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The performing arts, Rupert Brooke & surfing

Michelle McGrane in conversation with Robert Greig, poet and Arts & Culture Editor of The Sunday Independent

Robert GreigA specialist writer for Business Day in the late eighties, Robert Greig moved into the corporate environment to work as a communications consultant for a financial institution in the early nineties. In 1996, he returned to the publishing world as Arts Editor of The Sunday Independent, where he continues to write drama and dance criticism. He plans and edits the culture pages, reporting on and analysing the performing arts and arts economics. He has twice received the Thomas Pringle prize for drama criticism.

Robert has published three collections of verse - Talking Bull (Bateleur Press, 1975), In the Provinces (Justified Press, 1991) and most recently Rule of Cadence (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2005). He was awarded the Olive Schreiner Prize for his debut collection, Talking Bull.

Robert, tell me something of your family origins and what you were like as a child?

My father was Scots; my mother Orcadian, a regional difference which provoked certain tribal insult. My grandfather had been professor of English at Wits; and my father taught under him till the war broke out, when he escaped into the Royal Navy and saw action which left him slightly deaf and slightly irascible. He transferred to the staff of Lord Louis Mountbatten in India. That sounds grander that it was: Lord Louis did not travel light but with 1 000 minions. (Mountbatten's refusal to read any document longer than a page became a family predilection.) After the war, my father went into mining finance, rising from clerk to chairman of a platinum company. And continued to write poetry.

My mother was an architect and architectural historian, writing about Herbert Baker, South African and Dutch East Indian Company architecture. So reading and thinking were important in our family. So were elements of the Scots zeitgeist, like an emphasis on education, travel and acting on principle. The family value system emphasised pragmatism, hard work and putting something back into what they regarded as society. (While I was growing up, the word community meant people living in rural villages.) The value system disdained ostentation, collective thinking and - logically, given an experience of the First and Second World War - the big "isms" of the 20th century and those who waved them about.

I was born with club-feet and deformed ankle bones, which were removed. From birth to the age of 13, and then often later, I spent time in hospital, in wheelchairs and in plaster, and learned repeatedly how to walk. These reinforced a familial parents' belief in privacy, reading and an aversion to group-think and action. Boarding school reinforced this.

What memories do you have of childhood holidays in Durban?

I think pre-electronic generations tend to make their own the memories of preceding generations. (My son, for example, who is 19, seems to think that history began five years ago.) So Durban is an amalgam of direct and inherited memory. Mine are of exotic vegetation, fearsome rickshaw pullers, women selling beads and the champing jaws of seahorses. And during an Arab-Israeli war a memory of a fat man matted with body hair "holding forth", as my mother put it, about the war, and on the horizon a row of oil-tankers denied the Suez. Fear of sharks; the unexplained shift from Durban to the South Coast then to North Coast holidays. A dream at age six of needing to wear a suit because I was going to marry the little girl I'd met at the hotel: a vision of our walking ceremonially down the steps of the hotel. My mother: "You're mad; it's blazing hot; take off that suit."

My parents' memories: Catalina aircraft flying early in the war past my parents' beachfront flat, my mother waving to the pilots, anxiously counting the aircraft returning. My elder sister was born there; I have recollections of Indian people bringing my mother, recovering in bed, hot curries. My parents told us the rumours of German people on the South Coast hills signalling U-boats. The ship of a friend of my parents was torpedoed just beyond the horizon; he was comforted with a hot bath and gin and a few days later returned to sea, only to have the vessel sunk beneath him. My parents considered that careless.

In almost a decade as Arts Editor of The Sunday Independent, what are some of your most significant experiences?

Artistically, and politically, the significant experiences are those marking transitions - when you realise that a new way of saying and doing things has come about, of change and transition. Generally, they have had to do with discovering that South Africa is within Africa; formally, they have had to do with working across genres. I must have seen 2 000 exhibitions, dance pieces, theatre works, new South African films in the last decade. Of these maybe eight works stick in my mind. In theatre anyway, the best work is either Apollonian or Dionysian. Be nice if they could merge.

