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Axed books fest a blow for writers

Only weeks before the National Arts Festival’s sister programme is due to take place.

WordFest’s national authors’ programme, a multilingual festival of “languages and literatures”, has been cancelled after the arts council did not grant the requested R250 000 at the beginning of June. 

Mandated by the department of arts and culture to award grants to individuals and organisations in the arts, the council published a list of all successful funding candidates on its website at the beginning of June. 

About 70 authors had already been invited to participate in the event when the WordFest committee received the news and decided to cancel the event.

Thando Mgqolozana, whose novel A Man Who Is Not a Man was launched at WordFest in 2009, said that cancelling the programme was “taking away the hope of the people” – removing a platform for aspiring writers. “If the NAC saw fit to [refuse funding to] WordFest, then it saw fit to destroy the arts,” he said.

WordFest’s convener and an honorary professor of poetry at Rhodes University, Chris Mann, spent nine months planning the programme. He said the process had been “gruelling” because he “had to take a risk which no business would take” – planning an event before receiving funding. 

Mann’s biggest concern is not about the council deciding to withhold funds, but that he had been told of its decision so late. “We are not trying to say we are entitled to a grant,” Mann said. “But late notice of non-funding leaves the project stranded.” Had they been warned earlier, the programme might not have been scrapped. “Normal business practice would be for the funder to alert the arts organisation about changes in its funding policy. [This would allow] the organisation to adapt if possible,” he said.

The council’s chief executive, Monica Newton, said the nature of the selection process would have made it “impossible” to pre-warn applicants that they might not be successful. After the department appointed a new arts council board earlier this year, it revised its funding mechanisms to fit new “strategic priorities”. She said the decision not to fund WordFest was in line with a new decision to give preference to organisations that had “previously not received support from the NAC”. WordFest had received more than R1.3million from the council in the 12 years of its existence.   

However, Craig MacKenzie, English professor at the University of Johannesburg, said the refusal of funding “sends the wrong message entirely”. He said a lack of reliable support undermined the WordFest organisers’ ability to build momentum each successive year, and added  that the council’s decision showed “capriciousness and vacillation”. 

“WordFest is an important showcasing of local literary talent,” he said. “Given the already dire state of local fiction, this is a hammer blow.”

Newton said the council would consult the arts community in the coming months about its new funding model and strategic plan.

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