On racism at book festivals

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In this article:

 

Bettina Wyngaard (Photo: Izak de Vries)

.White supremacy at Afrikaans festivals

Bettina Wyngaard (Award-winnig Author)

Over the weekend of 22–24 September I participated in the Etienne van Heerden Veldsoirée in Cradock.

It was an event I was looking forward to for many reasons, not least of all for the far more racially diverse participants and the wide range of topics I found to be very interesting. In fact, by Saturday afternoon I already had my weekly Afrikaans LitNet column mapped out.

Then Saturday night happened. We were to attend an event at one of the local farms.  Two popular and well-known analysts would speak, there would be a spit braai, and after that the rugby. Seating was at eight-seater round tables. There was no reserved seating. I went looking for a seat while my companions, two white participants and a black attendee, an attorney I’ve known for close on twenty years, were still getting drinks and talking. I saw a table with four empty seats, so I asked one of the women already sitting there whether they were keeping seats for anyone. She looked hesitant, but then confirmed no one was going to be sitting there. Then my Xhosa friend arrived, and I immediately saw the change that came over the woman – the tightening around the eyes, the hardening and thinning of the lips, the flaring of the nostrils. She and her companion took their wine, got up and left the table.

When I asked why they were leaving, she could not meet my eyes and mumbled something about meeting friends. Her companion just kept walking. 

I didn’t really need to hear their answer. One does not live in South Africa in a black skin and be unaware of the casual racism that abounds. My friend and I both knew why they had left.

It was not my first experience of racism. I have been spat at, spat on, shoved, elbowed, barred entry to premises, asked to leave premise I had already entered, denied service in public places. Once, during my student years, someone tried to kill me by driving his bakkie on to the pavement to run me over. I was standing with my back to him, and wasn’t even aware of his intentions. Only the quick action of a fellow student who pulled me out of the way saved me.

In my career as an attorney I have consulted with people who had undergone electric shocks administered by white people, tied to a bakkie and dragged along a gravel road, made to eat cow dung, and more. I have inspected “housing” where farmers housed former workers in enclosed ostrich pens with the stench of dung so sharp in the air one could choke on it.

We all read about the incident in the university residence where white students forced a cleaning assistant to drink human urine. We’ve read about the white man who sjambokked a domestic worker on her way to work because he was assumed she was a sex worker. There are countless other incidents to recount, most of them after democracy. Aside from the person trying to kill me, every single racist incident I recall happening to me, happened after 1994.

Compared with some of the other incidents referred to, what happened on Saturday night was a micro-aggression. It was not the worst thing that had ever happened to me. It was not even the first racist incident against me at a festival where I’ve been a participant. But it was the last. I am opting out. I am honouring two obligations at the Woordfees, but thereafter, and until such time as publishers and festival organisers make a concerted effort to protect artists, I will not participate in or attend any Afrikaans festivals.

Let me make it clear. What happened at Cradock could very easily have happened at any of the other Afrikaans festivals I’ve participated in. I have experienced racism at every single festival. Every single one. I know other black artists have the same experience. But we keep quiet, not wanting to rock the boat, not wanting to be seen as difficult or a troublemaker, lest no more invitations come our way.

But no more.

I am done being silent, micro-aggression or not. I am done turning the other cheek. I am done being the bigger person. I am done going higher when they go lower, because they will always find new lows to get to. My friend and I felt humiliated, which was, of course, the aim. No matter how talented or good or intelligent or compassionate one is, no matter how much of a contribution one makes to society, for people like those two at the table I will always be a black talking monkey with pretensions of being a writer.

I could not continue with the Veldsoirée as if it was business as usual. On Sunday, in the slot during which I was supposed to talk about my new book, I recounted Saturday’s experience. I am normally quite private about my interior life, but I decided I could no longer remain silent.

Afrikaans festival organisers are constantly asking why they do not get more black people attending. Is it the material they offer? Is it that the price of tickets is too high? Should they have more events in the townships?

When I spoke on Sunday, Darryl David, the festival organiser, appeared in his response to be of the opinion that I was opting out just to make a statement. He also said the same things happen to him, but he just carries on.

I found his reaction to be insensitive and devoid of any attempt at nuance or empathy. No two people experience things in the same way, and even if this was a singular instance, which it was not, it should never have happened.

