HONOURING AND CELEBRATING SOUTH AFRICA’S WRITERS: REPORT ON AWARD CEREMONY AND COMMEMORATIVE LECTURE ON TUESDAY, 28 APRIL 2015
It is the Academy’s tradition to combine award ceremonies with public lectures in order to minimize cost and attract a big audience. The function on the evening of 28 April 2015 was no different. Three Academy awards were presented, followed by a commemorative lecture. The function was made possible by funding from the Department of Arts and Culture which generously sponsored the prizes and honoraria for participants.
The function took place in a seminar room at the premises of UNISA’s Institute for African Renaissance Studies (IARS) in Pretoria. Jointly organized by the English Academy and the IARS, it was attended by Academy members, prize winners and their guests, guest speaker, and staff from UNISA. There were book sales run separately by Exclusive Books and Wits University Press, with the winning books in good supply. Awardees signed books for many guests. As usual, Rave Caterers provided guests with a finger supper comprising several delicacies, enticing many to linger for much longer after the function ended. Accomplished violinist, Mari-Victoire, provided beautiful musical entertainment before and after the event.
Professor Rosemary Gray, past President of the English Academy and a staff of the IARS, directed the programme for the evening. Professor Vuyisile Msila, Director of the IARS, opened the event officially as he welcomed guests to the IARS premises. Following him was Professor Rajendra Chetty, President of the Academy, who gave a welcome address that highlighted the importance of recognizing both established writers, such as Nadine Gordimer whose legacy was being celebrated with the commemorative lecture, and emerging writers who were receiving awards for their demonstrated excellence in writing. Professor Chetty recalled fond memories of Nadine Gordimer, reminiscing on her active participation in Academy events and heartwarming support for writers such as Mongane Wally Serote, John Kani and the late Chris van Wyk (all three of whom have received Academy awards in the past).
The Olive Schreiner Prize for Drama was awarded to Phillip Dikotla for his play Skierlik published by Junkets in 2014. Mr Dikotla was not able to attend the function to receive his price personally as he was in Cape Town working on another play. He however wrote an acceptance speech which was read to the audience by Mr Karabo Kgokong. In his speech, Mr Dikotla thanked the English Academy for honouring him with an award. He also extended thanks to everyone who had supported his work. He urged South Africans to embrace new literary voices, new languages, and a new sense of consciousness in writing about contemporary realities. The citation for his award was read by Professor Nhlanhla Maake, a member of the Academy’s Council.
Like the Olive Schreiner Prize which rotates annually among drama, prose and poetry, the Thomas Pringle Awards are adjudicated each year for different categories. The five categories for the awards are Reviews, Short Story/One Act Play, Poetry in Periodicals, Educational Article, and Literary Article. The review category is run every year while the remaining four categories alternate, two being adjudicated each year. For the 2014 award year, Anthony Akerman’s play, Somewhere on the Border (Wits University Press, 2012), was chosen as the winner of the Thomas Pringle Award for Short Story/One Act Play. The judging panel had considered short stories and one-act plays published and/or produced in 2012 and 2013. At the function, the chair of the panel, Professor Karen Batley, read the citation. Anthony Akerman accepted the award and read an acceptance speech which highlighted the difficulties in publishing or staging plays that provoked critical engagement with South Africa’s geopolitical challenges. He was however pleased that the play was been successfully staged both at home and abroad by a younger generation of actors.
The last award for the evening was presented to Kagiso Lesego Molope whose novel, This Book Betrays My Brother (Oxford University Press, 2012), won the Percy Fitzpatrick Prize for Youth Literature. The citation was read by Professor Sope Maithufi, also a member of the Academy’s Council. It was gratifying to have Ms Molope present to receive her award. She had come all the way from Canada where she lives and works. She graciously accepted the award but announced that she will donate the prize money to a charity organization which caters for displaced migrants affected by the recent xenophobic attacks in the country. She sees this gesture as part of her responsibility as a writer to contribute to the upliftment of humanity.
After the awards presentation, it was time to listen to the Nadine Gordimer Commemorative Lecture presented by Professor Michael Titlestad from Wits University. The lecture was given in honour of Nadine Gordimer as part of the Academy’s project to celebrate her legacy as both a longstanding patron of the Academy and Africa’s first female Nobel Laureate.
