Tuesday, 20 September 2022

Encounters with Biko 3: “Hope never befriends fools…” (Bra Wally told us*)

In this guest post, Glenn Farred deals with pain, memory and difficult encounters in the trenches. These things – which come with a distinct lack of closure, given how things have turned out in Mzansi  follow us now. However, poets and poetry can help us revisit and process those unspoken things. By GLEN FARRED.

It was a late afternoon, “cold and bright,” as Orwell might have said, when we gathered for one of those tense and fretful meetings. Kids, in their respective school uniforms, moved around awkwardly. In a classroom, we gathered to plan or, more precisely, receive instructions. At the head of the classroom, teacher-like, stood a young woman no older than 18, fierce and stern.

Some misadventure was being proposed and she was dutifully instructing us on our acceptance. People shuffled their feet under the desks. Some murmuring of discontent was hidden behind surreptitious coughing. People looked down, sideways, out the window – no one looked directly at each other – as if avoiding embarrassment.

I turned to the person behind me, who had arrived late, and sat throughout in silence. “Comrade, this is crazy…”I muttered at him.

The COSAS organiser, the chap behind me, already a grown man, who should, one hoped, have known better, growled back and hissed: “Why are you telling me?”

We exchanged those sounds between each other, the ones made are between the tongue, the teeth and the cheeks; indeed, through quiet stares and imperceptible facial tics our exchange took place:

You know this is crazy!/

Yes but it’s not my problem/

It’s your fucking job/

Still not my problem/


Fuck you!”

The little man, the organiser, is actually quite a whimsical fellow. Short in stature, gruffness was projected to convey a gravitas otherwise lacking. You could take him seriously but only up to a point. He did however possess an enormous facility to mimic voices and accents; acting was his more natural calling, with such skill as to paint entire pictures with only his voice. Once seen in this light, you would know instantly that he had passed through that most cultured of youth organisations: LAGUNYACRO (Langa, Gugulethu, Nyanga, Crossroads Youth Organisation).

That afternoon there was no place for culture or art or laughter.

The voice of authority, at the head of the classroom, possessed an entirely different persona. This was a person whose complete emotional range seemed to be irritation, contempt, back to irritation. It was entirely natural and foretold that in the years to come she would spread her scorn from the employ of National Treasury, in what one can only imagine they believed to have been the “glory days” of GEAR! Can someone be born spiteful? Incontrovertibly, she was well suited for those roles.

The “line” was being given and had to be dutifully received.

Clearing of the throat… “Comrade Chair, can we consider...” In return the look, the evil eye and cold stare. The madness wasn’t entirely the fault of the messenger, although some people are naturally more inclined to be anti-democratic. When armed with an entire political, ideological and organisational framework in which to operate, they will indeed flourish, if that’s the correct expression.

Our tense exchange was brought to an abrupt halt by the sounds of police sirens screaming and screeching nearby, close but not yet at the scene of our gathering. Quickly the meeting dispersed, convinced of course that we were the target needing to escape. Whatever mayhem was being unleashed, we left, mercifully having to abandon, for now, the crazy little scheme.

But everything that day sat uncomfortably. Everything. It left a niggling feeling, an unpalatable residue on the tongue, irritating the back of the throat, an itch at the nape of the neck. Wrong. Off.

Making my way home, night having fallen, and in a heightened state of alertness, passing an alley, a voice spoke from the gloom. All the micro decisions pop up: Turn to the speaker? Ignore and move on? Run? Which way? Across the field? Back across the road? What are the distances? Which way is safer?

Turning to face the voice, which emerged from the shadows, it was recognisable - as was the fact that it should not be there.

The voice told: “Ashley Kriel** had just been murdered at the safe house; I was supposed to meet him there. The taxi I was taking broke down here and delayed me. It is not safe for me to go back to where I was. Take me to so-and-so.”

A month or so later that young man*** would be captured and tortured (to say brutally would be a tautology) and sentenced to 14 years on Robben Island. He would be one of the last to leave that island. He would lose some essential part of himself but struggle to retain so much, and perhaps in the end, having gained something in return.

Years later, although not so many as have passed now, deep into the night, we sat together on the field of a stadium that was named after him, in a little town at the edge of that province.

There was a kind of madness between the man on the field and the name on the stadium. We smoked and talked and laughed and took the piss out of the fountain of bitterness which life had made us drink.

Who would know these things? Who could say what could not be spoken or even understood? Who would forge the language – craft the words – for that which no language or words yet existed?

It begins simply. We will never know exactly how. It comes from the part of ourselves we know and do not wish to know. It is the voice of prophecy foretold; the words, sounds and images which summon the deed, the action, the bold. Before the beginning, it had already begun.

Words on paper. Images on canvas. Notes and voices in song.

Bob Marley said:

“This judgment can never be with water, No water can put out this fire!

It’s the Fire that’s burning down everything… Everywhere this fire is burning and melting their gold!”

