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Perceptive Works Earned Respect of S. African Blacks : Nobel: Nadine Gordimer’s opposition to apartheid, evident in her books, also took her to court.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nadine Gordimer looks nothing like a radical, standing just 5-feet-1, with gray hair and a face gently wrinkled by 67 years in the African sun.

But for four decades, this unassuming, strong-willed white woman has used her manual Hermes typewriter to give the world some of the most perceptive and uncompromising works of fiction ever written about her homeland, South Africa.

And, in the process, she has earned the respect of South Africa’s 28 million blacks for her contribution to the struggle for black liberation.

“When you read her words, you get the sense that she is actually leading the life,” said Raks Sekowa, a black South African writer who spent several years in jail for his political beliefs and now is with the Congress of South African Writers, which Gordimer co-founded. “You don’t have the sense that she’s only observing.”

Junaid Ahmed, a playwright and secretary of the congress, admits that before he met Gordimer, he was wary of “this old white woman trying to write about the (liberation) struggle.” But, once introduced, he was struck by her knowledge of the complexities of South Africa.

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“She was a person who wasn’t just writing in her study, but was in day-to-day contact with black people,” Ahmed added.

Gordimer’s staunch opposition to apartheid, although evident in her books, began to surface in more concrete ways in recent years.

Two years ago, she went to court to argue for leniency for four black leaders convicted of treason and testified that she herself supported the armed wing of the then-banned African National Congress, an admission that could have landed her in jail.

“I’m against violence, and I regret it (violence) very much,” she said then, speaking in the same cavernous courtroom where, three decades earlier, ANC leader Nelson Mandela had defended his decision to launch the organization’s guerrilla war.

“But having lived here for 65 years, I am well aware for how long black people have abstained from violence,” Gordimer told the court. “We white people are responsible for it.”

The four men received 20-year prison terms, which were overturned on appeal a year later.

Last year, three months after the ANC was legalized, she proudly paid her 12 rand (about $5) in dues and joined the ANC. It was the life-affirming act of a novelist who was seeing her dream of a free South Africa coming true.

“This is truly a novelty in my adult life, having something I can openly identify with,” she said at the time. “I’ve waited a very long time.”

Gordimer was born in the gold-mining town of Springs, 30 miles from Johannesburg. Her mother was English and her father, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, ran a jewelry store. She attended an all-white convent school, watched movies on Saturdays at the segregated cinema and took ballet lessons.

She remembers having little in common with other children, caring nothing for outdoor sports and spending long hours alone in the whites-only library, reading whatever caught her fancy.

She wrote children’s stories while still very young, and her first adult short story was published when she was 15. An Afrikaner poet sent one of her stories to the United States, where her work began appearing in literary journals.

It was an American novel, “The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair, that planted the first doubts in her mind about her society. Sinclair’s descriptions of abuse of immigrant workers in Chicago’s meatpacking industry reminded her of the black migrant mine workers in her hometown, and the rough way that the white immigrant shopkeepers treated them.

After high school, Gordimer moved to Johannesburg, where she began meeting other writers, many of them black, and immediately felt a kinship with them. She went to college but dropped out after a year to write.

When she was 26, shortly after the South African government passed the infamous laws creating “grand apartheid,” The New Yorker magazine published one of Gordimer’s stories. American publishers asked for more, and her first book, a collection of short fiction, was published in 1949.

Gordimer lives in a white suburb of Johannesburg, in an old house stuffed with African art. She has been married for 37 years to Reinhold Cassirer, 83, an art-gallery owner, and has two children--Hugo, a filmmaker in New York, and Oriane, a schoolteacher in France.

She still writes each morning, and never discuses her work until it is complete.

“I have it all to myself when I’m writing,” she said.

Much of the rest of the time she nurtures other writers.

She championed the cause of one playwright for years, even writing letters defending plays that had been dismissed by local critics.

“She’s unbelievably generous to younger talents,” says that playwright, Athol Fugard, author of “Master Harold and the Boys.”

Gordimer helped launch the Congress of South African Writers in 1987 to assist anti-apartheid writers who had been ignored by the white publishing houses of South Africa. Now she runs workshops, critiques volumes of unpublished works and directs the 5,000-member congress with a firm hand.

“Some white people would be very patronizing and go along (with what we say), but she always speaks her mind,” said Buyisile Jones, the congress’ national organizer. “That’s why she has the respect of black people.”


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