White violence of literary festivals
The exclusiveness of these events, which include black writers as curiosities, are an assault on the majority, writes Malaika wa Azania.
Johannesburg - There is no space more expressive of white violence than the Franschhoek Literary Festival, held each year in the small Western Cape town that remains one of the bastions of white supremacy.
Invited to the literary festival as the author of Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation, I was a participant in two panel discussions: one on student activism and another on woman writers breaking free from cages.
The panel on student activism, chaired by the openly reactionary rector of the University of the Free State, Professor Jonathan Jansen, took place at the Franschhoek Congressional Church.
I should have known from the minute that I walked in that I was entering a violent space. The church was filled to capacity by a white audience, with sprinkles of black faces (I counted five in total).
I should have known, merely by the fact that one of the worst apologists of our times was chairing the session, that black thought was going to be sacrificed at the altar of white appeasement.
And it was.
My articulations on the quiet violence of white privilege were met with the shaking of heads and rolling of eyes by some members of the audience, and with patronising responses by the chair of the panel. Insisting on delegitimising the plight of working class black students who have established a decolonialism movement, #RhodesMustFall, Jansen mocked and derided the genuine struggle of people who have opted to rise against institutional racism.
I have known Jansen to be economical with critical analysis, but even I was stunned when he posited – to the applause of his audience – that students who have been brutalised by the system must be “rational” and protest in a civilised manner.
I want to think that a man who is tasked with leading a higher learning institution would know that power does not concede anything without struggle, and that our democracy itself is a product of people refusing to be rational in the face of an abusive system.
The anti-black violence of the literary festival continued the next morning when, at a panel discussing the importance of rage, Thando Mgqolozana, author of Unimportance, was insulted by an audience member who, with typical white arrogance, stood up and shouted “Bullshit!” while Thando was speaking on the violence of white normativity.
It found expression in my session an hour later, where an elderly couple walked out as I was speaking on the existential crisis of blackness.
But the violence of whiteness experienced in Franschhoek cannot be limited only to the interactions with the audience at the official sessions. It begins when one takes the drive from Cape Town to the quiet winelands. At the edge of Franschhoek, far from the plush living conditions of its white bourgeoisie, are matchbox houses where the working class who toil on the vast farms and in the lush houses live.
Just as Soweto was established as a black labour reserve for the Witwatersrand and white homes in Joburg, so too does this part of Franschhoek serve as an abode for the black bodies that labour for white capital in the tranquil town.
Throughout the festival, these black workers could be seen carrying brooms and buckets, labouring in the blistering cold, divorced from the intellectual activities of the literary space.
This violence is not unique to Franschhoek. The Open Book Festival in Cape Town and the Kingsmead Book Fair in Rosebank, both of which I attended last year, are equally exclusive spaces only for those with financial muscle.
Hosted far from townships, they are inaccessible to the working class majority, most of which is black and poor.
It’s not an accident of history that the literary world in South Africa is so white. From our publishers right down to the consumers of our work, there is hardly any evidence of structural transformation of the literary space. It remains today as it did in the “old” South Africa, and this is primarily because the very economy of our country is itself untransformed. As such, the people who have the means to engage in the production chain of publishing are the white minority.
The problem, however, is not only that the literary sphere sustains white pedagogical practices. There is also the fact that our democratically elected government does not understand the importance of creating a literary infrastructure in townships and informal settlements where millions of black people are located. Despite spending almost R1 billion in building modern libraries around townships, our government has failed dismally to ensure that the infrastructure development is holistic.
The Department of Arts and Culture’s publishing unit is financially incapacitated and so cannot procure books for these libraries. While there are libraries, there is hardly any literature in them. Where there is, which is often in libraries that are sponsored by European donors and embassies, it is neither local nor African.
The result of this is that from a young age black children in townships are introduced to literature they cannot relate to, and so grow up averse to the culture of reading.
I know this personally because were it not for my mother’s access to more diverse reading material, and my studying at a multiracial school in the suburbs of northern Joburg, I might not have become an avid reader.
Some have argued that people in the townships would rather spend their money on alcohol than on books, but have failed to interrogate how this is linked to the non-existence of a literary infrastructure.
This reality exists alongside a highly profitable drinking infrastructure that is inherited from the apartheid dispensation where beer halls were established by the white government to keep black men away from liberation activities.
Two things need to happen simultaneously for us to resolve this crisis.
First, radical black writers need to remove themselves from these white normative spaces where they serve only as anthropological artefacts for a white racist audience that disregards black intellectual thought and experiences.
There’s no logic in our continuing to be in these spaces where we are invited solely to perform our legitimate rage.
So much energy that should be utilised in mentoring young black writers in our townships is used pleading to white audiences to do what they have proved incapable of doing: understanding how white privilege is violent to black bodies.
Our greater responsibility lies in rectifying the injustice of the systematic exclusion of poor black people from literary activities.
The job of reforming the thinking of whites lies in the hands of those who seek not to annihilate the system, but to benefit from it. That’s not who we are.
And second, because black people do not own the means of production and have limited resources that don’t allow for the great programme that is necessary, we need the government to play its part.
The government needs to fund the infrastructure required for local and African literature to flourish. For this to happen, it needs to dig deep into its coffers. It also needs to build strategic alliances with the private and civil society sector, to mobilise resources required for the literary revolution that our country so desperately needs.
Until these two things are done, the literary space, in terms of festivals like Franschhoek and the very value chain of publishing, is going to continue with its normalisation of violence, exclusion and the intellectual onslaught on black bodies. And that would be too heinous a crime.
* Wa Azania is author of Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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