Darryl David one of the key movers behind Durban being selected the Unesco City of Literature.
Darryl David one of the key movers behind Durban being selected the Unesco City of Literature.

Putting Durban on the literary map

By Darryl David Time of article published Nov 4, 2017

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Breaking news: Durban’s bid to become a Unesco City of Literature in 2018 has been successful. We did it. Durban is now the first Unesco City of Literature in Africa. 

This is big. In a sense it means Durban becomes the literary capital of Africa. 

With everything the city plans from now, literature must be at its heart. It must define the city. Statues of writers need to be built, literary trails need to be developed. 

The city already has three major literary festivals: Time of the Writer; Poetry Africa and, most recently, ARTiculate Africa. Our bid was built on these cornerstones. 

By joining the Unesco City of Literature family, the literary world will open up to Durban. If I am given the nod to curate ARTiculate Africa again, I already have one Nobel Laureate, one Pulitzer Prize winner and three Booker Prize winners lined up to come to Durban next year.

Joining Durban in the latest list of Cities of Literature are Bucheon (Republic of Korea), Lillehammer (Norway), Manchester (UK), Milan (Italy), Québec (Canada), Seattle (US) and Utrecht (Netherlands).

The honour of being a Unesco World City of Literature lasts as long as the cities remain true to their vision set out in the bid document.

Why Durban? This is a question that I have been asked numerous times. I prefer to answer the question with a question. Why not Durban? 

As I have mentioned, we have three literary festivals. Two of them, Poetry Africa and Time of the Writer, enjoy almost iconic status in Africa. ARTiculate Africa has ambitions to become the flagship international literary festival in South Africa.

The city runs one of the most inspiring library programmes in South Africa.


They have the One City, One Book project, in which a local writer’s book becomes the book of the year. This year The Pavement Bookworm by Philani Dladla was chosen. 

This city spends millions on their artists. And they commit millions to literary festivals. Time of the Writer and Poetry Africa are not only funded by KwaZulu-Natal University, but the major sponsor is the City of Durban.

Also, don’t forget that Durban hosts the Durban International Film Festival. Unesco wanted cross-sector collaboration. The film festival offered this.

Unesco also looked for a city with an impressive track record for hosting international events. Durban’s ICC, the top international convention centre in Africa for the last 15 years, gave us the pedigree. 

We cannot boast an Athol Fugard or a JM Coetzee in Durban, but this is Alan Paton country. In addition, the city is the conveyor belt for Indian writers such as Ronnie Govender, Imraan Coovadia and Ashwin Desai. 

It is the home of Fred Khumalo, Chris Nicholson, Gcina Mhlophe, John van de Ruit of Spud fame, Bessie Head, Lewis Nkosi, Douglas Livingstone, Steve Biko, Sifiso Mzobe, RRR Dhlomo (the first black writer to write a novel in English), Herbert Dhlomo (first black man to write a drama in English, not to mention being an acclaimed poet), Mazisi Kunene, the first Poet Laureate in South Africa. 

Make no mistake, we ran a compelling campaign.

What about building the world’s largest postbox as part of a postcard-writing competition for schoolkids who probably have never posted a letter?

Now we need Durban to carry on the good work. On a practical level, we need to build a website that sets out why it is a literary city. Go and look at the successful websites of Reykjavik or Utrecht. That is what we must aim for. 

Luckily, the groundwork has been done through Professor Lindy Stiebel’s website, KZN literary tourism. And we can start in the first few months with banners, bookmarks, leaflets and vinyl stickers displayed across the city. 

We must start with statues and sculptures. This is how to get the artistic community to become co-collaborators in the Unesco City of Literature endeavour. I would love the city to commission a giant colourful concrete children’s book. It must look like a real book that becomes a selfie mecca for young children. 

On the theme of children’s literature, next year that doyenne of children’s literature, Gcina Mhlophe, turns 60. Go and look at her logo of an African woman with books on her head. We must have a statue of her because I can think of no better way to honour Gcina, and contribute to our new-found status at the same time. 


The Mazisi Kunene Foundation is one of the most under-utilised literary hotspots in Durban. Instead of fighting over the size of elephants, build a statue outside the home of South Africa’s first Poet Laureate’s home and watch how that transforms Mazisi Kunene’s home. Literary tourists love writers’ homes. They inspire awe and reverence. 

What about our sand artists? I would make these talented artists part of our activation for a children’s and young adults’ book festival. Can you imagine how children would love to see Robin Hood or Cinderella come to life through grains of sand on the Durban beachfront? And why must we pay only established artists for activations? What about rickshaw drivers? They are synonymous with Durban.

What people must understand is that a Unesco City of Literature is not only about books. It is about the tourist experience as well. 

And taxis. Many years ago I smiled when I saw the title of Coovadia’s novel, The Institute of Taxi Poetry. What better way to announce ourselves as a Unesco City of Literature than to advertise poetry on taxis? 

Instead of blasting music or all those naked ladies with swords, is it too much to imagine taxis becoming a point of sale for self-published authors? I can tell you there is a thirst among the youth to be performance poets. 

Durban writer Sylvia Garib has a great idea – a writers’ hall of fame. 

Hashtag Books are trying to raise funding to convert a derelict old bus into a library to be housed in Mitchell Park. Now if that isn’t a great idea then I don’t know what is. 

This is what I’ve realised about Durbanites – we are a creative people. It just needs someone to pull everything together. The Unesco City of Literature might just be the catalyst. 

And did I mention I have a festival to take your breath away up my sleeve for next year?

The Independent on Saturday

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