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Aboriginal Southern African Storytelling and the Shaping of Early Afrikaans Literature

Art de conter autochtone en Afrique du Sud et développement de la première littérature afrikaans
Hein Willemse
p. 93-106


Cet article examine l'évolution des idées des folkloristes et des critiques littéraires afrikaners au cours du dernier siècle sur les origines de certains contes oraux autochtones de l'Afrique australe. Il est de notoriété publique que, dans l'Afrique australe coloniale, les conteurs racontaient fréquemment des contes locaux aux enfants des colons. Au moment où le nationalisme afrikaner commençait vers la fin du dix-neuvième et au début du vingtième siècle, les origines et l'authenticité autochtones des artistes et de leur interprétation furent rarement contestées. Une cinquantaine d'années plus tard, à l'époque de la victoire imminente du nationalisme afrikaner, les folkloristes et critiques littéraires afrikaners doutaient de plus en plus des origines de ces contes ou du talent artistique des conteurs. Cet article examine deux exemples de ce type. La première partie de l'article sert de toile de fond à la discussion et la seconde examine la lutte à propos de la paternité du conte Klein Riet-alleen-in-die-Roerkuil (Le Petit roseau-seul-au-tourbillon).

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1This article explores the changing perceptions of Afrikaner folklorists and literary critics on the origins of selected indigenous southern African oral tales. Towards the end of the 19th century and with the emergence of Afrikaner Nationalism in Southern Africa young Afrikaner activists used indigenous folktales in the development of a nascent Afrikaans literary tradition. In the rural communities of the early Cape Colony or the settlements and farming communities of the northern Boer Republics workers and employers lived in close proximity. Employers, slaves or workers from various indigenous communities as a matter of course created their own entertainment on these far-flung settlements. For instance, storytellers usually performed indigenous tales in the presence of their owners or employers' children. Visitors to these settlements often recorded these slave tales and indigenous performances. At the outset of Afrikaner Nationalism the origins and the authenticity of such written-down versions of performances were rarely in dispute. Generally, recorders like Wilhelm Bleek and those that followed him considered that generations of indigenous storytellers passed these folktales on and more importantly, that these tales were home-grown. Around the mid-20th century, a period that coincides with a virulent and confident Afrikaner Nationalism, Afrikaner folklorists and literary critics came to doubt these original explanations and advanced views that seem to favour European influence and structural refinement. Such features, these critics intimate, could only have arrived with the colonists or be dependent on the learning of the (white) educated and sophisticated classes. This article explores two such instances. The first section of the article serves as a background description of the issue at hand and the second discusses the battle for authorship of the tale, “Klein Riet-alleen-in-die-Roerkuil” (“Little Reed-alone-inthe-whirlpool”).

“No-one tells a tale more delightfully than a hotnot”

  • 1 I wish to acknowledge the assistance of Nina Botes who gathered most of the research material used (...)

2In the conclusion to his contribution on the “cultural history of the Afrikaner” W. Eiselen writes, “the Afrikaans culture was not fertilized or enriched by the indigenous ethnic group cultures (volkskulture) of the Bushman, the Hottentots and the Bantu” (1945: 280).1Yet, in the same collection the Afrikaner folklorist Abel Coetzee contradicts this categoricalstatement with a report on cultural exchange between Afrikaners and black South Africans:

From his cradle [in the Transkei] the Bantu Tikoloshe penetrated the folk beliefs of the whites under the name of the Tokkelossie. [...] However, several of his characteristics have vanished among whites, especially his most obvious characteristic: his sexual interactions (geslagsverkeer) [...] Tokkelossie is so deeply ingrained in the Afrikaans folk beliefs that it left its mark on our literature, our language and our anthem (volkslied).
(1945: 370-71)

3These statements reveal the difficulty both analysts have in negotiating social and cultural relationships between Afrikaners and black South Africans. Eiselen makes an emphatic but fundamentally flawed statement that seems to reject outright any significant level of influence in multicultural South Africa. For him South African cultures co-existed for centuries in differentiated and isolated units. This statement clearly speaks to the analyst's ideological and political desires - of a culturally separate people, an essentialized volk - rather than interactive social and political realities. Coetzee on the other hand acknowledges such cultural interaction. Tikoloshe is probably South Africa's best-known bogey, known in different guises throughout the country. The Tikoloshe figure even found resonance in at least one Afrikaans poet's oeuvre:

  • 2 A traditional string instrument consisting of a stick bounded with a piece of sinew and a feather o (...)

