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Decolonisation and Literary Festivals

There are Two Birds at My WindowBotsotsoBy Allan Kolski Horwitz

I read Phillippa Yaa de Villiers’ piece on this subject with more than passing interest as the work of Botsotso, the poetry and art collective in which I am involved, has dealt with these matters for over 20 years in the fields of literature, performance and publishing. Moreover, I was present at the symposium (if that is the right term) that took place at Wits where the key protagonists of the “boycott the Franschhoek Literary Festival” movement presented their viewpoints. In addition, Phillippa mentioned my contribution to the debate that evening but in such a way as to give a distorted view of what I actually said.

And what did I say?

Firstly, that any writer and activist has to choose the terrain in which you are going to participate and get involved – that is, if you really want to have an impact and get your “message” and sensibility across. The Franschhoek valley constitutes the landholding of a very wealthy elite of multi-millionaires (many of whom are non-South Africans) whose exploitation of black agricultural workers is notorious: the wage scale after a bitter strike two years ago is only R105 per day. The audience at this festival is almost entirely made up of middle to upper-middle class (white) people (and then largely female) who are part and parcel of this extremely reactionary lifestyle and value system. For writers with a political/social consciousness to expect such an audience to be in tune with their vision of a South Africa that prohibits such exploitation is quite frankly laughable. As such, I have no sympathy for any writer, black or white, who goes off to entertain this audience – because that is all you will be doing; this audience has no capacity to internalize and use your participation in any meaningful way because objectively it stands in complete opposition to a truly democratic, egalitarian and Africa-rooted consciousness.

Secondly, the process of decolonisation has two aspects; the first is the wresting of political and military power from the colonial ruling class by the indigenous peoples. The second is the creation of a society that actively reverses the structures and mindset of colonial divide-and-rule, economic exploitation and cultural imperialism (in this instance, Eurocentric hegemony that denigrates and sidelines indigenous culture and knowledge).

Now we know that in the “old” South Africa the divide was marked by a particularly racist white regime that ruled southern Africa in relatively large numbers for 300 years – that is, for a much longer period of time than in any other part of Africa – and that the European settler groups became more entrenched and bound to the “soil of Africa” than Europeans anywhere else on the continent. Moreover, the political settlement of 1994 recognised that the New South Africa should find a place for all people irrespective of colour, ethnicity etc. As such, the fight against white European racism has to continue with determination and vigour but the right of the descendants of white settlers to find a place in a non-racial society is not the issue. Indeed, if it is an issue then two things flow from such a change in policy: are whites to be driven out of the country (a form of ethnic cleansing)? Or are they to be placed in a whites-only statelet (a Whitestan a la Orania)? In other words, to boycott a festival simply because the audience is largely white is, in substantive terms, superficial and racist and contrary to the vision of an open, dynamic and pluralistic society.

As we all know, the first leg in the decolonisation process (viz. the wresting of political power) took place 20 years ago. The liberation movement that enjoys overwhelming majority support is the ANC/SACP alliance. This Alliance (together with the largest trade union federation, COSATU) has ruled the country uninterruptedly since 1994. But what have been the concrete results in terms of the decolonisation project? Do we have a Bill of Rights that protects and advances human freedom and diversity? Yes, we do. Do we have the Rule of Law? We do and we don’t because increasingly the ruling elite (particularly on the political side but also the economic) filibusters and obstructs legal outcomes. Do we have a more egalitarian society? We most certainly do not – in fact, income disparity has grown despite the emergence of a new black middle class that, even in terms of convinced black capitalists like Moeketsi Mbeki, is parasitic and loots state resources with impunity (with our current president being at the head of these “untouchables”). Do we have a move away from the old Afrikaner bureaucratic state structures? In some ways yes but overall, no. Government is by and large removed and unresponsive to people’s needs on the ground – why else do we have more “service delivery” protests than any other country in the world? How could we have had a massacre of workers as took place at Marikana? Do we have a society that places full employment as a key priority? No, we don’t. We have casualisation, out-sourcing and a social security network that encourages a handout mentality. Have we smashed the monopoly capitalists in the key economic sectors? No, we have not – they continue to rig tenders and prices, smuggle massive amounts offshore and generally reduce formal sector employment while the stock market reaches new heights. In short, the performance of the “new state” is very, very shaky – an education crisis second to none (at all levels curricula need changing, teachers need to show more dedication, more black academics need to be brought in etc); loadshedding and medicine stock shortages being other gross examples of malfunctioning. In short, to reverse a culture of cronyism, tender-rigging, inflated salaries for the elites and tremendous wastage of resources, a new movement for radical change is required.

How does this affect literary and cultural life?

Practitioners (of all art forms) and cultural activists need to recommit to this struggle for structural and ideological transformation in all sectors of our society, including that of the platforms for artistic production. As such, instead of trying to reform the Franschhoek Literary Festival and its ilk we should be establishing new festivals that can genuinely reach and satisfy a multi-class audience and readership. We should be ensuring that the public and school library systems are stocking new South African books (of all genres) and organising readings and talks by writers and poets. The DAC should be playing a key role in all of this including setting up a new independent Writers Union (there has been a giant vacuum since the collapse of COSAW 20 years ago in very controversial circumstances) and the setting up of a non-profit, independent publishing house to encourage a new post-colonial literature. And to reach a mass audience, the SABC should finally fulfill its role as a public broadcaster and promote the arts by filming and broadcasting plays, spoken word poetry and local feature films and sticking to local content quotas with regard to music. But is this happening? So there is an enormous amount to be done and mainly focusing on privileged white audiences at an elitist festival is really quite wasteful of time and energy.

On a lighter note: the sight of moderator, Eusebius McKaiser, suiping away during the course of the meeting and having a white woman, Bridget Impey from Jacana, dutifully refill his wineglass while he allowed us only to drink in his wise words (to be fair he did express his hope that we, too, as the audience, would find some wine for ourselves outside at the conclusion of the proceedings), was highly amusing but somehow symptomatic of the general level of debate.

And lastly: Why am I ending on a slightly bitchy (!) note? Because as a satirist one naturally can’t resist such temptations but more importantly, we have to all guard against over-moralising and sanctimonious posturing. And anger, while perfectly justified and often highly necessary to galvanise action, can also blind us through excessive emotionalism so that we misdirect energy.

And very lastly: I view everyone on the panel as a potential ally in the struggle against false consciousness and superficial literary production. Let’s just get serious and address the core issues that keep us a semi-literate, barely-reading society – and that goes for ALL South Africans – irrespective of class and colour.

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