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 South Africa. 

What is a project that PEN South Africa has been working on in recent months?

PEN South Africa has spent the last few months working on updating and growing our online presence using the funding we’ve received from PEN American Center and The Jerome L. Greene Foundation. We now have a new website that allows us to share local and international advocacy news, local events, interviews with our members, their latest publications, and more. We have also been posting regularly on our Facebook page and have started a Twitter account. A new newsletter format is currently being designed, which will make it easier for us to communicate with our members on a regular basis. 

What are the key free expression challenges facing South Africa?

In 2011, PEN American Center interviewed Margie Orford, then PEN SA executive vice-president and now president. The challenges to freedom of expression that she highlighted were the Media Appeals Tribunal and what is now called the Protection of State Information Bill (known colloquially as the Secrecy Bill).

Those two issues are still a concern for us, although there has been little movement forward with the latter. In 2012, the ANC decided not to go ahead with the Tribunal, however Communications Minister Faith Muthambi raised the idea again in April this year and the ANC have now said that they will be going ahead with it, with President Jacob Zuma defending it. In September 2013, President Zuma rejected the Secrecy Bill on the grounds that it was unconstitutional and so it was sent back to parliament for review. The bill was amended and returned to President Zuma in November 2013 and has been sitting on his desk, unsigned, since then. We are continuing our call for the Secrecy Bill to be scrapped.

Another longstanding issue, not just in South Africa but on the continent in general, is criminal defamation and insult laws. There have been some positive steps forward, with Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court ruling that criminal defamation laws are unconstitutional and the African Court striking down Burkino Faso’s criminal defamation law and calling on other African governments to do the same. In September, the ANC announced that they find criminal defamation laws to be unconstitutional and have committed to removing criminalization of defamation from South Africa’s common law.

A recent development that PEN South Africa is very concerned about is the Draft Online Regulation Policy being proposed by the Film and Publication Board. We have strongly condemned the policy and are calling for it to be withdrawn. The Board essentially seeks to regulate online content distributors using a licensing system, which could be used to violate constitutionally protected freedom of expression online and curb the flow of information, the exchange of ideas, and the engagement in creative writing online.

The struggle for education is an issue that has come to the forefront this year in South Africa with the #FeesMustFall movement and the student protests. University students across the country protested the cost of tertiary education and in some cases were met with heavily armed riot policemen—we called on the government and the vice-chancellors of the universities to safeguard the students and their futures. Margie Orford wrote that “An education enables that most foundational of rights—freedom of expression. It is key to a vibrant and growing economy as it is key to a cultural life and to literature.”

Another key issue in education is the failure of the Department of Basic Education to provide textbooks to schoolchildren in Limpopo. The Department have had four court orders telling them to deliver the outstanding books and are now appealing this judgement as it argues that this is tantamount to “an impossible standard of perfection.” We have been supporting SECTION27, the public interest law center that has been taking the government to court over this issue, in their #TextbooksMatter campaign in the run-up to the court case. We have called on the Department of Basic Education to prioritize immediate access to textbooks and libraries for all schoolchildren in South Africa.

Would you share with us a sense of the literary traditions in South Africa?

We have asked our executive vice-president, Mandla Langa, to answer this question:

The South African literary tradition harks back to the 19th Century, with the most notable biography about a black South African written by John A Chalmers on Reverend Tiyo Soga. There followed, during the colonial times, what were described as the colonial adventure stories by the likes of Sir Rider Haggard, whose King Solomon’s Mines was to give the world a distorted and racist view of the indigenous Africans, a view which, alas, still prevails today. Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm, published in 1883, has been described as the founding text of South African literature. Although silent on the presence of Africans, it is credited with giving an “authentic” voice to South African writing.

There followed, after the establishment of the black press such as Imvo Zabantsundu and Ilanga lase Natal, a freeing of black opinion, which decried the colonial dispensation; it must be remembered that it was British colonial rule which gave the world the color bar, the precursor to apartheid.