In the preamble to his lecture entitled “Moribund Whiteness in Nadine Gordimer’s A Guest of Honour and Get a Life”, Professor Titlestad paid tribute to Nadine Gordimer but also acknowledged the controversy surrounding her works. He pursued this line of argument in his lecture in which he explores the contradictions resulting from historicist readings of her novels when the texts, in his view, lent themselves to modernist readings. In the abstract to his lecture, he stated:
This article seeks to clarify the origins and some of the consequences of the resulting philosophical contradictions. It argues that these complications arise, in fact, from a particular set of discrepancies in Gordimer’s oeuvre, essays and public pronouncements. Her dual commitment to Marxist teleology and high-cultural Modernism, among consequences, forecloses on the future she can imagine for white (South) Africans living in postcolonial contexts or in the post-apartheid dispensation.
Professor Titlestad engaged with these issues through an analysis of two of Gordimer’s novels, one published in 1971 and another in 2005.
The full lecture by Professor Titlestad will be published in the Academy’s journal, the English Academy Review, while the full acceptance speeches of the prize winners will be published in the Academy’s newsletter. With the lecture and awards in the bag, Professor Gray proposed a vote of thanks. The following persons and institutions were thanked:
- the Institute for providing the fine premises and particularly Professor Vuyisile Msila and staff at IARS for their gracious and tolerant support;
- the prize winners and their publishers – Junkets, Oxford University Press, and Wits University Press – for giving the Academy access to the winning texts;
- the Department of Arts and Culture for coming to the Academy’s aid in time of need by sponsoring the event;
- all members of the Academy who officiated during the function, particularly the Academy’s President, Professor Rajendra Chetty, who had come from Cape Town, and Professor Michael Titlestad, whose stimulating lecture in honour of Nadine Gordimer left the audience speechless;
- the Academy’s Administrative Officer, Mrs Annette Meklis, and her long suffering, supportive husband, Andrew, for their dedication and commitment to the Academy;
- the talented young musician, Mari-Victoire, for her beautiful music;
- and, as always, Peter and Heila Clausing of Rave caterers, who never failed to pull out all the stops for the Academy.
The evening ended with more socializing and merry-making in the company of good food and fine wine.
CITATION: 2014 GOLD MEDAL
The English Academy of Southern Africa is pleased to announce that Robin Malan is the winner of the Academy’s 2014 Gold Medal in recognition of his services to English over a long career in education, theatre and publishing.
Robin began his career in education: firstly, as a teacher in Cape Town and Swaziland. He spent about fifteen years in Swaziland as Head of English, Head of Hostel Staff, Assistant Head and International Baccalaureate Examinations Co-Ordinator at the Waterford Kamhlaba United World College. Jonty Driver, novelist and poet, reminds us, ‘It is worth remembering … the work [Robin] did as a bookseller in Swaziland, in the days when it was very difficult to get hold of South African books on the banned list’. Then, he returned to Cape Town to lecture in the Department of Drama at Stellenbosch University and to tutor in the English Department of the University of Cape Town.
Robin has published widely – close to 60 titles – both as author and editor, using predominantly southern African publishers to do so. He has written nine novels, an award-winning play, and edited more than 20 poetry anthologies, short stories and plays for adults and children.
Despite his own literary achievements, Robin’s most significant contribution to English is his life-long, unwavering encouragement of young people to appreciate and to produce English literature in southern Africa. Therefore, it is appropriate that the Academy’s Gold Medal is presented to him at a function celebrating SACEE’s Diamond Jubilee and the publication, English Alive, which he helped establish in 1967; and which is published under SACEE’s auspices.
English Alive has been an important instrument of support for young people’s writing in English in southern Africa. To quote Terrill Nicholay, Western Cape Chair of SACEE:
This anthology of the best … high school writing … draws submissions from all over South Africa, and has always set a high standard for selection, which has ensured that acceptance of a poem or prose work is one of the most prestigious accolades for an aspirant young writer.
Importantly, the diversity of the writing English Alive now showcases can be attributed to Robin. Terrill Nicholay again: ‘he has actively sought work from schools in townships and rural areas, and among those for whom English is not necessarily a home language’.
Robin was a founding editor of English Alive in 1967. He edited the anthology intermittently for twenty years and since 2013 has been back in the editor’s chair. But his role at English Alive has gone beyond that of editor – he has encouraged many aspirant young writers to pursue literary careers. The ‘modern’ playwrights, Olive Schreiner Prize- and Fleur du Cap Prize-Winner, Nicholas Spagnoletti (London Road), Amy Jeptha, Nadia Davids and novelist and Caine Prize short-story writer Henrietta Rose-Innes are in good company with the older generation of ‘English Alivers’: Jeremy Cronin, David Lan and Allan Kolski Horwitz.
In 2005, Robin established Junkets Publishers, a small, independent publishing house. It specialises in publishing playscripts by unknown playwrights, offering them for sale at performances; as well as short stories. Once again, young aspirant writers have benefited. Pieter Jacobs, CEO of the Arts & Culture Trust notes, ‘Junkets was the first to publish one of my plays and this has advanced my career as a playwright drastically. Robin’s work has given many more playwrights like me the same opportunity’.
