Nadine Gordimer, the white South African author whose novels captured the despair and outrage of apartheid and the uneasy coming to terms with its legacy after racial separatism was outlawed, has died. She was 90.
She died yesterday in her sleep at her family home in Johannesburg, Andrew Bembridge, a lawyer representing the family, said in an interview.
A vocal opponent of all-white rule, Gordimer in 1991 became the first South African to win the Nobel Prize for literature. She devoted most of her writing to exploring racial segregation and the relationship between black and white South Africans. Three of her books were banned by the apartheid government, including her most famous, “July’s People.”
Published in 1981, “July’s People” told of a white family forced to flee a civil war and hide in the village of one of its black servants. It is still widely taught in schools and universities.
“I am what I suppose would be called a natural writer,” Gordimer said in her Nobel lecture. “I did not make any decision to become one. I did not, at the beginning, expect to earn a living by being read. I wrote as a child out of the joy of apprehending life through my senses -- the look and scent and feel of things; and soon out of the emotions that puzzled me or raged within me and which took form, found some enlightenment, solace and delight, shaped in the written word.”
Gordimer was a longstanding member of the African National Congress, which led the fight against apartheid. She got to know Nelson Mandela, the freedom fighter who emerged from 27 years in prison to become South Africa’s first elected black president, prior to his arrest on sabotage charges in 1962. She was among those who lined up to meet him at the gates of Victor Verster Prison at Paarl outside Cape Town when he was released in February 1990.
In his 1995 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” Mandela, who died in December, wrote that while in prison, “I read all the unbanned novels of Nadine Gordimer and learned a great deal about the white liberal sensibility.”
Gordimer’s Johannesburg home was used as a meeting place for ANC leaders during the negotiations that led to all-race elections and Mandela’s appointment as president in 1994.
In a statement released today, Njabulo Ndebele, chairman of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said: “We have lost a great writer, a patriot and strong voice for equality and democracy in the world.”
Nadine Gordimer was born on Nov. 20, 1923, to Jewish immigrants Isidore and Nan Gordimer, in the small gold-mining town of Springs, near Johannesburg. Her father, a watchmaker, came from Lithuania. Her mother was English.
Gordimer had her first children’s story published in a newspaper when she was 9.
At 10, she was taken out of school and sent to be tutored by a retired teacher after she fell ill with what her mother thought was a weak heart and was later diagnosed as a common thyroid condition. Cut off from friends, she immersed herself in reading and writing, publishing her first story for adults at age 15.
She studied for a year at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, leaving before she graduated.
The first of her 15 novels, “The Lying Days,” published in 1953, was set in Springs and based on her own life. Her other books included “A Guest of Honour,” “Burger’s Daughter,” “My Son’s Story” and “The Conservationist,” which shared the 1974 Booker prize.
She also published about 20 other works, including essays and short stories such as “Something Out There,” “Reflections of South Africa,” “Jump and Other Stories” and “Beethoven was One-Sixteenth Black and Other Stories.”
Her last novel, “No Time Like the Present,” was published in March 2012.
In 1998, Gordimer was appointed a goodwill ambassador to the United Nations Development Program, using her international profile to muster support for the fight against AIDS and poverty.
J.M. Coetzee, the author of “Disgrace” and “Life & Times of Michael K,” in 2003 became the second South African author to win the Nobel Prize.
In 2011, Gordimer joined a civil rights campaign against South African legislation to safeguard state secrets, which she likened to apartheid-era censorship laws and described as an attack on the public’s “right to know and think.”
She was married twice and had two children.