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“How Dangerous is Dangerous?” Nthikeng Mohlele Weighs in on the “White Literary System” Debate

Nthikeng Mohlele (Rusty Bell) has added his voice to the ever-growing conversation around the topic of the problematic “white literary system” as vocalised by Thando Mgqolozana this past weekend at the Franschhoek Literary Festival:


Read Mohlele’s contribution and let us know what you think of the debate in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter:

* * * * * * * * *

Rusty BellI 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.

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Image copyright: Lisa Skinner


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    May 21st, 2015 @15:37 #

    Listening. Thinking. Thinking some more.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    May 21st, 2015 @22:12 #

    I am glad this conversation is ongoing: not least because this IS the golden age of SA literature, no matter how unlevel the playing fields, how broken and bankrupt (often literally) the structures in which it is taking place, how ghastly and overwhelming the context (corruption, GBV, xenophobia etc) in which it plays out. I might not live to see it, but there might come a day when a certain Mr M might have to prepare a Nobel acceptance (or rejection?) speech. We are going to count ourselves lucky to have lived through this era one day, Eskom and other follies notwithstanding.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    May 22nd, 2015 @10:49 #

    Helen, I agree. It is a privilege to be writing and working in the lit scene, here. So much is happening. Might not all be comfy and cosy, but at least it isn't boring.


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