In the opening session of this year’s Mail & Guardian Literary Festival, journalist Maureen Isaacson spelled out the basis of her friendship with the late Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer: “Never explain, never complain, never apologise.”
Celebrating Gordimer was the cornerstone of the festival, hosted last weekend at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre. The programme took its audience on forays into left- and right-wing history, into the beauty of Johannesburg and of Afrikaans, before contemplating what academic freedom means and casting a glance at the future and the past.
Devoid of parallel sessions, the festival was pared down, but direct. The first panel was on Gordimer and began with a beautiful reading of her arguably perfect short story The Train from Rhodesia, by theatre personality Fiona Ramsay.
“Seven weeks after her death,” said Isaacson, “I still hear her voice in my head: ‘Too bloody old. There’s no achievement in getting old.’
“She was many things. She was funny. She was firm and strict and definite. She gave herself licence to say what she wanted and to take the consequences. She could shut down a conversation, but she could shine a light that showed the way.
“She characterised herself as a corrupt child, a mimic. And described walking out of what she called ‘the ugly gates’ of her Springs convent school and heading for a nearby strip of veld where she would lie and catch butterflies. She did what was not permissible.”
“She was always telling the same story from different angles,” Isaacson added, conjuring up the “heat of shame” in The Train from Rhodesia, in which a white couple bargains with an elderly black craftsman for a small sculpted lion. “It spells out the attitudes that still prevail today.
“Her sharp pen bit through the artifice. She was not afraid to name the morbid symptoms of violent crime, theft, bribery on the highest levels, gaping inequality, which was at the bottom of it all. She never gave up on hope.”
Zimbabwean-born Bongani Kona, a contributing editor at the Chimurenga Chronic, first encountered Gordimer’s work in a library. “In Writing and Being, she speaks about how as she came into consciousness, she came to understand that the society she was living in was unjust. She couldn’t claim it for herself. She couldn’t call anyone in it ‘my people’. Neither the whites nor the blacks.”
The idea that “fiction is meant to do something greater rather than entertain” really moved Kona. “I fell in love with Nadine’s style of writing with The World of Strangers,” said a veteran of the Congress of South African Writers (Cosaw), Colin Smuts, who nicknamed the diminutive writer “Big Mama” because of her great mind. “But what really bombed me was her description of Johannesburg. Her work was always now.”
“There are some conversations we need to be having to face up to our dark past of historical injustices,” said the 2014 winner of the Caine prize for African writing, Kenyan-born Okwiri Oduor. “Nadine teaches me a writer’s duty is to witness and speak the truth and be strong.”
She said the most horrific thing about a violent society is people who become accustomed to the violence. “I am acutely aware of my own privileges. And of the luxury of sadness.”
‘Why we are here and where we are going’
Mail & Guardian news editor Charles Leonard chaired a panel on political memoirs, comprising Glenn Moss and Dennis Cruywagen. “We are still very political as a country,” he began. “But we still need to find out why we are here and where we are going.”
Moss’s The New Radicals (Jacana) examines the disarray in South African liberation politics at the end of the 1960s and the cauldron six years later that produced many remarkable things that forged change, including the rise of Black Consciousness and the trade unions, and the politicisation of students, climaxing with Soweto’s 1976 uprising.
“As a benchmark period in South African politics, it has been airbrushed from political history. It’s broader than a political memoir. And it’s a lot more than about white hippies stirring shit on campus in the 1970s,” he said in touching on the left’s notorious arrogance.
“It isn’t just a right-wing history or feedback from the loony right fringe,” Cruywagen said of Brothers in War and Peace (Zebra Press), his book about the twins Constand and Abraham Viljoen: the one everything a loyal Broederbonder could be; the other the forgotten brother. “War was in their blood. During my research, I became aware that the loonies are still out there and they think they can change history. They should not be underestimated.”
A panel chaired by festival co-director Corina van der Spoel celebrated Afrikaans and Johannesburg’s presence in contemporary writing. The panellists were seasoned Afrikaans writers Ingrid Winterbach (The Road of Excess, Human & Rousseau) and Harry Kalmer (‘n Duisend Stories oor Johannesburg: ‘n Stadsroman (Queillerie) and debut novelist Perfect Hlongwane (Jozi).
Jozi explores the beautiful horror of Johannesburg, coloured with the fabric of loss and death. It is about street-smart “clevas” suffering from post-1990s disillusionment. They’re young, flawed and capable of critical thought.
Festival co-director Darryl Accone chaired the panel on freedom, which featured academic heavyweights John Higgins, Peter Vale, Lawrence Hamilton and Siona O’Connell.
Dissecting the conflicted understanding of freedom in academia, the conversation was brought to a head by O’Connell. “What are we doing?” she asked. She spoke about the need to operate outside the safety of a book.
She also addressed the “white maleness” of the rest of the panel, commenting on how transformation has not yet been addressed in most major South African universities. Referring to her own institution, the University of Cape Town, O’Connell spoke about academics of colour trying twice as hard, only to get half as far.
“Looking back, looking forward” was the theme of the panel chaired by M&G comment and analysis editor Shaun de Waal.
Frans Cronjé, of the Institute of Race Relations, explained how elements of broader society have begun to ask us where South Africa is going, and what it will be when it gets there. He added that “people are inspired to struggle when their living standards improve, a central tenet to revolutionary theory”.
Business Day editor Songezo Zibi spoke about his upcoming book Raising the Bar: Hope and Renewal in South Africa (Picador Africa). “It’s a critique of the country and a glance into the soul of our nation. We have become a profoundly hypocritical society. We have an intimate relationship with violence.”
A University of Johannesburg journalism professor, Jane Duncan, whose The Rise of the Securocrats (Jacana) comes out next month, said: “While there are elements of strong democratic control of the security cluster, it seems to be becoming a Praetorian Guard for the elite. Elements of a national security state have been under construction for some time now.”
The panel pondered the value of putting ideas into books when horror, immorality and crises abound. Does writing books that point out the moral problem actually make a difference?
Zibi said: “I think partly the mistake we have made is to believe that material efforts will solve the moral questions we have. Racism is a moral deficiency. A moral crime.
“So what do we do? We silence people from saying and doing what they really want to say or do, but the fundamental beliefs stay the same. I believe you can pass as many laws as you like; if you cannot influence the orientation of the society, you will lose the battle.”
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a research professor in trauma, memory and forgiveness at the University of the Free State, said: “Mine is a search for moral clarity in our society. I am driven by the feeling of a sense of dehumanisation; the scandals which diminish the humanity of ordinary citizens. I feel sometimes the same sense of shame that I think white people who were against apartheid felt at the time. It’s a violence of the soul.”