SA PEN and the Freedom of Poets

25 Jul 2014

A talk given at Wordfest during the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, July 2014

by Professor Geoffrey Haresnape, Vice President of SA PEN

Before I move on to the issue of the freedom of poets worldwide, and particularly in China and in South Africa, I think I should begin by speaking about SA PEN and its affiliation to the International PEN movement. The South African Centre of PEN International, as it is called in full, developed a number of years ago out of what was then the Cape Town Branch of South African PEN. During the 1960s and on into the 1970s, there were PEN branches, in Johannesburg and in the Cape. At a certain point during the old apartheid era, the Johannesburg branch disbanded in favour of a Black Writers Association and Cape Town continued to carry the international PEN flag alone.

I have lived and worked in Cape Town for just on fifty years and have been associated with PEN under successive waves of leadership. At first there were the historical novelist, Mary Renault, the historian Frank Bradlow, and novelist and legal writer, Gerald Gordon. Cape Town PEN had regular meetings in those years. Attempts were made to obtain lively and controversial speakers, especially those who were visiting from overseas. We were very conscious of our cultural isolation – with our country experiencing close to pariah status in the minds of many writers living in other parts of the world. Generally speaking, the group of local writers who belonged to the Cape Town Branch had a liberal orientation and were critical of the educational and cultural ideologies of the minority government then in power. Some of us felt uneasy when Johannesburg PEN went through its crisis of conscience and – under the guidance of the Nobel Literary Laureate, Nadine Gordimer – gave way to the racially homogeneous Black Writers’ Association. Was our Cape Town position that we were not looking at colour, but rather at writing skill, credible when our membership was mainly white and when we were experiencing the benefits at home of being on the then right side of the colour bar?

We took our stand on The Charter of International PEN which states, inter alia, that ‘membership of PEN is open to all qualified writers, editors and translators who subscribe to (its) aims, without regard to nationality, language, race, colour, or religion.’ In due course Cape Town PEN continued under the presidency of Brian Bamford, amateur man of letters and former Whip of the Progressive Party in Parliament. PEN mounted some interesting poetry competitions during this period.

After Bamford’s death, leadership of Cape Town PEN was taken over by a retired Johannesburg business man and captain of industry, Anthony Fleischer, ably supported by his wife, Dolores. The Fleischers had been associated with the Johannesburg branch of SA PEN from the early 1960s. As Chairman of that branch, Anthony Fleischer headed up an editorial committee to produce five annual volumes of New South African Writing 1964 to 1967 published by Purnell & Sons. Work was chosen with an aim to encourage new talent as much as to affirm recognised names. Back in harness as president of SA PEN in Cape Town in the opening years of the 21st century, Fleischer threw himself into enlarging the scope of the Cape Town club as a forum for writers and as a publisher of new talent. This was erected on a foundation provided by a successful programme of fund-raising.

In the earlier years there had been some rivalry between Johannesburg and Cape Town for the right to claim the title of PEN Centre. With the demise of the Johannesburg branch, Cape Town could unequivocally claim to be the PEN Centre in South Africa. Fleischer used this certainty in order to enlarge the membership base, to beef up the PEN News, a regular publication, and to send delegates to conferences of International PEN. Between 2005 and 2011, he reprised his 1960s role as the patron of new writing by spearheading a widely publicised short story competition. First known as the HSBC/SA PEN Literary Award and then as the PEN/Studzinski Literary Award, the competition carried prizes that, for South Africa, were very high indeed, running into thousands of American dollars. Five competitions in all were held. PEN’s fair-minded approach was apparent in the fact that all stories had to be submitted anonymously. First sifting came from a panel of qualified readers and the second sifting from an editorial committee. Finally, a short list of stories – still anonymous – were despatched to the Nobel Literary Laureate, J M Coetzee, by this time retired from his Professorship in the Department of English at the University of Cape Town and residing in Adelaide, Australia. Coetzee made the final decision on the prize-winners and defended his choices in carefully reasoned arguments. The names of the authors were only now attached to the stories and the entire short list were published in five annual volumes, the first title being African Compass and the last African Pens.

It is this series of publications which constitutes SA PEN’s most notable success during the Fleischer era. Funding allowed SA PEN to retain the services of a professional secretary and the membership grew markedly during this period. Tony Fleischer began to suffer from ill health during the course of 2013. He continued nonetheless with his enthusiastic approach in the spirit of his slogan Write! Africa Write! His concern for young writers reached out to all the SADC countries, Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and of course South Africa. In Fleischer’s own words, his hope was that “young creative African writers of today can also reject efforts to control thought and expression and hasten a permanent age of intellectual freedom, already started in South Africa.”

