Ndebele’s Symbolism

Ndebele writes that “the visible symbols of the overwhelmingly oppressive South African social formation appear to have prompted over the years the development of a highly dramatic, highly demonstrative form of literary representation.” (143) He goes on to discuss the almost exhibitionist demonstration of power – the symbolism of industrial complexes as representations of how South Africa has been continually exploited and thrust onto a global stage. On Ndebele’s suggestion of exploitation by the West, I found myself returning to Ngugi’s Petals of Blood and the symbolism presented in it. Ngugi utilizes the ‘Mother Africa’ trope – in which the geographical and physical space occupied by Africa as a whole has grown synonymous to the portrayal of female identity and feminism displayed in African literature. In Petals of Blood, the character Wanja turns to prostitution because she feels that she no other choice. This, to me, is similar to the point Ndebele tries to draw: that Africa has been continually exploited for the gain of others until it feels almost obligated to abandon its traditional cultural values.

Ndebele suggests that this symbolism, or symbolism in the wider arena of South African socio-political culture, indicates a theme present across print media and many pieces of African literature. While we can argue (to varying degrees of success) that the most frequent or common symbols found in African literature make comments on social issues or global politics, the symbols found in articles from Drum Magazine tend to illuminate growth as opposed to stagnation (144). This quote to me was interesting:

Ultimately, South African culture, in the hands of whites, the dominant force, is incapable of nurturing a civilization based on the perfection of the individual in order to permit maximum social creativity. Consequently, we have a society of posturing and sloganeering; one that frowns upon subtlety of thought and feeling, and never permits the sobering power of contemplation, of close analysis, and the mature acceptance of failure, weakness, and limitations. It is totally heroic. (150)

Symbolism has always interested me. Why do authors choose certain words, why do they paint pictures? We have discussed in class how African writers often choose to position their works so that they are accessible to Western audiences. What is the intention, then, behind using symbolic analogy to critique the West’s involvement in creating a post-colonial Africa? I am uncertain where to start looking for things that may answer these questions, but for now, I am content to explore the questions themselves.

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