Social media has greeted the lockdowns imposed in the face of the global spread of Covid-19 with reading recommendations for "plague fiction" and other speculative, post-apocalyptic or dystopian literary works.
Readers of South African literature know that it, too, has been fascinated with imaginings of apocalypse. Before the transition to democracy, dystopian fiction was often oriented towards the fall of the apartheid regime.
After 1994, some literary dystopias used narratives of atavistic regression to express disillusionment with the postapartheid state and to question the very notion of political community.
By contrast, other recent South African works combine the dystopian, the fantastic and the speculative to very different effect in texts that we might loosely term “Afrofuturist.” Afrofuturism was originally used in the early 1990s to describe African American and diasporic speculative or science fiction, as well as investigations of futurity and technological innovation oriented towards black culture in music, cinema and the visual arts.
The Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor, Kenyan film director Wanuri Kahiu, and Kenyan-American visual artist Wangechi Mutu, among others, have used Afrofuturism to powerful effect in relation to the African continent.
Two South African novels, Moxyland (2008) by Lauren Beukes and Triangulum (2019) by Masande Ntshanga, also use Afrofuturist sensibilities to explore concerns that seem highly relevant for the present moment.
Moxyland, Lauren Beukes’s first novel, uses a futuristic built environment to estrange the known urban setting of Cape Town. Its plot is delightfully complex—too complex to recount here. The novel follows four young urban protagonists as they navigate a “corporate-apartheid government” in the author’s words.
Here the mobile phone regulates social inclusion and exclusion. It facilitates social exchange but also deals out gruesome physical punishment, surveils movement and limits mobility.
Through a sub-plot involving the anti-corporation activist Tendeka, Beukes shows how social relations are configured through technology to shape and maintain a repressive spatial order.
Her insights have proven prescient. Consider the manner in which the need to map the spread of the coronavirus entrenches the power of state surveillance in China, South Korea, Ecuador, Israel and elsewhere.
Equally significantly, the spatial order of Moxyland is suffused with threats of contagion. During the novel’s breathless climax, security forces spray protesters and commuters alike with the Marburg virus. Those affected must report to the police for vaccination or face death. But if the virus is a weapon, it is also a persistent threat.
The corporate state, we learn, maintains quarantine measures that help to segregate the inhabitants of “the Rurals”: impoverished and remote regions where HIV/AIDS is prevalent. These look strangely familiar. The backstory of corporate programmer and former AIDS baby, Lerato, links her to the apartheid-era homeland of the Ciskei. The novel thus pairs spatial disenfranchisement with compromised immunity to suggest that its particular form of social commentary is not only directed towards the future.
Triangulum, Masande Ntshanga’s second novel published a little over a decade after Moxyland, provocatively revisits this territory—literally and conceptually. The text is layered and non-linear. A frame-narrative authored by a former writer of science fiction introduces its different segments. These consist of a coming-of-age-memoir detailing the adolescence of the novel’s unnamed central character in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape in 1999; transcribed recordings of her later “regression therapy recollections” relating to her experiences in 2002, and a two-part “autofiction” titled “Five Weeks in the Plague,” set in 2025 and 2035. The novel riffs imaginatively on familiar sci-fi motifs involving extraterrestrial technology, alien abduction, time travel, missing teenage girls, corporate espionage, computer hacking and eco-terrorism.
More surprising is Ntshanga’s choice of a protagonist who is the daughter of former employees of the Ciskei administration. Given this framing, references to “Zoning” in the later Johannesburg sections of the novel—or the corporate construction and control of segregated privately owned micro-cities for township residents—suggest an analogy with apartheid’s own forms of social engineering. Ntshanga is very clear about this dimension of his work.
As he says in an interview, “South Africa’s dystopian future could easily be imagined through its dystopian past.” But the novel’s detailed and elegiac treatment of the Eastern Cape simultaneously gestures towards older colonial histories through its evocation of the mass graves of the amaXhosa decimated by starvation in the wake of the 1856-57 Cattle Killing Movement.
Reading (for) Lockdown
How do imagined textual futures shed light on past and present? Perhaps these two novels are not so much recommended reading for lockdown as oblique reflections on the enduring spatial and economic inequalities that lockdown—with all its complexities—highlights once more. In the postapartheid context, surely, but elsewhere, too. Spatial inequality counts among the intersecting factors that contribute to the disproportionate risk of death from Covid-19 for black and Latino minorities in the United States. Beukes and Ntshanga depict richly textured fictional universes in which comparable insights are the stuff of narrative. Reading their futuristic texts for the empathy that they elicit, and for the spatial analysis that they compel, alerts us to the need for redress as we begin to imagine shared futures after lockdown.
- Louise Bethlehem is a literary scholar and cultural theorist specializing in South African literary and cultural history. Her recent research, funded by the European Research Council, has focussed on the global circulation of anti-apartheid expressive culture.