Born and raised in South Africa, the writer Nadine Gordimer confronted the turbulent political reality of her country in her novels, short stories and essays. Her rich body of work won her a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991. Some of Gordimer’s best known novels are A Guest of Honour (1970), The Conservationist (1974), Burger’s Daughter (1979) and July’s People (1981). Her last novel, No Time Like the Present was published in 2013.
In this interview with Bill that aired on November 4, 1990, Gordimer explained how she, a white South African, got so deeply involved in black politics in the course of her writing career. Read the entire transcript below.
“I start with people. I’ve never been — I was very slow to develop any kind of political understanding, let alone a political philosophy. I’ve arrived at it all through human beings, through my contact with people. I’ve come to understand politics through what politics does to people, not through theory.”
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] With Nelson Mandela’s release from prison early in 1990, South Africans began writing a new chapter in their history. His triumphant appearance was taken by many as a signal of the end to apartheid. But recent news of violence in the black townships and the continuing resistance from white reactionaries has reminded the world of the complexities of a society in transition.
Nadine Gordimer knows that society well. Along with her countryman, Mandela, she was recently a delegate to an international conference on the anatomy of hate held in Oslo, Norway.
Born and raised in South Africa, Nadine Gordimer is one of her country’s most prolific writers. In her novels, short stories and essays, Nadine Gordimer confronts the turbulent political reality of South Africa as it engulfs the people who live there.
[interviewing] Give me some idea of the scope of what South Africa is up against right now. What are you trying to do there now?
NADINE GORDIMER: Well, I think that we are trying to– when I say we, I mean people who understand that there has to be change, and people that truly want effective change, who don’t want to keep up the old white supremacy under some new guise. And I think that we have to be very, very realistic about it, that there’s a tremendous amount of rethinking to be done. Basically, it must start, of course, with the change of the laws. That’s the only way, the only basis upon which you can build a decent society. But we’ve got to get rid of all the apartheid laws.
BILL MOYERS: Because those laws actually institutionalize racism. Color is what matters, because the laws say it does.
NADINE GORDIMER: Yes. Yes. But it’s also institutionalized certain ways of life, and when people are born, generation after generation within certain ways of life, these habits become ingrained and they’re passed on, you know, from the cradle to the grave. And I think there’s a great deal of unlearning to be done in South Africa. I think it was Graham Green who said once, in one of his books, that you become accustomed to whatever violence there is in your own society. It seems to be the way the world is. We have to get rid of all that. It’s as basic as learning to use the same entrances. It’s only a few years now that in the post office, for instance, we stand in the same queues.
All the time that I was a child, and even in my adult life, there was an entrance for blacks and an entrance for whites. And the same thing in many shops. Black people were expected-if they went to buy a pair of shoes, they couldn’t try them on. If a woman went to buy a dress, a white woman could take 10 into a fitting room and put them on, but a black woman couldn’t put them on, because she was regarded as something dirty.
BILL MOYERS: It wasn’t too long ago that those same prohibitions and conditions prevailed in the United States.
NADINE GORDIMER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Twenty-five years ago, I can remember, “For colored only” signs on the drinking fountains, move to the back of the bus, that sort of thing.
NADINE GORDIMER: Yes, yes. So there are all these habits. But those things have really been overcome, to a large extent. There still is, because it really only started last year, the desegregation of the beaches. All my life, it’s just been taken for granted that whites went onto the beaches and blacks just were not allowed. Now, growing up there as a white child, I suppose I thought that blacks didn’t want to go to the beach, or that they didn’t want to go into the water. Didn’t question it. And it’s only when you begin to think and question and doubt that you become a rebel in your society, because you see how you have been living the lie all the time.
BILL MOYERS: How does that insight come to some and not to others? I mean, you could have learned the very laws that other white children were learning and have gone out thinking this is the way it not only is, but must be. And yet, somewhere along the way, you rebelled, you took your own route, you made your own choices. You became different.
NADINE GORDIMER: Mmm. I think it’s quite mysterious, because it’s true that some people simply don’t begin to doubt. To me, doubt is the healthiest thing in the world. I think for me, my realization of what racism was doing in the world in which I lived really came from reading. And one of the books, I think, that really made me think was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Because when I read of the conditions under which the Chicago meatpackers lived, I made the connection — I was about 14, I suppose — between them and the black migratory mineworkers. You see, in this little mining town when I lived in this white enclave, there were thousands of black mineworkers which came from all over southern Africa. And they lived in these hostels. And they were just units of labor. They didn’t, they were discouraged from mixing in the town. They lived in these barracks, the single-sex hostel system, which is still with us and which is one of the prime causes of the violence in the black townships today.
