Darryl David has announced a new Soweto Literary Festival that will take place from 19 to 21 August, 2016 at the Soweto Theatre.
David is a lecturer in the University of KwaZulu-Natal Department of English and the founder of a number of literary projects, including the Booktown Richmond festival and BoekBedonnerd Literary Festival.
It’s taken me five years to get a Soweto Literary Festival off the ground. But come August 2016, Booktown Richmond will bring a literary festival to Soweto. We had always hoped South Africa’s national Booktown in the middle of nowhere would become the epicentre of literary South Africa. But we have been forced to concede that if the mountain won’t come to Moses, then Moses must go to the mountain.
It’s been a hard journey. Letters upon letters to individuals with unfettered cheque books. Interactions with vice-chancellors. Pleas to gatekeepers in departments of arts and culture. And for all my efforts? Nothing!
And then, you will never guess who gave me a little funding the size of a mustard seed for a Soweto Literary Festival. The ATKV. For those who may not know, that stands for Afrikaanse Taal- en Kultuurvereniging. With no demands to use the money for Afrikaans writers only. No, just get a literary festival off the ground in Soweto, they said to me. They had seen what I did with a small amount of money in getting a Festival of Children’s Literature off the ground in KwaZulu-Natal. So they believed in me, I guess. Afrikaans. Soweto. I could not have scripted it any better if I had tried to.
But this will be my most challenging festival to date. True, I would like to think I changed the face of South African literature by taking book festivals to the forgotten dorps of South Africa and by creating South Africa’s national Booktown. But the language of the Karoo is Afrikaans. And I was the only Indian lecturer of Afrikaans in South Africa. (Although they wanted to tar and feather me after I called my first festival BookBedonnerd and the theme for the second The Coolie Odyssey.)
But Soweto … we have just been bombarded by news of Brexit over the last few days. In South Africa literary circles we had our very own Brexit in May 2015 at the Franschhoek Literary Festival when Thando Mgqolozana boldly pronounced, ‘I’m quitting what I call the white literary system in South Africa.’
So was it sheer determination or sheer foolishness to persist with my Soweto dream after that? I took solace from the fact that Mgqolozana did not say he would not support a literary effort created by an Indian man (without any help from the Guptas!).
Mgqolozana had added, ‘I feel that I’m there [Franschhoek Literary Festival] 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. You can just turn around and look at yourselves – it looks very abnormal. In this country, it should never be like this.’
Eusebius McKaiser then 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.’
Mgqolozana went on: ‘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. 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.’
And Mgqolozana was right. To a degree. However, what Mgqolozana wants to change will require him to have very good karma because he would need many lifetimes to achieve all of this. His response was not only to withdraw from so-called white literary festivals. He then went on to partner festivals like Time of the Writer at my university (UKZN), with a Decolonisation of the Book project.
My response is somewhat different: I say start a literary festival in one of the most famous places on the planet – Soweto.
As I understand Mgqolozana’s project it was, like Brexit, an attempt to turn inward. To take back a space that was unfairly taken away from black writers during apartheid. To assert the equality of black writers in a new space free from the hegemony of the book industry in South Africa. To give black writers centre stage. But it comes with a cost: the exclusion of white writers. The exclusion of Indian and coloured writers. I am friends on Facebook with many black writers. And whenever they post photos from literary events, all you see is black faces. Like all you see at Franschhoek is white faces.
In my heart I have to believe in the way of Mandela. In the way of Kathrada. In a rainbow nation.
Let me use an analogy. In marriage, you can choose to fight like cats and dogs for months on end until the only way out one can see is divorce. Or as my wife tells me, in the midst of a shouting match, you can simply hug the person, no matter how much they push you away. And say ‘We have fought long enough. I love you.’ I have the soul of a writer and I believe in the power of literature to unite. Even in times of doubt, this is all I have to cling on to.
This is why I am starting the Soweto Literary Festival. To create a truly non-racial literary festival in a black township, something that has never ever been done before. A start has been made in Khayelitsha. But that was more a book fair, not a literary festival. I have always maintained Soweto looms large in the literary imagination of South Africa. It is the home of two Nobel Laureates revered throughout the world: Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. And there are enough books on Tutu and Mandela to form the supporting pillars for the biggest bookshop in South Africa.
But Soweto is so much more than Mandela and Tutu. Soweto is the cradle of black literature. It was home to the canon of black literature in South Africa – Mongane Wally Serote, Sipho Sepamla Njabulo Ndebele, Miriam Tlali, Ellen Kuzwayo and Benedict Vilakazi. These are writers from the golden era of black writing in South Africa. The list becomes more extensive if one considers figures like Winnie Mandela, Miriam Makeba, and countless others who were the subject of great literary output. Not to mention the likes of photographer Peter Magubane.
It is also home to some of the household names in present-day South African literature, most notably Niq Mhlongo.
Make no mistake, Soweto is as close as you are going to come to a literary capital of South Africa.
And I believe all races will come to Soweto for such a literary festival. I believe it can become a truly international festival if the city fathers of Johannesburg follow through on their standard letters: ‘We thank you for your interest in the City of Johannesburg. We will be in touch with you shortly.’ 10 years have passed since I got a letter like this from the National Department of Arts and Culture about South Africa’s national Booktown in the Karoo. Two years have passed since I gave the mayor’s office the greatest idea in the history of book festivals for Johannesburg.
So what I want to see after this article is officials serving the people.
I will not be going to them, especially not after an Afrikaans organisation like the ATKV has made a literary festival in Soweto possible. They must come to me, because that will show they truly believe in the potential of such a project. And that they value black writers.
The problem does not only lie with Franschhoek. It lies with departments of arts and culture all over South Africa who have failed the black writers of this country. It is a sad indictment that after 21 years of democracy no black township has a literary festival. It is a sad indictment that there is no statue to the likes of Miriam Tlali. To Mongane Wally Serote. To Alex la Guma. To Herbert Dhlomo and to his brother RRR Dhlomo.
So I am taking a leap of faith and hoping that ordinary people – black, brown, white and all shades in between – will attend Soweto’s first literary festival, because every talk, every performance will be free to the public, like we do in Booktown Richmond.
I am taking a leap of faith and hoping that all writers will give freely of their talents for a worthy project.
I am taking a leap of faith and hoping that publishers will sponsor writers’ costs to this festival and not opt for Franschhoek because it offers you the publisher’s picture-perfect landscapes and vats full of that greatest lubricator of social intercourse.
I am taking a leap of faith and hoping that in 2017 the Sunday Times will present the Sunday Times Literary Awards at the second Soweto Literary Festival.
I am taking a leap of faith and hoping that the South African Publishers Association will resurrect the SA Book Fair at the 2017 Soweto Literary Festival.
But even if all else fails, we will do this the Booktown Richmond way. No more meetings. No more workshops. We will just do it. One book at a time!
I will remain Forever BookBedonnerd.
The Soweto Literary Festival will be held at the magnificent Soweto Theatre.
It is the obvious venue because symbolically there can be no better choice of venue with its multitude of colours to signify the coming together of writers of all races.