What David does not seem to appreciate is that artists attend these festivals as work events. We are working, and he is advocating that we work within and uphold a toxic work environment. His focus, and that of every other festival organiser, should be at least in part on making sure their artists are able to work in an environment where they are safe, included, welcomed and protected. The same should be true of their black attendees.

His response is instructive in another way. Racism, structural and casual, works only when it is excused and/or accepted by some black people. Now white racists are able to use his response to say, “See, it’s not so bad. Even a black person is telling her to get over it.”

After I had spoken, I was approached by three different women apologising in case it was them. It wasn’t, but it does raise the question: How many white people changed tables at this dinner when black people approached them?

It is time we called this thing by its true name. Those people presumed to judge an award-winning author and a successful attorney purely on the basis of colour because they believed their white skin makes them inherently better.

They are white supremacists.

And as long as white supremacists are enabled and supported by someone telling people to just get over their actions, we will not have true diversity in our literary world. As long as they are allowed to flourish unchecked, which they will unless this is seriously addressed, then Afrikaans cultural spaces will not be safe, inclusive and welcoming.

I have received many messages from people saying they support me, and they think I’m brave for speaking up. I’m not brave, but I’m asking every single person who gave their support privately to do so publicly.

For writers: Ask your publishers and festival organisers how they intend making sure event spaces are safe, inclusive and welcoming. Do not accept platitudes and vague answers.

For publishers: What are you doing to ensure the safety and emotional wellbeing of your authors at events? Publicly communicate your plans.

For allies: Instead of keeping quiet to keep the peace, speak up and confront next time your white friend makes an off-colour joke or act in a way that demeans someone else.

White supremacists don’t stop being white supremacists by themselves. They stop because they are stopped. They stop because good people confront them about their attitudes and conduct.

In conclusion, perhaps David is correct in saying my decision to opt out will disadvantage me. Maybe it will cost me. I already see other authors avoiding my eyes. I am constantly questioned about whether I am sure this was, in fact, what I had experienced, thereby adding to the trauma I am already experiencing. I am no longer surprised at why people choose rather to remain silent. The secondary abuse is a reality I had not been aware of.

Maybe it will cost me, but it is a price I’m prepared to pay. The cost of continued silence to my dignity and self-worth is far higher than any rewards that attending a festival may offer.

So I say: No more. White supremacy must be stopped. Festivals should be safe, inclusive and welcoming spaces to all.

 

.Response from Darryl David and the audience

Bettina Wyngaard shared her hurt at the festival. Listen to the response.

(Some users may need to start the clip more than once to make Audiomac play. One may also download the app, but that is not vital.)

 

Darryl David (Photo provided)

.Scapegoat

Darryl David (Founder and Head of Festival)

I met Bettina at the buffet table at The Victoria Hotel on Friday night. The first thing I did was to hug her and sympathise with her over the loss of her mother a few days earlier. It therefore saddens me that she could turn an alleged incident of racism at the Etienne van Heerden Veldsoirée into what bordered on a character assassination against me.

Fortunately we recorded every session and what follows below are my exact words when I responded to Bettina. I spoke these words against the background of a racist incident I had experienced in Simon’s Town a few months before, and from a position of deep empathy. When I posted on Facebook that I wanted to return to KZN after that Simon’s Town incident, a colleague at UWC, Umesh Bawa, remarked that there are many good people in the Cape and I should not let one racist chase me out of Cape Town. And it was the best advice I could ever have hoped for. It was in this spirit that I said the following in response to Bettina:

I just wanted to say, you know I've experienced the same thing, not at festivals, but in other places.

And it is upsetting.

But I think one should reconsider opting out of festivals based on one experience.

I think you have something to contribute and it will be a shame to sit it out just to make a statement. And you will also be disadvantaging yourself.

And you know there have been many times I have considered throwing in the towel … I mean … it's in my book … it's in my book …

But I carry on. That's all I'm saying … you know … but everyone must make their own decision …

After words of sympathy from festivalgoers Melissa Riordan and Christi van der Westhuizen, I then said the following:

As the festival organiser, everything stops with me and on behalf of the festival I would like to apologise for what happened, but I think we must now move on with the programme.

For these words, spoken out of empathy with Bettina, this is what she has to say about me: “I found his reaction to be insensitive and devoid of any attempt at nuance or empathy.”

You judge for yourself who is insensitive.

