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The ABSA/LitNet
Chain Interview

Die Ketting

Rose Zwi Rose Zwi was born in Mexico, lived in London and Israel, but spent most of her life in South Africa, where she graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand with a B.A. Honours Degree in English literature. She is married and has three children. In 1988 she immigrated to Australia.
Of her five novels, the trilogy (Another Year in Africa, The Inverted Pyramid and Exiles) was written and published in South Africa. The Umbrella Tree and Safe Houses were published in Australia. Last Walk In Naryshkin Park, a non-fiction account of an aspect of the Holocaust, was published in Australia, as was a collection of stories, Speak the Truth, Laughing.
Among her literary awards was the Olive Schreiner Award for prose in 1982 and the Thomas Pringle prize for short fiction in 1988. In 1994, she won the Australian Human Rights Award for Literature for her novel Safe Houses.
Mothobi Mutloatse Mothobi Mutloatse (1952-), is a writer and publisher. Born in Johannesburg, he gained experience in journalism with the Golden City Post, Weekend World, and The Voice before founding Skotaville. Deeply interested in largely forgotten black literary and historical traditions, he has compiled anthologies of black writing including: Forced Landing: Africa South-Contemporary Writing (1980) (banned on publication), a "cultural history penned down by the black man himself." Reconstruction: Ninety Years of Black Historical Literature (1981) focuses on hitherto ignored historical and journalistic texts by such writers as Tiyo Soga, Hope Dube, Noni Jabavu, and Sol T. Plaatje. Most recently Struik has published Tauza - Bob Gosani's People about the late Bob Gosani, one of the original Drum photographers of the 1950s, who worked with all the big names of that era.
Mutloatse's creative writing comprises short fiction and a work for the stage and he has also written a book for children. He also served on the M-Net Literary Awards panel of advisors in 2005.

Rose Zwi in conversation with Mothobi Mutloatse

  1. We first met about twenty-five years ago at Ravan Press, in the aftermath of the Soweto uprising of 1976. An outburst of raw, powerful literature was emerging from the townships, with nowhere to go. It was written by people who, denied justice and freedom, could only express their frustration in words. Mike Kirkwood had recently taken over Ravan from the banned Peter Randall. In addition to the publication of books, he saw the need for a magazine to accommodate this writing. He contacted you, who, as an executive member of the banned black writers' group Medupe, had connections with other writers in the townships. Through the dedicated efforts of the small Ravan staff, and of writers, artists and photographers across the racial divide, the first issue of Staffrider appeared, to great acclaim in the townships. "A poem is not a gun," the Censorship Board was told in response to subsequent bannings.

    Staffrider was to be a non-racial vehicle, with space available to all writers who found its literary environment congenial.

    In the light of later events I've often wondered whether its non-racial policy was something you believed in, or whether you adopted it as a matter of expediency?

    -

  2. It was an extraordinary era. Poems, stories and plays came flooding in to Ravan from writers' groups throughout the country. They were written in pen or pencil, on pages torn from scrapbooks, or on the back of cigarette boxes. Much of this writing was far from literate, let alone literary - the effects of Bantu Education had taken a heavy toll. But they all gave an insight into the depth of suffering endured by the black people. Established writers also sent in poems and stories. At poetry readings in the townships, writers of all races read their work to a sometimes puzzled audience. And Ingoapele Madingoale strode the boards to the sound of drums, declaiming, "Africa my beginning, and Africa my ending ..." For the white writers, at least, there was a smidgen of hope that a non-racial society might one day emerge from such small beginnings.

    Did you also hope for such a society to emerge? Or did you sympathise with the Black Consciousness belief that Africa was for the Africans?

    (Before its disbanding, black members at a PEN committee said the time had not come to work with whites; an African writers' group was needed. I regard myself as a white African, I told them. This was greeted with hoots of laughter. My forebears, who had lived in Lithuania for generations, were not accepted as Lithuanians. "Lithuania for the Lithuanians" had been the motto of the extreme nationalists. With tragic results.)

    -

  3. The non-racial PEN organisation was formed in 1978. Under its umbrella were 16 community-based black writers' groups from all over the country, as well as 30 Johannesburg-based groups. The South African Writers' and Artists' Guild, the Skrywersgilde and other elements were also invited to join. You were the chairman of the executive committee. By this time you were also on the editorial committee of Staffrider, and a director of Ravan Press. Your opinion, therefore, would have been influential among the black writers. Inevitably there were debates about "standards", accusations of "elitism" and how "populism" fitted in with the African oral tradition. Such robust debates might have enriched the understanding between writers. Instead it often led to invective.

