Monday Original Content: SF in South Africa, by Nick Wood

SF in SA 10 (December 2009)

With acknowledgement to prior publication in Locus Magazine, November 2009.

South African speculative fiction over the ages

In this overview of South African written science or speculative fiction (SF), I aim to give a socio-historical account of the progress of the genre, as the fiction produced over the decades cannot be fully understood without appreciating the context in which it emerges.

Fully two years before the first appearance of Amazing Stories and Hugo Gernsback’s notion of ‘scientifiction,’ a South African writer called Ferdinand Berthoud appeared in ‘Weird Tales v.3(1)’ (January 1924), with a story called ‘The Man who Banished Himself’.  Berthoud was to have a number of stories in the pulps over the years, including a story perhaps more provocatively entitled – from a contemporary perspective – ‘A white man never steals: A novelette of the South African veldt.’ This is a fascinating if slightly disturbing read: the story’s plot and characters, both black and white, twist and turn, in order to keep the veracity of the title intact – perhaps with some underlying authorial irony, perhaps not.  ‘Webbed Hands’, which appeared as a cover story in ‘Strange Tales’ issue of December 1931 is more firmly within the speculative fiction genre. This is part horror-story, but with an underlying pseudo-scientific premise that the ‘brown savage’ monster at the heart of the story who is committing murders in locations throughout Cape Town is the product of a ‘renegade English promoter’ and an unknown – perhaps ‘unnatural’ – mother from ‘the center of Africa’ (p.171). The central potential theme for this (white) South African speculative fiction appears to be a fear of both ‘racial miscegenation’ and possibly what lurks within ‘central Africa’ too. (To be fair to subtleties within Berthoud’s story, as well as the socio-historical context of his writing, perhaps the ‘real’ monster is the white manipulator who gets his ‘just desserts’ in the end.)

A year after the publication of ‘Webbed Hands’ (1932), the psychologist R.W. Wilcocks, investigating the ‘poor white problem’ in South Africa under the Carnegie Commission, called for ‘legislation which inflicts severe penalties on sexual intercourse between races.’ One of Wilcocks’ psychologist protégés, H.F. Verwoerd, obliged by becoming an architect in the National Party’s introduction of apartheid in 1948, thus introducing a raft of racist legislation, including the aptly named ‘Immorality Act’, which was aimed at ensuring ‘white racial purity’ (and dominance).

Science fiction in South Africa during the apartheid years was a relatively subdued arena, given the socio-political exigencies of the time. ‘Black’ writing was discouraged as a potential outlet for grievances and political action, with apartheid policies dividing educational resources to try and maintain a large skill divide between a deliberately less literate black ‘underclass’ and a more skilled white hegemony. Realist fiction was thus seen as more ‘relevant’ to exploring the issues of living in South Africa, with many (black) writers challenging the status quo having their works banned or censored, such as Can Themba and Lewis Nkosi – see Peter McDonald’s (2009) ‘The Literature Police’ for more details.

An English South African writer who published internationally during the sixties and seventies was Claude Nunes, who wrote ‘Inherit the Earth’ (1966); Recoil (1971) with his wife Rhoda and ‘The Sky Trapeze’ (1980), with thematic foci covering concerns such as telepathic androids, aliens and ‘how to live in peace’ (Clute & Nicholls, 1993, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction). One (Afrikaans) writer also bucking the trend was Jan Rabie, who wrote a number of overtly science-fiction books, such as ‘Swart ster oor die Karoo’ (Black star over the Karoo, 1957), ‘Die groen planeet’ (The green planet, 1961) and ‘Die hemelblom’ (The Heaven Flower, 1971). These also tended to mirror dominant Euro-American SF themes however, such as space-travel and alien plants. (Rabie, however, was also part of a movement of Afrikaner writers beginning to challenge the dominant discourse of apartheid, known as ‘Die Sestigers’ (The Sixty-ers), which included Andre Brink and Breyten Breytenbach.)