- The rings ring on the little joints so thin, the face is old, wrinkled and grey;suddenly he came to a standstill and said to the boy : “You play nicely, my lad, yes dad's boy ?”
- The little kaffir is startled out of his wits, his hand wildly drops the ghoera2 and it twirls to the ground ; “Oh! Oh! He grunts heavily, his eyes turn whiteso fearful that he squats down.
- ”Tikoloshe,“ trembles his tiny voice weaklythe little man comes closer, lowers his little bundle, and asks with a voice that punches like a dark word : ”my black son, whence do you think I come“ ?
(From: ”Die wagtertjie stap“; van den Heever, 1932: 81)

4While Coetzee acknowledges the presence of Tikoloshe in theAfrikaner's cultural experience he at the same time excises this folk figure'smost controversial feature, namely his powerful and aggressive sexuality.

5Most local versions maintain that Tikoloshe has little restraint in attackingyoung women with his oversized penis - so huge that he flung it over his shoulder (see Coetzee, 1960: 44). The late 1940s was the period of the Afrikaner's economic mobility and political self-assertion. At the time Afrikaner cultural brokers also asserted their urban middle-class respectability, their austere Calvinist religiosity, and the explicit elevation of the place of white women. It is therefore not far-fetched to suggest that polite white society could not publicly acknowledge or socially tolerate the moral abandon that Tikoloshe represents. Interestingly, the purist beliefs that Coetzee suggests did not preclude the Afrikaner poet in the cited poem from obliquely referring to the bogey's sexuality: uncontested terrain as long as the white poet confines himself to black sexuality. Although Coetzee, unlike Eiselen, acknowledges a measure of influence he is at pains to draw a distinction between primitive black people and the civilised Afrikaner.

6At work here is the explicit formation and public assertion of Afrikaner identity. The above - cited articles of Eiselen and Coetzee appear in a three part series, entitled Kultuurgeskiedenis van die Afrikaner (Cultural history of the Afrikaner), published respectively in 1945, 1947 and 1950, i.e. around the 1948 election victory of Afrikaner Nationalism. In a foreword the series editors describe their aim as providing a popular survey of ”our cultural achievements“ so that ”our people's personality“ can be expressed; so that the Afrikaner should not be ”ashamed of what has been achieved“ it will enhance ”our feelings of self respect“. It is in this context that they ”consciously want to give an account of [our] apartheid as a people“ (Pienaar & van den Heever, 1945: n.p.). Kultuurgeskiedenis van die Afrikaner is an inventory aimed at the delineation of group identity similar to the symbolic ox wagon trek and the inauguration of the Voortrekker Monument (1938). This series serves as an instrument of stabilization in the Afrikaner's cultural and identity formation.

  • 3 The usage of San and/or Bushman in literary, historical and anthropological studies is a highly con (...)

7Fifty years earlier the limits of Afrikaner cultural identity were less secure and in greater flux. In the absence of an extensive Afrikaans literary tradition in the 19th century earlier Afrikaner nationalists took their refuge in pre-existing indigenous oral forms. During the initial two, three decades Afrikaans writers actively incorporated San, Khoekhoen, Sotho, Tswana, Xhosa and Zulu storytelling3. Furthermore, we have enough evidence to suggest that the Khoekhoen and San storytellers created and performed their stories in the créole tongue later known as Afrikaans. These young Afrikaner writers and activists retold and remodelled indigenous folktalesand in the process articulated their burgeoning nationalism. One prominent example is that of the Afrikaans novelist G. R. von Wielligh who collected animal tales from Khoekhoen and San storytellers towards the end of the 19th century and published them in one of the first Afrikaans children's magazines, Ons Klyntji (Our Little One).

8In a collection of these animals stories, Dire stories soos deur di Hottentots ferteld, 1907) or Dierestories soos deur Hotnots vertel (Animals tales as told by Hottentots, 1917) von Wielligh gives an insight into the relationship between storyteller and audience, between an aged Khoe storyteller and young white children. For our purposes it is worth quoting him at length:

  • 4 Hotnot > Hottentot denotes a member of the Khoekhoen people; the term also refers to people conside (...)