They have in common a sense of being rooted in South Africa becoming African; an emphasis on image not sermon; and of rapaciously working with and between different genres.

The artist whose work epitomises the Dionysian is Brett Bailey's. He blurs opera and painting, music and word. He dramatises a collective unconscious. He has created an aesthetic, a vocabulary, a new set of sensations. Watching his work is what it must be like to see a new species.

Paul Grootboom's Cards - about a brothel in Hillbrow run by a Nigerian - had the same exhilarating effect on me.

Because of the impact of theatre like this, it is easy to overlook what I suppose is a liberal aesthetic based on intelligence, rationality and an assumption that the audience has the right to respect. South Africans love the spectacular. Neil McCarthy's The Great Outdoors - about a white man who kills a black pedestrian - embodied a set of neglected virtues. It was literate; it was emotionally honest and intellectually daring; it helped me understand who I was and where I live. Its relationship to the audience was egalitarian - not shouting but conversing.

The experience of the arts in the last ten years can't be separated from the ironies in the arts environment. Call this "From Liberation to Bumble".

What important transformations have occurred in the arts in South Africa since 1994?

First, we were naÔve to believe that a government department could or would do anything for the arts or that its institutions, at this time and with this government, would have the independence to. The Department of Arts and Culture exists to promote the national interest, not the arts. This has included appointing incompetents to manage institutions, racial bias (like sending 50 blacks only artists to South America, holding media briefings only for black journalists), using artists to promote foreign policy and all manner of good causes. That's what governments do, and it's myopic to confuse this with supporting the arts. The transition that has yet to take place is for artists to realise this and to stop looking for a big nipple to suck on.

Second, in the arts themselves, I experience a move away from the closed, classical and hierarchical arts where proficiency is based on skill, education and taste. The move is from the art work as a self-contained object to a system of relationships in which the performance is expressive; connected to a community, whatever that means; and tends to work with readymade topics and becomes illustrative. At best, it is vivid; at worst, programmatic and worthy.

Third, I see greater interaction between different art forms. The interesting performing arts draw from the visual arts, cinema, theatre and oral literature.

Fourth, there's been an emergence of a generation of artists and audiences who are dealing with the now, not the pious commemoration of the recent past.

All these have disadvantages. The egalitarian approach can be chaotic, amateurish and inarticulate because it is not achieved, finished or shaped. (Again, this is also a function of inadequately managed state and private sector arts funding. Handing out money is simply not enough: it should be accompanied by mentorship.) I don't think that everyone is an artist and having the proper attitudes makes for interesting work. Then working between genres is something you can do well if you have worked in depth in one genre and know what it can and cannot do. Otherwise it's showy magpie-ism. Finally, I understand and sympathise with artists who say "Don't bore us with political correctness" and "We must remember the past" or assume that emotional honesty is impossible if you're thinking of "we" rather than "I". But, if only technically, an artist should know the history of the medium or risk rediscovering the obvious. And the question of history is crucial for any enquiring mind. If you are not working with a conscious notion of history, you are working with some power group's notion of what view of history serves them best.

What national concerns have been central to theatre productions during the last year?

At boarding school we were forced to attend games and to shout support. I watched boys yelling, tears in their eyes: "Come on, Michaelhouse!" It was queasy stuff. How could any intelligent person let a collective abstraction replace personal conscience, belief or intellect? That's how I feel when I hear terms like national concern in the context of the arts. They're toxic.

An example: Who matters as a poet: Douglas Livingstone, who was emotionally honest to experience, or a hack like James Matthews who writes what everyone knows and is expected to feel?

What are your perceptions of the arts critic's responsibilities?

My responsibility is to witness the performance - film, theatre, art - in the moment of its happening. I think about it afterwards: writing is thinking. My primary responsibility is to the moment in which the work happens, because that is what performance is - it becomes memory or theory afterwards. As with poetry, respect for the experience is important.

The tradition I am writing in is old: my mentors are people like Hazlitt, Dr Johnson, James Agate, Eric Bentley - journalists in the sense that they wrote for journals. The newer traditions are consumer guidance and academic discussion - what they call "discourse".