All aspirant and established writers inspired by Robin have one thing in common: they have all commented on his generosity of spirit. Nicholas Spagnoletti sums this up best:
He’s always got time for emails and phone calls. He opens his house to young writers. He works hard and without much financial reward to make and maintain vital infrastructure for ensuring new writing has somewhere to go – like ‘English Alive’ and Junkets. He is involved and shows up at tons of openings, readings and events all year round. He generously gives of his time, effort and genuine encouragement. In short, he’s a treasure.
English Academy Award of Gold Medal to Robin Malan 2014
What I really like about this award of the Academy’s Gold Medal is that I see it as an acknowledgement by the Academy of work done for young people.
I’m not an academic, in the usual sense in which the English Academy uses the word. I spent five years at university, equipping myself to be a good English and History teacher and to make theatre with and for young people. And, after that BA (Honours) degree and the BEd degree and the Class Medal for Drama, I knew I didn’t want any further degrees because I couldn’t wait to get into the classroom and teach, and also get into the school hall to direct plays with the students! Of course, I did both of those. Often. And for over 50 years.
Over my long teaching and theatre career, I held a teaching post at only two schools: Cape Town High School and Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa in Swaziland. In between, I was the Artistic Director of two theatre-in-education companies, in Cape Town and in what was then the Transvaal. With Janice Honeyman as my Associate Director, we did great work with young actors interacting with students in the many schools we visited each year. In addition, at different times, I taught Shakespeare, English, and Drama-in-Education in the Drama Department at the University of Stellenbosch, and tutored in a bridging programme in the English Department at the University of Cape Town. Both excellent encounters with slightly older students.
In the school context, I loved teaching very talented senior students (Charles Rom comes to mind immediately, as do Dan Pillay and Naphtali Mlipha, Andy Foose, Khulile Nxumalo, Robert van der Valk). Every bit as much, I enjoyed taking the ‘non-academic stream’ of Standard 6s (Grade 8s): I got them to write masses of poems, the most interesting of which (never called ‘the best’) were then typed and pinned on the classroom notice-boards for all the other teachers to read. Here’s one of those poems, from Michael:
My home that would never exist
This place is a quiet place,
With gardens and valleys,
And woods of pine trees,
But it’s far from home.
There’s no killing or fighting,
But just peace and quiet,
And the people are happy,
But it’s far from home.
But when I think of this place at night,
How I wish it could exist,
So that there would be peace and quiet,
But this place would be far from home.
In my first few years of teaching, I was one of the founding editors of English Alive in 1967, and that brought me into contact with such extraordinarily talented young writers as David Lan and Nigel Fogg and Peter Terry; and I’m still in contact with all three of them, 49 years later. The association with English Alive has continued until tonight (and will, beyond tonight).
My work as a volunteer for Triangle Project, the health and human rights organisation for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex people has been very important to me. For instance, it brought me into touch with young people in my capacity as facilitator of the young men’s support group. That also produced a poem, discovered on the white board after a session. I don’t know who wrote it: the author signed himself only as ‘An inspired youngsta’:
I was a boy, I was a girl
I was someone in this world,
Yet nobody knew …
I laughed, I choked, I screamed …
I died. And still I was unheard.
‘An abandoned one, I suppose,’ someone said …
I was not one … I was a majority
But now I’m gone.
Over my 15 years as a Counsellor on the Gay & Lesbian Helpline I came to write many case reports, none more difficult and intense than my report on the many calls I fielded while on duty in the week of the dreadful Sizzlers massacre, in which nine young male sex workers were bound, gagged, shot execution-style in the back of the head and then their throats slit. It was a harrowing experience. In happier situations, I have had wonderful interaction with young gay men through my work with Triangle Project, culminating perhaps in my being invited, earlier this year, to André-and-Fabian’s wedding, having known Fabian since he was a schoolboy 14 years ago and having published a piece he wrote in one of my collections.
A different kind of writing resulted from my having looked after the Young Gay Guys column in the gay newspaper Exit for 11 years. In 2011 in response to an appeal from a reader I ended up producing a small book called The Young Gay Guys Guide to Safer Gay Sex. Because of their belief in the value of the book, the Aids Foundation of South Africa and Triangle Project saw to it that 14 000 free copies of the book were spread around in outreach programmes in the Western Cape and in KwaZulu-Natal. As it had to be, in order to be of any use, that writing was explicit, and so I won’t read you anything from the text, but I will tell you about the last page of the book, which took the form of a pledge: a pledge always to be safe when having sex. Readers could either sign-and-send that page to me, or they could SMS me their name and the words ‘I pledge’. Even now, four, five years later, every now and then my phone beeps and I see someone’s name and the words ‘I pledge’. I like it when that happens.
