(From left) Julie Nxadi, Ian Currie, Simone Cupido, and Sisonke Msimang. Student leaders admitted they can't see every side of the story.  Picture: SHELAGH FOSTER
(From left) Julie Nxadi, Ian Currie, Simone Cupido, and Sisonke Msimang. Student leaders admitted they can't see every side of the story. Picture: SHELAGH FOSTER

WHAT was markedly different this year were a few panels where the focus was not literary, but concerned with the currents everyone had become more clearly aware of, writes Karin Schimke

The Franschhoek Literary Festival turned 10 this year, but in a sense it only turned one.

This is the first festival that has been held since a black writer last year publicly denounced this and all other SA book festivals — plus the entire publishing industry — as being too white.

The sense that anything could happen at this year’s festival was an undercurrent among writers in the build-up to it. But the “anything” they imagined could not — even in a writer’s mind — have been as surreal as the appearance of apartheid’s foremost villain among the polite, intellectual audiences, materialising from the mystery of his parole whereabouts in the most public way possible.

Eugene “Prime Evil” de Kock not only sat in on panels where Anemari Jansen, the author of Eugene de Kock: Assassin for the State spoke, but turned up at the Sunday Times Literary Awards short-list event, a private, by-invitation-only function organised by the Sunday Times to coincide each year with the Franschhoek Literary Festival.

He had not been invited by the publishers or the festival organisers, both of whom expressed surprise. Jansen had sent an e-mail to the Sunday Times in April, after initially accepting the invitation, asking whether invitations could be extended to De Kock, who “would like to attend the Sunday Times Literary short-list announcement as well”, and his custodian.

The answer that came back was that it was “absolutely fine”.

Marga Stoffer, publishing manager at NB Publishers, says the author failed to inform the publisher that De Kock would be attending the festival at all.

De Kock’s presence was generally condemned as crass and insensitive.

“It’s like having Himmler roaming around the Berlin Literary Festival,” one writer remarked.

During a panel discussion last year, the novelist Thando Mgqolozana said that black writers were present at literary festivals only as “anthropological subjects”. He refused, he said, to attend them any longer.

His protest was in line with the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which had been steadily gathering a head of foam that would rise up and spill over the entire country by the third quarter of last year.

The year 2015 will go down in history as one in which race was firmly and uncomfortably pushed back onto centre stage, 21 years after official apartheid had ended. And the stage it was on was an intellectual one: literary festivals and universities became the places to haul what had become unspeakable into the light.

There were 130 events at the Franschhoek festival this year, and 190 participants. Ticket sales and attendance were on par with previous years.

Only one writer declined the festival’s invitation in solidarity with the stance taken by Mgqolozana last year.

The festival, though literary, has always had a strong social and political focus and events organised around nonfiction books have always been better attended than those by poets, for instance. What was markedly different this year were a few panels where the focus was not literary, but concerned with the currents everyone had become more clearly aware of. Most noteworthy of these was the panel entitled “Can we claim to be intersectional?”Hosted by Sisonke Msimang, the only writer on stage, it involved a conversation between three key leaders of the last year’s student uprisings across the country: Julie Nxadi, Simone Cupido and Ian Currie.

Each, though initially directly involved with organising various manifestations of student disillusionment about current systems, had become increasingly concerned that certain voices were being drowned out in the melee around the students’ newfound power.

All three had come to the conclusion in various ways that the only way to creep back towards unity was to admit that they didn’t all know everything about everyone’s marginality and there had to be ways to include everyone. Listening was the first step towards bridging the gaps between different people’s understanding of the world.

All three noted the ways in which their own identities restricted them from knowing all sides of every argument, and which brought a myopia that could only be overcome when someone pointed it out to them.

Mgqolozana’s widely reported reactions at last year’s festivals made organisers and participants of literary festivals around the country sit up and take note. In 2015, one could almost hear a collective rustling of pages as the system engaged in self-scrutiny at panels, festivals, fairs and in private meetings across the country.

Ann Donald, who this year served the last of a three-year contract to organise the Franschhoek festival, said that Mgqolozana’s statements last year “raised our awareness to the reality that our intentions were not always what was received or experienced by some participants, and it created more sensitivity to how we approached and positioned the programme”.

Mgqolozana pointed out blind spots last year. Many people listened. Someone decided that enough listening had been done for an apartheid killer’s presence at a literary festival not to be noticed.

They were wrong. On both accounts.

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