The University of Wisconsin Press

African Studies / Folklore

The Tongue Is Fire
South African Storytellers and Apartheid
Harold Scheub

"Our traditions were here long before apartheid came to South Africa, and our traditions will be here long after apartheid is gone."
—Xhosa storyteller

In the years between the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 and the Soweto Uprising of 1976—a period that was both the height of the apartheid system in South Africa and, in retrospect, the beginning of its end—Harold Scheub went to Africa to collect stories.

With tape-recorder and camera in hand, Scheub registered the testaments of Swati, Xhosa, Ndebele, and Zulu storytellers, farming people who lived in the remote reaches of rural South Africa. While young people fought in the streets of Soweto and South African writers made the world aware of apartheid's evils, the rural storytellers resisted apartheid in their own way, using myth and metaphor to preserve their traditions and confront their oppressors. For more than 20 years, Scheub kept the promise he made to the storytellers to publish his translations of their stories only when freedom came to South Africa. The Tongue Is Fire presents these voices of South African oral tradition—the historians, the poets, the epic-performers, the myth-makers—documenting their enduring faith in the power of the word to sustain tradition in the face of determined efforts to distort or eliminate it. These texts are a tribute to the storytellers who have always, in periods of crisis, exercised their art to inspire their own people.

"Inkululeku! Freedom! The word is beautiful, the word is precious. We have struggled against this political system from the beginning, we have nothing to be ashamed of. Our young people and our old have died striving for a better world. Our struggle will be successful, but it must never be forgotten. You must preserve our words, carry them to the wider world, but preserve them too for our posterity, that our children may never forget what we struggled for, what we lost, what we sought to gain. Freedom. Inkululeko."—Mandla Madlala, Zulu storyteller

author photoHarold Scheub is professor of African languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. To record oral traditions he has walked more than 6000 miles through South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho. He is the author of The Poem in the Story, Story and the editor of Nongenile Masithathu Zenani's The World and the Word: Tales and Observations from Xhosa Oral Tradition, all published by the University of Wisconsin Press, and the author of The African Storyteller.

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November 1996
544 pp.  6 x 9
26 b/w photos, 1 map    


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ISBN 978-0-299-15094-5
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