Hennie van Coller’s politicisation of children’s literature polemic

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Pictures of Hennie van Coller, SJ Naudé and Darryl David: provided

I decided to put pen to paper after I read a comment on Facebook about SJ Naudé, winner of the Hertzog Prize for Prose, dedicating his entire winner’s speech to an article by Hennie van Coller, “‘Gewone mense’ word al hoe meer randfigure”, of 7 May 2022. Interestingly, Van Coller chaired the very committee that awarded the prize to Naudé.

I also remember having read Lindie Koorts’s reply to Van Coller, in which she criticised him for his article. But I was curious to know whether Van Coller had put his foot in it in another article, or whether people were still talking about this article over two months later. So I began to research this polemic. Imagine my surprise to read of the furore it had caused among respected journalists like Elsabé Brits. And then I was even more shocked to read that the chairperson of the SA Akademie, Anne-Marie Beukes, had also distanced the Academy from Van Coller’s article. 

Then this evening I read Naudé's speech. And just as I had finished it, an article popped up on my cell phone that three adjudicators on the literary commission which Van Coller chairs had resigned. They were Andries Visagie, Marius Crous and Amanda Marais.

By now I was feeling very small, because when I read the article earlier in May, I found myself nodding in agreement with Van Coller. I even remember laughing at certain parts. Now I am scared stiff even to write this last sentence down. Maybe there is some credence to the notion of Covid fog, I began to think, having come back from the dead last year from Covid. 

So I went back to the article to find out whether what Van Coller had said had justified the response that followed. And whether I had misread him the first time.

I want to place on record that I am the only Indian lecturer of Afrikaans in South Africa and not a mother-tongue speaker of Afrikaans; that I am the former head of Afrikaans at UKZN; that I am the most experienced curator of book festivals and the founder of Book Town Richmond and festivals such as BookBedonnerd,  the Adam Small Festival and, most importantly, the SA Festival of Children's Literature, the only festival of its kind to focus exclusively on children's literature. I would also like to state that I have invited writers SJ Naudé, Lindi Koorts and Elsabé Brits to my festivals in the past, as well as Andries Visagie and Marius Crous.  I have never invited Hennie van Coller to any of my festivals thus far.  

So what did I find after a close reading of Van Coller’s article?

The heading of the article is "‘Gewone mense’ word al hoe meer randfigure” (“‘Ordinary people’ are increasingly becoming marginalised figures”), and the subheading “Selfs in kinderboeke sluip politieke korrektheid al hoe meer in” (“Even in children's books political correctness is creeping in”).

It would be fair to say, then, that the thrust of the article is that “ordinary people" have almost become marginal figures in children's literature. 

It would be fair to say, then, that the thrust of the article is that “ordinary people" have almost become marginal figures in children's literature. 

In paragraph 2 Van Coller praises the state of children's literature in Afrikaans, and says the days when there used to be a dearth of good literature in this genre have long passed. 

In paragraph 3 he says that romanticised stories with a strong didactic dimension, where children chat to dominees about their problems at the end of the book and all is then hunky dory, are no longer the storyline in modern Afrikaans children’s books. He says that the genre has moved on since then, and that these days there is quite literally not a personal or social problem that is not written about in children's literature. And then he goes on to give examples like sickness, death, rape, child molestation, homosexuality and race-related problems, to name but a few. 

Up until this point I can find no value judgement against homosexuality on the part of Van Coller. (Naudé was to differ with me, but more about this later.) 

In paragraph 4 Van Coller is starting to build his case for political correctness. 

He insinuates that if children's literature does indeed focus on problems in society, as mentioned in paragraph 3, why, then, does it not focus on corruption, loadshedding, affirmative action and the quota system for example? And then he gets the publishing industry all hot under the collar by claiming it seems as though these topics are censored. Which ties in with his assertion of political correctness in the genre.

Now I don't know about you, but as a person who organises the only stand-alone festival of children's literature in South Africa I found this to be quite a valid point. And I could not help but think about Naudé’s Alfabet van die voëls, which deals with precisely some of these very themes mentioned by Van Coller as not figuring in children’s literature. 

