ENGLISH ACADEMY OF SOUTHERN AFRICA REPORT
25 SEPTEMBER – 27 SEPTEMBER 2014 DURBAN
Although the conference’s title was Hot Topics in the Sub-Tropics, it was a blustery Durban that welcomed delegates to the English Academy’s 2014 International Conference in September this year.
The conference was held at South Beach Garden Court on O R Tambo Parade, in the heart of Durban’s ‘golden mile’, from Thursday 25 September to Saturday 27 September 2014. Fifty-one delegates, from Southern Africa and the African continent, presented papers. In her opening address, Dr Betty Govinden, Vice-President of the English Academy’s KwaZulu-Natal branch, noted:
[The] greater exchange between South Africa and the rest of Africa … is the most promising [feature] of [the] conference this year.
The conference focussed on English literature; challenges facing English in literacy education in southern Africa and on the African continent today; and English language education. Papers were presented on these topics in two break-away venues on each day of the conference.
Literature papers scrutinised a variety of African texts: from Ben Okri’s The Landscapes Within; Namibian poets’ quest for social justice; Conrad and Achebe’s Arrow of God and Things Fall Apart; and multiculturalism in South African migrant poetry. Papers also dealt with the traditional canon, such as Yeats’s poetry.
Papers about literacy challenges and English language education in the African context drew attention to students’ low levels of English proficiency, particularly at universities, and the effectiveness of academic support programmes in addressing these problems.
On the conference’s first day, Professor Donal McCracken, Dean and Academic Leader of Research and Post-graduate Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s College of the Humanities, gave the first welcoming address. Then, Dr Betty Govinden, Vice-President of the Academy’s KwaZulu-Natal branch, welcomed key-note speakers, panelists, guests and delegates. Guests included the Consul-General of India, Mr Rajagopalan Raghunathan, Professor McCracken, as well as Professor Gregory Kamwendo of the UKZN’s School of Education. Professor Rosemary Gray, the Academy’s Treasurer and an Honorary Life Vice-President, read a welcoming message from Professor Rajendra Chetty, the Academy’s current President, who, unfortunately, was unable to attend the conference because he was in Indonesia.
The first key-note speaker was Mr Ronnie Govender, renowned playwright, writer, activist and winner of the 1997 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. His speech, Who am I? drew on personal experience and poignant memories growing up a ‘second generation descendant of indentured labourers’, ‘speaking English, instead of [his] native [tongue]’ in a racially-divided South Africa, to answer questions of identity. His lecture concluded with a reminder from the Tamil poet, Sunderamurthi, that ‘this life is illusory, the only certainty death’ and that it is only this realisation that will prevent human beings from inflicting pain and suffering on each other in their quest for illusory power.
The next plenary session was a lively panel discussion entitled, Women’s Writing in Southern Africa, chaired by Professor Michael Chapman. Professor Jaspal Singh of the University of Michigan, Meg Vandermerwe, Dr Betty Govinden and Dr Naomi Nkealah were participating panelists.
The panelists raised a number of issues facing women writing in the Southern African context. The conversation started with a discussion about ‘imagination’ and its function in writing. The panelists also tried to answer questions like ‘who’s writing?’, ‘who’s reading?’ and ‘who’s publishing?’ to decide whether a recognised genre – Southern African women writing – has emerged. Other topics covered included the role that markets play in women writers’ decisions about what to write, e.g. Lauren Beukes, a South African woman writer has successfully set her novels in the United States of America and not her native South Africa – a decision that has made her enough money to be a ‘full-time’ writer; the impetus women writers have to be transnational; and ‘cultural appropriation’ as a sincere attempt to understand ‘the other’ better.
In the evening, the panelists read extracts from their literary works.
The conference’s second day began with a workshop, Using English, presented by Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, eminent professor at Columbia University. She spoke about the ‘borderlessness’ of English and how this can be used strategically to promote regional languages and to establish strong comparative literatures. Professor Spivak noted that she is familiar with promoting Indian regional languages by the strategic and paradoxical use of English but felt that further work needed to be done about this in the African context.
That night, the English Academy hosted a conference dinner at the South Beach Garden Court Hotel. After dinner, Ms Jailoshnee Naidoo entertained the audience with dramatised extracts from Mr Govender’s short stories, At the edge, Brothers of the Spirit and Over My Dead Body.
These stories use Mr Govender’s memories growing up and coming of age in apartheid South Africa in the 50s and 60s. At the edge presents a series of vignettes about Cato Manor characters through the eyes of the school’s long-serving headmaster on the verge of retirement. In Brothers of the Spirit, ‘Cut-Neck-Bobby’ (as he is known in Cato Manor) looks back nostalgically to the time when rice is scarce and mealie-rice is served at mealtimes. Over My Dead Body is a wrenching story of Mr Pillay who refuses to comply with the apartheid government’s forced removal of the Indian community from Cato Manor to Chatsworth when the latter was declared a ‘white area’ in terms of the Group Areas Act.
On the third and final day of the conference, Professor Michael Chapman was the key-note speaker. Professor Chapman has edited two significant anthologies of South African poetry at different times in the nation’s history, The Century of South African Poetry in 1981 and The New Century of South African Poetry in 2002. In 1981, he notes, publishers secured international funding to promote (and to publish) South African literature during apartheid. In 2002, 8 years into South Africa’s democracy and this funding had dried up. His paper, Researching and Teaching South African Poetry through Anthologies, spoke about editorial decisions he took when compiling these anthologies at these different times, e.g. in the earlier anthology, Livingstone would be included because his poetry about reconciling his white settler identity in Africa is an important social concern. In the later anthology, his poems would be included because shifting social concerns include environmentalism and Livingstone, a marine biologist, would reflect this need to protect the environment in his poetry.
The conference ended at lunch-time on Saturday. Before closing, Professor Ayub Sheik, conference convener, extended a vote of thanks. On behalf of conference delegates and the English Academy, Dr Naomi Nkealah, a member of the English Academy’s council and editor of the Academy’s newsletter, thanked Professor Ayub Sheik and the Durban Local Organising Committee for organising the conference.
The English Academy would like to extend special thanks to conference delegates whose contribution to the conference ensured its great success.
The English Academy would also like to thank Professor Ayub Sheik and the Durban Local Organising Committee for organising the conference. In this regard, special mention is made of Ansurie Pillay and Mbongeni Malaba who vetted abstracts and drafted the conference programme. Thanks, too, to Krish Govender and Thayalan Reddy who helped by driving key-note speakers and other guests around Durban.
Special thanks to Professor Michael Chapman for chairing the session on women writing in South Africa and presenting his key-note address; to Mr Govender for his key-note address and organising dramatisations of his work; to Ms Jailoshnee Naidoo for taking time from her busy schedule to present these dramatisations at the Academy’s dinner; to Meg Vandermerwe. Professor Jaspal Singh, Dr Betty Govinden and Dr Naomi Nkealah for participating in the panel discussion and sharing extracts from their literary work with us; to Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak for presenting the workshop; and to Adam’s Booksellers for providing thank-you gifts to our key-note speakers and guests.
Report by Annette Meklis
17 October 2014