In 2015, novelist Thando Mgqolozana along with a cohort of revolutionary students of the time, called for the urgent and total decolonisation of society. While the students focused in the arena of tertiary education, Mgqolozana took on the literary community that was -until then- wholly white-dominated.
His immediate action was to walk away from the colonial literary establishment in which he had gradually participated half-heartedly as an author, to build a literary movement that is not rooted on notions of coloniality.
Mgqolozana imagined a healing space for black readers and writers, and in 2016 with the help of novelist Panashe Chigumadzi as Programme Curator the inaugural Abantu Book Festival, of which Mgqolozana is founder and director, took place in SOWETO. It was a roaring success!
Abantu Book Festival can thus be defined as a flagship programme of an enormous decolonisation project ahead.
Shaken by Violence of White Privilegeby Malaika Wa Azania
Growing up in the township of Soweto, in an unequal society characterised by a history of brutality and draconian laws, I have experienced first-hand the nature of systematic exclusion informed by my class position and race.
I have been under no illusions about what it means to be black in South Africa. But never has this onslaught been as vivid as it was at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, where for the first time in my 23 years I came to understand what it means to suffocate in a pool of white privilege.
Being a first-time writer, I have attended only a few literary events. Besides Franschhoek, I have been to the Kingsmead Book Festival in Johannesburg and the Open Book Festival in Cape Town. By their very nature, they are elitist and exclusionary to most black people who, because of the legacy of a history of dispossession, are unable to afford such spaces.
The violence that I was subjected to by the white audience in Franschhoek left me shaken, more so because in that space few are aware of their privilege. In both sessions that I attended as a panellist, I endured disapproving stares and shaking heads every time I made mention of the legitimacy of black rage and how it is birthed by white privilege.
In that space, I came to understand that literary festivals exist to create a platform for white privilege to anthropologise black thought.
Black authors, especially those who dare to speak truth to power, are invited to these spaces to perform to an audience that has no regard for the existential crisis of blackness. That is why Thando Mgqolozana could be so viciously insulted.
Black writers need to create an alternative literary space. The government needs to build a strong literary infrastructure for us, because the existing spaces are violent to black voices and threaten to choke the life out of us.
Fellow Africans and People of the World, once upon a time this former writer was invited to the Franschhoek Literary Festival. He declined the invite, making a number of suggestions to the organisers. Needless to say, they were summarily dismissed. After all, the circus cannot stop because of the absence of one monkey. In the age of Open Letters and in the spirit of sharing, I present to you the missive below:
From: Siphiwo Mahala Date: Mon, Oct 10, 2011 at 9:46 PM Subject: Re: Invitation to the Franschhoek Literary Festival
Thank you for the invite and please accept my apologies for taking this long to get back to you. I’ve thought long and hard about your invitation but still I am left with conflicting feelings.
It’s always great to be in the company of prolific writers that you often feature at the festival but at the same time racial demographics of the audience remain a worrying factor to me. I was disturbed by the almost nonexistence of audience from the black community the last time I was there. I was not there to assess racial dynamics, but racial stratification at the festival confronts you even when you try to ignore it.
I have been trying to find answers in my mind and about two weeks ago, when I visited Cape Town for the Open Book Festival, I took time to drive to Franschhoek. My observation, based on this trip, is that Franschhoek is a small community comprised of, in the main, rich white people and a working class black community. The area is too far from the townships and is not easy to access using public transport.
My conclusion was that the lack of social cohesiveness at the festival is not the fault of the organizers. Instead, the area where the festival is held systematically excludes people who need exposure to books the most. While I understand that the festival might be reflective of the publishing industry and in some ways the inequalities of our society today, I don’t feel comfortable with being an accomplice in reinforcing the status quo.
I hope you understand that I have nothing against the festival or you as organizers. In fact, as you know, I support any initiative that seeks to promote a culture of reading. My problem is the location that systematically isolates the black community and unless this is addressed, I do not see myself participating at the festival again.
I would only consider participating if the panel was to be held in a different locale. Perhaps you might want to think of an outreach initiative that would take components of the festival to one of the tertiary institutions or any venue (i.e. community hall, library, or even shebeens) in the townships. I would gladly participate in a setup of that nature.
I was cowardly. Unlike Siphiwo Mahala or Thando Mgqolozana, I said no quietly, and without much of a fuss, to participating in the Franschhoek Literary Festival when I was invited last year, in 2014. To be clear my reasons were exactly the same as theirs. Just like Thando, I’d felt like an anthropological exhibit the year before when I stood on stage in front of an old, white audience and retold the story of how I was affected by witnessing my dad being humiliated in the late 1980s by an Afrikaans-speaking policeman.