Fifty years ago, when we were young, our Hotnot outas told us many stories about Jackal and Wolf and about the other animals4. Once they (the storytellers) started then we could not be prised away. Our outas were already old. And when they were children they heard it from their old folk. And in turn those old folk heard the high jinks of Wolf and Jackal from their old folk. [...] No-one tells an animal tale more delightfully (smaakvol) than a Hotnot. It appears as if he sees and hears everything that he tells about in front of him. He can imitate and mimic animals in detail - so naturally sometimes we became afraid. [...] Our granddad encouraged us to listen to the animal tales. He was a man of experience and knew that many big ideas were borne from little tales in the children's room and that the mind expanded and developed through the imagination and outside in the wide fields of nature. So, he said, ”Right outa, go ahead - the children are listening carefully to you. [...] Yes, dear readers, such Hotnots are becoming quite scarce and the question is, “will there be any left in hundred years?” There will always be storytellers, but those who through their imagination and sensitivity experience the events are in short supply. [...] Full of enthusiasm and excitement a child jostles the other to get closer to outa(von Wielligh, 1917 [1907]: 9-12).

9From this quotation a picture emerges of an intimate relationship between storyteller and audience in the feudal setting of 19th century pastoral communities in the northern Boer Republics. Particularly informative is von Wielligh's description of the role these Khoekhoen storytellers played in the informal education of white children. At the same time he creates an epistemology of the Khoekhoen animal stories as indigenous having been passed on from generation to generation. The symbiotic relationship between storyteller, listener and recorder resulted in the unambiguous acknowledgement of the oral artistic ability of these storytellers. In this case, these stories, told by a “Hotnot”, served as culturalfictions - to use a concept of Benedict Anderson - in the invention of the imaginary constructs of the Afrikaner, Afrikaner nationalism and Afrikaans literature.

10Fifty years later Afrikaner nationalists were much more confident in their delineation of boundaries. Concepts such as “loan” and “heritage” entered the lexicon of Afrikaans literature and language denoting respectively indigenous or settler / European influences. By 1945 at the time of the appearance of Kultuurgeskiedenis van die Afrikaner a new generation of Afrikaner nationalist folklorists reconsidered the origins of the Afrikaans animal tale. Abel Coetzee (1945: 383) now takes issue-he calls it a “serious matter” - with von Wielligh. Not only does he explicitly deny the role and place of the Khoekhoen storytellers but he also insists on a European pedigree for the Afrikaans animal tale - in line with the higher stake that these Afrikaner nationalists placed on “European heritage”:

It should not surprise us that we have such an abundance of animal tales. There are however more serious matters. Many writers say that some fairy tales are “Hottentot tales” without exploring the matter more deeply. Von Wielligh and Grove are content with the view that the fairy tales were recorded from some or other coloured. Elsewhere I have already indicated that [a particular story] that is regarded as a Hottentot tale was already recorded in the Middle Ages as Ecbasis Captivi. My observations increasingly lead me to believe that many of these fairy tales are not the original possession of the coloured. As far as I am concerned there is a stronger relationship between the European and the Afrikaans animal tale, a relationship that has not been explored sufficiently.(Coetzee, 1945: 383-84).

11Afrikaans literature developed into a linear construct that produced virtually exclusive linkages with the Afrikaners and the Afrikaans language, marginalising expressions from outside this triad. The embourgeoisement of the Afrikaners since the 1930s and the Afrikaner nationalist idiom of folklore research contributed to the marginalisation of indigenous Afrikaans oral traditions in the latter half of the 20th century. Added to this development is the advance of an elite aestheticism in Afrikaner literature since the late 1930s, spearheaded by N. P. van Wyk Louw, the doyen of Afrikaans poetry.

12The remainder of the article discusses the battle for authorship over a tale told by a San storyteller and recorded by an Afrikaans writer. This battle is determined largely by the aesthetic expectations of Afrikaner literary critics in the second half of the 20th century.

