Narrative Empathy in Dr. Goonam’s Coolie Doctor and Zubeida Jaffer’s Our Generation

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© 2018, © 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. The need for women to tell their stories and cross the threshold between the private and the public has stimulated a great deal of autobiographical work in post-apartheid South Africa. Although writing about the atrocities and human rights violations of the apartheid era cannot fail to stir the indignation of the reader, a truly empathic response is not always achieved, if by empathy we resonate with another person’s feelings. In this article I compare two autobiographies by two former activists in the anti-apartheid movement. I argue that Zubeida Jaffer is more successful in eliciting an empathic response than Dr. Goonam as she reaches out to her readers through her highly intimate discourse, which draws them into a dialogue of complicity. Goonam, on the other hand, despite her frequent amusing anecdotes about her early career as one of the first non-white female doctors in South Africa, fails to stir an aesthetic experience in the reader as she maintains an emotional distance throughout, thus making the cognitive challenge that a true empathic response demands difficult to surmount. Jaffer’s work encourages an ethically appropriate response whereas Goonam’s autobiography remains on the level of ethnography, despite its intrinsic value as testimony of a turbulent era of South African history.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)561-576
JournalLife Writing
Publication statusPublished - 2 Oct 2018


  • anti-apartheid
  • autobiography
  • Empathy
  • South African Indians


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