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Bessie Head


By Elinettie Chabwera

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 66 (2004), pp. 58-62]

Bessie Head: Race and Displacement in When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru and A Question of Power

In A Question of Power, Head uses her strongly autobiographical heroine, Elizabeth, to illustrate the complexity and diversity of the concept of  being black in Southern Africa. This endeavour brings to mind Stuart Hall's concern with the issue of ‘blackness’ in Britain. In his essay 'New Ethnicities' Hall traces the path of cultural politics in Britain and the emergence of the term ‘black’ as a collective reference for marginalized people. Hall demonstrates how a diverse group of people from different cultural and ethnic groups in Britain, and with different traditions and practices, joined together on the basis of their common experience of racial oppression to forge a collective identity which came to be called ‘black experience’ (Donald and Rattansi eds. 1992: 252). Their shared experience of exclusion became an organising tool, a unifying structure that cut across racial and cultural differences. The absence of, or the fetishised and stereotyped, images found in mainstream literature became a motivation for ‘black’ activists to resist, challenge and transform such negative projections through images that conveyed a positive reality of oppressed people.


By writing from the position of the oppressed, Head similarly challenges stereotyped images of non-whites in South Africa. Her narratives reflect a collective experience and in this way she participates in the struggle Hall describes. The cataloguing of experience and recording of memory as it cascades through her mind is a claiming of the self for the oppressed. This claim of identity, according to Hall, characterised the first movement of resistance against racial exclusion. Hall then traces a shift from the first collective movement against racism or ‘relations of representation’ to what he calls  ‘politics of representation’, where the struggle of the oppressed now reflected the ‘extraordinary diversity of subject positions, social experiences and cultural identities which compose the category black’ (Hall 1992: 254).  Head participates in this dialogue through the characters peopling her narratives who represent a range of marginalised groups in Southern Africa. Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, however, problematises Hall’s idea when she argues that given the historical links of Africa with the rest of the world, the reality of Africa today is that there are no ‘colour purities in Africa...Everything, biology, and culture, has been mixed up..."dynamized", by Africa's historical movement of people’ (Ogundipe-Leslie 1994: 216).


Writing from a Caribbean perspective, Jamaican women writers such as Erna Brodber and Olive Senior also demonstrate that the category ‘black’ is not limited to those who look black-skinned. These writers demonstrate through their texts that in Jamaica blackness encompasses multi-racial people who although they may look ‘almost white’, are nonetheless classified as ‘not white’. In the apartheid state of South Africa the desire for political control meant dominant white groups adopted policies that maintained racial divisions among South Africans. White people regarded themselves as superior to multi-racial people and blacks and in their turn, multi-racial people defined themselves by what they were not. Because they were not dark-skinned, they claimed superiority over blacks. Head’s concern with the power-politics of the agenda behind apartheid's racial divisions compels her to address race in her work. The position of multi-racial people in South Africa was complex. Though a few enjoyed some forms of privilege, most were positioned on the periphery of the society. The Slegs Blankes (Whites Only) posters, applied to them as much as they applied to black people. I suggest that without underrating the specificity of coloured peoples' experience and position in South Africa, Head reveals their link with other black people in experiences of disadvantage. Through this link she calls into question and challenges the racial policies of apartheid.


Though Head's novels are set in Botswana, as Arthur Ravenscroft points out, Head's South African experience always looms in the background (Ravenscroft 1976). On the surface, When Rain Clouds Gather and Maru, with their Botswanan heroines, Paulina, Margaret and Dikeledi, explore primarily issues of womanhood in Botswana. Margaret’s situation in Maru illustrates the double disadvantage of black womanhood. Margaret, as a despised Mosarwa, is victimised on the basis of gender and race/ethnicity. For her, ethnicity and race are causes for denigration in Botswana just as they are in South Africa. The racial exclusion suffered by Margaret resonates with the exclusions perpetuated under apartheid. A Question of Power differently straddles the two nations of South Africa and Botswana. Elizabeth is a South African native exiled into Botswana and her outlook on life is clearly dominated by her early experiences of apartheid. Head shows that Elizabeth's experiences, from the time of childhood in South Africa to adulthood as an exile in Botswana, are not essentially very different from Margaret's as she similarly faces racial alienation at home.


