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Human displacement an enduring theme in our literature

Date Released: Thu, 31 October 2013 15:25 +0200

Human settlement, more often than not, emanates from human displacement.

This displacement has for centuries been driven by political and religious upheavals; changes in weather patterns, colonisation and epidemics. These resulted and continue to result in wars, floods, fires, droughts, famine and death. In many instances, one form of displacement leads to another.

For example, war can lead to famine and the outbreak of epidemics, especially when people are held in confined spaces such as concentration camps and prisons. In South Africa, there has hardly been a period of longer than 10 years without the major outbreak of a disease, leading to death and displacement.

This began with the epidemic of smallpox which just about wiped out the local population when the Europeans arrived, through to Spanish influenza (which killed 300 000 South Africans in six weeks), polio and HIV-Aids These "big deaths" displaced entire families, sending survivors to seek sanctuary in different spaces and within various newly formed family configurations, including child-headed households.

Today one need only consider Syria and the Middle East, where people are being continually displaced by civil war. Floods have recently displaced hundreds of thousands of people in India, China, Mexico and New Zealand, while devastating fires in the US remain a constant threat. One can barely switch on the news without hearing the term "displaced" in relation to tsunamis, earthquakes and wars.

In the same way that the scramble for Africa displaced both Europeans and Africans, today Africans are on the move: From Somalia to Kenya, from the DRC to Rwanda, from Zimbabwe to South Africa and from Africa to the rest of the world. It is estimated that there are over 400 000 South Africans living in the UK alone and more than two million Zimbabweans living in South Africa.

It is this continual displacement which has resulted in emigration and immigration. The movement of the Nguni speakers in a southerly direction, as well as the arrival of the first Europeans led to the total displacement and decimation of the first peoples, the Khoi and the San. The wars between the colonialists themselves, the Boers and the British as well as between the English and, for example, the amaXhosa are well documented.

The frontier wars of resistance led to massive displacement of the amaXhosa people, culminating in the Xhosa cattle-killing and resulting in famine, death and the final loss of independence for the amaXhosa. The displacement of South Africa's peoples continued unabated from the arrival of the Europeans, the 1913 Land Act being responsible for legally entrenching this removal of peoples.

This was again reinforced under apartheid where the Group Areas Act and the formation of the so-called independent homelands led to massive displacement of people. Cape Town's District Six is but one example. Our writers have for years used this human displacement within their thematic repertoires: from Peter Mtuze's Xhosa works which explore displacement in the Karoo and political upheavals through his short stories, to Andre Brink's works.

Nadine Gordimer's body of work exposes the horrific nature of South Africa's political displacement, while JM Coetzee's writing culminates in the displacement of the South African psyche through his work Disgrace.

Kaschula is professor of African language studies and NRF SARChI chair: Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education at Rhodes University. He is the author of Displaced (Unisa Press), a collection of 12 short stories depicting the South African psyche of displacement from the 1800s to the present. Khaya Dlanga is away.

Article Source: CAPE TIMES

Source:Cape Times