PEN 2013: South Africa in Two Acts

Saturday, May 04, 2013, 5:00pm
Cooper Union: Frederick P. Rose Auditorium 41 Cooper Square, New York, NY 10003

Saturday afternoon's event, moderated by Peter Godwin, took its time in unfolding a series of observations regarding the current state of South African society and the remnants of Apartheid, which "ended" nearly twenty years ago.

Not surprisingly, according to Siphiwo Mahala, Zakes Mda, and Margie Orford, the remnants of Apartheid are felt often. Recounting an experience that he had here in New York City just a few days prior to the event, Siphiwo mentioned that he had been stopped when entering a building with a group of six white friends and asked for his ID. Eerily similar to experiences he had while living nearly half of his life under Apartheid, Siphiwo said, "It is easy to attribute much to racism but sometimes there is precedent," soon after mentioning the recent bombings in Boston and the lingering anxieties in American society (a stretch to see the connection).

With the unifying division of the apartheid regime disbanded, this state of affairs that leaked into every aspect of people's lives as Siphiwo and later Zakes would state, South African writers were left wondering what to write about in the wake of Nelson Mandela's rise to power in 1994. In beginning to unravel the layers of trauma, no doubt poetry played a key role in offering South Africans a means to begin to cope with the many injustices they had faced according to Mahala, noting the poem used in Mandela's inaugural address, which begins "Our deepest fear...". Interestingly, this poem, continually mis-attributed to Mandela, was never used in his inaugural address; the poem comes from a book entitled A Return to Love (1992) by Marianne Williamson.

Nevertheless, poetry did in fact play a large part in the national discourse. In 1996 Thabo Mbeki, then Vice President under Mandela, gave a speech entitled "I am an African," a speech undergirded by poetic attempts to come to terms with a new identity and a past riddled with traumatic atrocities. The final lines read: "Whoever we may be, whatever our immediate interest, however much we carry baggage from our past, however much we have been caught by the fashion of cynicism and loss of faith in the capacity of the people, let us err today and say - nothing can stop us now!"

This sense of hope for positive change laced with the harsh realities of a past-still-present has, according to the panelists, led to a robust media and the correct democratic structures needed to move South African society in the right direction. And it has, in many ways, accomplished this. Not without its serious problems (rampant corruption in the public and private sectors, frightening infrastructure issues within the public educational system, and one of the worst wealth disparities in the world, particularly in its urban centers—click here for the latest UN-HABITAT State of the World's Cities Report from 2012/2013), a more hopeful picture was presented by the panelists. Margie Orford noting, the heavy influx of immigrants who are now writing, new literature is emerging out of South African society, stories told from an outside perspective and stories that shed light on a society that for so long was left writing in a self-reflective loop through the lens of Apartheid.

Margie Orford (via Times Live)

Having struggled for a semblance of democratic rule, the duty of South African citizens then becomes to protect those institutions they fought so hard for and bills such as the so-called "Secrecy Bill" (which recently passed in South Africa's Parliament and heads to the desk of President Jacob Zuma) threaten the society's hard-won freedom of speech and the robust and critical media that continues to hold leaders accountable and bring to light the corruption that threatens to throw the society into an apathetic and catatonic state. Organizations such as Right2Know and PEN South Africa, amongst a host of others, aim to defeat the bill through revealing its utter unconstitutionality. 

As South African society continues to emerge from, as Orford said, the "trauma under its skin" and builds a new identity, the duty to write about both the past, the past within the present, and the foreseeable future is one South Africans, new and old, will not shy away from. As Orford noted, "South Africans love a good fight but at the end, we'll make a deal and have a barbeque." Let's just hope the deal that is struck is favorable to a burgeoning democracy and is not a step into the troubling past.

Further Resources

Event listing on PEN website


Zakes Mda: is a South African novelistpoet and playwright. He has won major South African and British literary awards for his novels and plays.

Siphiwo Mahala: was born in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape province of South Africa. His short stories appear in numerous literary journals and magazines locally and internationally. He is the recipient of the 2006 Ernst van Heerden Creative Writing Award for his debut novel, When a Man Cries. Mahala translated his debut novel into his native Xhosa language as Yakhal' Indoda. His short story collection, African Delights, was selected by Africa Book Club as one of the best books of 2011. Internationally acclaimed South African author and academic, Njabulo S. Ndebele, says about African Delights, “It will outlive many of the social, political, and economic dramas of the time. The power of African Delights lies precisely there.”

Margie Orford: an award-winning journalist and internationally acclaimed writer, is the author of theClare Hart series as well as several children’s books and works of non-fiction. Her novels have been translated into nine languages. She was born in London and grew up in Namibia. A Fulbright Scholar, she was educated in South Africa and the United States. She is Executive Vice-President of South African PEN, the patron of Rape Crisis and of the children’s book charity, The Little Hands Trust. She lives in Cape Town.

Peter Godwin: newly-elected President of PEN American Center and 2010 Guggenheim fellow, is an award winning foreign correspondent, author, documentary filmmaker, and screenwriter. Born and raised in Africa, Godwin studied law at Cambridge University and international relations at Oxford University. After practicing human rights law in Zimbabwe, he became both a foreign and war correspondent for The London Sunday Times and the BBC, and has reported from over 60 countries. He also served as chief correspondent for BBC television'sAssignmentThe Industry of Death won the gold medal for investigative film at the New York Film Festival.

Follow JK on Twitter @JKFow

J. K. Fowler is an adjunct professor in the sociology and anthropology department at Rutgers University Newark, the founding and managing editor of the nomadic sojourns creative collective based in Oakland, CA and Brooklyn, NY, a full-time editor, and a doctoral candidate at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.