James Baldwin said:

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, Fire next time!”

There can be no consciousness, no consciousness at all, without the poets, the writers, the singers, the musicians, the artists. They are not only our conscience but the awakening of our consciousness – they open in us the windows and doors to the inner workings of the mind and its imaginings.

The artist spoke

 And fire was made flesh

The fire came

The fire burnt

Will we be

Next time?

Biko Lives!

by Glen Farred

*See Mongane Wally Serote's poem, When Lights Go Out. **Ashley Kriel died in 1987, murdered by the Apartheid regime in cold blood, aged 20. ***Nicklo Pedro (see pics below) was 20 years old when he was arrested in 1987. 

Saturday, 17 September 2022

Encounters with Biko 2: “The dead no longer remember…”

This is the second in Glenn Farred's Encounters with Biko. As someone from a younger generation, he engages with holders of the legacy and discusses how, often, memory work is controlled and misused for untoward ends. He uses these encounters to restate the need to go beyond the instances of gatekeeping and seek the essence of Biko's legacy: to continue to resist conditions of oppression and exploitation.   By GLENN FARRED 

Even the most casual observer of history will recognise that the monuments and statues built to immortalise people or events are an act of deception. Monuments and memory are not the same; they are built precisely to tell us what someone else wants us to remember and more importantly, what it is they want us to forget.

This deception is built on the quite incontestable advantage the living have: the dead cannot speak.

My first year of high school began with my history teacher initiating the study of the subject with E H Carr’s “What Is History?” Throughout those five years my assignments and exam scripts were marked, in red of course, with a recurrent admonishment: “Nothing is inevitable except death!”

The exasperation and palpable frustration cannot accurately be conveyed through the word processor on a laptop. It was scrawled, slightly slanted, ink pressed hard into the paper, underlined twice sometimes to underscore the point. Between our two divergent viewpoints we could never agree. We were making history, not merely studying it. The caution of the teacher cannot tame the courage of the pupil, no matter how wise that counsel may be. Revolution is for the young and the young will not be restrained.

And we believed that what was to be was inevitable because we were the architects of our own destiny. We would not depart the stage of history as those before us had done: defeated, exiled or imprisoned. Our historic mission would end in victory, or as the slogan said, death. We would not retreat and we would not surrender. We were young…and we were the many. When we commemorated all those historic days and events back then it held an undertone of criticism from one generation to the previous ones: their foolishness and foibles would not be ours.

But History is a cruel teacher; the lessons, if not learnt, will be taught again.

In 1987, ten years after the death of Steve Biko at the hands of Apartheid’s thugs, it was obvious that the event should be marked by some greater effort to celebrate and salute the memory of this great hero. I found myself on a student body in the portfolio of “Public Relations Officer”. In truth I thought this portfolio was some kind of ironic joke. In those days just about every organisation in resistance to the state found itself proscribed under the State of Emergency laws in force at the time.

Q: “How exactly does one publically relate the message of a banned organisation comrades?”

A: “That’s your role. Find a way!”

Of course, one then had no choice but to “find a way”. As it happened, it was actually possible, due to a loophole the Apartheid state had not quite gotten around to closing.

You could use what was said in court, quote and speak around what was presented or petitioned in the legal representations in Apartheid’s very own unjust persecutions and trial proceedings. The opportunity of course depended on the State prosecuting people, which it naturally did with abandon, sadly for those caught in its dragnet.

This meant spending an unhealthy amount of time with lawyers and advocates, in part to coax certain statements out of them for presentation in open court and for use in the wider public domain.

Advocates Chambers; Lawyers consulting rooms; Magistrates Courts; Jail cells – these now became essential spaces of battle. Every opportunity had to be taken to craft the message, which could then be quoted, legally, with all the limitations that inherently carried. Finding that line with fastidious legal minds, such as the late Dullah Omar, could often prove difficult. Lawyers, even though they were comrades, were still lawyers, sadly.

If this sounds cynical from today’s vantage point, it has to be placed in the context of the Apartheid regimes efforts at smashing the mass movement having gone into over-drive, as the trial of Wynberg Seven,for example,showed us. It was a particularly hateful, indeed, intentionally cruel display of injustice, done with purposefulness to frighten ordinary people from resisting or showing sympathy for those who resisted. Sending children to jail, not as political prisoners, but into the general prison population was truly evil, even by the Apartheid regime's admittedly low standards. The heavily-tainted[1] FW De Klerk’s bloody fingerprints can be found all over this case, as then Apartheid Minister of Education, he could, if he chose, have intervened for clemency. If you are not familiar with this lesser-known trial, I would recommended it for your edification because of the chilling fact that those on trial were not political activists, but mere children, whose worst crime was throwing a stone or being in the vicinity of stone-throwing. Think over what taking a child to prison means and then, if you have ever doubted those who hate De Klerk, justify how he received a “peace” prize for a lifetime of such deeds!

