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Monday, 31 May 2010 03:29

A Collection of short stories and opinion pieces  by Prithiraj Ramkisun Dullay.

The year is 1978.

The apartheid machine is grinding all in its path.

Steve Biko was brutally murdered a year before.

Nelson Mandela is in his 17th year on Robben Island.

Strini Moodley was in the 3rd year of his  six-year imprisonment term on Robben Island.

It was at this time that life was becoming untenable for a young activist teacher, Prithiraj Ramkisun Dullay, simply because he believed that teaching was a subversive activity, and endeavoured to live out his belief in truth and freedom without fear.

As a consequence of his political activity, Pritz and his family were suddenly thrust into exile, to  a strange land just a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, a land that will become their home for 14 years… 

The stories  of this enforced departure,  and his eventual return to his homeland when Mandela was released, as well as the riveting stories of Pritz’s growing up development, are all told with immediacy and import in SALT WATER RUNS IN MY VEINS. 


Alongside the definitive South African autobiography, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom [1994],  there have been numerous autobiographical writings embedded in the context of apartheid and the struggle for political liberation. French philosopher Michel de Certeau’s words are directly applicable to South Africa at the present time when he says in his work, The Practice of Everyday Life: “Our society has become a recited society, in three senses: it is defined by stories, by citations of stories, and by the interminable recitation of stories” [1984:186].  As Sarah Nuttall and Cheryl-Ann Michael, in their book, Senses of Culture,  observe:

The autobiographical act in South Africa, more than a literary convention, has become a cultural activity. Memoir, reminiscence, confession, testament, case history and personal journalism, all different kinds of autobiographical acts or cultural occasions in which narrators take up models of identity that have become widely available, have pervaded the culture of the 1990s and have spread into the new century.  [Nuttall and Michael 2000:298] 

SALT WATER RUNS IN MY VEINS is a recent worthy addition to these “autobiographical acts”.  It consists of two parts -  a collection of sequential autobiographical vignettes and a collection of opinion pieces that appeared in the media.    


Part One offers a kaleiscope of experiences, ranging from the local to the international,  from living inside apartheid to living outside it, from domestic and family matters to those of public, political import. The segments are arranged chronologically, allowing the reader to navigate the contents as one does a bildungsroman. 

A few noteworthy elements of Part One are the following: 

  • An immediate and striking feature of the writing is the evocation of landscape. The environs of the Umzimkulu River, the beaches of the Natal South Coast, are imaginatively depicted. This reminds one of the  moving descriptions in the opening pages of Alan Paton’s famous Cry the Beloved Country. The writing inserts itself unmistakably into  a South African literary tradition, marked by a poetics of place, where South African landscapes become synonymous with identity and a sense of belonging.
  • Salt Water Runs in my Veins shows that we live, as we often do, in the landscapes “hymned by our ancestors” - places where we were born, grew up and had our being - and therefore indelibly etched in our  minds. Being wrenched from an Edenic paradise, which also bears the scars of the intrusion of apartheid reality, is a traumatic experience for Dullay, and is translated into memory;  and it is the memory of place that sustains Dullay when he is physically and temporally separated from it.  Accenting his initial locatedness, in more ways than one, Dullay maps the progression of his life across time and space and presents vivid  “geographies of imagination”.
  • The depictions of the icy cold climate of Denmark provide an implicit counterpoint to the sub-tropical life enjoyed in South Africa. The stories of the exile experience,  a forced mobility,  show the different struggles to survive on  foreign soil and the challenges of striking new roots. 
  • The pleasures and dislocation of exile are effectively portrayed. The warm, convivial hospitality that is experienced in overseas climes is contrasted with the cold, suffocating and arid life under apartheid. Dullay skilfully balances the narratives of expansion of one’s horizons and the many gains in widening one’s cultural repertoire  with those of the estrangement  and alienation from one’s kith and kin.
  • The descriptions avoid romanticizing  the exile or liberation  experience.  They also show the  fissures and faultlines of a life in the  Struggle, as is evidenced by Dullay’s experiences at Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Tanzania, but are an important part of the wider African experience that Dullay and the family encountered.
  • Names are important in the  narratives  and signal the wider community that Dullay lives in. Each name  evokes a world of history behind it and shows the networks, connections and collaborations in the Struggle; each celebrates the many unsung heroes and heroines in the South African liberation struggle.  The many different names that shape and make history – the many unknown levers that moved the liberation machine to extricate us all out of the vortex of apartheid - are often forgotten [as a normative, official history-making process proceeds apace], but Dullay pays them pointed homage. Alongside the iconic names of “Mandela” and “Biko”, we encounter names such as  “Lisbeth  Moerup” in Denmark, and “Eddie Naidu” of Puntan’s Hill and “Daya Naicker” in Port Elizabeth.
  • In Salt Water Runs through My Veins, personal narratives are seamlessly imbricated in the political; indeed, the writing shows that the personal is political. The stories of the strong bond between   Dullay and his Father, Ramkisun Dullay, is an important theme that runs throughout.  Of indenture stock, the Father shows the general tenacity that drove so many of his kind to survive on inhospitable soil. The Father’s own valiant attempts to establish himself in a society that did not give due recognition to one’s intrinsic worth, to instil in his children the values and conscience derived from deeply-held spiritual values, to educate his children in the widest possible way, and to accept the consequences of such an upbringing, are all narrated with emotional persuasion. 
  • A further poignant sub-text running through the narratives is the role that Mala, Dullay’s “life partner”, played. While liberation stories sometimes engage in the erasure of women, this writing unequivocably shows how the decisions that men took during the Struggle days affected the lives of women: how women supported and coped with exile, suffered through it, and emerged triumphant. Similarly, the narrative of the two daughters, Simmi and Sureka, is an important component here of the unintended consequences of exile on children. These elements are narrated with control and sensitivity and are an indivisible part of the warp and weft of the writing.
  • Salt Water Runs in my Veins  is  unique among life writings in South Africa for its drawing from a very specific archive - the flows and circuits of the Hibiscus Coast of Natal to those of Denmark in Scandanavia. It is an inspiring, undulating set of narratives, narratives that ebb and flow, telling of struggle, integrity, endurance, and the triumph of the human spirit. While tracing the trajectory of an  individual’s life, Salt Water Runs in My Veins shows that the particular is the universal.