In terms of the life of the performances, all these - consumer guidance, academic discussion and what I do - comprise a system of interdependencies. Taken singly, each is limited: directors confuse the work they intended with the work seen; audiences seem to want messages and uplift; newspaper critics tend to be immersed in sensation rather than sense; and academics are dead to the liveness of the moment.

Collectively, the purpose of criticism of any variety is to register the impact of a created and crafted work of performance. Performance is the moment of witnessing, vanishing as it occurs. It is also memorised in words - description and analysis.

When do you find time for your own writing?

Difficult. To write, I find, means keeping a clear, inviolate mental space - in which to dwaal, to let the images rise to the surface, which implies calmness. You don't catch bubbles in stormy water.

My job lays traps for my writing. One is to lose a sense of self - to become a listener to others and report on what they say. That passivity involves losing touch with one's inner voice and needs.

The antidote is to remind myself that writing poetry matters more to me than others' new work.

When did you start writing poetry?

When I was seven I wrote and published in the school magazine a poem about rain. It displayed the insights that rain was wet and thunder noisy. In retrospect I should have seen that I had a talent for journalism.

After that exuberant beginning, I wrote nothing for posterity till I went to boarding school. I was surrounded by the thick sons of thick ex-servicemen with money who had coupled with and bred with dumb blondes. Michaelhouse then was not conducive to the arts.

Because of my feet I could not play games, so I used the time to read, increasingly poems: by Dylan Thomas, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, Robert Frost and Rupert Brook. When I was 14 I was convinced, despite all contrary evidence, I was Rupert Brook. I parted my hair in the middle, tied my tie thickly and thought I was beautiful. This impersonation did not impress the rugger buggers.

Being poetic was a form of self-definition; the actual writing of poetry followed. Gradually a circle formed at school of people who wrote poetry, were interested in others' poetry and talked about it. I published in the school magazine, then in Guy Butler's New Coin and Lionel Abrahams's Purple Renoster, and benefited from the mentorship of living poets. Ezekiel Mphahlele kindly and patiently replied to a letter that I wrote him in Zambia. In the holidays I met two women who ran a bookshop, who refined my tastes by pointing out that Rod McKuen was crap and lending me copies of banned South African poets till one of them was detained by the security branch. Writing became a natural, invariable part of experiencing the world.

Which poets inspire you?

At school, the modern English poets inspired me. At university, the African poets - Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, Aimee Cesair, one of the greatest poets to have written in the 20th century. I became fascinated with 20th-century Spanish poets - Lorca again. And with Caribbean poets like Derek Walcott, because he seemed to face many of the same problems of identity that English-speaking African poets do. The same was true of Eastern European poets, like Miroslav Holub: their situation under communism shed light on life under BJ Vorster and the like. At university I was given access to the banned books section of the library, a creepy fenced basement area, where I read Dennis Brutus and Ezekiel Mphahlele.

I read, incessantly, the Jacobean poets, translated Breyten Breytenbach and Ingrid Jonker. The modern Greek poets, Cavafy, Seferis and Yannis Ritsos, all seemed to shed light on my life here and offer new ways of saying: Cavafy as a European poet living in Egypt; Seferis, who had been an ambassador here, inventing histories; and Ritsos, a victim of the Greek colonels' oppression, all taught me something.

Later, I was drawn to the extraordinary new young American poets - we don't see their works here - but contemporary American poetry is probably the most exciting being written in English today. I had an American girlfriend who directed me to feminist poetry which gave me insights into emotional honesty. I was influenced by a stunning New York poet called Amy Clampitt who I met in New Hampshire. She combines literary erudition and rhythmical innovation. And attending a poetry workshop at the Robert Frost Place in Littleton, New Hampshire, was a bracing and useful experience. It made me bring my poetry closer to speech, not the writing voice of the tweedy British academic.

Robert, how would you describe your most recent collection, Rule of Cadence, and how did you decide on the title?

The collection grew around a series about Elsinore after the death of Hamlet, and the ascension of Fortinbras to the Danish throne. The poems are meditations about old and new regimes. Fortinbras's regime is more efficient and socially responsive than Claudius's: Fortinbras is an ambitious warrior and Hamlet, in fact, chose him as his successor, though Hamlet is confused about the question of succession.

