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Antjie Krog’s Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference Speech: The Place of Literature in South African Politics

Antjie Krog

 
The Guardian has reproduced world-renowned poet and author Antjie Krog’s speech about the dearth of a political discourse that includes literature, which she gave during this year’s Open Book Festival. Her participation was under the auspices of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference. Krog has engaged with the political landscape of South Africa in such acclaimed works as Country of my Skull, A Change of Tongue and Begging to be Black.

Country of My SkullA Change of TongueBegging to be Black

In South Africa, with its history of colonialism and apartheid, each creative work makes a political point. Whether focusing on injustice or universal loneliness, here, one makes a political point. One is either part of what former Nobel prize committee member Horace Engdahl calls “the great dialogue of literature about the improvement of humanity”, or suggesting that one doesn’t particularly care for it.

Being raised within an Afrikaner ethnic clamp and language, of which the very foundations are political, the issue of whether writing should in fact be political seems asking the obvious. What was interesting was the influence of Afrikaans literature on the formation of a community.

Book details

  • Die sterre sê tsau: /Xam-gedigte van Diä!kwain, Kweiten-ta-//ken, /A!kúnta, /Han#kass’o en //Kabbo edited by Antjie Krog
    EAN: 9780795701740
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Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    September 27th, 2012 @18:29 #
     
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    I'm glad Verwoerd engaged critically with Afrikaans writers. Pity he couldn't have engaged with black South African writers at the same time, seeing as how he and his Government had wiped them off the face of the country, with bannings and arrests.

    Also: as a concept, 'loyale verset' has its limititations: ask Breyten Breytenbach.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    September 27th, 2012 @19:04 #
     
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    An article one could spend days pondering over.

    Like these two paragraphs:
    'Why appoint somebody as poet laureate, or announce international or local awards to South African poets and writers without a proper programme in place to introduce, translate and analyse the work of, for example, Willie Kgositsile, Wally Serote and Sindiwe Magona?

    This makes me wonder: which books are on the bedside tables of our ministers? How many book shelves had been built into the newly renovated presidential and ministerial houses? How many reading circles are in the parliamentary complexes? What novels are the captains of industry reading there in business class? What poetry volumes are in the judges' smart cases? What literary texts are to be found in doctors' waiting rooms, or on teachers' or parents' tables?'

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    September 28th, 2012 @08:40 #
     
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    Tiah, I have thought about it, a lot, for a long time.

    It strikes me that the whole thing has an underlying assumption: that books make one a better person, and that poetry can act as a kind of visionary counter to the excesses, and the stupidity, of politicians.
    Both are only partly right. The first is an idea about two centuries old; and the answer is well, yes, some of the time. Maybe. But books, and poets, are no essential bastion for anything - hence my comment from the audience after the /Ndebele Krog speeches (read Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, whose protagonist is a 'cultured' SS officer involved in Auschwitz, Babi Yar etc, and you'll see what I mean).

    As for the second - well, there are many different kinds of poets. They are as varied, and as clever, or stupid, as any other section of society. To take one example - Neruda's poetry has been seen often in ways similar to Krog's. But let's not forget that he wrote a poem which praises Stalin (in 'Canto General') - and was so embarrassed about it that two decades later, in the collection 'World's End', he apologises, in another poem! Incisive insight into tyranny? Poets? Again, sometimes. And what about Ezra Pound's Canto 90, and the fawning re Eva Braun? i.e. Poets can be incisive, and serve as a bastion of freedom. They can equally be 'clowns' (as Bila points out); 'poehete en tweedelandse papagaaie' (Breytenbach); 'po-nines' (Baraka).

