PEN Afrikaans: Rethinking a Language and its Legacy
The PEN World series showcases the important work of the more than 140 centers that form PEN International. Each PEN center sets its own priorities, but they are united by their commitment to advocate for imperiled writers, promote literature from all cultures and in all languages, and advance the right of every individual to speak freely. In this series, PEN America interviews the leaders of different PEN centers from the global network to offer a window into the literary accomplishments and free expression challenges of their respective countries. This month we feature PEN Afrikaans. We spoke to Bettina Wyngaard, a PEN Afrikaans board member.
What is a project that PEN Afrikaans has been working on in recent months?
As part of our Triple Seven project, seven wordsmiths—poets, novelists, short story writers, young-adult writers, rappers, etc.—embarked on a road trip through rural Northern Cape, an area in South Africa where oral storytelling is still very popular but very few stories by black writers are written down and published. The seven wordsmiths did short, intensive creative-writing courses in seven small towns over seven days. The purpose was to encourage and equip storytellers to write their stories in Afrikaans. The use of Afrikaans, the third-most-spoken language in the country, as a language of communication is becoming increasingly politicized because of its historical connection to the Apartheid government. This is creating mounting pressure on Afrikaans mother-tongue speakers to receive an education in English. It is our hope that, by showing that Afrikaans is not only a language spoken by a white minority, the stigma surrounding the use of the language will be lessened.
What are the key free expressions challenges facing South Africa?
There is increasing government interference with the way that journalists are able to report stories. One recent example is the prohibition placed on journalists at the SABC, the state broadcaster, from reporting on service delivery protests, or on anything that reflects negatively on the ruling party. In parliament, members of opposition parties that criticize the president or the ruling party are forcibly removed and are often unable to perform their duties as elected officials. Last year, a cellphone signal jammer was used at the opening of parliament to prevent members of parliament from communicating with their constituents.
Peaceful demonstrations at state buildings and against state institutions are often met with overwhelming force. Recently, elderly protesters who had not been paid their pension and who held a sit-in at parliament were beaten and arrested.
There is also legislation before parliament, the so-called Secrecy Act, which attempts to control the public’s right to information and what topics the media is allowed to report. With municipal elections taking place later this year, we have seen an increase in intellectual (actually, anti-intellectual) fascism, closely in step with global political trends. The Afrikaans language has been used as a scapegoat by students and has been relegated to an inferior position along with all other indigenous languages.
Would you share with us a sense of the literary traditions in South Africa?
During apartheid, literary heavyweights often delivered social commentary through their writing.
In post-apartheid South Africa, there is a growing unease about poverty, crime, and political ineptitude. The way this is being addressed in literature is varied. In crime fiction, we frequently see the police facing issues that test their moral core. A strong narrative in this work is how the “common people” and their lust for revenge stand in opposition to the legal system that seemingly favors the perpetrator. The police often seem to be caught between protecting the public and doing the lawful thing.
Women’s fiction is taking off in South Africa. We have seen a number of female writers pushing their readers into reading more complex, less formulaic books that still read quite easily.
Can you update us on something new in the literary world of South Africa today?
“Cape Flats” Afrikaans, a variant of Afrikaans spoken by urban black South Africans, is starting to become integrated into mainstream Afrikaans through poetry and rap. In nonfiction, a great many stories emanating from the apartheid years are being told. And dystopic fiction is becoming increasingly popular.
Who is a writer from South Africa that we might not know about? Would you introduce us?
An award-winning Afrikaans author we’re excited about is Ingrid Winterbach, whose work The Elusive Moth is now published by Open Letter Books. Winterbach, who also wrote under the pseudonym Lettie Viljoen, has written numerous critically-acclaimed books in Afrikaans. She has been writing and painting for more than 20 years.