The collection is lucid, controlled, well-paced, passionate, and  is a celebration and remembrance of places, spaces and people, focusing on identities of inclusion rather than of exclusion. In this TIME OF MEMORY, when South Africans are recalling the past and telling of their stories under apartheid, Dullay’s collection  is a necessary continuation of the TRC, now that its formal work is over. 

As Dullay noted recently:

“My memory is a honed weapon against the sanitation of our history. My memory is an affirmation of who I am. It is a weapon of liberation” [Sunday Times Extra, May 23, 2010, p.4]. 

Methodologically, Salt Water Runs in My Veins has elements of auto-ethnography.  Dullay’s  personal narratives are “journeys of the self”  that  explore and foreground his subjective experiences in life.  They inflect the general accounts of  history by constructing a palpable, subjective perspective.  In chronicling aspects of his life experiences,  Dullay provides reflective accounts of them, situated as they are in a general socio-cultural context.  In the constructions of his life writing Dullay constantly shows how the personal is embedded and imbricated in the cultural, social and political, and that there is an interplay among these various elements.   

Though marginalized and othered by apartheid, and made invisible through exile, the writing re-centres him through authorial agency [and reaffirms the political agency he displayed all along]. By drawing from archival memory and negotiating his past in the very story-telling,  the writing itself becomes an important site for the performance of identity [and identities], as well as  a method of inquiry into that past.  In presenting vignettes or fragments of autobiographical life writing, a multi-layered approach is intuitively adopted, where different identities are performed, and one  segment is read intertextually against another.  Salt Water Runs in My Veins thus becomes an important contribution to the many genres of “the making of memory in South Africa” at the present time. 


Part Two is issue-based and responds principally to the many and diverse post-1994 challenges in South Africa across the  political, educational, cultural and social spectrum. It provides an itinerary of the debates  and competing demands  made on “the new South Africa”.  

Some of the issues that have been considered are:

  • Drugs
  • Zenophobia
  • Affirmative Action
  • Corporate greed
  • Sexism
  • Crime
  • School violence 

The articles, with their strident intellectual analysis, are illuminating, informative and non-partisan. Drawing from a range of critical discourses, they are prompted by Dullay’s enduring support for the hard-won ideals of a just  democracy.  Dullay writes out of a deep awareness of the woundings of the nation’s collective psyche, and a longing for the healing of the fledgling nation. Throughout, Dullay shows that he is an independent thinker, that he firmly believes that the real custodians of democracy – the people – should understand their inherent rights and exercise them with confidence and maturity, and with due vigilance.   


Salt water runs in my veins may be described as a narrative of HOME  and of HOMING, in all its connotations - a   frequent theme in  postcolonial writing. Taken together, the personal, autobiographical writings, and the opinion pieces, show that the custody of Truth is held in one’s hand: Dealing with the denial of one’s birthright in the land of one’s birth, adjusting to the ambivalences and  exigencies of exile, finding a voice amid the euphoria and “enigma” of return – are all different but connected in ways in which home and homing are continually sought and expressed. How one chooses to act and think and the decisions one makes are impelled in all circumstances by the dictates of a moral compass.   

Salt Water Runs in My Veins is the story of one man – a consummate patriot -  who believed in the inviolable right to freedom for all; who believed in it enough to lay down his life [of security and comfort]. It is also a story that freedom is not a destination, a stasis reached, but an-going journey…   

Salt water may run in Pritz Dullay’s veins, but what also runs in his veins, is a passion for truth and justice. It contributes to a considerable degree to preventing the “hijacking of our history”. 

In conclusion, a poem composed by one of the students during the Struggle days at Soloman Mahlangu Freedom College, may be seen as an appropriate description of Pritz Dullay, his life story as depicted in SALT WATER RUNS IN MY VEINS, and his on-going contribution to the transformation of South Africa: 

I’m the voice,

That sings songs from the bottom of my heart,

And tune them right up to my mouth,

To feed the ears that await my commands,

Commands that stop the wind from flowing. 

I’m the voice that sings,

Songs of hope. 

I’m the voice that sings,

Songs of thirst. 

I’m the voice that sings,

Songs of an awakened people. 

I’m the voice that sings,

Songs of Praise. 

I’m the voice that sings,

Songs of we-shall-be-free. 

I’m the voice that sings,

Songs of metamorphosis.

[Anonymous, in If you want to know me – Voices from Somafaco, 1999:10]