The Time of the Writer is an international event that brings together African writers, intellectuals and critics to deliberate on issues affecting society. Peter Rorvik, director of Centre for Creative Arts (CCA) under whose auspices the writers gathered, noted that writers had been at the forefront of the struggle for freedom in South Africa and that their role in creating the intellectual climate for change should not be underestimated nor forgotten. “Great writing,” he noted, “often arises under the conditions of adversity, when the human spirit is stirred into creative response, when there is a cause to fight, when there are ideas to pronounce and messages to spread and when important stories need to be told”.
Saying the struggle for equity and justice is ongoing, Rorvik stressed that ‘rest is a privilege seldom enjoyed by the committed writer’ as society looks up to writers “to voice the innermost thoughts, the urgencies and the imperatives of a continent in transition to draw the thread of inspiration together into a coherent vision that clarifies direction and motivation action.” Writing, he said, was an interface between the intellectual community, academia and society at large. In his keynote speech, Prof Pitika Ntuli of the University of KwaZulu-Natal praised Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Uganda’s Okot P. Bitek and Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka for “their bravery in speaking against social evils in their respective countries.” The mood thus having been set for the six-day event that also market a decade of democracy in South Africa, Rorvik then called upon each writer present to define ‘democracy’ and then explain how that definition could be put to practice. What followed was confusion as many writers mumbled that they were ‘not interested in politics’.
Moroccan writer Leila Abouzeid who fitted in the intellectual conference as easily as she did among writers, criticised the United States for her “arrogance, double standards, violation of law and human rights” that she said were the “hallmarks of US democracy.” She took issue with Israel for assassinating Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yasin ‘in a wheelchair.’ Ghanaian Kofi Awoonor took issue with South Africans for exhibiting xenophobia against other Africans, reminding them that Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, had put South Africa on his agenda, a move that had enabled Africa and the African Diaspora to be sympathetic and supportive of the South African cause leading to independence in 1994. As he came on stage, outspoken Zimbabwean literature don, Chenjerai Hove, simply said, “I come to you from Zimbabwe through France.” He said he had fled for his life to France and had had to ‘learn French very fast for survival.’ Introducing himself as “an Egyptian, Arab, and African, ‘Sonallah Ibrahim accused Israel of’ planned Genocide against Palestinians.”
Judge Unity Dow and Helon Habila of Nigerian address in-mates at Westville Prison on creative writing.
Sindiwe Magona of South Africa wondered how possible it was for democracy to thrive in a country like South Africa that has a low literacy rate. “How can people be vigilant? You must be wide-eyed for democracy to work,” she said. The literacy rate of South Africa is 86% as compared to Zimbabwe’s 90% and Kenya’s 70%. For Zakes Mda, “a strong and vigilant civil society is required to counter the greed in political parties and make democracy work.” He said the biggest mistake South Africans made at independence was to deify national leaders and never criticise nor take offence at them for errors made in office on excuses like ‘they went to prison and suffered for us.’ Gcina Mhlophe, South Africa’s most popular performer, said: “People wonder how Africans can sing and dance after what they have been through.” She went on to sing and dance, livening up the tense classroom-like evening atmosphere.
As if predicting the mood that would characterise the festival resulting in an altercation between Southern African women writers and Kenyan journalist Ogova Ondego, Mhlophe said something was terribly wrong with democracy in South Africa as adult men were sexually molesting children. Even with South Africa marking her decade of political independence, Mhlophe said, “The struggle is not over. There are so many things still waiting to be done.” Yolande Mukagasana, a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, said: “After what we went through, I wonder how I can talk about ‘democracy’. How can you speak about democracy in a country like Rwanda where three-quarters of the population is illiterate and children go to bed hungry? You must fulfil the basic needs of the people for democracy to work. And there is not just one model of democracy. Since the Western brand might not be right for Africa, each country should come up with her own type of democracy. I believe democracy cannot work in a country without justice. There can be no room for democracy without forgiveness.” Mukagasana, a former nurse, broke down as she read excerpts from her book on how her family had been decimated with machetes as she looked on helplessly. Thirty five thousand children, she said, had been orphaned while women were raped and infected with AIDS.
