Orality, textuality and history : issues in South African oral poetry and performance.
Brown, Duncan John Bruce.
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A vigorous oral tradition has existed throughout South African history, and in many ways represents our truly original contribution to world literature. Despite this, oral literature is largely absent from accounts of literary history in this country. While the particular oppressions of South African political life have contributed to the exclusion of oral forms, the suppression of the oral in favour of the printed text is a feature of literary studies worldwide, and appears to be related to the critical practices that have been dominant in universities and schools for most of this century. In this study I consider ways of recovering oral forms for literary debate, and offer what I consider to be more appropriate strategies of 'reading'. My aim is to re-establish a line of continuity in South African poetry and performance from the songs and stories of the Bushmen, through the praise poems of the African chiefdoms, to the development of Christianised oral forms, the adaptation of the oral tradition in 'Soweto' poetry of the 1970s, and the performance of poems on political platforms in the 1980s. Recovering oral poetry and performance genres for literary debate requires the development of an appropriate critical methodology. Through a consideration of advances in the study of orality, I aim to suggest ways of reading which grant credence to the specific strategies and performative energies of oral texts while locating the texts in the spaces and constrictions of their societies. A great many oral texts from the past survive only in printed, translated forms, however, and a key aspect of such a critical project is how - while acknowledging the particular difficulties involved - one 'uses' highly mediated and artificially stabilised print versions to suggest something of the dynamic nature of oral performance in South African historical and social life. This thesis also considers how texts address us across historical distances. I argue for maintaining a dialectic between the 'past significance' and 'present meaning' of the poems, songs and stories: for allowing the past to shape our reading while we remain aware that our recuperation of history is inevitably directed by present needs and ideologies. These ideas are explored through five chapters which consider, respectively, the songs and stories of the nineteenth-century /Xam Bushmen, the izibongo of Shaka, the hymns of the Messianic Zulu evangelist Isaiah Shembe, Ingoapele Madingoane's epic 'Soweto' poem "black trial", and the performance poetry of Mzwakhe Mbuli and Alfred Qabula in the 1980s.
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