/ 11 September 2010

Books a footnote at SA’s resurrected literary festival

“It’s a fact,” pronounced the read-me headline, “Darkies just don’t read.”

Provocative? An understatement. Sihle Khumalo’s column in the Sunday Times of South Africa last year said bluntly: “Go to any black household and you will find lots of music tapes, LPs, CDs and DVDs and a handful, if any, of general books. That, by the way, includes blacks in the suburbs. The lack of reading is a black thing, irrespective of where you live. It is way more fashionable to have loads of music than to be truly knowledgeable.”

Khumalo noted that the only general bookshop in Soweto, the country’s biggest black township, had closed down because of lack of custom.

The theme was taken up by the Sowetan, which told the story of an ambassador who visited a Soweto school and hid a R100 note in a novel to see if anybody would find it. Four months later he went back and found the money exactly where he left it. The book had not been opened.

So South Africa, where illiteracy runs high, stands accused of a deeply unliterary culture. Stephen Johnson, managing director of publisher Random House Struik, told the Mail & Guardian: “Books and reading are simply not on the national agenda at all. It’s shameful.”

It doesn’t sound like fertile soil for a literary festival. In Britain, these are now all the rage: barely a town or village is untouched by the invasion of wind-blown marquees, plastic chairs and superstar authors expected to prove as captivating in person as on the page. I have fond memories of Bill Deedes, Christopher Hitchens, John Pilger and John Updike at Hay-on-Wye and Martin Amis, Michael Frayn and Stephen Fry at Cheltenham.

Yet South Africa has well-established book festivals in Cape Town and Franschhoek. Last weekend, after more than a decade in mothballs, the Mail & Guardian resurrected its version in Johannesburg. The venue was 44 Stanley Avenue, a maze of old warehouses, workshops and garages that have been converted into pleasant if self-consciously trendy boutique shops and restaurants. The main room featured four antique crystal chandeliers, five dummy chickens perched on the cross-beam ceiling and an elegant bookcase with no books in it.

The festival theme was Being here now: South Africans in 2010, and certainly the gaze was inward rather than directed at trends in world literature. Indeed, it has been argued that much South African writing remains parochial, a notable exception being Craig Higginson’s determination to “not worry about the local thing” in his novel Last Summer, set in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Unholy trinity
But even last weekend, books were not always at centre stage; half of the eight sessions were more political or media debates. All were relaxed and conversational. They offered glimpses of a relentlessly complicated nation attempting to define itself, contest itself and wrestle with its internal contradictions.

Moeletsi Mbeki, the political economist, admitted he was weary of that unholy trinity: colonialism, apartheid and racism. “If I never hear those three words again, I will go to my grave a very happy person because I think those three words tell us very little about what is happening in South Africa,” he said.

It was remarked that South Africa might be like 19th-century America, where explosive change played out in ways that no one could discern at the time.

From the country’s crippling public-sector strike, Mbeki, brother of the former president, Thabo, arrived at a startling proposition: “The fact civil servants are fighting for justice is a good thing about South Africa, not a bad thing. America had a civil war and 600 000 died, but it was the only way they could get rid of slavery. How are we going to get rid of the massive inequality in this country? Do we need a civil war? We may need it.”

Another session marked the 25th anniversary of the Mail & Guardian itself. I asked if journalists had a kernel of nostalgia for the 1980s and 90s, when South Africa had an epic narrative — heroic Mandelas and apartheid villains — and the eyes of the world upon it.

Nic Dawes, the editor, replied: “I suppose I am to a degree envious of what seems from distance like the moral clarity of that campaign. That’s certainly something that we lack now, when people on all sides of the story seem to occupy a much more complex spectrum of positions. But I think that, actually, in some ways, some of that clarity is returning right now, because the story around governance, corruption and those sorts of things is acquiring a kind of epic quality. It’s not just a minor nibbling away at the corners of the state any more.”

He added: “I do think there’s a large narrative developing around the criminalisation of the state and the scale of assault on basic governance, which is now very large and very serious. The line between those who would govern and those who would loot is the difference between success and failure, so for me that’s the kind of epic picture that we have to look at now.”

The following day, questions about identity and indigeneity were at the centre of debate. Curiously, Rian Malan, arguably the most gifted non-fiction writer in South Africa today, was relegated to a seat in the audience and could later be seen pursuing his other artistic talent, the guitar.

The author Kevin Bloom recalled a Sunday afternoon in Soweto with a group of volunteers, one of whom opened up about how his mother was dying from Aids.

‘When are you going back to your country?’
Bloom recalled: “We stopped walking and he cried a bit. And then he looked at me and said, ‘When are you going back to your country?’ It remains the most profound thing that has happened to me ever as a journalist in this country, because I lived 15km away from him and so much is asked in that question. What is the notion of home? How do we explain home to ourselves in the context of that question? On the deepest level, certainly for people of my generation, ‘When are you going back to your country?’ is one of the most profound questions about the concept of home.”

Another panellist, the sculptor and writer Pitika Ntuli, treated the packed room to some poetry from TS Eliot and WB Yeats. One of the latter’s best-known lines has become a firm favourite to describe the South African condition, possibly with a little help from Chinua Achebe, and is quoted almost daily in political commentary. Ntuli recited the stanza in full:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. – guardian.co.uk