Speech by Mduduzi Mbada the special advisor to the Minister at the 2013 South Africa Literary Awards; Museum Africa, Newtown, Johannesburg.
Directors of the Programme
Chairperson of SALA, Professor Motsa
The Revolutionary National Poet Laureate, Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile
Prof Nwando Achebe, the daughter of the late Professor Chinua Achebe
Mr Tamba Edward Juana, from the Commissioner for Social Affairs at the AU Commission
The Noble Laureate, Ms Nardine Gordima
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Let me begin by passing on the apology of the Minister of Arts and Culture, Minister Paul Mashatile, who could not join us this evening due to other pressing work commitments.
Minister Mashatile has asked me to send his best wishes to this gathering.
Programme Director, as we are about to announce the winners of the 2013 South African Literary Awards, this evening, we also mark the third and final day of the Africa Century International African Writers Conference.
As many of you may be aware, the Conference is hosted in South Africa for the second consecutive year.
This year’s Conference was organised under the theme: “Dispossessed. Repossessed. Land Matters in African Letters.”
I am convinced that this theme was chosen because the land question is a crucial and sensitive matter across Africa, whose history is fraught with incidents of conquest, domination and land dispossession.
The theme has a special resonance with South Africa, as this year marks the centenary of the Natives Land Act of 1913.
The Act promulgated the racial demarcation of land and allocated over 80% of South African land to white people, who constituted less than 20% of the population at the time.
Writers such as Sol T. Plaatje took it upon themselves to chronicle this historic landmark to raise the consciousness of the oppressed and pass information down to future generations.
Plaatje travelled around the country, meeting with different communities and informing them about the implications of the Act.
His account of the Act is captured in his seminal book, Native Life in South Africa.
In the book Plaatje argues that; “Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”
The act of land repossession constitutes the reclamation of a people’s dignity. This is fundamental to a people who have suffered centuries of colonial domination.
The Inaugural Africa Century International African Writers’ Conference coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the African Writers’ Series.
The African Writers’ Series was established in 1962 to promote African writing, with Professor Chinua Achebe as the Editorial Advisor. We were indeed honoured to have Achebe as the patron of the conference.
Achebe was, unfortunately, unable to attend the conference last year due to ill-health. This great African subsequently passed away in March this year.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am proud to say that his daughter, Prof Nwando Achebe, an academic, historian and an author in her own right, is here with us this evening.
I hope that you understand, Prof Achebe, that the passing of your father, Chinua Achebe, was not only a loss to your immediate family. The whole of Africa, the Diaspora and the whole world lost a father figure.
Achebe was a great visionary who stood firmly as a believer in African solidarity. His mission from the beginning of his writing career was to assert the authentic voice of Africa and correct the misrepresentations of the past.
In his essay “The Novelist as a Teacher,” he describes his objective as being; “to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement…”
Indeed, as the founding editor of the African Writers’ Series, the first group of writers that he published in the sixties included prominent individuals and activists such as Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Bessie Head, Nadine Gordimer, and Nelson Mandela.
In his five decades of meaningful contribution to African letters, he worked tirelessly to bring African writers together.
In the same year that the African Writers’ Series was established, writers from across the continent gathered at Makerere University in Uganda in what became a seminal African writers’ conference.
This, the Makerere Conference, was a historic landmark in the history of African writing. It played an important role in encouraging dialogue and a sense of unity among African writers.
This sense of unity across the continent manifested itself in different spheres of our lives. In 1963, for instance, the African heads of state met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to establish the Organisation of African Unity, the predecessor to the African Union (AU).
It is fitting therefore, that the Africa Century International African Writers’ Conference, this year, coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the African Union.
It is also an honour that we had the pleasure of having His Excellency, Dr Mustapha Sidiki Kaloko, the Commissioner for Social Affairs at the AU Commission, delivering the opening address at the conference.
Ladies and Gentlemen, you would probably agree with me that if there is one writer who deserves the highest accolade on the African continent, that writer would be Chinua Achebe.
It would be fitting for African governments, working through the AU, to pay tribute to this literary giant by establishing a continental award in his honour.
Such an award would recognise Achebe’s invaluable contribution to the development of literature across the continent. The objective would be to inspire new African voices and stimulate dialogue among African writers.
Ladies and Gentlemen, South African writers have always played a prominent role in society.
Writers occupied frontline trenches alongside other activists in our liberation struggle. Many of them suffered consistent persecution, had their books banned in South Africa and were banished from their land of birth.
As we have begun our countdown to the celebrations of our twentieth anniversary of freedom and democracy, we must take a moment to reflect on the road that we have travelled as a nation.
Since the establishment of the South African Literary Awards in 2005, we have honoured about 110 South African writers.
These writers include legendary scribes who were honoured through categories such as the Lifetime Achievement and Posthumous Literary awards.
The writers we have honoured include Jan Rabi, Lauretta Ngcobo, Peter Abrahams, Nadine Gordimer, Es’kia Mphahlele, and many others.
By recognising and celebrating these legendary writers, we believe that we will be able to inspire a new crop of writers. In the words of Chinua Achebe, “A Man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness.”
We cannot accept a situation where the old are dying and the new cannot be born, to paraphrase Antonio Gramsci.
In this regard, we have established a number of categories that focus on recognising upcoming writers. Award categories such as the first time published book, the K. Sello Duiker Award, and several others, offer opportunities for writers who may not necessarily have been in the industry for years, but whose contribution deserves recognition.
These are writers who are taking the South African story to the world!
We believe that the current generation of writers has an important role to play in confronting some of the challenges that are faced by our society today.
As Frantz Fanon once said, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.”
The celebration and recognition of the contribution made by writers is vital in enhancing nation building and social cohesion imperatives.
We believe that such efforts stimulate interest and appreciation of our cultural products.
We are confident that broader appreciation of South African literature will subsequently engender wider audiences, and thus augment the growth of the books and publishing industry.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we support these awards as part of our strategic intervention aimed at promoting a culture of reading and writing in South Africa and growing the sector.
Audience development is paramount to the growth of the sector and we need to constantly device innovative ways of increasing markets for South African literature.
We believe that sharing our stories with the rest of the world enhances understanding and appreciation of each other’s cultures while at the same time creating enormous opportunities for market development.
Social media and other forms of digital media also play an important role in reaching out to new audiences.
In congratulating the winners tonight, I would like to remind them that our relationship does not end with the conferring of awards.
You have a bigger role to play in society. We encourage all the award recipients to continuously engage with their communities. We have legacy programmes such as the Miriam Tlali Reading and Book Club as well as several skills development initiatives, which should be replicated across the country.
We cannot develop a reading society out of events alone. We need a sustained campaign that promotes active citizenry. Let us join hands and work towards the creation of a reading society.
In closing, Programme Director, allow me to recite the following eulogy from Pixley ka Isaka Seme’s award-winning Regeneration of Africa speech, delivered in 1906.
Like some great century plant that shall bloom
In ages hence, we watch thee; in our dream
See thy swamps the Prospero of our stream;
Thy doors unlocked, where knowledge in her tomb
Hath lain innumerable years gloom.
Then shalt though, walking with that morning gleam,
Shine as thy sister lands with equal beam.