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“Where are the Black Bourgeoisie?” – The Debate Around SA’s “White Literary System” Continues

The reactions to Thando Mgqolozana’s statement at the Franschhoek Literary Festival this year that he is quitting South Africa’s “white literary system” continue to roll in, and an optimistic observer would perhaps perceive an increase in nuance in the discussion.

UnimportanceHear Me AloneA Man Who is Not a Man


SLiPNet project co-ordinator and Stellenbosch University academic Wamuwi Mbao, who was in the audience for the now-infamous “Is Anger Underrated” session, has written a reflective piece entitled “Behaving Badly: On Anger and Literary Festivals”.

Mbao believes that “over the course of a week [Mgqolozana] systematically dismantled the illusion of stability underpinning the fragile thing we call South African literature”, but also points to the inability of “the old forms” – such as exclusive literary festivals – to transform.

One of the more peculiar legacies of South Africa’s transition to democracy is a society in which we have been led to believe that anger is a limiting medium of expression. We tend to think that it is unjustifiable, that it is unproductive and that it is a sign of failed communication. But to think in this way is to miss how certain forms of anger form critical interventions to the status quo.

Thando Mgqolozana’s remarks leading up to, during and after this year’s Franschhoek Literary Festival are an example of this sort of intervention. His utterances have re-ignited debates around the politics of South African literatures in our current moment, and the perverse dynamics of social interactions in a society riven with inequality.

Fiona Snyckers, author of Team Trinity and Trinity On Air, echoes the assertion made by Marianne Thamm during the “Is Anger Underrated” event that imagining the conversation as a gender debate rather than a racial one provides some illumination. Because of this, Snyckers says she has nothing to add: “I am listening and I am learning.”

If this were an issue affecting women, I would expect men to keep themselves in the background, offering support and little else. I would certainly not expect them to wrestle the mic away from the woman speakers and start mansplaining the issues to the women in the audience. I would especially not expect them to tell women that they are “overreacting” or “grandstanding”, or that the discrimination they experience is “all in their heads”. These are all accusations I have seen levelled against Mgqolozana in recent days.

Similarly, I would rather chop off my typing fingers than start whitesplaining the local literary scene to black authors. This movement Mgqolozana has started does not need my approval, my sanction, my acknowledgement, or my participation. I am not a protagonist in this story. At best, I have a non-speaking, walk-on part that requires me to shut up and listen.

So why am I breaking my silence? Perhaps because it seemed too easy an option to remain quiet — the lazy way out.

Author Michiel Heyns threw his hat into the ring in an exasperated comment on a piece by Liam Kruger for SLiPNet, focusing on the visible inequality and the expense of Franschhoek.

Read Heyns’ comment:

Ah well, here we have that annual debunking-the-FLF piece again, largely indistinguishable from its predecessors, once again homing in on the indisputable fact that Franschhoek is an expensive and twee little town — in this respect indistinguishable from thousands of such towns all over the world. But Franschhoek (unlike all those other little towns?) ‘requires an ongoing process of wilful obscurantism’, because, yes, it is set in the midst of misery and squalor. This is distressing, and makes the inequalities dividing our country more conspicuous than they may seem, say, in Johannesburg, where Sandton City is at least out of sight of Soweto, and where in fact the beneficiaries of the inequality are much less blindingly of the same colour. But that fact, that at the FLF one is reminded at every turn of the fact that reading is minority pursuit enjoyed, by and large, by the white middle classes, does not seem to me to warrant the conclusion that ‘the Franschhoek Literary Festival is irredeemably disengaged from the lived reality of much of South Africa’ — as witness some of the sessions Liam Kruger attended, and some that he did not attend, which tried exactly to engage with the lived reality of South Africa — in literary terms, of course, as one would reasonably expect at a literary festival. But it would seem, though Kruger doesn’t exactly spell it out — well, he does just about — that the FLF’s crime is that the audiences are overwhelmingly white. And, somehow, those white audiences are to blame for this fact. The logic of this escapes me; but I suppose it runs something like this: white people, unlike black people, can afford the trek to Franschhoek, and can afford to pay R450 for a meal; therefore they should rather stay away, in solidarity with their black compatriots. But the even given that yes, of course, white people are statistically richer than black people, that does not fully account for the uneven demographic at the FLF; to put it bluntly, there are now very many black people who could afford to attend the FLF if they’d wanted to. The Cape Town Jazz Festival, which isn’t cheap, is attended by very many black people. (And by the same token, I know of several white people who felt they couldn’t afford the FLF; I couldn’t have attended more than a single day if I hadn’t been offered accommodation by a friend.) In other words, for well-documented and lamentable historical reasons, black people are not as yet as much into books as some white people (and I stress ‘some’). Why those some white people should be held responsible for this fact Kruger does not make clear. In fact, his article makes little clear, other than the fact that he spent the weekend feeling thoroughly superior to his surroundings. Well, at least he didn’t spend it feeling guilty, like the rest of us.

High Court Judge Dennis Davis takes a tougher line, asking: “Where are the black bourgeoisie?”

Davis, who chaired another controversial FLF session entitled “Just Julius”, with Kenny Kunene, Fiona Forde and Richard Poplak, is quoted in The New York Times as saying: “I think the problem is our inability to construct events that more accurately represent our country. I am seriously doubting Mandela’s narrative of a journey towards reconciliation.”

Read the article, written by Roslyn Sulcas, a culture writer for The New York Times who grew up in Cape Town:

Ms. [Ann] Donald, who was directing the festival for the first time this year, said that the intention was to aim the festival — which has a $135,000 budget (mostly from sponsorship) and a number of international participants — at anyone who loved books. “We work as hard as we can to make the program as diverse as possible,” she said, “but I am very aware of the perceptions.”

She added that there were practical issues affecting attendance, including the lack of public transportation to Franschhoek, and the expense of staying in an international tourist destination. “Is cost the major issue, or is it a content problem?” she asked. “I think the big thing is to listen to the points being raised, then trying to address them.”

Others at the festival took a tougher line. “Where are the black bourgeoisie?” asked Dennis Davis, a high court judge who is white and who moderated the “Just Julius” panel. “I think the problem is our inability to construct events that more accurately represent our country. I am seriously doubting Mandela’s narrative of a journey towards reconciliation.”

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