A plea for the safety of writers and all who care for the written word: In memory of Tom Gouws (1961–2018)

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After the violent death of award-winning Afrikaans poet, writer and academic Tom Gouws, expressions of grief and shock started to pour in, among them the striking response of poet and academic Bernard Odendaal. Addressing the blood moon that was visible in many parts of the world on 27 July 2018 Odendaal wrote: “Why does your full body have to become the bloody symbol of what passes here below?” Hanging large and red in the night sky, the full moon reminded some of the blood that is shed all too often in South Africa, alarmingly also bringing the lives of writers and wordsmiths to sudden ends.

PEN Afrikaans takes a strong stand against violent acts that silence local writers, poets, journalists, essayists and bloggers or compromise them in any way in their activities as opinion makers. Years ago in 1989, writer Richard Rive was stabbed to death at his home, in 2002 writer Pieter Pieterse died after being stabbed 28 times with a knife, in 2005 literary scholar Lisbé Smuts was murdered at her home and in 2013 author and academic Daan Wybenga was murdered most brutally. In 2016 novelist Winnie Rust was killed at her home and now Tom Gouws died after being shot in the heart at his house. Poet and journalist IL de Villiers, the writer Chris Barnard and literary scholar Dawie Steenberg survived similar attacks in the wave of violence that seems to have become ubiquitous in South Africa. The list of murder victims, also numbering vulnerable migrants who in recent decades have sought a safer existence in South Africa, has become far too long.

Violence and senseless killing amounts to the most serious attack on the freedom and respect owed to all human beings who should be allowed to express themselves freely in their daily lives, not least of all writers and all who cherish the value of the written word in expressing the full scope of human experience. Violent attacks on those who devote their lives to writing represents an onslaught on the fragile right to challenge injustice and lawlessness. Those who survive or remain behind must live with the fear that the margins for free expression have shrunk, often leading to stunned silence and despair. PEN Afrikaans encourages all who feel terrified by the cold fingers of cruelty and violence to bravely take up the challenge posed to us by the unwritten page.

Let us remember the injunction of Tom Gouws in the final stanza of his poem “Villanelle vir die oos-vrystaat, clarens-distrik” (“Villanelle for the East Free State, Clarens District” (Troglodiet, 1995) to remember things from the past as we continue to write about life in this turbulent corner of the world: “this landscape finds its shape in folds of yellowing paper / here written in ochre ink, sometimes blazing in the yellow of dotting poplars” (“hierdie landskap lê voue van vergeelde papier / soms dof geskryf in oker ink, soms in die geel van populier”).

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