Perhaps another point to make here is that SA PEN has nothing to do with the idea of an English language hegemony. Fleischer supported the founding of an Afrikaans PEN in South Africa and relished the multi-lingual status of South African society. SA PEN gave its full backing to the Girona Manifesto on Linguistic Rights when it was adopted on 13th May 2011. This important document came from the Committee of Translation and Linguistic Rights of International PEN and asserts “respect for all languages and cultures” in the world. The manifesto concludes that “the right to use and protect one’s own language must be recognized by the United Nations as one of the fundamental human rights.” Fleischer encouraged one of SA PEN’s committee members, Dr. Adré Marshall, to attend International PEN meetings on this theme.

I regret to report that Tony Fleischer passed away on 5th June of this year. He leaves behind him a much strengthened SA PEN with a membership of over 200 South African writers including veterans like André Brink, J M Coetzee, Willie Kgositsile, Max Du Preez, Raymond Louw and George Bizos, not to mention numerous younger cutting-edge writers from whose names it would be invidious to select. All the writer members subscribe to the International PEN Charter with its four important provisions and acknowledge that “literature, national though it be in origin, knows no frontiers.” In her obituary notice, SA PEN’s dynamic (then) Executive Vice President, the novelist and journalist Margie Orford, writes: “Tony was fiercely determined that South African PEN remain an independent voice in order to protect freedom of expression in South Africa.” I know that Margie* herself, and other members of the current executive committee, are equally behind that mandate to independence and to freedom of expression. SA PEN needs to be on its guard at this time against tendencies apparent within government to curb both the independence and freedom of expression of our writers. Although I normally abhor clichés, I am persuaded in this case to use the old remark that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”


Originally the acronym PEN stood for Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, Editors and Novelists. Now, in a changing world, PEN brings together poets, novelists, essayists, historians, playwrights, critics, translators, editors, journalists and screenwriters in a common concern for the art and craft of writing and a commitment to freedom of expression through the written word. Please notice, however, that the category of writer which comes first in PEN, both in the old style and in the new, is POETS. Why should poets enjoy this pride of place in the acronym? Isn’t poetry nowadays the Cinderella of literature, difficult to publish, issued in very small editions and gaining very little monetary reward for its practitioners?

I believe we need to reflect on poetry’s ancient pedigree – to go back in imagination to the most ancient times when a bard would sit before the communal fire, play a chord upon his lyre, and begin to tell his audience rhythmic home truths about their behaviour, their deepest feelings and cultural aspirations. Perhaps we can think of the poet as a truth teller in a myth ridden world, or alternatively as a celebrator of myths which contain truths. Poets will and can set themselves the most high-minded tasks. They can recount their people’s battles like Homer or Vergil, they can reveal corruption and mismanagement in the texture of everyday society like Chaucer, they can mount the epic of a nation like Mazisi Kunene in his iNhlokomo yeMinyaka or Anthem of the Decades. They can seek to manage a faith-system with full-frontal directness and ‘justify the ways of God to man’ like Milton, his resolve in no way daunted by his blindness.

From the earliest times until the present day any poem worth its salt has that element of commitment, that giving of the self, which leads people to say that it is an embodiment of the poet’s voice. A poem is always one of these things – or more than one of these things taken together. It is about how the poet sees something. It is about how the poet feels something. It is about how the poet dreams something. It is about how a poet exposes something. The one common denominator is fidelity or truth – to the perception, to the emotion, to the fantasy or to the analysis. A possible answer to Pontius Pilate’s cynical question “What is truth?” could be a poem.

Poetry world-wide implies a multitude of voices, not a tower of Babel, but an orchestra of individual instruments making up a responsible musical totality. The clear, strong voice of a poem can be anathema to those who desire cover up in order to protect their political, economic or religious interests. The Chinese state is a case in point. At the present moment there are two Chinese poets in prison, sentenced for words which they have written. A third is under house arrest. Liu Xiaobo who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China” was sentenced for his “Charter 08” which suggested simply that his country should uphold “freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and academic freedom.” Liu had been the part author of Selection of Poems (2000), a collection of verses which passed between his wife, Liu Xia, and himself while he was serving earlier prison time. At the time of her husband’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xia was committed to house arrest in Beijing. She is denied access to books and papers and to medical advice of her choice. In a hard-hitting introduction to African Pens 2011, the late SA PEN President, Tony Fleischer, exclaimed against “the case of Liu Xiaobo, President of Independent Chinese PEN who has been locked up for 11 years for criticizing central authority.”

