On its 20th anniversary, this year’s Time of the Writer Festival is retreating back to Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) after last year’s evening functions took place in Durban’s townships.
To counter this capitulation, a deliberate decision was taken to focus on participants from around KwaZulu-Natal and to centre indigenous languages, said David wa Maahlamela, director of the Centre for Creative Arts (CCA).
At last year’s festival, one of the more off-the-wall and nuanced discussions on decolonisation featured writers Ashwin Desai, Mishka Hoosen and facilitator Tracey Rose. Rose asked meandering questions steeped more in her art practice than in the business of the day: discussing Hoosen’s novel Call It a Difficult Night which deals with mental illness.
When Rose suggested that we lived in (sometimes self-imposed) vibrational prisons, Hoosen held her own, suggesting it was Western to invoke binaries between “scientific and divine madness”. All the while, Desai sat on the edge of his seat, perhaps thinking of a way to enter the runaway discussion.
Desai, then launching a book on Mahatma Gandhi titled The South African Gandhi: Stretcher Bearer of Empire, began by asking for a pause to redefine decolonisation, suggesting that “intellectual processes cannot be given away to the madness of the moment”.
It was a contentious statement, but one that suggested there was no decolonisation without an intimate knowledge of the texts and tendencies of Empire. “I myself was saying that writing and reading is so deeply implicated in the colonial project and that the colonial project is still alive and well,” says Desai of that day.
“So now, more than ever, we need to read these books. We need to read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. We need to read these literatures that, through nuanced subtlety, often legitimised colonialism, so we understand the power of literature.”
An earlier section of the programme, titled Notes on Music, featured musician Scelo Gowane’s interpretation of Desai’s book, which host and interlocutor, music professor Salim Washington called “polite, oblique and poetic”.
Rose’s off-the-wall approach was ultimately vindicated by the electricity of the panel. That the conversation was taking place in KwaMashu, close to the site of Gandhi’s Phoenix settlement and ground zero for the difficult relations between Indian and black South Africans, highlighted the importance of daring curation, which spurred the debate into interesting pockets of the subconscious.
Participants and observers of the festival feel that, for a time, it was a powerful moment in the city of Durban that was somehow captured by the publishing industry and other machinations, leading to less and less powerful discussion. In a sense, 2016 was a rebirth that some feel may have been snuffed again.
“I thought this would grow and become more entrenched,” said Desai. “One can understand sometimes when festivals are stuck in one place because often it is about resources or writers don’t want to go out to these places [townships]. But here it appeared that you did have the resources and writers were clearly enjoying it, but now it has been centralised back to the Sneddon and no reasons are being given for this retreat out of the townships and back into theatre.”
Last year, in an email conversation with the Mail & Guardian, former CCA arts director Peter Rorvik applauded the steps that were being taken to “prioritise audiences outside of the Sneddon theatre”, writing that although “the Sneddon theatre is an excellent and professionally run venue it was certainly not a ‘transformed’ space. Under pressure from the university to be ‘viable’, its principal fare were shows that attracted white audiences.
“It was not a space ‘owned’ by students, and especially not black students. Lack of public transport to get to the Sneddon in the evenings compounded the difficulties of making the festival more open and accessible to all. A number of strategies were employed, including promotions to university students and residences, and provision of transport for township schools and arts organisations to access evening theatre programmes.”
A year later, there seems to be little will to build on 2016’s momentum. Maahlamela said that this time around eThekwini was unable to cover some of the costs related to staging the evening programme in the city’s townships. “Some of the people responsible for the previous project have left the municipality. So it’s not an event; it is a process — but we are starting new talks. So we still need to look at better ways of achieving that within the means of the centre, so that was mainly the [reason for the] decision.”
Maahlamela, himself a participant at Time of the Writer before being appointed director of the CCA (which convenes Time of the Writer and three other arts events annually), said the centre had always believed in “community outreach” but the methods often differed. “This year, we took the decision within our limited resources to say the evening sessions will be repeated during the day, content wise,” he said.
At the CCA too, many of those involved in trying to change the trajectory of the festival are no longer part of the CCA staff. Some have resigned and others have been let go.
With the festival entering its 20th year, Maahlamela said there was a need “to remind ourselves that we are in UKZN, that we are in the KZN province and should also acknowledge that”.
He said there had been a deliberate decision to focus on participants in KwaZulu-Natal and centre on indigenous languages.
Perhaps the most overt gesture in this direction will be the launch on the last day of the festival of Mazisi Kunene’s epic poem uNodumehlezi ka Menzi, the original script of Emperor Shaka the Great.
For a full programme of events, visit www.cca.ukzn.ac.za/index.php/time-of-the-writer-home