But Bettina does not stop there. Two paragraphs later she makes this unforgivable statement:

His response is instructive in one other way. Racism, structural and casual, works only when it is excused and/or accepted by some black people.

Further down, she continues:

And as long as white supremacists are enabled and supported by someone telling people to just get over their actions, we will not have true diversity in our literary world.

*

Dear Bettina

Did we both listen to the same recording of what I actually said? “To just get over their actions?” Unless I am being taken over by some form of dementia, I am pretty certain I never uttered those words. Clearly years of being a lawyer has resulted in your being more eager to win an argument at all costs rather than pursue the truth.

All I will say is: It breaks my heart to hear you of all people use my name in an article entitled “White supremacy at Afrikaans festivals”. I have organised over 100 book festivals over 17 years. Not once has any black writer accused me of what you have accuse me of. Of upholding racism through my festivals. And even if you experienced racism at this festival, I believe having one such incident over a period of 17 years and over 100 book festivals later does not make me a person who enables white supremacy at book festivals.

And another thing I would like to go on record for: I personally have not once experienced any form of racism at a single book festival. In academia, yes. In restaurants, yes. At supermarkets, yes. But not at a single Afrikaans or English book festival. And yet you claim you experienced racism at every Afrikaans book festival you attended?

How many Afrikaans book festivals have you attended, Bettina? Over 20? And yet you choose to now launch a tirade against me in a matter in which I played no part? When you attended the same Etienne van Heerden Veldsoirée in 2018, did you experience racism at that festival as well? What racist incident were you subjected to at that festival? Because you claim to have experienced racism at every festival you ever attended.

You also deliberately misrepresent the Etienne van Heerden Veldsoirée as an Afrikaans book festival. Darryl David does not do monolingual book festivals. My track record at all my festivals will show that all my festivals are bilingual at least and multilingual in the case of my SA Festival of Children’s Literature. At the Etienne van Heerden Veldsoirée we had over 10 English sessions. One of our sponsors is Amazwi, the former National English Literary Museum. We focus heavily on Olive Schreiner at the festival. Speakers like Hein Willemse and Christi van der Westhuizen spoke once in English and read another paper in Afrikaans. Marita van der Vyver, best known in Afrikaans literary circles, spoke in English. Eben Venter, with whom you conducted the interview, often switched to English too. Christo van der Rheede’s talk was in Afrikaans, but we made an English transcript available. Theo Venter’s talk was in Afrikaans, but his Power Point slides were in English. You choose to characterise this festival as an Afrikaans festival to further the aim of your argument and demonise Afrikaans.

I want to say this one last thing. As a festival organiser I can curate a programme. I cannot curate an audience. I can assure you I have never made any black writer feel unwelcome and unwanted at any of my book festivals. And I can say with 99,992% certainty that no festivalgoer at any of my festivals has ever made anyone feel unwelcome and unwanted.

I am truly sorry that you had to experience this alleged act of racism at the Etienne van Heerden Veldsoirée, Bettina. But I will not mince my words when people try to scapegoat me, to demonise me. People reading your article might be forgiven for thinking I am the racist person in this whole sorry episode.

My skin is black too, Bettina. As an Indian person I, too, have experienced similar aggressions, but never at book festivals. They hurt, but these unsavoury incidents will not stop me. I will keep on creating literary festivals that reflect the various hues of our beloved country, as we have seen this weekend. I will continue to fight blatant racism with the types of discussion we had this weekend at the Veldsoirée. I apologise if you experienced my statements as insensitive, but I will not opt out. And one day soon I do hope to welcome you back to one of my literary festivals again.

Forever BookBedonnerd

Darryl Earl David

 

Izak de Vries (Photo: Johan Kotze)

.Why I am not opting out

Izak de Vries (Logistics Manager)

The sad and deeply regrettable event that has led to Bettina Wyngaard’s decision to “opt out” has only deepened my resolve to keep going. I am not trying to be oppositional, I simply want to do more of what we have done.

Please note:

  • Nothing I can say or do will take away the hurt Wyngaard experienced and is continuing to experience.
  • Also, nothing I say below should be seen as a way to minimise or attempt to normalise what happened.

Why, then, my stubborn resolve to persist?

Dialogue and divergent opinions

Those who have attended the Etienne van Heerden Veldsoirée will know how hard we have always worked to be inclusive and to have a multitude of voices addressing various aspects of our society.

