5th International African Writers Day Lecture – MR Nathi Mthethwa

5th International African Writers Day Lecture

Presented by
7 November 2016

The Role of Writers’ Organisations in Society


Vice Chancellor – Professor Mandla Makhanya

Managing Director of the wRite associates and Convenor of the Africa Century

International African Writers Conference – Mr Morakabe Raks Seakhoa

Chairperson of the Africa Century International African Writers Conference

Intellectual Content Development Panel – Professor Nhlanhla Maake

Chairperson of the South African Literary Awards Advisory Board – Professor Zodwa Motsa

Members of the South African Literary Awards Advisory Board

Speakers and Chairpersons of the Conference Panels

Executive Director, National Library of South Africa – Dr Eddy Maepa

Representatives of writers’ organizations, other arts, culture and heritage institutions here present

Writers and other artists attending this Conference

Programme Directors- Mesmedames Sindiswa Seakhoa and Mante Mphahlele

Ladies and gentlemen

Today’s gathering pays homage to the African writer.

Let us begin by reminding ourselves that it was 25 years ago in 1991 that the Conference
of African Ministers of Education and Culture meeting in Cotonou, Beninadopted a
resolution to establish 7 November, the day on which the Pan African Writers
Association based in Ghana was founded, as International African Writers’ Day. This
day has continued to be celebrated by writers on the African continent as a time of
reflection on the role of the writer.

Yet so much had happened before then during the course of a century that had brought
great suffering to the African people.

As we celebrate and commemorate the role of the African writer in working together for
a better continent and a better world, we are aware that so many great Africans who were
part of that movement towards unity in the 1960s were thinkers and intellectuals.

One can think of the great Kwame Nkrumah and his notion of the African personality as
well as his seminal work, Africa Must Unite.

We think of Nnamdi Azikiwe and his ideas in his work, Renascent Africa, which are still valid today.

Leopold Sedar Senghor, one of the founders of the OAU, was also a prolific poet and
spearheaded the Negritude Movement alongside Aime Cesaire and others.

Frantz Fanon and his extensive writings influence us to this very day as we still grapple
with his ideas and the truths he saw in our realities especially in his work, The Wretched
of the Earth.

This book also gave us a perennial concern which we still ponder about so many decades
later; and this is that:
Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it or betray

But we must go back even further and acknowledge W.E.B. Du Bois and Henry Sylvester
Williams as well as Anna Cooper and Anna Jones who were peace activists delegates at
the first Pan African Congress in London.

Of course this history would not be complete unless we also acknowledged Pixley Ka
Isaka Seme and his memorable essay “The Regeneration of Africa”.

Subsequently, countless generations of authors, intelelctuals, leaders in their own right,
including our own have contributed to Pan African thought and to the cultural, political
and economic integration of a continent.

Yet so much has changed since that time. It would be almost three years after the
declaration of 7 November as the International Day of the African Writer that here in
South Africa in 1994 our liberation movement would be victorious and usher in a nonracial,
non-sexist and democratic South Africa.

Then President Nelson Mandela, speaking at the OAU Meeting of Head of State and
Government in Tunis in 1994 remarked that:

“The total liberation of Africa from foreign and white minority rule has now been
achieved. Our colleagues who have served with distinction on the OAU liberation
committee have already carried out the historical task of winding up this institution,
which we shall always remember as a frontline fighter for the emancipation of the people
of our continent.

Finally, at this summit meeting in Tunis, we shall remove from our agenda the
consideration of the question of Apartheid South Africa.

Where South Africa appears on the agenda again, let it be because we want to discuss
what its contribution shall be to the making of the new African renaissance. Let it be
because we want to discuss what materials it will supply for the rebuilding of the African
city of Carthage.

One epoch with its historic tasks has come to an end. Surely, another must commence
with its own challenges. Africa cries out for a new birth, Carthage awaits the restoration
of its glory.”

