| Interruption and discontinuity in Anthony W Harding’s Lekgowa
Author: Anthony W Harding
Published by New Voices, Cape Town, 2010
In the past five years South Africa has seen an upsurge of “life writing”, telling the stories of ordinary people in the post-apartheid era. These works (including Adam Levin’s Aidsafari, Chris van Wyk’s Shirley, Goodness & Mercy and its sequel, Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch) are a reaction to the totalising “grand narratives” of apartheid and colonialism, which held (if implicitly) that there was only one available identity for each racial group in South Africa, and only one story to be told for each of them. For blacks, the story bemoaned oppression. For whites, it celebrated superiority. For those in between, it was another story altogether. In the wake of the destruction of these grand narratives, life writings refuse totalising narration: instead, they assert the value of nuance and particularity. Instead of group narratives, they insist on local and individual stories. They offer a timely intervention in national discourse about homogeneity and the levelling of identities.
Tony Harding’s Lekgowa fits into this new group of writings. Harding’s life story is, in his own words, about “interruption” and discontinuity. Born to a family in Cape Town’s English-speaking upper social strata, he learned early that the collective identity of English South Africans was not as seamless as it appeared. His first introduction to the disjuncture between the English South African myth of superiority and the real conflicts within that class came through the realisation of class difference between his parents. It sparked an unrelenting enquiry into the nature of all differences in the society that had formed him – and a restless discontent with its rigidly policed boundaries. Lekgowa is the record of Harding’s search for understanding the social dynamics that construct white identity, and authenticity within the endemic racial and class hierarchies of South African society.
Lekgowa’s intended audience is black and white South Africans. One of Harding’s stated intentions is to enlighten black readers about the conflicts and difficulties – what he calls the “myths” and “magic” – of constructed white identity. He has found that “whiteness”, as a mythical construct, is designed to homogenise white people in the interests of economic and discursive power. But being founded on the “void” of denying the full humanity of black people, it is doomed to implode under the stress of its own internal tensions. The title, Lekgowa, from the SeSotho word for white person, epitomises blacks’ ironic view of whites, and turns an ironic gaze back at those who have assumed their own superiority for centuries.
The text of Lekgowa covers many aspects of the construction of white identity. In one sense it is a classic quest narrative which traces the protagonist’s search for belonging and authenticity. The quest has geographical outlines as Harding travels the length and breadth of South Africa’s poorest and richest regions; but it is primarily a quest for self-understanding. Harding’s search for his roots leads him back through occluded family histories, and forward into the culmination of his life journey: his marriage to Tiny Mankge and his acceptance into the Gamawela community in Limpopo. Harding is not “begging to be black”; rather, he is fully accepted as a member of his adoptive community, which happens to be black. With sophisticated awareness of the danger of being read as yet another white man with a black wife, Harding explores his own history and arrives at the text’s epigraph: “In the end, every truth is a lie.” This means that every social and cultural identity that is invested in its own closure masks falsehoods in the processes of its own construction. Once these masks and veils are torn away, not only is supposedly coherent “identity” revealed to be a fiction, but other identities are revealed – and the process is never-ending. The “purity” of identity is exposed as a front for irreducible hybridity.
Lekgowa is a challenging read. It is not for anyone who wants to have their own sense of identity confirmed. For one thing, its chronology is not linear, as Harding moves between various “chapters” of his own past with apparently nonchalant disregard for the reader’s desire for closure. For another, he inserts reflections, often of a highly academic kind, into his own story. But this is as it should be: after all, the unreflected life is not worth living. The reader is drawn into multiple explorations of varied identities, along with his ruminations on life, death and near death; the role of ancestors in the world of the living; and his own lack of resolution with regard to his maternal bloodline. The hybrid mixture of discourses in the text makes for discontinuous reading and enacts Harding’s own, sometimes jarring, awareness of diverse influences at work in his own psyche and existential situation. In fact, it mirrors the contested and problematic role of whites in South Africa, who are attempting to come to terms with a country in which their own superiority has been unseated, as well as the plethora of discourses around identity in our country.
The rewards of reading Lekgowa, though, far outweigh the challenges. Harding presents himself as sometimes hapless and hamstrung by his family dysfunctions, but relentlessly courageous in his search for the truth about himself, as a white person and as a fully functioning member of South African society. In the end, the courage to confront his personal demons and the demons of our country wins out. He faces down opposition and creates an authentic identity, not only as a “gentleman farmer”, but as a man who has made peace with himself. This is a triumphant ending to his quest, but not an unrealistic one, since he acknowledges, postmodern-style, that the search for oneself can never be concluded.
It is impossible to read this text without being challenged to interrogate one’s own role, history and position, whether in the aftermath of European colonialism, or in post-apartheid South Africa. And this is its real value: by subverting certainties based on domination and subordination in South Africa, it gestures towards full understanding of the processes that have formed us and brought us to our current situation, without which we cannot move forward.
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