Skip to main content

Nadine Gordimer, South African author, dies

By Todd Leopold, CNN
July 14, 2014 -- Updated 2159 GMT (0559 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nadine Gordimer was a leading speaker against apartheid
  • Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991 for such works as "The Conservationist"
  • The South African government banned three of her novels

(CNN) -- Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize-winning South African author and anti-apartheid activist, died Sunday, her family said Monday. She was 90.

Gordimer died peacefully in her sleep, according to a statement from her family. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.

Her literary works, including "A Guest of Honour" (1970), the Booker Prize-winning "The Conservationist" (1974) and "July's People" (1981) were cited by the Nobel committee as "giving profound insights into the historical process (and) help(ing) to shape this process."

Click through to see people who passed away in 2014. Click through to see people who passed away in 2014.
People we lost in 2014
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: People we lost in 2014 Photos: People we lost in 2014

The Nelson Mandela Foundation, calling her "South Africa's grande dame of literature," responded to her death in a news release.

"We have lost a great writer, a patriot and strong voice for equality and democracy in the world," said professor Njabulo Ndebele, the foundation's chairman.

Mandela, the former South African President who died last December, was a friend of Gordimer's and read her books while incarcerated.

In her novels, essays and other works, Gordimer was one of the leading voices against South Africa's apartheid system, which segregated black and white people and led to decades of unrest. Three of her novels, including "Burger's Daughter" (1979), were banned by the government -- a reaction she fully expected, given their subject matter.

"I knew 'Burger's Daughter' would be banned because I even put in it ... sometimes scattered little pamphlets in the street, you know, which were swept up. But I always picked these things up, and I think I put one almost in its entirety in the book, so that would be enough for it to be banned. What else could you do?" she said in a 2009 interview.

"Burger's Daughter" was about the child of a white anti-apartheid activist who had died in prison after attempting to overthrow the government. It includes a description of the 1976 Soweto uprising.

However, she told fellow author Justin Cartwright that her works weren't about politics, but about people.

"To be a writer is to enter into public life. I look upon our process as writers as discovery of life," she told him in 2012.

Indeed, Gordimer was as praised for her writing ability as she was for her stand on issues. Her literary voice "is as clear and crisp as Jane Austen's," wrote The Telegraph's Peter Florence. "Her eye for the betraying detail, for the physical sensations of African heat and dust, reminds you of the great masters of location: Mark Twain's Mississippi or Gabriel García Márquez's Macondo."

Nevertheless, she never shrank from speaking her mind. In recent years, she had criticized what is known as the "Secrecy Bill," which gave the government great leeway to decide what information should be protected, as well as to prosecute violators.

The bill, though approved by South Africa's parliament in 2013, wasn't signed by President Jacob Zuma, who returned it to the legislature.

Gordimer was born in South Africa in 1923, the daughter of Jewish immigrants. She was a thoughtful observer from a young age, noting the inequities of South African society while attending an all-girls, all-white Catholic school.

"I early on began to realize how artificial our life was," she said.

But despite her recognition of societal problems, she said she was sometimes reluctant to speak up herself. When pondering "Burger's Daughter," she thought the topic would be better handled by a veteran of activist families.

"I waited a long time to do it, because I thought, I am not in this," she said. "I'm neither a parent nor a child. I'm waiting for somebody to write it who would know more about it than I did.

"Nobody did, so I did."

Gordimer was married twice. Her second husband, Reinhold Cassirer, to whom she was married for 47 years, died in 2001. She is survived by two children.

People we've lost in 2014

Part of complete coverage on
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1647 GMT (0047 HKT)
Click through our gallery to remember those we lost this year.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Actress Skye McCole Bartusiak, who played Mel Gibson's youngest daughter in "The Patriot," has died at age 21.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1334 GMT (2134 HKT)
James Garner, the understated, wisecracking everyman actor who enjoyed multi-generational success on both the small and big screen, has died. He was 86.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Actress Elaine Stritch, known for her brash persona, gravelly voice and versatility over seven decades on Broadway, has died at age 89.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1628 GMT (0028 HKT)
American blues guitarist and singer Johnny Winter died in a hotel room in Switzerland at age 70.
July 14, 2014 -- Updated 2159 GMT (0559 HKT)
Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize-winning South African author and anti-apartheid activist, has died at age 90.
July 13, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Grammy-winning jazz bassist Charlie Haden, whose music career spanned seven decades and several genres, has died at age 76.
July 13, 2014 -- Updated 2030 GMT (0430 HKT)
Renowned conductor Lorin Maazel died from complications of pneumonia at age 84.
July 13, 2014 -- Updated 1350 GMT (2150 HKT)
Drummer Tommy Ramone was 65 and the last living original member of The Ramones. Ramone was also one of the band's composers.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 2321 GMT (0721 HKT)
Rosemary Murphy, an Emmy Award-winning actress, has died. She was 89.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 2259 GMT (0659 HKT)
"Harry Potter" actor David Legeno has died at age 50, a California sheriff's office said.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 0017 GMT (0817 HKT)
Eileen Ford, who founded Ford Model Agency 70 years ago and helped modernize the modeling industry, has died at the age of 92.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
The actor who gave voice to Pinocchio in Walt Disney's 1940 animation movie has died. He was 87.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Eduard Shevardnadze, whose political career seesawed between two extremes, has died at age 86.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1306 GMT (2106 HKT)
Former Real Madrid star Alfredo Di Stefano, widely regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time, has died at the age of 88.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Richard Mellon Scaife, the billionaire publisher and banking heir who financed conservative causes that included attempts to discredit Bill Clinton while he was president, has died.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Louis Zamperini, the Olympic runner and World War II officer who survived a horrific plane crash, a seven-week raft journey, near starvation and unspeakable torture, has died at age 97.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1323 GMT (2123 HKT)
Walter Dean Myers, a beloved author of children's books, died following a brief illness. He was 76.
ADVERTISEMENT