Not everything could be left to “legal loopholes” and every opportunity had to be taken to resist, mobilise and organise, regardless of the security apparatus or the fear the Apartheid state wished to spread amongst the people to crush their spirit and isolate activists. The tenth anniversary of Biko’s death was an event, no matter the repression, which had to be marked and marked publicly – cowering behind closed doors would be to give the regime exactly what it wanted and needed. If they could crush this wave of resistance, as they had before, they could gain a temporary but significant advantage over the mass movement. They could set the terms of negotiations from a position of strength; no more nor less than the terms of our surrender would be demanded, which they would be happy to negotiate. To hold out, even for a stalemate, was enough to give the masses a fighting chance in the battles which lay ahead. All this we understood; all this we knew required sacrifice.

In that moment, I encountered the typical individual which all great struggles give rise to: Those-Famous-By-Association! This is a by-product of struggle: people who are present when great moments or events happen; they are not the architects but the supporting cast. They gain fame and stature disproportionate to their actual role in events, they gain prestige by association. Once it is safe and the great storms and tribulations have passed, they claim the mantle and speak in the voice of the dead. We called these people opportunists, living off the reflected glory of another’s sacrifice. Today we give them titles and positions and public acclaim.

In preparing the Biko 10th Anniversary event, two people stood out as potential speakers to give testimony about Biko, the man and person. The political messaging from them was not important - that’s what the comrades on the podium would do. But for the sake of completeness, surely personal reflections would add value and insight? Why not bring flesh and bone to memory of the martyr? Each of these personal associates of Biko were contacted and in a manner of speaking, encountered.

In an informal setting I met PC Jones. He was warm, quite open and approachable. If a person can be “happily scarred” then PC Jones struck me as being exactly that, and in that contentment, it seemed both unkind and unnecessary to invite him onto a public stage, with all the potential danger that entailed, to relive his time with Biko. It seemed wiser to let those on their path of healing to proceed without public spotlighting. Not every trauma needs public scrutiny and personal reminiscences are sometimes best left in private spaces.

The other option was far more high profile, not above gratuitous name-dropping, reminding all and sundry of her association with Biko. None of this must be taken as an insult to this person, her personal history, achievements or contributions. She should, as we all must, be judged on her own merit. It was striking how different her engagement was and is with the life and legacy of Steve Bantu Biko. Haughty, self-important and arrogant, the encounter was marked from the off by hostility:

“Who are you? …Do you know who I am? ... What kind of event is this? … I am far too busy!”

Unfortunately, my generation lacks the kind of reverence for accidental and incidental people, heroes and giants of their own imaginings. Attempts at rhetoric will be met with logic. If you ask a question, expect an answer, exposition and argumentation. You will not escape reason by fanciful declarations of self-importance. Many veterans, returning exiles and Robben Islanders found themselves shocked by the impertinence of young people who would not be silenced by the mere mention of names or recitations of “struggle credentials”. In those days, we still believed in accountability, actual accountability, not in words but deeds. 

My failed attempt focused attention on the power of black consciousness and the power of appropriation. This narrative of the self-made, liberated black achiever is not Black Consciousness, as those who proclaim it believe. It represents a fault-line, a chasm, between black consciousness as personal mantra, and Black Consciousness as political movement. The very notion of “self-liberation” equating to “my liberation” betrays an anti-Black consciousness.

Because the dead cannot speak, the masquerading cast of supporting characters continues to impersonate the real thing. If you believe that Biko intended you to enrich yourself, attain personal wealth and pronounce on the sorry state of our people's morals you are quite are quite entitled to do so. What you are not entitled to, what you must be called out on, is the meaning and intent of Black Liberation - and your position and role in the achievement or hindrance of it.

This assumed moral superiority displays a complete disregard for the material conditions of oppression and exploitation black people endure while you have taken the money and comfort white people give you. Don’t quibble – if you gained anything by your efforts you gained those rewards from someone! Who hands out those rewards? And what did they gain in return?

Don’t presume to teach us morals or tell us how to resist. We do not need “psychological” liberation and lectures on our “dependency on hand-outs”. We exist and resist, despite, not because of you. You are either part of the problem or you are part of the solution.

As the poet said:

“When you are sick

And tired

Of being sick

And tired

Remind the living

That the


No longer


We Speak For Dead Because We Demand The Right To Live!

Biko Lives!

[1] The De Klerk regime was indeed bloody. The TRC was scathing in its denunciation of the state-sponsored violence of the early 90s. The TRC heard how the state was associated with train killings, chemical warfare as well as chemical attacks on Frelimo, and how reports by Gen Pierre Steyn were never acted on. (See https://tinyurl.com/bdfkpz5y).

Thursday, 15 September 2022

South Africa’s democracy: in urgent need of a capable state

After many years of a post-apartheid society, we now know democracy only thrives where the state is sufficiently ethical, competent, and capable, writes Thamsanqa Mabandla. In this guest piece, Mabandla argues that 'the dream' has turned sour and contradictions are causing the unseemly break-up of the ruling party  these giving rise to waves of right-wing nationalism. But the trick is never to give up on democracy and to keep agitating for a capable state. By THAMSANQA  MABANDLA.

