14 July-2014, WSJ: Nadine Gordimer, who won South Africa’s first Nobel Prize in literature, chronicled a racist regime’s everyday horrors, from the enforced poverty and isolation of blacks to the petty cruelties that ordinary whites visited upon them.
In 15 novels and scores of short stories over seven decades, Ms. Gordimer wrote as vividly about the destitute townships to which blacks were confined during white-minority rule, as she did of the comfortable Johannesburg suburbs where she spent most of her life. Her books often focused on the tensions the apartheid government created between lovers, neighbors, employers and their employees.
As a result, South Africa’s apartheid government—which institutionalized racial discrimination in waves of regressive legislation beginning in 1948—banned three of her books.
A law firm representing Ms. Gordimer’s children confirmed she died on Sunday at 90 years of age.
Ms. Gordimer received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1991, a moment of great hope as well as great violence in South Africa. Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, but the birth of a liberated South Africa was far from assured.
After Mr. Mandela was elected president in South Africa’s first free vote in 1994, Ms. Gordimer broadened her attention to injustices beyond South Africa. She contributed frequent op-ed pieces to local and international newspapers to condemn threats to free speech in countries like China and Bangladesh.
“Written words still have the amazing power to bring out the best and the worst of human nature,” she wrote to Salman Rushdie after Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the writer’s assassination. “We ought to treat words the way we treat nuclear energy or genetic engineering—with courage, caution, vision and precision.”
As if to prove that point, she became a sharp critic of the African National Congress after the party came to power. She accused the ANC-led government of mishandling South Africa’s AIDS crisis and stifling free speech with legislation that could put reporters in prison for publishing state secrets.
“[The] ANC is taking South Africa back to the suppression of free expression of apartheid,” Ms. Gordimer said at her 88th birthday celebration in 2011, a day before the so-called secrecy bill passed in the ANC-dominated Parliament. “When we all voted together, which was a great moment in my life, [we thought] everything would be all right. That was a childish idea.”
Nadine Sylvia Gordimer was born on Nov. 20, 1923, in Springs, a mining town east of Johannesburg on the Highveld, a plateau of rolling grassland where gold was discovered in the 1880s.
Her father emigrated from Lithuania as a teenager at the close of the 19th century, setting up shop as a watchmaker for Highveld miners. Her mother came from London in 1906.
Ms. Gordimer’s childhood was completely segregated from the black miners whose labor fueled the local economy. After she was diagnosed with a heart murmur at age 11, her mother withdrew her from school and consigned her to bed, where a fondness for reading and writing grew into a great passion.
Books like E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India” and Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” first opened her eyes to the “rigidly racist and inhibited colonial society” around her.
“Only many years later was I to realize that if I had been a child in that category—black—I might not have become a writer at all, since the library that made this possible for me was not open to any black child,” Ms.
She attended the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg but didn’t graduate. Ms. Gordimer, however, began a lifelong affiliation with South Africa’s most cosmopolitan city and the antiapartheid intellectuals and liberals living there.
She briefly married an engineer and had a daughter. Her second marriage, to the art dealer and refugee from Nazi Germany Reinhold Cassirer, lasted until his death in 2002. They had one son together.
Ms. Gordimer published her first novel in 1953. Never widely read in South Africa, her reputation abroad grew with books like “The Conservationist,” which won the Man Booker Prize in 1974. The story of a white industrialist struggling to keep nature and his black tenants in line on a hobby farm outside Johannesburg, “The Conservationist” is a powerful allegory for the ultimate futility of the apartheid system. Ms. Gordimer’s protagonist is at the pinnacle of South African wealth and eschews emotional attachment. Yet he can’t control his world: His son and mistress leave him; a flood ravages his farm.
“It is a masterpiece,” wrote Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author of “Things Fall Apart,” a novel that became a cornerstone of African literature. “Made me quite envious. Congratulations.”
Ms. Gordimer had a more contentious relationship with South Africa’s second Nobel laureate in literature, J.M. Coetzee.
In a 2003 review of two works by Ms. Gordimer, Mr. Coetzee wrote, “If her more recent writing tends to be somewhat bodiless, somewhat sketchy by comparison with the writing of her major period…that is, one senses, because she feels she has already proved herself, does not need to go through those herculean labors again.”
Ms. Gordimer returned the slight in 2006, saying that his Booker Prize-winning novel “Disgrace,” a bleak meditation on violence and alienation in postapartheid South Africa, contained “not one black person who is a real human being.”
She believed depicting apartheid’s impact on private lives was more valuable than overt political activism. Still, she joined the African National Congress while it was officially banned and was a prominent booster for the party in the run-up to the 1994 elections.
Later, her outspoken criticism of the ANC-led government led some to say she had turned her back on the party.
But Ms. Gordimer had always insisted that she held no political loyalties, only moral convictions.
“I have no religion, no political dogma,” she told an interviewer in 1965. “Only plenty of doubts about everything except my own conviction that the color bar is wrong and utterly indefensible.”