“Look at Yourselves – It’s Very Abnormal”: Thando Mgqolozana Quits South Africa’s “White Literary System”
It’s perhaps a reflection of the nature of South African literary festivals that Thando Mgqolozana could upstage Kenny Kunene at the Franschhoek Literary Festival this year – who in his session called Julius Malema a “mixture of Hitler, Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seko”. Mgqolozana’s intentions – to opt out of literary festivals forever – caused quite a buzz, and by Sunday were even being discussed at events that did not feature him.
At one point, during an event chaired by Eusebius McKaiser, an audience member shouted out “bullshit!” while Mgqolozana was speaking, and a minor ruckus ensued. Later on that audience member stood up in tears and spoke at length about being tired of experiencing white guilt.
On the other hand, during an event on Sunday afternoon, when Imraan Coovadia asked Mgqolozana about his plans, another author on the panel, Alex van Tonder, said “I feel like I’m on the wrong panel! I feel like we came here to discuss how we found our voice” – which was the title of the event – and some members of the audience agreed vehemently.
— Alex van Tonder (@alex_vantonder) May 17, 2015
Perhaps as reports and opinion pieces begin to emerge this week the importance of Mgqolozana’s stand – whether you agree with it or not – will begin to register.
- Thando Mgqolozana Outlines 21 Suggestions for the Decolonisation of the South African Literary Scene
- Siphiwo Mahala and Eusebius McKaiser Comment on Thando Mgqolozana’s Decision to Opt Out of South African Literary Festivals
- Karabo Kgoleng Weighs in on the “White Literary System” Debate: “We are Lazy with Our Analysis of this Issue”
The origins of Mgqolozana’s discontent date from the year he was first published – 2009 – but came to a head last year at the Open Book Festival in a panel discussion entitled Writer’s Rage, with Zukiswa Wanner and festival organiser Mervyn Sloman.
Listen to a podcast of that event here:
Mgqolozana, the author of three books, the most recent being a campus novel, Unimportance, reiterated his position at the Time of the Writer Festival in Durban, and in a recent interview with The Daily Vox:
I feel that I’m there to perform for an audience that does not treat me as a literary talent, but as an anthropological subject – as though those people are here to confirm their suspicions that somehow I am inferior to them.
The author says he would rather concentrate on his writing, and attempt to right the wrongs that exist at an infrastructural level through his work.
During the Finding Your Voice session, featuring Van Tonder, Nthikeng Mohlele and chaired by Imraan Coovadia, Mgqolozana said: “An assumption must not be made that we haven’t made attempts to change this system. A lot of us writers talk about it all the time and we try to do things.
“I’m part of a group of writers that started Read SA with Ben Williams, Zukiswa [Wanner] and others, which was because we want to encourage South Africans, especially black South Africans, to read, and particularly to read South African literature.
We come from a history where black writers were banned and the stories that would most resonate with a black audience were suppressed. There have never been as many black writers as we have now, there has never been as much diversity in terms of voices and stories.
“But that campaign fell off because the literary infrastructure at the moment is in the cities, in white set-ups, like here, for example. It systematically excludes black people. So what is needed is the establishment of that infrastructure. That’s what we need. Not just campaigns. We need to get libraries in the black communities. There are some now, built by the democratic government, but they are fake libraries. The ones that are functioning there are functioning because they are sponsored by Canadians and Australians, and they bring books from there. For example, I went to Harare Library in Khayelitsha [for a conversation with Cyril Ramaphosa about a national book club - ed.] and it’s sponsored by Carnegie. We need libraries and bookstores with relevant, affordable books in the black community.
“I don’t think private individuals can fund the kind of infrastructure that’s needed. We need the government to step up. Between festivals we need other literary activities, book launches and all the kind of things we have here. And that is a massive project, but I would rather be focusing on that than come here and say the kinds of things that I’m saying, ‘please change, please change’. I don’t think it’s going to work. We’ve tried to do it. My greatest focus is going to be writing, and I’m going to try to make this kind of change through my writing.”
Mohlele believes the problem is just one part of a much larger issue: “I don’t think it’s a problem of literary festivals, and what have you. The problems and the faultlines are much more fundamental than that.”
He illustrated his point with a story about being asked by a doctor at the emergency room at a private hospital why he hadn’t gone to the township hospital. “For me, the situation of festivals and so on are a problem, but it’s a very shallow reflection on society and its general imperfections,” he said.