  • Look at the programme.
  • Look at the speakers.
  • Look at last year’s programme and please do take the time to access the content we have published on LitNet from last year’s festival, as well as the content that will appear over the coming weeks from this year’s festival.
  • Judge us on our content.
  • In the true spirit of a soirée we aim to stimulate discussion and we do not shy away from difficult topics.

Hurt

Despite our best efforts, this horrible event has hurt someone whom I care for deeply.

What happened at that table in that hall full of fairy lights proves that we should not stop asking difficult questions. More importantly we should continue to challenge supremacist ways of thinking. I will certainly not stop trying to provide a platform to do just that.

Not just race

Wyngaard used her slot to address the issue of racial supremacy. I truly salute her for being brave enough not to merely brush the incident off.

Racial supremacy has to be addressed.

We should also remember that the LBGTQI+ community suffer frequent abuse in our country, in person and online. People, friends of mine who identify as one of the members of that community, hurt often. Too often. Some get killed for being who they are.

Foreigners suffer xenophobia, and often xenophobia leads to murder.

We cannot remain silent.

Next year: same place, same time

Wyngaard says: “No more. White supremacy must be stopped. Festivals should be safe, inclusive and welcoming spaces to all.”

I agree.

Attacks on foreigners and the LBGTQI+ community should also stop. Gender-based violence should also stop. Poverty should stop. How? I do not know. That is exactly why I am willing to be back in Cradock next year, one of a large team of hardworking people who will do our best to find ways of making our society a more welcoming space.

 

See also:

’n Soirée saam met my suster 

Die sprekers | The speakers: Etienne van Heerden Veldsoirée 2023

Die program | The programme: Etienne van Heerden Veldsoirée, 22–24 September 2023

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Kommentaar

  • Herman Lategan

    Bettina, as a white person I am sorry that you had to endure this sort of terrible incident.

    And then this: "I already see other authors avoiding my eyes. I am constantly questioned about whether I am sure this was, in fact, what I had experienced, thereby adding to the trauma I am already experiencing. I am no longer surprised at why people choose rather to remain silent. The secondary abuse is a reality I had not been aware of."

    This is gaslighting, where the victim is made to feel uncertain about their thoughts or actions. You then start to gaslight yourself. You have the right to your feelings and decisions. I support you.

  • Sybrandus Adema

    Ek weet nie wie daai wit mense was nie, maar dat hulle weens hul stompsinnige rassisme die kans verbrou het om 'n tafel te deel met mense so interessant soos Bettina en haar vriend, wys net hoe agterlik hulle is. Ek verstaan dit maak seer, maar dankie dat jy dit wel aan die groot klok gehang het. Ek weet nie of mens ooit 'n volkome veilige omgewing (in watter taalgemeenskap dan ooit) kan verseker nie, maar hoop vir die beste. En soos jy noem: wit mense soos ek moet ook meer doen om wit rassiste vas te vat. Dis immers die klassieke piramiede van rassisme en geweld wat veroorsaak dat hierdie goed voortleef. Sterkte, Bettina.

  • Blatante Vertrapte

    Jammer om te sê, maar die skoen pas die ander voet ook (en nou is ek seker ook 'n white supremist aldus Bettina). In haar rubrieke op LitNet het Bettina al meermale neerhalende uitaltings gemaak tenoor witmense. Maar dit word toegelaat en gaan ongesiens verby, want white bashing is mos die in-ding. Ek kan my nie herinner aan 'n artikel waar sy uitvaar teen black supremists en rassisime teenoor witmense nie. So, Bettina, elke saak het 3 kante - joune, die ander een s'n en die waarheid. Swart teenoor wit rassisme is baie erger in SA, jy maak net of dit nie bestaan nie. Dis oral, in die werkplek veral. Daar sal altyd rasseverskille wees, so kom oor dit. Dis 'n wereldwye fenomeen. Jy hang nou alweer die rassekaart om Afrikaans se nek. Bly dan maar weg van Afrikaanse geleenthede en lewe in Engels. O,ja, swart teen wit rassisme bestaan mos nie, dis gewettigde regstellende aksie.

  • Carla van der Spuy

    Bettina, hulle is diegene wat uitgemis het om nie ’n tafel met jou te deel nie. Ek hoop van harte ek en jy sit eendag weer saam op die verhoog by ’n boekefees.

  • Reageer

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


     

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