Back to the mainstream. Over the years I have compiled a large number of anthologies, starting with Inscapes, which went on to New Inscapes and then Worldscapes and then Poemscapes, all of those for Oxford University Press. I have met any number of middle-aged people who tell me that Inscapes or Worldscapes was the only book they chose to steal from school because they wanted to keep it.
Over the years of my happy association with the publishers David Philip and Marie Philip, more anthologies emerged, as did Rawbone Malong’s 1972 Guard to Sow Theffricun Innglish, titled Ah Big Yaws? In its heyday, I got used to coming across that book in people’s loos. It was also, perhaps more edifyingly, kept as a handbook in the library of the BBC’s Drama Department to help non-South African actors who had to do a South African accent; and, even more edifyingly still, there’s an article on it in David Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (page 357!).
In 2007 Jacana Media re-issued the book, with some updates that I culled from the Internet, in one of which the writer recalled that: ‘There was once a magic little book called Ah Big Yaws? written by the late Robin Malan …’
I have had many happy encounters with children and young people in the work I have done – and still do – for IBBY SA, the South African national section of the International Board on Books for Young People. I was Chairperson of the organisation from 2007 to 2012. Tomorrow evening, to mark World Book Day, I am facilitating an IBBY SA panel discussion about teen fiction with some young writers.
I have written four teen novels and a book for children. As the Series Editor of the Siyagruva Series of novels for South African teens, I wrote some of the books myself. But, more importantly, I interacted with new young writers.
And, from 2007 onwards, I have been publishing new South African plays as Junkets Publisher. These plays are generally written by new emerging young writers, and I love all the interaction I have with them, right the way through to the young writers of the plays in this year’s Zabalaza Theatre Festival just a week or so ago. I hope to publish some of those plays.
I sit on the Boards or Councils of the Arts & Culture Trust, the Cape 300 Foundation and the Caine Prize for African Writing. Their beneficiaries and grant recipients are generally young writers and young theatremakers. And so I am pleased to be doing that work, too.
That was a whizz-through of a life’s work!
I’m sure you will have noticed how often I have used the word ‘interaction’. That’s been deliberate, because that’s what has, I think, brought me to this Award, to this Gold Medal: it’s been interaction with young writers and young readers that has made me do the work I’ve done over the years. And it’s been my experience that, nine times out of ten, young people are good people; and … I don’t know, maybe seven times out of ten, young people are sensible people, even wise people. For all of that interaction over the years, I am deeply grateful to all those young people; as I am grateful, also, now, for this recognition of that work by the English Academy of Southern Africa.
22 April 2015
PRESS RELEASE ENGLISH ACADEMY OF SOUTHERN AFRICA PERCY FITZPATRICK PRIZE FOR YOUTH LITERATURE Awarded to Kagiso Lesego Molope for her book This Book Betrays My Brother (Oxford University Press, 2012) It is with great pleasure that the English Academy of Southern Africa awards the 2014 Percy FitzPatrick Prize for Youth Literature to Kagiso Lesego Molope for her book, This Book Betrays My Brother, published by Oxford University Press in 2012. The adjudication panel’s decision was unanimous. The adjudicators noted that [t]he category ‘books for children between ages 10 and 14’ is a … complex one. This Book Betrays My Brother, like some of the best children’s books that we have, troubles neat readership categories. Think of Little Women, Tom Sawyer and Where the Wild Things Are as similarly challenging such categorisation. The book is set in a South African township in the mid-1990s. Naledi, the narrator and protagonist, explores her relationships with friends, teenage boys, family, and especially her relationship with her ‘beloved brother’, Basi. Through Naledi’s ‘reflective voice’, Molope broaches a range of complex issues relevant to teenagers coming of age in South Africa today: ‘… sexuality, … dangers of a naïve response to … heterosexual attraction, the divide between rich and poor, the complexity of integration at schools, clashing value systems, competing views of personal and social loyalty, and betrayal’. Sensitively, Molope captures the uncertainty and naïveté of thirteen-year-old Naledi caught in a world where attractiveness to the opposite sex is an overriding adolescent concern. Naledi takes pleasure in the attention of Kitsano and the invitation to the Matric