The Bill of Rights and the Constitution, promulgated by President Nelson Mandela
twenty years ago in 1996, ensured freedom of expression and of creativity and the
nurturing of cultural diversity.

Our gathering here today is also therefore to pay tribute to this journey of freedom and
the road that we must still travel in order to bring about radical economic transformation.

There is also an ongoing consolidation of the need to deepen consciousness, to encourage
progressive ideas and to steer society in ways, which extend our emancipation.

Ours is an ongoing quest across time and space in the new era that we are building day by
day for our most precious belonging – and that is our freedom.

In the words of the poet, Ben Okri (from his poem Mental Fight):

“You can’t remake the world
Without remaking yourself….
We could use the new era
To clean our eyes,
To see the world differently…
Only free people can make a free world.
Infect the world with your light.
Help fulfill the golden prophecies.
Press forward the human genius.
Our future is greater than our past.”

Yet the past inspires us to reach greater heights and the words of our writers show great
insight into our situation today. The role of the writer continues to grow in leaps and
bounds even through our changing times.

Wilton Sankawulo, the Liberian author and politician, notes that a great deal is expected
of African writers.

In a seminal piece on the role of the black African writer he said:

“[i]n Africa today, the writer is expected to be at once a social reformer, a politician, a
defender of the black man’s cause, an entertainer, a teacher, and so forth”

He elaborates what he deems the most important task of the writer:

“Firstly he serves as the spokesman for his people, secondly he serves as a recorder and
an interpreter of their experience; and finally, he helps to chart for his people a
reasonable direction or destiny”

Ngugi wa Thiongo defined the writers in the following manner,

“Writers, artists, musicians, intellectuals, workers in ideas are the keepers of memory of
a community. What fate awaits a community when its keepers of memory have been
subjected to the West’s linguistic means of production and storage of memory – English,
French and Portuguese–so that those who should have been keepers of the sacred word
can now only see themselves and the different possibilities for the community within the
linguistic boundaries of memory incorporated? We have languages but our keepers of
memory feel that they cannot store knowledge, emotions, intellect, in African languages.
It is like having a granary but at harvest you store your produce in somebody else’s
granary. The result is that ninety percent of intellectual production in Africa is stored in
European languages, a continuation of the colonial project…”

This is a reminder of the engagement that took place in 1935 between Vilakazi and
HIE(Herbert Isaac Ernest) Dhlomo who was writing in English had published an article
on African Drama and Poetry in which he disagreed with Vilakazi’s M Athesis, The
Conception and Development of Poetry in Zulu.

Dhlomo draws from Hebrew and Shakespeare and quotes liberally from Western sources
including Sir Arthur Quiller Couch to buttress his argument. Vilakazi turns the tables to
remind Dhlomo that he does not writein Zulu. Vilakazi is clearly unapologetic in his
building on the literary heritage of Zulu language inform and content.

Vilakazi continues to proclaim his firm belief in his roots when he states the following:

‘My course primarily lies in Zulu poetry. And there I am definite. Zulu poetry is a
contribution to Zulu literature. Secondly, I am convinced it is a mission, aself-imposed
mission, to help build a vista of Bantu poetry. And Zulu poetry will therefore stand
parallel to English, Germanor Italian poetry, all of which form the realm of what is called
European poetry.’

Driving home the point, he goes on to say following words; that
‘I have a nun shaken belief in the possibilities of Bantu languages and their dramas,
provided the Bantu writers themselves can learn to love their languages, and use them as
vehicles for thought, feeling and will. After all, the belief, resulting in literature, is a
demonstration of people’s “self” where they cry: “Egoquodsum”. That is our pride in
being black and we cannot change creation.’

Ngugi emphasising the point made by Vilakazi that Zulu is part of Bantu literature and
that Bantu poetry stands on the same parallel as European poetry, Vilakazi is arguing
that Zulu or any African language is to African Literature what any particular European
language is to European literature.