Yet another Chinese poet currently in prison is Zhu Yufu, born in February 1953. Zhu was originally sentenced to seven years in prison after being convicted in 1999 for helping to found the China Democracy Party. A few years after his release, he was re-charged by the Public Security Bureau of Hangzhou City, Zhejiang Province, on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” for a poem which he wrote and disseminated on the Internet at the time of the Arab Spring. The hearing took place in January 2012 and he was sentenced to a further seven years in prison. Towards the end of that year, Zhu was reported to be in very poor health, and denied adequate health care, food, and medication. He was also denied access to books and to letters from his family.

What is the poem that brought about this Draconian sentence? It is a short piece, written in three simple stanzas, with the title “It’s time.” I read it here in the translation by A E Clark.

It’s time, people of China! It’s time.

The Square belongs to everyone.

With your own two feet

It’s time to head to the Square and make your choice.

It’s time, people of China! It’s time.

A song belongs to everyone.

From your own throat

It’s time to voice the song in your heart.

It’s time people of China! It’s time.

China belongs to everyone.

Of your own will

It’s time to choose what China will be.

Looking at the image structure of the poem, we immediately notice the emphasis which is placed upon the individual voice. The poet is pleading to individual human beings not to hide away in nonentity but to declare what he calls their song. Authenticity can be achieved only by claiming independence and by establishing direction through the use of free will. The “own throat” and the “own two feet” are the vehicles in the poem by which this desirable state of authenticity can be achieved. What is there – one might ask – in this poem to warrant the author’s incarceration, the with-holding of books and proper medical care and the harshest treatment generally? Those who hold the iron egg of power firmly in their grasp must have the lowest estimation of their fellow creatures to wish them to be so stunted and deprived that this vision of human dignity could cause offence.

A particularly sensitive element in the poem may be the image of the square. At one level the square represents the open space on which all individuals can interact and compete in an atmosphere of mutuality and respect. At another level – the level of history- the square represents the June Fourth Incident or ’89 Democracy Movement as the Chinese call it, or the Tiananmen Square Massacre as it is known in the Democratic world. Numbers vary as to the exact number of mainly young people who were gunned down by the army when martial law allowed for “the restoration of law and order.” The Chinese Red Cross gave a figure of 2 600, though this was later retracted. Almost certainly many more were left dead than the official figures allowed. Perhaps Zhu had been too much of a truth teller here, for the comfort of the authoritarian sensibility. It is well-known how the Chinese authorities have refused to permit any appropriate commemoration of the June Fourth Incident from 1989 until the present day.

SA PEN has consistently supported The Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN in its condemnation of the imprisonment of Zhu and Liu and of the house arrest of Lia. This country has known what it was like to have poets who were oppressed by the minority regime of the old South Africa. Individual books were banned and, on some occasions, each and every publication by a specific poet was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act by the then authorities, the late Dennis Brutus being a notable example. Undaunted by the political power which sought to make him a non-person, Brutus invoked for himself the image of the troubadour: “I traverse all my land/exploring all her wide-flung parts with zest.” Even when undergoing arrest, he refused to surrender his joie de vivre. “I have laughed, disdaining those who banned/inquiry and movement.” (A Simple Lust 1973, p.2.) Poets like Mongane Serote, Mbuyisene Mtshali, Sipho Sepamla and Mafika Gwala devoted themselves to resisting the apartheid specifics in what became known as poetry of protest.

Even a poet like Ingrid Jonker, who in those years could have been located in the heart of privileged white South Africa, was induced by the power of her imagination and the greatness of her heart to assume a larger truth-telling, or even visionary, viewpoint. She produced a powerful poem written to the memory of children who had died as a result of what the government euphemistically called ‘riot control’ in two Cape Town townships. In one action a soldier shot at a fleeing mother and the bullet struck what seemed merely to be a bundle wrapped up in a blanket on her back. This proved to be her infant who was fatally injured. In the incident, Jonker’s poem, “The Child”, turned this child into a potent symbol for all the rage which could be directed against apartheid and for all the sadness and oppressiveness which it could cause.

The child is not dead

the child lifts his fists against his mother

who shouts Afrika! shouts the breath

of freedom and the veld

in the locations of the cordoned heart.

