Ellen Aaku wins fiction prize at M&G Litfest

Ellen Aaku, from Zambia, was the recipient of the Penguin Prize for African Writing in the fiction category at the Mail & Guardian‘s Johannesburg Literary Festival on Saturday.

Nigerian Pius Adesanmi won the non-fiction award.

The winners were announced on the second day of the festival at 44 Stanley Avenue in Milpark.

The normally laid-back venue was a hive of activity as people rushed off to talks dissecting important issues, including trauma, the country’s education crisis and the state of South Africa’s fiction and M&G‘s 25th anniversary.

One of the livelier discussions was one entitled After the Fall: The Postcolonial Hereafter, chaired by David Attwell, which included the panelists Imraan Coovadia, Moeletsi Mbeki and Roger Southall. Mbeki began by asking when South Africa had ceased being a colony: in 1910, 1924, 1961 or perhaps 1994?


At the beginning of last week, he said, he was on a visit to Tanzania and he didn’t hear anyone talk about racism. Yet, in South Africa, the words racism, apartheid and colonialism were bandied about with abandon.

“These words tell us little about what is happening in South Africa,” he said. He then gave a brief history of nationalism in South Africa, a state that he said was a “byproduct of colonialism”.

Southall described the state South Africa was in at the moment as “fragile” as the structural foundations of democracy seemed to be eroding.

Even though there was a moral decline, the governing African National Congress was still able to win elections.

Coovadia, spicing his talk with barbs and witticisms, said the talk of a crisis in South Africa were exaggerated.

“We are not as fragile as we think we are.”

The evening session interrogated and retrospectively looked at M&G‘s 25 years of existence.

The panel was chaired by the paper’s film editor Shaun de Waal and included founding editor Anton Harber and current editor Nic Dawes.

De Waal remembered the paper under the editorship of Howard Barrel, a time when the paper’s relationship with the government sank to new lows.

“We were reluctant to say government is fucking up,” De Waal said.

Dawes said he was envious of the moral clarity that typified the narratives of the 1980s. He said wrong and right were clear choices then, but the clarity was coming back as the elite become more blatant in its corruption.

Dawes said the fight to prevent the passing of laws that would gag freedom of speech was not just a fight that concerned journalists, but all South Africans.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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