Two Generations of South African Nonfiction

Reading van Onselen and Steinberg together suggests a telling generational shift of mood about how South African stories can, and ought, to be told.

A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg. Knopf. 336 pages.Showdown at the Red Lion by Charles van Onselen. Jonathan Ball. 515 pages.

JONNY STEINBERG AND CHARLES VAN ONSELEN, best of the best among South Africa’s nonfiction writers, make an interesting pair. The older of the two, Van Onselen (b. 1944), is the country’s most celebrated social historian, having produced the epic oral history The Seed is Mine in 1996 after working on it for 15 years. Steinberg (b. 1970), also an Oxford PhD graduate, and like Van Onselen a smart Johannesburg researcher, writer, scholar, and thinker, has emerged since the early 2000s as a razor-sharp post-apartheid analyst who tells harrowing stories via extensive interviews with one main interlocutor — usually someone from the other side of the legible world. Both writers are now once again staking a claim to attention: Van Onselen’s Showdown at the Red Lion tells the story of imported (mostly Irish) banditry in the Transvaal area of South Africa at the turn of the 19th century, a saga of north-south migration from the imperial center to the Indian Ocean basin. Steinberg’s A Man of Good Hope, meanwhile, deals with the tides of contemporary intra-African migration at the opposite end of the imperial age, to many a more immediately compelling context.

An anecdote that helps to explain how very different and yet how remarkably parallel Steinberg’s and Van Onselen’s works are centers on a bandit figure in early Johannesburg history, called Nongoloza, that both Steinberg and Van Onselen write about. Nongoloza Mathebula was a true-life outlaw figure who had seen the benefits of banditry above the pennies to be had for racialized labor in and around South Africa’s fabled city of gold. Nongoloza’s story was documented in a Van Onselen book called The Small Matter of a Horse: The Life of 'Nongoloza' Mathebula, 1867–1948, first published in 1984. There he details the history of lumpenprole black bandits who formed a paramilitary hierarchy under Nongoloza, based on ranks and structures borrowed from colonial English judiciary and Boer military establishments. These “Ninevites,” as they called themselves, hid out in old mine shafts and caves, whence they conducted their operations. In Van Onselen’s recounting, the Ninevites established a politically oppositional outlaw subculture that later, as its progenitors and their early soldiers were eliminated, took root in South Africa’s prisons. They provided a mythos, a founding story for the rise of the infamous “Number” gangs, prison bands (whose three factions are called 26s, 27s, and 28s), that have been a pervasive presence in South Africa’s jails over the past hundred years, developing a shadow rank hierarchy, an order that came to rule the prisons by night and to this day holds a tense line of truce with the jail authorities by day.

Twenty years after The Small Matter of a Horse, Steinberg represents Van Onselen as a character in his searing 2004 work on prison gangs in South Africa, The Number.  Van Onselen’s interpretation of Nongoloza is hotly disputed by Magadien Wentzel, a prison-gang leader whose story is at the center of Steinberg’s book.

Steinberg is an aggregator of stories, high and low, historical, mythical, apocryphal, oral, you name it. Stories and their tellers become secondary characters in his play of tales and their telling, which he brings into view with forensically analytical precision. It was thus inevitable that Steinberg would bring Van Onselen’s account of the Nongoloza story into confrontation with the understanding of it held by his seasoned gang-leader interlocutor in The Number. Despite Van Onselen’s impeccable scholarly credentials, Wentzel is not impressed by the historian’s reading of the Nongoloza story, which also happens to be his myth of origins as a big shot in the Numbers’ hierarchy. Steinberg tells Wentzel that, as a matter of record, Nongoloza in fact recounted the main events of his life to a white warder in 1912, that this autobiographical narrative was transcribed and lodged in an official prisons report, and that it served as one of Van Onselen’s primary sources. But Wentzel prefers to be his own historian:

“There is the black man’s story and the white man’s story. Go to any prison in this country, you will hear the black man’s story — exactly the same in every prison. You go there with Van Onselen’s story, they will kill you. Serious. How can you say Nongoloza spoke to a white man?”

