INAUGURAL INTERNATIONAL AFRICAN WRITERS DAY LECTURE: 9th NOV 2012
AT THE AFRICA CENTURY INTERNATIONAL AFRICAN WRITERS CONFERENCE
7-10 NOV 2012
UNIVERSITY OF THE FREE STATE
BLOEMFONTEIN, FREE STATE PROVINCE
PRES. THABO MBEKI
9th NOV 2012
Organisers of the Conference, The wRite associates,
Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, Professor Jonathan Jansen
Esteemed Participants at this Africa Century International African Writers’ Conference,
Comrades and friends,
Ladies and gentlemen:
I sincerely regret and apologise that I could not join you personally at your important Africa Century International African Writers’ Conference, especially as it is being held for the first time in our country.
However, I am greatly honoured to join others who have spoken before me to welcome all of you, eminent participants at this Conference, both to the Conference and to our country.
I must also extend my sincere thanks to all the sponsors of the Conference, and especially the Vice Chancellor of our University of the Free State, and its entire community, for agreeing to host the International African Writers’ Conference.
I am truly pleased that it has been possible to bring together at the University of the Free State such a great galaxy of our producers of creative literature drawn both from our Continent and the African Diaspora.
I am certain that your interaction during the four days of the Conference cannot but further empower all the distinguished participants to be even better at producing the creative works which play vitally important role in the formation and sustenance of the values and the conscience of nations.
As all of you know, and at least according to our view of ourselves, for over 50 years, like others who are present here with you, such as our eminent poet, Keorapetse Kgositsile, many of us in this country tried our best to do what we could to contribute our mite to the struggle for liberation of our country and the all-round emancipation of all Africans, at home on our Continent, and abroad in the African Diaspora.
It is of course true that it was the mere fact of the apartheid system whose oppressive weight none of us could avoid, which inspired us to join the struggle for national liberation.
But to be a liberation fighter meant more than engaging in whatever action was necessary or required, whether non-violent or armed.
To be a liberation fighter also meant to uphold a particular set of values – to internalise such values as love for the people, loyalty to principle and the common cause, honesty and personal integrity, courage and confidence in the future, and even grasping what might seem to be self-evident, such as knowing who we are as a people and as Africans.
I have no hesitation in saying that many of us drew these values and knowledge and the sustained inspiration we needed, from the creative literature we could lay our hands on.
It is true that all such creative literature is a work of imagination, but, perhaps with the exception of science fiction, it imagines life and activity within the context of human society, and therefore relates to human beings.
Accordingly, it cannot but make an impact on the human heart and mind and soul – and that in ways which other literature, such as history and sociology, cannot.
You will therefore understand why certainly those of us who count ourselves as liberation fighters hope sincerely that this Africa Century International African Writers Conference will also serve as a Festival to celebrate our creative writers whose works are possibly, now, even more important than they were during our years of struggle for liberation.
In this regard I am certain that all of us here are familiar with our concrete experience throughout post-liberation Africa, of how difficult it has proved to be to sustain the value systems and the perspective of hope which drove all our struggles for independence and liberation.
Thus must and will we continue to rely on you, our creative writers, to use your creative talents to tell the stories, including through the performing arts, and to compose the poems whose impact has confirmed the truth that ‘human beings cannot live by bread alone’.
In the past Fa Keita, the Old One in the late Ousmane Sembene’s novel, “God’s Bits of Wood” served as our teacher and inspiration as when he advised his comrades:
“to act so that no man dares to strike you because he knows you speak the truth, to act so that you can no longer be arrested because you are speaking for the right to live, to act so that all of this will end, both here and elsewhere…That is what you must explain to others, so that you will never again be forced to bow down before anyone, but also so that no one shall be forced to bow down before you.”
Ikem Osodi is one of the principal characters in the novel “Anthills of the Savannah”, written by one of your Patrons, Chinua Achebe, which is set in an independent African state. Ikem talks to his friend, Chris Oriko, a Government Minister, about a Presidential Retreat complex, which had just been refurbished at great cost.
Ikem asks his friend the Minister:
“Retreat from what? From whom? From the people and their basic needs of water which is free from Guinea worm, of simple shelter and food. That’s what you are retreating from. You retreat up the hill and commune with your cronies and forget the very people who legitimise your authority.”
These words, of an African patriot whom independent Africa murdered because of his views and his courage, and the images they evoke, which warned us about what independence might bring, have remained embedded in our minds with a greater tenacity than could have been achieved by a newspaper article.
We have therefore turned to our creative writers to inspire us not ourselves to retreat. In his poem, “History is the Home Address”, Mongane Wally Serote says:
“when the global village emerges, son of Africa
do not leave your footprints on the ocean sand
its noise will take them away
do not tire yourself by flying into the current
your wings will break
speak to the words in the breeze
for the breeze is tireless
and comes from the spinning earth
and as the ocean sprawls
it and the current forms and breaks
remember your home address
the ancestors still live there
to cuddle when fear makes a noise in your chest
and when you are weary
they will occupy your spirit
and they will say –
men, like truth, do not disappear
nor do women of courage
Following on what Mongane Serote said, I am certain that the South Africans at this African Writers Conference will also understand why I must take this opportunity to present to you yet another magnificent South African poem.
