South Africa’s reputation as a violent country reached new heights at the recent Franschhoek Literary Festival where Democratic Alliance members – thinly disguised as festival audiences – assaulted mostly young black writers with their collective white gaze.
Front-page Sunday Crimes’ photographs of a Pinelands bookclub member, Mrs Emily Parkinson, violently shaking her head during a panel discussion on “The TRC and the Mismanagement of Black Anger”, have gone viral. Raised eyebrows, raised voices and raised temperatures provided the ideal backdrop for the announcement of this year’s Sunday Crimes’ Friction Awards, with How White is This Valley heading the list, followed by Zim comes to Joburg.
One young writer, Ntomba Zana, spoke of her tremendous pain after being hit by a volley of compliments about how well she spoke English. “Phew! I now know what Saartjie Baartman must have felt like”, she said, vowing never to return to the festival as a performing monkey, unless it was “to teach these people to say ‘Nkandla’ properly.”
A black writer who asked not to be named in order to keep his options open (both with his fellow black writers and with the festival organisers) said that he was less disturbed by white audiences disagreeing with him, than when they agreed with him. “As a writer who speaks truth to power, it’s really difficult to accept praise from our former oppressors when I’m critiquing our former liberators. But these are the people who buy my books. My own family doesn’t read my books. Even when I give it to them as presents.”
Cure Pedi, a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle and now a multiple, post-1994 award-winning writer, compared the “violence of exclusion” of his youth – arrests, detention without trial, torture and having his works banned – with the “violence of inclusion” of today’s younger writers. “Fortunately for us, our generation was not subjected to the traumas of the white gaze. They never looked at us, just at our passbooks”, he said in between scones at the Green Room. “But I’ve paid my dues. I’m done with decolonizing,” continued Pedi, who has acquired shares in M-Net, Shoprite, MTN and the Spur as – in his words – his contribution to creating jobs in African countries that once hosted him as a guerilla.
Approached for comment, Awurama Kwame, a writer from Ghana who attended the Festival for the first time, said that she had not noticed the white gaze. On the contrary, she had been relieved to look at the festival’s website before coming, and to learn that Franschhoek was not a township. She had been in two minds about accepting the invitation to attend, but was somewhat assured by the Festival’s predominantly white audience and by its English lingua franca, as she feared that if the main language was Zulu, she would not have known when to start running.
China Amanda Aditchie, the celebrated Nigerian writer whose elderly father had recently been kidnapped, thrown into the boot of a car, and held for ransom on her account, said she was shocked to learn that a white couple had actually walked out of one of the sessions being addressed by black writers at the Festival. Speaking from the safety of America, she said “South Africa is clearly heading for a genocide”.
While students are occupying buildings as part of their strategy to decolonize their universities, an ad hoc group of writers has called upon all black writers to decolonize the Festival by refusing to occupy future festival panels to share their views, insights and experiences. “It is not our role to educate whites. Let them educate themselves. We refuse to tell them our stories. (Which doesn’t mean that Brett Bailey should do it for us!). We decline to be anyone’s object of anthropological interest,” said a spokesperson for the collective, before she boarded a plane for a literary festival in Britain, where she was to appear on a panel of African writers.
We interviewed three white women audience members – Liz*, Jane* and Lara* (*their real names) – for this article. “I take great exception to being dismissed as a white supremacist”, said an indignant Liz. “I have a photograph with Mandela,” continued the former executive member of NUSAS, and current university professor. Jane, a lawyer who was once active in the UDF, suggested that “It’s our role to listen. That’s all we can do. And meditate on our whiteness.” “Bullshit!” countered Lara, a township tour operator who has employed five Xhosa-speaking tour guides, “If I want to make a contribution to this country, I’ll be damned if some kid born after Madiba’s release is going to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do!”