Paragraph 5: Van Coller calls a spade a spade. He claims the only deduction one can make is that publishers are acting as gatekeepers and are deciding what is acceptable in children's literature. Hence the charge of political correctness. 

By now I am having serious reservations about the impact of this Covid fog thing on my interpretive skills in May earlier this year. 

Paragraph 6: This is where Van Coller’s critics no doubt start sharpening their pencils. What Van Coller says is that no person in their right mind can criticise books that focus on societal or personal problems. However, when it becomes so dominant, he claims, surely we have to ask whether functional families still exist. But it is his last phrase that critics like Elsabé Brits attack him for: “… om eties en sinvol te lewe”. I suppose this is where the controversy starts. Because the implication is that Van Coller seems to be saying that the families represented in PC children's literature that publishers publish live unethical lives. Brits asks whether children in homes without fathers, brought up by mothers and aunts and grandparents, do not live ethical lives. But I think Brits and many critics may have missed a possible reason for the use of the word “ethical”. Could Van Coller not be referring to dysfunctional households where parents and family members rape and molest children in their care? Their own blood. This seems to me the context in which Van Coller uses the word. It would be interesting to hear his explanation for using the word “eties”. I am not sure if he has replied to any of the criticism.

But let's not dwell on that last sentence for now. Because it will only detract from a gem of a paragraph that follows. Although Brits would have you believe otherwise.

Paragraph 7: In this paragraph Van Coller claims that even fairy tales cannot escape political correctness. Pity the fairy, he says, who does not gather honey from flowers of all the colours of the rainbow. Now I don't know about you but I found that hilarious. Of course journalists like Brits would have none of this. But come on people, tell me that's not funny. 

Paragraph 8: This is the paragraph for which Van Coller gets nailed by his critics. He mentions one book in which the main character’s grandfather was a pro-struggle journalist, her best friends were coloured and black (assuming main character was white) and she learns to accept / embrace a gay couple. (For the record, I prescribed a book by the same author (I think) for my final-year Education students, and I, too, had lingering questions whether the author had tried to be politically correct. (As usual the “charous” didn't make up part of the rainbow assemblage of characters in the novel .)

When I read this, I did not get the impression that Van Coller was being disrespectful to gays, or that he was saying white children don't or can't have black or coloured friends. He was trying to show the unlikelihood of that combination of characters. Because his central argument is one of political correctness. 

When I read this, I did not get the impression that Van Coller was being disrespectful to gays, or that he was saying white children don't or can't have black or coloured friends. He was trying to show the unlikelihood of that combination of characters. Because his central argument is one of political correctness. 

But then a moment of hubris from Van Coller, I suspect. Having pulled off a truly brilliant piece of humour in the previous paragraph he ends by saying you're almost waiting for a disabled Chinese and a bisexual Ukranian refugee to make an appearance in the book, then all boxes would be ticked.

Van Coller has been roundly criticised for this statement. When I read it the first time, however, I did not get the impression that he was being disrespectful to minorities; merely that he was trying to show the unlikelihood, the "absurdity" perhaps (if that is the appropriate word), of some politically correct books. And that he was using the Chinese/Ukrainian quip to amplify, to exaggerate the unlikelihood of such an assemblage of characters.

But I can very well see how people might take offence to this. It is a poor attempt at humour. If I had been writing that article I would instinctively have deleted that sentence and quit while I was ahead with the fairy joke.

Maybe I do not know the world of the Afrikaner well enough. Maybe there are pejorative associations among Afrikaners towards Chinese and Ukranian people.  

Paragraph 9: Van Coller states that one of his colleagues longs for the days of Tarzan and Rooi Jan. Having not grown up in an Afrikaans world, I cannot comment on Rooi Jan. But Elsabé Brits gives compelling textual examples about the flaws of Rooi Jan. You really can’t fault her critique.

I do, however, know Tarzan very well. And I must admit that words like “patriarchy” never really enter my mind when I think back to my childhood and even now as an adult. 

