home Andile's Column Rutanang Book Fair: Towards Blacks Only Literary Festivals? 

Rutanang Book Fair: Towards Blacks Only Literary Festivals? 

by BO staff writer

A year ago, Andile Mngxitama responded to the then outburst of “decolonisation of literature” which was led in public by Thando Mgqolozana. In the piece first published in Books Live of Sunday Times, Mngxitama wished for a blacks only literary festival. The Rutanang Book Fair, the first of its kind in Tlokwe (Potchefstroom) has strong elements of being a blacks only literary space.

Mngxitama will be part of the panel discussion on the evening of 25 April 2016 at Madiba Banquet Hall discussing “decolonising literature”. The call for decolonisation, both at the university and outside, needs to be broken down and operationalised. Basic questions must be answered: what is colonialism? what is decolonisation? whose lenses are used to discuss the matter? is decolonised literature possible in a colonial society?

BO now reproduces the piece by Andile Mngxitama in the light of the ongoing debate on decolonising literature.

Thando Mgqolozana has kick-started a massive, exciting debate about the decolonisation of literature in South Africa. Mgqolozana’s debut novel, A Man Who Is Not a Man, blew my mind. His second, Hear Me Alone, disappointed me. But his third, Unimportance, restored my faith in the author, even if my enthusiasm is being dampened somewhat now.

I generally share with the late uber rebel Lewis Nkosi an unforgiving criticism of black South African literature. Of white literature I have nothing to say. For those who may not know, in the ’60s Nkosi was already arguing that black South African literature was hobbled, stunted by white domination, with debilitating consequences. Nkosi went as far as arguing that perhaps blacks shouldn’t engage in literary practices until apartheid was defeated. Unfortunately for Nkosi, the formal ending of apartheid didn’t lead to the black literary nirvana he was fantasizing about, perhaps another indication that indeed the 1994 democratic transition didn’t signify a break with colonial racist domination. The last time I spoke to Nkosi in a bar in Johannesburg’s bohemian Melville, he was a wounded man, laughing sardonically about writing memoirs to name and shame the spoilers of black writing. He cursed both the white establishment and the mediocrity of post-1994 black writing, and blamed some elders of the literary world who are now being emulated by younger writers. Incidentally, he also decried the fact that they were writing for white sensibilities. I wonder what Nkosi would make of the recent rebellion by black scribes who are denouncing “white literary systems”.

Mgqolozana, an acclaimed author, has caused a delicious furore in our literary circles by declaring his exit from the colonial literary festivals. His reasons for removing himself include a statement of protest against the racism of his predominantly white audiences, who treat black writers as objects of anthropological curiosity. So he has chosen to “honour” himself and stop the charade. Luckily he will not stop writing. He has just stopped going to the festivals which do not judge him for his talent but rather treat him as a kind of sub-human in a zoo.

Mgqolozana’s language of defiance against the white racist literary establishment is uncharacteristically strident: no more Mr Nice Guy, no more of the expected nuance and gentleness of a literary gentleman. He punches the air and shouts “amandla” like a revolutionary figure on a rostrum. Ya basta! He is part of today’s “gatvol” movement which draws inspiration from the militancy of the uncompromising Rhodes Must Fall Movement of the University of Cape Town (UCT), which has so beautifully changed the landscape of that city. He declares his activism for a new reader and a new literary dispensation, and turned to Twitter to present to the reading world his 21-point decolonisation programme a few days after bidding farewell to the world of white lit fests at the Franschhoek Literary Festival.

There is something charming about someone choosing to stand by their principles and be truthful to their beliefs no matter what the consequences. We live in a cynical world, where words don’t mean what they say – our leaders say one thing and do the opposite. We have got used to the idea of “talking left and walking right”. Here the writer is walking the talk. “If the literary festivals are racist and reduce one to a mere curiosity, why subject oneself to such a demeaning exercise year after year?”, Mgqolozana seems to ask with his brave action. Instead of playing along, he has chosen to leave the plantation, Django style. Candyland is left in literary flames as he trots off in his black literary horse defiantly, almost triumphantly. Of course there are cheers and jeers from the reading public, but he doesn’t care – true freedom is never negotiated, it’s taken.

The writer, as warrior for justice, is established practice in the African scene. In fact, contemporary African literature emerged from the foundations of resistance against both colonialism and its son, neo-colonialism. For instance, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is usually taken as a statement against colonialism. Then there is, Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is an exposé of the neo-colonial rot. In a similar vein, Dambudzo Marechera’s revolting writing is a performance of neo-colonialist dementia. The sons of colonialism, the black colonialists, rule through sheer mindless brutality. Devoid of the power of their fathers, who direct things from the Western metropolis, black leaders who take over from the white man in the “post colony” plunge into the depths of the grotesque, drunk with power. Gluttonous bloated monsters with shiny eyes, their sweaty hands unleashed in all directions. When Marechera returned to liberated Zimbabwe, Harare thanked him by banning some of his “obscene, anti-African” works – an outcast under the colonial regime of Ian Smith, an outcast under the Chimurenga regime of Comrade Robert Mugabe. He died a black outsider, on the cold benches of Harare’s parks. Homeless in his home.

