“Young People Want to Write, They Want to Have Their Say”: An interview with Robin Malan on a half-century at English Alive

29 Aug 2018
“Young People Want to Write, They Want to Have Their Say”: An interview with Robin Malan on a half-century at English Alive

Interview by Nick Mulgrew

Perhaps more than any other magazine in South African literature – or, at the very least, as much as the likes of Staffrider, or Contrast, or Classic – English Alive has catalysed writing careers, and inspired people to familiarise themselves with the craft of writing. Publishing writing in English by high school students throughout South Africa for more than the past half-century, English Alive has provided many past, current, and future giants of South African literature their first publications, and showed thousands of young adults that their expression is valuable.

Among the many people who have edited the annual – including new editor Twanji Kalula, and past editors Michael King and Kathleen Heugh – undoubtedly its greatest servant is Robin Malan, anthologist, playwright, novelist, humourist, sex educator, publisher and editor. Last week, at the launch of English Alive 51, Robin was awarded with a 50+ years Dedicated Service Award by his colleagues, named the Order of Imbewu. An apt name – for Malan has grown many seeds.

We sat down with Robin to chat about his history with English Alive. Some PEN SA members have also offered new tributes to Robin, which may be read here.

The first ever edition of English Alive. (Photo by Nick Mulgrew)

For those of us not familiar with English Alive, how did it start, and how has its purpose changed and shifted as South Africa has changed and shifted?

It all started inside the head of Tim Peacock, Principal of St George’s Grammar School, in 1967. He decided to produce an annual anthology of high school writing, and he asked me, as a young teacher (four years into my career), to join him. Ditto with Brian Lee (I know he became a lecturer in the English Department at UCT, but I can’t remember why he was brought in). For the next two years, the second assistant editor was my long-standing friend Ann Harries (then a teacher at Ellerslie Girls’ High, later to become the novelist of The Sound of the Gora, Manly Pursuits and No Place for a Lady).

I remember long sessions in Tim’s lounge with him declaring, ‘No, this one’s no good – Out!’ and Ann and me saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute, Tim!’ and then arguing for its inclusion for this or that reason. Tim would glare at us with his funny eye through the dense screen of his disgusting pipe-smoke. There’d be a pause. Then, ‘All right, then – In!’.

I don’t know that it ever changed or shifted. There was never any sort of ‘agenda’. We were looking for pieces that surprised and intrigued us by the originality of their insight into some aspect of being alive, written with skill and some sense of craft.

There is one general comment one can make. In my Introduction to the commemorative anthology English Alive 50 I point to:

… the astonishing over-view [that this anthology] gives of what has been happening in and to South Africa over these fifty momentous years. As you read through students’ pieces, you see them reacting to and reflecting their ‘here and now’. They present to us a remarkable encapsulation of the ‘zeitgeist’, the spirit of the times, of this half-century of South Africa’s history.

Many good and great writers, including many PEN SA Professional Members, had their first publications as children in English Alive. There’s Deputy Minister of Public Works Jeremy Cronin (published in the first edition in 1967), Michael King (1968, and who went on to edit English Alive for many years), Prof. Kelwyn Sole (1969), Gerald Kraak (1974), Shaun Johnson (1976), Helen Moffett (1978), Henrietta Rose-Innes (1985), Nadia Davids (1993, now President of PEN SA), Karen Jennings (2000), Siphokazi Jonas (2002), Amy Jephta (2006) and Ameera Conrad (2010) – and even given that list, there are so many more.

I have a feeling, though, that the great contribution English Alive has made has been to the hundreds of children who did not become famous writers, but were rather empowered in their writing and in their being published. They felt that their thoughts mattered, and that’s no small thing. What are your thoughts on that?

Oh, yes, spot on – except that I’d question your use of the word ‘children’. Most of the writers in English Alive are in the upper Grades of High School, and so pretty much young adults. You’ll find me referring to ‘young people’ more than any other descriptor.

You know, when I was working on compiling English Alive 50, I did a lot of work trying to track down the writers I included in that anthology. Schools were helpful in passing on clues, and Facebook proved invaluable. So I assembled notes and pics of many of the 230 writers in the collection. The point that I’m eventually getting to is that any number of them testified to exactly what you’re saying: the effect that being published in English Alive had on them as people as much as writers of whatever kind.

The SACEE “Retirees”, from left to right: Roger Graham, Anne Schlebusch, Terrill Nicolay, Robin Malan (Photo supplied by Twanji Kalula)

What has been your editorial stance for the editions you’ve edited or for which you assisted the editor? I ask because I think many editors would feel torn between representing what schoolchildren are really feeling and saying and representing what you hope schoolchildren would be feeling and saying. 