The title tries to sum up a contrast between rule and cadence. Hamlet stands for ideas and moral scruples; Fortinbras for decisiveness, untroubled certainty and measurable outcomes. Hamlet uses logic and logic-chopping to the point of seeming mad. In my sequence, Fortinbras uses the lulling effects of music and cadence to tranquillise the populace. His regime uses unison, chorus and group singing in governance. He is the only soloist.

The link with South Africa is plain. Music is our most popular - and best funded - art form. It stands for the a-rational and collective; Hamlet epitomises individualism, the free opinion and the rule of inner conscience. That is the pivot of the contrast. I suggest that Fortinbras is a totalitarian ruler, editing history for his own purposes; Hamlet's quest is to disinter history by righting a wrong.

Clearly, this all relates to this country, and the framework of Hamlet is satirical. I think, and write, for example, of the speed with which wolfish business people, formerly Nationalist supporters, reappear in the sheep's clothing of democrats; of how Ophelia, like liberals I knew, believes that being nice, kind and good will bring about political change; and of how Osric, a courtier, resembles so many theatre people I knew in the '70s who were seduced by the pageantry of power and ignored its purpose. The Hamlet poems are satires of the theatre of change in a post-revolutionary society.

The rest of the collection was superbly assembled around themes by Kobus Moolman, a poet who edited for the University of KZN Press. The sections range from relationships, to social satire, to the way, when one has a child, this forces a re-evaluation of one's own childhood. Some of them began years ago; over the years I have worried at them, recast them and rewritten them, and they have become contemporary.

The collection deliberately includes poems that first appeared in the '90s in an earlier published collection, In the Provinces. This was a time when intellectuals were abjectly scrambling for seats on the bandwagon of political correctness. Many of the Provinces reviews - especially by white women - were stuck on the facts that I was white, over 20 years old and stood when I peed. Other reviews were more concerned with my introduction to the poems than with the poems. I included some of these in Cadence on the basis that they deserved a life; and, besides, time, times and rewriting had reinvented them.

Are you happy with the reviews and public response you've received so far?

Generally, the reaction has been alarmingly respectful. What has surprised me has been the reaction to my reading them aloud. True, no one has yet thrown knickers or offered recording contracts, but I live in hope.

My being a journalist has helped attract coverage, but it cuts both ways. The Sunday Times, for example, won’t run anything about the book.

The absence of the media from Poetry Africa 2005 was noticeable. Where were the journalists and television crews?

The media don't consider that poetry matters either as news or as arts. Poetry is not photogenic; it does not attract advertising; poetry is perhaps associated in some journalists' minds with boredom at school. The media tend to be locked into a formula of politics, sport and the lifestyles of the rich and powerful; journalists are subject to macho values and see poetry as antipathetic to these; newspapers are understaffed; editors come from the ranks of political reporters; journalists may be well trained but are seldom well-educated Ö you name it.

Our newspapers couldn't really give a stuff about the arts, let alone poetry. There are obvious exceptions: The Sunday Independent's book section, run by Maureen Isaacson, regularly and seriously reviews poetry; The Cape Times when Tony Heard was editor, used to have a poetry column on the leader page Ö We get the newspapers we deserve; we change them by treating them as the democratic institutions they claim to be, by putting pressure on them, protesting, agitating, and challenging. And we've probably got to get closer to readers and find out what they need in the way poetry reaches them. The media are just one means of connection.

Where has Rule of Cadence been distributed and how can we get hold of a copy?

Try Exclusive Books. If they don't have it, ask them to order it. If you find extra copies, move them from the dark, inaccessible bottom shelves where bookshops embalm literature and put them on top of the cookbooks, kiddies' books and Stephen King. Strike a blow for humanity.

Can you give me your thoughts on the way you see poetry developing in South Africa?

