Franschhoek Literary Festival: Disturbing the peace
- Marianne Thamm
- 20 May 2015 01:02 (South Africa)
It was, by some accounts, a panel that “seemed to cause the most discomfort” at this year’s festival which took place over a wet and bitingly cold weekend among the vineyards. The discussion contained within the panel’s advertised title, ‘Is Anger Underrated?’, was tenderly and sharply moderated by political commentator, author and equal opportunity provocateur Eusebius McKaiser. My fellow panellists were author Thando Mgqolozana and psychologist and award-winning author Pumla Gobodo Madikizela.
It was also a discussion some opined later “where a lot was said but much more stayed unsaid”.
Correctly predicting what could have been a cool, detached and rational debate about a powerful emotion - “anger” - McKaiser suggested rather that panellists and those in the audience attempt to reflect and connect with anger more viscerally rather than merely reflect on it intellectually.
In so doing McKaiser created an atmosphere in which it was “safe” for those trapped in that church hall to open themselves up to the alchemy that was about to be unleashed. What then transpired was a heated, uncomfortable but ultimately brutally honest excavation of currents and undertows that swirl beneath contemporary political rhetoric and which are increasingly erupting in generally atomised spaces.
In that sense then the FLF offered something more than just a middle class literary lovefest and provided room for some artists to fulfill their mission as disturbers of the peace, as disruptors, as agents who shatter illusions.
Mgqolozana had arrived at the FLF already having made his views known in relation to why he would no longer be attending events of this nature in South Africa. These are, he said, “colonial literary festivals” where he is regarded as an anthropological curiosity rather than a writer.
While he and other black writers had for years attempted to change the nature of the structure of these festivals the ground had not shifted. Audiences remained largely white, festivals are held in white, urban areas and dovetail neatly with existing structural inequalities not only generally but also in the publishing industry.
“Whatever changes we called for have not taken place. It is upsetting for me to jump out of literary festivals like this, and I’m upset that I’ve had to make this kind of decision, but I think it’s a necessity, because I want to be able to sleep at night, I want to be able to honour myself and stick to those principles,” Mgqolozana explained his decision to withdraw from literary festivals.
And then, correctly highlighting the elephant in the village, he suggested that the audience examine itself. “You can just turn around and look at yourselves – it looks very abnormal. In this country, it should never be like this.”
McKaiser asked the author whether he was angry with the white audience who had bought tickets to attend or with the black people who were not there.
“I’m very proud of the black people who are not here because I don’t see why they should come here. I’m angry with the people who think this is normal. Who think the Franschhoek Literary Festival is normal, that the Open Book Festival is normal. Most people who are in charge of those things are our friends – nice people – but they think this is okay. I’m angry at those people. There is very little I can do about it, but I can remove myself.”
From here the conversation shifted inevitably to even more contentious territory – some of it embodied in what has become known as the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement – that young, black South Africans are determined, 20 years after democracy, to lead a second revolution that will enable a freedom that had been compromised by older leaders, like Nelson Mandela, in 1994.
It was a sentiment that was echoed at a later panel I moderated titled ‘Rattling Cages’ and that featured author and activist, Malaika wa Azania, curator, gender activist and filmmaker Zethu Mathebeni and journalist, author and Daily Maverick colleague Rebecca Davis. There too Wa Azania and Mathebeni, at first visibly anxious and angry, called for no-compromise and a “revolution” that would shatter the comfortable status quo.
Both were reluctant to define the exact the nature of this “revolution”.
“When you use the ‘r’ word white people imagine their backs against the wall,” quipped Davis breaking the uncomfortable silence.
“We will no longer have you police black anger,” Wa Azania told the audience.
Wa Azania continued that she had given up writing for white people while hoping we would confront historical and institutional privilege. She would, in future, direct her efforts not only at a growing young class of political activists but also through working directly with impoverished communities who continued to bear the brunt of institutional violence and poverty.
Leaving this panel I was approached by a black woman in her 40s who said she had been inspired by the fearlessness of these young South Africans.