The child lifts his fists against his father

in the march of the generations

who shout Afrika! Shout the breath

of righteousness and blood

in the streets of his embattled pride

The child is not dead

not at Langa nor at Nyanga

nor at Orlando, nor at Sharpeville

nor at the police station at Philippi

where he lies with a bullet through his brain.

The child is the dark shadow of the soldiers

on guard with rifles, Saracens and batons

the child is present at all assemblies and law-givings

the child peers through the windows of houses and into the hearts of mothers

the child who just wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is everywhere

the child grown to a man treks through all Africa

the child grown into a giant journeys through the whole world

Without a pass

(Selected Poems Ingrid Jonker, 1968, p 27.)

“The Child” – sometimes given the fuller title of “The Child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga” – resonates across the decades and reminds us how closed the system was from which we have emerged. In some ways the poem may be compared to Zhu Yufu’s “It’s time.” Both poems document the need to break free from restriction into a larger context. Both poems are concerned with the need to find a voice. The child is part of the process which leads to the shout of Afrika! For the people of China it is time to declare “the song in your heart.” In both poems, the authors have documented the need to attain freedom and to make affirmation.

In her own life time Jonker felt alienated from her own society. She travelled to Europe and, for a while, was in a kind of voluntary exile from her home in Cape Town. Personal relationship problems did little to help. It was not long before she was found drowned in the Atlantic ocean not far from the place where she had been lodging. By some extraordinary turn of events, her suicide in July 1965 coincided with that of another South African writer, Nat Nakasa, who had been living out his political exile in New York. William Plomer, a pioneer of independent South African poetry, elegized this joint tragedy in a poem famous in its time, called “The Taste of the Fruit”.

As Plomer comments, it took courage and understanding for Jonker to stand alone against the power of an autocratic government with its uncompromising Christian National views. “She was thought childlike/But carried the iron/Seeds of knowledge and wisdom.” The transformation from the old to the new South Africa, which occurred in our national life just twenty years after the publication of her poem “The Child” and of her death, brought about a full recognition of her prophetic powers. The process reached its climax when Nelson Mandela read “The Child who was shot dead by the soldiers in Nyanga,” at a full sitting of parliament.

Will a stage ever be reached when Zhu Yufu’s “It’s time” achieves recognition in the supreme political forum of the People’s Republic of China? On the face of it, the odds seems very much against the occurrence. But then, who could have looked into the crystal ball of times yet to come and say with any certainty that Jonker’s plea would have received official endorsement in the highest official quarters of the land? In the meantime SA PEN together with the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN will continue to agitate for the release from prison of poets Zhu Yufu and Liu Xiabo and from house arrest of Xiabo’s wife.

SA PEN also needs to watch carefully developments which are much closer to home. Another twenty years on from the advent of our new democracy, our country is threatened by legislation which does not augur well for the freedom of writers. In a recent Sunday Times interview which she gave to Carlos Amato, Nadine Gordimer**, the doyenne of South African literature and champion of South African freedoms, draws attention to the threats emanating from the looming Protection of State Information Bill. Gordimer sees the Bill as a “frightening threat to the freedom of the national mind.” For her, it is important that there should be a lively artistic and literary tradition at all times. “We have to start thinking again about what democracy is and of certain forms of decay that have got into it.”

By being truth tellers, poets are, as I have tried to argue earlier in this talk, well positioned to counteract the imprecisions, subterfuges and hypocrisies which can undermine a society. At the moment SA PEN is the home of a considerable number of poets old and young, of both genders and coming from different South African backgrounds. We invite not only poets but also writers of all kinds to consider membership of the association. The subscription is fairly nominal, the excellent newsletter compiled by SA PEN Secretary, Deborah Horn Botha, provides a monthly update on writerly activities – and there is the satisfaction of being affiliated to a world organisation of writers.

I’d like to conclude with some lines from Chris Mann, one of SA PEN’s poets who also happens to be the Convenor of the Wordfest which we are enjoying this year. Chris’s poem is called “Poet” and it encapsulates in a few words some of the insights which I have tried to describe in a more clumsy way this morning.

Fellow word-smiths….strength to our solitude and art;

let’s mock simplistic creeds, make acts

not words the servants of the poor,

and may our bone-song’s music bring

their readers yelps of scared delight,

their selving souls stirred into life.


* Margie Orford has recently been elected to succeed Anthony Fleischer as President of SA PEN

** Nadine Gordimer died in Johannesburg on 13 July 2014, just five days after this talk was given