2018 End of Year Message from PEN SA President, Nadia Davids
18 Dec 2018
2018 was a challenging, exhilarating, sometimes disheartening and often inspiring year for PEN South Africa. Those who work for and within the realm of freedom of expression have been deeply troubled and frightened both by the global assault on language and truth and by the – sometimes fatal – violence against journalists. While the reading, engaging, knowing and advocating has often been difficult, all of us at PEN SA have been awed by the profound courage and principled resilience with which writers, artists, journalists and activists around the world have continued to write and think us through and out of darkness.
PEN SA has, during this year, orientated itself towards working both locally and globally to defend freedom of expression, promote literacy, support South African writers, stand in solidarity with beleaguered journalists and artists, build networks of support across our continent, actively recruit new members and crucially, to begin to unpack our organisation’s sometimes problematic past. Much of what we do is voluntary; our sole permanent staff consists of our Center Co-ordinator, Khanya Mncwabe and a Communications Manager who, together, do the work of dozens. And while we are not a resource-rich organisation, we have a robust, engaged, participatory membership who take seriously and passionately the work we do and the issues we face. As a board, we are always grateful to members who weigh in on difficult issues; while we may not always agree, critique offered invites us to sharpen our arguments and support shown gives us the will to keep going.
Below are some highlights from our work over the last year; from manifestos and major book launches to awareness raising events for writers in prison, from statements about the arrest of activists, to supporting investigations into book price-fixing, from re-imagining our website and logo to recruiting new board members who will work to forge a new path for PEN SA.
We’ve had, on reflection, a busy and productive 2018.
In February 2018 we noted with alarm that some of the responses to the film, Inxeba were violent and threatening; in response, we issued a statement in support of the film and the filmmakers and placed an article the Mail and Guardian. In March PEN SA launched locally the PEN International Women’s Manifesto. In April, we created a timeline of the events and articles related to the Artworks issue at UCT. We condemned the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the re-arrest of Stella Nyanzi and welcomed the investigation into alleged book price fixing by SA publishers. In November we supported the petition against the Copyright Amendment Bill.
We’ve continued to showcase and support our members’ many literary successes. In July 2018, we hosted the Cape Town launch of the Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela in partnership with Penguin Random House South Africa, The Mandela Rhodes Foundation and The Fugard Theatre. For our annual Day of the Imprisoned Writer in November, we partnered once again with the ICA. The excellent attendance at both events is an indication of how deeply South Africans treasure the relationship between freedom and writing.
New Logo and Advocacy Work
2018 also heralded the adoption of a new PEN SA logo and slogan: the image is evocative of the nib of a fountain pen, a human figure, and the central “Y” band of the South African flag. The new slogan, “Free Writing”, constitutes PEN SA’s mission as an imperative – to free writing and writers – as well as the ideal it stands for in South Africa and beyond; that writing should be a liberating and empowering act.
PEN SA’s new identity re-affirms our advocacy work, which this year included adding our voice to that of sister PEN Centres from elsewhere in Africa to petition the Pan African Parliament to spearhead the decriminalisation of defamation in Africa. We are also collaborating with an Oxford University-based research project Writers and Free Expression (WFE) Project which includes an examination of the PEN SA archive. This is a complex, ongoing undertaking that requires us to engage with the full spectrum of our organisation’s history.
And finally, we’ve recruited two new outstanding board members; Sisonke Msimang and Pierre de Vos. In addition, Yewande Omotoso has taken up the role of PEN SA Executive Vice President. I’d like to thank also all our serving board members; they give so generously of their time, expertise and energies. Collectively crafting statements that are nuanced and informed around complex issues requires thought, rigour and care and it is work that is often done in a snatched hour in an already busy day. I am grateful to the board for always finding a way to prioritise these conversations.
Wishing you all a peaceful, happy festive seaon and a joyful 2019.
President, PEN South Africa