African Litreature & Representation

As an English major, it is compulsory that you take a couple of courses to graduate. For example, in my second year, I have the choice between two courses in each semester: an African Litreature course and an American/European Litreature course. The only rule is that we have to take at least one African Litreature course in the year. So me? I took both African Litreature courses. No, I didn’t have to. I wanted to.

Some peers roll their eyes at this idea and think I’m absolutely bonkers to be putting myself through the “torture” of South African and African litreature. I, however, am so desperate to find out more of what I never knew was actually available.

And here, my friends, is where we find the two reactions to African litreature that are a direct result from the lack of African litreature taught within high school English curriculums. Students never get taught litreature from their own damn continent. 

The South African novels prescribed for my African Litreature course.


It’s quite shocking to look at what matrics in schools are studying right now.

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Choice of novels offered to 2017 matric students.
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Choice of dramas offered to 2017 matric students.


The novels and dramas are entirely written by white men from Europe or North America. Yann Martel is Canadian, Oscar Wilde is Irish, Shakespeare is British, and Arthur Miller is American. There is no doubt that these novels and dramas are brilliant, but the lack of African authors and playwrights are astounding. As UCT student, Inge Botes, said,

“It perpetuates the common colonial thought that Africa has no knowledge to contribute.”


Brittany Nygaard, an English and History teacher at Bergvliet High School, agrees. When commenting on her students reaction to African litreature, she said, “They don’t see Africa as being a continent that contributes, whether it be lifestyle, fashion, [or] cultural. Because they haven’t been exposed to the amount of litreature that is out there, they immediately assume Africa doesn’t have anything to offer.”

Brittany Nygaard’s desk, decorated with thought-provoking posters.

Nygaard explained to me that when she was trained to be a teacher, they taught her that the English that she would one day be teaching to her own students is a “standardised English.” They want South African students to be able to have a conversation with someone in America, with someone in New Zealand, with someone in India, or with someone in Greece, and be able to discuss Shakespeare, for example. The belief is that these authors are “The Greats” and it would be disadvantaging students to have them not to able to compete and intellectually co-exist with other students on an international level.


This still presents a problematic situation: African litreature is not considered to be a part of  “The Greats”.


So where is the African litreature? There must be some! Well it lies in the poetry…the very planned out and proportioned poetry…

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The poetry set to be learned by 2017 matric students.

There are twelve poems. Half are by European or American poets and the other half are by African poets. Half of the poems by African poets are from outside of South Africa, in the broader African continent – two Nigerian poets and one Malawian poet. The other half of the African poets are South African. That leaves three South African poets. Only one is black.

There we have it. There is only one space for black South African poetry. Let’s not even get started on the lack of Black womxn’s poetry in the syllabus.


Christopher Ouma, an English Litreature lecturer at the University of Cape Town reacted to the sources saying that there is a lot missing. He also stated,

“Its clear to me that a lot still needs to be done in terms of a very strong literary education programme that is able to locate South African students in South African literary and cultural history.”

Ouma speaks about how important it is that African and South African litreature is included in the English litreature school curriculum. Ouma suggests that introducing African litreature is essential to help students locate and identify themselves as South Africans and “gives life to post-Apartheid national identity”. 


One of Nygaard’s concerns was that there is little choice for young adults and teens when it comes to African litreature. Nygaard often finds a common theme in African litreature that has to do with quite “mature content”. Her worry is that, “because of the nature of African history and the suffering that the whole continent has gone through, a lot of it is very dark and quite violent”

Ouma’s response was that he simply doesn’t buy it, “I don’t entertain these thoughts that South Africa does not have a complex litreature curriculum that is South African.” 

I think there’s an idea that there’s no many African writers, but it’s 40 years, 50 years, since countries became independent and it’s over 20 years since South Africa became independent. Even before that, there’s huge amounts of writing from South Africans – black, coloured, Indian, white. I think that that should be the point of origin in terms of litreature education.”


So where do we begin? Surely African students should be engaging with African texts? African litreature deserves to be studied, to be explored, to be picked apart for the beauty and wisdom that lies between its covers. Nygaard offers a valid thought, that “as soon as schools start to use African litreature more, it encourages people within Africa to write more, saying “your litreature is worth our while””.

Africa has an intense history. There are centuries of hurt, oppression, exploitation and violence. A way of representing that violence is not just through history books and writing down facts – it is through litreature and the exploration into the imagination of those who have experienced these tragedies. It is through looking at the individual, whether it be through litreature, through poetry, through art, through films. It could be a way of progression: through the recognition and solidification of realities, especially of those that have been kept in the dark.

Ouma believes there should be “a systematic approach in slowly introducing the subject matter”, especially in terms of accessing and resourcing materials, and that “litreature bureaus are supposed to be tasked with this”. Ouma suggests that if it is a national programme that is initiated at the beginning of one’s high school career, “it gives [educator’s] room to ground [their] students in this litreature. By the time [students] get to matric, they are already familiar.” 

Nygaard suggests students should do “at least one [African litreature novel] a year” or that the education system in South Africa should just “go big or go home” to “reach an equilibrium”, also saying

Africa has a lot to offer, especially with litreature, and we have amazing authors that have changed the way we see African litreature and the way we see language. I think the biggest sadness is that [students] go away thinking that Africa is not a continent worthy of being spoken about or has nothing to contribute”.

Africa has a wealth of knowledge and its time we start accessing it by exposing African students to the African minds that have shaped their existence.




All photographs taken by Caroline Petersen


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