“This is not old Hendrik's tale”

  • 5 Even in Afrikaans the compound used as a title Dwaalstories is unusual and difficult to comprehend. (...)

13“Klein Riet-alleen-in-die-Roerkuil” is one of four tales that Eugène N. Marais, an Afrikaans writer, collected in Dwaalstories en ander vertellings(Indigenous tales and other stories, 1927)5. In a foreword to his collection Marais attributed the four stories to a storyteller, “an old Bushman, outa Hendrik.” Hendrik was about hundred years old when Marais wrote down his stories in 1913 and published them in a popular Afrikaans journal in 1921. According to Marais, Hendrik narrated (opsê) a “series of dwaal-stories”that was overall more interesting than the tales of other storytellers, since the listener could always deduce “more value from the meaning”. Marais admitted that he did not copy the stories “word for word” (woord vir woord) but that he wrote it down (neergeskryf) immediately following Hendrik's narration. He further admitted that he did not understand all “the Afrikaans-Bushman expressions” and that he could not represent in print the storyteller's gestures, onomatopoeia or facial expressions.

  • 6 The identity of Rooi Joggom (Red Joggom) is unclear. Gilfillan (1996: 151) suggests that the name m (...)
  • 7 It is not clear to what the uitspeelspel refers. The extant literature suggests that this might ref (...)

14“Klein Riet-alleen-in-die-Roerkuil” (“Little Reed-alone-in the-whirlpool”) is the name of the main character of this eponymous short story. A great, unspecified danger comes to Klein Riet's village. The village elders get together and eventually after a nightlong meeting the oldest of them formulates the message, “the great word” (die groot woord). Klein Riet, the young wing-footed boy, sets out at dawn, entrusted with the message for an unidentified persona, called Rooi Joggom6. His grandfather, warns him against the many wily ways of Nagali, the sorceress, who is reputed to have strong magic. Should he be tempted his “body will be strung as taut as the string of the big ramkie [a traditional guitar]” and he will be killed. With this warning Klein Riet sets out. In his left hand he holds a traditional toy or lucky charm (uitspeelspel) and with his right fist he bangs his forehead to help him remember every word of the message7. On his way he sees a beautiful young girl. He puts down his toy or luckycharm and dances with her. She dances and unbeknown to him directs him back to his village. She dances away, steals his toy or lucky charm and he realises that she was an agent of Nagali, the sorceress. He temporarily forgets “the great word” since he lost his toy or lucky charm. He makes his way in the direction of Rooi Joggom and meets up with a “gray Bushman” {vaal Boesman) who challenges him to a footrace. He accepts the challenge, however it is also revealed as one of Nagali's tricks intended to delay his journey. Klein Riet proceeds on his way and night falls, lightning strikes and the river comes down. He knows that he has to go through the river or face the wrath of his people; he jumps into the turbulent water and lands on a floating tree trunk that turns out to be Nagali's crocodile. He somehow lands back on the riverbank and runs in the direction of the big fire of a village where he delivers the message. However, he had arrived back at his own village. In fulfilment of their dire warning the grandfather and the oldest elder “string him tauter than the string of the big ramkie”and “kill the little fire of Riet-alleen-in-die-Roerkuil”.

15Afrikaans literary historians generally regard Dwaalstories, the slim short story collection consisting of “Klein Riet-alleen-in-die-Roerkuil” and three other “Bushman stories”, as a high point in Eugène Marais's writing. They view the collection with these “enigmatic stories” as one of the early peaks of Afrikaans literature. Most commentaries are genuinely enthusiastic. Various critics appraise the collection as “unique [...] with literary poetic quality”; “this is prose that our young writer should know by heart”; “some of the greatest prose in Afrikaans”; “beautiful, stylised primitivism” and ''Dwaalstories is and remains a source of immeasurable pleasure“ (see Marais & Marais, 1999: 663, Rousseau, 1974: 254, Antonissen, 1964? [1955?]: 91; Jooste, 1991a: 1). One earlier critic even ventures the view that these short stories are so much better than any of Marais's other literary writing, ”That he composed (samegestel) these stories seems to me doubtful, since Marais was not an artist who wrote great prose [...] I doubt whether he would have been competent at creating narratives of such high artistic value“ (van Melle, 1953: 41, see also Rousseau, 1974: 254).