I am not suggesting that Head underplays racial difference, nor am I implying that she simplistically parallels the experiences of different categories of women. Rather, I am of the opinion that Head’s work demonstrates that whether one is coloured or black, women share similar social experiences of oppression in Southern Africa and that this can be under a black government as well as under white minority rule. This is, for instance, illustrated in her first and third novels. There is poverty in Elizabeth's adopted home in A Question of Power just as there is poverty in Paulina Sebeso's household in Botswana in When Rain Clouds Gather. Though coloured, and according to South African racial philosophy, therefore, ‘better’ than black people, Elizabeth's adopted mother has to work very hard in order to sustain her family. When her husband dies, Elizabeth's foster mother, Nellie, resorts to selling traditional beer to make ends meet (AQP: 15). Similarly, Paulina Sebeso is a single mother who has to fend for her children alone. Unlike other cattle owners in the village, Paulina cannot afford to employ someone to look after her cattle in the bush. She sends her son instead. The boy dies as a result of the malnutrition and tuberculosis which are a manifestation of poverty in poor communities. The link between black and coloured is also illustrated through Margaret in Maru who though Mosarwa, reflects Head's own experience of oppression. Margaret's portrait not only points to the autobiographical nature of Head's work, it also illustrates Head's challenge to racist philosophy by highlighting the similarity in experience of  many black and coloured women.


In her article 'Social and Political Pressures that Shape Literature in South Africa', Head explains her personal circumstances as a multi-racial South African. She writes:


''I was born in South Africa and that is synonymous with saying that one is born into a very brutal world – if one is black. Everything had been worked out by my time and the social and political life of the country was becoming harsher and harsher... We, as black people, could make no appraisal of our own worth; we did not know who or what we were, apart from objects of abuse and exploitation.''

Abrahams 1990: 12 (My emphasis)


And in A Woman Alone Head says: ‘I think that our only education in South Africa, as black people, is a political one. We learn bitterly, every day, the details of oppression and exploitation’ (63, My emphasis). I suggest that these personal views of the social position of the multi-racial South African who identifies with the black majority reinforce the argument about Head's perception of these two groups of people. Hence, in A Question of Power Head explores the dehumanising experiences of the coloured woman Elizabeth because the socio-cultural ideology of white South Africa, like the Western world, locates multi-racial people in their blackness. Head uses Elizabeth's story to probe even deeper into areas of racial tension she had begun to examine in Maru and When Rain Clouds Gather. She uses Elizabeth's story to explore the psychological effect of apartheid's dehumanising practices on African womanhood.


In addition to challenging apartheid, Head addresses African racism through the geographic and ethnic diversity of her protagonists and their relationship to their places of exile. The three novels demonstrate that alienation and displacement is not limited to the oppressive white state of South Africa, but is also expressed in black societies. The three protagonists of Head's fictions, Makhaya in When Rain Clouds Gather, Margaret in Maru and Elizabeth in A Question of Power do not face alienation in their original societies only, they re-live their homeland experiences in their locations of exile. As soon as it is known that Margaret in Maru is Mosarwa, she ceases to exist as a human being in the eyes of the school principal and his colleagues. She becomes an ‘it’ and the principal feels duty bound to warn everyone about her. This evokes Margaret’s experience of alienation as a child where the pinching, spiting and chanting at her demonstrated society's refusal to treat the Basarwa as human beings. The principal's behaviour shows similar sentiments. He becomes obsessed with the need to ‘shove’ Margaret out of Dilepe community (Maru: 41).