Most African writers have written from behind the walls of jail. When literature chooses the side of justice, there are dire consequences. When authors choose to battle for liberation, they become hunted, vilified and silenced – but they keep writing, to keep the hope of liberty alive. When Ngugi wa Thiong’o took the stand of abandoning English for his native Gikuyu, he was taking a stand against both colonialism and neo-colonialism. He risked losing direct financial gain and international acclaim. Defiance is no stranger to the world of the pen.

So have we entered a new era in the South African black literary scene? More importantly, what explains the sudden open rebellion against whiteness? The answer may be that the black writer is playing catch-up and is caught up in the rebellious euphoria engulfing the country right now. It is not a small matter that Rhodes has literally fallen within the gates of white privilege at UCT. A new discourse has opened that puts things back in black and white, and in this milieu one has to adapt or die. I’m fascinated by the voices that have joined Mgqolozana’s call for decolonisation. Some of these voices are known to be pliant in the face of racist provocation.

It seems too that there is a disjuncture between the actual literary practice and the political stance of the black writers. In other words, the rebellion against white racism is not integral to their literary practice, rather it’s external. The art itself is not rebelling at the level of the author’s public statements on decolonisation. It’s like the writer had dropped the pen and grabbed the microphone. If one were to read the books of some of these authors without being privy to their utterances about decolonisation, one would search in vain for decolonisation in their writing itself. This is unusual, because generally art is ahead of social and political protest, often giving impetus to the rebellion. So here again we can say the writer is playing catch-up, and hope to see the next generation of black literature go into combat with the monster of white supremacy.

At a literary festival a few years ago I ignited a little controversy when I took issue with Professor Zakes Mda’s book Black Diamond for its lack of critical awareness of how the BEE rot was the creation of white supremacy and that if the well deserved criticism of black tenderpreneurs is not directed at its foundations, which is whiteness, then by default it becomes a defence of white supremacy. Such literary production unintentionally hides white racism from view. So it is good to see that Prof Mda has also thrown his weight behind the Mgqolozana-led “decolonisation” movement.

The 2013 edition of the Time of the Writer literary festival was an eye-opener for me. I was on a panel discussion with two white men, Professor Patrick Bond and the affable Sampie Terreblanche. Unbeknown to me a fellow black author, Kagiso Lesego Molope, took to Twitter to express her displeasure, saying: “Andile Mngxitama asking Sampie Terreblanche: ‘What right do you have as a white man … yadi yadi yada.”

More of the same followed after the panel discussion. So you can imagine my surprise and delight when I read that Molope had also joined the protest led by Mgqolozana, writing in support: “literary events are not meant to be bohemian free-love festivals. They’re artists’ spaces and you’re supposed to engage, the way art does. You’re supposed to make the world a little less comfortable, you’re meant to point out what is and isn’t right about the country we’re in”. I thought this was precisely what I was doing in that panel discussion in Durban.

It seems the first thing is to accept that the decolonisation call is ethically correct, but that it must be supported and engaged critically. The meaning of these moves needs further elaboration and more questions need to be asked. What do we mean by decolonisation today? Is this not a moment of neo-colonialism? Why are literary festivals still white 22 years later? Can transformation come from the white beneficiaries of colonialism and apartheid or is it correctly the responsibility of the black government, which has massive political power, to define a different trajectory for society? Does literary autarky mean the coexistence of white literary spaces with black ones or does real decolonisation make it a necessity to obliterate “white literary systems” completely?

It is true, as Mgqolozana avers that for a pro-black literary infrastructure to be a reality state support is needed. The challenge here is that the state itself is anti-black and driven by a neo-colonial ethic. The destruction of black children’s futures through the systematic neglect of public schooling is at the centre of the death of a black reading public. It is not uncharitable to conclude that the building of libraries without librarians and books by the state is a function of accumulation by theft which is central to the reproduction of the neo-colony. This brings us to a fundamental question: can we have decolonised literature in a colonial society? I would like to answer the question in the negative and posit that in a society like ours, which is structured by both colonialism and neo-colonialism to sustain white supremacy, a committed author should aspire to rebellion against both the colony and its new black managers. This doesn’t mean that demands must not be made on the system. It calls instead for a better understanding of the contradictions to be developed and expressed.

The black writers concerned with liberation have to choose between two evils or refuse both overtures and take the path of revolution. On the one hand is the white establishment, which controls the whole literary “value chain”, from publishing up to marketing – literary festivals are a small part of this colonial edifice. On the other hand, the black author can choose to enter into an unholy alliance with the state managers of neo-colonialism and shake hands with the murderers of Marikana. The more ethical and idealistic route is to fuse a battle plan against both the white moneybags and the black colonialists simultaneously. To this end a critical literary discourse that shows how the two movements are united by the same anti-black logic is in fact critical in the quest for a new liberatory black literary practice.

Those of us who are interested in the decolonisation process must thank Thando Mgqolozana for opening up a space for this belated and urgent debate on the state of black literary practices in South Africa. The complexion of the Franschhoek Literary Festival is not an isolated case and should not surprise us at all. This is how things have been and are likely to be for a long time. The best support we can give Mgqolozana’s decolonisation programme is principled, critical engagement. A clarification of the root problem will assist a correct diagnosis for a correct prescription. I, for one, can’t wait for a blacks-only literary festival to debate these developments so that we can start on the path of rebellion towards decolonisation.

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