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Dora Taylor

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Ciraj Rassool on “The Selflessness of Dora Taylor”

THE SELFLESSNESS OF DORA TAYLOR:
Political Duty and Literary Sacrifice

By Ciraj Rassool

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Kathie
Don’t Tread on My Dreams
Rage of Life

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The publication of these works by the late Dora Taylor is a moment of profound significance in South African literary history. For much of her life, Taylor’s intellectual and political existence was devoted almost entirely to the political cause of social emancipation in South Africa. In this life of service, Dora Taylor sacrificed her own creative output as she devoted herself to political duty and to the all-encompassing work of supporting and facilitating the public political efforts of Unity Movement leader, Isaac Bangani Tabata.

From the late 1930s or early 1940s until her death in exile in England in 1976, Dora Taylor and IB Tabata formed a vital political partnership in a relationship of mutuality that constituted a space of intensity that gave rise to a tremendous output of ideas. Dora Taylor’s life can only be properly understood in the setting of the affirmations of her political relationship with Tabata. Equally it is not possible adequately to comprehend the trajectories and contradictions of IB Tabata’s political life without considering Taylor’s formative influence.

In the process, Dora Taylor’s literary efforts were almost overshadowed by political duty and commitment to the cause of political mobilisation. While her political work found expression at the heart of liberation strategy, for much of the time, it was conducted anonymously and in semi-underground spaces. Even when Taylor’s political efforts under her own name were formally recognised by the movement, these were often at the expense of her own literary work. This was a case of willing and conscious selflessness and sacrifice that was accompanied by under-recognition for her literary talent. The publication of these books by Penguin will mean that Dora Taylor’s sacrifices will not have been in vain.

Dora Taylor and her husband, the psychologist JG Taylor, came to South Africa from Scotland in 1926. During the 1930s, Taylor immersed herself in a programme of creative and political writing as well as literary criticism, having herself been encouraged by her mentors in the Spartacus Club, which was associated with the anti-Stalinist Workers’ Party of South Africa. She also found inspiration from her contacts with radical academics in Cape Town such as Benjamin Farrington, Lancelot Hogben and Frederick Bodmer. At this time as well, Taylor wrote plays which were performed by Spartacus Club members. She also composed revolutionary songs, and I was fortunate in the mid-1990s to be able to listen to one of her compositions sung in Qumbu by the late Cadoc Kobus, lawyer in District Six, and father of Nombulelo Mkefa of the City and the District Six Museum.

From 1939, Taylor found an outlet for her political analyses, social commentary and literary scholarship in the independent magazine, Trek. Taylor’s first writings were studies of political and social questions including analyses of war and imperialism, the economics of political life, women and fascism, the role of education, social poverty, the meaning of democracy, and ideology and propaganda.

From late 1941, Taylor’s focus switched almost entirely to cultural and literary analyses, with major assessments of international and South African literary production. This coincided with the first political analyses that were submitted to Trek under Tabata’s pseudonyms. It was as if Taylor and Tabata came to adopt an intellectual division of labour, with Taylor as cultural critic and Tabata as political analyst. From some time in the second half of 1941, the energies of Taylor’s political analyses became directed towards assisting Tabata in the production of political interventions under his pseudonyms.

Tabata’s writings were thus not those of the lone, self-sufficient writer. They were produced in a relationship with Taylor, at her encouragement, with her active assistance and drawing on her prior experience as a writer. At times, this help was merely that of the secretary, wordsmith and grammarian. Sometimes she was the amanuensis, and at others, the silent, unacknowledged co-author. This is a serious point to be making here, to note that Dora Taylor needs to be acknowledged as the co-author of some of the main works of political analysis that emanated from the liberation movement.

In South Africa, this relationship spanned about twenty years of assistance by Taylor with Tabata’s political writing, in the form of organisational and agitational letters, interventionist pamphlets and longer texts of political education and social analysis. Their friendship and comradeship was not a public one. In the first place, the political activities of the WPSA were shifted entirely to the underground after 1939. Moreover, there was a racial dimension: white party members did not engage in public political work. Dora Taylor’s intellectual and political work was necessarily – in the Party’s terms – covert.

It was also out of Taylor’s research on the killing of Hintsa that a wider project on the ‘role of the missionaries’ was initiated. In 1952, in the aftermath of the campaigns against the Van Riebeeck Festival, Taylor spent time writing a history of missionaries and colonialism in South Africa. At the end of 1952, The Role of The Missionaries in Conquest was published by the Society of Young Africa in Alexandra and its anonymous authorship was designated as ‘Nosipho Majeke’. This pseudonym was carefully chosen by Taylor, perhaps with Tabata’s Xhosa language assistance, because it approximated a Xhosa-ised rendition of her own birth name – Dora Jack.

Taylor may not have been a public activist, and the historical text may not have been the primary means of expression by which she may have wanted to enter the public domain and influence young minds. In addition, she had become accustomed to an unacknowledged and unacknowlegable position of the clandestine and anonymous facilitation of political strategy and written political expression.

Nevertheless, with only a few in the movement in the know, Taylor’s politically charged historical research entered the public sphere in a way that directly influenced young activists in the movement and outside. The publication of The Role of the Missionaries may have made up somewhat for her public unacknowledgability. However in the form that it was published, it also simultaneously deepened her public anonymity. This anonymity was decided upon and came to define Taylor’s relationship with the domain of public politics. The publication of Dora Taylor’s historical writing contributed to the entrenchment of her selflessness.

From her diaries we learn that Taylor’s own childhood had been characterised by ‘rootlessness’, which was the cause of her ‘uncompromising attitude to family relations’. Her experience of being abandoned and adopted in the first years of her life had made her ‘stunted and warped through lack of a child’s first necessity, security’. It also guided her ‘intuitively rather than by reason’. This ‘psychology of the child’ as ‘the human being who doesn’t belong’ was also ‘the psychology of the whole people in SA – the Non-Europeans’. It was this personal affinity that perhaps enabled her ‘to write truly’ about the social conditions of the oppressed.

In 1957, while he was banned, Tabata wrote to The London Magazine about Dora Taylor, interceding in an effort to get some of her work published. Up to the first half of the twentieth century, he suggested, South African writers had been ‘mainly Europeans’, who wrote ‘from a particular distorted angle and presented us as less than human – objects of pity or laughter – or as the noble savage’. While some white writers since 1950 had written with ‘a certain amount of sympathy for the African’, they wrote as ‘onlookers seeing us as from a distance.’ Dora Taylor, on the other hand, had transcended this distance, and according to Tabata, the story written by her in her own name indicated that she ‘writes for us’, not ‘about us’. (I.B. Tabata to Mr Lehmann, The London Magazine, 29 June 1957). Through this authorial location, Tabata contended that Taylor gave ‘artistic expression to our feelings as human beings plunged in the various situations of the complex racial system of South Africa’. Taylor wrote ‘simply’, he argued, ‘without the intrusion of any extraneous attitudes’. Those outside may not understand how difficult this was because of ‘the constant pressures imposed by the racial situation in this country’. (IB Tabata to Mr Lehmann, The London Magazine, 29 June 1957).

Through the efforts of Dora Taylor’s daughter, Sheila Belshaw, as well as Sheila’s sisters Doreen and Muriel, as well as the commitment of Penguin Books, the publication of these three works of fiction ─ Kathie, Don’t Tread on My Dreams, and the shortly to be released Rage of Life, will ensure that Dora Taylor’s legacy will not only be that of political service but also that of a socially committed literature.

 

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