“I am a 40-somehting black woman and the way these kids are talking back to us, the way they are not compromising is inspiring. After 1994 most of us just put our heads down and tried to get on with it. We found this structural racism in our workplaces, we encountered it in our lives but we did not know or have the language to speak back to it,” she explained.
Earlier Mgqolozana had excoriated the white audience for thinking that doing charity work in townships exonerated them, freed them of the burden of privilege and somehow made any difference to the lives of the poor.
“One of the things I advise – when young white people come to me and say ‘what can I do’ – the first thing you can do is stop the charity work you are doing in Khayelitsha, it’s not helping anyone. Just stop it. Stop the soup kitchens and donating blankets. It’s just making people more angry, it doesn’t change anything.”
At this point several members of the audience could not contain themselves, one woman, who later identified herself as a doctor, shouted “bullshit” while another offered “that’s bullshit too” when Mgqolozana suggested the issue was not poverty but the construction of whiteness and white entitlement.
“If there’s anything that a young white person wants to do because he/she is saying ‘I was not there’. The thing that I would advise them to do is go home – when racism is taking place there in conversations over tea or dinner, that’s your responsibility. There’s very little black people can do to stop this racism. We’ve tried for centuries. That’s what the Struggle was about. The people who can do something about it are people who belong to the same race – especially young people. Stop the charity work. It’s not welcome. Go home and deal with it there, at university, among your friends.”
And it was this instruction – to deconstruct whiteness, the psychic architecture of it that seemed most challenging to the audiences. Some got it, some didn’t. It seemed to provoke a genuine existential anxiety. For the request did not suggest practical and material support, but a turning towards the self.
In a session I had chaired earlier with Sonja Kruse, known as the Ubuntu Girl and author of The Ubuntu Girl, touched precisely on this issue. It was a matter that recurred constantly during her pilgrimage through South Africa for the 350 days she spent on the road with only R100, and relying on the charity and open-heartedness of others.
“I realised that you cannot think you must help people out of pity. That makes no difference to them,” said Kruse.
As a white woman traveling alone through the country in order to prove that we possessed a spirit of “ubuntu” Kruse had to unpack her whiteness and charts this sloughing off of the self in her book. Of course there were questions as to whether a black South African, embarking on the same voluntary journey, would encounter the same hospitality, which speaks again to the extraordinary passport that is a white skin. And it is this that the young authors were asking the audience to explore and examine.
In that sense then what Mgqolozana, Wa Azania, Mathebeni and Kruse were highlighting is Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s idea of the “vanishing mediator” used by the privileged middle classes to assuage guilt or restore a sense of vitality and purpose.
To illustrate his point Žižek uses James Cameron’s film version of Titanic where the first class passenger Rose De Witt Bukater encounters the poor and homeless Jack Dawson who is traveling third class. De Witt Bukater has a passionate affair with Dawson but later, after the ship has sunk and both bob around in the icy sea, De Witt Bukater, floating on a roomy piece of wood, pushes Dawson's body away and watches him sink, after he died from hypothermia.
Dawson’s only function in the film says, Žižek, is “to restore her [De Witt Butaker’s] sense of identity and purpose in life, her self-image; once his job is done he can disappear”.
The assertion by Mgqolozana was deeply upsetting to the doctor who asked how much longer she needed to feel “guilty” for having a white skin. She also tearfully recounted a story about treating a young HIV positive patient who informed her that it was her birthday. When she had asked the child if she had received any gifts and the girl had replied that she had not, she [the doctor] had given her a designer dress. That was not the moment to unpack the language and the framing of the story – we had run out of time – but it would have provided a helpful entry point in assisting those in the audience to understand what was being framed and asked.
McKaiser reassured the doctor that doing good works and working on yourself were not mutually exclusive. The demand, however, was for much greater self-reflexivity about the meaning of historical advantage and privilege and how fellow citizens who have been denied this encounter it.
What was evident as the audience and panellists staggered out of the church, is that a healthy dialogue, no matter how difficult, had occurred and is possible, as bruising and as painful as it was. For this the panellists, the audience, and indeed festival organisers must be applauded. The question now is where to from here? DM