But, when invited again to Franschhoek the next year and at the third time of their asking, I was so threadbare and too afraid for a fight that all I said, in reply to the invitation, was: “I can’t make this year’s festival. Sorry about that. And sorry for the slow reply.”
I guess what I want to say is thank you, Thando, Siphiwo and Zukiswa Wanner for your fighting spirit. It gives the rest of us courage and reminds us that we are not alone.
The Thisness of Thando and the Outlier Experienceby Hawa Golakai
Soooo. Franschhoek Literary Festival 2015.
In Monrovia, I’m stuffing my face with mango (popcorn and chocolate are more expensive out here than fruit; we’re all healthy by force), watching from the sidelines as the drama unspools. All this “Thisness” effected by the daring Thando Mgqolozana for “standing in his truth”, rallying for change, then dropping the mic and walking off, all at the white pipo dem festival. Abeg o. This chap has a lot of bloody nerve. Yes, like almost literally. He saw a gaping, ever-widening wound, reached in it, yanked out a handful of raw nerve endings and squeezed. And the shrieking and squirming has begun. How dare he.
Before I shoot off at the mouth, let’s make a couple of things clear. First, this is not a new-rectum-ripping. Thando, hereafter dubbed HRT (His Royal Thisness, not the drug therapy) is a friend and comrade in words. Yeah, okay, a virtual buddy – we chat online and haven’t actually met in person but he’s my friend if I say he is. I’m too old to be asking people’s permission first. Second, the following needs mentioning in the wake of the recent xenophobic hullabaloo. For they who may glance at my “alien” name and grouch “Well she’s not one of us, how dare she put her mouth in our business”, the answer is: 1. I lived in Cape Town for a solid decade. Yip. The city with the demographic that’s almost like someone held South Africa like a rag and shook it, and all the white people tumbled and pooled in one breathtaking spot while the “Others” with more melanin managed to hang on. 2. I’m an exceptionally skilled (Home Affairs’ phrase, not mine! Though I can’t claim not to love it!) permanent resident. Basically, a superhero that can’t vote. 3. My publisher of the past five years is lekkerly local.
Nuff said? Let’s jolly along.
I’ve been following the frenzy of Facebook posts and retweeted Twitter comments with relish. Now, I’m a veteran of what I delightfully term zoo syndrome, feeling like caged entertainment, or what HRT describes as being treated as “an anthropological subject”. But I’m not at all being facetious when I say the uproar leaves me feeling … amused. Now hang on, don’t get ahead of me. Nothing about the stance HRT’s taken is at all gimmicky. Like all writers who frolic on SA’s writing scene, especially us “black writers”, I feel equally saddened and excited that it took something this drastic to get this much press. No, I’m amused because this was always obvious. Are we, en masse, actually shocked that an author of the Negroid persuasion feels so frustrated by how much of a performing monkey he’s been made to feel at literary festivals that he’s forced to decline ever attending again? REALLY? In South Africa?
Okay. Whooo-saaa. We “North Africans” can get shrill. I’ll turn it down a few notches but please allow me to be the bad guy for a minute here. Maybe with a bit of context provided by chronicling some of my own FLF gems, the witch-burners’ cries of “That talentless grandstander went too far!” or the naysayers’ “But it doesn’t solve anything!” will die down.
2012 saw my first and only FLF attendance. I’d only ever been to Franschhoek to knock back good vino, but this time I was an invited guest! Girlishly excited, I replied yes in a heartbeat. It wasn’t exactly my neck of the woods; getting there cost me a small fortune by taxi and ended with a quasi-ghetto shout match with the driver on the quaint oak-lined streets. The perks were worth it though. I checked into a lovely room overlooking rolling hills, where I was treated every morning to the noisy jackassery of speckled lawn birds and a breakfast so obscene in variety it was surely the entire GDP of Polynesia. Best of all, it was there announced that my debut made the Sunday Times fiction shortlist. I was overcome.
My blushes faded fast. I’d attended thinking I was finally home among my tribe of scribes, being embraced at a time when kudos for me was few and far between. Having naïvely forgotten myself I was soon reminded, in the manner that only Mzansi highlights pedigree. You see, added to my ethnicity are other odd variables – femaleness, the biomedical profession I’m in, hailing from a faraway country that few know much about besides war, and being unflinchingly proud of my chosen, male-dominated genre of crime fiction. Yeah, I haven’t made small talk easy on myself. The kindest folks I met grinned and called me “laiyk, hectic, yoh” or “supercool”. Others, well … naturally I encountered the inescapable gold standard, where everyone goes overboard to applaud you for “speaking so well!” A lady petted my earrings and haaytah (or doek, which follows the same rules: never touch a black woman round the head area) and cooed at my “exoticness”. A friend pinched me before I could retort that in Africa, it’s in fact I that am the norm and she the rare bird.