Dance. But attraction to the opposite sex becomes confusing and traumatic for her after Naledi witnesses Basi sexually abusing his girlfriend, Moipone. She is devastated by Basi’s ‘callous indifference’ to the rape’s effect on Moipone and Moipone’s social ostracism. ‘Naledi struggles to come to terms with her parents’ blind belief in him and the social mores that protect him’. In their citation, the adjudicators stated that [i]n exploring Naledi’s painful dilemma, Molope never becomes didactic. The account is nuanced and sensitive, making it possible for readers to understand her agonising inner struggle and why she does not speak out at the time. At the heart of this novel is a challenge to recognise the disempowerment of women who are abused. Society condemns women who have been raped or who know about rape to remaining silent. If they speak out, they are thought of as vindictive liars or loose women or even traitors. The title reveals the complexity of Naledi’s decision to reveal her brother’s guilt and makes the injustice of such action imaginatively inescapable. The adjudication panel consisted of Elaine Ridge (convener), Eva Hunter (University of the Western Cape) and Shaun Viljoen (Stellenbosch University). The Percy FitzPatrick Prize for Youth Literature 1. The prize is called the Percy FitzPatrick Prize for Youth Literature. 2. It was established by the South African Institute for Librarianship and Information Science and is administered by the English Academy. 3. It is awarded for an original literary work in English published in Southern Africa. 4. The work must be a work of fiction designed to interest children aged between ten and fourteen years. 5. The prize is awarded in every even-numbered year. 6. The work must have been published during the two years preceding that in which the prize is awarded (i.e. 2012 and 2013). 7. No writer may be awarded the prize more than twice. 8. A translation of a work originally written in another language may be considered provided it has been translated by the original author. In such a case, the book will be treated as if it were an original work published in the year of publication of the translation, not of the original.
THE ENGLISH ACADEMY OF SOUTHERN AFRICA – AWARDS AND PRIZES IN 2012-2013
|AWARD||NAME OF WINNER||TITLE OF WORK AND PUBLICATION DETAILS||
|DATE & PLACE AWARDED|
|Thomas Pringle Award (Reviews)||Mary Corrigall||Portfolio of work in the Sunday Independent||
Dr Lynda Gilfillan
Dr Glenda Cleaver
Ms Kate McCallum
|25 May 2013|
|Thomas Pringle Award (Literary Article)||Lara Buxbaum||
Professor Russel West-Pavlov
Mrs Laurel Becker
31 October 2013
|Thomas Pringle Award (Short Story/One Act play)||Lauren van Vuuren||‘Duel over a dear’ New Contrast 38(2): 79-89 Winter 2010||
Professor Karen Batley
Ms Glenda Holcroft
17 October 2013
Thomas Pringle Award (Poetry)
Dr Sindiwe Magona
Dr Meg van der Merwe
Dr Pam van Schaik
Thomas Pringle Award
Dr Rangarirai Musvoto
Dr Sira Dambe
Mrs Laurel Becker
Olive Schreiner Prize
|Peter Dunseith||The Bird of Heaven Tafelberg||
Professor Rosemary Gray
Professor Sope Maithufi
Dr Naomi Nkealah
17 October 2013Awarded by proxy
Percy FitzPatrick Prize
|Edyth Bulbring||Molly, Fatty and Me||
Dr Elaine Ridge
25 May 2013
Sol Plaatje Prize
|ld Medal||Mothobi Mutloatsi||Lifetime achievement||
Professor Elwyn Jenkins
Professor Lindy Stiebel
25 May 2013
|Gwen Knowles-Williams Bursary||Soraya Abdulatief Haupt||
Master’s in Education
Professor Peter Titlestad
Professor Rajendra Chetty
THE ENGLISH ACADEMY OF SOUTHERN AFRICA – AWARDS AND PRIZES IN 2011-2012
|AWARD||NAME OF WINNER||TITLE OF WORK AND PUBLICATION DETAILS||
|DATE & PLACE AWARDED|
|Thomas Pringle Award (Reviews)||Mary Corrigall||Portfolio of work||Dr Lynda Gilfillan Dr Glenda Cleaver Ms Kate McCallum||25 May 2013|
|Thomas Pringle Award (Literary Article)||N/A (2013)|
|Thomas Pringle Award (Short Story/One Act play)||N/A (2013)|
|Thomas Pringle Award (Poetry)||Kelwyn Sole||‘Cape Town’ in New Contrast 36(4) 2008||Dr Amitabh Mitra Ms Carol LeffProfessor Peter Horn||15 June 2012,br />Cape Town|
|Thomas Pringle Award (Educational article)||
Charles van Renen
|‘Youth self-formation and the “capacity to aspire”: The itinerant “schooled career” of Fuzile Ali across post-apartheid space’ in Perspectives in Education 28(3)‘Dahl’s chickens: How do they roost in the 21st century?’ in Journal for Language Teaching 43(2)||Dr Denise Newfield Mr David Robinson Dr Yvonne Reed||
15 June 2012
Cape Town and
2 March 2012
|Olive Schreiner Prize (Drama)||Nicholas Spagnoletti||London Road 2010||Mr Malcolm Hacksley Mr Peter Terry Ms Mary Dreyer Corewijn||
15 June 2012
|Percy FitzPatrick Prize||N/A (2013)|
|Sol Plaatje Prize(Translation)||Daniel Kunene||C. L. S. Nyembezi’s My Child! My Child!||Professor Stephen Gray Khubu Zulu Corina van der Spoel|