An audience member asked Mgqolozana if he had considered whether a more sustained critique would be more effective than a once-off protest.
“This is not the first time,” Mgqolozana replied. “It’s the kind of thing we have been talking about for a long time.
But I don’t want this literary festival to change any more. I feel that it was wrong for me to ask of it to change in the first place.
“It’s the same argument as the Rhodes Must Fall kids are making at UCT. They are not asking the university to change, because that would mean tweaking a few things and it remains the same, fundamentally. So now they are talking about the complete decolonisation, and that means a demolishing of the entire system, which would provide us with an opportunity to imagine something new, something different. For me, that’s what I wish and hope will happen to this system. Changing this and that would still not be comfortable for any black writer, I think.
That’s like asking to be integrated into a fire.
“What I’m talking about is not just literary festivals. It’s not just literature. I’m talking about this society, the way it is. But in order to do that I focused on this small point of literary festivals, in order to be able to say: what this society needs is a complete decolonisation.”
Earlier that day, Mgqolozana took part in a panel discussion entitled Is Anger Underrated, which was a deliberate continuation of the Open Book event in 2014.
Chaired by McKaiser, and featuring award winning author Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and journalist and author Marianne Thamm, this event seemed to cause the most discomfort of the festival.
Thando Mgqolozana has the mainly white audience shuffling their feet and muttering angrily. He's taking no prisoners. #FLF15
— Wamuwi Mbao (@WamuwiM) May 17, 2015
Mgqolozana began by outlining his plans, for those who had not yet heard the rumblings on the Franschhoek grapevine.
I’m quitting what I call the white literary system in South Africa.
“I was first published in 2009,” he said, “and since me and other black writers have been begging to be integrated into this white literary system in a more comfortable way, and it hasn’t happened. Whatever changes we called for has not taken place. It is upsetting for me to jump out of literary festivals like this, and I’m upset that I’ve had to make this kind of decision, but I think it’s a necessity, because I want to be able to sleep at night, I want to be able to honour myself and stick to those principles.”
Addressing the audience, in which there were just two black faces, Mgqolozana said:
You can just turn around and look at yourselves – it looks very abnormal. In this country, it should never be like this.
— Jennifer Malecówna (@projectjennifer) May 17, 2015
Eusebius asked where Mgqolozana’s anger was directed, “at these wonderful people in the audience or the black people who are not here?”
“I’m very proud of the black people who are not here,” he replied, “because I don’t see why they should come here. I’m angry with the people who think this is normal. Who think the Franschhoek Literary Festival is normal, that the Open Book Festival is normal. Most people who are in charge of those things are our friends – nice people – but they think this is okay. I’m angry at those people. There is very little I can do about it, but I can remove myself.
“In this country there are certain conversations that we should be having and we are not having. One of them is this one. I don’t think it’s accidental that we have things like Rhodes Must Fall or the EFF popping up. Time has come. The black people in this country have realised, after 20 or so years, that, fuck it; we need to talk about these things. We need to be angry at Nelson Mandela. I don’t think black people are angry enough at Nelson Mandela.
I think in this country there is a moment that we missed; we should have unleashed our anger, which had been accumulating for centuries, and we didn’t.
“There were many things that we could have done but we chose to go through a Truth and Reconciliation process that didn’t work, which basically postponed the anger that people had and now they are starting to unleash. What black people are missing is that moment of victory. We didn’t have it. The elections in 1994 were not that.”
McKaiser asked: “Describe to me an alternative. Drive them into the sea?” This got a loud laugh from the audience, but Mgqolozana’s answer restored the uncomfortable silence pretty quickly.
“One of the things could have happened, which I think many of the people who got into the negotiations thought was going to happen, was that the white people in South Africa would realise ‘this was horrible, and we benefited from this’. And once they realised and made this admission, would say: ‘Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have this house. Maybe my father or my husband or me should be the last person, the last generation, to own this farm. Because I don’t really own this farm, it was theft’. And you can donate it to the next random black person that you meet. So that’s one of the things white people in South Africa could have done, and they didn’t.
“What could black people have done? I don’t know. In that moment of anger, it’s difficult to know what you can do when you’re angry.”
Mgqolozana’s next remarks were too much for certain members of the audience to take.
“One of the things I advise – when young white people come to me and say ‘what can I do’ – the first thing you can do is stop the charity work you are doing in Khayelitsha, it’s not helping anyone. Just stop it. Stop the soup kitchens and donating blankets. It’s just making people more angry, it doesn’t change anything.”