It is in this context, not neglecting or unmindful of the multiple roles of writers, that it
iremains essential to celebrate the established and emerging writers, to support writers in
their essential role as the interpreters and documenters of times and experiences, as the
nurturers of the cultural imagination of our people and as powerful voices that influence
the thoughts, behaviours and futures of generations.

Writers create images of ourselves. But these are not mere mirror images. In many
African societies the shadow is thought to carry the soul of a person.

Again Ngugi puts it in another way, the colonising presence tried to mutilate the memory
of the colonised and where that failed, it dismembered it, and then tried tore-member it to
the coloniser’s memory: his way of defining the world, including his take on the nature
of the relations between the coloniser and the colonised.

The development of our languages and the assertion of our authentic cultural expressions
are the prerequisite for a genuine African Renaissance.

It is in this context that today’s deliberations by authors of “The Role of Writers’
Organisations in Society” becomes crucial. In the Sunday World of 6 November 2016,
Raks Seakhoa presents a compelling argument for the need to review or resuscitate
credible national and regional structures to organise South African writers. As you
deliberate on this important matter, remember that your structures should be responsive
to the needs of new times.

You need to see how best can authors empower themselves and our people as tellers of
stories from the vantage point of Africans residing in Africa.

This is why we have said that: Until the lions tell their stories, tales of the hunt will
glorify the hunter.

But in a world which is increasingly dominated by the digital, the convergence of
technologies has meant that writers are reporters, broadcasters, scriptwriters, content
developers, who are here today and who are also the tellers of the truths of our realities.

They operate at the cutting edge and have their fingers on the pulse of nations.
They are content creators and opinion makers, agenda setters and powerful narrators of

Some of you are also content owners, authors and publishers.

When we note that SABC has increased local content on its radio stations to 90%, we
must ask how writers are making use of these opportunities. Can a writers’ organisation
encourage content hubs?

Given current efforts towards a new copyright regime, we shall ensure that this benefits
the creative industries such as yourselves as authors in particular and artists in general.

We are also doing work to ensure that books are accessible to people with disabilities and
people with reading difficulties by creating text to speech technology that facilitates the
creation of audio books in partnership with the CSIR and one of our institutions, the
South African National Library for the Blind.

It is generally agreed, however that much more must be done to develop a reading culture
amongst South Africans, and on the continent.

Writers should be at the helm of such initiatives.

The creation of representative structures and formations is essential not only to organise
writers but also to consolidate a culture of writing.

A Changing Society and its impact on Writers

As the world changes in the face of political upheaval, economic hardship and the advent
of the digital age, so writing and publishing has also fundamentally changed. Selfpublishing
is more and more prevalent, and the concept of the “book” is changing. The
changes have not been as wholesale as expected however.

Fortune Magazine reported in July 2016 that sales of eBooks dropped by 11% last year, a
trend which is being celebrated by those who love the tactile and physical format of
books; the wonder of cracking the spine for the first time and feeling the paper under
your fingertips.

The PwC Entertainment and Media Outlook 2015-2019 shows consistent and modest
upward trends in South Africa for expenditure on books, with an average growth per
annum of under 1%.

It notes that while digital penetration has been slow, there is consistent upward movement
in market share. Magazines, books and newspapers are unfortunately competing
unfavourably with growth in video-based content.

As the report points out, this points to the ongoing importance of literacy and reading
campaigns to grow the consumer market and the importance of developing content that
can be consumed on cellular phone devices rather than computers and tablets given the
high penetration of these devices in the country. Piracy and the importance of enforcing
intellectual property rights will continue to be a challenge.

In conclusion to return to an earlier and central theme, Nadine Gordimer, our late Nobel
Literary Laureate, makes a call to her own ilk when she says that:

‘But we writers cannot speak of taking up the challenge of a new century for African
literature unless writing in African languages becomes the major component of the
continent’s literature. Without this one cannot speak of an African literature. It must be
the basis of the cultural cross-currents that will both buffer and stimulate that literature”.

With these words I wish you well in your deliberations.

I thank you.