16However, for several Afrikaans literary critics all is not what it seems. Over the years a body of scholarship, chiefly close readings executed along intrinsic paradigmatic lines, came about. In these intricate readings these critics note the multiple layers of textual meaning, the structural symmetry of the tale, the defined, intertwined internal form, the complexity of the narration, the poetic strategies of progression and contrast, the onomastics within the story, possible allegorical, biblical or Western classical resonances; and the refined use of the Afrikaans idiom (see inter aliaCloete, 1992; du Randt, 1969?: 23-36; Jooste, 1990, 1991a, 1991b; Nolte; Marais & Marais, 1999: 663). For them these features are indicative of an advanced cultured intellect that transformed a spontaneous primitive expression into an aesthetically complex work of art. What Marais regards as a loss, namely his inability to record the full performance, some of these critics consider a providential turn of events. For them it is fortunate that Marais did not copy Hendrik's story word for word and if there were some loss, Marais added much more (aesthetic) value (baie kosbaarhede) (Cloete, 1992: 93). In their conclusions some of these critics arrive at a point where they cast doubt on Hendrik's role in the composition of the tales and more specifically ”Klein Riet-alleen-in-die-Roerkuil“.

Hendrik (c. 1813-191?), on the frontispiece of Eugène N. Marais's Dwaalstories en ander vertellings (first edition, 1927).

Hendrik (c. 1813-191?), on the frontispiece of Eugène N. Marais's Dwaalstories en ander vertellings (first edition, 1927).

17The first edition of Dwaalstories was published in 1927 with a frontispiece of a drawing of Hendrik. Marais clearly held the storyteller in high regard and probably insisted on the inclusion of the sketch in the collection of stories, thereby unmistakably establishing Hendrik as his source and the primary performer. At least one critic accepted the veracity of Marais statement in his foreword to the text: ”This is probably a story that for centuries parents passed on to their children and composed at a time when the Bushmen had a greater degree of civilisation than today [...]“ (vanMelle, 1953: 43). Later on this certainty faded. Some critics - and some more than others - accept ”Hendrik's collaboration“ in the development of the tales, especially ”Klein Riet-alleen-in-die-Roerkuil“ (see Gilfillan, 1996; Jooste, 1991a: 7).

18Nevertheless, a majority of these critics speculate on the authorship of the tale. As is the case with Abel Coetzee's observations on the origins of the Afrikaans animal tale, these literary commentators generally go to extraordinary lengths to disprove Hendrik's role in the rendition of the story. One critic, Alet Mahâlik (1988), even intimates that the tale is not a typically San tale with the implication that Marais and not Hendrik conceived it. Another critic declares, ”the Bushman-ness [in the tale] is merely a mask to disguise in a dramatic-ironic manner the creativity (kunstenaarskap) of Marais“; ”[t]he refined structure and concentration are as far as I am concerned enough indication of technical competence and a understanding of form that can only be attributed to Marais“ and ”[t]he final proof that Marais - and not outa Hendrik - should be accepted as the storyteller depends on the variation of well-known Afrikaans expressions that are integral to the tale. Indeed it is difficult to believe that a Bushman can use the Afrikaans idiom in such a sophisticated way“ (du Randt, 1969?: 36, 26, 35). The most explicit of these commentaries unambiguously denies Hendrik's agency in favour of explorations of privileged Afrikaans aestheticism: ”I want to suggest that this is not old Hendrik's tale. For that the structure is too highly and finely developed. I can barely imagine that a primitive narrator is able to tell such a fine and highly structured tale. The supposed Bushman style is stylistic bluff, if I may call it that. The real truth and reality is [the tale's] composition“ (Cloete, 1992: 93).

19The above opinions should alert the casual observer to the undercurrents of this debate. These critics lay down a set of binary relationships that boils down to the difference between primitive spontaneity as opposed to cerebral, aesthetic modernity. The operative notion is that of literary aesthetics with the associative constituents of conscious composition, art as technical competence, art as imagination, art as stylised refinement and primarily the written form as cultural sophistication. From these analyses Marais emerges as ”an important innovator“ who through ”particular structuration modify and expand“ the text (Jooste, 1991a: 10). Furthermore, at least one critic suggests that should one doubt these deductions one is ”naïve“ and ”unsophisticated“ and probably guilty of an ”inaccurate reading“: ”somebody who considers the Bushman 'reciter' as the creator in the true sense of the word can safely be suspected of an inaccurate reading“ (Jooste, 1991a: 3, 4). Once these critics have devised this interpretative frame there is only one possible answer insharply racialized South Africa: only a cultured, educated (white) man could have composed ”Klein Riet-alleen-in-die-Roerkuil“.