Yolande Mukagasana and her translator, Xavier Parsons of the French Institute of South Africa
She wondered what kind of justice costs US$1 million per person as prosecuting nine Genocide suspects had already cost a whopping US$9 million. “If democracy be the rule of the majority,” observed Veronique Tadjo, an Ivorian who has lived in South Africa for two years, “then there is a problem if that majority is misled.” She gave the example of the Nazi Germany Adolf Hitler whom she compared with the perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide. Like Mda, Tadjo said the civil society must be vigilant for democracy to work anywhere in the world as complacency usually turns democracy into a human-devouring ogre. Although Ivorian citizens had overwhelmingly elected the current government of Laurent Gbagbo, she observed, Ivory Coast was going down the path of ruin. Lye M Yoka of Congo-Kinshasa said the Congolese were dogged by death and misery and that 3.5 million of them had died in five brief years. “The people are looking for the meaning of liberty, freedom, and democracy but are not finding it.” As if echoing the words of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Yoka said there was ‘no Congolese, Belgian, or Japanese hunger or liberty.’ He noted that the pangs of hunger did not discriminate against factors like race, gender, or socio-economic status.
Prisoners listen to visiting writers Sonallah Ibrahim , Unity Dow, Helon Habila, Goretti Kyomuhendo (Uganda), Dianne Awerbuck (South Africa) and Kenyan Ogova Ondego.
After presenting an intellectually stimulating paper on the non-universal use of the flower at the African Scholarship conference earlier in the day, Prof Ali Mazrui was almost shocked at the almost rude reception his paper on ‘Dilemmas of identity, language, and aesthetics in Africa’ in the evening. South African participants, who refer to one another as Xhosa, Zulu, Indian–said categorising people as ‘Africans of the blood’ or ‘Africans of the heart’ was not useful to any one but a pure intellectual exercise. And it appeared like the seeds of discord had now been planted as South Africans got back into the ‘not yet uhuru’ mood that Mhlophe had spoken about on the opening of the festival on March 22. This time round the run-in was with Kenyan Ondego who asked whether it was right for Southern African women to declare ‘men’ their enemies and whether activism did not rob writers of objectivity during a presentation, ‘Stories of the South’, by Magona of South Africa and Unity Dow of Botwana.
The questions had been generated by what Ondego termed ‘strong language not unlike hate campaign against men’ when Magona said “Men are unleashing terror on women, girls and even on two-month -old babies in South Africa.” She vomited epithets at men, calling them names like ‘walking testicles’ on the prowl looking for some woman to violate. Supporting her, Dow, a high court judge, had claimed that men in Botswana always viewed any woman-professional or not-primarily as a potential sex partner who should jump in bed with them on the spot whenever and wherever they-the men–demanded it. Although men grumbled at the attack, the only one who found his voice to speak out was Ondego who was immediately pounced on by women ‘in the struggle’ even before he had explained that he was not defending ‘men’ but merely trying to bring sanity to the meeting; that writers should be flashlights showing society the way to follow without losing their objectivity to activism that could mislead the masses.
Ondego again provoked the South Africans at another seminar, ‘Women Writers Speak’, on the final day of the festival and the treatment was the same. At the end of the seminar, Dow accused Ondego of confusing journalism with creative writing while South African writer, Jann Turner, announced: “Mr Kenya was lynched again this afternoon.” The Time of the Writer is perhaps the only festival in Africa where thinkers, convicted criminals, high court judges, fire-eating feminists, diplomats, political activists, teachers, prison warders, and musicians mingle freely with hard-nosed, and almost abrasive journalists, critics and disk jockeys, their common love for books and literature bringing them together.