“I buy their books, and I’m both excited and intrigued by their ideas. That’s why I came here to listen to what these young writers have to say,” lamented Jane. “So what’s with this literary bantustans idea? Whites in their corner, blacks in their corner…what happened to the rainbow nation?” the livid Liz was nearly shouting in the restaurant with its white patrons and black waitrons. Lara said that it was at times like this that she really missed Madiba. “We don’t havek any black friends since Themba left our friend Margie for a black woman because it made better business sense for him. So I want to know what black people think about our country. Not in a performing monkeys sense; if I want that, I tune in to the parliamentary channel”. “We must listen. We have to learn to listen”, said Jane. “And then?” asked Lara. “We drink!” said Jane to much laughter.
In response to the post-Mandela suggestion that whites should refrain from doing charity in the townships, Ben Evans Smith of Tamboerskloof said that he’s been doing Charity in the suburbs for years. “It all started when my hetero-normative, capitalist, mono-textual parents decided to take Charity – our maid’s daughter – out of the township, place her in a Model C school, and then support her through varsity. It did not even enter my supremacist parents’ heads that they were depriving isiXhosa of a potential reader,” said an ambivalently-distressed Evans Smith.
Suzette de la Rey – a first time visitor to the Festival in search of an autograph by her favourite crime writer – supported the call for the Festival to be decolonized, and to give greater prominence to local languages. “That’s exactly what we need. Another Afrikaans festival,” she said.
We tracked down festival director, Anna MacDonald, who was hiding deep inside a bottle of white wine. “We too are concerned about the image of the Festival” she said. “In fact, we offered a 51% stake in the Festival to a local chef of colour, Reuben Refill, but he wanted a rarer portion. Now we’re hoping that Tokyo doesn’t lose his Franschhoek farm in his divorce settlement so that we can have him either as our BEE partner and/or to bus in workers from his farm”.
MacDonald, who doesn’t own a farm in Franschhoek but colonizes the leadership of the Festival from her plot in Muizenburg East, indicated that they are brainstorming other innovative ideas to attract a larger black audience. “We’re thinking of having jazz at the start of some sessions, or finding a sponsor for giveaway weaves and inviting a KFC pop-up outlet – just for the weekend,” she enthused.
For the purpose of this article, we undertook research at Exclusive Books in the V&A Waterfront to determine whether an absence of the black literary market is peculiar to Franschhoek. Within five minutes, our researchers encountered two black millennials in the bookshop, one of whom was wearing a “Rhodes must Mall” T-shirt, and the other was looking for a biography of her role model, Rihanna.
In a qualitative research interview, the manager of the bookshop said that despite the name of the bookshop, everyone was welcome although they knew exactly the number of black visitors to the bookshop. This varied between 13% and 27% depending on whether a Biko definition or a post-apartheid definition of ‘black’ was applied. “The reason for our use of security cameras is because of the numerous titles that are regularly shoplifted,” she said. She did not believe that it was racist to assume that it was black people redistributing their books. “Since the rise of the EFF, one of our most stolen books is the biography of Thomas Sankara. So it’s not as if there isn’t a black market for books, it’s just that they don’t want to pay the prices we’re asking”.
Which is a bit like Nollywood. There is great local demand for Nigerian movies and stories, but at the lowest possible prices, hence the proliferation of piracy, we suggested.
“Ja, but even in Nigeria, someone makes money,” said the manager, “even if it is the pirates!”
In response to our query about the allegations of rising book theft, the EFF issued a statement declaring that after the mines, SARS and Jack Daniels, bookshops may be nationalized. As an aside, the EFF indicated that they were less concerned about the rise of the white gaze than the dark daze on the other side of the parliamentary floor, and of the white shirts that protected it.
With tourism as Franschhoek’s leading industry, the literary festival makes no small contribution to the town’s trickle down economy, comparing favourably in this regard with the decolonized National Arts Festival (well, no-one’s calling for the fall of the 1820 Settlers monument), and which, after 40 years, struggles to dent Grahamstown’s 70% unemployment rate.
In a country wracked by deep inequality, it was inevitable that the arts generally, and literature in particular, would again become both sites and weapons of struggle. While ISIS has shown that the sword is in fact mightier than the pen, it remains to be seen whose pens will cut to core of local issues that really matter.