After decades of globalisation, the world political system has become obsolete – and spasms of resurgent nationalism are a sign of its irreversible decline. The nation-state as a universal, permanent, and unchanging social entity has entered a period of deep crisis. Our national political authority is in decline, and, since we do not know any other sort, it feels like the end of the world. A strange brand of apocalyptic narrow nationalism is so widely in vogue currently. Nation states everywhere appear to be in an advanced state of political and moral decay from which they cannot individually extricate themselves. Even if we wanted to restore what we once had, that moment is gone. But to acknowledge this is to acknowledge the end of politics itself. 

Governments are increasingly controlled by outside forces and possess only partial influence over national affairs: this has been the reality of our own democracy, and it feels like a terrifying return to primitive vulnerability under apartheid. South Africa’s ceremony of innocence has been drowned in violence, factionalism, venality, corruption, lawlessness, and expediency which have now become the order of the day.After many years of freedom, we now know democracy only thrives where the state is sufficiently ethical, competent, and capable. If not, being a mere democracy is just a symbolic act and not enough to build a country. South Africa’s democracy has also taught us that even change which seems revolutionary can leave the essential patterns and horrors of the past intact. You’d be blind not to see it and damned if you ignore it.

The country’s present depressing reality is too common to easily capture the gnawing sensibility seeping across all aspects of social life. The majority remain trapped in poverty and unemployment and the daily dread of life under democracy and its mutations act as a symptom, pointing to something not yet discernible or understandable, an uneasy sense of anticipation. Most citizens appear worse off today than they were before, and the contradictions established by settler-colonialism remain visible. South Africa’s democratisation seems caught up in what the poet Lebo Mashile once referred to as "the existential crisis of a miracle overstretched" and what Achille Mbembe aptly describes as the dialectic of the dream that is always on the verge of becoming a nightmare.

The lingering question is:  Why has the post-apartheid state failed to move beyond the limitations of its apartheid forebear?

Since coming to power the ANC government has politicized democratic institutions and social inequalities have been widening. The state capture debacle and the collapse of the state-owned institutions have further deepened cynicism of citizens about their own democratic institutions and democracy itself.As such, it is easy to understand the commonly held view that, a large part of the apartheid ediface now appears enmeshed in the ANC, and the liberation movement has become enmeshed in capital. Clearly, the ANC is imploding from the weight of its own contradictions. Despite this, South Africa’s high levels of discontent remain deeply etched in the political-economic order as the gulf between South Africa’s haves and have nots is vast.

What it means to be a South African is now murkier and blurrier than it was at the dawn of democracy.

Political polarisation and populist right nationalism has given rise to the othering of others. By constructing the ‘other’ i.e., foreigner, the invader as a source of our problems reflects post-apartheid’s aborted project of nation-building. Persistent Afrophobia, xenophobia, racism,are some of the many enduring reactionary tendencies engulfing society today as new forms of articulation that attempt to displace idealistic desires for a Pan- Africanist inclusionary outlook. There clearly is a rising momentum of sporadic and unpredictable community organisations that have sprung up and organised around the nexus of anti-crime / anti-foreigner sentiment. The progressive-leaning voices are only ‘winning’ this battle on social media platforms.

Nevertheless,  relentlessly attacking the state and slamming the idea of being a democracy only serve to delegitimise our common endeavour to overcome the legacy of our past. We must reimagine the state that interferes to create markets - not reduced to policing the system, a state as a servant of the people – built around public-spirited  civil servants whose loyalties and commitments to state affairs are not determined by their allegiance to race, gender, class, or political affiliation - but by their patriotism and service to the people. Only a strong, capable state, not a diminishing one, is required for our democracy. It is incumbent on the political elites to respond constructively by seeking support for a capable state across opposing political blocs, and thereby reinforce the legitimacy of democracy.

By Thamsanqa Mabandla, campaigner for people-centred democracy and seasoned development practitioner

Wednesday, 14 September 2022

Encounters with Biko: Footsteps of a Giant

Each year in September, South Africans find themselves in Biko Month. At such times, argues Glenn Farred, we should be vigilant, ready to spot the ritualized solemnity and the empty platitudes designed to hijack Biko's immense legacy by the very ones who trample on that legacy through their greed. and arrogance. Farred, a civil society leader and a constant voice for active citizenship, is a guest contributor to this blog. By GLENN FARRED 

As a young activist, barely a teenager really, I had a strange encounter with a dead person.  It was memorable for being discordant and in harmony, as the truth often is.

My generation was brought into active political life during the period of the tri-cameral Parliament; the formation of the United Democratic Front in 1983; the uprisings of 1985; culminating in the release of Mandela in 1990.