20However, what do these critics do with Marais's unambiguous acknowledgement of Hendrik's part in the composition? The only way out is to deny Hendrik's role as the performer of ”Klein Riet-alleen-in-die-Roerkuil“ or to deny the tale's ”Bushman-ness“. In these analyses Hendrik is turned into a literary device - a character or a feature of stylistic bluff (Jooste, 1991a : 10; Cloete, 1992). Marais, it is argued, wanted to manipulate his readers: ”It may be that Marais with the declaration in his foreword wanted to hoodwink the reader“ (Jooste, 1991a: 3). Furthermore, in all subsequent editions of Dwaalstories (from 1959 onwards), the publishers left out the frontispiece, first produced in the 1927 edition and with it the connection between the stories and visual representation of Hendrik is severed. Do these textual manoeuvrings take place because the alternative is unimaginable: that a ”simple“, ”unsophisticated“, ”primitive“, itinerant ”Bushman“ might have the intellectual capacity to recreate handed-down tales or the linguistic capacity to create aesthetic form?

21Nonetheless, the historical Hendrik is not a figment of Marais' imagination. Marais's friend, the artist Erich Mayer, made a drawing of him in 1913 - about the time when the stories were recorded. A slightly bowed Hendrik, in tattered clothes, looks out with quiet dignity. In his time he lived on the edge of society as a nomadic storyteller who slept in an outside farm building on hessian bags, where he on occasion found three snakes with a fourth in a small barrel (Rousseau, 1974: 255). From the scant available information Hendrik was in his own right a competent oral artist. Marais in the foreword to his collection makes a distinction between him and other storytellers. For instance, he distinguishes Hendrik from the ”famous (fameus) storyteller, outa Flip,“ one who was able to tell animal stories from ”A to Z“ and able to recite rhyming tales. For Marais Hendrik's stories were incomparable. One get ”more value from the meaning“ and these tales contained suggestions of fiction beyond the traditional jackal and wolf stories (Marais, 2006 [1927]: 7-8). This perception and Marais's further observation of the storyteller's extraordinary oral poetics and kinesics clearly differentiated Hendrik as exceptional, an artist that brought considerable individuality to his performances. Marais was an eyewitness to this extraordinary performer's craft and his appreciative (and for its time the only available) response was the writing up - the archiving in a sense - of an individual performance.

22It is not clear how much Marais might have mediated the original performance. The Afrikaans author, Jan van Melle, in 1953, is convinced that Marais tried to remain true to the performance and that he did notrework the material: ”all he probably did was to make the tale clearer so that white people, with a bit of effort could follow it“ (van Melle, 1953: 41). Indeed it would be foolish to attempt any definitive answer, even the supposed definitive authority of the written text as the cited critics assert in their articles on ”Klein Riet-alleen-in-die-Roerkuil“. On his own evidence Marais wrote down the tale immediately after Hendrik's performance but he gave no indication of the post-performance recording process. We have to take him at his word that he did not understand, and therefore did not include all ”the Afrikaans-Bushman expressions“. One should therefore not exclude lapses in exact recall or a measure of editorial intervention. Whatever the historical situation might be, from his foreword it is clear that Marais - even for his time - thought highly of the oral artistry of Hendrik. If anything, we have in the written version of the tale the convergence of indigenous orality and script and with it the creation of a hybrid form that enriched Afrikaans literature immensely.

23The synopsis earlier on should give one some appreciation of the tale, even if it is difficult in the present discussion to explore to any degree its intricate linguistic, structural or rhythmic form or the multiple layers of meaning. In any case, one recognises the age-old devices of the folktale: its circularity and symmetry, the structural repetition of events, the battle between good and evil, the folktale as a teaching tool, an exemplar of moral conduct or a stratagem for maintaining social place and authority. It is very well imaginable that the form and structure, the onomastic play and the sensitivity to language might have been the devices of an experienced San storyteller.


