Nadine Gordimer died last Sunday. The remarkable, towering South African writer was the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991 and one of the most listened to political, social and moral voices objecting the apartheid regime. Several of her fifteen novels were banned for a decade or more, and other books and essays for shorter periods of time. After the end of apartheid, she became an activist in the field of HIV/AIDS, and criticized the second president of the new South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, for the way he handled that issue. When Nelson Mandela was released from 27 years imprisonment, Nadine Gordimer was one of the first persons he wanted to see. They had know each other and worked together before his imprisonment.

Nadine Gordimer became a member of the African National Congress (ANC) at a time when it was a banned organization; she was a founding member of the Congress of South African Writers, and she served as a vice president of the literary organization ‘International PEN’. But she was never a blind member of any organization; she always thought independently, always contemplated right and wrong; to criticize was part of her duty. She was principled, indeed, and in many ways she was the moral conscience of South Africa during the dark apartheid years. She was a writer in the tradition of social realism, and added psychological depth to her characters, mostly ordinary people, revealing moral ambiguities in their choices, often caused by the role of the state and the surroundings at large.

Nadine Gordimer’s certainty about right and wrong is at least partly based on her own liberal upbringing, her direct experience of apartheid in her small town community, and her parents’ backgrounds. Her father, a watchmaker, had come from Latvia, and he had been a refugee during the time of the Tsar-Russia. Her mother was from an assimilated Jewish family in London, England, and she became a social activist in South Africa, seeing the deep racial and social inequalities that existed, but which many whites did not want to see. Nadine Gordimer went to a catholic convent school, but was never a religious person, or at least not belonging to an organized faith. She went to university but quit before completing her degree. Although deeply opposed to Israel’s policies, she refused to equate Zionism to apartheid. This again underlines her independence, which she would sometimes be criticized for - in spite of her soul searching literary works and her never wavering anti-apartheid activism.

Persons and writers like Nadime Gordimer are rare. They are partly at a different level than the rest of us, and at the same time, are also one of us, struggling with issues around them and in the wider world. That is what I want us to reflect on at her passing. We can indeed draw lessons from her political, social and moral concerns and efforts. Her ability to express and analyze her experience in a literary form, as an artist and analyst, however, is beyond the reach for most if not all of us. Yet, we can learn from her compassion, her empathy, her concern for the downtrodden, ‘the other’, wherever they are. She said that from the time of childhood, we are so alert; we learn to see, feel, understand, analyze, and draw conclusions. It is all this that we as adults must continue to do. And we must not forget that our conclusions must be fair, the way a child, too, very early on knows fairness, irrespective of upbringing and background. Somehow, we often seem to ignore much of it for the rest of our lives.

In a BBC interview, she is asked if she is disillusioned about the way things have gone in South Africa after majority rule was achieved. She says that she is, in some ways, but that she is still a supporter of the ruling ANC party, which was established by men who were once very brave and idealistic. Some of them, she says, aren’t brave any more, and some have become corrupt. Yet of course, South Africa is different from the way people lived during apartheid, with restrictions and force in people’s everyday lives.

When I consider writers of the stature of Nadine Gordimer, I think of another giant amongst writers, the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). Recently, Ibsen’s political, social and moral concerns as expressed in his work have been considered from a new, religious angle. The same could be done with Nadine Gordimer’s works. However, neither would probably have seen themselves as propagators of religious values. The two writers belonged to Christian cultures, but the name of the religion would not change the moral basis and imperative of their work.

As we are now in the holy month of Ramazan, we reflect on issues in our lives, how we live with God and fellow human beings. Mostly, we are worried about everyday issues and about people who are closest to us. And we worry about broader issues in our life and time, and sometimes, see rays of hope and positive developments. We contribute what we can, and then others must take over.

Hopefully, the next generation will build on the good we have handed down to them – such as the treasure that Nadine Gordimer’s production is. And then, we will look around us and ask who the moral conscience in our land and time is: Who holds up the standards for us? Who will guide, encourage and support us along the way, and correct us when we falter? Are the political, social and moral leaders there?

Oh yes, they are there; maybe not as visible as Nadine Gordimer, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and many others, to name just a few from South Africa alone. Today, we live in a democratized time, with social media and a level playing field. Those extraordinary, towering icons may seem fewer, but maybe there are more ordinary and great figures, including ourselves. More responsibility rests with each of us. We must think, say and do what is right and fair- each and all of us. That, Nadine Gordimer taught us.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.

atlehetland@yahoo.com