Siphiwo Mahala and Eusebius McKaiser Comment on Thando Mgqolozana’s Decision to Opt Out of South African Literary Festivals
McKaiser, a political commentator and the author of Could I Vote DA?: A Voter’s Dilemma, chaired a controversial session entitled “Is Anger Underrated” at the Franschhoek Literary Festival this weekend, in which Mgqolozana reiterated his intentions to opt of South African literary festivals.
- Thando Mgqolozana Outlines 21 Suggestions for the Decolonisation of the South African Literary Scene
- Karabo Kgoleng Weighs in on the “White Literary System” Debate: “We are Lazy with Our Analysis of this Issue”
In a column for The Star, McKaiser summed up his position:
Mgqolozana has had enough, he says, and will not attend another literary festival because these festivals are “abnormal”.
He believes black people are right to feel anger more generally because they have never had opportunities for self-determination. We needed, he thinks, a “knock- out, victory” moment. We never did and 1994 wasn’t that. Little wonder, he concludes, there is so much rupture like #RhodesMustFall.
Some audience members, like the white doctor who shouted “bull****!”, were ex-tremely angry. She stood up during the question-and-answer session and told her own story with palpable sincerity and reflective self-awareness.
Mahala, head of books and publishing for the Department of Arts and Culture and the author of African Delights and When a Man Cries, has shared a letter he sent to Jenny Hobbs, then organiser of the FLF, in 2011,voicing his reservations about attending the festival:
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.
Regarding Mahala’s email, former FLF Director Jenny Hobbs has written in to dispute his claim of being “summarily dismissed” by the festival. She adds that, “to date, libraries have been established, stocked and staffed by the FLF Library Fund in four Franschhoek primary schools, which are visited weekly by learners, and several thousand kids are reading books in Afrikaans, isiXhosa and English”. She provides her reply to Siphiwo’s original email:
I understand his and Thando’s anger at the exclusionary literary establishment and am following the debate with tremendous concern. As current FLF Director Ann Donald has written, the FLF is listening.
However, it should be clear from the following email that his reservations when turning down our invitation to FLF 2012 were not “summarily dismissed”.
From: Jenny Hobbs
Date: Tue, Oct 11, 2011 at 1:28 PM
Subject: Re: Invitation to the Franschhoek Literary Festival
Thank you for your thoughtful and well-reasoned reply to my invitation. The reservations you mention are exactly those that have troubled us over the five years of the FLF: how to include more people who need exposure to books, while being a small village without public transport quite far from towns, townships and tertiary institutions.
All I can do is explain the facts in some detail and our continuing efforts to feature black writers and to reach out and introduce books where they are needed, one of which has now been prohibited by the very community we are trying to serve. I will try not to sound angry, though I am at the moment and will explain why.
Unfortunately Franschhoek has acquired a reputation for being composed of ‘rich white people’ from tourism literature, glossy house advertisements and visitors who come for the day and don’t see past the first impression. This superficial assessment overlooks the many whites who toil at their jobs and alongside black co-workers keeping the village enterprises going: those in the guest houses, restaurants, shops, wineries, fruit farms and other small businesses. Tourism is what creates employment here, and the FLF was timed in the first part of May to help prolong the tourist season and keep jobs going. It has been a hard season here and more than a few businesses have gone under.
The FLF has concentrated on inviting a broad diversity of South African writers since the beginning, not just the usual well-known icons. One of the best aspects for the writers is that they can bring partners, earn a small honorarium per event and have time to meet and talk over three days. We make a point of introducing young, first-time, often controversial writers to our audiences, encouraging debate on current issues. We have urged universities – most of which have available transport – to bring students; only Rhodes and, this year, Stellenbosch have brought a few. We organised a bus at considerable expense to bring students from UWC and UCT, and one by one the students dropped out until there were only 6, which made it unviable. Just a handful of teachers from the local government schools have ever taken up the offered free tickets to events. The exception is the local drama group Youth Affair’s productions, which we help to subsidise during the rehearsal period and with bus transport.
One of our main reasons for starting the FLF was to raise money for a new community library to serve everyone in the valley, all communities, which would be a way to bring us together. In 5 years, thanks to ticket sales, donations and the many volunteers who help to run it, we have raised R1 million and put R165 000 worth of books into local schools and crèches. With additional funding from the Stellenbosch Municipality and Boekenhoutskloof Winery, we were making plans to start building in Groendal by the end of this year, on part of a vacant piece of land on the main road that was once a squatter camp, in the ideal position to make it easily accessible to everyone, within short walking distance for the neediest. It was going to have study facilities, computer access for all, an attached youth centre, and possibly a small auditorium for outreach classes and use by local drama groups.
A month ago we were told that 30 members of the Groendal community have signed a petition against having the library there; instead, they want a petrol station, a flea market, ‘cheap shops’ and businesses. As the councillor who informed us of this said: ‘There’s deep politics in that community.’ We were also told that someone commented: ‘We don’t want white money here.’
I understand the centuries of abuse-generated anger behind this attitude, and also the animosity towards well-meaning ‘do-gooders’, but you will understand why I am angry too. Our aim has always been primarily to get books into kids’ hands, and the funds have been raised with this intention, thanks to five years of voluntary work and tickets sold to – admittedly mostly white and middle-aged – audiences who have paid to listen to new writing by local writers. Our alternatives to a library to serve the whole valley are: to wait several years and build a lesser library elsewhere in the community where a new sports centre is planned, or to divide the funds between six schools, only two of which have small libraries – though none have librarians, which means that the libraries are only open for short periods.
The better news is that we have taken on a new person who is organising a Book Week for Young Readers from 7th to 10th May, preceding the FLF, which will engage all the children in our local schools in readathons and book competitions, with storytelling, workshops, visits from writers and book prizes. This will be for valley children only, not festival visitors. Zuki, Sindiwe Magona, Chris van Wyk and Finuala Dowling, among others, will take part in the school events, and I had hoped that you would too.
But as I said at the beginning, I fully understand your reservations and trust that this email has explained some of our problems. Our location is what it is, quite remote, and our efforts to encourage reading are concentrated on valley communities where a great deal of energy besides ours is being put into enriching education and providing more opportunities for young people.
With great regret, and continued warm regards,
- African Delights by Siphiwo Mahala
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- When a Man Cries by Siphiwo Mahala
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