Farewell Letter from PEN SA President Margie Orford

13 Jul 2017
Farewell Letter from PEN SA President Margie Orford

Dear friends

It is with great pleasure that I write to you to say goodbye and to welcome Nadia Davids as PEN South Africa’s newly elected president. She is taking up this position at a critical political and moral moment for South Africa. The transitional month during which Nadia and I worked closely together to ensure that endings were beginnings, saw a court interdict taken out against a newly formed group, Black First Land First, to defend journalists’ safety and their right to freedom of expression. These events took place as the extent of fake news, dangerous spin and outright falsehoods orchestrated by the British public relations company, Bell Pottinger, on behalf of the Gupta family were exposed. There is no need for me to spell out the centrality of President Zuma and his family to these events – the nature and extent of ‘state capture’ is known to us because of the tenacity of journalists and writers and the independence of South Africa’s courts.

South Africa is not alone in this attack on the integrity of communication. Masha Gessen, for example, has written brilliantly on what both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have done with truth and language. State capture and the erosion of trust in public institutions and an engineered cynicism about the truth is orchestrated in part through language – as was evidenced by the high-priced falsehoods – the propaganda – pedaled by Bell Pottinger on behalf of their clients in South Africa and by Trump himself on America’s media. These attacks are very dangerous but they also show that words have power. Language has power – it is our currency as writers – and it is something we need to guard with an insistence on the truth, on facts, on integrity and on the capacity for empathy.

South Africa is a robust democracy. We have an outspoken press and a flourishing publishing industry and a great number of writers. South Africa has, for the most part, an engaged and active and skeptical citizenry. Satire is alive and well as is an astonishing creativity – as evidenced by our poets and novelists. These have been crucial factors in ensuring that our constitutionally protected right to free speech and artistic license remain protected.

My own involvement with PEN South Africa began in 2010 when the Secrecy Bill was tabled. That draconian piece of legislation would have carried severe penalties – up to twenty five years in prison – for writers and journalists who reported on events that the state could declare classified. It is a chilling thought that if that Bill had passed very little of the reporting that has exposed what we now call ‘state capture’ could have been legally published. PEN South Africa was part of the civil society movement that resisted that legislation and the subsequent pieces of legislation that would infringe the right to free expression. We have also made two important submissions on this matter to the United Nations Peer Review, thus ensuring sustained international attention to free speech, development and democracy in South Africa.

It is testament to the strength of South African democracy, civil society and our institutions that this legislation was revised and that it has, as yet, not been signed into law. Looking back at that legislation one can see the arc between that legislation and the pernicious attacks in the present. The necessity that writers be free to tell the truth could not be clearer and it remains so now, seven years later, as I write to thank you all for your support and to welcome Nadia Davids.

It is wonderful to hand over to a playwright. The theatre tells stories in a different way to novels. There is an alchemy of the present that is transformative in a different way to the quiet intimacy of reading a book. In the last few intense weeks Nadia was in the process of staging her acclaimed new play, What Remains. That thoughtful, dynamic and complex public domain that is the theatre, this bringing into the present of the enduring complexity and pain of the past, the search for interpretation and the creation of meaning through dialogue, creativity and listening is what PEN is about.

PEN does not – nor can it – provide definitive answers to complicated questions of expression, power, identity and creativity in relation to the literature of politics and the politics of literature. What PEN can do – indeed, I hope it is what it has done – is provide a discursive space for thought, for reflection, for open-ended listening, for finding the shapes of the silences that are necessary if the voices and views of others are to be heard. Writing – and reading – in all its forms – is, for me, an act of empathy, of truthfulness and integrity. It is an act of ‘being with’, of listening to things that are new and unfamiliar and that both unsettle and delight. Writing – like reading – is an act of witnessing and knowledge obliges one to act. I would like to thank you all – PEN members, friends, fellow writers – for making both that thought and that action happen. I thank you for the support and the intellectual generosity so many of you have shown in the years I have done this work. I appreciate so much the guidance and advice I have received from the hard working board members and staff of PEN South Africa and from our donors.

The slow work of creativity, of writing, is worthwhile and it will endure. I have this feeling that we will all need courage and courtesy to face the next few years both at home and abroad but looking back over the last seven years what I see is integrity, creativity and a shared humanity. If one turns one’s gaze to the next seven it is possible to imagine that too. Together we will script it – in part through the Women’s Manifesto that PEN South Africa and PEN Mexico will be presenting at the PEN International Congress in the Ukraine in September. This – of which you will be hearing more – has been one of the responses to the global erosion of free speech and democratic rights. I remain on the board of PEN International so my working relationship with PEN South Africa will continue to be a close one.

Join me in celebrating Nadia Davids as our new president, in welcoming the new members of the board and in thanking those board members who continue to do so much pro bono work.

With affection and respect