Speech by the Minister Paul Mashatile, at the 2012 South African literary awards; University of Free state, Mangaung

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10 Nov 2012

Programme Director
The Vice Chancellor and Rector of the University of Free State, Prof Jonathan Jansen
The Vice Rector of External Relations, Prof Kelebogile Choice Makhetha
Chairperson of the SALA Board, Prof Zodwa Motsa
Managing Director of the wRite Associates, Mr Raks Seakhoa
Nobel Laureate, Dr Nadine Gordimer
Our National Poet Laureate, Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile
Ms. Yvonne Kgame representing the SABC
Delegates to the Africa Century International African Writers’ Conference
Distinguished guests
Ladies and Gentlemen:

We meet here this evening for the 2012 South African Literary Awards; an event which this year marks the culmination of the Africa Century International African Writers’ Conference, which started earlier this week.

Allow me to take this opportunity, on this important occasion, to congratulate former President Thabo Mbeki, himself a writer and intellectual of note, for being named the 2012 African of the Year.

Former President Mbeki earned this award for the work he continues to do to bring about a lasting solution to the Sudanese crisis.

The award was announced at the meeting of media leaders and entrepreneurs convened by the African Media Initiative on Thursday in Dakar, Senegal.

This award comes at a time when President Mbeki’s organisation, the African National Congress, is celebrating his legacy as part of its centenary celebrations.

Up to this day we carry with us fond memories of former President Mbeki’s contribution in building an empowered and knowledgeable African Continent, as envisaged by Pixley ka Isaka Seme, Kwame Nkurumah and many other great African leaders.

We are in particular reminded of President Mbeki’s words when he once asked the critical question:

“When will the day come that our dignity will be fully restored, when the purpose of our lives will no longer be merely to survive until the sun rises tomorrow?”

Programme Director, both the occasion of the 2012 South African Literary Awards and the hosting of the Africa Century International African Writers’ Conference are of major significance to the peoples of Africa.

These events offer us an opportunity to reflect on our nation state and on the contribution made by writers across the African continent and the Diaspora, in advancing the development of our continent.

It is fitting that Mangaung was chosen as the host of both these events.

This we say because it was here, in Mangaung, that prominent thinkers, religious and traditional leaders, political minds and other social activists, gathered to form the people’s liberation movement; the African National Congress in 1912.

It is worth noting that two writers were elected to occupy very strategic positions in the first leadership of the ANC.
John Langalibalele Dube and Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, the founding President General and Secretary General of the ANC respectively, were both distinguished writers and intellectuals.

These great minds were succeeded by other visionary leaders who steered the ANC through a hundred years of strife, repression, persecution and banishment.

Largely due to the work of these leaders, today the ANC is the oldest liberation movement on our continent and the ruling party in South Africa.

As we reflect on our society, it is important to acknowledge the role played by writers and other artists in ushering in the freedom and democracy that we today enjoy.

Indeed writers played an important role in South Africa’s liberation struggle as well as anti-colonial struggles across the continent.

Nadine Gordimer, who is with us this evening, eloquently describes the role of a writer during the struggle for liberation in the following words: “To gain his freedom the writer must give up his freedom.”

It is through the works of writers like Es’kia Mphahlele, Peter Abrahams, Miriam Tlali, Lewis Nkosi and other creative minds that the world got to understand the brutal nature of apartheid.

It was the poetry of Don Mattera, James Matthews, Wally Serote, Christine Doubts, Mafika Gwala and many others that inspired young people to forge ahead and keep the flame of the antiapartheid struggle burning.

Programme Director, the role of the writer in society was important then, as it is important today.

Writers are the conscience of the nation. They chronicle our stories. They remind us of where we come from. They help us better understand the present and thus shape future perspectives of our society. They amplify the wishes, the aspirations and the cries of the people.

As our society evolves, we need writers and other thinkers to occupy the foremost trenches in ongoing efforts to find responses to the challenges of our time.

In the words of Professor Es’kia Mphahlele, “We have to find a new idiom, images, discover ways, re-educate the imagination, see ourselves no longer as victims but as builders, planners, creators.”

Programme Director, the past three days saw a number of writers, intellectuals, literary enthusiasts and academics from across our continent deliberate on the state of African literature.

This they did as part of the Africa Century International Writers’ Conference.

This Conference takes place exactly 50 years after another seminal gathering of a similar nature; the historic African Writers’ Conference held at the Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, in 1962.

The Makerere Conference brought together some of Africa’s foremost creative intellectuals.

