'Marginality' is often used as a term to describe the situation of black South Africans who, although ostensibly part of the majority group, found themselves systematically excluded from or denied full participation in South African society. The ways in which apartheid did this are so notorious that they hardly need to be recapitulated here. The term is, of course, metaphorical and relational - it contrasts the periphery with the centre, and the situation of those who are excluded or disempowered with the situation of those who have access to the rights and privileges which citizenship normally confers.1 Marginality, as the term is frequently used in South Africa, signifies a political, social, economic, psychological and material condition that has defined the lives of (in particular) black South Africans from the colonial era through to the post-apartheid present. Recent events in South Africa have dramatised or made visible the continued exclusion or marginalisation of both black South Africans and foreign migrants in the informal settlements on our urban peripheries.
Much fiction by black South African writers reflects with stark realism the conditions which governed the lives of the oppressed and disenfranchised during the apartheid era. Urban black writing in South Africa effectively begins with the Drum writers and the District Six writers of the 1950s - although there were important precursors (among them Sol Plaatjie, the Dhlomo brothers and Peter Abrahams). The central subject of most of these stories is life in the apartheid ghetto or black township. The short fiction of Es'kia Mphahlele, Can Themba and Bloke Modisane, or of the District Six writers (Richard Rive, Alex la Guma and James Matthews2) is an obvious example. The opening pages of La Guma's A Walk in the Night provide a vivid description of Hanover Street, the central artery which ran from the Castle though the centre of District Six. It closely resembles the description of the same street in 'The Dead-End Kids of Hanover Street,' one of the pieces of journalism that La Guma wrote for New Age in the 1950s.3
From Castle Bridge to Sheppard Street, Hanover Street runs through the heart of District Six, and along it one can feel the pulse beats of society. It is the main artery of the local world of haves and have nots, the prosperous and the poor, the struggling and the idle, the weak and the strong. Its colour is in the bright enamel signs, the neon lights, the shop-fronts, the littered gutters and draped washing. Pepsi Cola, Commando cigarettes, Sale Now On. Its life blood is the hawkers bawling their wares above the blare of jazz from the music shops: "Aartappels, ja. Uiwe, ja"; ragged youngsters leaping on and off the speeding trackless trams with the agility of monkeys; harassed mothers getting in groceries; shop assistants; the Durango Kids of 1956; and the knots of loungers under the balconies and in the doorways leading up to dim and mysterious rooms above the rows of shops and cafes. ('Dead-End Kids' 1993, p. 9)
The New Age article goes on to investigate the lot of these 'dead-end kids' who hang around the sidewalks and who are likely (like Willieboy or Michael Adonis in the novella) to drift into a life of crime.
Hanging around and waiting. Slums, disease, unemployment, lack of education, the terrible weight of the colour bar which withholds the finer things of life - all help to grind them down until many of them become beasts of prey roaming an unfriendly jungle. (1993, p. 10)
What is unusual about the novella is its relentless focus on the grim realities of life in the ghetto. We find in passage after passage a mixture of fascination and revulsion at the minutiae of dirt, decay and putrefaction. The novella makes the condition of marginality palpable in the sensory detail of its description...