There was the Anglo-Boer War, which led to some unremarkable books, in support or against it; so, too, were books and journalistic critiques on Cecil John Rhodes, most notably Scheiner’s Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland. There were others that satirized the corruption of Boere.

The ANC was formed in 1912 as a response to the Act of the Union of 1910; most educated black people, writers included, aligned themselves with the ANC for decades to follow.

There were writers with notable contributions, such as Sarah Gertrude Millin, whose views echo DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation; and Thomas Mofolo, whose Chaka novelizes the life of the Zulu monarch Shaka. These were contemporaneous with William Plomer, Roy Campbell, and Laurens van der Post.

In the post-World War II years people like Peter Abrahams came to the fore; so did E’skia Mphahlele, whose stories had the feel of reality as they were written by people who had experienced racism firsthand. One of the most important texts, however, was Cry the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton.

The 1950s saw the launch of the ANC’s defiance campaigns and the birth of magazines like Drum. Nadine Gordimer, who was to become a quintessentially South African voice and later win the Nobel Prize in 1991, published her short stories around this period. Many anti-apartheid magazines and journals were published. People fled into exile after the banning of the liberation movements in the 1960s. In 1965 Nat Nakasa, who was also part of the Drum tradition, died in New York, in exile. The 1970s saw the revival of voices once suppressed by censorship laws. Poets were the dominant voice, people like Wally Mongane Serote, Breyten Breytenbach, Mafika Gwala, James Matthews, and Don Mattera. Women poets and writers Gladys Thomas and Fatima Dike were the precursors to Antjie Krog, Gabeba Baderoon, Gcina Mhlophe, or Phillippa Yaa de Villiers.

The writing tradition of South Africa today boasts a happy coexistence of the young and the old, black and white, where the late André Brink shares the stage with Keorapetse Kgositsile, Nadine Gordimer, or the late Mbulelo Mzamane.

Today, writers are concerned less with the evils of the past than with the challenges of the present; there is anxiety about a future which started as an expression of hope and optimism but is now being blighted by the excesses and corruption in high places. There is further concern over the unacceptably high incidences of crime, especially against women and children, the statistics of rape having attained alarming levels.

Having said that, South Africa is a land of hope where the youth—despite unemployment and the ravages of poverty and disease—look towards carving their own niche in society. There is then a mushrooming of writing of all forms by young people.

This is the way of the future.

…and update us on something new in the literary world of South Africa today?

At the Franschhoek Literary Festival in May this year, author and PEN SA member Thando Mgqolozana brought a longstanding issue in the South African literary system into the public eye by speaking about the need for a “decolonisation” of the South African literary system. Thando pointed out that he was speaking to an almost entirely white audience, saying that that shouldn’t be seen as normal. Local literary website Books LIVE reports him as saying that “the literary infrastructure at the moment is in the cities, in white set-ups, like here, for example. It systematically excludes black people.”

Thando’s comments at the festival kicked off a flurry of online debates, written responses, and events held to debate the issue. Books LIVE have collected a round-up of some of the responses. Mandla Langa called for a “service delivery protest directed specifically at the question of writing” and also suggested that a national writers’ conference is needed to bring about a new chapter for South African literature. The first event to come out of this debate was the annual Khayelitsha Book Fair, which was held in November, with Thando speaking about the importance of growing literary culture in townships.

Who is a writer from South Africa that we might not know about? Would you introduce us?

Masande Ntshanga is a young South African writer who won the inaugural PEN International New Voices Award in 2013 with his short story “Space.” Margie Orford commented that he “is a rare talent and an assured and lyrical writer.”

Masande followed this achievement up with the publication of his debut novel, The Reactive, in 2014. This has been a big year for the author, as he has been shortlisted for three literary awards (two for his novel and one for his short story “Space”), signed two international book deals (one including film rights) for North America and Germany, and was selected for a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship in Italy (along with Margie Orford).

You can read “Space” on the PEN SA website as well as our recent Q&A with Masande. Look out for The Reactive in America, published by Two Dollar Radio.