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PEN World Voices Festival Dispatch: South Africa in Two Acts

By Seth Satterlee

Siphiwo Mahala set the stage for this engaging discussion of South African literature and media at the Cooper Union on Saturday with an opening brief on the political state of the country, focusing on freedom of speech rights.  The looming issue is a bill, already passed by both chambers of Congress, which could curtail certain journalistic rights in the name of guarding “state secrets.”  Writers and journalists have become increasingly wary that their efforts to expose corruption will be met with jail sentences.  But there is still formidable opposition, Mahala stressed.  He brought up the impact of books like Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee on kickstarting the conversation, citing the book’s discussion within South African parliamentary chambers as evidence that race relations are still relevant, and that literature still has a place in addressing them.  “There can be no immediate rupture from the past,” he said. And episodes like the censoring of a notable political cartoonist named Zapiro, and the arrest of an investigative journalist—lately released and apologized to by the police commissioner—illuminates the still-rocky road South African democracy must traverse.

Taking over from Mahala, President of PEN America Center, Peter Godwin, introduced the two other panelists and began by wondering if the common phrase “Apartheid left a scar in Africa” wasn’t premature, if the hypothetical wound wasn’t still open. Margie Orford, the night’s most animated panelist, quickly struck up a recurring theme: the inevitable but over-focused concentration on the aftermath of Apartheid as a means to understand the people of South Africa.  Zakes Mda followed with an affirmation of what Orford said, but concentrated on the inevitable aspect of Apartheid creeping into any account of South Africa.  During the years of segregation, laws of discrimination influenced everything from basic every-day rights, to more long-term rights like what property you were allowed to own or frequent, or who you were allowed to marry. “South Africans” are really a mix of many diverse groups of people and traditions; all were united by these restrictive laws.  Mahala chose to set his first novel in four different decades because of the inherent difficulties of telling the stories of South Africa without references to the past. He makes an interesting point about English hegemony: although eleven languages are officially spoken in South Africa, English dominates publishing so it determines the valves of control. Mda seconded this, mentioning that regional voices that can be drowned out by the force of “white liberals” writing in English about the African experience. Orford brought everything backward a step by considering the effects of a “history of domination.” Literature can heal these rifts, she suggested, by allowing humans to fulfill their “compulsory nature to imagine the stories of others.” But there remains the responsibility to avoid assuming this act bestows any authority on the exploring party. She also asked for everyone to consider “ethical literature,” mentioning an ethics professor who once told her anything she reported should pass two tests A) it must be absolutely truthful and B) it must cause no further harm. Mahala rounded off the discussion of language hegemony by considering how strange it is, how much it spoke to Western pervasiveness in South Africa, that “Black writers” were still qualified as such in a nation where the majority of the population is black.

Inspiring sighs from all the panelists, Godwin then asked the obvious, moribund question about the looming death of Nelson Mandela—something he’s already been approached about writing articles on. “Will it have an effect on the political system?” Mahala was quick to answer, clearly having handled these types of questions in the past. He mentioned the many times in past decades when his white friends have seen turmoil on the horizon and asked, “If this happens, are you going to chase every white man into the sea?” Saying it was absurd to consider such things, he reminded everyone of the nature of the South African “collective” and mentioned that Mandela hadn’t done much for years. “Or anything,” Mda chimed in. As Godwin made the case for a symbolic change, Orford jumped onto Mahala’s point about the collective, talking about the struggle for democracy creating stronger bonds than symbolic value, that the change will be miniscule apart from exposure and the journalists' “fat checks.” “We are truly nice people,” Mahala said, adding that there’s a streak of pacifism that runs through South Africa. When troops were sent to confront a group of child soldiers, he relates, fifteen were murdered having come unprepared for a fight.  Godwin asked a final question about writing in a country with such disparate levels of income across the spectrum—one of the largest disparities in the world. Almost with a collective sigh the panelists agreed, but tried to turn things to the positive. Even so, Mahala talked about the low literacy rates, the lack of proper schools. Mda agreed but complicated issues when he told of billions of dollars allotted for infrastructure being sent back after not being put to use quickly enough. 

To close the conversation, Godwin once again turned to the impending “Amended Secrecy Bill” making it’s way through the South African government. Orford provided a meticulous overview: the law, only awaiting the president’s signature, would call for twenty-five years of incarceration to those who violate it. There is an active campaign for repeal, Right2Know (, which has strong backing through South Africa.  If the president signs the bill, Orford said vehemently, it will “cut the wrist of our democracy.” 

Published May 6, 2013   Copyright 2013 Seth Satterlee

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