Book fest’s inconvenient truth

2014-09-29 13:45

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The country’s recent history has been so mileposted by scandals?–?Marikana, Nkandla, the collapse of African Bank?–?that there is a growing sense of unease about what the future holds.

You can hear it if you listen to talk radio, or follow the discussions on newspaper pages and Facebook posts.

In his astonishingly brilliant introduction to Fiona Forde’s 2011 biography An Inconvenient Youth: Julius Malema, political scientist Achille Mbembe says there is something unresolved at the centre of South African politics.

He argues that the negotiated settlement which led to the historic 1994 elections “ushered the country into a historical interval. Seventeen years later, it is still caught between an intractable present and an irrecoverable past; between things that are no longer and things that are not yet.”

This sense of a country caught in an uncomfortable position “between things that are no longer and things that are not yet” was the major theme that threaded through this year’s Open Book Festival in Cape Town.

Now in its fourth year, the festival hosted dozens of local and international writers, journalists, poets and comic artists over a period of five days last week.

It began with the announcement of the winner of the annual City Press Tafelberg Nonfiction Award. The R60?000 prize went to education researcher Vashti Nepaul, who is working on a book exploring the challenges of helping children from poor South African communities maximise their potential.

Before the announcement, the inaugural winner of the award, Dr Maria Phalime, spoke about the country’s dysfunctional healthcare system and about her courageous debut book, Postmortem: The Doctor Who Walked Away.

“The state of our hospitals in general is dire?...?There’s a lot of dysfunction in our public health system,” said Phalime. “What use am I as a doctor when someone comes to me desperately in need and I can’t help?” she lamented after recounting some of the soul-destroying experiences that led her to walk away from the profession.

Likewise, novelists Zukiswa Wanner and Thando Mgqolozana voiced their frustrations with the country’s literary fraternity during a panel discussion aptly titled Writer’s Rage.

The discussion was prompted by a blog post from Wanner?–?The Literature and Magazine/Newspaper Editors’ Rant?–?in which she asked: “In a country where the majority of the population is black, y’all have suddenly decided that white writing is the standard? Really? There are either good or bad black female/male writers so stop that ‘good black’ crap, stop it.”

As a society, we have not found a way to move beyond race. People’s experiences continue to be shaped by race in major and minor ways, and Wanner and Mgqolozana’s impassioned discussion reflected that. Being called a “good black writer”, the two novelists said, was not only patronising but marginalises their work and marks it as inferior.

Wanner also added that something that “really pisses” her off was that “black writers” were always perpetually described as “emerging”, no matter how many novels, essays or short stories they had published.

She quoted the example of Niq Mhlongo, who she said had recently been described as an “emerging writer” in an article she read. This, despite him having published three novels that have been translated into a number of languages.

A growing sense of unease has also gripped newspaper houses. The consensus that arose in the panel discussions that looked at the state of print journalism is that the future looks undeniably bleak. The end has not yet come, but the four horsemen of the apocalypse are surely on the horizon.

Songezo Zibi, editor of Business Day, said the “media’s ability to provide information and to sustain vibrancy of the democracy is under threat”. This is not only from government, but the long-term financial sustainability of newspapers is also in question.

As Australian freelance journalist and author Antony Loewenstein suggested: “The state of the press in many countries has never been worse?...?The business model is not working.”

More worryingly, he added, the beheading of James Foley and Steven Sotloff shows that “journalists are now being directly targeted [in war-torn countries] and killed for propaganda value”. This makes it more difficult to report from those areas.

Zelda la Grange’s conversation with journalist Marianne Thamm about her memoir, Good Morning, Mr Mandela, on the closing day of the festival provided a necessary glimmer of hope. She spoke candidly of how she supported apartheid as a young, white, Afrikaner woman growing up in Boksburg, but that her conception of herself and the country gradually began to shift when she started working for Nelson Mandela.

The premise of La Grange’s story contains post-apartheid South Africa’s founding idea: that out of darkness can come light. The growing sense of unease that is ever present stems from the realisation that we have not fully realised that idea.

The question is: What is to be done?

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