PRESIDENT’S ANNUAL REPORT FOR 2015
It has been a remarkable and rewarding year for the English Academy of Southern Africa. We convened a very successful international conference, hosted several key events and marked some significant milestones. We are indeed fortunate to have so many talented researchers, teachers, academics and citizens who are concerned with English studies.
In September 2014, the Academy, in collaboration with the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, hosted its triennial international conference in Durban on the theme ‘Hot Topics in the Sub-Tropics’. Fifty-one delegates from Southern Africa, the African continent and overseas presented papers. In her opening address, Betty Govinden, Vice President of the Academy’s KwaZulu-Natal region noted: ‘the greater exchange between South Africa and the rest of Africa … is the most promising feature of the conference this year’. The conference paid attention to English literature, English language education, and the challenges facing English in literary education in Southern Africa and on the African continent today. Literature papers scrutinized a variety of African texts and interests: from Ben Okri’s The Landscapes Within to Namibian poets’ quest for social justice; from Achebe’s Arrow of God and Things Fall Apart to multiculturalism in South African migrant poetry. Papers also dealt with the traditional canon, such as Yeats’ poetry. Papers about literacy challenges and English language education in the African context drew attention to students’ low levels of proficiency particularly at universities, and the effectiveness of academic support programmes in addressing these problems. Donal McCracken, Dean of Research, gave the welcoming address. Guests included the Consul General of India, Mr Rajagopalan Raghunathan.
Allow me to highlight four contributions. Acclaimed playwright, Ronnie Govender, gave the first keynote address on the topic: ‘Who am I? The distortions of history, Religion and Language and their impact on human behaviour’. The session on ‘Women’s Writing in Southern Africa’, chaired by Michael Chapman with Jaspal Singh, Meg van der Merwe, Betty Govinden and Naomi Nkealah as panelists, issued in lively discussion. Gayatri Spivak, the esteemed postcolonial cultural theorist from Columbia University, facilitated a workshop entitled ‘Using English’. She spoke about the borderlessness of English and how this can be used strategically to promote regional languages and to establish strong comparative literatures. Spivak noted that she is familiar with promoting Indian regional languages but felt that further work needed to be done in the African context. On the final day of the conference, Michael Chapman spoke on the topic: ‘Researching and Teaching South African poetry through Anthologies’. The Academy extends its gratitude to Ayub Sheik and Ansurie Pillay for coordinating a very successful conference.
On the 22 April 2015, the Percy Baneshik Memorial Lecture was delivered at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. Ms Sarah Sephton, Director of the Legal Resources Centre in Grahamstown spoke brilliantly on the topic: ‘Why litigation can be an effective tool in realising the right to education: A discussion of litigation strategies, successes and pitfalls’. At the same event, Gareth Cornwell was awarded the prestigious Thomas Pringle Award for Best Literary Article of the year: ‘Three Texts and the Moral Economy of Race in South Africa, c. 1890-1910’. This insightful and trenchant piece of prose appeared in English in Africa 39.2 (2012). The adjudicators were Matthew Curr (convener), Agnes Chigona and Candice Livingston. Special thanks to Monica Hendricks for organising the function and to Rhodes University for its generous partnership.
The English Academy 2015 Gold Medal was awarded to Robin Malan in recognition of his extensive services to English in South Africa over a lifetime as teacher, scholar and publisher. Most suitably, the Gold Medal was presented at a ‘Festival Evening of Readings’ by ex-English Alive writers to mark the 60th anniversary of SACEE. Malan helped establish English Alive in 1967 under the auspices of SACEE. The Nassau Centre at Groote Schuur High School in Cape Town generously hosted the large gathering of teachers, academics and learners. The retrospective of poetry presented over such a long period was moving indeed and a handsome tribute to the high level of writing in South Africa. The event was organised by the Western Cape branch of SACEE under Academy Council member, Malcolm Venter.
On 28 April 2015 some of our most significant awards were presented at an event organised with the kind support of the Institute of African Renaissance Studies at UNISA in Pretoria. The 2014 Olive Schreiner Prize for Drama was presented to Phillip M. Dikotla for his play, Skierlik. The adjudicators were Barbara Basel (convener), Geoff Haresnape and Richard Higgs. The 2014 Thomas Pringle Award for Best Short Story in Periodicals or Short Play was awarded to Anthony Akerman for his play, Somewhere on the Border. The adjudicators were Karen Batley and Glenda Holcroft. The 2014 Percy FitzPatrick Prize for Youth Literature was awarded to Kagiso Lesego Molope for This Book Betrays My Brother. The adjudicators for this highly-regarded award were Elaine Ridge (convener), Eva Hunter and Shaun Viljoen.