A prominent figure on the lit scene threw me an invite to participate in a popular annual event in Joburg. Before I could explain why attending wasn’t likely (I was moving countries and starting a new job), I was shushed and told that if it was a question of money or “getting my papers sorted legally” she could fix me up in a snap. Another festival guest pulled me aside after an event and asked if I’d escaped Liberia running through the bushes from rebels until I reached SA, and asserted that I must truly be grateful for everything her great country had done, like educating me to the level where I could write whole novels unaided. I SHIT YOU NOT. There was a point in this black comedy where the ridiculousness hit laugh-or-cry levels, and I found myself floored with giggles in a ladies bathroom stall. Best. Fest. Ever.
What struck me most was that when I retold these stories people, regardless of race, replied with “Ah, but by now you should be used to it. Like, you know this country.” There’s my point. Y’all know your country. The problem isn’t blindness to the scourge of racial inequality but that deeper, more insidious undercurrent: apathy. In fairyland where the vino is always flowing and ice-cream frosty and sushi sustainable, pale is standard. The “haves” have little idea how much the outlier experience can grate. Is this their headache? To be fair, probably not. But when we make it their headache, the sitch gets … iffy.
Siphiwo Mahala, Zukiswa Wanner and other mavericks have kicked up similar fusses and dust about the problems surrounding accessibility and book-buying audiences. Yet, had HRT not acted as the equivalent of the guileless child calling out the emperor for parading his beef and two veg, the status quo would saunter along unchecked. Take it from an outsider who’s come to know and love y’all like the village cousin come to stay; who observes, learns and even blends in to some degree but remains behind the glass. The race topic in Mzansi is much like the HIV one, a manageable affliction. Mention it and eyes glaze over – yes, yes we know, but shhhh, we’re not so crass as to openly speak of it!
Now someone’s broke through the ranks of politeness and gone rogue. While eyes are bulging and jaws are running a-slack, Thando appears calm and collected. Before divorcing himself from what came across to him as an insulting, unsatisfying and – let’s face it – somewhat creepy relationship, he has put out some compelling thoughts. As artists we all need to eat – and even so most of us don’t achieve full bellies on writing alone. But however meagre our scraps we need to be aware that we’re also being consumed, and it says a lot when the communities we are part of, that we represent and write about, cannot even access or afford our work. The man asked some questions. The industry can pull together and come up with some workable solutions. Or, play this on loop for a while like a bad episode of Deluded Housewives of Something, and then sweep it back under the rug.
Because while it can be written off as “that mortifying FLF 2015 incident”, I don’t believe it will stay isolated. It simply can’t.
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Make No Mistake, Thando Mgqolozana is a Literary Giantby Kagiso Lesego Molope
I’m going to share one little-known fact from a writer’s world: literary festivals can be very lonely affairs. You spend months, sometimes years in front of your computer, isolated, unsure of your skill and talent; you have no one to keep you company except for your characters, whom you’ve come to know so well they follow you into your dreams and start to feel like best friends. Your moods rise and fall every day, from: this is going to be great! I’ll get fantastic reviews, to: is this worth writing? Am I the person for this job? Who, if anyone will read it? Then a miracle happens and someone says, yes, this is a book. Yes, we’d like to publish it, yes, we want to show the world what you have to say.
So now you’re published, now you’re suddenly thrust out into the world of people, people everyone else can see anyway. Then there’s a good review here and there and someone else starts inviting you to festivals so you can actually speak about what you’ve spent months doing in front of your computer in the quiet of your home while everyone else was asleep. Now you have to go out there and talk about the process, what inspired you (the question every author hates and every audience member loves). A chance to get your book sold and prove to the publisher that you were worth printing a few hundred books for. But what you really want out of these festivals is the company. You want to sit next to the other hermits just emerging from hiding, who, like you, are terrified and insecure. You have nothing but empathy when you watch them wiping their hands before they shake yours because the sweat is too much. You want so badly to bond, commiserate: isn’t this mad? I’ve spoken to no-one but the voices in my head all year and now I have to answer to real people about how I did it.
Isn’t this wild? I’m flat broke and for the next week I’m staying in a nice hotel with a pretty view?
Isn’t this strange? I don’t actually have friends who are authors. Not ones I ever see anyway.
So in short, you’re a broke recluse grateful for an honorarium and a place at the table with other people who have earned their invitations through their work. You’re feeling vulnerable and hope your work is received well, that the audience is kind enough to engage with you solely on the themes of your book.
But then imagine being in this position, with the hope of being acknowleged as a legitimate writer, and having the audience and fellow writers bring you back to that feeling of uncertainty, the feeling that you have not earned your place at the table.