As the political ‘heat’ within the country rose after the Soweto uprising and the death in detention of Steve Biko in the mid to later seventies, several books emerged of perhaps a more surreal/fantastic bent. Nobel Laureate John M. Coetzee’s (1980) ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ is one such book, with a magistrate caught between the brutal forces of Empire and the ‘barbarians’ supposedly waiting to invade. The censors suspected the book of being a thinly veiled allegorical allusion to both the apartheid state (as ‘Empire’) and the gathering forces of revolution or ‘swart gevaar’ (black danger), as the ‘barbarians’. Coetzee’s book, unlike Andre Brink’s earlier (1973) ‘Kennis van die Aand’ (Looking on Darkness), escaped a banning order.  Coetzee followed this up with a near-futuristic dystopia called ‘The Life and Times of Michael K’ (1983), whereby a ‘simple’ hare-lipped gardener journeys to his mother’s rural birth-place through civil-war torn South Africa.

Michael Cope’s (1987) book ‘Spiral of Fire’ is set during The State of Emergency in South Africa and uses a meta-fictional science fiction plot in order to juxtapose exploration of a First Contact peaceful ‘alien culture’, with the reality of military devastation unleashed upon  burning black townships.

Following the demise of apartheid in the nineties, there was a freeing up of literary constraints, although always operating within the parameters of publishing and marketing decisions. ‘Science fiction’ has tended to be low in the priorities of local publishing houses and I have heard an editor state it does not have a significant black readership. This may to some extent be true – the legacy of apartheid means that education and even just generic reading and writing has had a huge equality backlog to catch up on, between the ‘white’ and ‘black’ populations. Furthermore, it operates within a Western scientific discourse with tainted colonial associations and may perhaps be questioned both with regards to its relevance and its assumptions as to what is ‘real’ or central to lived experience in Africa. (Various religious and traditional/super-natural/alternative epistemological beliefs are still dominant across the world as well as Africa. For an excellent discussion on relevance, see Nnedi Okorafor’s online post – ‘Is Africa ready for science fiction?’)

Notwithstanding this, I think there are very promising swells in a growing South African wave of science – or perhaps speculative – fiction in its broadest sense. For Young Adult readers for example, there have been ‘South African flavoured’ SF books such as: Peter Wilhelm’s (1984) Summer’s End; Elana Bregin’s (1995) The Slayer of Shadows; Peter Slingsby’s (1996) The Joining; Robin Saunders’ (1998) Sons of Anubis; Jenny Robson’s (2004) Savannah 2216 AD; my own (2004) The Stone Chameleon and Lesley Beake’s (2009) Remembering Green amongst others. On the other side of the Limpopo River, although she is now US resident, there is Nancy Farmer’s (1995) Zimbabwean based The Ear, The Eye and The Arm.

With regards to adult writing, there has been a South African ‘science fiction and horror’ magazine called Something Wicked, which has published short fiction by writers such as Sarah Lotz, Dave de Beer and Richard Kunzmann in its initial ten issues, with a plan to perhaps go online/digital. (Richard Kunzmann, although he is Namibian born, has also written a trilogy of excellent South African crime thrillers with speculative-fiction elements, starting with Bloody Harvests.)

Operating for a mammoth 141 issues however, is the Science Fiction Club of South Africa’s (SFSA) magazine Probe, which has been in existence since 1969. Probe publishes both winners and runners up from its annual science fiction short story competition called the ‘Novas’ and has published stories by writers such as W.G. Lipsett; Gerhard Hope, Arthur Goldstuck, Liz Simmons and Yvonne Walus, as well as three collections of short stories from Probe entitled The Best of South African Science Fiction.

A worthy collection of perhaps more specifically broader African speculative/science fiction was published within Chimurenga magazine’s double issue (12&13) Doctor Satan’s Echo Chamber. Further, with regards to African writing, a South African short story that won the 2008 Caine Prize for best African writing in English was called ‘Poison’, written by Henrietta Rose-Innes; a story which was set just outside a post-apocalyptic Cape Town. Henrietta’s novels ‘Shark’s Egg’ and ‘The Rock Alphabet’ as well as perhaps Tom Eaton’s ‘The Wading’ are beautifully written fictions possibly akin to a South African version of ‘slipstream’.

There have been other science fiction stories published internationally by South African sf writers: Lavie Tidhar for instance spent a considerable period of time in South Africa and his ‘Bophuthatswana’ appearing in Farah Mendlesohn’s (2006) Glorifying Terrorism has clear South African concerns, delivered in localised language.

