Nearly 60 years ago American playwright Tennessee Williams staged an interview with himself for the London Observer. In response to his question about whether society was “succumbing to a deliberate mendacity” he stated:
“I’m inclined to think that most writers, and most other artists, too, are primarily motivated in their desperate vocation by a desire to find and to separate truth from the complex of lies and evasions they live in, and I think that this impulse is what makes their work not so much a profession as a vocation, a true ‘calling’.
Tennessee Williams’ most famous plays weren’t overtly about the mendacity of politicians, but they were an avowed form of activism. They went against the stream and tried to draw attention to the flotsam in which society was swimming. Without them and the works of other writers of the 1940s and 1950s like Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, our understanding of post-war America would be stuck to its surfaces. We would be unable to trace the roots of alienation, anger and the countercultures that would break to the surface in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the years since then, America and the world have changed vastly. The “negro” characters at the edges of plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire have moved closer to its centre. The lower middle classes have been forced out to the edges of society, where they have become fodder for Trumpism. But although the neoliberal period of politics and society might be unrecognisable to Williams and his peers, the importance Williams attached to the writer as a truth-seeker and truth-teller has not changed.
Truth-telling is also a feature of the writer that has been globalised.
Welcome to our South Africa! This afternoon I speak to you from the perspective of an activist for equality and social justice … but one who also tries to write. My conviction is that every writer should be an activist and every activist a poet, someone who tries to use words to shape a new imaginary. Thank you for providing me an opportunity to reflect on an age-old theme, democracy and the writer, and to reassess its meaning in our modern worlds.
Today, our much put-upon Africa is once more going through agonies and contortions, many of which are again being imposed from outside. In this context the writer remains vitally important for understanding and articulating what is happening to our societies and peoples.
You have come to South Africa at a time of trauma, a time of war on the poor and daily localised uprisings by poor people. You come at a time when people are seeking answers to questions they can’t formulate and new understandings of a politics we can’t comprehend.
Twenty years ago South Africa was a country of naïve hope and possibility. But now the rainbow is separating once more into its primary colours.
In the last few years it has become clear that South Africa is not what we thought it was or what we want it to be. People’s trust in our party of liberation, the ANC, has been abused by immoral and corrupt politicians and businesspeople who have ruthlessly exploited our natural resources and robbed from state coffers to advance their own interests.
South Africa now seems to be following the well-worn path of many other countries after they were unshackled from colonialism, only to find themselves in another set of chains.
Racists would have us believe that this is an African phenomenon. It is not. It happened in India and Pakistan, as well as in countries of Latin America. It happened in the United States. It is something that happens when people put too much trust and power in their leaders.
Yet there is hope. Across the world many new voices and movements are now emerging in protest. In 2015 South African writers joined their voices to the chorus of protest.
During the #UniteAgainstCorruption campaign as well as in campaigns for the rights of children to have textbooks in schools (the #TextbooksMatter campaign run by SECTION27 and Basic Education For All) some South Africans heard once more the voices of distinguished writers like Njabulo Ndebele, Achmat Dangor and Maishe Maponya.
To their voices have been added the voices of later generations of published writers like Margie Orford, Gabeba Baderoon and Redi Tlhabi. Equally significant is the burgeoning literary underground, where African writers collect their thoughts, imagine, converse, and self-publish in defiance of a profit-driven publishing industry that is largely unwilling to put their voices in books.
The silence of the writer seems to have broken.
Thank God! Because the writer is a truth-teller, the writer’s voice is uniquely important in struggles for social justice. Writers use words in a way that is different, a way that often defies and disrupts socially imposed and acquired modes of (un)thinking. By doing so they assist us to recognise and think. By helping us to an understanding of our predicament writers naturally catalyse action. “Who no know go know”, and if you know how can you not act?
Important, in a world where political parties and governments have been captured and abused for the self-interests of a hybrid of elites, is that we know that most writers are independent and legitimate – their duty is to our civilisation past, present and future, not to a political or economic elite.