I’ve been to many writers’ festivals around the world and I always call home for support because it isn’t always easy. Many of these places, outside Africa, invite African authors as fillers. We’re not met with the same respect as European or American writers and we’re expected to be grateful to be invited at all. We’re there as the one token African author, just filling up the diversity seat, feeling like an ornament instead of someone who’s earned her place at the table. But these festivals I’m talking about are not at home. I always tell myself, it’s different at home, in your home country.
So imagine my sadness when I read reports of Thando Mgqolozana’s decision to quit what he called the “White literary system” in South Africa. Imagine my heartbreak when I realised that this feeling of exclusion, of filling the diversity seat, can happen in a place where the majority of people are of African descent.
It’s a sign of the depth of our fears that neither White nor Black people in attendance could support the call to an end of Franschhoek literary festival’s exclusivity. White people continue fearing an invasion of (what they see as) their spaces and Black people fear not being allowed into those spaces. I was not there but what I’m getting from the articles is that Thando Mgqolozana was pointing out that it’s abnormal to have a literary festival that doesn’t represent the diverse South African population. White audience members took offense. Some Black authors took steps away from him.
Two things: First, these literary events are not meant to be bohemian free-love festivals. They’re artists’ spaces and you’re supposed to engage, the way art does. You’re supposed to make the world a little less comfortable, you’re meant to point out what is and isn’t right about the country we’re in. They’re a great opportunity to right some wrongs, so there should be as many different people from as many different backgrounds as possible. Literary festivals are not supposed to help things carry on as they always have. If we’re at Franschhoek or Time of the Writer to protect the status quo then artists are not doing their job. Then the festival shouldn’t be there to begin with.
The second thing is: make no mistake, Thando Mgqolozana is a literary giant. Not because he exposed the deeply flawed tradition of circumcision in A Man Who Is Not A Man, as people like to think, but because he wrote Hear Me Alone. Have you read Hear Me Alone? If your Exclusive Books carried it and you bought it you would know that it’s the sort of book accomplished authors dream of writing. It is one of the most imaginative, most intelligent pieces of work we have in our country.
It changed the way I write, the way most of us write.
Someday, outside of South Africa, Thando Mgqolozana will receive the kind of literary praise he deserves and perhaps only then will we feel lucky to be reading him, having a chance to engage with him in his lifetime. The great Zakes Mda once said that Thando Mgqolozana stands head and shoulders above the rest. You should know this, you should listen to this, you should feel ashamed that when he spoke up we distanced ourselves and left him out in the cold.
The sad thing is that when the world knows what kind of gem we have in Thando Mgqolozana you’ll all talk about how he’s “one of us”. But like that audience member in Franschhoek last week, I will not hesitate to look at you and shout: Bullshit.
I Can’t Wait for a Blacks-only Literary Festivalby Andile Mngxitama
Thando Mgqolozana has kick-started a massive, exciting debate about the decolonisation of literature in South Africa. Mgqolozana’s debut novel, A Man Who Is Not a Man, blew my mind. His second, Hear Me Alone, disappointed me. But his third, Unimportance, restored my faith in the author, even if my enthusiasm is being dampened somewhat now.
I generally share with the late uber rebel Lewis Nkosi an unforgiving criticism of black South African literature. Of white literature I have nothing to say. For those who may not know, in the ’60s Nkosi was already arguing that black South African literature was hobbled, stunted by white domination, with debilitating consequences. Nkosi went as far as arguing that perhaps blacks shouldn’t engage in literary practices until apartheid was defeated. Unfortunately for Nkosi, the formal ending of apartheid didn’t lead to the black literary nirvana he was fantasying about, perhaps another indication that indeed the 1994 democratic transition didn’t signify a break with colonial racist domination. The last time I spoke to Nkosi in a bar in Johannesburg’s bohemian Melville, he was a wounded man, laughing sardonically about writing memoirs to name and shame the spoilers of black writing. He cursed both the white establishment and the mediocrity of post-1994 black writing, and blamed some elders of the literary world who are now being emulated by younger writers. Incidentally, he also decried the fact that they were writing for white sensibilities. I wonder what Nkosi would make of the recent rebellion by black scribes who are denouncing “white literary systems”.
Mgqolozana, an acclaimed author, has caused a delicious furore in our literary circles by declaring his exit from the colonial literary festivals. His reasons for removing himself include a statement of protest against the racism of his predominantly white audiences, who treat black writers as objects of anthropological curiosity. So he has chosen to “honour” himself and stop the charade. Luckily he will not stop writing; he has just stopped going to the festivals which do not judge him for his talent but rather treat him as a kind of sub-human in a zoo.