Again, no agenda of any sort. I don’t even know what you mean by ‘what you hope … etc.’. I’ve always felt we are there to recognise, to ‘spot’, to be sensitive to, what young people are thinking and feeling and therefore writing about and writing about well, and nothing more than that.

By the way, I keep saying ‘we’ because, from 1995 on, when I took on the editing on returning to Cape Town, I’ve always worked with two or occasionally more assistant editors, usually people a lot younger than I am. I’ve had great pleasure this year in co-editing the 2018 edition with Twanji Kalula, who will be the solo editor next year.

There’s also the difficult and political task of representation. English Alive was one of the few periodicals in which, from the 1970s, black writers and white could and would be published on equal footing, even if representation was heavily skewed toward the white.

At its inception and for its first years English Alive was an entirely white affair. We had to wait until 1979 to hear from a writer called Vincent Ching of St Martin’s School, and Miranda Rajah of Waterford Kamhlaba United World College, until 1980 to hear Marilyn Braam of Harold Cressy High School and Nazli Salie of South Peninsula Secondary School, until 1983 to hear Thabang Thoka and Zanele Nkosi of Waterford Kamhlaba United World College and Nguni Muchaka of Prince Edward School. To his great credit, it was mainly in Michael King’s editorship between 1982 and 1989 that there occurred a great burgeoning of writing in English by black Southern African students, and the anthology was hugely enriched as a result.

When I took over in 1995, the concern about the paucity of black writers was no longer an issue; but I worried, always, that English Alive was such a ‘middle-class’ enterprise. I tried really hard to scoop in township schools and Cape Flats schools. If you look at last year’s and this year’s editions, you’ll see that we may have cracked that: there are more and more schools of very different sorts that are submitting and having work published.

I know that during the apartheid years you were working more at David Philip Publishers than editing English Alive, which I believe was done mostly by Anthony Eaton and Michael King. I think, though, that you might have the necessary insight to speak to these issues – would you?

No, no, I never worked ‘at’ David Philip Publishers. I did work for them and they were, with Oxford University Press Southern Africa, the publishers of virtually all my work. What took me out of the ambit of English Alive-editing was my leaving Cape Town: initially, from 1972 to 1978, I was the artistic director of a theatre-in-education company based in Pretoria; then, from 1978 to 1992, I went to live and teach in eSwatini, then called Swaziland. So, my involvement with English Alive picked up again, but then as a teacher submitting my students’ work.

English Alive is famous for birthing writers, but it is also responsible for birthing a famous conspiracy theory. Recently, some nuts, chiefly from the United States, used a 1991 edition of English Alive to propagate a conspiracy theory that Nelson Mandela died in prison in the early 90s, and that his subsequent public life (and later death in 2013) was some kind of collective imagination or hysteria – or, to take it even further, proof that people are shifting between parallel universes. This, to all its degrees, is colloquially referred to as the Mandela Effect. I was wondering if you could tell me about this turn of events from your perspective.

If it weren’t so infuriating, we could turn this into quite a funny story. What your ‘nuts’ from the US did was somehow get hold of that one edition of English Alive, apparently not realise that it was an anthology of imaginative writing, and assume that the poor editor, Kathleen Heugh at the time, was propagating this bizarre Mandela-death conspiracy. If their heads weren’t rattling around with loose screws, they would have realised this. Here is an extract from my response to this nonsense:

  1. English Alive is not an educational text, nor a political treatise.
  2. It is an annual anthology of creative writing by high school students.
  3. So the work in it is the product of the authors’ imagination.
  4. It’s not about facts, there’s no conspiracy, there’s no point to be proved or disproved, there are no lies involved.
  5. The paragraph you quote is one paragraph in a three-page-long imagined speech by the fictional leader of a fictional ‘South Africa’ called Azania.
  6. The speech is made ‘on behalf of the Liberated Masses of Azania, ruled by our leader, Jonas The Tyrant Mobukwe …’
  7. So, you see it is a fantasy, a political satire, nothing to do with real historical facts.
  8. What is clear is the real danger of yanking a single paragraph out of its context and then making assumptions based on only that paragraph.

It took some years for this thing to fizzle and die – at least I hope it’s now well and truly dead, but you never know … 

What do you think is the single factor that has predicated the long life of English Alive? You’re one of the factors, of course – being one of the editors for over twenty editions – but is it perhaps the simple nobility of its mission?