In the case of When Rain Clouds Gather and A Question of Power, South Africa, the original homeland society of the protagonists, alienates them on account of their race. And as a result their racial marginalisation, Makhaya and Elizabeth leave to settle in a black nation. Yet both Makhaya and Elizabeth soon discover that not being Batswana militates against their social inclusion. Both characters find that the evil of racial exclusion in apartheid South Africa resurfaces in their place of exile, the only difference being the colour of the perpetrators. This is the case, for instance, when Makhaya goes to report his presence to chief Matenge. Matenge's attitude and character demonstrate a cruelty reminiscent of apartheid brutality. Matenge tells Makhaya that


''[h]aving a refugee at the farm is going to give it a bad name, including the whole area in which it is placed....We hear things about [refugees]....Most of the trouble here is caused by people from outside and we don’t want you. We want you to get out...You know what a South African swine is?...He is a man like you. He always needs to run after his master, the white man.''

(When Rain Clouds Gather: 62)


This refusal to accept Makhaya in society is repeated in Elizabeth's life in Motabeng. When she comes into the village her inability to speak Setswana positions her outside the community, and in relation to social integration clearly compounds her problem. Elizabeth feels an ‘out-and-out outsider’ also because of what she believes are feelings of suspicion from the people. Yet some of these feelings are a result of her own racist paranoia, stemming from her South African experience. Nonetheless the women are reluctant to include her in their daily activities because they have concluded that being multi-racial she cannot cope with the toughness of their lives. As a result, they leave her in the village when they move to their fields during the cropping season. Like Makhaya, her presence in the village is challenged when a man asks her: ‘Can you tell me something about Sello?... He doesn’t like his own nation at all. He likes your kind of nation’ (AQP, 27 italics in original). ‘Your kind of nation’, an exclusionary reference, is said with ‘supreme contempt’ illustrative of the people’s unwillingness to accept Elizabeth as one of themselves. These instances of the multiple exclusions Elizabeth faces as multi-racial and as a woman, demonstrate how class and/or race intersect with gender in women's oppression.


Head further addresses the race issue through the complicated relationships at the volunteer centre in Motabeng in A Question of Power. Representing the ideal universe of Head's vision through the diverse racial, class, age and gender groups working together for a common goal at the farm, the centre also illustrates the power relations of race. The volunteering system is premised on the concept of helping ‘developing’ nations achieve economic independence, which will then improve the social life of the people. Expatriate professionals from the West come to help set up the means for economic development amongst the local community. In Motabeng this group of white professionals have come from Denmark, England, America and South Africa. While some like Eugene, Gunner, Tom and the Danish girl Birgette, have overcome the racism prevalent in their native homelands and learnt to regard black people with humanity and love, some have not. The majority of the Danish volunteers continuously denigrate and moan about their black, ‘illiterate’ students. They persistently hold on to a belief in the superiority of whites and of western culture. The fact that they possess the education necessary to improve the socio-economic status of the blacks reinforces their belief.


Camilla, the Danish woman who assists Gunner in tutoring the African students, epitomises this ‘othering’ of all black people. On numerous occasions Camilla complains about the Batswana's illiteracy and laziness. And although she sometimes complains to Elizabeth, Camilla actually includes Elizabeth in the category of ‘these people’. The manner in which she addresses Elizabeth is similar to the way she talks to Small-Boy, Kepotho and Dintle, the Batswana apprentices at the farm. Camilla flings incomprehensible and meaningless information at Elizabeth in order to demonstrate her racial and cultural superiority. Later, Camilla throws herself into an association with Elizabeth because she believes that an association with a ‘native’ is one way of ‘helping’ them. Thereafter, Elizabeth's ‘nativeness’ forms the background to all Camilla's comments. Camilla’s attitude, which typifies the attitude of the other racist volunteers, contrasts with Head’s idealised portrayal of the non-racists, Eugene, Gunner, Tom and Birgette. Eugene in particular, is portrayed as a great humanist whose identification with the ordinary people is such that his daily mannerisms, posture and conduct are identical with that of the Batswana labourers at the farm (78).


Head’s narratives all illustrate and challenge the horror and madness of power relations based on race, which clearly stand in the way of achievement of the egalitarian universe she seeks. Head portrays in her novels a whole range of race issues, both apartheid and African in origin, in order to understand and then expose the absurdity of notions of racial superiority.

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