Mgqolozana’s language of defiance against the white racist literary establishment is uncharacteristically strident: no more Mr Nice Guy, no more of the expected nuance and gentleness of a literary gentleman. He punches the air and shouts “amandla” like a revolutionary figure on a rostrum. Ya basta! He is part of today’s gatvol movement, which draws inspiration from the militancy of the uncompromising Rhodes Must Fall Movement of the University of Cape Town (UCT), which has so beautifully changed the landscape of that city. He declares his activism for a new reader and a new literary dispensation, and turned to Twitter to present to the reading world his 21-point decolonisation programme a few days after bidding farewell to the world of white lit fests at the Franschhoek Literary Festival.
There is something charming about someone choosing to stand by their principles and be truthful to their beliefs no matter what the consequences. We live in a cynical world, where words don’t mean what they say; our leaders say one thing and do the opposite. We have got used to the idea of “talking left and walking right”. Here the writer is walking the talk. “If the literary festivals are racist and reduce one to a mere curiosity, why subject oneself to such a demeaning exercise year after year?”, Mgqolozana seems to ask with his brave action. Instead of playing along, he has chosen to leave the plantation, Django style. Candyland is left in literary flames as he trots off in his black literary horse defiantly, almost triumphantly. Of course there are cheers and jeers from the reading public, but he doesn’t care; true freedom is never negotiated, it’s taken.
The writer as warrior for justice is established practice in the African scene. In fact, contemporary African literature emerged from the foundations of resistance against both colonialism and its son, neo-colonialism. For instance, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is usually taken as a statement against colonialism. On the other hand, Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is an exposé of the neo-colonial rot. In a similar vein, Dambudzo Marechera’s revolting writing is a performance of neo-colonialist dementia. The sons of colonialism, the black colonialists, rule through sheer mindless brutality. Devoid of the power of their fathers, who directed things from the Western metropolis, black leaders who take over from the white man in the “post colony” plunge into the depths of the grotesque, drunk with power. Gluttonous bloated monsters with shiny eyes, their sweaty hands unleashed in all directions. When Marechera returned to liberated Zimbabwe, Harare thanked him by banning some of his “obscene, anti-African” works; an outcast under the colonial regime of Ian Smith, an outcast under the Chimurenga regime of comrade Robert Mugabe. He died a black outsider, on the cold benches of Harare’s parks. Homeless in his home.
Most African writers have written from behind the walls of jail. When literature chooses the side of justice, there are dire consequences. When authors choose to battle for liberation, they become hunted, vilified and silenced. But they keep writing, to keep the hope of liberty alive. When Ngugi wa Thiong’o took the stand of abandoning English for his native Gikuyu, he was taking a stand against both colonialism and neo-colonialism. He risked losing direct financial gain and international acclaim. Defiance is no stranger to the world of the pen.
So have we entered a new era in the South Africa black literary scene? More importantly, what explains the sudden open rebellion against whiteness? The answer may be that the black writer is playing catch-up and is caught up in the rebellious euphoria engulfing the country right now. It is not a small matter that Rhodes has literally fallen within the gates of white privilege at UCT. A new discourse has opened that puts things back in black and white, and in this milieu one has to adapt or die. I’m fascinated by the voices that have joined Mgqolozana’s call for decolonisation. Some of these voices are known to be pliant in the face of racist provocation.
It seems too that there is a disjuncture between the actual literary practice and the political stance of the black writers. In other words, the rebellion against white racism is not integral to their literary practice, rather it’s external. The art itself is not rebelling at the level of the author’s public statements on decolonisation. It’s like the writer had dropped the pen and grabbed the microphone. If one were to read the books of some of these authors without being privy to their utterances about decolonisation, one would search in vain for decolonisation in their writing itself. This is unusual, because generally art is ahead of social and political protest, often giving impetus to the rebellion. So here again we can say the writer is playing catch-up, and hope to see the next generation of black literature go into combat with the monster of white supremacy.
The 2013 edition of the Time of the Writer literary festival was an eye-opener for me. I was on a panel discussion with two white men, Professor Patrick Bond and the affable Sampie Terreblanche. Unbeknown to me, a fellow black author, Kagiso Lesego Molope, took to Twitter to express her displeasure, saying: “Andile Mngxitama asking Sampie Terreblanche: ‘What right do you have as a white man … yadi yadi yada.”
More of the same followed after the panel discussion. So you can imagine my surprise and delight when I read that Molope had also joined the protest led by Mgqolozana, writing in support: “literary events are not meant to be bohemian free-love festivals. They’re artists’ spaces and you’re supposed to engage, the way art does. You’re supposed to make the world a little less comfortable, you’re meant to point out what is and isn’t right about the country we’re in”. I thought this was precisely what I was doing in that panel discussion in Durban.
It seems the first thing is to accept that the decolonisation call is ethically correct, but that it must be supported and engaged critically. The meaning of these moves needs further elaboration, and more questions need to be asked. What do we mean by decolonisation today? Is this not a moment of neo-colonialism? Why are literary festivals still white 20 years later? Can transformation come from the white beneficiaries of colonialism and apartheid or is it correctly the responsibility of the black government, which has massive political power, to define a different trajectory for society? Does literary autarky mean the coexistence of white literary spaces with black ones or does real decolonisation make it a necessity to obliterate “white literary systems” completely?