My experience at Poetry Africa jolted me out of fuddy duddy notions of  a) poetry only being written for the page and  b) an antagonism between stage poetry and page poetry. The exhilarating experience was of diversity and tolerance, and of the extraordinary number of young people so generous with their response to all kinds of poetry. At the same time it seemed important to find ways of making stage poetry last, or else poets will repeat themselves. And things I value about (page) poetry are not to be found in stage poetry - irony, density, for example - and vice versa. Poetry will develop if established poets are respected and if innovations in publishing take place.

Do you think enough is being done in South Africa to develop young performers?

I don't know much about developing performers - or any artist for that matter. For me the useful question is, broadly, what gets in the way of creators continuing to create well? How can the obstacles be removed or lessened? Should they be?

It's important to begin with a view of how creation takes place. Maybe it can be compared to education: you improve education by improving and giving security to good teachers, you don't do it by calling pupils "learners" or even by building more classrooms, though these might be good in themselves. Likewise, you don't improve poetry by creating readers: selling more books does not mean creating better poetry. Rupert Brook's poetry had sold six million copies by 1930: there is connection between this and the emergence of TS Eliot.

There may be no single way of improving poetry or contributing to the likelihood that it will be created well. (I don't think encouraging people to write poetry, except perhaps for personal therapy, is very useful either.)

Let's take it for granted that poetry matters to individuals and societies, to other arts, to consciousness and to language. Quite how is probably a matter of faith, but that is less important than how we act on that faith.

The starting point has to do what can be done to protect those who write well. Why invest in new mines if you can prolong the life of existing mines? (Sure, if you have the resources, you do both.) You invest in poets of proven ability because they will be examples; and my experience is that in poetry, examples inspire you to write and improve your writing.

The accomplished poet, I know, is not necessarily likely to remain accomplished - you are, after all, as good as your last poem. But it is reasonable to assume that an accomplished poet will continue writing and be exemplary. Even if that poet doesn't, you have records of accomplishment to use. By contrast and by definition, "the youth" cannot be exemplary. Talent is not accomplishment.

How do you preserve sources of inspiration? Best practice is in the rich West, where universities host and publish contemporary poets. Worst practice is in countries like South Africa, where they don't. I know the criticisms of universities' involvement in contemporary poetry and they're sound: a recent generation of American poets all sounded the same. But this at least gave younger poets something to rebel against. In poetry, making sitting ducks for emerging poets has considerable value.

My fantasy is that universities, the state, cities and private companies and publishers should be funding what poets need to write. (Obviously, this would not guarantee that they write well, but the effects of not doing so are certain: they disappear.) Poets - in fact all artists and all researchers for that matter - need time, space, a certain freedom from anxiety about day-to-day concerns and making a living. Stimulation they'll get for themselves: time and space to let experience distil is what's needed. And Athol Fugard's "freedom to fail". And I don't think the costs would be prohibitive. Certainly no more than the average National Arts Council grant to performing artists of R25 000 per writer for, say, a six-week time out.

I know no one idea will solve the problem. But it seems to me that clearing growth that clogs the source of the stream is more important than building dams.

You're currently working on a novel about the poet Rupert Brooke. What drew you to Brooke and his life?

The romance of Brooke - "the most beautiful man in England", dying young - featured. So did the comic possibilities of an Edwardian poet and scholar scattering his seed exuberantly. He was an achiever: in his 20s, a fellow at Cambridge; author of what was one of the best books about the Jacobean playwright John Webster; a theorist in the socialist movement; author of what is still one of the most considered essays I have read about arts funding by the state; and a talented travel writer.

What attracted me recently was his spending three months in Tahiti, falling in love with the daughter of a chief, who was also probably a hooker. He went native, but at the same time wrote his best poems. His lover, Taatamata, got pregnant; he left hurriedly and never spoke of his experience there, but his only farewell letter in case of death was to her. Their daughter, Raputo, died in 1990, never having received a penny from Brook's estate, though the trustees knew of her. There are all sorts of themes here, not least of them the silence of the brown people, that attracted me. Few of the biographies deal with his time in Tahiti; it seemed to me that a novel might get into that, and give Taatamata a voice.

Do you think age is a factor in one's becoming more accepting of oneself? As you get older, have you found yourself growing more comfortable in your skin?

I haven't become more accepting of myself with age. What I am aware of is being more scrupulous in choosing the issues I will fight, not getting as hung up on trivia.

What are you reading at the moment?

By accident rather than intention, two South African books. One is The Sunburnt Queen by Hazel Crampton (Jacana) which is about an English girl wrecked on the Wild Coast in the 1730s who becomes the great wife of the amaPondo. Crampton follows her and her descendants into the wars of the 18th and 19th centuries of the Eastern Cape. It's an extraordinary account of the emergence of the South African melting pot. I think her research discoveries are breathtakingly detailed and - though it took me time to get used to this - I like the freedom of her style. There's no pretence that the person who wrote the book is without personality or interest.

Then I am reading - or rereading - The Dream of the Next Body by Gabeba Baderoon, who I met in Durban at Poetry Africa: the most subtle, delicate, rich works.

What do you do for fun? I know you enjoy cooking and surfing.

Surfing has started yielding to senility. I surfed with a boogy-board with my son, Ian, who is 19, when I was with him in Cape Town. We most recently surfed Sandy Bay - in wetsuits, I may add.

In your short story "Surfers" you write: "I got a wave then. It was sheer and green and burly, the side of the wave as polished as glass. I could feel the board slipping downwards and leaned into the wave, touching the wall, ripping it apart, hearing the steady bubble of my hand through the water." Is it as transcendental as it sounds?

Surfing is utterly transcendent in the sense that you respond to nature - water, wind, current, light - the way I imagine an animal does - viscerally, not consciously. I am not a good surfer and tend to wonder, when I'm at the peak of a two-metre wave, how I could paddle backwards with dignity. The transcendence is in rhythm - paddling out, waiting, choosing the wave or letting it choose you. It is also in concentration - nothing else matters. And in the eerie, displaced feeling of finally staggering onto land. I find it easier to surf than to walk. Mostly the charge is in discovering purpose in life: the wave is breaking behind you and you either go with it to the shore or inscribe a vanishing line upon it.


Two poems selected from Robert Greig's latest poetry collection, Rule of Cadence:

The merchants petition Fortinbras

He will not see them, having other things to do.
Instead he sends Horatio:
his task is to hear petitions
from those who now
have so much to say.

Horatio learns of their loyalty,
In a sermon on the virtue of trade,
And veiled pleas for concessions.

He has heard it before, knows their names,
the faces of those who vied
for favours of Claudius, delivered
gems to Gertrude, paid
for the hunting weekend in the wild, for carousing
at fires, who secured contracts for jails,
supplying maggots for detainees in food.

He thanks them for offers not made
and reports to Fortinbras:
"They're shit-scared of new taxes,
of losing their bushveld villas,
being asked to explain.
We might reassure them,
for the sake of the economy ..."

But Fortinbras, planning another campaign,
says nothing, having factored in
certain yields of uncertainty.


Aged ten I was Elvis
Hips eloquent of tousled beds.
I saw below rapturous faces:
Applause went improbably on and on.
I ranged the camp, scavenging more.

I passed a tent where the leaders sat,
Half-broken voices arranging my days,
Heard one who often came to play:
"The way he yowled 'Love me Tender'!"
I feigned illness, went quiet a year.

The same one, when plasters were fresh
Off legs browning normal at the pool,
Pushed me in. I had no muscle for swimming,
Wherever I rose fists waited.
Grownups said "Say sorry." My defeat.

I distrust leaders still, will not sing.
Swimming, I'll wait till all have gone.
Yet when my baby is hooked by claws
in nightmares, I tell him hugs and kisses
find in beasts piebald pandas.

It's not so, and he knows.
If my horror and I should meet
I'd revive those roots of hate,
make him yowl and push him down,
grind a boot into his crown.

When I lay my baby down
he claims my thumb as talisman.
I can't follow tugs of sleep:
hope his light will route the monsters,
or steady breath lull them always.

LitNet: 07 February 2006

Did you enjoy this South African poet interview? Have your say! Send your comments to webvoet@litnet.co.za, and become a part of our interactive opinion page. Or submit your own poetry to Michelle McGrane for consideration.

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