Nadine Gordimer was a passionately cerebral writer, and her death confirms the passing of a generation of South African writers who lived by a firm moral compass. There are very few of them left. She was her country’s most celebrated writer, winning the Booker Prize in 1974 for “The Conservationist” and in 1991 the Nobel Prize for literature. She died Sunday at age 90, at home in the presence of her children.
Born in Springs, a rough mining town near Johannesburg in 1923, Gordimer published her first short story at age 15. Her first novel, “Lying Days,” was published in 1953 and was followed by 12 more. “I would have been a writer anywhere,” she said in an interview in 1990. “But in my country, writing meant confronting racism.”
Her birth and death bracket the establishment and eventual demise of apartheid, the most brutal and dehumanizing period of South Africa’s history. Her voice — at once lyrical and acerbic — is unique, forged by a lifelong engagement with the corrosive effects of a political and economic system founded on inequality and segregation. She claimed that “to be a writer is to enter public life,” a principle to which her career as a writer and an activist bears eloquent testimony. Gordimer observed no boundary between the ethics of living and the aesthetics of writing, which was why the apartheid censorship board banned several of her novels.
“I am interested in human beings in human situations,” she told one interviewer. However, under apartheid, there was very little space in which to be human. Not even the most intimate realms of the body and of the heart, of sex and love, of the everyday pleasures of friendship escaped the invasive prurience of racist legislation. In her great novels of the 1970s — “July’s People,” “Burger’s Daughter” and “The Conservationist” — she explored the intimate spaces within and between South Africans, writing with great eloquence of the damage that was done by the inescapable warping of human relationships by apartheid.
I read these powerful and disturbing books as a student in the 1980s, a time when South Africa’s resistance to apartheid generated increasing violence. It was Gordimer who charted apartheid’s destruction of individuals, a destruction that was mirrored at that time in destruction in the public realm, where barricades burned and police fired endless volleys of bullets at protesters.
Gordimer was a woman of great personal integrity and political commitment. She joined the anti-apartheid movement in the early 1960s, and she helped edit Nelson Mandela’s famous “I am prepared to die” speech in 1962. She used her prominence as a writer to campaign against apartheid, calling for economic sanctions to be enforced against South Africa to end minority rule and joining Mandela’s African National Congress.
Even after South African politics became increasingly nasty and brutish during the postapartheid era, her acuity and her commitment to principle remained unwavering and inspirational — perhaps because hers was always primarily a commitment to the grand old notions of freedom, justice and equality. She understood better than most people why postapartheid South Africa was not a utopia, that the end of apartheid hailed abroad as a miracle did not erase 300 years of formalized racial inequality and poverty. But she had no patience with the smug schadenfreude of interviewers or other writers who questioned her commitment to politics in the light of postliberation disappointments. Her novels in the last two decades continued to address the messy complexity of the poverty that endured despite the end of apartheid.
Even in her twilight years, Gordimer felt compelled to fight one last valiant political campaign, against the Protection of State Information Bill introduced by the government of President Jacob Zuma. Known as the Secrecy Bill, this draconian law, if passed, would limit freedom of speech and threaten writers more than any legislation under apartheid did. It would also serve to mask the rampant corruption that is corroding the great political legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle as embodied by the likes of Mandela.
Her writing and her politics were intimately connected in a manner currently unfashionable. For her, it was impossible — indeed, pointless — to try to separate the two. Having experienced firsthand the effects of censorship, she was a tireless champion for freedom of expression. The banning of her books was taken up by PEN International, and she, as a vice president of the organization, campaigned tirelessly for the right of writers to be free and to be heard. In a world where increasing numbers of writers are being silenced, there is much to be learned from her political commitment and from her great ability to unfold in elegant prose how repression and violence distort the human heart.
Nadine Gordimer’s passing leaves a gap in the literary and political landscape, not only in South Africa but throughout the world.
Margie Orford is a South African author and the president of her local chapter of PEN International.