It is true, as Mgqolozana avers: for a pro-black literary infrastructure to be a reality needs state support. The challenge here is that the state itself is anti-black and driven by a neo-colonial ethic. The destruction of black children’s futures through the systematic neglect of public schooling is at the centre of the death of a black reading public. It is not uncharitable to conclude that the building of libraries without librarians and books by the state is a function of accumulation by theft which is central to the reproduction of the neo-colony. This brings us to a fundamental question: Can we have decolonised literature in a colonial society? I would like to answer the question in the negative and posit that in a society like ours, which is structured by both colonialism and neo-colonialism to sustain white supremacy, a committed author should aspire to rebellion against both the colony and its new black managers. This doesn’t mean demands must not be made on the system. But a better understanding of the contradictions must be developed and expressed.
The black writers concerned with liberation have to choose between two evils or refuse both overtures and take the path of revolution. On the one hand is the white establishment, which controls the whole literary “value chain”, from publishing up to marketing; literary festivals are a small part of this colonial edifice. On the other hand, the black author can choose to enter into an unholy alliance with the state managers of neo-colonialism and shake hands with the murderers of Marikana. The more ethical and idealistic route is to fuse a battle plan against both the white moneybags and the black colonialists simultaneously. And in fact, a critical literary discourse that shows how the two movements are united by the same anti-black logic is critical in the quest for a new liberatory black literary practice.
Those of us who are interested in the decolonisation process must thank Thando Mgqolozana for opening up a space for this belated and urgent debate on the state of black literary practices in South Africa. The complexion of the Franschhoek Literary Festival is not an isolated case and should not surprise us at all. This is how things have been and are likely to be for a long time. The best support we can give Mgqolozana’s decolonisation programme is principled, critical engagement. A clarification of the root problem will assist a correct diagnosis for a correct prescription. I, for one, can’t wait for a blacks-only literary festival to debate these developments so that we can start on the path of rebellion towards decolonisation.
“You feel like you are a dancing monkey,” Zakes Mda said this week, referring to being a black writer at a predominantly white literary festival. The celebrated author – who has vowed not to return to the Franschhoek Literary Festival – expressed solidarity with Thando Mgqolozana, who sparked a national race debate when he attacked the lack of transformation of the South African literary scene at the event. But he disagreed with the target of the young novelist’s anger.
“I share his experience to a very large extent,” said Mda in an interview with City Press this past week. “It is the same thing that one gets in Europe when you attend these literary festivals – which I no longer do, by the way, not for a few years now. Oh no, no. If you see me in Europe, it’s not at a literary festival. It’s at a launch of my book or my own book tour.”
Mda said black writers were treated as anthropological curiosities. “You are some figure that’s being scrutinised and studied. Some amazing animal. Oh look, they can write too. And even the questions they ask you are very patronising ... A place like Franschhoek replicates that kind of situation and I can understand how he [Mgqolozana] felt.
“I also decided that I would never go back there. Not for the same reasons. I will still go to festivals in South Africa because South Africans of all colours buy my books.
“I decided I would not do Franschhoek again because of my personal experience there, which was in the sessions I was placed, the panels, and so on. I found that the people who were chairing them had mostly not read my books and the discussions were irrelevant as far as my work was concerned. I decided it’s a waste of my time to fly all the way from America. Why am I there? You experience it in Europe, but you don’t expect to experience it in South Africa, a black country. His [Mgqolozana’s] complaints are valid.”
Regarding a similar lack of transformation around the inclusion of black African novels in school curriculums, Mda said: “Who’s in charge of the syllabus? It’s us. Thando should be angry with us mostly. Because we run this country now and we’ve been running it for 21 years. If there’s anything wrong here, we should have changed it. You don’t hear me going around saying whites this and whites that. If whites are doing that it’s because we have allowed them to do it. That is why my criticism is directed at the people I have employed to change that situation. The people I elected and then also us who must work towards changing it.”
Mda used the analogy that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni employed in a speech to the South African Parliament: If a man gets drunk and falls asleep in the street and is robbed, it is the man’s fault, not the thieves.
“Why are the whites doing that? It’s because we are sleeping. And why are we sleeping? We did not change that situation because those of us who are in power are benefiting from it.”
Discussing the largely dismal state of libraries and government literacy programmes, Mda did not hesitate to comment: “In many instances, you will find the wrong people running these institutions. A lot of this is about cadre deployment. People are not there because they have the right qualifications; they are there because they have the right loyalties.”