Often referred to as a “lost generation”, it was distinct from previous generations, even from the generation of ’76 or ‘81. So, for us, the leaders of the 1950s and ‘60s were ancient, somewhat mythical people who belonged in the history books which we would write. Victory, always certain, would be ours!

Our impatience was tempered by the reality that we were still led by old people on podiums, in hiding, in exile and on “the Island”. Part of that process was the often enduring lectures delivered, it appeared, completely randomly. Leaders seemed prone to nostalgia and reminiscences and telling stories that could border on sentimentalism and hero worship. Parables to teach the young the deeds and the days of long-dead men or men longing not to be forgotten - we endured these digressions as kindly as we could.

Quite literally, sitting at their feet, in a backyard, or a cramped room, or worst of all, a car, held captive until the lesson ended. On one such occasion, I was taken to a specific spot in my township, the central point of transport and what passed for commerce, with shops and even a bioscope.  With reverential silence, a spot was pointed out to me and we stood there as if gazing upon some giant monument to a great glory or historic event. As far as I could tell it was merely a piece of concrete, like any other around it.

But no! Here, I was told, was the precise spot where Steven Bantu Biko had stood, his last contact with this place, before he stepped into a vehicle with his fellow traveller and companion, Peter Cyril Jones, as they left Cape Town on that fateful trip which would end, via murderous assault, in the back of a police van with Biko manacled, chained, naked… and dead!

A hushed but steady torrent of words followed, and the face which told the story was animated by something I had never really seen before: a kind of rapture, inner joy, etched with pain and anger intermingled with cold determination and unquestioning certainty of every word which it brought forth.

This was, without doubt, a place of greatness – the last spot where a giant had stood!

What was one to make of this story? Whether it was apocryphal or not didn’t really matter. The message was clear: we stand there because of Biko! Learn this; know this; feel this; remember this!

This in itself was powerful but it was stranger given its context. Politics in this township was dominated by two camps: Stalinist and Nationalist. That is to say, they were Congress, divided only on matters of tactics and personality, not programme or strategy. So the lesson came as a shock, as everyone knew Biko was not Congress, and being wary of traps set for the uninitiated, it had to be treated as a potential trick to get the unsuspecting to reveal ‘tendencies’ against ‘the movement’.

The deliverer of the lecture was no gentle philosopher but a hard man in possession of an arms cache; a soldier and fighter. A man to be feared as those weapons could just as easily be pointed at comrades as they could ‘the system’. Treading carefully around volatile people with guns was not paranoia but a necessary survival tool. But it wasn’t a trick. Here was a Congress die-hard who was completely enthralled and inspired – against all his own political training and interests – by one man who for and to whom nothing but the greatest respect was demanded and given!

This was a voice from the generation of ’76 called into opposition to the Apartheid system as part of our first truly national uprising, inspired to resist, not only in body and soul, but with the most potent weapon forged in the history of struggle: the consciousness of the oppressed!

The Gospel According to Biko - this was the lesson! Death does not kill an idea. Death cannot even kill a man. Biko Lives!

There is a poem, or a fragment of a poem, recalled:

“If we seek to free

Yet fear to die

Let us honour those

Who serve

And ask not


All who wish to attain freedom must liberate themselves from the shackles of mental oppression and slavery. Many in the ANC sort then, as they do now, to erase, diminish or co-opt Biko in order to obscure his vision and his power. When we learn, again, to say with poetic beauty and rage - “What’s in this black shit[1] -   we begin to see ourselves as we truly are and will be.

When we tell the powerful to fuck off; when we rely on only our own strength; when control our leaders and are not be controlled by them; when we free ourselves from the farcical theatre and melodramas they stage to distract us; when see our real enemies – only then can we be truly free.

To a great extent, those who have misdirected us have succeeded, in part because of the impotence of those who attempt to stake their claim over Biko’s legacy, as if exercising exclusive rights to its meaning and purpose. Meanwhile, the hypocrites, the ignorant, the anti-black opportunists, the liars and scoundrels prosper and pretend to rule: a collective of arrogant, insatiable parasites infesting every facet of public life, every institution and all spheres of social discourse.  Their greed and villainy is matched only by their cowardice and fear.

The wicked will gather in ritualised solemnity to mock Biko once again this year. If you listen carefully and look upon them with critical eyes you will see that behind their masks the shadow of fear is creeping, for they know he is not dead and their time grows short.

Biko’s legacy does not belong to them… It belongs to us!

Biko Lives!

[1] A reference to the title of a famous Mongane Serote poem, “What’s in this Back Shit”. See Poem: What’s in this Black ‘Shit’ by Mongane Serote | FunDza

Thursday, 28 April 2022

On translation and her new book. Tadjo speaks


Interview with author Véronique Tadjo:

FM: What got you interested in the area of translation where I know you have done some cutting-edge work?