|Gold Medal||Malvern van Wyk Smith||Lifetime achievement||Professor Stanley Ridge Professor Laurence Wright||2 March 2013Grahamstown|
|Gwen Knowles-Williams Bursary||Chantyclaire Tiba||Master’s in Education(English Studies)||Professor Peter Titlestad Professor Rajendra Chetty||
21 Sept 2012
Gold Medal Award, English Academy, NELM, Grahamstown, Saturday 2 March 2013
Malvern van Wyk Smith
Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen, let me start by sincerely thanking the English Academy of South Africa for the great honour that has been bestowed on me. We all appreciate recognition, and I can assure you that I am now in that shadowy era of one’s career where reminders that one has not been forgotten are appreciated ever more rather than less. Another corrective to my self-regard was the response of two of our daughters when Rosemary gave them the good news. “Ah, sweet,” said one, “give him a hug.” Another said: “Oh that’s nice; what’s it for–his stamp collection?” A third daughter had already sent me a card on my last birthday which read: “Dad, is it wise having another birthday at your age?” So you can see that I really mean it when I thank not only the board of the Academy for selecting me for this honour today, but also Sebastian Matroos and his helpers as well as members of the National English Literary Museum for having done all the hard work for this event.
When I first heard of the award there flashed through my mind a story about Athol Fugard. At the time that he received his honorary degree from Rhodes, his mother apparently asked him: “Athol, does this mean that you can get a proper job now?” So my first thought was that perhaps I should get into my track suit, fly to Cape Town, and wave my gold medal from the top of a bus. Sadly, recent events suggest that even gold medallists can run into deep trouble, so I’ll stay just here. Before I go any further, however, let me also congratulate my fellow recipient on his award today. There is a nice synergy in today’s celebrations, for Charles van Renen was one of my very first Honours students at Rhodes almost half a century ago. (And incidentally, the man about to become Rhodes’s Chancellor, Lex Mpati, was in one of my first first-year tutorials in those same years.)
Much has happened over the half century since, but if some of you were anxious that I might devote my talk today to counting out some of the gems garnered from the dizzy heights of all that experience, you will be relieved to know that I have no such intention. I do, however, have one or two points to make, ones that might appropriately arise from an occasion such as this.
I have just finished reading JC Kannemeyer’s excellent biography of JM Coetzee. It is deeply researched, elegantly written (and translated) and sensitively critical. Indeed, I was surprised to find just how wrong a very intemperate review of the book that appeared some weeks ago in the Mail & Guardian actually was. Nevertheless, that review did guide me to an interesting observation that has a wider bearing than Kannemeyer’s book. It is this: along with Karl Schoeman’s biography of Olive Schreiner that appeared some twenty years ago, Kannemeyer’s Coetzee represents one of the two most impressively researched, cogently argued and well-written works in the canon of South African critical discourse in English. Both, however, were originally written in Afrikaans by Afrikaans academics. So, as Villon asked about the snows of yesteryear, one might want to puzzle over the whereabouts of the stars of the South African English literary establishment who should have been producing books like these.
There are at least three answers. One is of course that many of our brightest have left and are still leaving. A glance at Rhodes graduation programmes over the last few decades will reveal the astounding names of those who have gone–Elleke Boehmer, Peter Macdonald, Elizabeth van Niekerk, Andrew van der Vlies are just a few of the names that come to mind. No critical establishment can suffer such haemorrhage and survive, let alone thrive. Indeed, what is amazing is that our small academic community should have produced as many high achievers as it has.
The second answer to my query is more complex, more controversial and more culpable, but can be simply put. We lost at least two decades in the 1970s and 80s– in the throes of apartheid and academic boycotts– wrangling in the mudbaths of polemics rather than engaging in the hard graft of scholarship. In these harsh years of suppression and harassment too many of our colleagues were seduced by two preoccupations: literary theory and a fractious debate about the prior claims of socio-political reportage over the free function of the literary imagination. High in theory, low in substance and research, rebarbative in style and aggressive in tone and intent, these polemics were offensive then and are unreadable now.
