Farewell Letter from PEN South Africa President Nadia Davids and Vice President Yewande Omotoso

09 Jul 2024
Farewell Letter from PEN South Africa President Nadia Davids and Vice President Yewande Omotoso

Dear Friends, 

We hope this message finds you well.

As we step down from our roles as President and Vice President, we are excited to welcome Bongani Kona as the new President of PEN SA. Kona has served as a board member for over two years and during that time has brought to our discussions and actions that wonderful combination of curiosity, nuance and insight his writing is known for. We trust in his ability to listen carefully, engage critically and think creatively while robustly defending the principle of free expression and know he will lead the organisation with courage and perseverance.

Endings offer the opportunity for reflection and we’d like to share with you a little about our time with PEN South Africa and what it’s meant to us. In 2015 Nadia joined the board and in July 2017, she was elected president. Yewande joined the board in 2017 and became vice president in 2019; Yewande also served as treasurer. We felt, as South African writers and citizens committed to supporting our country’s literature and democratising literary spaces, that we could make a useful contribution through the organisation. We’ve served for several terms, an experience that has been equal parts rewarding, challenging and inspiring. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to connect with – and feel connected to – the rich, dynamic terrain that is South Africa’s literary landscape and to have deepened our organisation’s ties with other national chapters and our governing body, PEN International.  It’s been a privilege to work alongside the South African writers, activists, artists and cultural-workers who have served as SA PEN board members. We are grateful too, to have been invited by our colleagues at PEN Afrikaans to join in their excellent efforts to lobby on behalf of South African writers against the Copyright Bill.

During our tenure we navigated a grave, potentially chapter-closing administrative crisis*.  While solving this problem took an enormous amount of time and focus, we were able to keep the chapter open and remain productive and engaged: between 2017- 2024, we increased and diversified our membership, supported South African literacy and literature, defended freedom of expression at home and abroad, established stronger links and solidarity with other African centers and worked to support PEN International’s efforts to aid writers displaced and dispossessed by war. Between 2017-2019 we sent out a bimonthly newsletter and in the last three years we have produced a successful podcast, The Empty Chair. The podcast connects deeply with PEN’s central mission to foster conversation, support the free-flow of ideas and advocate for writers who are under threat.  Each episode is dedicated to a writer who has been harassed, imprisoned, or tortured by the state for their peaceful free expression work. In bringing these writers to our listeners’ attention, we hoped to amplify PEN International’s important work in this arena. To date, we’ve produced nine seasons, bringing together writers, artists, policy-makers, activists, academics, theatre practitioners, musicians and poets to discuss literature, writing processes, climate change, South African foreign policy, race and racism, home, belonging, healing, pandemics, creativity, writers jailed under Apartheid and much more. Over the course of almost sixty episodes, we’ve featured a wide range of participants from globally recognised activists to emerging writers. In 2023, The Empty Chair was among the top 15% of podcasts listened to globally. 

A personal note from Yewande

I remember a phone call sometime in 2017 from a writer and person I held admiration for, Nadia Davids. I joke still that I joined simply because she asked! Humour aside my seven years of service in this organisation governed by such a profound commitment have been characterised by my sense of humility – that I can do small things to contribute to a big and most necessary cause – and awe. I’ve watched Nadia navigate many complexities – internal and external – and felt sheer relief to have her clear convictions and the required erudition at the helm. I’ve very much enjoyed and learnt from our partnership. I’ve observed SA board members give of their expertise, their creativity and counsel and felt accompanied. I’ve been moved again and again by the big broad and broadening space of South Africa’s word practitioners, makers, enablers, grateful to be one in many and to participate and contribute to the terrains we traverse. I wish Bongani Kona, with his gentle strength and sublime creativity and the SA PEN board, a wonderful new cycle in this work that remains so essential in our world – Yewande

A personal note from Nadia

My time on the PEN South Africa board has brought me into contact with writers and journalists who have survived – or are surviving – extreme political violence and oppression. Engaging with these writers and their work has been an education in principled action; I have been moved and humbled by their courage and by the tenacious activism of my colleagues at PEN International in supporting them. 

Locally and internationally, PEN chapters work to protect freedom of expression and defend the rights of artists, writers, thinkers, journalists and citizens to work, create and publish without fear of state reprisal or intimidation. That protection has never been more needed. In 2023, record numbers of journalists were forced into exile, incarcerated or killed by oppressive regimes. As PEN International states, “Freedom of expression is deteriorating worldwide giving way to a rise in hate speech and oppressive legislation which threatens the lives and wellbeing of all kinds of writers, inc. poets, novelists, and journalists, as well as publishers […].  Writers, particularly women and those from marginalised communities, still need equal access and representation within the literary and civic spaces.”

I am immensely grateful to the SA PEN board members whom I have had the privilege to serve alongside since 2017. I am especially indebted to Yewande Omotoso, whose steadfast comradeship, insight and wise counsel has made so much possible. Sisonke Msimang and Kate Highman were consistently generous in their willingness to tackle administrative difficulties and to dream up new projects; their contributions to the podcast, (both intellectual and practical) were invaluable. Working within the realm of protecting freedom of expression requires a mixture of flexibility and clarity, an understanding of where creativity, legality and freedom intersect, and a grasp of the contemporary political moment that understands the historical forces bearing upon it. It was often complex and vexed and many of the processes were made easier knowing that I could turn to Pierre de Vos, Margie Orford and Mandla Langa for guidance. Thank you also, to Nicky Falkof for her important contributions.

I am thankful too, to SA PEN members who have borne with us during our administrative challenges and have engaged so enthusiastically with our newsletter, events and podcast.

 I am so glad to extend a warm welcome to the board members who have recently joined- Mandisa Haarhoff, Hedley Twidle and Jennifer Malec – who together, bring new energy, enthusiasm and a wealth of expertise to the organisation.

 I wish Bongani Kona and the board of PEN South Africa fortitude and good fortune.

Thank you for supporting PEN South Africa. It has been our honour to serve, the work continues and we ask members to support the organisation in any capacity they can.

With warm wishes and in solidarity, 

Nadia and Yewande

* At the end of 2019 we wrote to inform members of an inherited 2007 tax registration error that resulted (in 2017) in a large SARS tax bill and the possible closure of the chapter. We worked diligently to resolve the error and advocated for a reduction in the bill and succeeded. The PEN SA constitution was updated in accordance with SARS’ specifications to qualify for PBO status (our thanks to the PEN SA members who responded to our call and helped us to craft these changes).