Now that my thesis is finally submitted, let me tell you a bit more about it.

When I started my interest in Afrikaans poetry, I quickly realized that the things I learned about traditional trauma poetry did not always seem to do this kind of poetry justice. Those theories were often based on Holocaust literature, which is just a completely different subject. For example, it is very strong on psychoanalysis, which is quite Eurocentric. Differences in culture and thus not really taken into account.

In my thesis, I analysed six poems from three authors: Adam Small, Breyten Breytenbach and Ronelda Kamfer. In these analyses, I looked at which approaches of the trauma in these poems proved most productive. For these three authors, different subjects turned out to be important, but they all seemed to benefit from an approach that was less traditional and more context sensitive.

Adam Small’s poetry is known for its many repetitions and its Christian themes. I looked at his poems “Vryheid” and “What abou’ de lô”, and found out there’s a lot of community building going on in these poems. Even though they are about trauma, Small is not presenting victims to us but strong people who finds ways of dealing with what happened to them. In “Vryheid” he explicitely addresses the non-white community as a whole and apartheid as a test of God, which they will endure together. In “What abou’ de lô”, Small’s simplistic style makes it easy to identify with and even though the main characters of the poem eventually die because of apartheid, they always keep their own agency.

Whereas Small wants to build a community, Breytenbach wants to deconstruct it. He is the only white author in this corpus of three and he completely destroys the concept of whiteness. Breytenbach was an anti-apartheid activist who spent seven years in prison for his fight against the regime and he is… not subtle about what he thinks of the white Afrikaners and their ideas of white supremacy. So not only does he deconstruct the hell out of what racists think whiteness means, he also poses a wonderful alternative to whiteness by building his own identity in a very fluid, globalized way, highly inspired by Zen Buddhism. Where trauma normally shows to destroy one’s identity, Breytenbach says to his oppressors: you cannot destroy my identity, because you have the wrong idea of what it is.

Ronelda S. Kamfer is the third author I discussed for my thesis. Young, female, she is part of a new generation of Afrikaans poets. Her poetry is written and published after the abolishment of apartheid, which makes it so very interesting as it shows how apartheid is still a big influence on the South African society. What she does to deal with this trauma, is trying to reclaim her identity. Just as the other poets, Kamfer writes in Afrikaans, a language that is often associated with the apartheid government but of which the majority of the speakers are non-white. This is why Kamfer wants to reclaim Afrikaans, not only the language but parts of the culture that are associated with it as well, like certain foods and music.

So for all three authors, identity is an important subject, whether they build it, deconstruct it, or reclaim it. As the theme of identity is not mentioned much in traditional trauma theory, and as the meaning of identity can differ greatly between different cultures, a postcolonial, context sensitive approach when discussing trauma literature can be highly productive.

10 thoughts on “My thesis: Trauma in Afrikaans Anti-Apartheid Poetry

  1. The whole Apartheid thing was both misunderstood and therefore misrepresented. Truth usually is the first fatality and, sadly, the poets never saw the Light.

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    1. Maybe I wasn’t clear but my thesis is about trauma, not about truth. Trauma is a subjective experience so it’s not really a matter of truth.
      That being said, your comment it quite cryptical. Could you explain more clearly what you mean?

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      1. It is clear, yes. But we get bombarded by it and that is also traumatic. Especially how the whole altered story gets twisted. It affects who we are and how we live in a bad way. It is biased. If only the poets were truthful and objective.

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      2. I don’t think the function of poetry is to be truthful and objective, we have historiography for that. And you could say that the abovementioned poets are truthful in the expression of their experience, an experience which can be both subjective and truthful.
        But I look very much forward to your MA thesis on the function of truth within trauma poetry. Let me know how that goes.

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      3. The problem is that the world saw it as truthful and we had to bear the brunt for decades, singled out as only brutal racists. Why then did the poets not write about the other sides of the coins? I am a poet myself and, as in everything else, try to be as truthful as possible. But the historians seemed to have collaborated with poets to portray only one side.

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      4. These Afrikaans poets do not single a group out “as only brutal racists”. “What abou’ de lô” by Adam Small is about a biracial couple, it shows how apartheid was oppressive for both white and non-white people. The white girl in the couple suffers exactly the same fate as her coloured boyfriend. His poem “Vryheid” never accuses white people, it accuses the system. When it comes to Breytenbach: this white man went to jail for seven years because of apartheid. His marriage to an Asian woman made him an exile from his country. You can not talk about Breytenbach and his work and claim that all white people are represented as brutal racists because his work is exactly about the fact that such a statement is impossible. He does not believe in the group of “white people” (that’s the whole statement I make about him deconstructing whiteness), he accuses the system and individuals working within that system.
        Plus, “bearing the brunt for decades”? Well, Kind of the whole country got traumatized. Maybe give them more than a day to get over it, especially with white people still making three times as much money as non-white people. Only the apartheid of the government ended in 1994, the rest took (still taking) more time and will also take some time to get over.
        It’s good to hear you’re a poet yourself but everybody writes in different ways and lots of people write about their own, personal experiences. We look at things in different ways, that does not make things untruthful, it just means we have a different perspective.

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  2. Hi Francine

    Is your thesis available to read. I am also doing a thesis on the work of Ronelda S. Kamfer and would love to read what you have written.

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