BILL MOYERS: Because?
NADINE GORDIMER: Because there they live on contracts from six to 18 months which are constantly renewed, they can’t get work where they live, so they come to work to be part of the industrial and mining complexes of the big cities, and they’re without their women, without their families, and the only kind of bonding they have is the fact that they-it’s a kind of a tribal bonding, that they are Zulu speakers, or Nkosa speakers or Twana speakers, depending upon where they come from. And tremendous tensions arise, which can be exploited politically, and which are being exploited politically now. But when I was a child, they were simply these strange black men, many of them, in those days, still wearing their blankets — the Mozambiqueans had clay on their hair — and the way that they lived seemed to me to relate to the way that the meatpackers lived.
BILL MOYERS: What a testament to the power of reading, that by reading Sinclair’s novel about Chicago your own imagination was awakened about the people living right there not far from your home in South Africa. What was it Beckett wrote, Samuel Beckett wrote, “In reading a voice comes and whispers, ‘Imagine, imagine.'”
NADINE GORDIMER: Well, that’s what literature really does, doesn’t it? It opens the world to you, and then you apply that to your own world.
BILL MOYERS: Are there still heroes in South Africa?
NADINE GORDIMER: Oh, yes.
BILL MOYERS: Who are they?
NADINE GORDIMER: Well, first of all, you heard one yesterday. I mean, Nelson is a fantastic hero. But there are many others, too. The young men who have refused in the last few years to go into the South African army because they won’t go into the townships and tear-gas people, and shoot them.
BILL MOYERS: Whites?
NADINE GORDIMER: Of course, we only have conscription for whites.
BILL MOYERS: Yes.
NADINE GORDIMER: In our army. And who would have thought that these young men, some of them are 18, 19 years old, refused to go in and until very recently, now they are being let out, those that were in prison. But they got six years, five years imprisonment, just because they wouldn’t go into the army. I think they are heroes.
BILL MOYERS: What did you think when you saw Nelson Mandela walk out of prison?
NADINE GORDIMER: Well, it was just… amazing, because it had been talked about for so long, and there’d been so many evasive movements. Our governments, our white governments, have been the masters of evasion, they really have. When you think of all the different things they’ve devised to show that they were moving away from apartheid, whereas they weren’t, they were sidling this way or that way, but here was something concrete. The doors opened, and out he came.
I mean, to go to, as I did, to the rallies when Nelson came out, these enormous rallies in Soweto, one just couldn’t believe it, because we were so used to this kind of thing being purely clandestine. If people gathered somewhere, there was always a danger of the police arriving. All sorts of meetings had been banned for so long, it was like a dream.
BILL MOYERS: Against those pictures of Nelson Mandela being released, the world is now putting pictures like this — which I cut out on the way to visit you -what are we to make of those pictures? So much violence of black against black, that many people think a doomsday scenario is more likely for your country than the prospect of peace.
NADINE GORDIMER: You see, I think you can draw a parallel between that picture with the euphoria of a rally when Nelson came out, and there are two simplistic assumptions there. When you saw these rallies pictured, it just seemed everything is wonderful, the millennium is beginning. Mandela’s out, apartheid is going to be finished tomorrow, everybody is going to be happy, everybody’s going to have somewhere to live, all sorts of labor problems and social problems are going to be solved, just like that.
But of course they were not, because many apartheid structures, while people were waving flags, including myself, at these rallies, hundreds of thousands of blacks had nowhere to live. There’s this tremendous squatter problem growing worse and worse around all the towns. The government moves them from here, they put up their shacks somewhere else. And this has gone on for years. So there’s that tremendous problem. People have got nowhere to live. So these plans of social engineering, which is what apartheid has been, in the end, to give it a clean term, and an ugly term, I think they were all still there, even though Mandela was out.
Now here you have the opposite thing. You show black-on-black bloodbath. In the last two weeks at home, something like 600 people, I think Nelson Mandela quoted yesterday, were killed in this sort of fighting. And black-on-black bloodbath, if you read it, it says, “These are Zulus and Nkosas fighting.” True, they are.
BILL MOYERS: Tribes.