24The construction of literary discourses from folkloric traditions or the transmutation of orature into high art is common. What is pertinent in the instances that I have briefly explored above is the expressed and insistent denial of folkloric agency of a particular kind. In the above instances the pronouncements of these critics amount to acts of appropriation that serve to reinforce the view that the ”origins“ of Afrikaans literature were one-dimensional and essentially white. In this process the history of non-Afrikaner Afrikaans literary participation is suppressed and the memory of the Khoekhoen and San as repressed people further marginalised. Marais committed an individual performance and its performer to the Afrikaans literary archive and prosperity, whereas the contemporary literary critics in part achieved quite the opposite. In the debate on the authorship of the tale, ”Klein Riet-alleen-in-die-Roerkuil“ these Afrikaans literary critics lionizethe written rendition of the performance, while they actively participate in the silencing of Hendrik. In these circumstances it is appropriate to re-assert Hendrik's rightful place as the performer of the tales and to reclaim his position - unchallenged - in the history of Afrikaans literature.

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1 I wish to acknowledge the assistance of Nina Botes who gathered most of the research material used in this paper. All translations from the originals are mine.

2 A traditional string instrument consisting of a stick bounded with a piece of sinew and a feather on the one end of the string. By blowing onto the feather the player creates soft sounds (Odendal & Gouws, 2005 [1965]: 306).

3 The usage of San and/or Bushman in literary, historical and anthropological studies is a highly contentious matter. San is used here without any prejudicial intent.

4 Hotnot > Hottentot denotes a member of the Khoekhoen people; the term also refers to people considered ”coloured“ in South African racial terminology. Outa > ou denotes social subjugation since white Afrikaans speakers exclusively addressed elderly black men in this fashion. In certain circumstances white Afrikaans speakers considered the appellation a mark of respect. Although socially accepted in earlier black-white relationships both terms are today regarded as racist and offensive.

5 Even in Afrikaans the compound used as a title Dwaalstories is unusual and difficult to comprehend. The first element of the compound, ”dwaal“ can be used as a verb or a noun with a variety of meanings. The authoritative dictionary of the Afrikaans language, Woordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal, defines the dwaalstorie as a ”Bushman tale“ in which every animal speaks in his own language and where the oral kinesics are regarded as more important than the plot. ”Ghost story“ is a secondary meaning for dwaalstorie (Schonees, 1974 [1956]: 399). The indications are that the San storytellers coined the term. Marais used the concept ”indigenous tales“ in the first publication of these stories in a popular Afrikaans journal. In his foreword to the collection he suggests ”indigenous tales“ as an appropriate translation (see also Jooste, 1991b: 61; Mahâlik , 1988: 84; Marais, 2006: 5-6).

6 The identity of Rooi Joggom (Red Joggom) is unclear. Gilfillan (1996: 151) suggests that the name might be Marais's distortion of/Kaggen, the San's Supreme Being.

7 It is not clear to what the uitspeelspel refers. The extant literature suggests that this might refer to some ”instrument of protection", a rhythmic instrument (see Jooste, 1991b: 66), or a lucky charm (A. H. de Vries quoted in Gilfillan 1996: 152). My view is that rather than attempting to fully explain the words, uitspeelspel or Rooi Joggom, the conceptual difficulty in itself reflects the level of (in-) comprehension between the performer and his scribe and in turn, the author, Marais and his readers.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Hendrik (c. 1813-191?), on the frontispiece of Eugène N. Marais's Dwaalstories en ander vertellings (first edition, 1927).
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Pour citer cet article

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Hein Willemse, « Aboriginal Southern African Storytelling and the Shaping of Early Afrikaans Literature », Journal des africanistes, 80-1/2 | 2010, 93-106.

Référence électronique

Hein Willemse, « Aboriginal Southern African Storytelling and the Shaping of Early Afrikaans Literature », Journal des africanistes [En ligne], 80-1/2 | 2010, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2013, consulté le 22 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Hein Willemse

Department of Afrikaans, University of Pretoria (

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Société des africanistes

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