. She wrote about injustices not only in the bad old days, but in the new. She was a model of what an engaged writer can achieve, and that’s what makes her my hero”

 She was a remarkable, courageous role model, and I am honoured to have met, worked with, and befriended Nadine Gordimer.

 Recently there has been a small group of commentators, saying that nothing has changed since the Apartheid years. I was at a graduation ceremony a few months ago. The majority of the graduates were black and the majority of that majority were women. I would like to turn to you Mr Vice Chancellor and ask you, when you hear someone saying that nothing in South Africa has changed, please invite them to the next graduation.

Advertisements

Published by

realisingrights

The Legal Resources Centre is a public interest law clinic established in South Africa in 1979

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s