    I was also concerned that in her speech, Krog didn't seem to know any way to perceive how the nice ANC that she danced and poeticized with in the early 1990s turned into the nasty ANC now. Thus the 'books on bedside tables' solution. However, on one level this simply repeats the 'literate ANC under Mbeki' vs. 'illiterate ANC under Zuma' cliche which is a simplistic understanding of the Party's recent history. Moreover, I am deeply uneasy about this idea - it comes close to a racist notion of 'uncivilized natives' which could be pretty offensive to many people. It also misses the point that Ndebele tried to quietly make in response - that a lot of African culture doesn't work around books at all, but oral media.

    And the 'V' word? My take (pace Ben) is that, in SA, the 'V' word is as dicey to use as the 'H' word elsewhere.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    September 28th, 2012 @09:20 #
     
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    Kewlyn, I wasn't disagreeing with your original point. Was simply making a comment on its own. Nor am I going to agree or disagree with your second point (and so on) because your comments deserve far more thought than I can come up with in an immediate reply.

    What I can say at this moment is that literacy in SA is not being treated with enough seriousness (as a general whole). This hurts job opportunities and life overall. I say this without devaluing oral tradition - because that too is an art form that should not be dismissed or considered the lesser. Western culture has truly lost something by leaving oral tradition to (mostly) rot.

    It does bother me that SA leadership (generally speaking) do not seem to read or encourage others to use these tools of self education and expansion. Having worked with SA kids it makes me want to weep without literacy and the love of books is being dealt with. I see this even in the economically well off schools. I say this without trying to point fingers at one aspect of ANC to the other since my contact with SA school children has been both in 1999, 2000 in addition to aug 2008 onwards. There are plenty of studies out there that show that children being read to and having access to books gives them an edge on their future. Hence, why I think those two paragraphs are important.

    I can't comment on the V word - I only learned the Afrikaans words for banana and pumpkin a month or so ago. My vocab is expanding at a snail pace.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    September 28th, 2012 @09:21 #
     
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    That was supposed to be 'with how literacy and the love of books' - I'm sure there are more errors in there, too.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    September 28th, 2012 @13:45 #
     
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    I'm absolutely in agreement with you, Tiah.

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  • CA
    CA
    September 28th, 2012 @16:21 #
     
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    A reply to Antjie Krog's address by Neelika Jayawardane: "Antjie Krog and the 'magical power of literature'" has been posted at the Africa is a Country website:
    http://africasacountry.com/2012/09/28/questioning-the-magical-power-of-literature-a-reply-to-antjie-krog/

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    September 29th, 2012 @08:14 #
     
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    To widen this issue - I think Ndebele and Krog's speeches last week are symptomatic of a larger problem, that the book industry and book lovers will have to look at whether they likes to or not. The problem I found with both speeches was that they were simply reiterating the tired old concepts that have acted as 'common sense' in the literary milieu - book industry and academic - for the last quarter of a decade.
    The details of this can, and are, being debated: but in my view there was simply nothing new going on; thus the weird avoidance of the topic for discussion ('should literature be political').

    The loss of a political sense and viewpoint re our creative literature has meant that writers and critics, with exceptions, have avoided a crucial responsibility at a crucial time - the period of transition to a new government and after. There have been different reasons for this: from the governmental side, because it suited the 'national' stage and agenda of their version of liberation, and because a political oversight now no longer suited them; for the book industry because, to put it plainly, the suburban middle classes have never been fond of seeing their immediate world in too political or social a light (I can't forget the manner in which, immediately after 1990, young white students who had never had a political experience in their lives would tell me that they were 'tired' of politics (?!!) - oh, really?). For the latter, liberation provided them with a ludic sense of their transcendence of the so-scrubby 'reality' of the socio-political.

    The generalising statements made by Ndebele and Sachs, in particular - whatever their intentions - to stereotype a whole two decades of SA literature, despite the fact that there was some pretty fine writing in these decades .... Serote, Gwala, Essop, la Guma, Burgess, van Wyk and others, and the beginning of the careers of Cronin, Press, de Kok, Rampolokeng etc.

    The chickens of both these viewpoints are now coming home to roost, in ways which can, I think, no longer be avoided.

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