OPINION: Decolonising the Decolonisation of South African Writing

Categories Social Action

I attended the Decolonising South African Editing event at the University of the Witwatersrand (2 August 2017). Wits has and always will be the most politically charged university on the African continent. So while the event was a success, and the many technical aspects of the event addressed with strong expertise, the content of the debate was controversial and explosive. I thank BlackBird Books and Jacana Media for an entertaining evening that was both insightful for many and frustrating for a few. Unfortunately, I am one of the few. What follows is my opinion of the debate itself, of which the content was outside the control of both the organisers and the host, being that it was a public debate. And as always with public debates in South Africa, things go wild.

This piece was written in conversation to a friend, who is also a writer, and it is entirely my opinion as a young South African writer, and with all the implications that label carries. These are not the opinions of BlackBird Books, Jacana Media, nor any of their representatives, nor are they opinions of any other attendee to the event.

CREDIT: Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

My friend, perhaps it’s a good thing you didn’t go to the event. I know you hate meandering conversations so you would have been angry with the content of the debate. If to debate is to take a question and tackle the issues around the question, then to complete a debate is to answer that question with useful conclusions constructed from compelling and flowing premises. But we were all stuck defining what the colonialism of literature truly meant, as there is both the colonisation of the written language and the colonisation of the content.

At one point I wanted to scream that it doesn’t matter what language the story was written in, as we as writers and readers can only deal with the reality of the global world as it currently is. If you want to write your story in vernacular, then you will be reaching a vernacular audience, and so you cannot reasonably compare its size to the global English-medium audience. And education of all of the languages is not the solution. If South Africa had to force all of its citizens to learn all its official languages formally, then we would be adding many years to the children’s curriculums, putting the other aspects of education at risk.

I believe it’s critical that as many vernacular books as possible are written to restore and preserve the rich cultural heritage that Apartheid denied many South Africans. And I believe that it is done so while supported by robust government grants, as it is the State’s mandate to ensure the survival of a nation’s heritage. But the reality is that those writers will not be achieving a massive audience unless their works are translated into English, upon which those books will have much of their meaning and context lost in the process.

However, the colonialism of the content is different. There is much work to be done before South Africans can write what they like, and some publishing houses have been taken to the task, but have not necessarily taken up the task. One speaker, Rehana Rossouw, was brilliant at framing this. She’s a Coloured journalist and writer, and she said that she grew up in Apartheid and cannot leave it alone because it defined her voice and her identity. She must write about the past, and she ignores the many White people who tell her to leave it alone. She does so because there was no genuine reconciliation after Apartheid, and there has only been a gross and violent cultural distortion by the premise of a Rainbow Nation. I think that she’s not alone in this, as the legacy of Apartheid violently shaped modern South Africa. That legacy is plain in sight if you step away from any sheltered upbringing, and look directly at the extreme marginalisation of South Africa’s most vulnerable.

For Rehana, speaking and writing English is just a fact of her life. It’s her home taal, and she is comfortable writing in it, infusing it with all of her mannerisms and those of the Coloured identity. The English language itself means nothing more to her than it is the lingua franca used to reach a broad and global audience with your message. What is important is that content is open and honest, no matter how deep the pain of the message runs. South Africa never reconciled its violent past with the peace needed for its future, and it’s the task of reconciliation that Rehana has taken upon herself in her books.

Unfortunately, this was also the point where things fell apart, as the flow of the debate fell into the lines of prejudice and argument ad hominems once it opened to the Q&A session. The debate became a cacophony of opinions and criticisms but not much actionable education about how we can achieve the decolonisation of South Africa’s literary landscape. Franschhoek was mentioned. I clenched my hands and kept quiet. I’m not interested in being poked and prodded like a zoo animal. I don’t think I’m alone.

The Q&A session rules were defined beforehand. No comments. Only questions and answers. That would be the law. Male audience members are guilty of personal comments, and the coordinators humoured this. I kept quiet because I was already tired and frustrated by the lack of resolution. I have given up on vocalising my comments to fellow South Africans’ ears. I think we’re exhausted from the auditory barrage of violent hatred that punctuates every moment of unity and hope.

But then there was a young black student who took advantage of the moment and the event and attacked Rehana on a personal level, calling her a hypocrite for claiming to be a black (context: non-white) writer while embracing English as her form of expression. She even went as far as outlining why she thought Rehana had a conflicted identity as a Coloured woman, while she praised one of the Black writers for asserting her true African identity. Keep in mind that this was an eloquently articulate Born-free student at Wits, who had likely received a good foundational education thanks to the opportunities of modern South Africa. She stopped a Q&A session on decolonization to tell a former anti-Apartheid activist, journalist, and published writer that she doesn’t respect Rehana because she believes a Coloured woman using English to tell her story, an Apartheid story, is a mistake. Black and Coloured. Young and Old. An attack on who gets to tell the Apartheid story.

From where does that young student believe she has the moral authority or even the racial superiority to lecture about race and identity to an elder woman who lived and fought under Apartheid?

The Q&A session fell apart afterwards with the focus being on the publishing industry not doing enough to publish all Black writing, irrespective if it is sellable and professional or not. I think that both sides were attempting to frame and provide solutions to the classical problem of perspective in the South African context. Black literature must be nourished and challenged to grow. White-owned publishing houses must be a part of this, as it strengthens the literary commons. But the bill to do so cannot be solely paid by the publishing industry if financial incentives define its modus operandi. Unless the government directly funds the publication of Black literature, it will remain the subject to the same traditional rules of publishing, but at a significant historical disadvantage.

I left that debate with a sour taste is my month. There was no disseminating of constructive criticism. There was no decolonisation of the South African literary landscape. There was only the highlighting of the many failures of the South African educational and social system, both past and present. There were only the products of colonialism groping in the dark, unable to reach out for the switch to turn the light on.

What is it about us as South African people that prevents us from hearing each other out, from understanding that we are all saying the same thing? Why do we waste valuable time fighting and arguing about the many names of the elephant in the room, instead of listening to each other and working towards a multifaceted and diverse solution to this multi-faced and many-named problem? Or is it that we as the South African people lack a strong, diverse, inclusive and multi-everything identity? Everyone in that room was passionately arguing for the same needed process, but because we live in the Babel age of modern South Africa, we instead take these opportunities afforded to us to beat each other to death.

I was in Botswana over the weekend to bury my longtime friend’s brother, who had died in a car crash. I spoke with my family friends and saw woke Africans with strong African identities, constructively helping each other across the lines of prejudice that have so bitterly divided South Africa. I saw incredible infrastructural progress in Gaborone from the last time I was there over a decade ago. It reminded me that Botswana’s success story can also be found in Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and other African democracies older and less well-resourced than South Africa. I came to witness a funeral, but I found myself witnessing the rising of a waking African giant.

I came back to my home country hoping to see a felled African giant rise to meet its democratic promise.

Instead, after the events of that debate, and the possible outcome of South Africa’s current events, I fear I may have come home to the fading Rainbow Nation, in time for its funeral.

I hope I am wrong.