On my first reading in May, I interpreted Van Coller’s remarks as not so much a hankering for a past when Afrikaner men were all-powerful (and racist, as Brits's article seems to imply), but rather, as a yearning for an age of innocence. A narrative world free from rape and child molestation. And anorexia. And alcoholism. And drug abuse. A world in which children did not have to grapple with all the “isms” of the world, in book form at least. 

As I was penning this article, Fanie Naudé’s acceptance speech loomed largest out of all the critiques of Van Coller. In it Naudé criticises Van Coller for lumping homosexuality together with crimes like rape and molestation. I must admit I was shocked when I read this, because I had never picked this up during numerous close readings of Van Coller’s article. So I went back to the text. Let me quote what Van Coller actually said (freely translated): "There are no societal problems or personal problems that are not discussed in children's books: molestation, rape, adultery, sickness, death, psychological problems, the loss of limbs and human senses, homosexuality, racial problems etc."

I think it is important to quote the exact order of "problems" listed. I don't think that most people would interpret Van Coller’s statement as "criminalising" homosexuality as Naudé contends. I honestly believe that Naudé’s analysis is an example of an incorrect reading brought about by selective reading and not reading the word “homosexuality” in context. I read Van Coller to be saying that children's literature has almost become the "dumping ground" (for lack of a better phrase) of all societal problems. If you object to homosexuality being characterised as a “problem”, one cannot deny that sexual orientation, like race, is the cause of many problems at schools, the institution children spend most of their daily lives in. Just think of the recent case of a court challenge where a gay male student wants the right to wear a dress to school. Or the child of a gay couple having to come to terms with the fact that 95% of his friends’ parents are male and female, as opposed to his two parents, who are two males (or two females). Or in the case of religion where Muslim boys contend it is their religious right to grow beards during school term.  I read Van Coller as simply saying all these issues are the cause of problems. Not that homosexuality is a problem in and of itself. And not that homosexuals are criminals in the same way rapists and child molesters are. If I were a matric marker and drew such a conclusion about a student who wrote the words Van Coller wrote and was accused of homophobic tendencies, I am convinced another examiner would overrule such an interpretation.  

And it must be stated Van Coller is not alone in his thinking. I have asked many writers of children's books: Why the obsession with all of society's problems in your genre? I asked Fanie Viljoen this question many years ago.  To now characterise Van Coller as a homophobe because of his May 7 article is grossly unfair, I feel. People all over the world have said exactly what Van Coller has. Some examples:

In a July 2016 article in The Guardian, “Is YA fiction too politically correct?”, the author discusses the danger posed by what he or she calls "the PC brigade", the politically correct brigade, and the dangers of including characters that tick the diversity box – simply for the sake of it. 

In a New York Times article from 2014, Claudia Mills says she sees nothing wrong with "politically charged" literature – as long as the literature does not descend into propaganda. 

A must-read for all involved in this polemic is Joe Pinsker's 2014 article “The radicalisation of bedtime stories”. It is worth the read if only for the titles of books being published in the USA and questions it raises about what is appropriate in children's literature. 

Another must-read, because it is similar in tone to Van Coller’s article, is Ed West's “How kid's books became universally woke”.

If Van Coller’s article got people hot under the collar, I really suggest you read Dave Seminara's 2021 article “The politicisation of children's literature”. It makes Van Coller seem like a puppy dog. But it also shows up the role of publishers in this regard. And more importantly: While the cast of characters in children's literature might have become more diverse, research shows that the authors have not become more diverse. 

I mention all these articles to show how commonplace these discussions are in other parts of the world. And I shudder to think that your son or daughter may be in my class this semester, because I intend to have precisely this discussion with my Foundation Phase teachers. If anything, this entire polemic will no doubt do great damage to my ambitions to have an open, frank discussion. Part of diversity training for teachers (which, incidentally, does not exist, except under the guise of multicultural education) is that we must create safe spaces for people to have open discussions without fear of being accused of being a racist or homophobe. 

And yet this is not the end of my article. And I hate to bring it up, but I would not be true to myself if I did not do so. And I realise I might become the subject of cancel culture and it might destroy my career prospects. But really, it needs to be said. 

