People of the pen

The Berlin African writer’s conference in 1979 turned out to be both controversial and exciting. There was bitter political argument between Lewis Nkosi and Camara Laye, with Dennis Brutus, Nuruddin Farah and Chinua Achebe trying to calm things down. The organisers created a wonderful environment for the participants to work, perform and live in. Large banquet halls were provided for press conferences and public readings. Traditional African music livened up the evenings after long days of debate and arguments about the state of the African continent. Because of the covers I created for Heinemann, I felt part of the family of writers. We would sometimes end up in our hotel rooms sharing a bottle of whisky and talking about things that are generally not discussed in public forums. I learnt about African society largely through books, so it was particularly enlightening to interact with authors from so many different countries and backgrounds.

The following year, the Frankfurt Book Fair also hosted an African writers’ conference. Some of the writers, led by Ousmane Sembene, held a spontaneous demonstration in front of the South African stand. The event hit the front pages of the German press. James Matthews, whose son had been shot in the foot by the South African police in a demonstration shortly before he left for Germany, made an emotional plea for solidarity from the international community.

The Culture and Resistance conference, held in 1982 at the University of Botswana, brought together writers and other cultural workers from South Africa with those living in exile. It was the closest some of the exiles could get to South Africa. However, there was an atmosphere of positive celebration from the participants.

I was living in Paris when a relatively small conference of South African writers took place in May of 1985. Among the participants were Vernie February, Christopher Hope, Daniel Kunene, Breyten Breytenbach and Maishe Maponya. The images that remain with me today are of Gerard Sekoto being hugged by all the other South Africans. Then Maponya gave a riveting performance of poetry in action like we’d never seen before.

The next big gathering of South African writers that I witnessed was in Paris in 1993. I photographed the writers with Parisian architectural features in the background. Nadine Gordimer refused to be photographed in the hotel she was staying in. Apparently, the Nazis had stayed in the same hotel during the occupation of France. In 1994, I was commissioned to photograph the African National Congress during the elections. The day the first democratic Parliament opened, I was delighted to see Wally Serote chatting to Jennifer Ferguson. Our artists were in Parliament.

Five years later I was having a coffee in St George’s Mall in Cape Town when I recognised Lenrie Peters, the Gambian author, walking by. I surprised him by shouting out his name in a city in which he thought no one knew him. After hugs and many questions, I promised to take him out the next day to meet some local writers. We ended up at my place with James Matthews, Nuruddin Farah, Hein Willemse and a superb Cape Town fish platter, cooked to perfection by a dear friend from the Cape Flats.

A visit to Robben Island in 2002 —with Achebe, Don Mattera, Matthews, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Lebo Mashile and Kgafela oa Magogodi, among others — was the highlight of the year for many of those present. I accompanied Achebe and his entourage to Madiba’s prison cell, where I photographed him staring in complete silence at the tiny space through the heavy bars of the door. Later the young poets performed for the elder statesmen of writers. Achebe was mesmerised by the performances. There was an emotionally charged atmosphere that miracu-lously changed into a peacefulness for everyone at the end. A profound satisfaction of experiences shared.

At the end of 2005, I discovered the names of more writers living in and around the mother city. They all invited me to photograph them at their homes. Some were camera shy and preferred not to meet with me.

This is not a catalogue of writers; rather a shared journey with some, and brief encounters with others, but always inspired by the printed word.

This is an edited excerpt of the foreword to Portraits of African Writers by George Hallett (Wits University Press)

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