    Shortly after the establishment of PEN you were interviewed by the Dutch newspaper Handelsblad. Asked about the black writers' relationship with white writers, you replied: "We have very little contact with white authors, although some of them are members of the P.E.N. club in Johannesburg, and do take part when P.E.N. protests against censorship or oppression of writers ..." Asked if black writers had the support of white liberals, you said you would prefer "to deal with the blunt, insensitive Afrikaner, than with the cursed liberals ... (the liberals) were just Schurks (wretches) full of tolerant talk. They are rich whites and remain that ..."

    In your preface to Forced Landing, a compilation of black writing published by Ravan in 1980, you wrote: "We will have to donder conventional literature: old fashioned critic and reader alike. We are going to [expletives] on literary convention before we are through; we are going to kick and pull and push and drag literature into the form we prefer. We are going to experiment and probe and not give a damn what the critics have to say ..."

    Would you agree that these remarks (and others in a similar tone) are far from the non-racial ideal of PEN which, at the time, you professed to support?

    -

  4. The disbanding of PEN in January 1981 came as a great shock to people who had worked tirelessly to create it. Black members said they were under pressure from their community not to belong to non-racial organisations. By virtue of their membership of PEN they had been excluded from community activities. While there was sympathy for their plight, the question was asked why PEN needed to disband. Those who wished to withdraw from it could do so. You, Mothobi, replied that unless all the black writers withdrew, those who remained would be placed in a difficult position in their community. Some black members, like Mafika Gwala, were against disbandment. "Writers and artists should stand up for their beliefs," he said. "Members were being pushed into making a serious decision without knowing who was behind the pressure to disband PEN. We will regret this decision." Finally a vote was taken. There were 15 votes for disbandment, 9 against and 3 abstentions. After the meeting you said: "As fellow writers we hope to meet again when the situation is conducive."

    We never met again. The following morning the Sunday papers announced the formation of the African Writers' Association. Not a hint of this was given to people with whom you had worked so closely for years. It came as a complete shock. AWA's constitution outlined its aims and objectives, describing how it would be administered and what its plans were for the future. This must have entailed months of thought, work and consultation. Objective number one was to establish a bond of fellowship among African writers in South Africa. Non-African writers didn't get a mention. And the abhorrence of "standards" was ditched in favour of "regular seminars and workshops for the purpose of stimulating talent among the participants and guiding them in the art and craft of writing." A literature would be created that could "stand on its own merits without the need to bolster it with loud public slogans". An admirable objective which PEN tried to implement, but for which it was accused of "elitism".

    Mafika was right when he said, "There is something being hidden." The extent of it must have amazed him.

    Would you care to comment on the disbanding of PEN and its aftermath?

    -

  5. As the rainbow nation enters its tenth year, I'd be interested to hear whether you judge the time has arrived for black writers and white writers to work together. Albie Sachs has outlined his hopes for a free and creative literature in South Africa. What are your views on the subject?

    You used to write polemical articles, some stories and a few poems. You also compiled and edited Forced Landing and Reconstruction. Do you still find time, between business activities, to write?

    -

    Mothobi Mutloatse's reponse:

    After much reflection, I deem it inappropriate to explain the past - Jo'burg PEN etc. Non-racialism even in democratic/rainbow SA is a non-starter unless and until all historical, political and economic issues that continue to undermine the humanity and dignity of indigenous South African people by relegating them to hopelessness in poverty, unemployment and lack of education, are confronted unapologetically.

    As someone - a White Catholic priest - said to me: "Being pro-black does not mean being anti-white."

    He further said, when I taxed him on the irony of his statement: "We people need Black consciousness badly to be able to resolve the apartheid baggage."

    Comment: If SA was the rainbow it is claimed to be, why then does the electorate vote according to racial lines?

    The fault, to paraphrase Bra Bill, is not with Black writers that Jo'burg PEN disbanded, but rather the damn raids on our relatives in neighbouring countries, among other issues!

    True enough, one day colour will count for nothing ... Perhaps after the fourth general election.

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LitNet: 17 November 2005

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