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Peter Abrahams, a South African Who Wrote of Apartheid and Identity, Dies at 97

By William Grimes

Peter Abrahams, a South African-born novelist, journalist and political commentator. Credit The Gleaner Company Limited

Peter Abrahams, a South African writer whose journalism and novels explored, with sensitivity and passion, the injustices of apartheid and the complexities of racial politics, died on Wednesday at his home in Kingston, Jamaica. He was 97.

The death was reported in the Jamaican newspaper The Gleaner.

Mr. Abrahams spent most of his adult life in Britain, France and Jamaica, but his moral center of gravity was located in the country he left at the age of 20.

“I am emotionally involved in South Africa,” he told the trade magazine Wilson Library Bulletin in 1957. “Africa is my beat.”

He added: “If I am ever liberated from this bondage of racialism, there are some things much more exciting to me, objectively, to write about. But this world has such a social orientation, and I am involved in this world and I can’t cut myself off.”

He first attracted notice in 1946 with “Mine Boy,” a powerful, sparely written novel about the trials of a naïve young black South African who leaves his home in the north to work in the gold mines near Johannesburg and falls in love with a mixed-race woman. It is often cited as the first African novel in English to attract international attention.

Two years later, Mr. Abrahams published “The Path of Thunder,” about a black South African who returns to his native village to open a school. It established him as an important literary voice.

“Beside Richard Wright’s name as a Negro novelist, set that of Peter Abrahams,” the critic Lewis Gannett wrote in a review of the book for The New York Herald Tribune. “Or beside that of Alan Paton as a South African novelist, set Peter Abrahams.”

Over the decades, in his reporting and in his fiction, Mr. Abrahams addressed the promises and the perils of black rule after colonialism, the possibilities of a postracial society and questions of personal identity, which he felt acutely as a mixed-race South African — “colored,” under the country’s apartheid system — married to a white woman, and as an exile for most of his life. Above all, the spectacle of racial injustice in his homeland spurred him to write.

The novelist Nadine Gordimer, in an introduction to his memoir “The Black Experience in the 20th Century: An Autobiography and Meditation” (2001), wrote, “Abrahams is an African writer, a writer of the world, who opened up in his natal country, South Africa, a path of exploration for us, the writers who have followed the trail he bravely blazed.”

Peter Henry Abrahams Deras was born on March 3, 1919, in Vrededorp, a colored and Asian slum near Johannesburg. His father, James Henry Abrahams Deras (sometimes spelled De Ras), was an Ethiopian who settled in Johannesburg to work in the gold mines. His mother, the former Angelina DuPlessis, was colored, the daughter of a black father and a white French mother.

His father died when Peter was quite young, and the family struggled. Before entering school at 11, he sold firewood and worked for a local tinsmith. After a white woman in the tinsmith’s office read the story of Othello to him from Charles Lamb’s book “Tales From Shakespeare,” he became determined to attend school.

He completed a three-year course at a colored school in Vrededorp in one year and won a scholarship to the Diocesan Training College in Grace Dieu, near Pietersburg, where he began contributing poems to the magazine Bantu World. While working at the Bantu Men’s Social Center, he encountered the works of black American writers.

“I read every one of the books on the shelf marked American Negro literature,” he wrote in “Tell Freedom: Memories of Africa” (1954). “I became a nationalist, a color nationalist, through the writings of men and women who lived a world away from me. To them I owe a great debt for crystallizing my vague yearnings to write and for showing me the long dream was attainable.”
He later studied at St. Peter’s, an elite school for blacks in Rosettenville, outside Johannesburg, and became a Marxist.

In 1939, while working as an editor at a socialist magazine in Durban, he found work as a stoker aboard a freighter and made his way to London. There he was hired as a dispatch clerk at a socialist bookstore and did editing for The Daily Worker, the newspaper of the British Communist Party.

He soon became involved in London’s African political community, befriending the Trinidadian pan-Africanist George Padmore and two future postcolonial leaders, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. This milieu provided the material for his 1956 novel, “A Wreath for Udomo,” about an English-educated African who returns to rule his native country, with tragic results.

The literary scholar Harvey Curtis Webster, in Saturday Review, called “A Wreath for Udomo” “the most perceptive novel that has been written about the complex interplay between British imperialism and African nationalism and tribalism.”

Several stories Mr. Abrahams wrote when he was still in South Africa were collected in “Dark Testament” (1942), and a small press run by Dorothy Crisp, a right-wing political figure, brought out his first novel, “Song of the City,” in 1945.

A trip to South Africa and Kenya in 1952 generated a book of reporting, “Return to Goli” (1953). A few years later, the British colonial office commissioned him to write a popular history of Jamaica, published in 1957 as “Jamaica: An Island Mosaic.”

He liked what he saw. “In Jamaica, and in the stumbling and fumbling reaching forward of its people, is dramatized, almost at laboratory level, the most hopeful image I know of the newly emerging underdeveloped world,” he wrote in Holiday magazine in 1963, several years after relocating to the island with his second wife, the former Daphne Miller, and their three children, Anne, Aron and Naomi.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

For four decades, Mr. Abrahams broadcast political commentaries on Radio Jamaica. He wrote one novel with a non-African setting: “This Island, Now” (1966), about a political radical who comes to power in an unnamed Caribbean country after the death of its first postcolonial leader.

South Africa remained his subject. It was the setting of his political thriller “A Night of Their Own” (1965). He worked backward to it in the transgenerational novel “The View From Coyaba” (1985), a tale of black struggle in the Caribbean, the American South and Africa. He relived it in his second volume of memoirs.

By then, history had brought relief. “I became a whole person when I finally put away the exile’s little packed suitcase,” Mr. Abrahams told Caribbean Beat in 2003. “When Mandela came out of jail and when apartheid ended, I ceased to have this burden of South Africa. I shed it.”