PEN South Africa: A December Wrap, 2014

19 Dec 2012
Margie Orford

By Margie Orford

PEN South Africa has had a very busy 2014 – this letter highlights some of what we have done. There is much more in our newsletters and on the website. There have been new people, new projects, new partnerships that have enriched what we do. We have worked closely with sister PEN centres – PEN America, International, Norway and Ethiopia.

There have also been great losses. Tony Fleischer’s death in June – after an illness stoically borne – left a big Tony-sized gap in all our lives. As President of PEN he – with his wife, Dolores – shepherded PEN South Africa through a very creative decade. Tony’s rallying cry was Write, Africa Write! And many of the authors who won prizes in the PEN short story competitions that were adjudicated by JM Coetzee have gone on to win other prestigious awards.

Nadine Gordimer’s passing was a great loss to South African, and indeed to world literature. A vice president of PEN International for many years, hers was a fine and principled voice that earned her the Nobel Prize for Literature. She championed freedom of expression fearlessly during the apartheid era and her opposition to the ‘Secrecy Bill’ – something that PEN South Africa has campaigned against since 2010 – was implacable. We mourn and celebrate both of them and their lifelong commitment to literature and to free expression, the foundational right of a democratic society.

Our programmes and activities – which have focused on the literature of politics and the politics of literature, have, I hope, honoured this. In the spirit of PEN’s commitment that ‘literature knows no borders’ we have partnered with Nal’ibali, a wonderful project that provides literature for children in many mother tongues spoken in South Africa. Carole Bloch, Director of Nal’ibali had this to say:

“The support that PEN has given to Nal’ibali to translate a Lucy and Steven Hawking book into Xhosa and Zulu is significant. The value of translation for children’s literature to grow in use and worth in South Africa is not yet widely appreciated – and so to be able to translate a science-based book like this has been a wonderful opportunity to show that through a process like this we think about and develop terminology and also we allow African language speaking children immediate access to a story which has the potential to inspire the desire to find out about the universe – and to stimulate an interest in science – something we desperately need.”

PEN South Africa is part of a global family of PEN Centres – 144 and counting – and we have worked with an increasing number of other PEN Centres over the past years. The focus of this work has been with African centres. There has been an unacceptable increase in the curtailment of freedom of expression in a number of African countries and in many writers, journalists and bloggers have been detained. South Africa put forward a motion at the PEN Congress in Bishkek that calls for the abolition of criminal defamation and insult laws – legislation used in a number of countries including South Africa – to limit what journalists and writers can say.

This work is complex and it is for this reason that we have formed a partnership with the School of Journalism at Wits University. Professor Anton Harber says that “with PEN we have in the last year hosted a number of writers from across the continent, an enriching experience from which we learnt enormously. These linkages serve to remind us that we that we are neither unique nor alone in the world, and how much we have to gain from cross-continental contact.”

The most recent was a meeting in early December when eight representatives of PEN Centres in Africa took part in a week-long workshop at Wits, during which, as Raymond Louw reports, they discussed a range of issues starting with an overview of the use and abuse of the crime of defamation on the continent and ranging over the practice of freedom of expression and its promotion by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and the African Union as well as linguistic rights, education, women writers, LGBTQI – a special thanks to Justice Edwin Cameron – and freedom of expression and the strengthening of the PEN African Network (PAN). The delegates were from Ghana, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia, Afrikaans PEN and South African PEN. PEN International’s convenors were Romana Cacchioli, Paul Finegan and Sarah Clarke and the programme was funded by the Commonwealth Foundation.

A highlight of the week was a wonderful Free the Word! evening chaired by Michele Magwood at the Orbit Jazz Bar in Braamfontein. Khosi Xaba, Mandla Langa, Beatrice Lamwaka read with Masande Ntshanga who last year won PEN International’s inaugural New Voices Award. Masande has just published his first novel – a very fine achievement.
Mandla Langa, now Executive Vice President of PEN South Africa, and Niq Mhlongo visited Germany in November. The Foreign Office, in cooperation with PEN Germany and the Goethe Institute, invited them and the trip was in line with plans to establish a partnership or twinning programme between PEN South Africa and PEN Germany. Amongst other things, they attended the 90 Years PEN Germany Benefit Gala, which included a round table discussion about the situation of persecuted authors around the world with Günter Grass, Dr Josef Haslinger, PEN Germany President, and Mr Christoph Hein, Honorary President.

This is what Mandla wrote after his visit:

“The most important aspect of the visit was that we made links with writers, translators and various people involved in PEN activities and who have a real concern about the plight of imprisoned writers. There were questions, which Niq and I answered, regarding the widespread perception that South Africa was beginning to tighten the screws on press freedom and freedom of expression. We were able to brief the various meetings on the work of PEN SA, the various campaigns against the encroaching legislation and various measures threatening press freedom. A major impression Niq Mhlongo and I got was that PEN SA is highly regarded.”

PEN South Africa hosted a number of events this year under our PEN Dialogues Series. Some highlights were:
A special celebration to mark UNESCO’s “International Mother Language Day”;
A debate at the Book Lounge on Sexuality and the Law: A Debate on Cultural Politics in Africa;
At the Franschhoek Literary Festival we discussed the importance of reading;
At the Book Lounge we talked about The Politics of Publishing and Bookselling and partnered as always with the Book Lounge.

Mervyn Sloman is now a member of the SA PEN Board and Gabeba Baderoon, Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi and Mike van Graan agreed to be co-opted onto the SA PEN executive committee. I was elected to the Board of PEN International at the Congress in Bishkek and Mandla Langa has accepted the position of Executive Vice President of PEN South Africa. Special thanks goes to our secretary, Deborah Horn-Botha, without whom nothing would have happened!

We continue to fundraise – our work is expanding as there are increasing challenges to freedom of expression in South Africa and on the continent. However, its not all trouble. Much of our activities were focused around celebrating the expanding and vigorous literary culture of South Africa.

I wish all of you a happy and bookish holiday season.

All the best for 2015 and I look forward to next year with you all.

Margie Orford
President, PEN South Africa
14th December 2014