Durban first city on the African continent to become a Unesco World City of Literature

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Durban became the first city in South Africa and on the African continent to become a Unesco World City of Literature in 2018. Darryl David, former Head of Afrikaans at UKZN, headed Durban’s bid for Unesco City of Literature status. In addition, Head of Libraries Tebogo Mzizi  and Durban writers Ashwin Desai and ZP Dala have played no small part in this project. Darryl David tells Naomi Meyer about this important announcement and what it means for this country's literary scene.

Darryl David

Darryl, breaking news: Durban’s bid to become a Unesco World City of Literature in 2018 has been successful. What does this mean?

Yes, we did it Naomi. Durban is now the first Unesco City of Literature on the African continent. This is big. In a sense it means that Durban becomes the literary capital of Africa, the literary gateway to Africa. Everything that 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. We already have three major literary festivals in the city: 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. I said it after I curated ARTiculate Africa at the end of September: 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 in 2018.

It is the first time a South African or an African city has become a City of Literature. Why Durban? What were the criteria?

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 mentioned above, we have three literary festivals; two of them, Poetry Africa and Time of the Writer, which incidentally was the brainchild of Breyten Breytenbach, enjoy almost iconic status in Africa. And ARTiculate Africa has ambitions to become the flagship international literary festival in South Africa.

And then, too, the city runs one of the most inspiring library programmes in South Africa. No matter what Durban’s faults may be, they run a great library programme. 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, Philani Dladla’s book, was chosen. And believe me, this city spends millions on their artists. And they commit millions to literary festivals. Time of the Writer and Poetry Africa are not only UKZN-funded; the major sponsor is the City of Durban.

And don’t forget that Durban also hosts the Durban International Film Festival. Unesco wanted cross-sector collaboration. The Film Festival offered us this.

And of course the Durban ICC has been the top International Convention Centre in Africa for the last 15 years. Not Cape Town. Not Jozi. Unesco was looking for a city that had an impressive track record for hosting international events. The ICC gave us the pedigree.

And yes, we cannot boast a Fugard or a JM Coetzee in Durban. But this is Alan Paton country, you know. This is the conveyor belt for Indian writers like Ronnie Govender, Imraan Coovadia, Ashwin Desai. This is the home of Fred Khumalo, Gcina Mhlophe, Bessie Head, Lewis Nkosi, 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. (And did I mention that one Darryl Earl David, who brought the Unesco City of Literature to Durban in the first place, worked for over 25 years in Durban as the only Indian lecturer of Afrikaans in SA?) Make no mistake, we ran a compelling campaign.

Durban beachfront

What will happen now?

Well, hopefully the City will let the existing Exco who brought them the Unesco City of Literature designation carry on the good work. Hopefully with me as Executive Director and Curator of ARTiculate Africa. A huge budget will have to be allocated to bring to fruition three new projects we punted in our bid. Business leaders will have to be brought on board. A dedicated website would have to be created.

And hopefully the Mother of All Parties. Soon!!!

I see that Iowa in the US will be Durban’s mentor city – what does this mean?

Iowa acted as our mentor city in the bid process. Iowa has been a Unesco City of Literature for almost a decade, I believe. So their advice was invaluable to our bid. For instance, we forwarded our draft bid to Director John Kenyon. He advised us to find innovative projects because he knew what existed in the network. Christopher Merrill, for example, helped in the organisation process of ARTiculate Africa. While this mentoring process officially ended upon last night’s announcement, if I am in charge, I will continue this relationship in the early years.

Which other cities are (or were?) Cities of Literature?

Before this announcement there were a mere 20 cities. In this round, eight new Cities of Literature were announced. For Afrikaans readers, it is interesting to note Utrecht became the first Dutch Unesco City of Literature. 

The following eight cities are now Cities of Literature:

  • Bucheon (Republic of Korea)
  • Durban (South Africa)
  • Lillehammer (Norway)
  • Manchester (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
  • Milan (Italy)
  • Québec City (Canada)
  • Seattle (United States of America)
  • Utrecht (Netherlands)

Does a Unesco World City of Literature stay a City of Literature forever?

Thankfully yes! This is an honour Durban will enjoy as long as they remain true to their vision set out in the bid document.

What does this mean for literature in South Africa in general, and for indigenous languages?

This will be huge for South African literature. As already alluded to, such a designation opens South African literature up to the entire world. International writers love South Africa and have been waiting for something like this. As for indigenous languages, part of our proposal included not only the promotion of Zulu, but also of Indian languages like Urdu, Telegu and Hindi. Such a bid does not crack the nod simply by having sexy literary festivals. A coherent translation programme also formed part of the bid. Believe me, much work lies ahead for the city. Let’s pray that in a city known as Little India, UKZN and DUT can be persuaded to bring back Indian languages into their BA programme.

Experience tells me it will be the NGOs that will be central to this imperative. However as far as Zulu is concerned, the future looks bright. Time of the Writer has a short story competition for Zulu. And ARTiculate Africa offered a 4-day Zulu writers course. The Mazisi Kunene Foundation and writers like Gcina Mhlophe are ambassadors for Zulu.

As has been mentioned a few times now, you were recently involved the ARTiculate Africa Festival in Durban – do tell us about all your other literary festivals?

My involvement in other literary festivals has been well documented. However, what I will say is that bringing a Unesco City of Literature to South Africa does not fall out of the sky. It has been a long journey and all of my literary festivals helped me eventually to get to what I consider to be the Holy Grail in literary tourism – a Unesco City of Literature. Moreover I do believe I am now the only person in the world who has created both a Booktown and a Unesco City of Literature. Of this achievement I am most proud. I have given my life to literature in South Africa. My academic career has suffered. I will never become a full professor in my lifetime. I will die poorer than most academics because I will never get promoted for the kind of work I do. But in words I am rich. I have led a charmed life. And for that I am most grateful. In the immortal words of Robert Frost :

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Also read:

Press release: Update on Durban's bid for Unesco City of Literature

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  • Breyten Breytenbach

    Alle eer aan Darryl David vir hierdie erkenning deur 'n wêreld-organisasie van sy onvermoeide en harde en altruïstiese werk vir die literatuur, kultuur en tale van Suid-Afrika. Ons is trots op jou. Durban behoort net so trots en dankbaar te wees vir die voorbeeld van hierdie skeppende mede-burger. Mag vele van ons dit op allerlei wyses probeer navolg. Thank you, Darryl: it is an honour and a privilege to salute you as a selfless compatriot.

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