A critical analysis of Dancing in the Dust: Part One..…the symbolic significance of the street

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I AM quite sure the historical and political background to the novel has prepared you now to situate the novel in its proper geo-political context.
Dancing in the Dust is far from celebration.
It is far from recollection of happy memories.
Rather it is a recollection of unfolding tragedies.
Yes, the ‘dance’ is a dramatisation of this dryness (symbolised by the unyielding ‘dust’), a condition of deprivation signaling a certain drought of resources and other forms of life enablers.
This metaphor of denial, however, leads to the growth of a new consciousness.
To this end, Dancing in the Dust also becomes a celebration of the unfolding of consciousness; this transition from the happy innocence of childhood to the growing awareness of the sordidness of the political reality of apartheid.
Written in autobiographical form, the novel is a rendition of apartheid and its effect on the psyche of the youths of the underprivileged class, the ‘God’s bits of wood’; in the process invoking a reactive awakening leading to a protracted revolutionary consciousness that manifests itself in the pervasive spirit of resistance and a growing restlessness for liberation by the young.
Conditions of oppression transform the youth’s innocence into machines of resistance and war.
Hardened, they are determined to fight to transform the conditions that oppress their communities.
What feeds this restlessness is the sordid reality of their lives.
As Karl Marx puts it: “True consciousness is a product of immiseration,” by which he implies poverty and oppression beget revolutionary awareness.
This spirit of resistance is amply captured by the prologue taken from Audre Lorde’s poem, ‘A Burst of Light’: “It was not restraint I had to learn,/but ways to use my rage to fuel actions,/actions that could alter/the very circumstances of oppression/feeding my rage.”
Indeed the novel is a rendition of growing awareness.
At the centre of this journey is Tihelo.
She is the lenses through which the reader experiences apartheid in its material form.
The street, which is all Tihelo and peers know, becomes the epicentre of a revolutionary journey that transforms innocence into strong will and sacrifice.
So symbolic is the street that the opening prayerful entreaty presents it as the crucible where experience transforms innocence into willed nationalism and agitated thirst for liberation.
The opening entreaty captures this pervasive feeling succinctly: “If you’re watching, you can see them laughing and playing in their innocence.
This street is all they know.
Don’t think for a second that they don’t imagine what may exist a hundred, or a hundred thousand, kilometres from here, because it is all they do: imagine, dream, imagine, dream.”
This injunction reminds us that the street is far from limiting.
Rather it closes in order to reveal, providing the young with an opportunity to see what is missing and inspiring in them the revolutionary curiosity to understand the conditions that deny their lot meaningful fullness.
The street inspires them to imagine, to dream and to continue dreaming as well as to yearn for the fulfilment of those dreams.
Notice how oppression creates dissatisfaction, which in turn creates perennial questions; which questions propel the young not only to find answers, but also to become active agents in that transformative process.
The deprivation in the street makes the children realise the existence of beautiful realities and provisions they are denied.
They are painfully aware of the ‘futures in their fantasies, places they will go to when they grow up and leave, places with smells and colours they know well because they’ve been there many times in their imagination. For now, because there are no choices, they live and love and play and trust only in this street’.
In other words, this part of the entreaty warns the political powers-that-be never to take the young people for granted.
It is a warning to the apartheid regime not to deceive themselves with the false impressions sent by the children’s apparent happy smiles.
Behind these is anger and consuming fire that will not give the oppressor a second’s rest. “Of course, this very street will turn and swallow them (the oppressor) whole one day”.
The majority of these children, once they have been touched by the fire of revolt, will not look back but trudge on against any adversity, armed with their flesh and blood.
Hence as the entreaty urges, these beleaguered youths ‘may they never look back – God help them’.
This authorial gesture commits and dedicates the revolution to the Almighty to reaffirm the righteousness of their cause.
The street is therefore a microcosm of the rivers of dreams, the birth-place of South African nationalism while on a wider scale it is a metaphor of the womb begetting resistance against all forms of oppression in Africa and other parts of the world where the sections of humanity are denied dignity and decency by predatory alien forces.
That is the essence of the closing remark of the entreaty: “Many thousands of kilometres away, those who have lost all trust in their streets – small nations (who reflect a great majority) in cold, remote parts of the world – have sent out a plea for help, begging the world to take and save what is left of these children.”
The street is therefore the springboard of hope.
It is against this background that the journey of revelation Tihelo travels needs to be understood.
The blurb sums up the story of Tihelo’s transformation from innocence to self-knowledge and revolutionary resolve: “Tihelo and her sister live with their mother, a domestic worker, in Witwatersrand Township.
It is in the 1980s: a time of school boycotts, stay-aways, bloody police crackdowns and hippos in the streets.
Longing for an education and the opportunities it would bring, 13-year-old Tihelo becomes involved in the struggle for freedom.”
This is the story of growing up in the penultimate years of apartheid monstrosity – experiencing the fatal kicks of a dying horse.
You can imagine the effect this has on the innocent youths; the fracturing impact and the boomerang effect this has on the psyche of the oppressed young represented by Tihelo and her peers.
As we follow their lives, we experience the beauty of literature – the realisation that the travails of our heroine are ours too and that in her liberation we also experience our own liberation.
That is the power of catharsis.

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