Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Prize Winning Author, Apartheid Opponent, Dies at 90

The South African writer was long-time member of Mandela's African National Congress.

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Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Prize-winning author, at 2010 Goteborg Book Festival
Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Prize-winning author, at 2010 Goteborg Book FestivalCredit: Bengt Oberger - Opera propria

South African Nobel Prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer, an uncompromising moralist who became one of the most powerful voices against the injustice of apartheid, has died at the age of 90, her family said on Monday.

Gordimer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, died peacefully at her Johannesburg home on Sunday evening in the presence of her children, Hugo and Oriane, a statement from the family said.

"She cared most deeply about South Africa, its culture, its people and its on-going struggle to realize its new democracy," the statement said.

Regarded by many as South Africa's leading writer, Gordimer was renowned as a rigid moralist whose novels and short stories reflected the drama of human life and emotion in a society warped by decades of white-minority rule. Many of her stories dealt with the themes of love, hate and friendship under the pressures of the racially segregated system that ended in 1994, when Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first black president.

A member of Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) - banned under apartheid - Gordimer used her pen to battle against the inequality of white rule for decades, earning her the enmity of sections of the establishment.

Some of her novels, such as "A World of Strangers" and a "Burger's Daughter", were banned by the apartheid authorities. But Gordimer, a petite figure with a crystal-clear gaze, did not restrict her writing to a damning indictment of apartheid, cutting through the web of human hypocrisy and deceit wherever she found it.

"I cannot simply damn apartheid when there is human injustice to be found everywhere else," she told Reuters shortly before winning her Nobel prize.

Critic of Israel's policies

An outspoken critic of Israel's policies toward Palestinians, she nevertheless resisted intense international pressure to boycott the Jerusalem Writers Festival in May 2008. She defended her decision by saying the privately-sponsored festival's purpose "is to assert vitally that whatever violent, terrible, bitter and urgent chasms of conflict lie between peoples, the only solutions for peace and justice exist and must begin with both sides talking to one another."

An op-ed in the New York Times by author and conferee Anita Diamant described Gordimer's remarks at a panel:

"Gordimer said that it was incorrect and wrong to paint Israel and South Africa with the same brush. 'White people can not lay claim to a single inch of Africa,' she said. The Jews, on the other hand, have a historical claim on the land of Israel. 'In this, they are not at all comparable and Israel is not an apartheid state.' However, she continued, 'The police actions in the occupied territories, the forced removals and such, are exactly what happened in South Africa in the so-called 'reserved areas.' 'Taking a breath, she added, 'I'm sorry to say this, but it is shameful.'"

In later years, she became a vocal campaigner in the HIV/AIDS movement, lobbying and fund-raising on behalf of the Treatment Action Campaign, a group pushing for the South African government to provide free, life-saving drugs to sufferers.

Nor did she shy away from criticizing the ANC under President Jacob Zuma, expressing her opposition to a proposed law which limits the publication of information deemed sensitive by the government.

"The reintroduction of censorship is unthinkable when you think how people suffered to get rid of censorship in all its forms," she said in an interview last month.

'White African'

The daughter of a Lithuanian Jewish watchmaker, Gordimer started writing in earnest at the age of nine. A lonely childhood triggered an intense study of the ordinary people around her, especially the customers in her father's jewelry shop and the migrant black workers in her native East Rand outside Johannesburg.

A teenage naivety was eventually replaced by a sense of rebellion and as her talent and reading public grew, her liberal leanings earned her the reputation of a radical. Eventually the government censors clamped down and banned three of her works in the 1960s and 1970s, despite her growing prestige abroad and her acceptance as one of the foremost authors in the English language.

The first book to be banned was "A World of Strangers," the story of an apolitical Briton drifting into friendships with black South Africans and uncovering the schizophrenia of living in segregated Johannesburg in the 1950s. In 1979, "Burger's Daughter" was banished from the shelves for its portrayal of a woman's attempt to establish her own identity after her father's death in jail makes him a political hero.

Despite Gordimer's place in the international elite, she maintained a passionate concern for those struggling at the bottom of South Africa's literary heap.

"It humbles me to see someone sitting in the corner of a township shack he shares with 10 others, trying to write in the most impossible of conditions," she said.

Despite her hatred of apartheid, Gordimer remained proud of her heritage and said she only once considered emigrating - to nearby Zambia. "Then I discovered the truth, which was that in Zambia I was regarded by black friends as a European, a stranger," she said. "It is only here that I can be what I am: a white African."

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