End of Year Letter from PEN SA President Margie Orford
15 Dec 2015
Holiday greetings to all our PEN South Africa members and friends
By Margie Orford
This has been as busy and tumultuous a year for PEN South Africa as it has been for so many people in South Africa and around the world. The importance of freedom of expression in times of conflict has been made apparent over and over, from the lethal attacks on atheist bloggers in Bangladesh to the horrific attacks on the Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris. PEN South Africa has been kept very busy with events both at home and abroad, but we have had time to work on both the politics and the literature that makes ours a vital PEN Centre.
This year we have concentrated on revamping PEN South Africa’s online presence into a coherent, engaged representation of our Centre across all platforms. We hope you have enjoyed it and that you interact with us on Twitter and Facebook.
We have been kept very busy with advocacy and legislation
In February, during President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address, the government contravened the Electronic Communications Act by blocking cellphone signals inside Parliament. They also directed parliamentary cameras away as opposition members were forcibly removed from the room and declined to share or broadcast footage of what happened following the event. We joined PEN Afrikaans and the South African National Editor’s Forum in condemning the incident and outlining the ways in which the law had been contravened. Our statement can be read here.
The following month we commented on the Western Cape Government’s decision to instruct its provincial departments to cancel their subscriptions to the Cape Times, a local newspaper. PEN SA member, journalism professor and Chair of the Freedom of Expression Institute Professor Anton Harber commented on the matter, warning against information silos and encouraging media diversity. In April we joined PEN Afrikaans in questioning the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s decision to stop broadcasting the news in South Africa’s national languages other than English on their DSTV channel. That statement, which is based on the principles laid out in the Girona Manifesto, can be read here.
The South African government has proposed two pieces of legislation this year that threaten freedom of expression: the Draft Online Regulation Bill and the Copyright Amendment Bill. We put out assessments on each of these Bills, highlighting the sections we found problematic. These assessments can be read here: Draft Online Regulation Bill and the Copyright Amendment Bill. The Draft Online Regulation Bill was also used as the basis for one of our Centre’s Draft Resolution proposals, which were passed at Congress.
PEN SA has also joined the United Nations, African Union, Media Legal Defence Initiative-London and nineteen other civil society organizations in an amicus initiative at the East African Court of Justice in a case challenging criminal libel laws. PEN SA works collaboratively with a number of free expression organisations in Africa and further afield.
In March, local author ZP Dala was attacked for expressing her admiration for Salman Rushdie’s work at a literary festival in Durban. Under pressure from her community, she was then admitted to a psychiatric hospital to be treated for PTSD, which she struggled to get discharged from. PEN America assisted ZP Dala in leaving the facility. Our centre wrote an open letter condemning the attack that was signed by 65 authors. Read ZP’s reflections here.
In July we joined English PEN in writing to the British minister of state for immigration regarding the detainment and deportation from Heathrow airport of South African author Ishtiyaq Shukri, who has held permanent British residence since 1997 but carries a South African passport. Read Ishtiyaq’s article on his experience here.
Student protests and literary decolonisation
This year there have been nationwide student protests in South Africa focusing on issues of both decolonization of education insitutions and later the high cost of tertiary education. The protests started with the #RhodesMustFall movement, which began at the University of Cape Town where students protested the fact that a statue of Cecil John Rhodes remained on campus. The students’ call for decolonization was also heard in the literary community as one of our Centre’s members, author Thando Mgqolozana, announced that he was “pulling out of the white literary system” at the Franschhoek Literary Festival saying he felt like an anthropological subject at these events. Thando referenced the #RhodesMustFall movement, saying that the literary system needs to be similarly decolonized.
In response to the debate that Thando’s statement set off, PEN South Africa Vice-President Mandla Langa wrote a piece calling for “A New Chapter in SA Literature” that was published in the Sunday Times. Subsequently PEN member, David Atwell, has written “The View from Ilorin” and we are planning to continue this series of reflective essays in 2016. Do be in touch if you would like to submit something.
Following on from the #RhodesMustFall movement, a national #FeesMustFall movement started in October, which was carried out in all universities across South Africa to protest the high cost of education. This was the largest student movement since the fall of apartheid and was met with force by the government and some of the universities. We wrote an open letter to President Jacob Zuma, Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande and the universities’ Vice-Chancellors to safeguard the students and their futures, which was signed by 281 people.
Provision of textbooks
In September we supported the Unite Against Corruption march, particularly because of the impact that corruption has on schoolchildren who are not being provided with the textbooks they need. Here is our statement supporting the campaign.
In November we partnered with SECTION27 on a writers’ campaign in the lead up to a court case regarding the South African Department of Basic Education’s responsibility to provide children with textbooks. Read about it here and here.
PEN SA events
Our centre has partnered with the Open Book Festival since it started in 2011. This year we were able to bring Ukrainian PEN Vice-President Andrey Kurkov and PEN SA Vice-President Mandla Langa to the festival. Two PEN Dialogues were held, “Lives of Writers: Andrey Kurkov and Mandla Langa talk to Karina Szczurek” and “Russia Under Putin with Masha Gessen and Andrey Kurkov”, with the two authors also taking part in other discussions at the festival.
Swaziland journalist and editor Bheki Makhubu delivered the annual Carlos Cardoso Memorial Lecture at Wits University in November. Our Centre is a partner of the event and had spoken out when Bheki was jailed in March 2014 on charges of contempt of court following the publication of articles criticising the judicial system. He was released in July this year. PEN SA Board Member Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi spoke about PEN’s involvement at the event and introduced Bheki here.
We held a commemorative literary event for the Day of the Writer at Kalk Bay Books, on 16 November with Finuala Dowling, Claire Robertson, Jim Pascual Agustin and Sindiwe Magona.
PEN International has its first woman president in its ninety year history. Jennifer Clement, previously president of PEN Mexico was elected at the PEN International Congress in October. We welcome her and wish her well. Salil Tripathi, who has a long connection with South Africa, is the new chair of the Writers in Prison Committee. It looks like he is going to have a busy year.
We have certainly grown this year – both our membership and because of our increased capacity due to our two wonderful staff members, Lindsay Callaghan, our Centre Co-ordinator, and Deborah Horn-Botha, our Secretary. We now have office space in The Homecoming Centre in Cape Town – hosted by the African Arts Institute whose director, Mike van Graan, is on the PEN Board. I would like to acknowledge and thank the board. All of them work without pay and are available for last minute calls for statements and guidance which ensures that our work is relevant and focused. Here they are so give them a round of applause: Mandla Langa, Vice-President, Raymond Louw, Executive Vice-President, Justin Fox, Gabeba Baderoon, Carole Bloch, Jeremy Lawrence, Adre Marshall, Mervyn Sloman, Mike van Graan and Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi.
I wish you all a peaceful and restorative holiday season and a good 2016. PEN South Africa is one of 147 PEN Centres worldwide. Please keep in mind the writers, journalists and editors who are imprisoned or working under threat. We need them, we need their words – writers weave the social fabric that holds us together.
With warm wishes and see you next year
President, PEN South Africa
(Image courtesy Edinburgh Book Festival)