This part of the article is not directed at Fanie Naudé or Elsabé Brits. As a person who was teased mercilessly at school because of my black skin, I feel your pain and realise you must have suffered immensely, and no doubt still do, because of your sexual orientation.  

So, to use Jonathan Jansen's favourite phrase at the start of a confrontational statement: “Here's the thing …”

I see that the other critics of Van Coller all serve on different subject commissions of the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns. Someone like Lindie Koorts wrote that she wants to teach her young son inclusivity and compassion. The president of the Akademie felt she needed to distance herself from Van Coller’s sentiments. Afrikaans academics Andries Visagie, Marius Crous and Amanda Marais resigned in protest. 

And yet all of them are part of lily-white panels. The Snow White brigade.

In literature the judges are Hennie van Coller, Hein Viljoen, Willie Burger, Andries Visagie, Thys Human and Anthea van Jaarsveld. Secundi: Marius Crous, Marni Bonthuys, Amanda Marais.

In history the commission is made up of Fransjohan Pretorius, Wessel Visser, Ruhan Fourie, Karen Horn, r Lindie Koorts, Alex Mouton, Anton van Vollenhoven, André Wessels.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying any one of these judges is incompetent or undeserving of their positions. I am just saying that there must be deserving black judges out there as well.

So to Anne-Marie Beukes. Rather than distance yourself from Van Coller’s article, which is inconclusive on the allegations of homophobic tendencies, in my humble opinion, distance yourself from the Snow White storyline of the organisation you head up.

So to Anne-Marie Beukes. Rather than distance yourself from Van Coller’s article, which is inconclusive on the allegations of homophobic tendencies, in my humble opinion, distance yourself from the Snow White storyline of the organisation you head up.

To Andries Visagie, Marius Crous (and Amanda Marais): Don't resign because it affects you on a personal level. Also be affronted that you sit on a committee that is exclusive on the grounds of race. 

To Lindi Koorts: It is admirable that you want to teach your son the values of inclusivity. But you can't claim the moral high ground when you sit on a committee that is exclusive on the grounds of race. An all-white committee should be as unacceptable to you as you found Van Coller’s article to be unacceptable on the grounds of gender and  condescending to other minorities. That is what true inclusivity means. 

In conclusion I would like to go on record and state I do not believe that Hennie van Coller is a homophobe and guilty of the things all of you say he is guilty of. Not because I am a friend of Hennie van Coller’s, but because the textual evidence is not conclusive. And the fact that not one person was prepared to stand up for Hennie van Coller when it is clear there is another way to interpret his article should be a warning to each and every one of us of the dangers of cancel culture. But that is a discussion for another day. 

I stand by my belief that people have misconstrued what Van Coller has said. If that means I will be called a homophobe and of having homophobic tendencies, so be it. 

Also read:

Persverklaring: Hennie van Coller bedank as voorsitter van die SA Akademie se Letterkundekommissie

Van Coller – storm in ’n espressokoppietjie

SêNet: Kommentaar van ’n nagraadse student van professor Van Coller

PEN Afrikaans-persverklaring: oor die polemiek van "randfigure" in kinder- en jeugliteratuur

Die Grondwet, nie kansellering nie, omsoom die openbare gesprek

SASNEV-persverklaring: Van Coller moet verskoning vra

Dit sou inderdaad skokkend wees: ’n Analise van Hennie van Coller se ope brief aan SJ Naudé

’n Nuwe klimaat

Persverklaring: Dol heuning wen nog ’n prys – en die skrywer maak sy stem dik

Lede van SA Akademie se Letterkundekommissie bedank oor Hennie van Coller se omstrede rubriek

SJ Naudé se toespraak by ontvangs van die Hertzogprys

Aankondiging: 2022 se wenners van SA Akademiepryse

US se Afrikaans en Nederlands-departement rig ope brief aan Akademie: Onthef Van Coller van sy pligte

