Late on Friday, I felt my phone vibrate incessantly following a Facebook post by author Athol Williams. I did not read it immediately, because it was the build-up to my daughter’s birthday, and Athol has a large following. But the vibrations would not stop, so I took a peek – this is what I read at a quick glance:
The problem isn’t lack of diversity of award winners … the problem is that these contests only allow entrants from certain publishers, and that’s where the lack of diversity resides. Same goes for Sunday Times prizes.
This was my quick response to Athol:
Dearest Athol. You are partly right. The problem is structural. But the structural fault line does not lie with the prize giver. All praise, I say, to Media24 and Sunday Times and the many others who reward whom they consider as the best writers, even if the competition is limited to only a few publishers. The problem, in my opinion, lies with government – specifically the national Department of Arts and Culture. I dare anyone to do an audit of every head of arts and culture at national level and in every province, and the answer will always be the same. We have fools running these departments through an entrenched system of patronage. This is where the structural problem lies. And as for the JRB, it is the height of hypocrisy to question the all-white prize winners when they have failed to question the only-black audience policy of the Abantu Book Festival in Soweto.
In the following article, I would like to qualify my comments. Firstly, it is inexcusable that Media24 could have employed an all-white cast of judges. Niq Mhlongo rightly notes: “It’s not only shocking, but it’s also embarrassing.” It looks like a platform for particular authors. A platform for friends. There is an undertone of patriarchy, an undertone of racism, of a status quo that does not want to change. There is no democracy in it. It looks as if only white people should be judging literature, as if they are the custodians of taste. Efemia Chela adds: “How, in 2020, can these awards have only white winners and almost all-white judging panels? In South Africa. An African country.” Niq adds: “If you want to run literary awards, it should represent the demographics of the people. That doesn’t mean we should promote mediocrity. But when the judges are white, the people who win will be white.”
This is where matters get a bit slippery. Are we criticising Media24 only because of their lack of representivity in the make-up of the judging panel? Or are we also criticising Media24 because the winners were 100% white? Fred Khumalo states: “Without taking anything away from the books that won, the composition of the judging panel speaks volumes. Not a single black African judge!” The JRB summarises the furore as follows: “[The article] … drew a strong reaction on social media, with many condemning the fact that all the winners, as well as the majority of the shortlisted authors and judging panels, were white.”
What has all of this got to do with the Abantu Book Festival, you ask. Before I deal explicitly with the Abantu Book Festival, a bit of background is needed. In 2016, I launched the first-ever book festival in Soweto, although this fact has been airbrushed from history. A few months later, the Abantu Book Festival followed. However, my dealings with the cream of South Africa’s black writers left a sour taste. I had been working with a senior black writer for months on the festival, when he started getting pressure from other black writers. They were unhappy that he was helping an Indian organise the first book festival in Soweto. Due to this pressure, he then claimed that he had never agreed to work with me on the festival. All the top young black writers boycotted the festival. They pressured emerging writers not to attend. A City Press journalist, for instance, begged me two days before the festival to include him on the programme. An hour before his scheduled participation at the festival, I phoned him, only to be told he was overseas at a jazz festival! As a result, I had to abort my Soweto Literary Festival after year one – a festival that had attracted the likes of Mongane Wally Serote, Mandla Langa and iconic photojournalist Peter Magubane, the man who covered the Sharpeville uprisings. It was a truly multiracial festival, drawing the likes of PJ Powers and writers of all races, and having in place the Star newspaper as its main sponsor for the future. As I wryly remarked after the festival, for the first time in my life, I felt white during my visit to Soweto. And openly unwelcome. Imagine if I had tried starting a Book Town in Richmond in the Karoo, and all the Afrikaans writers had boycotted my festival because they disapproved of an Indian organising a book festival in the Afrikaner heartland. Would not all newspapers have screamed racism in small Karoo town?
If you think this is just sour grapes, this racial intolerance was carried over to the Abantu Book Festival. It is a festival for black writers only. Only black African members were allowed in the audience. I am not alone in my condemnation of the racist stance of the Abantu Book Festival. See, for instance, a 2018 Daily Vox article by Mishka Wazar: “Why Abantu Book Fest needs to reconsider its white people stance”. Wazar shows a screenshot from the Abantu website, with the following: “Abantu Book Festival is, and has always been, for black people. Only.”
You find more vociferous echoes of the same type of criticism in a 2018 article in the Rational Standard entitled, “Racist Abantu Book Festival harms, not helps, black authors”. The article opens with communication from Abantu saying that a black parent’s “mixed race” children were not welcome.