At this point an audience member shouted out “bullshit!”
Mgqolozana continued: “The problem is not the poverty that you see …”
But another audience member shouted: “That’s bullshit too!”, with others responding with: “He’s speaking”, and “Let him speak!” One woman then said firmly: “Please wait your turn” and to Mgqolozana, “We are listening, please continue”. It may be worth mentioning that this woman was of the few black people present, and mentioned in the Q&A session later that she had been politically active “in the trenches” in Durban during apartheid.
Clarifying his statement, Mgqolozana said: “The problem is not in the shacks. It’s a problem with whiteness. So if there’s anything that a young white person want to do because he/she is saying ‘I was not there’. The thing that I would advise them to do is go home – when racism is taking place there in conversations over tea or dinner, that’s your responsibility. There’s very little black people can do to stop this racism. We’ve tried for centuries. That’s what the Struggle was about. The people who can do something about it are people who belong to the same race – especially young people.
“Stop the charity work. It’s not welcome. Go home and deal with it there, at university, among your friends.”
Eusebius asked: “Do you think those are mutually exclusive? Me working privately on my damaged and stained white self, and me helping to reduce inequality?”
Mgqolozana replied: “There’s no point in doing charity work when we are not dealing with the main issues. I wouldn’t mind if a person was doing the kind of work I was referring to and at the same time doing all these other things. What I’m completely against is when you think being nice is making the world better. It’s not.”
McKaiser, referring to Rhodes academic Samantha Vice’s advice that white South Africans “work on their private selves”, said: “Even if you are not a perpetrator yourself, if you have unearned privileges – and I have them too, just because I have a penis – you need to reflect, morally, on what it means to be a beneficiary or privileges that you did not, through merit, earn. That is not done enough. But at the same time we recognise that, quite apart from what each of us need to do on a personal level, there are real macro-economic factors that correlate with the anger. We’ve got to simultaneously urge more South Africans, black and white, to work on their damaged private selves, but not to stop cross-class solidarity.”
His remarks got an enthusiastic round of applause.
Gobodo-Madikizela moderated Mgqolozana’s assertion slightly, saying:
I agree with you that these processes have to run alongside one another. And the idea of, as Thando says, feeding people in the townships as a way of cleansing one’s guilt, that has its role. And it serves an important purpose because people are hungry. But if it’s to cleanse guilt rather than to restore some dignity among people, then it becomes a challenge.
Shifting perspective slightly, Thamm asked the audience to consider what the conversation would be like if the focus was on gender rather than race.
I keep on having this image conjured in my head, imagining what it would be like as a woman to have a whole lot of empowered, possibly white, men coming to me and saying ‘we’re here to help you, we want to give you tools to unpack your life and the disadvantages you’ve encountered in your career, and I would just want to say ‘fuck off!’ That’s I think why women sometimes have spaces where they don’t want men to be, and I think that’s what black South Africans are asking us: ‘Butt out. Go work on yourself.’
“Rick Turner did this, understood that, and Steve Biko, back then. Unfortunately they’ve kind of been erased from the landscape in terms of what we need to engage with, which is not to receive Thando’s anger and dismiss it. Because it takes a lot to face yourself in the mirror as a white person. It’s not easy. In the end, you sleep with yourself at night. And as you head off towards infinity, you must make peace with yourself. Do not be afraid of it. And to be a white person standing here telling you not to be afraid of a black man’s anger is ridiculous, all of it, but it’s part of the process.”
During the Q&A session the women who had shouted out “bullshit” stood up, and said, through tears:
I don’t know when I can stop feeling guilty for being born with this skin.
She continued to explain how she had studied medicine and specialised in HIV, works at an NGO, how she would rather give money to a black beggar than a white beggar.
“But,” she added, “I need black people to understand that I’m so tired of feeling guilty. Yes, I might have inherited things that I don’t deserve, but from the age of seven in 1977, when I remember those Soweto riots, and hiding under the bed and thinking ‘this is so wrong’, and my parents thought I was wacko, being at Wits and fighting against racism, I just need to know that there is a place for me in this country where I am sometimes giving out blankets and clothes.”
Mgqolozana’s next statement stressed the importance of how the Rhodes Must Fall movement had “completely refused to be infiltrated to older people” who “come with experience and say they learnt to deal with anger”, adding: “We need urgent interventions. It’s urgent.”