Throughout the ages politicians and elites have always feared writers. One of South Africa’s poets, Don Mattera, captured it well. He dedicated a poem titled The Poet Must Die to the anti-apartheid poets James Matthews and Gladys Thomas “after their poems were executed”:
The poet must die
Her murmuring threatens their survival
Her breath could start the revolution
She must be destroyed
Send her to the Island
Call the firing-squad
But remember to wipe her blood
From the wall,
Then destroy the wall
Crush the house
Kill the neighbours
If their lives are to survive
The poet must die
Many years ago, poems such as this helped many of us into a political life, to take up arms against a sea of troubles, to enter a life where we took risks so that the fruits of human civilisation and the potential that lies in each man and woman might one day be equally shared.
We fought not just for political freedom but also for social justice. Yet with the deepening of inequality across Africa that ideal has moved further away and we must ask why?
In my opinion, one of the problems today is that people who live in poverty do not have enough access to our writers. Poverty is not only measured in money, there is also a spiritual poverty that arises from sensory deprivation. Poverty acts like a chain of falling dominoes. Inequality in access to quality education leads to inequality in what our children read. Inequality in access to words and the ideas they contain leads to a poverty in understanding; the poverty of understanding helps explain why time and again people vote corrupt political parties and leaders back into office.
Writing, as we all know, is a very private process. But if writing is to be let loose on the world the writer of conscience must become part of a public revolt. Is it not a travesty that most African writings of the 20th century are imprisoned in universities, accessible only to the elite?
On a continent rife with corruption and wizard politicians, how many of our young people have read Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow? How many of our alienated youth have even heard of the young black writer K. Sello Duiker or his novel The Quiet Violence of Dreams, which describes the disaffection of the “free” youth, their want of a road map for life, the confusion over sex, sexuality and madness?
And it is not only at school that poverty is imposed on children. It continues through life. In South Africa public libraries are almost extinct. The denial of literature is tantamount to the denial of culture. It is at odds with the spirit of the South African Constitution which promises to “Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person”.
So what is to be done?
Across Africa there are many civil society organisations and movements engaged in struggles to improve the material quality of African lives. We fight against Aids and TB and for health and houses; against corruption and for accountable government. But it is hard to sustain these struggles if the seeds of dissent, the groundsoil of strivings for equality, the rebellion against wrongs, are not being planted by writers.
(As an aside, you might be interested in a parallel I could draw with relationship that Aids activists built with the scientific community in the struggle for access to treatment for Aids. When we started that struggle we were illiterate about this virus called HIV, the way it “worked”, the way it could be treated. So, we sought the knowledge of scientists and researchers in order to overcome the disability of ignorance and so as to be able to argue with governments and pharmaceutical companies as equals. After we had acquired knowledge from the scientists we taught it to the “ordinary people” who needed it. That knowledge inspired their conviction and anger at the injustices and inequalities that were laid upon them. As people’s power grew through organisations such as the Treatment Action Campaign, researchers benefitted because activism was able to unlock new monies for scientific investigation. Their work was accorded political recognition. Their discoveries were quickly made available to the communities that needed them.)
The same relationships must be built with writers. Social justice struggles need you and you need us. It’s time we started working together.
In conclusion, there is one more important reason why I believe we should form an alliance. Before I started writing this, I imagined the imprisonment of the writer to be a thing of the past. There ought to be no more Solzhenitsyns, or so I thought. A recent article by Angolan writer Rafael Marques de Morais alerted me that this might not be the case. But after further research I was shocked to find how pervasive and universal the persecution of the writer remains – and how little awareness there is of this persecution.
According to the PEN International Writers in Prison Committee, in 2014:
- 86 writers were killed in various circumstances;
- 20 writers disappeared or were abducted or reported missing;
- 285 were imprisoned or detained;
- 192 were on trial;
- and numerous others were being threatened, harassed or attacked.
This should not be so. Obviously, to return to Don Mattera, the writer remains far from free. Warrants of arrest are still out for her words.
In this postcolonial, post-Stalinist age, the oppression and subjugation of the writer ought to be more difficult than in times past. The existence of a legalised human rights frameworks ought to make this an age of freedoms. A globalised social media should give the writer more power and protection against oppression.
But if this is to be, it is necessary that PEN links its power to organisations that seek social justice. And it is equally necessary that social justice campaigns make alliances with the writer. DM
This article is based on a speech delivered to the PEN Africa Network meeting, Johannesburg, 9 March 2016.