n English in Africa - John Wayne in Sophiatown : the wild west motif in Apartheid prose

Volume 41, Issue 1
  • ISSN : 0376-8902



The young hero of apartheid stories inhabits a hazardous frontier world, pervaded by violence and calling again and again for proof of bravado. As Bloke Modisane once put it: "South Africa has a frontier or voortrekker mentality, a primitive throw-back to the pioneering era, the trail-blazing days, when the law dangled in the holster and justice was swift" (Modisane 17). While the influence of US gangster culture on journalism in the 1950s has been vividly explored by Mike Nicol in , this article focuses on the cowboy hero as an imported mode of male identity in prose narratives from the apartheid era. This prose plays out in worlds as polarised as dull, parochial white towns (akin to towns in Westerns) and jiving, dodgy townships (such as Sophiatown and District Six, doomed to become ghost towns). During this time of "gritting the teeth and enduring" (Coetzee 14), the young hero has to learn to be as flinty and heroic as a cowboy if he is to survive to manhood, when he will (if he is white) be drafted and sent to the border to shoot at the foe or (if he is black) be hounded and shot at by the police. Thus fathers in apartheid stories are almost to a man stoic and hard on their sons. Like cowboys, they never cry and they hardly ever reveal their feelings. Such fathers tend to be distant (they are out roving the farm or hunting; they are away on the mines or in jail), so it is from seeing the fictive antics of cowboys on the silver screen that the young hero learns how to be a cowboy.

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