Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Prize-winning writer and critic of South African apartheid, dies

Gordimer wrote about the oppression of the South African apartheid regime and was behind such works as 'Burger's Daughter' and 'The Conservationist.'

Bikas Das/AP
Nadine Gordimer speaks in Calcutta, India.

The South African Nobel Prize-winning writer Nadine Gordimer, one of the world’s most outspoken voices against apartheid, died Sunday at age of 90, her family said in a statement.

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

Gordimer won South Africa’s first Nobel Prize in literature in 1991 for chronicling the apartheid regime’s oppression, illustrating in detail the day-to-day prejudice blacks endured at the hands of white South Africans and the South African government.

“She makes visible the extremely complicated and utterly inhuman living conditions in the world of racial segregation,” Sture Allen, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said while awarding Gordimer the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991. “In this way, artistry and morality fuse.” 

In fact, Gordimer was known as a fierce moralist who used her writing – some 15 novels and dozens of short stories, written over seven decades – to expose the immorality of apartheid and other injustices.

She wrote so frankly about the enforced poverty and isolation of blacks, as well as institutionalized racism, illustrated through stories about lovers, neighbors, and friends, that South Africa’s apartheid government banned three of her books as well as an anthology of black South African writers she had collected and published.

Among them were the 1958 “A World of Strangers,” about a British businessman’s futile attempts to make black friends in 1950s segregated Johannesburg; and the 1979 “Burger’s Daughter,” about a woman’s attempt to find purpose after the death of her father, an anti-apartheid activist who dies in prison. 

Her novel, “The Conservationist,” about a white landowner struggling to control both nature and his black tenants on a farm outside Johannesburg, an allegory for the futility of the apartheid system, won the Man Booker Prize in 1974.

Throughout her career, Gordimer was a fierce proponent of free speech.

She wrote frequent op-eds in local and international papers to condemn threats to free speech in countries like China, according to the Wall Street Journal

"Written words still have the amazing power to bring out the best and the worst of human nature," she wrote to Salman Rushdie after a fatwa was issued against him, as reported by the Journal. "We ought to treat words the way we treat nuclear energy or genetic engineering – with courage, caution, vision and precision."

She was also a staunch opponent of the African National Congress after that party came into power in South Africa, accusing it of stifling free speech and mishandling Africa’s AIDS crisis.

She became an active advocate in the HIV/AIDS movement, lobbying and fundraising on behalf of the Treatment Action Campaign, a group pushing for the South African government to provide free, life-saving drugs to sufferers, Reuters reported.

Gordimer was born Nov. 20, 1923, outside of Johannesburg in the mining town of Springs to Jewish immigrant parents. At age 11, she was diagnosed with a heart murmur, withdrawn from school at her mother’s behest, and consigned to her bed where hours spent reading and writing transformed a fondness for literature into a passion and a profession.

During this time, after reading such books as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India,” she became acutely aware of the “rigidly racist and inhibited colonial society” she lived in.

And thus began her lifelong mission to denounce apartheid, racism, and other evils she found in her society.

A mission and life’s work, she later reflected, that would not have been possible if she were black.

Speaking in her 1991 Nobel Prize acceptance lecture, Gordimer acknowledged the irony of her position. 

“Only many years later was I to realize that if I had been a child in that category – black – I might not have become a writer at all, since the library that made this possible for me was not open to any black child,” she said.

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