Nadine Gordimer Dies at 90

Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer

Death of an Activist

Conscience is a word we hear very little in the 21st century. We hear unconscionable a lot. The unconscionable global conflicts where innocent civilians are at continual risk. The unconscionable abuse of women and girls worldwide. The unconscionable lack of concern for the hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram on April 14, still unrecovered after months, despite thousands of Bring Back Our Girls messages on social media and dozens of rallies worldwide, those girls still lost to unknown horrors.

Unconscionable is a commonplace, but its obverse, conscience, is rarely spoken of.

Nadine Gordimer – Nobel laureate, world-renowned author and political activist–was a voice of conscience throughout her entire life, which came to a peaceful end July 13 at her home in Johannesburg, her family announced July 14. Gordimer was 90.

As a young writer–her first adult fiction was published when she was just 16–Gordimer said she didn’t intend to write about apartheid, but said that as she dug deep into relationships in South Africa and into South African life, she continued to come up against the same thing: repression caused by apartheid rule, relationships subverted and contravened by the racial schism in South African society, a world riven by the very concept of two separate and unequal societies.

A New York Times interview quoted Gordimer explaining,”I am not a political person by nature. I don’t suppose if I had lived elsewhere, my writing would have reflected politics much, if at all.”

But she was born in and lived in South Africa her entire life, and in 1948, when she was only 25 and apartheid was the law of the land under the Afrikaner regime, she began her long journey into political and literary activism. Her first book of stories, Face to Face, was published the following year.

Apartheid Government Banned Her Books

Gordimer’s books were banned by the apartheid government because she consistently and provocatively wrote about all aspects of South African society, white and black, in the poor black townships and in the rich white enclaves. Whether in a lesbian and gay shebeen (illegal bar) in the townships or an all-white country club in the gated suburbs, Gordimer’s characters–like everyone she knew–were dramatically impacted by the perilous oppression of apartheid, no matter what their race.

Early in her career Gordimer told of seeing a black worker at her parents’ home having his belongings searched by security forces. It was something she would later experience herself. Gordimer was always on the radar of the apartheid regime. She had joined the banned African National Congress (ANC), which was verboten for anyone, but especially for whites. She supported black writers and activists. She was forbidden by the government from meeting with any persons of color, but she did so anyway, regularly defying the regime. She also provided meeting spaces, passed messages and performed other covert acts that were later attributed to characters in her novels and stories, but for which she never took credit herself.

Over the years of her involvement with the ANC, Gordimer was also involved with Nelson Mandela, both politically and personally. In 1962, she helped edit Nelson Mandela’s famous I am prepared to die speech. As she wrote later in The New Yorker, “I knew the privilege of becoming one of his friends.”

It was a friendship that would last until his death in December 2013.

Shortly after his release from prison in 1990, Mandela requested to meet her and they stayed in touch for the rest of his life. After his death Gordimer wrote about that meeting and about more of their relationship together and their relationship to South Africa and their fight against apartheid in a personal tribute piece for The New Yorker. She began, “To have lived one’s life at the same time, and in the same natal country, as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a guidance and a privilege we South Africans shared.”

She also said of Mandela that even when he was imprisoned at Robben Island–where her books were smuggled in to him–”For a spirit like his, ‘walls do not a prison make’; his spirit could not be in the custody of apartheid. We could still feel his political intellect.”

She had previously described Mandela as being “at the epicenter of our time, ours in South Africa, and yours, wherever you are.”

The same could now be said of Gordimer herself–that we can still feel the political intellect she repeatedly professed not to have, but which the breadth and content of her books and essays contravene. She was to the core of her literary and personal being a fighter for justice and truth. And while she may have perceived herself as removed from overt political struggle, the details of her life contradict that perception.

In an interview with Al Jazeera conducted two years ago, Gordimer said, “One of the key things is that those of us who were in the struggle at the peak of it all, were totally concentrating on getting rid of the apartheid, on defeating the regime. We did not have the time to think about what we would have to face afterwards.”

In 1991, when Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the Nobel Committee noted that Gordimer “through her magnificent epic writing has, in the words of Alfred Nobel, been of very great benefit to humanity.”

That is the very definition of activism–having benefitted humanity.

In an era of “social justice warriors” and hashtag activism, we would do well to remember what real, life-altering, world-changing activism looks like: It is taking real risks beyond the keyboard to make the world–even one’s small corner of it–a better, more humane place. Nadine Gordimer did that: she illumined and exposed the world of apartheid, of injustice, of racial hatred in her writing and in her life. She put herself and her life at risk every day. South Africa in specific and we as a global society are better for those risks she took. She was a shining example of what a truly activist life can achieve. Gordimer said, “Time is change; we measure its passing by how much things alter.”

Gordimer helped alter one of the most repressive regimes in recent history. Gordimer’s is an example we would all do well to emulate as best we can–particularly when it comes to that elusive conscience. For as Gordimer said, “The truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.”

Additional link:

Mandela, My Countryman by Nadine Gordimer