As Steinberg tries to explain how Van Onselen came into legitimate, scholarly possession of the story that he tells, Wentzel interrupts him:

“Van Onselen is fucking with something very fucking important. You look at Shaka’s history, you look at Piet Retief, at Jan van Riebeeck. This is history people believe. It is like a power. People are prepared to die for their stories.”

Very few academics alive today would dare talk openly like that about Van Onselen, who was a recent recipient of a W.E.B. Du Bois Institute fellowship at Harvard and holds an “A” rating from the South African National Research Foundation, a rare accolade in the South African academy. (He also has a reputation of not suffering fools gladly.) But Van Onselen the academic is at a distinct disadvantage to Wentzel the Numbers prison-gang leader, who is likely, if pressed, to give the term “visceral engagement” (as understood by scholars) a whole new twist. The irony is that Wentzel’s authority as a speaker is located within prison discourse, the social underground that is precisely the area that Van Onselen has mined throughout his illustrious career. It is as if one of the typical characters in the kind of social history Van Onselen writes suddenly jumps out of the book and tells the author to stop “fucking” with his story, which is his story, and decidedly not that of a bourgeois white professor to mess with and get rich on because, as he rightly avers, people will die for its truth. In the life of prison Numbers gangs people regularly do, as Steinberg’s book shows. Talk about the politics of knowledge production.

Van Onselen’s style is lofty and magisterial, quite some way above the heads of his human characters. His prose is often decorated with lyrical brushstrokes amid the settled detail, as if he is narrating the worlds he describes from a high peak of meticulous research, after the fact, and enjoying himself as he does so. He prefaces every fulsomely titled and subtitled chapter in Red Lion with epigraphs from authors as diverse as Cervantes, Tocqueville, Euripides, Kipling, Yeats, Fitzgerald, Huxley, Chesterton, Longfellow, Lincoln, and the like, implicitly aligning himself with the worldliness of authoritative, classical knowledge in the humanities. He works from the outside in, sketching context in layer upon layer of rendition, until his principal character emerges into clear view — a fully explained historical being. Van Onselen’s research is indeed second to none in the conventional historical sense, as most scholars in the field will affirm.

Steinberg, by contrast, works from the inside out. He places himself at the living, palpitating, always fragile heart of a story-in-the-making as it is being experienced, rendering any sense of fixed or settled trajectory questionable, and he narrates in the present tense, not only remaining in touch with his interlocutor throughout the telling of the tale (and showing him drafts, too, as he writes) but also combing and combining diverse realms of knowledge, testing them against each other, and bringing them to his interlocutor for comment. In a sense, Steinberg the scholar (he is currently a distinguished research professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg) defers to the subject of his story. Or, if not “defers,” then certainly “negotiates,” observing and reporting back to the reader on the effect that his own enlargement of the more encompassing story-context has on the interlocutor’s understanding of his own life. Steinberg also routinely comments on the awkward relation of power he must negotiate with his oral source, acknowledging that the exchange of money (a portion of advances and royalties) for the riches of symbolic and material capital leaves him ill at ease.

Van Onselen’s approach is far less contingent, although there is one relative exception to his outside-in, aerial manner of narration. That is his epic work of oral research, The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, A South African Sharecropper, 1894-1985, published in Johannesburg and New York in 1996, and in London in 1997. The narrative in this grand story of dispossession and endurance, the biography of a common man, a black sharecropper who lived in hard times, is based on 14 years of oral interviews with Kas Maine himself, conducted mostly by a black research assistant, M.T. Nkadimeng. (Of the 66 interviews conducted with Kas Maine before his death, Van Onselen did three on his own and two with fellow researcher and author Tim Couzens.) This work is a classic of South African writing, an epic running to almost 700 dense pages, but even in this great social history Van Onselen is not in continuously direct contact with his oral source, and he certainly doesn’t show his biographical subject drafts of his writing or invite him to comment. Instead, he works at a historian’s remove, a temporal and spatial gap in which the work of gathering and reflection is carefully distilled into the work of writing. Most chroniclers of the past assume that such a process is key to historical narration. It has clear advantages, rendering the writer at greater liberty to construct his story after the event, once the dust has settled and the competing claims, sources, and evidence have been measured. Steinberg, however, prefers to forego the luxury of such slow processing, sensing that the story also resides in its moment-by-moment apprehension, the way it is shaped by current perceptions and needs; for Steinberg, the “settled” version is a rendition of things that must always be reexamined. So he writes as he listens, and listens as he writes, curtailing his telling, examining and inspecting it in the light of overlapping, or intervening, accounts of things, all of it while he is still talking to his interlocutor.