The English Academy Commemorative Lecture for 2015 honoured the memory of Nadine Gordimer. It was delivered by Michael Titlestad of the Department of English, University of the Witwatersrand. His valuable and scholarly lecture was entitled: ‘Moribund whiteness in Nadine Gordimer’s A Guest of Honour and Get a Life’. This high-profile event was organized, as so often, and so capably, by that stalwart of our Academy, Rosemary Gray.
On 12 June 2015, a splendid Academy event was held at the Consulate General of India in Durban: a innovative seminar on the theme, Cross Currents in Literature. The participants were Professors Mbongeni Malaba, Ayub Sheik, Deborah Lutge and myself. The evening was most successful and allowed invaluable information to be shared in a convivial and pleasant atmosphere. Our gratitude to the Consul for his gracious hosting of the event, and to Thayalan Reddy for organizing it.
The Academy’s flagship publication, The English Academy Review: Southern African Journal of English Studies, has gained a solid reputation as a high-quality, academically-accredited research journal, well-edited and well-produced. We acknowledge the dedicated editorial and management work of Council members Michael Williams and Rosemary Gray. The articles are lively and of scholarly substance, and the editorial and production processes operate efficiently. There is scope for a range of fascinating themes. The diversity of our linguistic and literary heritage should be celebrated and used to shape special transnational focus issues. For example, Africa’s Portuguese literatures and their English translations, with special emphasis on Camoens and Pessoa; or South African Indian literature in English and in Indian languages, showing how this relates to literatures from the Indian sub-continent. It is notable that many of the journal’s most-cited articles have been on language. Further engagement with the South African language policy in relation to social praxis as well as on developments in language-in-education policy in Africa would enhance the debate on language rights and nuance the perception of English as playing a hegemonic role in the African context.
Teaching English Today, our online journal edited by Malcolm Venter, has experienced a few challenges, chief of which is financing of the journal. Exco has decided to renew its support for this rewarding initiative. The online journal is targeted at teachers of English and it is evident that the demands of the new curriculum, CAPS, leave teachers very little time to contribute to the journal. In our gradual evolution towards a fully functional democracy with an educational system that reflects democratic principles of agency and individuality, South Africa faces many difficulties and challenges. With a strategic awareness of the injustices of apartheid education, we should face our current challenges boldly, mobilising our resources to alert our members to the dangers of ongoing injustice in our schooling and higher education systems. Literacy in the broad sense of critical thinking, the ability to critique the world we find ourselves in, not literacy in the narrow sense of functionality, will, in my opinion, be crucial in this regard. We need individuals who are confident and outspoken, able to stand their ground and resist the conformity and numbness of retrograde pedagogy. Surely we have a responsibility to be critical of damaging educational practices and to guard against any return to the text book mode of instruction and banking education. If learners are to be independent and fully literate in their thinking then we need to be bold in opposing the numbing effects of fact-learning. The Academy has a duty to uphold the tradition of the leaders who spoke up against wrongs in the past.
A new award category is proposed at this Council meeting: “Fellow of the English Academy of Southern Africa”. The proposal contributes to addressing three imperatives: to acknowledge distinguished contributions to the work of the Academy by Council members over a significant period; to secure ongoing strategic change in Council membership at the same time as it develops means of retaining the expertise of experienced Councillors and their engagement in its work; and to maintain the standing of its Gold Medal as recognising distinguished contributions to English in Southern Africa over a lifetime. Special thanks to Laurence Wright for the work he has done in conceptualising and developing the proposal.
I would like to thank the Committee members and officials of the English Academy for their unfailing support. All of them have busy schedules and commitments to many areas of work. Your time and conscientious attention to every detail of the running of the Academy ensure its present and its future. Annette Meklis, our Administrative Officer, is making real headway. Our appreciation to Naomi Nkealah for editing the Academy newsletter which is now available in digital format. I am deeply indebted to Barbara Basel, Stanley Ridge, Laurence Wright and Malcolm Venter, members of the Executive Committee in Cape Town, for their commitment and support, and to the members in Gauteng, Rosemary Gray and David Robinson, for their proactive management of the administration. Finally, for all of us in the Academy, exciting challenges lie ahead. Together we can make a real difference.