One South African writer who has been productive for a full decade with both books and short fiction is Dave Freer, who has written solo – his first book The Forlorn was published in 1999 – as well as teaming up at various points with Eric Flint and Mercedes Lackey. Dave has also written a solid batch of novellas and short stories, some peculiarly and specifically South African; such as Candyblossom, in The Best of Jim Baen’s Universe (2006). A South African based writer of Scottish origin, Paul Crilley, also publishes internationally and has a forthcoming YA novel due out in the USA in 2010, named the ‘Rise of the Darklings.’

Two recent books that explore the South African landscape as bifurcated by the urban-rural divide are Jane Rosenthal’s (2004) Souvenir and Lauren Beukes (2008) Moxyland. The hip multi-media style of Moxyland includes an accompanying urban soundtrack – the book itself is written in a fast paced style, steeped in South African language and within a near-future dystopian Cape Town separated by corporate rather than racist apartheid. The term ‘apartheid’ itself is not used within the novel as far as I am aware, which carries its history lightly but cleverly as it moves rapidly between shifting perspectives and ways of communicating towards its moving climax. Lauren is busy completing her second book ‘Zoo City’ and is a writer to watch – for both now and the future!

Likewise there is much to recommend Jane Rosenthal’s ‘Souvenir’ – a meditation on the diverse South African landscape and the mirrored shaping impact on relationships of the future. The narrative follows the work of a ‘barbiclone’ in the latter half of the twenty-first century as she balloons above the desert-like hinterland of the Karoo, down to the coast where a giant tsunami awaits, driven by collapsing ice-shelves from Antarctica. Although significantly slower than ‘Moxyland’, the pace is sufficient for the story. (It’s also good to see a major character of Nigerian heritage and who is a sympathetically drawn character in a South African product!)

In Afrikaans, Eben Venter has written ‘Horrelpoot’ (2006), now in translation as ‘Trencherman’, confronting a dystopian South African future. Finally, and not least of all – although it’s not strictly science fiction – South African ‘magical realism’ certainly fits under the speculative fiction umbrella. For me, the pre-eminent South African writer here is Zakes Mda, who has written a spate of works, of which his The Heart of Redness and The Whale Caller are particularly inspiring.  As Gerald Gaylard (2005) argues in ‘After Colonialism: African Postmodernism and Magical Realism’, the ‘liberated imagination’ in these stories may also provide the basis for resolving many complex issues within postcolonial Africa.

There is thus a huge variety of South African speculative fiction potentially brewing for the future, as befits a ‘Rainbow Nation’. It will be interesting to see, as science takes a more secure educative role across the country, how this may impact on the development of the local version of the genre – particularly as more ‘black’ writing emerges, as well as writings in the other ten official languages and more. It is likely, given the recency of South Africa’s post-colonial experience, to be a burgeoning genre of both subversion and multiplicity, with much to recommend reading it!

Although this is not a comprehensive South(ern) African account, brief mention should be made at least of emerging literature in neighbouring countries, such as Zimbabwe – e.g. broadly speculative-fiction writers Dambudzo Marechera (d.35 years of age), Yvonne Vera, Ivor Hartmann and George Makana Clark.  On the Indian Ocean coast side of Zimbabwe, the magical realist writings of Mia Couto illuminate the experiences of both human and animals within Mozambique. And so it goes on, stories from Africa, finally embracing Africa…

Nick Wood © 2009


8 thoughts on “Monday Original Content: SF in South Africa, by Nick Wood

  1. I worked for Hugo for many years and then his son Harvey. Eventually I got to be owner of Gernsback Publications inc.

    For more information on Hugo Gernsback check out a new biography available on Amazon.

    The document was found by me when we closed down Gernsback Publications in 2003. It was an old ms that I edited and produced as a book.

    Follow the link and you can go to the book and thanks to Amazon’s “look inside” feature, you can even get an idea of what it covers.

    Hope you find it interesting.

    For more information feel free to contact me, Larry Steckler, at

  2. Thanks for the kind words and I am glad you found it, although I’m not sure how, as I don’t have any ‘Zoo World Cheat’ suggestions there, I’m afraid!

  3. As far as I know the first sci-fi book in SA was ‘Loeloeraai’ (1923) by CJ Langenhoven. It features interesting contradictions: the coloured characters address the white ones as ‘Baas’, but the evolved, pacifist Loeloeraai (from Venus) preaches a message of equality and a utopian future thanks to concurrent technological and spiritual development.

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