Literary theory does not make good front-line reading, poems are not petrol bombs, and conference halls become venues for comedy rather than discovery when they are mistaken for combat zones. Yet we all had to sit through many an event where it was exactly such blurring of occasion and outcome that took place. We fought over Butlerism, over what some took to be politically significant action as against the moribund pursuit of inner domains, and over relevance as against enchantment. One expected the floor to be strewn with corpses but instead the air filled only with the dust of Derrida-speak and discourse analysis. (Not that mere English academics cannot be sturdy campaigners; some of you will recall Annette Combrink, in those years head of the English Department at the University of Potchefstroom and, as I speak, the very smart mayor of that town where she has thoroughly outmanoeuvred a corrupt and incompetent opposition.)
Of course, there has always been a small band of South African English academics who have insisted on getting back to the sources and the archives–naming just a few may be invidious, but I am thinking of Michael Chapman, Stephen Gray, Stephen Watson, Craig Mackenzie, Margaret Daymond, Dorothy Driver, and here at Rhodes, Gareth Cornwell, Dan Wylie, and Laurence Wright. Furthermore, there have always been those South African researchers who do not work on local literature but produce impressive studies of important figures in the English canon, from Shakespeare to Seamus Heaney. I am not forgetting them. They come high on my list of tributes to be paid; so, too, does the faithful band of academics devoted to the hard work of inspired teaching, careful preparation, and meticulous marking who ensured not only that our students would have a reasonable understanding of that vast international phenomenon known as literature in English but, indeed, that those exceptional students I mentioned earlier would be properly equipped for their later achievements. All this I concede.
But ours was, through the sheer realities of time and place, always a small and beleaguered academic community and too many of our fellows in those critical decades behaved like drones in a beehive, hovering around the queen bee of theory and the honeyed pickings of polemics instead of venturing into the wild country of original research. Too much ink was spilt in vendettas that outside the conference venue had no purchase on the political situation whatever and after 1990 lost most of their validity. The result is that the in-depth studies of many major authors and the authoritative surveys of our literature on a par with work in, for instance, Australia or Canada appeared only piece-meal or not at all.
A third reason one might put forward for the fragility of South African critical discourse is one that is really beyond our control, and that is simply finance. Forty years ago when I went on a year’s sabbatical leave my wife and I took our whole family to Oxford for the duration, and most of my colleagues could do the same. This exodus was not a form of “colonial cringe”, and I am not advancing an argument that the centre of our critical discipline must be somewhere else. But there is an argument for wider academic horizons, for the extension of research opportunities, for access to vast archival holdings, and for contacts with other challenging minds. The whole establishment of South African academics in English studies is scarcely the numerical equivalent of that of, say, the Faulty of English at Cambridge, or of many an American university. That is a thought to mull over. Yet very few of our young academics now have the opportunities to tap into such riches, despite all the resources of the internet, and we have in some ways ended up more isolated than we were thirty years ago.
But all is not lost, and you may be relieved to know that I want to end on a much more positive note. I think the bad years are behind us, the years in which we spent more time treading on one another’s toes than concentrating on the dance. And I am using “dance” intentionally, because I can think of at least three striking examples of co-operative scholarship in recent years that may point the way forward. One is the impressive Columbia Guide to South African Literature in English since 1945, by Gareth Cornwell, Dirk Klopper, and Craig MacKenzie that appeared in 2010 and to which I find myself returning often. The Introduction alone, by Gareth, is a trenchant overview of its subject. On an even bigger scale there is the recently published Cambridge History of South African Literature, master-minded, it is true, by two academics abroad, David Attwell and Derek Attridge, but truly ambitious in scope and a tribute to the co-operative endeavours that went into it. It represents the kind of cumulative research and assessment that should have occupied us decades ago.
And, finally, here at Rhodes, Dirk Klopper and his associates have recently established the South African Literary History Project, dedicated to what Dirk describes as “the archive of South African literary writing, focusing on works that have been forgotten…. The project does not seek to write literary history but to recover it” (English in Africa 38.1, 2011: 7). I think there are exciting possibilities here and I should like to wish the team every success.
Thank you all for coming this afternoon, in several cases from quite some distance. Thank you, too, to the Academy for providing the lunch we are about to have. I do appreciate all this effort and I do hope you all enjoy the rest of the event. Thank you.
Olive Schreiner Prize for Drama 2011
The awards was made to Nicholas Spagnoletti for his two-hander London Road.
The panel, comprised of Malcolm Hacksley (convener), Peter Terry and Mary Dreyer Corewijn, agreed that the Olive Schreiner award for Drama should go to Nicholas Spagnoletti for his two-hander London Road. London Road has rightly been described as ‘a warm, witty and wise drama, told in snapshots’. It is set in a block of flats on London Road, Sea Point, Cape Town, in the present, and deals realistically with ever-relevant themes: loneliness, friendship, growing old, loss, urban decay, disintegrating family relationships, the alienation experienced as a result of migration and immigration, strategies for survival, the spectre of mortality, and so on.