Yes, I counted them the other day, and, over the 52 years of its existence, I have edited 25 editions. There were a couple of attempts to pass the editorship on to someone else, but it’s a lot of work and these people were busy with careers of their own, and they could not sustain the English Alive workload and so I kept taking it back again. In addition I have compiled and edited two commemorative volumes: Leaves to a Tree: beyond English Alive, to mark the 50th anniversary of SACEE; and then I put together English Alive 50 to mark our 50th birthday.

In practical terms, it has survived because, as is so often the case with such enterprises, a small band of people who make up the committee of the Western Cape branch of the South African Council for English Education (SACEE) worked hard to keep it going – funding being a perennial problem; and also because it was a national project of the nation-wide SACEE, who believed in its value and helped where it could, once actually rescuing English Alive by providing survival funding.

You speak in rather lofty terms of ‘the simple nobility of [English Alive’s] mission’. The way I look at it is much more down-to-earth. The thing is: young people want to write, they want to have their say. Listen to Lauren Appel of Norman Henshilwood High School:

You will not, cannot, write the script of my life.
That is my decision, I hold the pen, I will decide.
from ‘I am me’

And to Nkuleleko Tsotetsi of Springs Boys’ High School:

Who said I couldn’t talk?
Who said I couldn’t think?
Who said I couldn’t write?
from ‘Young ’n black’

Student writers will respond to any enthusiastic teacher who urges them to submit work to English Alive. Or, increasingly, they submit individually and independently. It’s our job as editors to respond to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.

(By the way, I have been iron-willed in my resolve not to allow any ‘prizes’ for the ‘best’ pieces. As I see it, publication is the prize.)

The cover of English Alive 51

What are your hopes for English Alive’s future?

I have absolutely no doubt that the young people who are high school students and the enthusiastic teachers who alert those students to English Alive’s existence will see to it that it continues through the second half of its century. Imagine being the editor who announces the 100th edition of English Alive! What a thrill! So, that’s not really a ‘hope’, it’s a certainty.

What is a hope is that life is made a little easier – or even a lot easier – by the falling out of the skies of a big fat sponsor who will pour enough money into English Alive to cover production and admin costs as well as adequately remunerate the editor for her/his hard work. For instance, the other major national project of SACEE, the English Olympiad, is actually ‘the De Beers English Olympiad’. That’s what English Alive now needs. It needs to become ‘the Something-or-other English Alive’ – no problem about giving them naming rights, as long as they give the money. And, of course, as long as they stay entirely away from and clear of any sort of editorial interference.

As our first step into our future, this year we launched our new beauteous, wondrous website, www.englishalive.org.za , and we urge everyone to go and have a browse around there: you’ll find all sorts of interesting things, including the unveiling of the cover of the 2018 English Alive (after the launch on Wednesday 22 August). Also, we have a lively Facebook page that people should have a look at and Like us!

Lastly – and I know this is a mean question – what’s your favourite ever English Alive piece? You have to have one.

That’s not a mean question to ask, it’s a wicked question! Let me tell you this, first. Some years ago now, I took a session of reading some poems to a group of Grade 11s at the Schools Festival in Cape Town, the actor-playwright Christo Davids being among them. I read them a whole variety of poems, by well-known established authors and a sprinkling of English Alive writers. I then asked them to rank the poems they’d heard according to which they ‘had enjoyed most’. Clear ‘winner’ was an English Alive poem ‘You weren’t there’ by Carolyn Esser (now Head of Communications for the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation)[i]. Second was John Keats’s sonnet ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’; third was another English Alive poem, ‘Goodbye’ by Raymond Moleli[ii]; and fourth was Chinua Achebe’s poem ‘Refugee mother and child’. Fascinating.

I really don’t feel good about this, but, seeing as you’re pushing me, you must allow me to have three pieces I admire very much. I’ve chosen three from the early years of English Alive, and I think as highly of them now as I did fifty years ago. They are mentioned alphabetically by author-surname:

~ Nigel Fogg: ‘Magnolia Clinic’
~ Jeremy Gordin: ‘From us in Brakpan, South Africa – to a daughter and sister in London’
~ Charles Rom: ‘How shall I tell?’

Read them and you’ll see why.

Nigel Fogg, ‘Magnolia Clinic’

On entering I threw my false voice
at you
and yours came back
across the sterilised distance.

Smothered in a world of white
you were connected
by a long plastic tube
to a hole in the wall
labelled ‘Life’.