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  • Gerhard van Huyssteen

    Thanks for your perspective, Darryl. I can't agree with you more when you say "that we must create safe spaces for people to have open discussions". And that is, in my opinion, one of the fundamental mistakes made by Van Coller in his original opinion piece. A column in a national newspaper, especially one that is published online and one that is for many years now notorious for its toxic comments, is NOT a safe space for people to have open discussions. Van Coller clearly knew it when he played for his audience with his attempt at "humour". And to prove my point further: Put on a full metal jacket and go read some of the comments on Facebook in support of Van Coller. You will hopefully agree with me that the forum he chose to air his opinions, is NOT a safe space ... And as a literary scholar, he should have known better, in my opinion. Or he should at least acknowledge that his opinion piece was open for different interpretations, or accept that he might have caused harm ...
    Re your statements about racial inclusivity: I'm sure all the people you mention by name would agree with you. But let me not speak on their behalf. I agree with you on this matter (but not on your interpretation of Van Coller's opinion piece).

  • Francois Verster

    Darryl, ek hoop nie jy word gestriem oor jou ewewigtigheid nie. Ek gaan my nie oor die hele debakel uitlaat nie, want ek weet in elk geval nie genoeg daaroor nie, ek lees ook nog op, soos jy gedoen het - respek aan almal is my leuse, so is ek grootgemaak - maar ek het nog altyd vir jou respek gehad en dit wat jy hier skryf het my geensins anders laat voel oor jou integriteit en gravitas nie. Sterkte, en ek hoop ons loop mekaar weer eendag by 'n boekefees raak. Ek hoop ook dat almal in die Afrikaanse literatuur-dampkring mekaar eendag as gelykes sal behandel. Ons hoop dit tog almal, of hoe?

  • Paula Hartzenberg

    Darryl, jou perspektief is besonder fyn hier, en versterk my eie aanvoeling. Die bedoeling was nie om homoseksualiteit per se by die argument te betrek nie, maar eerder die werklikheid daarrondom.

  • Breyten Breytenbach

    Delicious, Darryl! Hoe vang jy dan nou ’n klomp welstrewende witmense met hulle skaamte om hulle enkels …

  • Marinus Schoeman

    Baie dankie vir hierdie uitstekende en goed beredeneerde artikel. O, dat ons Afrikaanse literêre establishment (hoofsaaklik van Stellenbosch allure) so heerlik op hulle plek gesit kan word! Jammer Prof Van Coller dat jy as so ’n bekwame, toegewyde en gewaardeerde lid van die Akademie-raad bedank het – die debat het immers skaars nog begin. As ’n lid van die Akademie is ek geskok oor hoe onbeholpe die hele kwessie hanteer is deur die hoof- uitvoerende beampte en die voorsitter (die dagbestuur?). Van Coller se bedanking moes eenvoudig nie sonder meer aanvaar gewees het nie. Sy bedanking is so onbetaamlik gou in ’n persvrystelling bekend gemaak. Hopelik is dit nog nie die einde van hierdie debakel nie en sal die HUB en voorsitter nog tot verantwoording geroep word.

  • Theresa Papenfus

    Dankie hiervoor. Dis verhelderend en insiggewend, en bied ’n breër perspektief en ’n wyer verwysingsraamwerk as waarbinne die kwessie tot dusver beoordeel is. Nou gaan ek die ander artikels oor kinderliteratuur waarna jy verwys, soek.

  • Net voor ek in 'n koma wou gaan van verveeldheid oor die gehareklowery rondom Van Coller se rubriek, kom ek op Darryl David se nugter kommentaar af. Ek's nou weer wakker.

