Nal’ibali Column 18: Term 14, as published in the Sunday World (26 November 2017), Daily Dispatch (27 November 2017) and Herald (30 November 2017)
By Carla Lever
How hard is it to write a 25 000 word story – one that’s compelling and exciting to young people?
Ask Lebohang Pheko and Dumisani Hlatswayo. They’ve just been awarded prizes in the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature. Along with four other authors writing in English and Afrikaans, their winning books – Pheko’s in Sesotho and Hlatswayo’s in isiZulu – are published and available for purchase both online (takealot.com) and in selected bookstores nation-wide.
“It took me almost a year, including the editing of the manuscript going forth and back from Tafelberg publishers,” said Lebohang Pheko of her book, Mamello. For Dumisani Hlatswayo, writing had to happen after hours when he came back from his copywriting job. “This one took me 2 months to research, another 2 months to write the first draft and one month to edit.”
Lebohang Pheko, author of Mamello
The discipline and time commitment proved worth it: their books for young people join the ranks of new South African stories that the competition has published since it began in 1980.
If there’s been a big story to this year’s award, it’s been one of success. With an increase of 60 submissions from previous numbers, there were record competition entries in 2017. Sponsors Sanlam generously matched this with increased prize money for the winners: R20 000 for Gold award and R10 000 for Silver.
There was more good news for language activists: entries were strong across all three categories, with 55 English, 46 Indigenous language and 33 Afrikaans submissions. “There can be few more worthwhile endeavors than enabling young people to read books reflecting their own realities in their own language,” said Eloise Wessels, managing director of Media24 Books, of which NB Publishers and Tafelberg form part. Wessels added that mother tongue stories “play a key role in promoting literacy and a love for books, bringing lifelong rewards.”
Thirty-seven year old Gold Award winner Dumisani Hlatswayo was born in Soweto with ink in his veins. By the age of 14 he had already had a short story in isiZulu published – Isibhobo. This was followed by a flurry of other work: he’s been a finalist for the Maskew Millar Longman awards, had a radio drama aired and currently works as a copywriter.
Dumisani Hlatswayo, author of Imibala Yothando
Hlatswayo’s winning story, Imibala Yothando (“The Colours of Love”), is described as “a riveting tale of love, betrayal, jealousy and growing up in the social media era.” It centres on Sinenhlanhla, who is sent to a new school in Soweto, where she falls prey to a cyber bully.
For silver award winner Lebohang Pheko, the story was somewhat different. In Virginia in the Free State, her mother singlehandedly raised three girls, of which Pheko was the youngest. Although she had dreams of becoming a lawyer, money was tight and life had other plans: she was married and had two children by her early twenties. Throughout all of this, she leapt up her own creative pursuits: movies, drawing, reading, but most of all, writing stories.
Pheko’s prize winning Sesotho story, Mamello, takes on all these elements, weaving what the judges described as a “perfect tale of overcoming adversity” about a young girl who is not allowed to attend school but dreams of becoming a human rights lawyer.
“On the day I heard I was nominated, it was good news for me,” said Pheko. “But when I heard that I won the competition and was heading to the awards, I just couldn’t believe it! I was over the moon, but also full of amazement.”
In no small part, the competition’s 2017 successes have been as a result of a conscious drive from all concerned. A ‘250 words a day’ campaign was launched, where well-known authors gave feedback and mentorship to encourage entrants to get over the line. Writing’s a solitary occupation, so constant tips and encouragement can go a long way – especially for first time authors, many of whom had never written long form work before.
“An incredible 48 entries were received from debut writers, which reflects the success of the campaign,” said Michelle Cooper, publisher of children and young adult fiction at Tafelberg. Cooper added that it’s not merely quantity of entries that the competition draws, but quality too: in the 37 years the competition has existed, nearly 80 stories have gone on to be prescribed for schoolchildren as setworks.
How important is hooking children on stories and making available books in their own languages? “As a young person growing in Limpopo there were quite a few isiZulu books I could relate to,” Hlatswayo said. “In fact, the best way to inspire more people to read and write stories in their own languages is to make those kinds of books available.”
Of course, now there are two more books to add to those libraries! Mamello and Imibala Yothando are available and adding to the number of home-grown stories South Africans can be proud to call their own.
Feeling inspired? Now’s the perfect time to start planning your world-changing new novel: entries for the 2019 Sanlam Prizes for Youth Literature are now open. Entry forms are available at www.nb.co.za and the closing date is 5 October 2019. Make 2018 a year of celebrating the stories within your world.
Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit: www.nalibali.org.