NADINE GORDIMER: Yes. Two different tribes, the one coming from one area of the country, doesn’t matter how long ago, and others, their origin somewhere else. But it’s not as simple as it looks. What are their living conditions? These are the people I’ve just been talking about. This is the migratory labor system, which existed when I was a child and has not changed. Indeed, it has grown much bigger, because as the country became highly industrialized, not any of the mines, but the huge building industry, for instance, runs on migratory labor. There are recruiters going to the outlying areas and especially into the statelets, the Bantustans that were started when South Africa was — they tried to divide, to move blacks into one area here, and this was white-
BILL MOYERS: Sort of reservations.
NADINE GORDIMER: Reservations.
BILL MOYERS: Like Indian reservations at home.
NADINE GORDIMER: Exactly. So they are recruited there, they’re signed on for, as I said, 18 months or six months or a year or whatever it is. They pack up, leave their families, come and live in these hostels. Now, these hostels are very often just on the edge of big black townships of local people, people who don’t-who have long forgotten the fact that they come from different tribes. They are intermarried, they are urban people, working in town and living an almost suburban life. But on the edge of where they live, they’ve got these great concentrations of men, of single men, with nothing to do in their leisure time and no real connection with the general population. So what happens is this. When there’s any sort of dispute over anything, it could be that people have a few drinks and they’ve — one small row between them comes up, then probably there’ll be a fight after that, and people tend to stick with their brothers, so to speak. That’s how it used to be. These were small things. Socially bad that they live under tremendous sexual tensions, because they are 18 months without any-without their wives or families with them.
Now, why is there this tremendous black-on-black violence? Why are they fighting and killing each other? Because in one of the Bantustans, one of these statelets, in Kwazulu, Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, who is the leader of these Zulus, and they are the biggest single ethnic group in South Africa, he is making a bid for power. He would like to be sitting with Mandela and de Klerk, right at the top, right at the beginning of the talks.
The ANC has said from the beginning, and so has the government, that when it comes to real constitutional talks, all the different groups in South Africa must be represented. But the initial peace negotiations, quite naturally, have come between the government and the many-years-long liberation movement that has comprised the main opposition to the South African regime, and that is the African National Congress, which is not a tribal organization, which has members all over the country.
BILL MOYERS: So Buthelezi would like to be up there with Mandela and de Klerk in these talks, but —
NADINE GORDIMER: Yes. He would like to be recognized on the same level as Mandela. And it-he has been supported by the South African government for many years. It suited them to promote him because he was much more amenable than the African National Congress.
Now, he was allowed to form his own private army, which is called Inkatha. Now, who trained those people and where did they get their arms from? Clearly, from somewhere and it could only have been —
BILL MOYERS: You mean it came from —
NADINE GORDIMER: From the South African government. So now there has been the stirring up of political rivalries, deliberately done by the Zulus, by Buthelezi and his Inkatha people. He’s infiltrated, his Inkatha army has infiltrated into these hostels and stirred up this kind of trouble.
Buthelezi will not call off his Inkatha people while-that is his bargaining chip. He will call them off in exchange for being recognized by Mandela as someone of equal importance. That’s one side of it.
The other side of it is that a very, very large percentage of the white police are not supporters of the de Klerk government. They support the movements, the extreme movements to the right, and they-
BILL MOYERS: Keep South Africa white.
NADINE GORDIMER: Keep South Africa white and get rid of de Klerk because he’s talking to this black man, Mandela. So there you have a police force who do not go in in a disinterested, open-minded fashion to stop the violence.
If the violence continues, I think the reasoning is that de Klerk will fall from power, because he will be unable to contain the situation, I think. So there you have the two things. You have Buthelezi stirring up trouble because he wants to force the government and Mandela to accept him to come to the negotiating table now, at this important stage, on the one side. And then you have a police force that cannot really be relied upon not to favor the Inkatha people.
BILL MOYERS: Whatever the causes, this is what racist supporters of apartheid have long predicted, that if apartheid is eradicated, South Africa will collapse into bloody tribalism.
NADINE GORDIMER: It’s true, and they have generalized from what they see happening in other parts of-has happened in other parts of Africa. And this is tragic, the political manipulation on both sides has brought this about, because truly, tribalism has been broken in South Africa, it’s been broken by an industrial revolution that people went through, bringing them all to town, mixing them all up together. It’s been broken by the long, long years when the ANC was not a banned organization, from 1912, when it was begun, until-when it was formed, until 1960, and when it was always a complete mixture of different people from different tribes.
BILL MOYERS: Mm-hmm. Nelson Mandela told me yesterday that the ANC is a non-racial organization. Do you believe that?
NADINE GORDIMER: It certainly is. I’m a member of the ANC; I’m white. And there are many Indians, coloreds. I mean, we have all these different categories.