We are Lazy with Our Analysis of this Issueby Karabo Kgoleng
I think we are lazy with our analysis of this issue. There are several issues:
We have a books and publishing sector that refuses to transform, meaning that the skill set, business acumen and black ownership is virtually non existent, along the ENTIRE value chain. We have a formal economy that is so driven by profit that it makes the industry unsustainable because even in big established economies, in order to make a fortune in publishing, you need to start with a fortune and benevolent shareholders who aren’t averse to high risk. In short, you need patrons.
Our manufacturing side has lost all its competitive edge, because production is way cheaper in China and Asia. Our paper manufacturing industry stopped producing gloss paper at the end of last year. The reading culture among the black middle class has already been discussed. Then, probably the most critical aspect is political will and government’s delivery to the people. The books and publishing unit at DAC has no budget. None. About a billion rand went into building libraries but none into book development so we have all these gorgeous libraries with no books. The libraries with budgets are so badly led and financially managed with apathetic staff (not in all cases, of course) that they don’t even buy local writing.
Then we have the education system. Less than 30% of our schools have libraries and most of those that have libraries are in appalling condition, teachers themselves can’t transmit that passion for reading. We are not teaching in indigenous languages, so we are already disadvantaging most of our population and limiting the nurturing of storytelling and imagination. Already the department of basic education wants to cut down on the range of textbooks that teachers can choose from to meet the needs of classrooms with kids who are diverse in all kinds of ways. One space in which black middle classes spend their money book wise is in motivational writing and Christian books. But we have such a snobbish publishing industry that, apart from political writing that, to be honest, tends to be incredibly depressing, those who can afford to buy books won’t, because most of these books are major compilations of the op eds and long essays of what most of us know, and many aspirational blacks don’t see the value in paying for your opinions. That money is better spent on a bottle of Johnny Black.
The kind of events that would drive books sales would be something like this: motivational speaker with a big black middle class audience, preferably on the whole prosperity evangelical vibe with sex appeal and lots of feel good affirmation. Sell a seminar/event and tour with books on sale and a signing. Get a celebrity endorsement. Note you can be evangelical without getting all religious. I don’t want to spend money going to a festival that is going to depress me by telling me how fucked up everything is, as if I didn’t already know.
What irritates me about our tribe, meaning us here in the intellectual book world, is that we are hyper righteous, we treat our populace as if they are dumb and unsophisticated (because look at the guy they voted for). We don’t speak the people’s language, we perpetuate the exclusive nature of our scene because we don’t communicate in an intelligible manner and WE ARE BORING. I wonder how DJ Sbu’s book sales are going? Oh and, by the way, the spoken word scene is doing very well because its artists speak to the people. There is a festival coming up that is sponsored by one of the Mzansi channels AND DAC AND MTN. Comedians are on the same lineup and poets. I will get back to my knitting now.
Time of The Writer is heavily subsidised and it is run by the Centre for Creative Arts at UKZN which helps on the community outreach part but even this year was abysmal. All the sessions I attended had at most 50% capacity in terms of audience.
We are also in a deep recession, so much so that most of us in the middle class are too ashamed to even talk about how bad it is. Our buying population is almost 100% debt financed. I don’t know how we can turn this around. We need a long term plan, big investors with big appetites for risk, who don’t care if they never get $$$ return on investment (ROI) because ROI in this instance is cultural and would most likely be realised when we are long gone. We also forget that we are part of a global economy that is at war, that is privatised with capital that gets away with gross human and environmental rights abuses.
Globally the developmental challenges are so big, so critical eg we didn’t even make MDG targets, that trying to grow an industry from the top down, while billions of children don’t even get to see the inside of a classroom, just doesn’t compute. The speed at which inequality is growing globally means that the cost of keeping the indebted middle class and the elite in consumer mode is carried by the poor, whose poverty is so dire that slavery is the only option.
It is a problem, how we as thinking South Africans and media barely look at our social economic and cultural situations in the context of our continent and our place in the global south. This is deplorable considering our place in the world as the representative of the 1 in the G7+1. If we want to be a successful nation we have to develop a much wider view and acknowledge that if we maintain this level of discussion without looking at building critical intellectual mass on a regional level as part of the global south, then we are screwed.
I note, with guarded despair and nonchalant reflection, the debate doing rounds in South African literary circles: that of decolonisation of literary festivals, so ably and sharply brought into focus by one Thando Mgqolozana and other commentators, including Eusebius McKaiser, Siphiwo Mahala and Karabo Kgoleng.
For all its emotional and historical “baggage” (fuck off shouts to Thando included!), I personally believe it to be a necessary but partial debate, and therefore, symptomatic of much deeper and perhaps fatally flawed fault lines in the nature and outlook of our nation.
