Literature and the Politics of Place in South Africa

November 29, 2007

Nelson Mandela was released from prison one week after Rita Barnard, Professor of English and Director of the Women's Studies Program and the Alice Paul Center for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, first visited the Penn campus. That's when Barnard, who was born and raised in South Africa, realized that even though her doctoral training had been in American literature, she'd eventually have to focus her scholarship on the momentous changes happening in her homeland. Barnard says she spent more than ten years "reading and writing her way into the subject." The result is Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writers and the Politics of Place, published last year by Oxford University Press.

Barnard's book explores the importance of "place" in South African culture and literature. In this series of essays on major of South African writers, she examines how colonization, apartheid, and also post-apartheid problems (like housing provision and land reform) have affected South Africa's landscape, creating new social structures and identities.

"I focused on place because it seemed almost an obvious thing to do," Barnard says. "Apartheid, which means 'separateness,' was a way of exerting political power through various modes of spatial control and spatial division. You can't live in South Africa without feeling this."

Because of South Africa's rapidly transforming political and cultural landscape, Barnard feels that studying the country's problems can provide insight on universal contemporary concerns such as globalization, national boundaries and ethnic identity.

"I hope this work will spark new ways of thinking about the relationship between different places," Barnard says. "South Africa is a productive site to think about new cultural formations."

Barnard's early teaching experiences at South Africa's University of the Western Cape played a crucial role in shaping her abiding interest in the relationship between politics and literature. Originally established in 1959 by the South African government for people classified as "Coloured," the University became one of the academic institutions at the forefront of the forces challenging apartheid.

"The University was created by the apartheid state, and urgent questions were asked in an exciting and volatile context," Barnard explains. "Those years were very formative."