Disclaimer: The ideas presented in each post reflect the opinions of the writer alone, not those of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, nor of the European Research Council.

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“Apartheid— the Global Itinerary: South African Cultural Formations in Transnational Circulation”: Some Thoughts

August 11, 2019


It is difficult to condense my understanding of the contribution of the ERC project, “Apartheid— the Global Itinerary: South African Cultural Formations in Transnational Circulation,” both to my personal development as a researcher, and I hope to the field of South African studies. While the focus of my research has been South African exilic literature, the structuring of the project has meant that my area of study was integrated into an ever-ramifying historical scrutiny of apartheid South Africa in its global context. My attempts to trace the singularity of literary production outside of South Africa within the framework of exile have unfolded alongside and under the impact of the work of other researchers. working in different disciplines. The model of dissemination and diffusion that the principal investigator, Louise Bethlehem, has proposed for the object of study – South African expressive culture in transnational circulation—can in effect be applied to the structuring of the project. Ideas raised by researchers working in disparate fields cross over to resound in the work of their colleagues. Thus, for example, my work on the South African exiled poet,


Keorapetse Kgositsile has intersected fruitfully with the work of Ron Levi on jazz musicians like Hugh Masekela with whom Kgositsile enjoyed a long personal and professional friendship. Levi’s work has encouraged me to re-place Kgositsile outside the narrower boundaries of poetry, my own disciplinary “home” and to re-think of his work in the context of musical expressive culture in America and Africa.

In the course of the project  my discovery of the relationship between Kgositsile and the Cuban poet, Nancy Morejon  through the work of my fellow researcher, Cynthia Gabbay, has radically re-aligned my thinking of the work of Kgositsile:

while I began the project having defined the axis of analysis as extending from South Africa to Harlem, Gabbay’s work on Morejon has meant that my consideration of Kgositsile has shifted to accommodate  a new mapping of  influence on and by poets in Latin America. The tracking of this ancillary route has prompted a renewed and closer look at Kgositsile’s points of departure and of destination as both a metaphorical conceit and as the literal record of journeys that mark routes of influence. 


The focus in the project on the sociology of carcerality in the work of historians like Roni Mikel Arieli, and of Sarika Talve- Goodman, working in the field of literary studies, has profoundly influenced my reading of poets like Dennis Brutus and Breyten Breytenbach who carry the experience of their imprisonment and banning in South Africa into exile as a burden repeatedly negotiated in their exilic poetry. Talve –Goodman’s work has allowed me to re-

 construe my view of South African punitive structures in the context of her analyses of American carcerality as a manifestation of American racism. I note here only some of the examples of fruitful interdisciplinary influence that have occurred in the course of the project: similar examples could be cited in relation to all members of the research team.


In writing this response to the project, I re-read Bethlehem’s articulation of the aims of this project formulated at its outset. One of the work packages she outlines is “WP 2 Sharpeville and Memphis: Drumming up Resistance.”  Bethlehem relates to Sharpeville in this unit as the starting point of many of the transcontinental journeys of exiled South African writers, performers and artists that the project tracks. Part of my research has been to study the poetry that takes the atrocity itself as subject, not only as a point of departure, but as a crux of memory and as a means of plumbing the nature and value of poetic resistance. My research on the poems of Sharpeville has borne out Bethlehem’s anticipation of the connection between South African resistance and the civil rights movement in America, confirming her thesis that the project would reveal “the systems of interlinked circuits of affiliation and cultural production” (Social Text, 2018). However, for me, part of the value of the project in relation to the research on Sharpeville, lies in the way it has allowed me to think anew of memory as a mode of dissemination: my investigation of the poetics of memory in the context of this project and in others has been enriched by applying the notion of an itinerary to memory, by conceiving of the kinetic effect of apartheid, that  Bethlehem formulates as apartheid’s capacity to “move things,” as putting into motion the workings of South African poetic memory (Social Text, 2018). I derive from the project then, a sense of the ways in which apartheid enforces a volatility of remembrance and commemoration in transnational contexts.  


In attempting to define the effect and the reach of the project, I have been struggling for metaphors. Perhaps, one way of picturing the effect of the project is to put into play a cinematic image. When I began my research, my view of South Africa was one I characterize as a close- up shot. In a close up of South Africa, the gaze is fixed on the terrifying singularity of the abuses of apartheid, rendered in magnified detail:  the intensity of focus trains attention on the exceptional, on the particular features of this particular place. Ezekiel Mphahlele has termed this gripped attention “the tyranny of place”- the hold that the specifics of apartheid, enacted within a particular geographical space, exert on the imagination (English Academy Review, 1981). While the project has never encouraged me to relinquish this honed gaze, it has allowed me to twin it to a long shot of South Africa, a gradual movement back that allows the eye to take in South Africa’s placement in Africa and with a further retreat of the recording mind, to re-view South Africa’s global emplacement. In this long and broad view of South Africa and of the multiple routes and trajectories crisscrossing into and emanating from the beloved country, I define my sense of the changes the project has effected in me.






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