Such contrasting styles of doing social history are strongly evident in these writers’ two latest works. Van Onselen’s Red Lion is a grand, leisurely, social historian’s march that begins in the outlying lands of context, which the author relates in unsparing detail, complete with footnotes referencing a daunting, comprehensive range of archival sources. The story tells how Jack Mcloughlin came to shoot dead his former friend and fellow bandit George Stevenson in a Johannesburg beer hall in the 1890s, but begins with Mcloughlin’s father William, who was born in Inishowen, Ireland, in 1823. An example of Van Onselen’s historical narration readily shows his stylistic magniloquence and will to detailed coverage. Almost nothing is left out. The passage below deals with the Inishowen ancestral background of the book’s main character:

The McLoughlins, like most of the established inhabitants of Inishowen an offshoot of the founding Owens, formed an important part of the entrenched, intermarried yet frequently warring factions that had competed ceaselessly for control of the peninsula for hundreds of years. But they, no less than any other notables, were never fully isolated from distant external influences. Inishowen’s strategic location guarding the northernmost approaches to Ireland ensured frequent collisions with inward-bound foreigners. Some of the newcomers, like the friendly Scots whose homeland just across the water was visible from Malin Head on a clear day, were largely welcome. Others, like the fearsome Viking invaders of the ninth century who swept into the lochs from afar in their long boats, were not.

Learned and meticulously studied, Van Onselen’s scholarly, inch-by-inch approach to his topic doesn’t miss a beat: he patiently, laboriously sketches in the detailed background for each and every turn of place and period in which his protagonist and his extended family are involved. His rounded, ample prose is far less the pulpy “showdown” saga of feuding Irish and English rogues in the colonies than it might appear from the book’s bright, intriguing cover, and more an examination of their far-flung worlds. Despite Van Onselen’s steady commitment to social history’s focus on the lives of everyday people, in particular those who live on the edge of what society deems right and wrong, and in highly ambiguous worlds, his narrative style remains elevated and empirically resounding, seldom expressing doubt, hesitancy, or anything less than full mastery of his tale. His diction, too, has a well-worn, luxurious feel to it, like a fine old leather chair in a study richly stocked with books and bourbon.

Steinberg, by contrast, approaches his story in A Man of Good Hope with a palpable sense of self-conscious hesitancy, lending his writing an air of risk and open-endedness. Whereas Van Onselen’s work comes to the reader in the form of a well wrought urn, Steinberg’s writing is more like a Mobius strip, now showing this side of things, now that. It trembles with the contingency of the lives Steinberg inhabits as a writer, as though the story itself, the telling of it, right now as you read, is implicated in his protagonist’s fate. Steinberg’s involvement with the character — and by implication, the reader’s engagement, too — make the protagonist’s life swing one way rather than another. One feels immensely drawn into the interlocutor’s life and story, a strange effect by which these two elements, life and story, seem to merge affectively into one’s own, felt sense of “life-story.” The engagement that Steinberg so clearly experiences becomes a felt part of the reading experience: one starts caring for Steinberg’s characters and their immediate destinies as one reads.

An incident early in Steinberg’s book illustrates his distinctive approach to writing. He is sitting with his prospective new subject and main character, Asad Abdullahi, in the Company’s Garden in Cape Town. Asad has (as one later learns, perilously, almost miraculously) made his way to Cape Town from Mogadishu, Somalia. He is one of many thousands of intra-African migrants who stream into South Africa every day in search of opportunity. Steinberg’s use of the first-person in an unfolding present tense includes not just the story, but also the ongoing challenge of understanding the living being that tells it so idiosyncratically. Often, the implicit question in the early stages of a Steinberg book is whether his interlocutor will yield a story that is worth telling:

In his slender fingers is a twig. I think he found it while we were strolling up from the library. Now he snaps it in half and draws it to his nose.

