JHB: city of literary gold

2013-09-24 00:00

ALMOST a decade ago, the dream that consumed me was to pioneer a Booktown in South Africa. Now, with some 20 literary festivals behind my name, I am on another quest: to find the literary capital of South Africa. My research reveals I am not alone in my thinking, as Unesco has created what it terms Unesco Cities of Literature.

To be approved as a City of Literature, cities need to meet a number of criteria. These include:

• quality, quantity and diversity of publishing;

• quality and quantity of educational programmes focusing on domestic or foreign literature at primary, secondary and tertiary levels;

• literature, drama and/or poetry playing an important role in the city;

• hosting literary events and festivals that promote domestic and foreign literature; and

• existence of libraries, bookstores and public or private cultural centres that preserve, promote and disseminate domestic and foreign literature.

There are a six Cities of Literature around the world. They are Edinburgh, Scotland (2004); Melbourne, Australia (2008); Iowa City, United States (2008); Dublin, Ireland (2010); Reykjavík, Iceland (2011); and Norwich, England (2012). The time is right for South Africa to claim spot number seven. The question is, which city deserves to wear the crown of Unesco City of Literature? There can be only one — Johannesburg.

Why do I make such a claim? Simply because of the writers associated with that city. This list of writers reads like the who’s who of South African literature. No other city can boast three Nobel laureates: Nadine Gordimer, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Factor in Albert Luthuli, South Africa’s first Nobel Laureate, who taught for a few years at St Cyprians in Sophiatown, and J.M. Coetzee, who lived the first five years of his life in Johannesburg. His first novel was published by a Johannesburg publisher Ravan Press, and he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Wits. Among the black writers, Johannesburg can boast Mongane Wally Serote, Can Themba, Bloke Modisane, R.R.R. Dhlomo, Herbert Dhlomo, Benedict Vilakazi, Es’kia Mphahlele, Nat Nakasa, Lewis Nkosi, Njabulo Ndebele, Don Mattera, Miriam Tlali, Ellen Kuzwayo, and Mandla Langa. The list goes on. These are writers from the golden era of black writing in South Africa; writers who loom large in the literary imagination of SA.

Afrikaans is well-represented. Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf has as its inspiration Sophiatown, which was renamed Triomf by the National Party; Andre Brink’s novel A Dry White Season has greater Johannesburg as its setting; Ingrid Jonker’s poem Die Kind was quoted widely by the government headed by Nelson Mandela; Antjie Krog shot to international stardom while covering the TRC hearings, during which time she was based predominantly in Johannesburg; writers such as N.P. van Wyk Louw; Ernst van Heerden; John Miles; P.G. du Plessis all have strong links with the Wits Department of Afrikaans.

Breyten Breytenbach was arrested at Johannesburg Airport, and spent a lot of time in Johannesburg with his close friend Ampie Coetzee, who was based at the Wits Afrikaans Department.

Other prominent writers who were once students at Wits include Ingrid Winterbach and South Africa’s greatest literary biographer John Kannemeyer, who recently wrote the biography of J.M. Coetzee. Etienne van Heerden was born in the Florence Nightingale Clinic in Johannesburg. But it is the sheer depth of literary legends that makes Johannesburg the literary capital of South Africa and the reason why every person who is proudly South African should support the initiative. Legends such as Mahatma Gandhi, Athol Fugard, Alan Paton, Herman Charles Bosman, Ivan Vladislavic, David Goldblatt, Lionel Abrahams, Denis Beckett, William Kentridge, Damon Galgut, Bram Fischer, Beyers Naude, Albie Sachs, Gerard Sekoto, Anton Harber, Chris van Wyk, Helen Suzman, Bruce Fordyce, Patrick Mynhardt, Arthur Chaskalson, George Bizos, Ahmed Kathrada, Stephen Gray, Jenny Crys-Williams, Darrel Roodt; Johnny Clegg, Allister Sparks and Ronnie Kasrils all have strong links with Johannesburg.

However, for a city so replete with literary legends, Johannesburg has no iconic book festival. Yes, it has the Mail & Guardian Literary Festival, the Bloody Book Week and the Melville Poetry Festival, but these are all fledgling festivals. I admit that Jenny Crys-Williams’s Gautrain project, where she hosts literary events on the Gautrain, has no equal in the annals of South African literature. But what Johannesburg needs is a festival over five days, spread across the city, a festival befitting a Unesco City of Literature. This is what we, the pioneers of the booktown concept in the Karoo, intend to launch in the near future. And we will make it happen by hustling it into existence. We will not have meetings upon meetings, and we will not get experts to draft discussion documents and set year-long time frames. We will just do it. People willing to help can contact Darryl David at cowboys@sai.co.za or 081 391 8689.

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