These themes emerge from the bitter-sweet interaction between two diverse inhabitants of a
block of flats in London Road, Sea Point, Cape Town. The two are an elderly Jewish widow and a young Nigerian. What brings these two unlikely figures together initially is a violent break-in in the younger woman's flat. The instinctive compassion shown by the old widow is the start of an unlikely friendship, presented in a series of brief vignettes, full of poignancy, sadness and startlingly funny humour. Far from being the stereotypes which this brief characterization might suggest, the two women are portrayed as convincing characters whose essential humanity emerges as they reveal their own flaws, as they show their compassion for each other, and in their determination to survive.
The realism maintained throughout the play is reinforced by subtly nuanced dialogue which does not shy away from sentiment or a range of emotions. It is also gratifyingly free of cant. The ultimate impression left with the audience was described by one reviewer as ‘the healing power of a friendship’.
Since its first full public presentation in 2008, London Road has received numerous awards and has rarely been off the stage, an indication of how significant audiences throughout the country have perceived it to be.
Thank you to the English Academy for this award. It’s a wonderful surprise that came right out of the blue, and it’s a glorious cherry on top of all the success the play has enjoyed from audiences and reviewers. I’m honoured to be in the excellent company of the previous recipients. It feels special that it’s Olive Schreiner. Like many South Africans, Olive Schreiner has been a ghost in my life from an early age. Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm is one of my mother’s favourite books and the reason she named my sister Lyndall. I wonder if it hasn’t got a little something to do with Olive Schreiner that I’m so drawn to writing characters who are women.
It was nearly six years ago that I wrote London Road and, if it weren’t for Lara Bye, who had the vision to take on this unknown work from an unknown writer, I don’t think the play would have had a life. To me, theatre is the ideal balance between working solo and working collaboratively, where as a writer your original work remains intact but gets imbued with the vibrancy and humanity of the actors, director, composer and designers. I’m extremely grateful to Lara, Robyn, Ntombi, Craig, Braam, Fahiem, Jon, and everyone else who’s been involved, for their generous contribution without which most people are not ‘open to the writing’. Robin Malan, who is Junkets Publisher, also needs to be showered with thanks and praise. He’s been egging me on since I was in school when I wrote my first piece published in English Alive. Junkets, as an independent publisher, is a brave and important asset to South African literature. And, of course, Simon Cooper from Kalk Bay Theatre. Running an independent theatre is extremely difficult and then to extend that to an independent production company is an outstanding feat. He’s to be commended for taking the enormous risk of putting on original local work without support from any kind of arts funder. My friend, Phumlani, once pointed out something amusing about me. She said: ‘Nicholas you get away with saying the most horrible things to people’s faces by dressing them up as jokes.’ This is, I think, the fundamental job of writing drama: making the hard truth bearable, the unwatchable watchable. It’s a tricky business which I seem to have got right in London Road, but that I’ve got spectacularly wrong before.
THOMAS PRINGLE AWARDS FOR AN ARTICLE ON EDUCATION IN 2011
The award was made to Slam Fataar.
It is with pleasure that I present to you the panel’s comment on Aslam’s article on English in Education entitled ‘Youth self-formation and the “capacity to aspire”: The itinerant “schooled career” of Fuzile Ali across post-apartheid space’, published in Perspectives in Education.
Aslam Fataar’s article is an impressively researched and moving account of a young boy’s encounter with a fraught schooling career across rural and urban landscapes of South Africa. It is set against the changing context of education in the democratic period. The article insightfully and convincingly argues that the boy’s ‘capacity to aspire’ can be understood on the basis of his active self-formation and self-discipline, accumulated across the itinerant spaces of his life. Language, literacies and literature are deeply implicated in his journey, through his involvement with poetry, performance, drama, textbooks and teachers’ notes, as well as with isiXhosa, Sesotho and English, all of which contribute to his educational success. Well researched and theorised, the article is original, elegantly written and inspiring. It illustrates, to quote from the conclusion, ‘how this young person went about cultivating and navigating the capacity to aspire, and the basis on which he thickened his social nodes and pathways into the future’.
The adjudicators were Denise Newfield (convener), Yvonne Reed and David Robinson.
I would like to thank the Academy for this wonderful award. It is a vindication of an arduous and enjoyable, if unorthodox, research process. I would like to thank the National Research Foundation for funding the research, my university for supporting my academic endeavours, my wife Najwa, for her endless intellectual support and good cheer throughout the process, and the interviewee, without whom this academic paper would not have been possible.