“The height of obscenity is to imprison writers” – a biography of Mandla Langa

23 Apr 2019
“The height of obscenity is to imprison writers” – a biography of Mandla Langa

I believe there is no greater and more abject violation against a people than the act of putting them behind bars; prison is a manifestation of the failure of reason on the part of the powerful, an inarticulate dread to answer questions about the nature of power.

As it is right now, I teach my kids to strongly refrain from the instinct to imprison anything, an insect, a rodent, because no life, however insignificant in our judgment, deserves captivity. It is, therefore, the height of obscenity to imprison writers for the simple reason that – as an attempt to arrest the flowering of distilled thought in service of humankind – it consigns society to the silences where barbarity thrives.

The world today, full of the noise of the powerful, which is aimed at drowning the voices of poets, has never needed artists, writers more…

– Mandla Langa on the relationship between art and activism and the importance of organisational solidarity

Mandla Langa was born in Durban, grew up in KwaMashu township, and studied for a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Fort Hare. In 1980 he won the Drum story contest for “The Dead Men Who Lost Their Bones” and in 1991 he was awarded the Arts Council of Great Britain Bursary for creative writing, the first for a South African. Langa’s published works include Tenderness of Blood (1987), A Rainbow on a Paper Sky (1989), The Naked Song and Other Stories (1997), The Memory of Stones (2000) and the award-winning The Lost Colours of the Chameleon (2008). (Taken from PEN website bio)

Langa’s recent project, Dare not Linger: The Presidential Years (2017), narrated personal and archival material on the presidential years of Nelson Mandela. Using Mandela’s personal notes, the text explores the numerous historical, political and mythological dimensions of the late former president. The reflection on the post-prison, post-apartheid years speaks to our contemporary problems in framing our common political history within the current moment. Averse to hagiography, Langa pointedly comments on the historicising attitude as central to thinking South Africa over the years, “which we now tend to examine with today’s eyes”. PEN SA invited Langa to share his perspective as a writer on the postapartheid years, his time in exile and his imprisonment within the context of a South Africa beset by an “illness that afflicts a leaderless people: the paradox is that the wretched of the earth, despite all the revolutionary jargon, will become more wretched”.