BILL MOYERS: Mm-hmm. I mean, you seem to me to have become progressively pessimistic. Your own novel-1954, The Lying Days, was a relatively optimistic account of a young girl coming to
NADINE GORDIMER: A very naive account.
BILL MOYERS: -in the suburbs of Johannesburg. 1975, The Conservationist told of a rich white industrialist who lost everything. 1981, July’s People ends with your white female protagonist running, running, running for her life. And in your latest novel, A Sport of Nature, none of the white characters, except one, ends up with any place in black South Africa. That seems to me to be progressively pessimistic-
NADINE GORDIMER: Not-
BILL MOYERS: -about your own future there.
NADINE GORDIMER: I wouldn’t agree about Sport of Nature at all, because the end of Sport of Nature, the ironic ending, is that the heroine, if you call her that, Helela, it ends with her presence at independence day and a rather thinly disguised Nelson Mandela appearing as the first president. And indeed, at the beginning of the year when Nelson came out and one went to these rallies, I thought, “My God, it’s really almost happening, we’re nearly there.” And I still believe it’s going to happen. I’m not pessimistic, I’m realistic. And I can see why these things are happening.
BILL MOYERS: How did a writer, a white writer, a white woman writer in South Africa get so deeply involved in black politics?
NADINE GORDIMER: Well, it’s because I live there and I know that’s a simple answer, and because for a writer, where does it come from? Goethe said, “Wherever you are, put your hand, thrust your hand deeply into the life around you, and whatever you bring up in that hand will have something of the reality and something of the truth of where you live and when you live.”
And so I think that’s how it’s happened to me. I start with people. I’ve never been — I was very slow to develop any kind of political understanding, let alone a political philosophy. I’ve arrived at it all through human beings, through my contact with people. I’ve come to understand politics through what politics does to people, not through theory.
BILL MOYERS: And that becomes revolutionary in some instances —
NADINE GORDIMER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: As it did in your own life.
NADINE GORDIMER: Yes. And then, as the times went by in the ’60s, I formed very close friendships with people who really were revolutionaries, and, from my little petit bourgeois background, for me, people went to prison because they were criminals, you know, they stole something or they committed fraud. But here I found myself with friends who went into prison for their ideals, and so for the first time in my life, I presented myself at the prison gates, you know, with some food or a blanket or something for friends. It was a revelation to me.
BILL MOYERS: And your writing began to reflect this deeper political awareness.
NADINE GORDIMER:: Yes, but always through people, always through how people’s lives are shaped. I also began to realize how distorted our thinking, the very psyche that we have in South Africa, how that is through being born there, that you accept things which are bizarre.
BILL MOYERS: The whole system is bizarre, was it not?
NADINE GORDIMER: Yes. I mean, to accept the fact that the cinema that I went to on Saturday afternoon as a treat, only white kids could go. And most of all, the library, that was my life -I would never have been a writer, I didn’t come from a rich family, we didn’t have libraries of books -I was encouraged very much by my mother to read, she made me a member of the library when I was about five, six years old, but that library was my education, my source of life to me. But no black kid could go into that library. And do you know that that library, with all the changes in South Africa, is still for whites only in that little town?
BILL MOYERS: What do you think is the real test of human relations?
NADINE GORDIMER: I think human relations are unbelievably difficult, and like all of us, I find myself failing in them every day of my life, doing things that I know that I oughtn’t to do. And above all, having feelings I know that-that I shouldn’t have. Perhaps the greatest difficulty, I think, is intolerance.
BILL MOYERS: It comes, for me, when one is able to agree or disagree with someone without-without fear of being anti-black or anti-white, that you can actually say, “I don’t like you,” or, “I disagree with you,” without racism entering into it.
NADINE GORDIMER: Mm-hmm. It’s interesting you say that, because to me the real test of a normal relationship -because we’ve never had normal relationships with blacks, between blacks and whites in South Africa -is when you can dislike the other person or you can disagree with them without this being interpreted as anti-black or anti-white. And this is something that one of the few successes of human relationships in my life — God knows I’ve messed up many but that I do have relationships with certain black friends with whom I can really say what I think. That I can disagree hotly and I know that they’re not going to say, “Oh, well, this is because she’s white.” But it’s taken a whole lifetime to get ’round to that.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From Oslo, Norway, this has been a conversation with Nadine Gordimer. I’m Bill Moyers.
A DVD including the full interview with Gordimer can be purchased as part of the The World of Ideas series at Amazon.com.
This transcript was edited on June 21, 2015.