Authors take action to popularise literacy

South African literature has things to do, said John Kani, opening the South African Writers’ Conference at the University of Pretoria on June 21.

The gathering was hosted by the National Arts Council and dubbed Voices in Action: Towards Developing a National South African Literature. Writers were unanimous in warning against cultural chauvinism, but conceded that values of democracy, of affirming humanity, should inform the nation’s sensibilities.

Yet the tendency for conferences to hammer at a particular subject, with scarcely any new insights, was encapsulated in the words of Nigerian dramatist and professor of theatre Femi Osofisan, who said: “Speakers have been repeating problems for us. I don’t think they have mentioned anything we don’t know.”

The high point of the proceedings was the keynote address by E’skia Mphahlele, doyen of South African literature. Although he arrived late on the first day, Mphahlele still managed to set the tone for the occasion. He told writers that their duty was to explore, not make categorical statements. But he urged writers not to abandon a quest for a “common public morality”.

Mphahlele is a great speaker and has all the characteristics of a true professor in the old-fashioned manner. Ultimately, he said, “we must make our art memorable”.

Apart from luminaries such as Mbulelo Mzamane, Ghanaian Atukwei Okai and Cape Town-based Nigerian Kole Omotoso, the conference also hosted young writers such as Kgafela oa Magogodi, Nhlanhla Maake and Sandile Dikeni.

The perennial handicap in such gatherings of course is time. The 10 minutes allocated to each speaker could not possibly do justice to topics ranging from “How Does a Writer Survive?” (in the context of a problematic publishing industry, that is) to copyright and the national curriculum. A more controversial subject was “Writing and National Consciousness”. That particular item drew warnings against propaganda, censorship and “cultural chauvinism”.

After what felt like a week’s deliberation, the conference resolved to revive and reconfigure the magazine Staffrider as a multi-lingual literary journal that will hopefully encourage and help establish emerging writers. The conference further resolved to investigate, explore, promote and fund new forms of publishing and to support small-scale publishing.

Noting the pervasive influence of the mass media, the conference recommended that all funding and policy agencies promote “quality book-reviewing in all the popular media”, support promotion and profiling of literature on radio and television, and to fund writing which will serve to transform the representation of women in popular media.

“In the light of the weak reading culture in South Africa and other parts of the continent,” read a resolution, “it is recommended that a campaign for universal literacy be launched.” A further resolution aimed to coordinate research on the most effective way of developing a reading culture under the prevailing social, economic and educational conditions in the country.

The recommendations will be presented to the ministries of education and arts, culture, science and technology, and the writers will meet again next year.

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