Duel of pen men and women

2013-04-07 10:00

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An authors’ tiff sparked by black consciousness went trans-Atlantic on Twitter to ruffle the calm of this year’s Time of the Writer festival. Charles Cilliers reports

Writers’ festivals can often be innocuous, polite gatherings of quiet, introspective, like-minded intellectual types.

But last month’s Time of the Writer in Durban ended with a departure from the script, thanks to firebrand black consciousness writer Andile Mngxitama.

Known mainly for his essay Blacks Can’t Be Racist, Mngxitama was the talk of the town last week after telling “fellow Bikoists” to physically assault journalist and activist Jared Sacks for daring to write an article titled Biko Would Not Vote for Ramphele.

Sacks’ main crime, apparently, was commenting on Biko while being white and Mngxitama has, of course, “declared war” on “white liberals” who interfere in the project of black liberation.

His call to assault Sacks caused widespread outrage.

But he was the source of some discord at the festival too.

On the festival’s penultimate night, Mngxitama featured in a panel discussion with Sampie Terreblanche, an academic who recently published Lost in Transformation: South Africa’s Search for a New Future.

The two discussed, among other things, land transformation, with Mngxitama declaring that African land stolen by white settlers in the past needs to be given back to the descendants of those Africans today (by which he meant himself and others like him), for no reason other than the moral imperative that it would be the right thing to do.

Terreblanche attempted to pour water on the suggestion by drawing comparisons with the collapse of commercial farming in Zimbabwe, to which Mngxitama retorted that whether he would choose to farm productively or not was irrelevant.

If he felt like it, he could “just wake up and look at it (the land)”.

He found an unlikely ally in the form of another visiting writer, the bestselling US-based author of Mornings in Jenin, Susan Abulhawa.

Her powerful and moving novel tells the story of a Palestinian family having to deal with the ravages of Israel’s Zionist expansion from 1948 onwards.

Her book was one of the first to portray the Palestinian story of land dispossession from the Palestinian perspective, humanising a people too often and too easily dismissed as “terrorists” in Western media.

In a recent piece she wrote for Al Jazeera, reflecting on her experiences at the festival, Abulhawa said she felt there was a strong parallel between land dispossession in Palestine and the colonial and apartheid history of South Africa.

She wrote: “Andile Mngxitama spoke his truth without equivocation, without tempering his own outrage in order to be heard by those in the audience who were not already supporters. Indeed, most only heard a lack of pragmatism in his message.

“And they heard a threatening strength in his resolve, which was later trivialised as irrational and unrealistic. He spoke of armed struggle, if necessary, and some in the audience heard only violence, misogyny and chauvinism.

“I heard what his supporters in the audience must have: a liberated black man in full possession of his humanity, unwilling to concede an inch to those who have shackled, oppressed, raped, exploited and committed unspeakable and still untold crimes against one black generation after another.”

Abulhawa found her views about Mngxitama were not shared by many of the local writers at the festival.

She wrote that a “prominent South African writer”, who joined her at breakfast, “completely dismissed Andile and Andile’s thesis, smiling as he said: ‘No one here really listens to him. He’s quite a fringe character. If he shows up for a revolution, it would just be him and a handful of followers.’”

To Abulhawa, the lesson the people of Palestine could learn from Mngxitama was that “those who stood defiant, in full possession of themselves as an indigenous people, heirs to their own lands and their own heritage” were completely justified, and that “trudging in the neoliberal discourse of ‘nuance’, trying to find our way through a maze of racist negotiations and settlement is clearly wiping Palestine off the map”.

But not all the disagreements over the Bikoist Mngxitama were quite as polite as snide comments over breakfast.

Another of the South African writers, Kagiso Lesego Molope – who launched her new book, This Book Betrays My Brother, at the festival – tweeted this bit of sarcasm during the panel discussion: “Andile Mngxitama asking Sampie Terreblanche: ‘What right do you have as a white man ... yadi yadi yada.’”

Molope and Abulhawa found themselves in a Twitter debate for days after the festival about Mngxitama, with Molope’s main criticism of him not even being about race, but his supposed “chauvinism” and “misogyny”.

She said: “Praise for his outrage at white dominance should also look at his blatant misogyny.”

What quickly turned into a Twitter spat between South Africa and the US then took a very strange turn when Molope asked Abulhawa why she thought Mngxitama had been “able to engage with her” and not with her (Molope) and another feminist Ugandan writer, Jackee Batanda.

Abulhawa asked, simply: “Why do you think?”

Molope replied: “I thought it was pretty obvious. Ironic, pitiful, but obvious.”

Another of the writers at the festival, who preferred not to be named, said that, to him, Molope was possibly saying Mngxitama had been attracted to Susan.

“That might have been what Kagiso was getting at. I didn’t think it was ironic, because she actually is ‘black’ in Andile’s reading of black consciousness.”

Abulhawa replied to Molope’s tweet with a scathing tweet of her own: “I didn’t feel diminished by him (Mngxitama) as a woman, but did by your comment. That’s the sad irony. Misogyny wears a female face too.”

She then blocked Molope.

The irony of being called a misogynist is that Molope’s new book couldn’t be more of a clarion call for feminism, telling a story about how a sister has to deal with the judgement of her community after choosing the side of her brother’s female victim.

Abulhawa, though, had no qualms in choosing a “brother” over a “sister”.

In the void left by the departure of radicals like Julius Malema, men like Mngxitama have stepped into the breach to keep the race debate going.

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