Achebe’s legacy, our lodestone

The vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, Adam Habib, opened the fourth M&G Literary Festival this past weekend with a warning that South Africa’s day of reckoning is nigh.

 The academic has just published South Africa’s Suspended Revolution: Hopes and Prospects (Wits University Press), a socioeconomic take on the past two decades. If you could encapsulate in a few sentences his message of the night, you could say he was arguing for the balancing of elite and popular interests. If this isn’t done, the day of reckoning will be hastened, he argued, and urged elites to cut a deal or risk losing everything. 

The following day he was joined on stage by Adriaan Basson, the recently appointed Beeld editor and author of Zuma Exposed (Jonathan Ball). One of the questions Habib posed in this session was: How did South Africa get into “this mess” and how do we paddle out of it? 

He said the reason some government departments don’t work is not for lack of expertise. The health ministry, for example, has managed to put two million people on antiretrovirals and the tax authority, Sars, and the treasury are also very well run. 

Habib argued that Zuma’s idea of leadership is that of a “chieftaincy” in which he provides from the government largesse and expects something in return. 

As a portent of the future, Habib drew the audience’s attention to the recent students’ representative council elections at Wits, where an ANC-linked organisation lost its absolute majority for the first time in 30 years. Although not wishing to extrapolate much from this, he said that perhaps this reflects a new generation of young people born after 1994 who are “unencumbered by blind loyalty to the ruling party”. 

In trying to answer the question first expressed by Lenin–”What is to be done?”–Habib urged the elites to curb their privileges. How exactly that would affect Whitey Basson, the Checkers boss who earned R627-million in 2010, Habib didn’t say.

The next session, A Man of the People: Reflecting on Chinua Achebe’s Legacy, featured Nigerian scholar Aghogho Akpome, Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer and Cape Town novelist Imraan Coovadia.

Akpome spoke about Achebe’s forthrightness in his commitment to the African continent. 

All of Achebe’s books are set in Nigeria (or imaginations based on Nigeria) and, Akpome said, one of the reasons that Achebe gave for not writing about the United States–where he was based for the last decades of his life–was that too many people write about it. But Akpome was certain that if the Nigerian-born Achebe had lived in another African country, say South Africa or Kenya, he would have written about it. 

The regal Gordimer, submerged in the couch as if she was in her own home, reflected on the genius of Achebe as a gift for all of humanity.

Coovadia was the chairperson of session four, which went under the rubric “It is only the story [that] can continue beyond the war and the warrior”. 

The line is taken from Anthills of the Savannah, the last novel Achebe published (1987). The panellists were Nthikeng Mohlele (Small Things and The Scent of Bliss), Niq Mhlongo (Dog Eat Dog, After Tears and Way Back Home), Mtutuzeli Nyoka (A Hill of Fools and Speak to the Silent) and the elder statesman of letters, Wally Mongane Serote (Yakhal’inkomoHistory Is the Home Address, and many more).

Serote dominated the conversation, bemoaning how we hero-worship our leaders so much that you could say it was an abdication of responsibility. The poet also observed that violence is, in many ways, the worst form of violence. He remembered seeing, while growing up, a dead body in his native Alexandra township and someone remarking that “no one should die like that”.

The evening session was chaired by the University of Johannesburg professor of English, Craig MacKenzie, and featured former minister of intelligence Ronnie Kasrils, journalist Jacques Pauw and filmmaker Toni Strasburg. Titled The Bravery of the Lion: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”, the session chimed with the former Umkhonto weSizwe operative Kasrils, who pointed out: “I was hunted for a long time.” He also recalled a close encounter with apartheid assassins in Swaziland. 

Pauw, who wrote Rat Roads, an account of Kennedy Gihana, a Rwandan man with a dark, murderous past, was surprisingly sympathetic towards his subject. “If you grew up in apartheid South Africa, you had a choice whether to participate [in what was going on]. Kennedy had no choice,” Pauw said, before declaring: “There is a Kennedy in all of us.”

One of the questions Kasrils had to tackle was: If you are so unhappy with the ANC and the SACP, why don’t you resign? 

“I want to be heard,” Kasrils declared, adding “but I would have resigned over Marikana.”

The final day’s first session, Fact and Fiction: “The story is our escort, without it we are blind”, featured Maren Bodenstein, Dominique Botha, CA Davids and Claire Robertson. 

Davids said one of the reasons she wrote The Blacks of Cape Town (Modjaji) was to explode some of the clichés about Cape Town: “I hadn’t read many books that talked about my community.”

In discussing her novel, Shooting Snakes (Modjaji), Bodenstein spoke about her neighbour, who is constantly shooting snakes. Her book, she said, is partly about the overreaction South Africans display in dealing with issues.

When Botha was asked by the chairperson, Craig Higginson, how her debut novel displayed such an assured literary voice, she responded revealingly that it was achieved “through a process of humiliation”, a reference to comments from friends, peers and colleagues in an MA creative writing class.

The festival’s final session, Migration: There was a country, saw Wandile Zwane from the City of Johannesburg’s migrant health desk declare that migrants shouldn’t be viewed as passive agents in the shaping of the city.

Achmat Dangor’s wise eyes were roving, metaphorically speaking, always trying to identify the individual in the amorphous migration streams. 

NoViolet Bulawayo, whose novel We Need New Names is about Zimbabweans in exile, spoke about how leaving your native land at a certain age entails leaving behind a part of yourself. 

Kwanele Sosibo spoke about a migrant worker from the Eastern Cape who died in Marikana and whose spirit must be “returned” home.

The festival featured snakes and spirits stranded in wastelands, exiles and days of reckoning, and, one hopes, the fifth edition next year will be even better.

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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