These included Chinua Achebe, Es’kia Mphahlele, Wole Soyinka, Lewis Nkosi and many other luminaries; who went on to become torch bearers of African literature throughout the world.

It was also in 1962 that the African Writers’ Series was established, with Chinua Achebe becoming its first advisory editor.

The Series was inspired by the success of Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart, which became an instant bestseller worldwide.
 
Things Fall Apart was republished in 1962 as a way of inaugurating the African Writers’ Series and thus setting the tone for African literature of English expression.

The African Writers’ Series unleashed a cadre of African literary giants, including the likes of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Bessie Head, Ayi Kwei Armah and others.

Programme Director, I am proud to indicate that Chinua Achebe, as a pioneer of this movement, endorsed the Africa Century International Writers’ Conference and graciously agreed to become its patron.

Unfortunately Achebe could not be with us today due to his ailing health.

Another prominent individual who regrettably could not be with us this evening is Comrade Zwelakhe Sisulu, who passed away a couple of weeks ago.  

It is fitting that this year’s SALA Awards are dedicated to Comrade Zwelakhe.

The literary fraternity will remember Comrade Zwelakhe for his contribution to the 1991 New Nation International Writers’ Conference.

This was the first international writers’ conference held on South African soil after the un-banning of political organisations.

As the editor of the New Nation newspaper, Comrade Zwelakhe contributed enormously to the success of that historic conference.

We note that his contribution to the literary landscape did not end there, as he continued to serve as a special advisor to the South African Literary Awards.

We take this opportunity once more to say; may the soul of Comrade Zwelakhe rest in peace. We will forever remember his contribution to our country’s literary heritage.
 
Programme Director, I trust that as part of the conference over the past three days, delegates were able to explore viable ways of facilitating dialogue and exchanges among African writers.

To paraphrase Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile, our National Poet Laureate; literature enhances cultural exchange, understanding and friendship among peoples.
It is this kind of exchange, made possible by literature, which   will strengthen African solidarity and redefine Africa’s place in the world.

Programme Director, the books and publishing sector has an enormous potential to contribute to job creation, poverty reduction and skills development.

The sector also has a major role to play in eradicating illiteracy and promoting a widespread culture of reading and writing.

The South African Literary Awards, to which we are a proud partner, play a pivotal role in encouraging the culture of reading and writing.

These Awards also recognize excellence in literature as well as contribute towards audience development for the books sector.

We note with appreciation that there is increasing demand for South African literature beyond our shores.

We must therefore continue to create an enabling environment for our books and publishing sector to gain expanded access to international markets.

This is a critical element of ensuring the growth of the local books and publishing sector.

As we embark on the task of growing our books and publishing sector, we will do so by forming partnerships with like-minded and committed stakeholders.

I am therefore pleased that the University of Free State has joined hands with us to ensure that this event is a success.

We trust that with your involvement, Professor Jansen, both as a Rector of the University and an author yourself, there will be more works by South African and African writers prescribed in your syllabus.
 
Similarly, the involvement of our national broadcaster, the SABC, as a partner in these awards is an important incentive and moral boost to the writing community.

The SABC is proving a reliable partner on literacy and reading promotion initiatives, as they continue to support the National Book Week among others.

It is through such partnerships that we will make a meaningful contribution towards the creation of a reading and thus empowered nation.
It is encouraging also to note that more and more South Africans are taking an interest in books.

In the recent past, we have seen an upsurge in the book sector, with people from all walks of life writing and publishing new books.

This is encouraging because, with the publication of each book, new readers are born.

I am also pleased to note that this year a new category, “Creative Non-Fiction”, has been introduced to the South African Literary Awards, thus broadening the scope of the Awards. 

We draw strength in the knowledge that these awards continue to grow both in terms of stature and their reach.

We therefore applaud the work done by SALA in promoting a culture of reading and writing.

We view your work as part and parcel of the continued advancement of the vision to ensure that Africa rises; that Africa is able to determine its own destiny and, as Pixley ka Isaka Seme said; add to the world a new and unique civilisation.

Programme Director, the winners that will be announced this evening were chosen from a galaxy of stars and are a consequence of a thorough going process of adjudication.

The presentation of these awards is an important gesture in affirming our writers. However we are fully aware that the greatest gift we can give to any writer is to read their books.

Let us therefore continue supporting and celebrating the work of South African and African writers.

Congratulations to all those who have been nominated.

Not all of you will be winners tonight, but you all remain important and unique contributors to South Africa’s literary heritage.

I wish all our African writers success in their endeavours.

Thank you.