I was asked for my views on the matter at the Franschhoek Literary Festival. I answered that I agreed (still do) with the sentiments raised by Mgqolozana, though I was personally, cautious not to be pressured by an audience into hasty commentary without reflection or foresight – that is, for the perverse pleasure of a catchy sound bite.
My reflections, by no means conclusive, can be condensed as follows: My beloved South Africa, so beautiful and lovable, is, like other places inhibited by thinking and unthinking Homo Sapiens, a sick nation. Sick because it pays lip service to life and death issues that are much more immediate and weighty than an outing to a literary festival, representative of the nation’s demographics or not: issues of poverty, endemic corruption, a cancerous body politic wrecked by mistrust and personality cults, Eskom, and if it be true, rogue agents at the revenue service that spied on the National Prosecuting Authority!
Of course there is lack of and a resistance to transformation in some quarters (not all) in our nation – everyone knows or should know that after twenty years. It is not news. It’s a sickness – a sickness of people who resist change and that of those not daring enough to insist on that change. Insistence also means imagining a counter narrative to apartheid savagery and its varied legacies – a narrative that does not insist on mining apartheid ruins for progressive solutions. As much as most festivals in their current form would have been established post 1994 – it does not follow that they would suddenly and miraculously be inclusive and representative!
This means, to my idealistic mind, that it is possible to direct resources and design a results orientated arts and culture policy regime (ugly word, regime) that:
a.) empowers young professionals and artists to create and sustain art industries built on social cohesion, moral sensitivity and ethos;
b.) rewards, without patronage and tokenism, pathfinders and mavericks that are not restrained by the past or present – but worry about and address an artistically healthy society beyond our pensions and cemetery voyages;
c.) executing, via a metaphoric firing squad: racists, profiteers, industry mafioso, spineless artists, and moral delinquents that though their actions or omission, kill an artistic future before it has a chance of being conceived and realized.
I think, more centrally and fundamentally, that books and literary festivals are but by-products of societal activity and reflection. I believe that to that end, therefore, a more critical and potentially destructive omission needs even speedier attention: noting points a.) to c.) above, the passion and drive that should go into the imagining and construction of first and foremost stellar literary canon post 1994 – which underpins, captures and articulates a cohesive and representative national heritage 50 to a hundred years plus from now. This is not to say there are no flashes of brilliance from South African authors or festival content, but that novels and insightful non fiction titles cannot hang on a divergent and contrast driven social / artistic imagination: a prism through which to see and appreciate a common and, dare I say, relatively or totally baggage free heritage.
It is worth remembering that there would be no book festivals and panel discussions without literary output. Evolution and maturation of a new society (new from aspects of the false new, that is post 1994 platitudes) – means that we should refrain from what Martin Luther King Jr. termed “the tranquillizing drug of gradualism.”
An assault on gradualism implies that we should shun incremental assessment of the nation state, demand that the challenge on the foundations of apartheid ruins should aspire for change in leaps and bounds, without being reckless and unlawful. This means things will get messy: old and profitable relationships dismantled, subtle prejudices confronted and their bearers shamed, idealisms scrutinized and reduced to ash; then possibly rebuild to unprecedented levels of prosperity, victimhood mentalities rid of their self pity, initiative recognized and rewarded, equatable distribution of skills and resources sought and supported.
A combination, juxtaposition and avoidance of matters flagged in this reflection points to a much starker and dangerous life path: a nation blindly and drunkenly (on Franschhoek wine, privilege and entitlement) headed for something much more sinister than lilly-white literary book fairs: a heritage vacuum. That is, for me, in the long term, much more dreadful and damaging to a nation’s psyche than statistical computations: the number of black faces in the audience. It is not, and I am aware that is not the prevailing argument as a whole or in part, important to have a 50:50 festival attendance ratio – black faces pound for pound with white ones – if some from either group go home thinking the one is a group of exploiters and the other of eternal victims.
A heritage vacuum is, in my view, more dangerous than dangerous – for the obvious or perhaps not so obvious reason that, in essence, a literary output and identify should be forged alongside a reasonably sacrosanct national identity and aspirations. I think it can and should be done, without the extreme option of having an entire generation with historic baggage die off before any meaningful change takes place at grassroots level, across social strata. Can you imagine 50 to 70 years of heritage delinquency – because compatriots won’t get along? It is catastrophically stupid and costly, to let a heritage void develop unchecked.
What we should be discussing, celebrating and rewarding in 2094, even from the comfort of our graves, is a literature Renaissance that would have stolen the thunder from or strongly complemented out politics and commerce. That’s cannot be done with bean counting of black faces I am afraid – as the problem is multi dimensional. The argument is not only ideological: it’s is also statistical, commercial, social, developmental, personal, artistic and – concerns the dismantling of past and imagination of future heritage. For that we need balls, heart, and aptitude not only restricted to the discomforts of now.