Speech by Minister Pallo Jordan at Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Ceremony, Franschhoek

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18 May 2008

Thank You Programme Director,
Mr Mark Collins,
Mr Hasluck,
Your Excellencies, High Commissioners here present,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honour for South Africa to have been selected from among the 53 member states of the Commonwealth to host the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. This prize has been in existence for twenty-one years, and after fourteen years of freedom, South Africa has become only the second country on the African continent to host this august occasion. Ghana was the first country to host this prestigious prize in 2001, as it was the first sub-saharan African country to attain independence from colonial rule in 1957.

The art of written literature traces its roots to the oral narratives in various societies across the continent and the world over. Orature was probably humanity’s first means of mass communication.The tale, as one of the numerous means by which the human family entertains, instructs and socialises itself, probably could be traced back to the gathering around the campfire. Because human beings love tale-telling, the tellers of tales also have a special place in our hearts. The craft of the storyteller resides in her/his ability to take us beyond the ordinary.

On the wings of the creative storytellers imagination an enraptured audience may be borne “Through the Looking Glass” to ride a magic carpet through “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights” to arrive where “The Snow Queen” might “sit (you down) upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of kings”. As we listen to the siren's song in the tales or in the chant of the griot and the yarns of old wives, they might inspire us to plumb the bluest depths searching for the fabulous Nabulela, whose fleece was not only a wonder to behold but also imparted its magical powers to those who wore it. The storyteller's voice can carry you to the impregnable walls of Troy to witness a war occasioned by a young man's mischief and the seduction of a king's wife. Another might instruct about the price that might be exacted for mischief in the image of Loki, wincing and shuddering each time the venom strikes his face, while exalting you with the image of self-sacrifing love, surpassing that of Penelope, embodied in the person of Siguna, whose upheld cup shields Loki's face from the dripping poison.

The storyteller weaves personalities, characters and creatures that inspire, terrify and challenge us. He offers us heroes with whom we identify; villains we despise as well as beauty and honour we aspire to. By engaging our own imaginations the storyteller helps us “Dream the Impossible Dream” in which “The Ugly Duckling” moults into an Adonis who can love Esmeralda as passionately as the unsightly body of Quasimodo conceals his love for her.

Humanity's tales tell of profound love, often un-requited, or won after great sacrifices. They recount acts of outstanding courage and selflessness; but also tell of acts so vile, depraved and of such abysmal cruelty that the cry out for retribution. The monster's our storytellers have invented betray our deepest fears, even as we become more confident of our ability to control all of nature. Our tales try to guide us towards rewarding and ennobling choices, yet they also remind us that we might well be playthings in hands of incomprehensible powers that “kill us for their sport.”

After humankind mastered the art of writing, the invention of the printing press in 9th century China resulted in the most widespread cultural revolution in human history. Amongst other things it transformed the storyteller into the writer. No longer reliant on the immediacy of performance, writers, as modern day storytellers, have to evolve a facility with language capable of transporting us equal to that of the best oral teller of tales. The readers' engaged imagination must involve them emotionally with abstract characters, drawn from the imagination of the author.

The printed page, whose production and reproduction has expanded exponentially as our capacity to store information has evolved, made possible the bulk production of literature. The availability of books and the extent of their use in large measure determines how informed a society is. Viewed from that perspective, the issue of literacy is highly political and impacts directly on the citizen's capacity to participate in the government of their country.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This afternoon's event is to honour our writers, drawn from four regions of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is one of the few international organisations in which the developed countries meet developing countries as equal partners. The Commonwealth Writers Awards also reflect this unique character.

The mix of countries found in the Commonwealth suggests that ours is an institution uniquely placed to address some of the greatest challenges facing humanity today. Amongst us are some of the least developed countries with huge populations, the majority of whom can neither read nor right. But we have too some of the developed countries possessed of cutting edge information technologies that could enable many developing countries to leapfrog into the twenty-first century. The synergies that become possible when a developing country like India, a seasoned member state of the Commonwealth, is carving out an important niche in information and communications technology acts in concert with both those members at the centre of the information revolution together with those at its periphery need to be explored in earnest.

I submit that illiteracy in our day and age is more disempowering than the repressive laws of the most authoritarian government. The rights, the dignity and the worth of every human being condemned to illiteracy are diminished by that fact alone. The Commonwealth Foundation, specifically the writer's component thereof needs to address this challenge directly by taking initiatives to intervene in the fight to eradicate illiteracy in every part of the globe.

Human beings have recorded their thoughts and emotions in verse, visual art, sculpture and in centuries of writing. Reading, writing and books as literary and cultural artefacts, are consequently an essential part of our human heritage. The imperative for governments and non-governmental organisations, especially those of writers as persons who live by and express themselves through the written word, to work together in partnerships that will create greater access to literacy cannot be over-emphasized. The full creative potential of the humanity can only be enhanced by so doing.

My department, through structures such as our Literature Development Forum, which consists of distinguished writers, editors, translators, and academics including our National Poet Laureate, Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile, is developing strategies for the promotion of the culture of reading and writing among South Africans. South Africa boasts some of the greatest writers in the world, with two Nobel Laureates in the names of Nadine Gordimer (1991) and J.M. Coetzee (2003). The youngest writer to win the Noma Award, the most prestigious literary award on the African Continent, is Lebogang Mashile, a vibrant and dynamic South African poet.

We continue to work hard to uncover and nurture new talents and share the story of South Africa with world audiences through our literature. South Africa is a country bursting with talent and it is our commitment, as the government, to nurture and advance our literature and provide necessary support to writers and to get our people, in all parts of the country, to read.

A major challenge that confronts South Africa is the absence of a culture of reading. We commissioned the South African Book Development Council to conduct research on the “Reading Habits of Adult South Africans”. The report was launched during the Cape Town International Book in June 2007. It confirms the grim reality that ours is not a nation of readers. 51% of South African households have no books; while only 14% of our total population are book readers; only 5% of that 14%, read to their children.

Undeniably, there has been a significant growth in the publishing industry, with a galaxy of new writers being published, but engendering critical mass audiences for South African literature remains a major challenge. Books in the indigenous language are even more disadvantaged. A book retail store that specialises in indigenous African language literature will be difficult to find. Ensuring equitable access to books for all segments of our society is critical in our fight against illiteracy.

Since its establishment in 1987, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize has grown to become one of the most coveted literary prizes in the world. Although none of the South African writers will walk to the stage to accept the award today, I am proud our writers have over the years made their voices heard across the Commonwealth community. Nine South African writers were short-listed for both this year’s Best Book and the Best First Book prizes. It is also fulfilling to know that South Africa’s Maxine Case and Shaun Johnson, who are both here with us today, respectively won the Best First Book and the Best Book last year. Other South African writers, including Nadine Gordimer, Zakes Mda, J.M. Coetzee, and the late K. Sello Duiker have previously won this prestigious prize.

I suspect that South African writers decided to suspend their winning years until 2009.

The role of literature in the development of humanity cannot be over stated. To paraphrase one of Chinua Achebe’s characters in his novel, “Anthills of the Savannah” (1987), ‘
“only the story can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and exploits of brave fighters.”

In honouring these writers, we give expression to one of our most ancient practices, showering praises on those who can take us beyond the ordinary. I congratulate all the entrants, the short-listed writers and all the winners for their contribution to humanity’s intellectual development and to our reading pleasure.

Thank You.