It’s lit at the M&G’s book fest

How much has storytelling in South Africa changed over the past 100 years? The seventh annual M&G Literary Festival, affectionately known as Litfest, will explore that question in sessions ranging from fiction, nonfiction, editing and publishing to reporting and academic theorising.

The two-day event at Sci-Bono in Newtown, Johannesburg, on October 8 and 9, will pay homage to novelist, poet, translator and political activist Sol T Plaatje, drawing on the 100th anniversary of the publication of his Native Life in South Africa and marking the 140th anniversary of his birth on October 9.

  • View the full programme here 

How have life and the writing life changed in the past 100 years? The Litfest begins with a conversation, “Native life” a century after Sol Plaatje’s Native Life, featuring Lwandile Fikeni, arts and culture journalist of 2015 and Ruth First Fellow; Lidudumalingani, winner of the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing; Percy Mabandu, author and cultural commentator; and Lindokuhle Nkosi, writer and curator.

Continuing in that vein is Sol Plaatje at 140; his Native Life at 100, which will provide useful bearings, with historian Khumisho Moguerane chairing a panel that brings together editors of and contributors to a brand-new book, Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa: Past and Present (Wits University Press): Sabata-mpho Mokae, Bhekizizwe Peterson, Janet Remmington and Brian Willan.

Fiction and its seemingly ever-present handmaidens, representation and appropriation, will be discussed in Writing white: We need to talk about Lionel. On the panel are author and journalist Luke Alfred, doctoral candidate Robyn Bloch, whose work focuses on apartheid perpetrator narratives published after 2010, and award-winning playwright and novelist Craig Higginson.

The panel’s subtitle derives from the recent controversy around novelist Lionel Shriver’s remarks at the Brisbane Literary Festival, in which she maintained that it was the fiction writer’s right to borrow, use and exploit other identities and cultures.

Appropriation is not confined to fiction. Journalists and researchers are often accused of abusing their subjects and stories in search of a scoop or a momentary competitive advantage over rival scholars. The newsroom and the academy come together in Reporters without borders: Journalists and the Marikana story to consider mining in this country and what was — and was not — written, thought and speculated about the events at Marikana.

M&G reporters Athandiwe Saba and Kwanele Sosibo (chair) were at the mine while the story unfolded. M&G photographic editor Paul Botes and correspondent Niren Tolsi have worked with the families of miners killed at Marikana to produce a body of images and texts being exhibited in stages by Amnesty International. Luke Sinwell is co-author with Siphiwe Mbatha of The Spirit of Marikana: The Rise of Insurgent Trade Unionism in South Africa (Wits University Press) and journalists Lucas Ledwaba and Leon Sadiki published Tonight We Are Going to Kill Each Other: The Marikana Story.

If journalism post-1994 has been something of a battle over who controls the means of production, so too has been publishing black writers. The roles of editors and publishers in our literary landscape come under scrutiny in a session chaired by author Sipho Hlongwane and featuring freelance editor and writer Jabulile Buthelezi, editor at Face2Face and Cover2Cover Rosamund Haden, and founder and publisher of Seriti sa Sechaba publishers Christine Qunta.

A slot after the panel on editors and publishers, Newtown Renaissance, is a workshop about making words. This literary salon aims for thoughtful response, vigorous feedback and robust engagement. It will be curated and hosted by Milisuthando Bongela, the editor of the M&G’s Friday arts section, and the M&G’s Hlongwane.

Shaun de Waal, the M&G’s editor at large, will chair The nation, its stories and its myths, which brings together the authors of four recent books about Umkhonto weSizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. They are: Terry Bell (Fordsburg Fighter: Journey of an MK soldier by Amin Cajee, as told to Terry Bell, published by Face2Face), Stanley Manong (If We Must Die: An autobiography of a former commander of Umkonto we Sizwe, Nkululeko Publishers), Fanele Mbali (In Transit: Autobiography of a South African freedom fighter, Xlibris) and Thula Simpson (Um-khonto we Sizwe: The ANC’s armed struggle, Penguin).

The formal side of the Litfest will conclude with the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award and Anthology event at which the three shortlisted poets, Siphokazi Jonas, Charles Marriott and Athol Williams, will learn who has won what. The overall winner will receive R6 000, with R4 000 for second place and R2 000 for third.

Volume six of the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award anthology will be launched after the prizegiving.

Then it’s off to the Litfest afterparty at Madibuseng in the King Kong building, 6 Verwey Street, Troyeville. From 2pm onwards the rooftop at Madibuseng, with its bar and views of Jo’burg in every direction, will be the platform for more literary talk, poetry and music.

What you’ll need to know

Tickets are R50 a session, with half-price discounts for students and pensioners. Tickets are available through and will also be on sale at the venue on the day.

At Sci-Bono, the Litfest will take place in adjacent rooms (see the programme on Page 8). Sci-Bono offers age-group guided tours for children, so Litfest patrons can bring them along; they’ll be under safe adult supervision.

There is extensive parking and a coffee shop on the ground floor serves light meals.

The Bookdealers chain will have books by Litfest authors and other writers on sale outside the festival venues.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Darryl Accone
Darryl Accone has been in journalism for the best part of four decades. He is also a Fellow of the Salzburg Seminar and the International Writers Workshop of Hong Kong Baptist University and the author of ‘All Under Heaven: The Story of a Chinese Family in South Africa’ and ‘Euripides Must Die’.

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