Strangely composed as this might seem to some with regard to what came to be understood in our country as a language of oppression, Afrikaans, this poem was nevertheless one of our songs of African liberation, written by an Afrikaner woman, ostensibly a member of the oppressor white nation.
I refer here to the ‘evergreen’ poem written by the tragic Afrikaans and revered woman poet, Ingrid Jonker, and specifically her seminal poem, “Die Kind”, “Die kind wat dood geskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga”, written in Afrikaans, which developed as an indigenous African language, though originally rooted essentially in the European Flemish language.
Ingrid Jonker wrote her poem, “Die Kind”, after the infamous 1960 massacre at Sharpeville, and the related popular demonstration and apartheid state repression at Nyanga in Cape Town.
In her poem she celebrates the courage of the children who acted then, even in the face of the deadly thunder of guns, and therefore the courage of our people as a whole, thus to encourage all of us to be ready to sacrifice everything to defeat tyranny.
She wrote in poetic words which were more powerful, evocative and moving than any others at that time and later, as reported through the political tracts and the media reports which sought to capture what happened then.
She, and none of us, could foretell that what she foresaw in the poet’s mind, but which has remained relevant nevertheless, would be expressed more forcefully and tragically during and after the Soweto Students’ Uprising of 1976, 16 years after the Sharpeville Massacre and the Uprising at Nyanga, the subject of her powerful poem.
To communicate the message, and urge our Nation to understand the decisive impact which rebellion against injustice would have on our formation as a people, including defining our very soul, she wrote the outstanding work of poetic composition, “Die Kind”, which has maintained its literary quality even in its English translation.
“The child is not dead
The child lifts his fists against his mother
Who shouts Afrika! shouts the breath
Of freedom and the veld
In the locations of the cordoned heart
The child lifts his fists against his father
in the march of the generations
who shouts Afrika! shouts the breath
of righteousness and blood
in the streets of his embattled pride
The child is not dead
not at Langa nor at Nyanga
not at Orlando nor at Sharpeville
nor at the police station at Philippi
where he lies with a bullet through his brain
The child is the dark shadow of the soldiers
on guard with rifles Saracens and batons
the child is present at all assemblies and law-givings the child peers through the windows of houses and into the hearts of mothers
this child who just wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is everywhere the child grown to a man treks through all Africa the child grown into a giant journeys through the whole world
Without a pass”.
Thus did Ingrid Jonker insist that our repeated affirmation of our common African identity, expressed through our common African struggles, must result in our ability to commune with one another as Africans, with no need that we introduce ourselves to one another through the ‘passes’ the oppressors obliged us to carry, the divisive national passports we oblige ourselves to carry!
And so a South African Afrikaner woman poet, more than 50 years ago, placed on the African Agenda the need for our Governments to allow ‘the African child, grown to a man, to trek through all Africa and through the whole world, without a pass’, thus to give concrete expression first of all to the achievement of our long-expressed goal of African unity.
It is inevitable that today, here at the University of the Free State, we must ask ourselves the questions whether we have responded to the challenge of the poet to allow the child to travel throughout Africa without a pass, and what we intend to do in this regard, thus to respect the unfettered spirit of the African creative spirit, which correctly is not bound by any historically imposed colonial African political borders, but asserts the incontrovertible truth that, together – we are Africans!
As you know so well, Ingrid Jonker was not alone in asserting that this assertion of a common African identity must inform the thinking of all our creative writers.
When, in furtherance of this common project, we have needed the reassurance of hope about a just future for ourselves as Africans, we have recalled the poem, “An African Elegy” by Ben Okri:
“We are the miracles that God made
To taste the bitter fruit of Time,
We are precious.
And one day our suffering
Will turn into the wonders of the earth…
That is why our music is so sweet.
It makes the air remember.
There are secret miracles at work
That only Time will bring forth.
I too have heard the dead singing….
And there is surprise
In everything the unseen moves.
The ocean is full of songs.
The sky is not an enemy.
Destiny is our friend.”
Speaking in 2005, Ousmane Sembene said:
“I create to talk to my people, my country. The priority is that my people can understand me. Africa needs to see its own reflection. A society progresses by asking questions of itself, so I want to be an artist who questions his people.”
If I may, I would like humbly to invite you to take heed of what Sembene said, and therefore remain artists:
who are understood by, but also challenge our people to participate in a frank and open self-critical discourse, including, and of importance, also conducted in our indigenous languages;
who enable us to see our reflection, even as “the miracles that God made To taste the bitter fruit of Time”;
who inspire us to be the great humanity we are, to be the heroines and heroes we have been, the ‘men, like truth, who do not disappear, and the women of courage who do not abandon time’, whom Mongane Serote celebrated.
To empower us to live and act as such African men and African women, enabling ‘our ancestors to cuddle us’ when fear of the consequences of challenging what is wrong, as Fa Keita and Ikem Osodi did, ‘makes a noise in our chests’, we have great need that you, guardians of the soul of the African, the griots who know who we are, must provide us with the priceless gift in what you write, of the vibrant characters, and the human settings of our ordinary activities, which confirm Ben Okri’s powerful dream that ‘destiny is our friend’.
I am honoured once more warmly to salute the African writers and musicians gathered at the University of the Free State and to wish the Africa Century International African Writers Conference success.