Willemsdorp by Herman Charles Bosman: the small-town locale as fictional vehicle for commentary on social and moral issues in the South African historical context

19 Apr 2013

Herman Charles Bosman’s short stories are stylistically and thematically different from his novels. With the exception of “A Bekkersdal marathon” and “Sold down the river” all Bosman’s short stories, numbering more than one hundred, take the South African farm as their setting. Bosman’s first novel, Jacaranda in the Night, of which his second novel Willemsdorp is a reworking, followed his sojourn (1942–43) as a journalist in the country town of Pietersburg in the Northern Transvaal region of South Africa. It appears that Bosman’s light-hearted, if tragicomic, lampooning of the South African farm and its inhabitiants (in his short stories) was replaced in his small-town novels by a dark satire of South African society during the Union period. In Willemsdorp Bosman holds up a mirror to the small town microcosm in order to reveal a (rather unpleasant) picture of the national macrocosm. Willemsdorp had been subjected to censorship at the time of first publication (1977) because of the writer’s response to the mechanisms of prevailing racist ideology such as the Immorality Act, which resulted in his representation in the novel of police sadism towards people participating in interracial sexual acts. The reassessment of Willemsdorp that emerged with the publication of the full, uncensored text in 1998 has made it possible to establish its significance as a precursor of politically engaged protest literature in apartheid South Africa. It is perhaps for this reason that biographer and editor Stephen Gray in an introduction to the 1998 edition dubs it “the most important single item among the Bosman Texas papers”.