Nadine Gordimer

On the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s life, we share the story of one of his close friends: the writer Nadine Gordimer. Colin Lowther and Robin Basselin look at her “witness literature”.


Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Colin Lowther.

Voice 2 

And I’m Robin Basselin. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1 

On December 5th, 2013, South African hero Nelson Mandela died. Today's Spotlight begins on a special day in his life: the day he was released from prison. Mandela had been in prison for 27 years. He was sentenced for fighting against Apartheid. This system of law in South Africa kept people of different races separate. And the laws gave white South Africans rights that non-white citizens did not have.

Voice 2 

While Mandela had been in prison, many other people continued to fight against Apartheid. One of those people was a famous writer named Nadine Gordimer. She wrote short stories and books about life in South Africa. Her stories spoke against the values of Apartheid. When Nelson Mandela was on trial, Gordimer became close friends with his lawyers. She even helped Mandela work on his famous speech "I Am Prepared to Die." On February 11th, 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison. And one of the first people he wanted to see was Nadine Gordimer. Today's Spotlight is on Nadine Gordimer and how she fought against Apartheid with literature.

Voice 1 

Gordimer was born in 1923 in a town close to Johannesburg, South Africa. Early in her life, Gordimer noticed that her situation was different from many other South Africans. Her family was wealthy. And because they were white, she noticed they had special rights. Early in life, Gordimer recognized the difference in power between white and non-white people. She wrote,

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"Very young, I began to think about what was around me. This took the form of trying to find the meaning in what I saw by making it into stories. These stories were based on everyday incidents of life."

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Gordimer published her first story when she was just 15 years old. And her life of writing lasted more than 70 years! Gordimer wrote what she called "witness literature." She believed that a person could live in a system like Apartheid without ever recognizing it. So, she wanted to write stories that forced people to see what was happening.

Voice 1

Before a writer can write witness literature, he or she must begin to recognize the surrounding social conditions. Once a writer achieves this awareness, then she can tell stories of injustice that are based in real life. A writer does this by telling an imagined story of characters. Some parts of the story are about real places or situations. Other parts are imagined by the writer. But the parts about real social conditions and the parts that are imagined both speak truth. Gillian Slovo is a South African writer. In a Guardian news story about Gordimer, she wrote,

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"Politics, both large and small, was Nadine's subject. Speaking truth was her passion."

Voice 1 

Gordimer’s main subjects in her books were love and politics. She was very interested in the connection between private lives and the public world. Imagine you are a person who falls in love. You are a white person and the person you love is black. What if you lived in a country where it was illegal for you to have a relationship with someone of a different skin colour? Gordimer wrote about this issue in her book, Occasion for Loving.

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Gordimer believed that telling the truth through story could create real change in social conditions. Her book Burgher’s Daughter explores the life of a young girl. She is the daughter of white parents who worked for change in South Africa. However, the government sent her parents to prison for working against Apartheid. And they died there. The book was based on Gordimer’s friends - the husband and wife who defended Nelson Mandela in court.

Voice 1 

The book opens with an event that Gordimer saw happen. When Gordimer was waiting to visit a political prisoner, she saw a young girl waiting to visit a family member in prison. Gordimer used this experience to begin her imagined story. In Burgher’s Daughter, Gordimer explores the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. And when it was first published in 1979, the South African government banned the selling of the book.

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Gordimer believed strongly that literature should change the world. But she also believed that books should be works of art - not just comments on social conditions. Elizabeth Lowry is a writer. In a Guardian news story about Gordimer, she wrote,

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"Gordimer will be remembered as a political voice. But she was, first before all, a great artist."

Voice 1 

Many other people shared Gordimer’s belief that Apartheid was wrong. In the 1980s and 90s, the movement against the government in South Africa grew. The country became more and more unstable and violent. Many people left. But Gordimer stayed. She continued to write books and stories about what she witnessed. As a famous writer, she also travelled around the world. And when she travelled, she continued to speak against Apartheid.

Voice 2 

On December 7th, 1991, Nadine Gordimer received the international Nobel Prize for Literature. This was a great achievement. But Gordimer said that the proudest day of her life was in 1986. This was the day she spoke in court to help a group of anti-Apartheid activists. The court case was called the Delmas Treason Trial. The government had charged a group of anti-Apartheid activists with betraying their government. Gordimer presented evidence in the court. Her evidence helped save the activists from receiving the death sentence.

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Gordimer also celebrated with great joy when Nelson Mandela became the nation's first black president. She was friends with the respected South African leader. And they continued to be friends until Mandela’s death.

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After Apartheid ended, many people wondered if Gordimer would stop writing. But she said that there were always things to write about, things to witness. In fact, Nadine Gordimer continued to write and speak publicly for the rest of her life. She died in her sleep on July 13th, 2014. She was 90 years old. After her death, Justin Cartwright wrote a story about her for the Guardian News. He wrote,

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"People celebrate Gordimer for the beauty of her words and her commitment. She had a sense that a writer's life is worthless unless it makes the world a better place. Her unfailing fight against injustice will never be forgotten."

Voice 1 

The writer of this program was Jen Hawkins. The producer was Michio Ozaki. The voices you heard were from the United Kingdom and the United States. All quotes were adapted and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at This program is called, “Nadine Gordimer."

Voice 2 

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye!


Have you read the books of Nadine Gordimer? Do you like books that talk about politics or society?


Avatar Spotlight
Mss Flamboyant
said on December 02, 2014

She is a good mirror.

Avatar Spotlight
said on December 05, 2014

So fantastic character and very valuable post. I hope in the future you could write about Israelis apartheid policies against Palestinians in the occupied holy land (Palestine) ... Thanks again for this post.

Kaleb Kolaibi's avatar
Kaleb Kolaibi
said on December 05, 2016

Unfortunately, I did’t read it because I can’t reading Books by English and I did’t saw it in Arabic langauge.
I like read the politics Books because I studied the political scienise.
I respect Nelson Mandela and his history.
God bless you

Severino Ramos da Silva's avatar
Severino Ramos da Silva
said on January 08, 2017

From: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (Severino Ramos)
To: spotlight programme
Subject: answer to the questions above
Date: Sunday 08, January 2017
São Paulo SP Brazil

Dear Robin Basselin, Jen Hawkins, Colin Lowther, and Michio Ozaki:

At first, I want to thank you for bringing us readers and learners of English more one great article, thanks!
No, I have not.
Yes, I do.
Your regards,
Severino Ramos