His eyebrows rise in surprise. He smells it again.

“Amazing,” he says. “From the moment I saw it lying on the ground, I knew what the smell would remind me of.”

And he begins to tell me how he made ink. He was seven years old, he thinks, a student at a madrassa, preparing the charcoal mixture into which he would dip his pen in order to copy out the Koran. To bind the ink, he says, you need the sap of the agreeg tree. You snap open a branch and with pinched fingers tease out the juice, allowing it to drip into the charcoal and water. While stirring the mixture, you absent-mindedly put your fingers to your nose. You breathe in deeply. Ah!

The smile on his face is wistful and intense, and I think I have an inkling of where he has gone.

He knows that I am still here, that, at the table next to us, men are playing chess. But he is also elsewhere, and he is savoring it, for he understands that it can last only a few seconds. He has reeled back more than twenty years. With the twig he has found in the Company’s Garden, he is reliving a forgotten high, for it is clear from the expression on his face that the sap of the agreeg is narcotic.

I feel a whim rising. I know that if I think about it, even for a moment, I will find a reason to back off, so I do not think about it. A man who idly snaps open a twig and is transported back so vividly, so powerfully, to another world is a man about whom I ought to write a book.

This passage is characteristic of Steinberg’s writing, with its invitation to the reader to watch his authorial observation of the protagonist, a quality of looking that is doubly keen; its sensitivity to mood and to the shifts in his interlocutor’s moment-to-moment apprehensions of self, life, and self-narration; the narrator’s frank admission of his own feelings as he listens, showing his subjectivity as a listener (“I feel a whim rising”); his unwavering immersion in his character’s feelings, thoughts, and narration; and the thoughtful but analytical meta-commentary he brings to bear on both his subject’s and his own processes of telling, listening, and feeling.

In some senses, then, the instructive contrast between Van Onselen and Steinberg is similar to the difference between sitting in a lecture hall to listen to a celebrated don talk about interesting dead people, on the one hand, and on the other being a fly on the wall as a long conversation unfolds between two living people. Both engagements are illuminating. The reading experience, however, couldn’t be more different. It says a lot about the narrative options open to authors working in “creative nonfiction” modes, even if Van Onselen would likely balk at such a description for his solidly researched “history from below,” a genre he helped to make famous in the southern African context. Steinberg, in turn, claims little more than the status of a “journalist” and manages, in the event, to write books that chart grippingly contemporary journeys through worlds that remain hard to read, despite the masses of data everywhere. Reading these two authors together suggests a telling generational shift of mood about how stories can, and ought, to be told.


Recommended Reading:

Van Onselen, Charles. The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, A South African Sharecropper, 1894–1985 (David Philip, Cape Town, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York 1996, James Currey, London, 1997).

_____. The Fox and the Flies: The World of Joseph Silver, Racketeer and Psychopath (London: Cape, 2007); published in New York by Walker as The Fox and the Flies: The Secret Life of a Grotesque Master Criminal.

Steinberg, Jonny. The Number: One Man’s Search for Identity in the Cape Underworld and Prison Gangs (Jonathan Cape, Johannesburg, 2004).

_____. Sizwe’s Test. (Simon and Schuster, New York, 2008), published in Johannesburg as Three-Letter Plague (Jonathan Ball, 2008).

Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York (Jonathan Cape, London 2011; Jonathan Ball, Johannesburg, 2011).


Leon de Kock is a South African writer and critic from Johannesburg who now lives in Baltimore.

LARB Contributor

Leon de Kock is a South African writer and critic from Johannesburg who now lives in Baltimore. His translation of Marlene van Niekerk’s explosive novel, Triomf, launched this writer's international career, and he has also translated leading South African novelists Etienne van Heerden and Ingrid Winterbach. A former professor at Wits University in Johannesburg, he has published three volumes of poetry and a novel, in addition to scholarly books. His new book, Losing the Plot: Fiction and Reality in Postapartheid Writing, is due at Wits University Press in 2016.


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