As the audience began murmuring again, McKaiser interjected that Mgqolozana was responding to an earlier question about intergenerational difference in responses to anger, but even if this was Mgqolozana’s intention his response was perhaps deliberately provocative.
Mgqolozana recalled the situation during the transition in the early 1990s, when the ANC Youth League consisted of “older” people like Jackie Selebi and Peter Mokaba – “something was missing”.
Gobodo-Madikizela agreed, saying: “There’s a sense in which young people expressing raw emotion does change the poles.”
McKaiser then said he wanted to respond personally to the tearful audience member:
“I cannot speak for all black South Africans, but I my response is that I totally feel you, don’t stop doing the amazing work that you do. I have family who live in poverty, I feel the burden of what I call ‘black tax’, I can’t develop wealth and get out of that poverty myself. Like many black professionals, including the few who are here, we are actually secretly indebted – we’re not genuinely middle class – your work is very important. But I have two points.
“There’s a difference between guilt and reflective awareness of unearned privileges. You are not Verwoerd; you should not feel guilty because guilt presupposes you did something wrong directly. You didn’t. What you are exhibiting is not resting with guilt. You are reflectively aware as a white person of your unearned privileges and you’re not being challenged on it.
But in acknowledging your story and affirming the amazing work that you do, let’s not pretend that your story generalises across our society. If every white South African was like you, this conversation wouldn’t happen.
DA MP Michael Cardo was next to stand up, saying: “I was glad that the previous speaker shouted out ‘bullshit’ in the middle of a session, because I think she was exactly right, I think a lot of this discourse around white privilege and self-flagellating discourse is exactly that. It’s the basest form of racial identity politics.” Cardo also asked McKaiser, who has written a book about the opposition party entitled Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma, about his “flip flop” on the work of Samantha Vice, which he had previously been critical of.
“My answer to you is very simple,” McKaiser replied. “I’m allowed to change my mind. I read Samantha Vice differently after Rhodes Must Fall than before. You call it flip flop, I call it intellectual development.
“Number two, I say it’s bullshit – yes, I’m emoting now – to pretend that because in the DA’s future you might have to be colourblind that there’s something fundamentally amiss in Thando self-identifying racially and experiencing a space like this painfully and racially. I think you need to hear him differently.
“Of course a white person should be an active citizen; you pay taxes, you’re a citizen of the country. Samantha’s basic advice was be humble and be silent and don’t perform in the public space. I think she spoke badly as a good philosopher, and that’s why we re-read her. If we take her literally, she’s wrong, and I’ve written a paper on it in the South African Journal of Philosophy. But the generous reading of what she says – which I now hear because I hear people like Thando differently to how I heard them before, as a liberal – what Samantha intended to say but used poor language, even as an academic, is don’t be so arrogant as to assume you have the monopoly on truth and only your understanding of the phenomenology of race is morally the most appropriate way of thinking about race and living racially.
“What she should not have implied and I acknowledge that she did, and this bit I do not agree with, is that as a white person you must literally shut up, not participate, not run for political office. And that cannot be right, not only because you’re entitled to those things as a white person and a citizen, but also because if I have an inferiority complex as a black person, it’s not going to help me to practice confidence speaking to Thando, who’s also black. I need to learn how to slam-dunk Michael the white person, and I can only do that if Michael and I are in dialogue publicly and not trying to live apart in terms of apartheid geography. But I think what Samantha is calling on you to do is put aside the normativity of whiteness.”
Later that day, Cardo tweeted:
— Michael Cardo (@michaelcardo) May 17, 2015
Check out Twitter timelines from the events:
The 2015 Franschhoek Literary Festival was covered on Books LIVE by editor Jennifer Malec (@projectjennifer), deputy editor Helené Prinsloo (@helenayp), assistant editors Erin Devenish (@ErinDevenish811) and Annetjie van Wynegaard (@Annetjievw) and Jennifer Platt (@Jenniferdplatt) of the Sunday Times.
Keep an eye on Books LIVE for write-ups of the best events this week (including the panel discussion featuring Kenny Kunene).
- Could I Vote DA?: A Voter’s Dilemma by Eusebius McKaiser
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- This One Time by Alex van Tonder
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- Tales of the Metric System by Imraan Coovadia
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- Here I Am by PJ Powers, Marianne Thamm
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