Sindiwe Magona: “We Need Brave People Who Can Speak Truth to Power”

25 Nov 2015
Sindiwe Magona: “We Need Brave People Who Can Speak Truth to Power”

Sindiwe Magona was one of three writers invited to speak at PEN South Africa’s event to commemorate the Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2015 at Kalk Bay Books. Master of ceremonies Finuala Dowling has written about the event here.

Read Sindiwe’s speech below or watch it here

By Sindiwe Magona

Censorship – Imprisonment – Freedom of Expression

That PEN saw the need for this day of remembrance points to a sad fact, indeed. When I look at the three items on our menu, I believe Freedom of Expression is the mother of the other two – that is, the other two wouldn’t exist were it not there – the sine qua non.

Freedom of expression is one of the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitutions of most, if not virtually all, the countries of the world. Definitely, where there is even the semblance of democracy, where those who rule do so or are supposed to do – at the behest of those over whom they rule … or, on behalf of whom they rule.

Ordinarily, one wouldn’t think of writing as a particularly hazardous occupation. But there you are: Today nearly a million writers worldwide are in prison; some serving lifelong sentences. There are those who have died for their writing and those who have simply disappeared. Many live in exile for unacknowledged persecution – the leaders of their countries flagrantly denying any such wrong doing. Chenjerai Hove – died in cold climes of Norway while Mugabe stated he left Zimbabwe of his own free will – no danger there to his person. It was by choice that he lived in exile.

And, yes, ALL that and more – all that grief and more -for writing! Just for writing.
It does make one have a rethink.

What is writing? What is freedom of expression? When and how could the two possibly combine and come to clash with any law in any country?

Giving an address earlier this year, famous Nigerian writer Ben Okri said: ‘We need uncomfortable truth-sayers’ … like the bards of old. He was speaking of the continent, Africa. But that remains true of virtually every country in the world. We need brave people who can speak truth to power … and truth to ordinary men and women who are, after all, as responsible (if not more so) than governments, for what goes on in the world – in their countries – in our country. After all, those who govern do so at our behest – isn’t that so?

Writers are artists. Artists create. But to create does not mean making something, anything, from nothing. Like the bird knits her nest from leaves, twigs, grass, and all sorts of flotsam and jetsam she finds all around, the writer uses bits and pieces of the life that abounds all around her.

Here are a few examples of writers who did no more than ‘create’ their work and, for that and that only – in :

China – Gao Lu languishes in prison for her writing. She is a member of Chinese PEN. Detained on 23 April 2014 and formally arrested on 30 May 2014, Lu was sentenced to seven years in a closed trial in April this year.

Cameroon – Enoh Meyomesse spent almost three and a half years in prison on charges that PEN believes were politically motivated.

Iran – Mahvash Sabet – teacher-poet – is serving a 20-year sentence.

Kyrgyzstan – Azimjon Askarov has been sentenced to life imprisonment – he has spent his career exposing corruption.

Paraguay– Nelson Aguilera – 30 months for allegedly plagiarizing a novel – out – pending outcome of appeal.
Each of these writers committed no crime except that of telling an inconvenient truth – truth inconvenient to the powers that be.

The writer exercises her right to freedom of expression. Words are not bullets fired from guns. They are not cannons, swords, or bombs. When authorities find the words of writers objectionable – and this has happened for hundreds of years, the world over, they can ban the books. Objectionable, yes. But whilst serving the purpose of removing or suppressing the ‘objectionable’ material, the person of the writer – the physical aspect – is left alone. Yes, emotionally (financially, too, most probably) depressed but still free to enjoy freedom of movement, freedom of association, including living her/his ordinary life – enjoying the comforts of home and family, friends, colleagues … living her life, with the nuisance and inconvenience of a project over which she has labored prevented from enjoying the life for which she’d created it. A kind of still birth … worse, in fact, for she has seen the baby, heard its cry and perhaps even saw it make its first tottering steps – before the axe fell.

But when the writer herself is taken out of circulation, locked in a jail, the world should raise its voices: NO! We should shout. No! This is wrong. It is criminal. It is torture of the innocent. We should shout for what writer can live, survive, without her writing? Her imagination? Why then should she be punished for answering the Sacred call within her very being?

What crime has the writer committed?

What is so ‘objectionable’ in her words, and by whose standards is it so? Who determines that and by whose appointment? Society doesn’t elect governments to kill creativity … these are the kind of unsavory elements in government that creep in – slowly, unnoticed at first or, if noticed, tolerated in the belief they won’t grow to grotesque. No country wakes up overnight to find itself engulfed in a monstrous legal system. Remember how the apartheid laws steadily grew – like that test of the frog in water, where the temperature is increased so gradually from cold that the water boils before the frog wakes up to the fact she is being cooked!

The writer and freedom of expression: Writers are artists; they create art through the words they use. Since time immemorial, writers – and bards, before words were reduced to written form – have often played the vital role of showing society its face – warts and all. They have observed the acts of their fellow human beings and, through their pens, painted these and held them up to scrutiny: See? This is who you are! Who we are! What we are?
Robbed of this wealth – community, nations, the whole world suffers, robbed of what would have come from such stilled pens. We are all the poorer for the writings of which we have been deprived. This, I think, is clear to most.

But there is more to it than the suffering of the imprisoned writer and the loss we, the world suffers for being robbed of her art. The cruel treatment of writers signals to other writers and would-be writers that their freedom has limits that failure to observe has dire consequences. ‘See what we do to writers who say such and such? We make them rot in jail.’ Fear planted in the hearts of others – such fear, that they are mindful of what they say and self-censor.

Yes, regimes that ruthlessly imprison writers do more than hurt just the said writers. They implant fear in the hearts of upcoming writers and other writers, of course. They engender a spirit of fearfulness such that the writer begins to censor herself.

Creativity is compromised.

The mirror the writer holds up to society is false; fake, but a veneer of what it should be/might have been – had there been no censorship and no imprisonment of writers. Writers, fearful, write with care they may not even know they harbor deep in their hearts. There is a kind of knowing that is just under the skin – a knowing that is unknown and unknowable. It is constant. It is ruthless. It is terribly powerful.

The project that is never completed.

The project contemplated but never embarked on.

The completed project that never rings true.

The world needs truth. It needs candor. It needs honesty. To save ourselves from a false sense of security, we need to wake up to what it is we are losing when writers are imprisoned. We need to call these writers by name. Call their jailors, the countries that commit writers to the living death of prisons – by name. They must know we know who they are! They must know we shall let the whole world know who they are. When their representatives take the podium at such fora as the General Assembly of the United Nations – we need to be there, standing with banners as the women of the Black Sash did in apartheid South Africa. The jailed writer must never feel alone. Never be alone in her dungeon for what she suffers affects us all. Writing is communal and writers are family even though national boundaries would tell us otherwise.

Aluta Continua!