Nadia Davids and Members of the Board Thank Margie Orford
31 Jul 2017
It has been a profound pleasure and a privilege to reflect on Margie Orford’s tenure as President of PEN South Africa. As I sifted through the various reports and documents that detailed her years of commitment, I was struck, continually, not only by the sheer range of work she presided over, but by the depth of investment and care she showed each project. Margie came to PEN SA in 2010 when the Secrecy Bill was being tabled; it is impossible to overstate how important the fight against that bill was, or how corrosive its implementation would have been to our democracy. Under Margie’s leadership, PEN SA mobilised against the bill, both engaging parliamentarians and alerting the public to the grave and long-lasting impact it could have on a free and fair press. Her focus on the Hate Speech and Hate Crimes Bill has been similarly clear-eyed, politically alert and strategic.
Margie forged partnerships through and with PEN SA that demonstrated her devotion to the politics and poetry of our country and to her understanding and framing of those two ways of thinking, of being, as inextricably intertwined. From her work with the PRAESA Project – fostering translation rights for South African children – to her setting up a series of research papers on the student-led Fees Must Fall movement, Margie’s focus has always been intergenerational. Her support of her writing peers – particularly women – is known and celebrated, but so too is her insistence that younger writers be nurtured, heard and encouraged to work hard and with purpose. As President, Margie also allowed for difficult complexity; she made and held a space for debate that was nuanced and inviting while remaining resolutely rigorous and challenging – and no more so than in the very charged conversation around Flemming Rose’s controversial invitation to speak at the University of Cape Town. While Margie would bat away the phrase ‘safe space’ with exasperation, in many ways, that is precisely what she created during that very vexed debate: a respectful space in which ideas around what constituted freedom of speech were alternately shared, critiqued, offered, dismantled, dismissed and welcomed.
I’ve long admired Margie Orford as a writer and a leader, but it has been wonderful too, to be mentored by her. She has taught me in strokes both broad and precise what it means to be a woman writer in the world, what our responsibilities are, what our challenges look and feel like. She has brought into sharp focus the importance of solidarity and empathy, how those two states are twinned, and how no good writing comes without them. In the months ahead she will be preparing to table the Women’s Manifesto at the PEN International Congress – a document that maps the relationship between the freedom of being with the freedom to write for women throughout the world. It is a document that we at PEN SA are proud to stand behind.
It is a mark of how beloved Margie is by her friends and colleagues that when I asked the PEN board members who had worked with her most closely over the years, to write a few words about her, they responded with instant enthusiasm. They all speak to her generosity, her keen intelligence, her burning wit and the joy that she brought to their work.
I have reprinted their responses in their entirety because they illustrate, better than I could, how grateful we are to Margie for her impeccable leadership, how much we value her friendship and how very sorry we are to say goodbye.
PEN SA President
Mandla Langa, PEN SA Executive Vice-President:
Working with Margie Orford was a joy and an education. Margie led PEN SA without seeming to lead, drawing into her orbit people who had ideas to grow PEN SA. I had the feeling that foremost in her thinking was to heighten awareness of PEN SA’s ethos, linking the membership to what is going on in our troubled world. I learnt a lot in the time. One of the lessons was that no writer or journalist, however distant, who was affected by injustice, deserved to be left to the mercies of authorities. To this end, she brought to our notice – and got us involved in – campaigns to challenge forces that were inimical to freedom of speech. I would say that this consumed her to the detriment of her own calling as a novelist.
I was struck by her nurturing spirit, ensuring that PEN SA would be a training ground for young people, bringing into the office in Cape Town young talent. Combined with this was Margie’s consciousness towards ensuring diversity in PEN SA membership. This has brought in new faces, from across the spectrum of our country, which has brought legitimacy to PEN SA.
Personally, she is a great, warm person, a confidante. She was as interested in the growth of PEN SA as she was of the personal development of the people around her. This made her courageous without being pushy, forthright without being opinionated.
I will miss her.
Raymond Louw, Vice-President:
I am delighted to express my great appreciation of the sterling work Maggie did as President of PEN South Africa. She exhibited strong leadership qualities and kept PEN South Africa clearly focussed on the issues and strongly motivated. I was greatly impressed by the keen eye she kept on developments affecting the freedom of expression of writers and journalists and translating that awareness of inroads into action that had impact. I greatly enjoyed working with her and was mindful of the great amount of time she devoted to the interests of PEN South Africa and its members. I’m very pleased that she is staying on as a board member and being in a position to buoy us up with her insights into affairs.
But perhaps what I value most is her warm friendship that certainly brightened our relationship.
Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi, PEN SA Board Member:
I met Margie when our organisations partnered up to provide training for the Ethiopian PEN Centre. I didn’t know much about PEN at that time, but slowly and deftly she kept persuading me to get involved more, and to join the organisation and to conduct more training… and before I knew it, she had me on the board! She’s so personable and so passionate that she’s able to easily elicit sympathy and support for the work of PEN South Africa, for PEN International and for all the writers and journalists who face danger every day. I have learnt a lot from her – and hope to continue to do so – because she is a fierce champion of free speech, of equality and of universal human rights. And because she has a wicked sense of humour too. I’m honoured to count her as a friend, and I look forward to many more years of working together with her, both on the board of PEN SA, and on whatever adventure she gets me involved in next.