Points of Illumination: Wordfest South Africa This Year and Next

29 Aug 2017
Points of Illumination: Wordfest South Africa This Year and Next

By Chris Mann, Wordfest Convenor and PEN SA member

‘Mr Pikoli, I hear that you’re investigating the Commissioner of Police’.

‘Yes, Mr President’.

‘Mr Pikoli, I want you to stop the investigation.’

‘Mr President, I can’t do that.’

Vusi Pikoli, the former director of the National Prosecuting Authority, during the launch of his biography at Wordfest a few years ago, quoted this exchange with Thabo Mbeki.

Each year brings similar moments of illumination, and this year was no exception.

Who can forget the moment when a young imbongi from Port Elizabeth attacked the State President? Or when former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs said, ‘I want to make it clear, the spirit of O.R. Tambo wrote the constitution’?

This year saw books about Thuli Madonsela, Mahatma Gandhi, Charles Darwin, Thabo Mbeki, S.E.K Mqhayi, Fatima Meer, cricket, dagga, the Fees Must Fall movement, crime and crime-fiction in South Africa, the Mendi disaster, NGOs, African political emancipation, and Seeowth Effricen English.

Then there were autobiographies, by former Constitution Court judge Dikgang Moseneke, Helen Zille, and Albie Sachs, as well as by Thando Zono, a young woman hockey star, and Anastacia Tomson, a transgender medical doctor.

New fiction included Sunday Times award winner Nkosinathi Sithole and the National Institute of the Humanities and the Social Sciences award winner Rehana Rossouw.

There were also a number of interactive workshops, on writing nonfiction, poetry, financial literacy, singing, and playwriting. Poets included Harry Owen, Lesego Rampolokeng, also an NIHSS award winner, Amitabh Mitra, and Edwin Thumboo from Singapore.

Body, mind and spirit books have always been popular. The best attended event this year focussed on The Book of Joy, which features the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.

See the full programme from this year here.

The diversity of books, authors, subject matter and languages to be found at Wordfest has grown since its inception in 2000.

This year’s DALRO colloquium on the Fees Must Fall movement, for example, based on a Wits University Press collection of essays, produced a range of perspectives, summaries of which can be accessed here.

While this diversity is still lacking in many respect, it semaphores to all but the most small-minded observer the irreducible complexity of a multilingual democracy.

From this perspective, literature cannot be made subservient to politics, socio-economic ideologies, religious doctrines, identity politics and social movements, however virtuous in vision and implementation these may be. Literature acts differently. It is an expression of an individual writer’s creative vision expressed artistically.

Pluralist, anti-sectarian guiding values are expressed in South Africa’s Bill of Rights, as well as the law-defined freedom of expression clauses in the Constitution. At a simpler, more practicable level, these values guide the aims of Wordfest:

  • to help promote a culture of reading and writing in South Africa
  • to improve the public profile of SA writers
  • to promote innovation and excellence in the word-arts
  • to give special emphasis to disadvantaged SA literatures
  • to enhance social cohesion

Points of illumination epitomise how author, book and history can intersect at a literary festival. What is luminous, and even numinous to one person, however, may well be obvious, or remain a blind spot, to another. This diversity is expressed, for example, in the different range of attitudes elicited by the Fees Must Fall colloquium.

Most Wordfest participants use isiXhosa, Afrikaans and SeSotho, as well as English. A hundred or so writers are selected each year at district level Wordfests, in the Eastern Cape and the Free State. The points of illumination they share in performance have the resonance of personal emotion.

Sonwabile Mfecane, the provincial Wordfest manager, states that the subject matter is varied and emphases vary from year to year. Perennial issues include cultural change, the state of the nation, inequality, poverty, and exhortations to use the mother tongue.

Events begin each year with a modest street parade. Writers carry placards such as Sakha isizwe ngosiba (Build the country with a quill), and Die boek is altyd beter as die fliek (A book is always better than the movie).

I’ll never forget the moment when a good-humoured imbongi, jackal skins, beaded headdress and intonga (ceremonial stick) and all, leapt onto the bonnet of an imperturbable traffic officer’s car near the Mad Hatter’s pavement café in High Street, and let rip.

The parade ends outside the venue, where the writers hand in manuscripts. The landscape of South Africa, as in other parts of the world, is marked by izivivane, small cairns onto which a passer-by in a previous era tossed a pebble. This Wordfest ceremony is a literary version of that ancient tradition. When funds are available, the manuscripts are published in a collection entitled Isivivane.

Wordfest as a whole is an outreach and community engagement project of Rhodes University, which provides the venues and support services without charge. The national programme was funded this year by the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences. The provincial, as distinct from the national component, has been funded on time and without fail since its inception by the Eastern Cape Government.

Most of the departmental grant is spent on transport and accommodation. The writers are housed in homestays in Grahamstown East and taxied back and forth. Homeowners become service providers, albeit for a short period of the year. Literature thus generates skills-training, and income where most needed.

Three multi-lingual radio journalists interview authors. The interviews are broadcast on twenty-five community radio stations and three national ones, thus reaching, albeit briefly, over 10 million listeners a year.

When Professor BB Mkhonto and I started Wordfest in 2000, the prevailing wisdom was that electronic media would soon displace books. This seemed a tragic change, as research had shown that cognitive development and reading and writing were strongly associated.

I did a brief survey of literary festivals in the UK at the time and was encouraged to find there were over fifty. There are now over three hundred.

What has the Wordfest team learnt?

  • Fiction and poetry draw small though appreciative audiences
  • Body, mind and soul books, biographies and autobiographies are more popular
  • Participation at Open Mike fluctuates widely
  • Writers with a high media profile pull audiences
  • Books based on significant public issues and social movements pull niche audiences
  • There’s still a long, long way to go before SA has a culture of reading and writing
  • Effective schools, not literary festivals, are where that culture needs to be initiated
  • Unpredictable funding severely limits pre-festival marketing and hence audiences.

Planning for Wordfest South Africa 2018 is underway. Publishers and authors are invited to contact Relda Donaldson (Manager: Authors) by the end of October 2017. relda@mweb.com

Wordfest welcomes small as well as large publishers. Our thanks go to all publishers involved this year, including but not limited to Wits University Press, Penguin Random House, Human & Rousseau, Kwela Books, Pan Macmillan / Picador, Jacana, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press and Tafelberg.

Wordfest also acknowledges with thanks the contributions made by funders and supporters. Ningadinwas nangommso!

(Image courtesy of Wordfest)