The Specter of Tokkie—Facing the Past, Inventing the Future: Zoë Wicomb’s Playing in the Light

Anette Horn


Zoë Wicomb ́s novel Playing in the Light, published in 2006, is set in Cape Town in the 1990s at the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Its protagonist Marion Campbell, who is the owner of a successful travel agency, is suddenly haunted by the specter of a young woman she does not know, but who seems familiar nevertheless, on the ocean between her flat and Robben Island—where political prisoners were kept—and who seems to strangle her in the muslin curtains of her four-poster bed at night. This face becomes confused with the repressed memory of the family servant of Marion ́s childhood, Tokkie. When Marion sees the young woman’s face again on the title page of a daily newspaper, she discovers that the woman of her nightmares, Patricia Williams, was an activist in the anti-apartheid struggle who was tortured by the police and has just told her story before the TRC. Yet the conflated specters of Tokkie and Patricia Williams set off a process whereby Marion has to confront her own repressed past as a “play white,” i.e., someone who—although of colored origin—was light-skinned enough to pass for white. Marion has to disentangle the web of lies that her biography was until now and find a standpoint from which to invent a future for herself that will be free of the shame which the fear of her colored status becoming public imposed on her. Using Derrida ́s Specters of Marx as a theoretical framework, this paper explores how the past is imbricated in the present and how—only by facing it—is the fiction of a fixed, unified self broken up, making room for inventions of the future. This is the emancipation from racial classification which the New South Africa made possible through the TRC.


African nationalism, archive, ghost, play white, post-apartheid novel

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