Literature depicts situations specific to given societies. Temporality and spatiality (time and space) provide artists their setting. The particular is applied, however, to express the universal. The appeal of literary works beyond their specific cultural or historical settings is often a result of subject matter choice. Human emotions, which provide most artists their subject matter, are universal (love, hatred, etc.). Human aspirations can also be universal. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights conveys some of these common aspiration as follows: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…; everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person…; everyone has a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…; everyone has a right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” Beyond these first-generation rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, literature also champions issues such as the eradication of poverty, destitution and oppression that are widespread human conditions. Literature intervenes in the main on the side of the wretched of the earth, including women and children. Literature thus propagates a human rights culture that transcends national boundaries.
Literature depicts people as change agents; it explores relationships between the status quo and change, between tradition and modernity. In our technologically “advanced” world haunted by the spectre of global warming, literature is an important for exploring human ecology – as a means of investigating how human beings and human societies interact with nature and the environment. Human ecology explores not only the influence of people on their environment but also the influence of the environment on human behaviour and people’s adaptive strategies. The new paradigm human ecology introduces concerns itself with culture in relation to nature and sees human communities as part of the ecosystem of the earth – that is, human beings are no longer seen as an exceptional species that uses culture to adapt to new environments and environmental change but rather as one species out of many that interacts with a bounded natural environment. (www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_ecology). In The Lion and the Jewel, Wole Soyinka’s character, Baroka, speaks to such issues of human ecology when he says: “I do not hate progress but only its face which makes all human beings the same.” He decries environmental degradation and advocates delicate balancing that will leave here and there “virgin plots of rich decay”.
Literature often deals with the conflict between reason and passion in the resolution of human problems. In this respect, the importance of cultivating a universal human rights culture cannot be over-emphasised. The denial of human rights is at the root of many national/internal and international conflicts. From time immemorial verbal artists have been at the forefront of the struggle to instil humanising values in society. Their work continues to speak to issues of social transformation. They tackle many social ills that plague contemporary society such as state repression; police brutality; extra-judicial, arbitrary and summary executions; abuse of women and children; persecution of ethnic and religious minorities; discrimination against darker skinned races, etc. Literature holds a mirror to society; literature is the fuel the world needs to bolster the energy of our souls. Writers are the sensitive point in society and promote the full development of the human personality and its dignity. Endemic violence that afflicts women and children most adversely debilitates society. Poverty is itself a form of violence and militates against the attainment of lasting peace and sustainable development, the eradication of ignorance and disease, and the provision of universal health care (especially in the all-important fight against HIV/AIDS).
Literature in South Africa is tied most markedly to historical events which it reflects and to politics which either retard or advance its growth. Centrally the literature depicts the unfolding culture of liberation that is the driving force of South African society. This unfolding culture of liberation has withstood more than three centuries of brutal repression. Colonialism, segregation and apartheid could suppress and distort but never eradicate it. Accommodating, inclusive and life-giving, it possesses the capacity to transplant itself into new environments; it is the polar opposite of apartheid culture that is unaccommodating, exclusive, and life-denying – in addition to being incestuous and, therefore, moribund. The unfolding culture of liberation is predicated in the main on the values of ubuntu but is also an amalgam of progressive strains from various cultural configurations. According to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu, “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu unobuntu’; ‘Hey, so-and-so has ubuntu.’ Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have.” In the final analysis, the verbal arts universally express the irrepressible nature of the human spirit.
Literature has no innate capacity to shape the future as pointedly or decidedly as politics, economics, science, engineering, and technology. But it provides perspectives on non-quantifiable effects of “progress” on the lives of ordinary people. Traditionally literature employs two techniques or strategies to speak to future issues: utopia and prophecy. Utopia reflects the human quest to create a perfect society in which such values as egalitarianism and pacifism predominate. Famous examples in literature include Thomas More’s Utopia, which is based on Plato’s The Republic. The opposite of utopia is dystopia – a negative utopia such as a totalitarian, repressive and regressive state. Examples of dystopias include 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and When Smuts Goes by Arthur M Keppel-Jones. Prophecy is found mainly in religious literature and refers to the capacity to predict the future accurately. Literature presupposes literacy. Surveys indicating literacy figures in fifth grade hovering around 20% compared to the world’s average of 80% do not augur well for South African society (and African societies in general) that may not be able to attain the skills base needed to grow productivity, reduce poverty, and meet Millennium Development Goals.