Véronique Tadjo: It is, firstly, linked to personal circumstances; it’s also because I am interested in the Anglophone world in general and in Anglophone Africa in particular. I’ve lived in different countries: Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa (for 14 years), so of course, I am interested in seeing my books translated into English, in order to continue the conversation. I wouldn’t be happy without English, although French is my mother tongue. I work in both languages.

FM: What is the role of translation in a polyglot context such as ours (South Africa?)

VT: I am still amazed that you have eleven official languages. It’s such an incredible example for many countries. I know that on the ground it's is not that easy ... and that some languages are dominant. But the mere fact of making that decision at the national level is extraordinary. It is the recognition of the linguistic diversity of the country. That’s vitally important.

I can see that the dominant languages are English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa. It is all about the number of people speaking a language. Another element that is a determinant is the allocation of resources – the fact of having a whole structure and funding behind the chosen languages. Languages are expensive to keep alive; so you need real political vision and the will to maintain those languages in a written form as well. Sure people continue to speak their languages.  But if you want to give equal status to all the 11 official languages then you should be putting a lot of money behind those languages. They need books, pedagogical material and all sorts of other components -- including a commercially viable publishing industry to back them.

FM: In our transition, what interests me is the route we took with respect to the different languages and their position in relation to each other. For example, we didn't use our national broadcaster more aggressively to advance marginalised languages nor did we use it to introduce people of dominant language groups (Afrikaans and English) to other official languages. We took the softer route. Any comment on that?

VT: Something we forget is the economic dimension of languages. It’s obvious that they cost money.  It is one thing to declare that you have eleven official languages, but it’s another story to invest some money in them. And that is the problem. Radio could have helped a lot in terms of promoting those languages while waiting for a written culture to develop. You could say that SA was too ambitious in choosing so many official languages. Maybe four could have been more manageable. But then, it soon becomes a political issue. You can see this in many other African countries.  To respect linguistic diversity is indeed a political and economic issue.

Q: What can a writers' magazine like Calabash and publishing linked to our new national writers’ organisation do in terms of linguistic diversity? The Calabash journal’s first edition had a balance similar to that of Staffrider in the sense that most submissions were in English. What can it do in terms of using translation and other aspects of multilingualism?

VT: I think you just have to continue to put the emphasis on linguistic diversity. There is no other way. It must be consistent. You might feel that there isn’t a resonance – or that people are not getting it but with time it will happen. Calabash magazine needs to be bilingual – translating indigenous languages into English and vice versa. There’s another issue which bothers me a lot. Translating is not enough in itself; you need quality translators. Sometimes, we think that just because someone can speak a language, he or she can translate. This is not true. I fear that this side is not always properly taken care of. The quality of translation is very important. As a writer, there’s nothing that I fear more than a bad translation because it will leave readers with the feeling that I can’t write. As an organization, you have to work with a pool of translators you can trust – people who have a mastery of the different levels of a given language.  For example, there are some translators who can master classic Zulu, the way older people like to hear it. Then there are those who can render the flavour of “urban” Zulu, a language that borrows new words all the time. This is something to take into account: at which level do you want to pitch your translation? If you can’t find someone who can satisfy your requirements, it is better not to do it, as it will be a disservice to authors.

FM: What can publishers do (that is, start doing or do more of) to address the challenge of diverse and interrelated language needs and requirements?

VT: As I indicated earlier, this is not typical to South Africa. Your question is also relevant to the rest of Africa. In many countries, it has not been solved yet. Again, governments should provide more money for the promotion of translation. Translators require remuneration. It’s not reasonable to ask publishers to bear the whole burden of this issue. At the pan-African level, why doesn’t the African Union have a department geared to providing financial support for translation? In a way, it’s a highly emotional issue. Yet we need to look at it with clear-sighted objectives.

FM: National Writers Association of South Africa (NWASA) will be an integral part of the Pan African Writers Association, opening up further possibilities for dialogue and engagement. If a South African writer wishes to learn a language to communicate better with writers in the rest of the continent, which languages should they consider first?

VT: You may hate me for this but let me suggest French and Swahili. Swahili, because it is widely spoken on the continent even if there are variants. And French because at the end of the day, people do speak it in large numbers on the continent. It has become “a language of Africa”. In Côte d’Ivoire, we have several “French”. We have our own French that is spoken in the streets. It is similar to the pidgin in Nigeria and Liberia. Then you have the French that educated people use. The two forms one linguistic sphere. So, coming from SA, apart from English, you would need French (but let’s not forget Portuguese) and a big language like Swahili.

FM: It’s interesting that in South Africa recently the Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture, on a national news channel, emphasized the importance of learning Swahili and indicated that his ministry would be encouraging that. Let’s move on to focus on In the Company of Men which was released in 2017 in French; translated into English in 2021. What inspired you to choose the subject matter and theme; a focus that turned out to be so prescient in terms of the parallels between Covid-19 and Ebola.