What has all of this got to do with the Media24 furore? Well, to use a gastronomic cliché, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too! I am not denying that Media24 were completely wrong not to include a single black African judge. But can most of the black writers who support the Abantu Book Festival cry foul because blacks were largely overlooked as judges and finalists, while the festival which they champion is overtly racist? As the article so succinctly states, “It doesn’t take a genius to see that banning an entire race group from an event is racist.” However, what is more shocking is the following revelation in the article: “The event was sponsored by both the Arts and Culture Department as well as the city of Joburg.” To add insult to injury, later articles reveal that the Abantu Book Festival is also funded by the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS). The rot, it would seem, runs deeper than imagined, and this blatant racism is sanctioned and condoned by government.
Now, the radical in me is thinking. If our government can sanction and fund racist practices at a book festival, maybe Media24 were too quick to apologise. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but I feel it is the height of hypocrisy for black writers who support the racist stance of the Abantu Book Festival to cry foul over whites excluding them from book awards. The Abantu Book Festival will try to sugar-coat their blatant racism by saying that they are trying to create a space for black writers precisely because of their marginalisation as is evidenced by Media24 polemic. I have no problem with that. I do precisely the same at my Adam Small Festival in Pniel. But I do not exclude writers of other races. I do not bar whites, Africans and Indians from attending.
And I do not want people to think I am picking on Abantu only. I left UKZN for the very same reasons. At the last faculty board meeting I attended before resigning, I asked the dean: Is it UKZN policy to allow only black African writers to attend the Time of the Writer festival? Why does the 2019 programme have not a single Indian, white or coloured writer on the programme? In the last few years, these festivals have been curated by the two leading figures of the Abantu Book Festival, ie Thando Mgqolozana and Niq Mhlongo. Today, Time of the Writer, which at different stages hosted the likes of Arundhati Roy, Mongane Wally Serote, Breyten Breytenbach, Lewis Nkosi, Chimamanda Adichie and Antjie Krog, is a shadow of its former self, attracting no more than 15 writers each year.
Lastly, I would like to revisit Niq Mhlongo’s comment: “But when the judges are white, the people who win will be white.” It is one thing to object to the lack of representivity of the judging panel. However, can we really object when there is not a single black writer among the prize winners? Are we now going to insist that if there are nine prizes on offer, one prize must be awarded to a black writer? What if it was just a coincidence that this year’s Media24 prize winners were all whites? Has affirmative action become so entrenched in the South African psyche that it has uncritically become our default position? It is a dangerous road to travel, if this is what black writers are actually saying. I am afraid it is a slippery slope from here. Judges are now going to feel compelled to award a black writer an award. Black writers who have deservedly won a prize are now always going to have the stigma of affirmative action or quota haunt every victory.
One has only to look at the response of one of this year’s winners, Trevor Sacks, if you don’t believe me:
Through a cascade of privilege, my novel won a prize, and it was as surprising to me as it was to many others. It’s difficult for any writer of fiction to gain recognition for their work. A lack of representation in publishing makes it even more difficult for black writers. I’m grateful to the judges for acknowledging my novel, and at the same time I’m aware that it’s robbing the light from other fine novels written by black South African writers.
I plan to donate a portion of the proceeds of the prize to a programme that supports black South African writers.
Is Sacks saying what I think he is saying? That he won the prize, yet he knows that there were other black writers more deserving of this prize? How else does one interpret his comment, “I’m grateful to the judges for acknowledging my novel, and at the same time I’m aware that it’s robbing the light from other fine novels written by black South African writers”?
And, just when you think it can get no worse: Is Niq saying what I think he is saying? That white judges will choose white winners? And, by implication, black judges will choose black winners? How else is one to interpret his quote, “But when the judges are white, the people who win will be white”? The judging process is, at the best of times, a highly subjective act, and is not swayed by the race of judges. One has only to look at two examples to prove this point. In 2018, Harry Kalmer won the Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize for A thousand tales of Johannesburg. Years earlier, the original Afrikaans book went largely unheralded. SJ Naudé’s The third reel was a Sunday Times finalist. The original Afrikaans novel was awarded the goldstone of literary prizes in Afrikaans, the Hertzog Prize. If I were a judge, I would have awarded Fred Khumalo’s Dancing the death drill the Sunday Times Prize. The point I am trying to make is that such statements by Niq do a disservice to judges by implying that judges vote according to race. It all boils down to taste and which judge is able to present the most persuasive argument for their choice of winner.
I would like to conclude with a famous quote by Nelson Mandela: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.” This is what I have attempted to do my entire life. My views on discrimination in Afrikaans academia are well documented. I remain steadfast to a nonracial society, and I must therefore vigorously condemn instances of racism in the literary sphere. Whether over an attack on Media24 or on the Abantu Book Festival, one must be consequential and even-handed when addressing issues of discrimination. Media24 have done the right thing and apologised for their discrimination. The jury is out on the Abantu Book Festival and a government that props up the racist practices of the Abantu Book Festival.