In the years between the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 and the Soweto Uprising of 1976—a period that was both the height of the apartheid system in South Africa and, in retrospect, the beginning of its end—Harold Scheub went to Africa to collect stories.
With tape-recorder and camera in hand, Scheub registered the testaments of Swati, Xhosa, Ndebele, and Zulu storytellers, farming people who lived in the remote reaches of rural South Africa. While young people fought in the streets of Soweto and South African writers made the world aware of apartheid’s evils, the rural storytellers resisted apartheid in their own way, using myth and metaphor to preserve their traditions and confront their oppressors. For more than 20 years, Scheub kept the promise he made to the storytellers to publish his translations of their stories only when freedom came to South Africa. The Tongue Is Fire presents these voices of South African oral tradition—the historians, the poets, the epic-performers, the myth-makers—documenting their enduring faith in the power of the word to sustain tradition in the face of determined efforts to distort or eliminate it. These texts are a tribute to the storytellers who have always, in periods of crisis, exercised their art to inspire their own people.