VT: The Ebola epidemic started at the end of December 2013, although many cite the start as January 2014. It spread in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. It lasted until 2016. It was intense, traumatic and attached to a great deal of stigma concerning Africa.  During much of that time, I was in Johannesburg and teaching at Wits University. So I was following it from South Africa. As I am originally from Côte d'Ivoire – I was really, really worried that the disease would come to the whole of the West African region.

Côte d’Ivoire shares a border with Guinea in the north and with Liberia in the west. So the fear was real, people were saying: “It’s going to come; it’s going to come!” Everyone was tense. I was worried about my family and friends. As a consequence, I followed the story closely. You see, at times, the more you are far away from home, the more you worry; you start  thinking all sorts of terrible things because you are not there. That is partly why I started researching and trying to find as much information as I could on the Ebola epidemic.  I was at the right place at Wits University because conferences on the subject were held and there is also a good Science department.  Moreover, SA doctors went to Liberia and Sierra Leone. There was an abundance of information and I kept digging. However, when the epidemic was officially declared “over”, a complete blanket silence fell on the region. It was like this thing never happened. After the intense media coverage … nothing! It felt strange, “Did it happen, did it not happen?” Why as Africans were we not talking about what had happened? I didn’t like the wayEbola had been treated as an African disease.  I thought it was terrible. This was the worst stigma that could affect the continent. I had the urge to reclaim the story. There was much more to say, much more than what we had been shown on the television and told in the press.  I wanted – in one sense – to break the silence; to express in a different way how the events unfolded.I was also motivated by a sense that Ebola in West Africa wasn’t a once-off. There had been smaller-scale epidemics in DRC since 1975 when the virus was discovered. The whole thing needed to be viewed in the broader context of an environmental crisis. An epidemic doesn’t just come down from the sky. Very often it’s due to various circumstances. I thought it was important to talk about that as well.

FM: That gives a good background. How did you get to adopt the title, In the Company of Men?

It is understood better in the text. At some point in the narrative, I talk about bats and how when they lose their territory, their habitat, because of deforestation, they tend to come closer to human beings. And therefore they seek the company of men. The title refers to men with a capital M, meaning all human beings. It also refers to the fact that non-humans are looking at us and observing our behaviour. We are not separate from them anymore. Men are in the company of animals and animals are in the company of human beings. It’s a more holistic view of the world.

FM: I also note that the wholeness is extended to nature. I note you bring in the idea of the tree as a character; the baobab tree, which speaks.

Yes, I really wanted to bring in the ecological dimension. You cannot understand Ebola – and to a certain extent Covid-19 – if you don’t bring in the environmental issue. Unfortunately, we tend to separate the two. We put Covid-19 on one side and then ask … should we talk about the ecological crisis/climate change? No-one really wants to put them together because then, it’s ten times scarier.

FM: In the book, you make use of a range of devices: snapshots; portraits, magic realism, a combination of history and poetry and the inclusion of a sense of testimony to powerful effect? Have you made use of this set of devices in previous works?

Yes, I’ve always written like that. It’s a tendency that I have because I am trying not to tell a story in a linear way but rather to show different facets. That’s how we function in life. We have so many things happening at the same time in our heads. In fact, it’s a “fiction” to think that a story can be told from beginning to end like a river flowing in one direction. We live among people; people tell us things. We listen to what they have to say and it influences us. You can never get a full grasp of what is happening around you unless you acknowledge different points of view.

FM: How was the French version (first edition) of In the Company of Men received? Do you have sense of numbers distribution and what else can you tell is about the response to it?

I don’t have numbers off the top of my head. I know that the book was well received. What I am pleased about is that, because of the situation with Covid-19, there has been a renewed interest. It is only now that the book is going to be published in Francophone Africa first, and then in Anglophone Africa. I’m a bit disappointed that some people asked why I wanted to tell a story that had been such a stain on the continent. My response to them was: “Don’t you want to tell your own story in your own words? I think people have now come to realize that Ebola was hiding another story. If you had immersed yourself in the crisis at the time, you would have understood that something else was bound to come up. Given the way we live, we have made ourselves vulnerable to many diseases. Let’s face it, in Africa, malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/Aids, and many other diseases are endemic. So, health should become the priority of priorities. We have to address and understand that because it says volumes about the state of governance. If you can’t protect your population, then there is something seriously wrong.

FM: On writing for children, can I ask your views on the significance of that category of writing and whether you are continuing your work in that sphere?

VT: Yes I am continuing with children’s writing. I like it a lot and I believe that it is the foundation of African literature. Many say very casually that on the continent, people don’t read … you can’t get people to sit down and read. But they fail to acknowledge that an important base is missing, that is, providing children with books in which there are stories they can identify with; stories they can grow up with. You can’t be deprived of books when you are young and then – almost like a miracle – when you grow up, have this deep interest in literature.

FM: That’s an important area. And I would hope that, as a writers’ organisation, the National Writers Association of South Africa (NWASA) will continue to place emphasis on literature for children.

