Freedom on a Frontier? The Double Bind of (White) Postapartheid South African Literature


  • Leon de Kock Stellenbosch University


Postapartheid literature, South African literary history, transition, post-transition, crime


The trend in analyses of postapartheid South African literature is to see a body of writing that is largely “freed from the past,” exhibiting a wide range of divergences from locked-in “struggle” writing. This article provides a differently nuanced conceptualization, arguing that some of the literature’s key dynamics are founded in “mashed-up temporalities.” The analysis borrows from Ashraf Jamal’s appropriation of art historian Hal Foster’s “future anterior” or a “will have been.” In this reading, emblematic strands of postapartheid writing are less free from the past” than trading in an anxiety about never having begun. The body of literature in question – in this case white post-transitional writing – can be seen to be inescapably bound to the idea of the time of before, so much so that it compulsively iterates certain immemorial literary tropes such as the frontier and the journey of discovery. Further, the article suggests that much postapartheid literature written in what it calls “detection mode” – providing accounts of “crime” and other social ills – are distinguished by disjunctive continuity rather than linear or near-linear discontinuity with pre-transition literature, yet exhibit features of authorial voice and affect that place it within a distinctly postapartheid zone of author-reader interlocution.

Author Biography

Leon de Kock, Stellenbosch University

Leon de Kock is Senior Research Associate, Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, South Africa. He has published books of literary and cultural criticism, literary translation, poetry, fiction, and scores of articles on South African literature (see His current book project, from which this material is drawn, is entitled Losing the Plot: Postapartheid Writing and the Fiction of Transition. He was formerly a professor of English at Stellenbosch University and the University of South Africa, and head of the School of Literature and Language Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he also directed the creative writing program.