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Interview with Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014): “Most people don't make the distinction between literature and propaganda”

A 2010 interview with the late South African writer Nadine Gordimer, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991 and was a vigorous anti-apartheid activist.

It's been over 16 years since apartheid ended. How close is the goal of a "rainbow nation"?
I have always called myself a realistic optimist. During the time of the struggle, we were so completely preoccupied with getting rid of apartheid that we didn't have the time or state of mind to think about the future and the kind of problems that would be left over. When we all voted together for the first time - an absolutely wonderful occasion - we partied and celebrated. Now, the next day, comes the headache. There are aspects of the aftermath we didn't think of, which have either blasted from the past or have arisen in the meantime from circumstances in the world and in our own country.

Why has there been such a rise in violence?
It is mainly because we have this tremendous gap between the poor and the rest of the population, who are at various stages of achieving a liveable life, going right up to the very rich. This huge backlog of poverty is an inheritance that you can't deal with in 16 years.

This isn't to say that we are doing all we should be doing now to go ahead and deal with it. It's been disappointing that we've had so much corruption, for instance, at the government and economic level. There are other things that weren't our fault at all, such as the crisis of HIV and Aids - who would have expected that?

What's the mood ahead of the World Cup?
It's a strange thing. While there is great excitement about the World Cup, at the same time, we've got these tremendous difficulties. I'm certainly not a killjoy. People need bread and circuses, and this is a big circus. Let it be enjoyed. But what about the bread?

Will it be a good thing for South Africa?
It's difficult to gauge what the benefits will be afterwards. Take the stadiums - does one really need them, and what do you do with them? The money that's being spent could provide housing for so many who are living in shacks.

As an ANC member, you once said that it was better to serve the organisation from inside the party. What do you think about the African National Congress today?
I think I might have thought that at the time, and it might have been adequate then. But now, there is a lot of dissent within the party. Capable opposition always wakes up a ruling party. But there is dissent within the opposition parties, too.

What about Julius Malema, the controversial president of the ANC Youth League?
He has an appeal for the young, poor and jobless. They have nothing offered to them, except to rage against the state of the country. I think he's a tragedy. It's all very well to criticise him and, God knows, one must, if you have any care for this country and its future. But one has to see what has led to him coming about. It's an unfortunate phenomenon.

Are you optimistic about the future?
We are all extremely worried about the state of the country at present, but it's a wonderful country. There's so much here, and there are still so many remarkable people absolutely selflessly doing whatever they can. What some people don't realise is that there has been a remarkable change between black and white. It's hidden now because of other pressures, but there has not been even a generation to put everything right. If South Africans could overcome apartheid, surely we can summon the will to deal with the present problems.

How well has the Aids crisis been handled?
Thabo Mbeki was a highly intelligent man and achieved some good things, but nobody can explain (I certainly can't) his blindness about the HIV/Aids problem and the neglect that he allowed during his time as president. It does seem that it is being tackled now. If only we could find - when I say we, I mean the whole world, but particularly us - a vaccine against it.

Is President Jacob Zuma doing enough?
He is saying the right things about Aids, but one can't forget that when he was in court, he said in public - he can't blame the press for this - that he'd had unprotected sex with a woman he knew was HIV-positive. It makes one wonder.

Will you write an autobiography?
Why should I? I'm not interested in myself to that extent. Anything that's in me that has any worth at all to make public is in what I've written. My other life is private.

Can literature make a difference?
Has it not always done this? Most people don't make the distinction between literature and propaganda. Propaganda has its place. It seeks to persuade people. But literature, poetry, novels, stories -- these are an exploration of life.

Albert Camus said: "The moment when I am no more than a writer, I shall cease to write." He was saying that if you are a writer, you are a human being, a citizen, and therefore you have social responsibility as well. This doesn't mean you've got to write propaganda, but to explore that life. That is what he, and other great writers, did so magnificently. We couldn't really live without the result of their exploration.

You've said that you regret not learning an African language.
I certainly regret it very much. It's a great deprivation.

Is there a plan?
You don't plan. Life pushes in on you and you respond to it or you don't.

Do you vote?
How could you not, if you'd grown up as I did, knowing that you could only vote because you were white? For the last couple of elections before 1994, I did not vote because there was nothing to vote for. But afterwards, we were no longer voting illegally. It is a precious right and, to us, it is all the more precious because so many people didn't have it for so long.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
In my private life, of course. Not in my public life. I hope I've done what I was capable of. It's never enough, but there you are.

Are we all doomed?
Doomed to what? To atomic explosion? To making the atmosphere unbreathable? I'm troubled about pollution and by the power of weaponry that exists in the world, but I believe that we are not doomed. We will and must find our way out of it.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.