There were the usual questions
and your usual lies
and while mother continued
I turned to face the sets of eyes
watching the Englishman’s son.
I greeted them: ‘Hullo.’
Which was neither here nor there.

Through the window
there was a tree with leaves
and a bird,
and though late
traces of a long sun
unretreated among the park.

One day Father
I suppose I shall turn
from the window
and find you withdrawn
into your hole in the wall
and turn again
to discover the bird gone
and the sun retreated
and Mother and I shall leave
between shadow and shade

Jeremy Gordin, ‘From us in Brakpan, South Africa – to a sister and daughter in London’


Dear Ruth
You are distant

in turbulent, living London
where you have to stay –
one must live in surroundings –
akin to one’s soul,

and your soul –
thoughts, emotions
conscience –
is alive and vital,
we know.

Distant from us
who, too, have chosen surroundings

to suit our souls
which are much changed

in South Africa



Yes, dear Ruth
no more
will you find us
active and concerned,

You will find us

in the stagnant silence
of cool summer evenings

in this unbelievable silence,
staring vacantly across
the empty, moonlit park.

We must
have a silence about us
to compensate
this silence within us.

Quietly do we watch
the silent moon, afloat
above this unmoving pond.

We must
have a silence about us
to compensate
the silence within us.

There is no sound
over the grass,
there is no call
within us.

We wait only
for the clock’s solemn strike
to shudder in the air,

that we may go,
to necessary, noiseless sleep.

We must
we must
have a silence about us
to compensate
the silence within us.



Our silence
will grow,
it will grow

till one morning
dear Ruth
waking from dreamless sleep
we will discover

that morning
is as quiet as night,
that its voice is gone,
that no thing speaks:
no bird
no leaf,

that we will
never hear a cry again.

And we will understand
that at last
we have strangled our souls –

to death

so smiling faintly
we will step out
among the scattered
broken leaves –
to join

the living-dead
in South Africa’s warm, bright


Charles Rom, ‘How shall I tell?’

How shall I tell of a confounded youth who saw not youth but a thousand monsters of another time – the septic sores of a too-strange world – with eyes unwidened to his fellows’ joy; who built towers to the sky, which crashed at the touch of a steel-cold thought; who saw not beauty where other men walked, but the dull blankness of their animal minds; who saw too much of that which was real, and could not live with what he saw?

How shall I tell of a fragrant youth who slept wrapt ’tween mountain and sea on a soft pillow of the sweetest grass, with the stars all above him and a girl by his side who smelled of the early morning and whose hair was as light as a silken cloud and whose breath was warm on his cheek? And of how, with time-greased hands, he reached out to hold the night forever – and found that it was gone?

How shall I tell of a thousand thoughts which bubbled and fumed in his pent mind with no outlet to anything other than a world of fantasy where none could go save he? And who shall know of loneliness as he who knew a thousand men?

How shall I tell of a child who wished never to be a man; who feared the passing of childhood as the murderer fears the rope; who would have no part of growing old with nothing to clutch – whether it be Christ or a teddy-bear; who was too clever to believe in God and too foolish to believe in himself?

How shall I tell of a choking joy which lifted him up to walk on the clouds; which ballooned his soul and possessed his mind; which had nor face nor reason; which soon grew thin and faded away, for there was none with whom it might be shared?

How shall I tell of all these things? How shall I capture thoughts which race and fly too fast for any pen to frame? And who shall know of foolishness and love and hate and tears?

How then shall I tell of me?

[i] Carolyn Esser (Kingsmead College), ‘You weren’t there’

You weren’t there
the day I fell
in the school playground –
my cries shattering the quiet of the sterile corridors.

You weren’t there
to wipe away the stains of failure
when I swam my first race –
and lost.

You weren’t there
to pick up the shattered pieces of my heart
the night he phoned
and said it was all over.

You weren’t there
the day my dreams came true.
I came home
to a lonely emptiness.

You weren’t there
to pick me up from school
to plant a caring kiss on my troubled brow
to speak mother/daughter things – Trivialities –
Yet not so trivial.
You weren’t there –

And soon
I’ll be gone –
like a warm breath
on a cold Highveld morning.




[ii] Raymond Moleli (Riverside High School), ‘Goodbye’

As we stood there motionless,
All I could do was stare back at her.
Thoughts were flashing through my mind,
Maybe a hug …?
Maybe a kiss …?
I advanced and saw the sparkle in her eyes.
I hugged,
I kissed,
And the emotion pierced me deep down.
As she turned around and left me,
I stood there watching until she had disappeared,
And all I could hear myself mumble softly
was the heart-breaking word: Goodbye.