Let's talk

The Winter School—a place where people perform by talking—is an old, established part of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. But having just taken over as coordinator of the Winter School, I find myself questioning its role and value in a festival that celebrates “the arts” in all their glory and diversity.

Is talk an art?

We don’t live in times that celebrate oratory and we don’t value the oral in ways our ancestors might have, so why would a festival-goer pay to hear someone just talk?

Two weeks ago I was at the Cape Town Book Fair, a huge bustling affair that is now an established part of South Africa’s public life.
It was interesting to see just how quickly it had become a space for all sorts of people—both ordinary and highly intellectual—to talk about what bothers them most: the state of our country. I spent an entire day, going from lecture to panel to book launch, in which all the most contentious and fractious aspects of our country were out there in public, being debated.

It strikes me that many people feel anxious, not just about South Africa, but also about where and how we can talk about what’s going on. And when we feel this pressure on what we can say in public, then the spaces that allow for this kind of back-and-forth conversation become very precious. The book fair was one of those spaces. This arts festival is another.

As two of the Winter School talkers, Sarah Nuttall and Liz McGregor, say in their notes for their talk: ‘South Africa’s public space at present is rough, brutal, often polemical and increasingly subject to the rubrics of the ‘official’ line or statement”; but they also remark that we’re living in ‘a formative moment of our democracy”.

So that’s why (alongside that very creative and right-brained stuff that will be going on all over town) we will be doing the talking at Eden Grove Blue from Friday June 26 until the following Friday.

We will be focusing on some very contentious stuff:

  • 2010 (Ashwin Desai, June 26 at 2pm);
  • our relationship with China—both the country and the people among us (Clem Sunter, our opening speaker, June 26 at noon; Robert Berold, June 28; Darryl Accone, June 29);
  • taking stock of human rights (Jody Kollapen, June 28);
  • the aftermath of the arms deal (Andrew Feinstein, June 29);
  • Islamic politics (Abdulkader Tayob, June 29);
  • climate change (Leonie Joubert, June 30);
  • education (the Legal Resource Centre panel, June 30);
  • the aftermath of the border war (Gary Baines, July 1);
  • the legal system (Dennis Davis and Michelle le Roux, July 1 and 2);
  • our relationship with other Africans (Terry Kurgan, July 2); and
  • crime (Antony Altbeker, July 3).
We will also talk about talk, with outspoken blogger and public commentator Sandile Memela (July 1) and academic Deborah Posel (July 2) who has observed how closely the vibrancy of democracy is connected to the ‘freedom to speak out and be heard”.

Then we’re going to talk about the arts: Brent Meersman will make the provocative assertion that politics is theatre in his own talk on July 1, and then he will convene a panel of arts critics to talk about what they do in a workshop on July 4 at 2pm.

Finally we’re going to talk about the personal stuff with Bridget Hilton-Barber looking at memoir (June 28), Riaan Manser telling us about his journey around the edges of Africa (June 28), Felicity Wood focusing on one extraordinary man (Khotso Sethuntsa, the iNyanga, on June 29) and Sarah Nuttall and Liz McGregor (July 2) honing in on why being personal in public is risky, but necessary in our rough public spaces.

So if you’re need of a jolly good conversation, the Winter School is where you should be. We also talk back: every speaker is braced to have the audience join in the conversation with a robust question time.

Anthea Garman coordinates the 2008 Winter School. This article was first published in Cue, the National Arts Festival newspaper

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Anthea Garman

Anthea Garman

Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes UniversityAnthea Garman was a journalist for 16 years before becoming an academic at Rhodes University. She teaches journalism practice in the undergraduate degrees (this includes a course in long form journalism). She runs a postgraduate research group focusing on media and citizenship in South Africa and is the editor of the Rhodes Journalism Review. She is also the convenor of the National Arts Festival public lectures called Think!Fest. Read more from Anthea Garman

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