JOHANNESBURG — Nadine Gordimer, the crusading Nobel laureate for literature who won fame as the finest chronicler of apartheid in South Africa, died Sunday in Johannesburg after a short illness, her family said. She was 90.
A prickly, astute writer who quoted Franz Kafka in calling literature "an ax to break up the frozen sea within us," Gordimer condemned the racist system that for decades was imposed by a white minority on a black majority, saying it cauterized the human heart.
She supported the African National Congress' liberation struggle, and when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Gordimer was among the first people he met. She later turned against the ANC, accusing the party of corruption.
Her life's theme was the exploration of how injustice, corruption and abuses of freedom echo in small, ordinary lives. Her 16 novels, including A World of Strangers, The Conservationist and July's People, illuminated the effects of apartheid on people's lives and decisions. Three of her books were banned under apartheid.
In 1991, Los Angeles Times correspondent Scott Kraft wrote of how "this unassuming, strong-willed white woman has used her manual Hermes typewriter to give the world some of the most perceptive and uncompromising works of fiction ever written about her homeland, South Africa."
But after apartheid, some black critics derided her as a white liberal, belittling her role in helping the world understand what the barbaric apartheid system did to the human heart. In 1998, four years after the first free elections, July's People was banned from study at schools by the ANC government of the country's most populous state, Gauteng, which deemed the book "deeply racist, superior and patronizing."
In her later years, she bitterly castigated the ANC government over a controversial secrecy bill and wrote about its corruption and betrayal of its people.
She married Reinhold Cassirer, an art dealer who had been a refugee from Nazi Germany, in 1954. Cassirer died in 2001. She had two children, one from a previous marriage.
When she won the Nobel Prize in 1991, the battle against apartheid was almost won. Mandela had been released from prison, and negotiations on the deal that would secure democratic elections and majority rule were underway.
She once said she was "not nearly as brave as being a South African has turned out to require" and in another instance described the pain of sitting alone to write while friends from the liberation struggle were arrested or had to flee apartheid's assassins.