VT. But, you know, literature for children has been undervalued for a long time, often being seen as a sub-literature genre. There is the view that anyone can be a writer for children. That is a fallacy. It’s very demanding. You have to work on language and find new imagery; new ways of saying things. You have to find topics relevant to the youth. Furthermore, when we talk of 'Literature for young people', we tend to forget that it spans several age groups – from toddlers to teenagers all the way to pre-adults. It’s very diverse. That’s why many writers specialize in one particular age group. It’s not uncommon to find an author who can create for five year old children but  who is not at ease with an older group and vice versa.

FM: So there are many needs in that range, and they are not being sufficiently addressed.

VT: The way I see it, there is a huge potential and many good things coming out of literature for young people in Africa. We have a very big opportunity to be extremely original in both the illustrations and the content. Because, with the novel, we tend to copy and emulate the conventional Western genre of what a novel should be.  But if you take literature for young people, paradoxically, because it’s been overlooked, there’s a lot of freedom in terms of creativity and form. This should be encouraged.

FM. Has any publisher been identified to release or distribute the English version in South Africa?

The distribution of In the Company of Men in South Africa should not be too much of a problem. In terms of publishing, there is an interest, and it needs to be confirmed.*

FM: Thank you. Great to be discussing the two topics, In the Company of Men and the challenge and opportunity of translation in both directions – into indigenous languages and for writers of indigenous languages to share their work in the lingua franca.

VT: Thank you. I’ve appreciated and greatly enjoyed this discussion.

Biographical information:
Veronique Tadjo is a Francophone African writer who has published in a variety of genres, including short stories, poetry, novels, and children's literature. A painter as well, Tadjo often illustrates her children's books and has exhibited her artwork in solo and group exhibitions. Among her writings that have been translated into English are the novel A vol d'oiseau (1986; As the Crow Flies) and L'Ombre d'Imana (2000; The Shadow of Imana), about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In 2005 Tadjo was awarded the prestigious Grand Prix Littéraire de l'Afrique Noire (The Grand Prize for African Literature) for Reine Pokou (2005; Queen Pokou), a novel about the legend of the mythical Queen Pokou and the establishment of the Baoulé kingdom, in present-day Côte d'Ivoire. In 1993 she became a full-time writer. She has conducted workshops on such topics as literature for African youth and the illustrating of children's books. In 2000 and 2001 she served as a judge for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

* In The Company of Men has been released in South Africa (March 2022) by Jacana Media. The book can be found here.

** This interview, in a slightly abbreviated form, first appeared in Calabash literary journal, Sept. 2021.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Narrating SA's transition: unresolved issues and euphoria

Gladys Ryan has produced this account of South Africa's exciting and fraught transition. In this piece, I provide some details and perspective of the changes and its effect on where South Africa is today



Thursday, 30 August 2018

The role of arts in transformation

What role does the arts play in social transformation? In what ways does it contribute to peace, development and social justice? These issues are explored in the book Changing our World; Art as Transformative Practice edited by Michelle le Baron and Janis Sarra.

This book, among other things, endeavours to break new ground. It coins the term TAP (for 'transformative arts practice') and refers to TAP practitioners. A question that arises is whether TAP practitioners identify as such - whether for example the late Hugh Masekela would have viewed himself as a TAP practitioner. Since the label is new, most likely not. But if TAP was considered in terms of its essence, many on all continents would align with it, the book argues, and many would likely see themselves as part of the project of fostering the arts as transformative practice.

In my small contribution to the book, I worked on 'how to build a TAP field', so such questions came up. A field is when organisations and individuals see themselves as some kind of 'community' working together to solve problems and develop certain shared practices.

The theory aside, it is worth mentioning two other points here. The first is that arts practitioners who acknowledged that art had a role in the fight against apartheid were much more connected and coordinated in the pre-1994 period. They worked together in and across disciplines, and, for example, made their mark in creating pathways for emerging artists from oppressed communities to emerge and feel supported. The current period, by comparison, is marked by fragmentation and dislocation. So, we may ask: 'what's to be done?' - a question addressed in the exploration of how to build a field.

The second additional point is that in this book we put our heads on the block and link TAP in a fundamental way to Ubuntu. By using the word transformative, "(o)ur focus is on those (practices) that have embedded within them a set of values summed up here as Ubuntu and the goals of enhancing social and economic fairness and reciprocal belonging". In this regard, when we were working on the book, one of the authors, Kitche Magak, often noted that ubuntu was both African and universal - although we acknowledge Africa as the labeler and a place where many practice it more consciously, the call of Ubuntu has relevance and application the world over. Magak (in his chapter) stresses the 'humanising capacity of the arts'. And in a summary of one of our workshop discussions (made possible by Stellenbosch University), he noted that "(h)umanising arts challenges, confronts and contradicts dehumanising dominant ideology". I hope this gives some feel of the content/contents of the book.

The book is published by African Sun Media and Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS).