ENGLISH ACADEMY OF SOUTHERN AFRICA
PRESIDENT’S REPORT 2011-2012
Professor Stanley Ridge
It is 13 months since my last report. They have been active, productive and at times frustrating months. We have had a major international conference, a number of successful lectures and awards ceremonies, a splendid special retrospective edition of EAR, and a complete revamp of our website. We have lost our excellent Administrative Officer, Dr Naomi Nkealah, to the University of Limpopo, and have not yet been able to replace her. And we have watched with concern the very uneven and unsatisfactory performance of the national bodies charged with language issues.
The Jubilee International Conference was held at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s District Six campus in September. Our warm thanks are due to the University for its hospitality. Professor Rajendra Chetty and his team showed their flair for excellent, imaginative organisation, and we had participants from 22 countries. All of these joined the Academy, greatly enhancing our international profile. The challenge will be to keep them involved. There was a veritable feast of excellent papers, a number of which have been revised for publication in EAR after undergoing stringent external peer reviewing. And there is a significant kitty set aside to make the organisation of the next conference easier.
Five awards were made during the conference, exciting considerable interest. The Thomas Pringle Award for Reviews went to Michiel Heyns, previously winner of the Sol Plaatje Prize for Literary Translation into English. The Thomas Pringle Award for a Literary Article was presented to Leon de Kock. The Olive Schreiner Prize for Poetry was given to Finuala Dowling. And the Percy Fitzpatrick Prize for Youth Literature was given to a 2nd year university student, Andy Petersen, who wrote his engaging youth novel while still at school. Each of them made witty and at times challenging acceptance speeches. The winner of the Thomas Pringle Award for the Short Story, Stephen Watson, better known as a fine poet, died in the months before the conference. His wife received the award on his behalf and spoke movingly in doing so.
The English Academy Gold Medal was awarded to Athol Fugard at the conference dinner at Bloemendal restaurant, an appropriate location dramatically perched on top of a mountain behind Tygerberg with views in all directions. In the course of a memorable evening, Past President Barbara Basel gave a lively reading of a scene from one of Athol Fugard’s plays, before introducing this extraordinary genius of the theatre. Fugard, who has won major international acclaim, was clearly very moved by the award as recognition from his own people. I should add at this point that the Academy nominated Athol Fugard for the Nobel Prize. We were not successful. But we shall persevere.
On the same occasion, Professor Geoffrey Haresnape, a stalwart of the Academy who served on Council for more than two decades, was presented with a certificate confirming his Honorary Life Vice-Presidency of the Academy.
Later in the year, in November, the prominent writer, Sindiwe Magona, delivered the English Academy Percy Baneshik Memorial Lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand. It was encouraging to see an audience predominantly of young people responding to the forthright challenges which Ms Magona presented. I wish to repeat some words I said in introducing her: ‘The term “intellectual” is often taken at a discount. In talking of Sindiwe Magona, we must reclaim its core meaning. An intellectual is someone who invests energy, courage and intelligence in understanding and making sense of the world we live in. Sindiwe Magona is such an intellectual – and one of real distinction.’
A few days later, in Grahamstown, I had the privilege of attending the Rhodes University farewell reception for Professor Laurence Wright and, with the Vice-Chancellor’s approval, using the occasion to present him with the Academy’s Gold Medal. Few people have had as broad an influence on English in South Africa as has Laurence Wright. After his retirement, he moved to Simonstown, and we have been very fortunate to have him as a member of the Executive.
In June this year, again at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, we held a very successful awards ceremony coupled with the English Academy Percy Baneshik Memorial Lecture. The Thomas Pringle Award for an Educational Article was presented to Professor Aslam Fataar. The Thomas Pringle Award for Poetry was made to Kelwyn Sole, and the Olive Schreiner Prize for Drama was given to Nicholas Spagnoletti. These award ceremonies mark some of the important growing points in South African culture. Kelwyn Sole, an established poet, was not able to attend for health reasons, but Geoffrey Haresnape read his acceptance speech and ably supplemented it with a defence of poetry in our time and place. Aslam Fataar, one of the new generation of professors, gave us a moving glimpse of what enables a particular young person in severely disadvantaged circumstances to aspire to transcend limitations and open new paths into the future. And Nicholas Spagnoletti, a computer specialist by day, introduced us to the imaginative worlds of two very different people who are thrown together in modern Sea Point. His play has been very successful, and there are more to follow. Of all three awardees we can say, “Watch these spaces”.
Professor Leonie Viljoen delivered the 2012 English Academy Percy Baneshik Memorial Lecture. She is the first woman Baneshik lecturer and the first person to deliver the lecture in Cape Town. The theme of her beautifully illustrated lecture was The Vikings and their Legacy: Fable, Fact and Fiction. In one sense, the Vikings are figures from another place and another time. However, their hold on the contemporary imagination is strong, reflected even in popular culture. In addition, they are increasingly being seen as agents in the move towards the modern world through their contact with Africans, Arabs and people across the whole of Europe.
In August, Professor Michael Chapman delivered a path-breaking English Academy Commemorative Lecture on Lewis Nkosi. Professor Betty Govinden, and her team organised a wonderful evening at the Durban University of Technology, with various brief presentations before the Lecture. Vice-Chancellor Ahmed Bawa was a very gracious host and stayed with us for the whole evening. There was excellent attendance from the general public and from the two universities. Betty and her team are investigating the possibility of other events in partnership with the universities, including a seminar soon on aspects of the media.
There is some unfinished business concerning awards. Your President was appointed Administrator of the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein in June by the Minister of Higher Education and Training. The Minister’s decision to take this step has been the subject of scrutiny in the courts, so I have been on call for months and have not been able to make the kinds of commitments necessary. There will have to be an event in Johannesburg to present the Thomas Pringle Award for Reviews to Mary Corrigall, and one or two events in the Eastern Cape to present the Thomas Pringle Award for an Education Article to Charles van Renen and the English Academy Gold Medal to Malvern van Wyk Smith.
The Gwen Knowles Williams Bursary has been made available to the Cape Peninsula University of Technology this year, and Rajendra Chetty is making sure that it goes to a deserving student. Two years ago we decided to raise the value of this award, using Academy funds to augment the income from the Bequest. I am happy to report that it has been possible to raise the amounts of all English Academy awards considerably and that we have well-founded hopes of being able to raise them further.
We shall have a full report on EAR later in this meeting. However it is my pleasure to report that the Executive voted unanimously to reappoint Michael Williams as Editor. His contribution has been distinguished and, along with the fine work of Rosemary Gray as Managing Editor, is doing a great deal to take the standing of the journal to the next level.
TET or Teaching English Today, our on-line journal for teachers, has continued to thrive under the editorship of Malcolm Venter. It has attracted contributions and comments from many parts of the world.
Malcolm has also been responsible for the revamping of our website. It has been placed on a new platform which allows him as webmaster to make the necessary changes himself. Going through the contents with a rigorous eye to relevance has been a huge task, and it is not yet over. It has already made a difference to the Academy’s profile.
I am happy to report that the SABC has been most interested in what we are doing and has had two half-hour programmes recently, the first interviewing me and the second interviewing Malcolm Venter. Such exposure can only be to our advantage.
Rosemary Gray’s meticulous management of the Lotto grants has put us in good standing and led to our receiving another grant this year. The grant has not been for five years as we had hoped, as the trustees have, perhaps temporarily, stopped making such awards. However, we have been encouraged to apply again.
The Academy clearly needs substantial support if it is to meet its immediate goals and realise its full potential. We need to grow corporate membership again and seek grants from a larger pool of possibilities. Any help that can be given in that regard would be very welcome. On a less corporate note, much of what we are now able to do is as the result of generous bequests. May I encourage members to remember the Academy in their wills and to encourage others to do so as well.
There has been some progress over the past year in establishing a stronger regional presence for the Academy in different parts of the country. This must be built on if members are to be fully engaged and we are to realise our full strength. My thanks to the Vice Presidents for their efforts in this regard.
As I intimated at the beginning, this year has been a frustrating one. We have been without a fully-functioning office since February, and many things have fallen behind. It is a mark of the current economic situation that the advertisement of the post in the press attracted more than 600 applications. Rob Sharman and David Robinson are sifting these to develop a shortlist, after which they will be joined by two other Council members in interviewing the candidates. It is a matter of great urgency that we should have a suitable person as Administrative Officer to run the office and provide logistical support to the officers of the Academy.
It is time for farewells and thanks. We were very sad to lose our highly competent and committed Administrative Officer in January. Last year we congratulated Naomi Nkealah on her doctorate. She has been appointed Senior Lecturer at the University of Limpopo. Her leaving has made us recognise the extent of her competence and support. Warm good wishes to her in her new position. It is good to know that she remains a member of the Academy.
The second farewell is to Rob Sharman. Rob has been an outstanding member of Council, Honorary Secretary for many years, and till now Honorary Treasurer. He has also been a firm support to the Administrative Officer in our office at Wits. His work load at Wits has increased to mind-boggling proportions of late and he has felt that he must stand down. He is deeply committed to the Academy and will remain a member. I am happy to say that he has offered to be of assistance to us as we move ahead. We shall miss him very much.
I must thank the members of the Executive Committee for their unfailing support: Barbara Basel, Rajendra Chetty, Malcolm Venter and Laurence Wright have formed the core in the Cape, with strong input from Rob Sharman and David Robinson. I have also been able to rely on the unstinting support of Rosemary Gray, whose comprehensive knowledge of the Academy and willingness to take on tasks is invaluable to us all.
Finally, as I reach the end of my term as President, I must thank you all for the confidence you have placed in me and for your generous encouragement and support. It has been a wonderfully enlightening time to see how much is being done in a range of ways by the Academy and its members. I leave office with no question that we belong to an organisation of great significance to our country and region. It is up to us all to use the opportunities it gives us.