English in Africa

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The Place of English Literature in the South African University: Zoë Wicomb’s “A Clearing in the Bush”

Kate Highman


This paper considers the place of English Literature as a university discipline in South Africa given the call to decolonise universities in the wake of Rhodes Must Fall. Focussing on historically black institutions (HBIs) and the apartheid government’s minimising of ‘aesthetic education’ (following Spivak’s use of the term) at them, I turn to Zoë Wicomb’s story “A Clearing in the Bush” (1987), which is set at the University of the Western Cape in the 1960s and concerns the attempts of an English literature student to complete an essay on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles. Wicomb’s story, I argue, invites us to think about the ambivalent role of English at HBIs and illustrates how literary study can act both as a particularly insidious vehicle for disciplinary power and, potentially, as a means for critiquing such power. Finally, the paper considers how Wicomb’s story remains pertinent today.

Keywords:  English literature, decolonisation, Zoë Wicomb, Thomas Hardy, Bantu Education, discipline, disciplinary power, aesthetic education, desire, pedagogy, University of the Western Cape

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