James Matthews's Azikwelwa Essay

2584 words - 10 pages

In January 1957, a bus boycott under the slogan "Azikwelwa" (or "We shall not ride") was initiated by the people of Alexandra Township near Johannesburg to prevent the imposition of increased transportation costs. In the period 1950 - 1980, many such boycotts took place and the whole transport boycott movement is often linked to Apartheid resistance. Some have also identified it as a consumer and a political protest in a period when South African capitalism was entering in a phase of economic recession. For many, it was a demonstration of working-class solidarity which began with civil disobedience but evolved into a process of creation of a collective consciousness. Hence, the massive boycotts are said to have helped in the formation of South African identity.

James Matthews's short story "Azikwelwa" was first published in 1958. It was reprinted again in the year of the Mdantsane Bus Boycott (1974) in the collection The Park and Other Stories and then reappreared in the journal Grassroots in 1982. One of the questions we could ask ourselves after a first read could be about the role of South African literature at the time and especially when it is concerned with political and racial questions. On one hand, we could affirm that in "Azikwelwa", we have an example of literature used as a particular form of political and social propaganda. On the other, the realistic and fictional facets of the text are rather well-balanced which could bring out questions about the kind of literature we are dealing with. It is on this issue that we will base our discussion in the first part of the present commentary. On the second place, it seems essential to examine the reprsentation of South African society in the short story. Society as depicted by Matthews will be the subject of the second part of our analysis. Finally, we will attempt to analyse some of the technical aspects of the text and to determine their role in the creation of a specific atmosphere.

James Matthews's writing career is not only limited to the writing of prose and poetry. He was also a journalist and a publisher. Hence, his short story seems to feed on a mixture of everyday reality and popular opinion about the mass protests that took place in South Africa during the second half of the 20th century. If we look at reports and newspaper articles from the period1, it becomes clear that Matthews's short story is not "fiction" properly speaking. In "Azikwelwa", the manipulation of real events and the use of the bus boycotts's slogan for title give a very particular realistic twist to the whole text. The role the potagonist is to play in this pseudo-journalistic narrative does complicate the situation. He seems to be, at first, a detached observer of events with which he is not concerned. He notices that "there were the police and the cars standing in rows and the people inside pulled out [...] the owners protested [...] There were many who slipped down side streets," etc. Further on,...

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