  • Dear Darryl, thank you for taking the time to share your perspective. I prefer not to refer to any of our colleagues teaching Afrikaans in terms of any orientation, whether race, gender, mother tongue or age. You declare your involvement and experience in the Afrikaans academic landscape. This resonates with me, having been involved in community projects in support of secondary school teachers who teach Afrikaans poetry – home language and first additional language. I have taught and am teaching Afrikaans literature, methodology of Afrikaans, and Afrikaans First Additional Language at secondary and tertiary levels – including modules on poetry for children and Young Adult Fiction. Furthermore, I am sure I am not alone in expressing gratitude to you for the extensive work you have done and are still doing in organising book festivals, including the one on South African children’s literature.
    As far as the unfortunate turn of events on the debacle sparked by an article that you have chosen to comment on: The responses to Prof Van Coller’s article on 7 May and the subsequent perspectives offered by the author Fanie Naudé, Adv. Jean Meiring, SASNEV, USAN, and PEN Afrikaans, renders any further contribution from me on this matter unnecessary.
    Regarding your call to the Chief Executive Officer of the Akademie, I wish to follow you in quoting prof Jansen: “Here’s the thing …”
    For decades, membership of the Akademie was subject to invitation only. After decades of functioning in the margins, with many others, I have been a member of the Akademie since 2020, unfortunately, I would state, at that stage still as per invitation. Recently, however, and it came about during Prof Beukes’ term, academics, scientists, and professionals are able to apply for membership. This moves me to say that we, as academics and professionals working in Afrikaans, should ask ourselves why whiter shades of pale are currently prevailing in the Akademie and its Letterkundekommissie and what we ourselves are doing to achieve inclusivity.
    I have not served on the Akademie’s Letterkundekommissie, but I believe that esteemed academics such as Prof Steward van Wyk and Dr Anastasia de Vries of UWC have been involved, inter alia. Your call to, once again, address the composition of the current and also all future literary commissions, is timeous and relevant – thank you. I unequivocally support that. The composition of prize committees judging a diversity of Afrikaans literary prizes, speak volumes in this regard.
    We are fortunate to have a wonderfully energetic and internationally relevant core of young Afrikaans literary scholars. Initiatives like academic conferences and seminars like the Ontlagering conferences, the Sitkamer project, and the annual USAN young researchers conference, are relevant and changemaker examples. We should assure these young academics that they are much needed and that their opinions and contributions are vital. Instead of waiting for them to apply, should we not urge them to be involved in a broader academic environment than only the various institutions where they are formally teaching? From CPUT to Rhodes, from Fort Hare to NWU, from UCT to UJ, to UNISA, to UP, to … As the former chair of the Taalkommissie, Prof Gerhard van Huyssteen pointed out: people can speak for themselves. The fact remains: we have the potential. We have excellent scholars in Afrikaans. Who can also serve as members in the SAAWK. And they most definitely are not, if I may then borrow the term you chose, offering a "Snow White storyline". I hope you will apply, dear Darryl, as soon as possible.

  • Darryl Earl David

    Dear Karen. I thank you for your letter. I realise your heart is in the right place. However, when I hear things like membership used to be PER INVITATION, it makes my blood boil. Looks like this SA Akademie was nothing less than the Broederbond from where I sit.

  • Dear Darryl. I think we are in agreement that everybody, including the Akademie, can and should speak up for themselves. Still, it seems relevant to consider that the "per invitation" (as per the above), refers to an approach inherent to committees or academies, i.a., where membership intends to support the aim and raison d'etre of such committee or academy. In this case, one would expect academic and/or professional and/or research profile and involvement. The SAAWK is a community of researchers, academics, and professionals working and networking in their respective fields of scientific interest. One hopes that the intent of per invitation was not to support or facilitate exclusion, but in support of the core focus of the members of the group. If this might have contributed in the past to disadvantage and irrelevant and unfair, suppressive exclusion, as unfortunately the impression has been left, I am even more grateful that the process has been changed – now everyone working in the field can consider how they would like to contribute. The last word from my side goes to Bettina Wyngaard. Ons leef "(i)n die konteks van ’n bedreigde taal wat elke liewe bietjie goodwill nodig het waarop hulle kan reken" en moet genereer. Groete.

  • Mnr SJ Naude het darem nou stil geraak ... Dalk kan hy repliek lewer en argumenteer hoe 'n groot homofoob die prof is? Of dalk is sekere mense heterofoob?

  • Wilhelm Fourie

    Hierdie is verreweg die beste analise oor die situasie wat nog geskryf is! Dankie Darryl David!

  • Reageer

    Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.