16 May 2016
It gives me a great pleasure to stand before you today to once again celebrate being African. It is the second year in a row that the Department of Arts and Culture is entrusted with the responsibility of coordinating and leading the national celebrations of Africa Month on behalf of the government of the Republic of South Africa.
The theme for Africa Month this year: Building a Better Africa and a Better World resonates with the convictions of those of us who are optimistic about the continent and believe in Africans doing things for themselves. This theme implores all of us to work together towards a prosperous South Africa, Africa and the world at large. Celebrating Africa Month presents us with a glorious opportunity to pursue our collective dream of a better Africa in a better world.
We need to build a culture of inclusivity and collective beneficiation as an integral part of our endeavours in the development of the continent. Our focus this year is community engagement to encourage public dialogue and sharing of opinions from all sectors of society in honour of those who founded the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor of the African Union (AU) on 25 May 1963. As we celebrate the 53rd anniversary of the AU, we should strengthen the ties that bind us and strive to uphold the values espoused by our forebears in the interests of building a better Africa and a better world.
The whole of Africa cherishes better living conditions for the peoples of this continent and each one of us has got the innate responsibility to contribute to this noble vision. Working with a Reference group of 12 experts representing different regions and organisations across the continent, we have organised activities in all parts of the country and in all arts disciplines to celebrate the cultures of the continent.
It is quite fitting that today we discuss South African Literature in the 21st Century at the Sol Plaatje University, an institution named after one of the pioneers of modern South African literature.
This gives us an opportunity to trace the trajectory of the development of South African letters so that we know where we are going as a nation. Plaatje wrote one of the first novels by a black South African in English, Mhudi, which was ultimately published in 1930. He was one of the leading early 20th century intellectuals in the whole of Africa.
This year also marks hundred years since Sol Plaatje wrote his seminal text, Native Life in South Africa, as a response to the Natives Land Act of 1910. The book documents Plaatje’s voyage where he crisscrossed the country and travelled to European and the American shores mobilising the world against the efforts by the colonial government to drive black South Africans out of their ancestral land. In this book, Plaatje highlights the gruesome effects of the Act on the black populace who were dispossessed and forcefully removed from their own land.
I think there is no better candidate to illustrate the role of a writer and intellectual in society than Sol Plaatje in the early 20th century South Africa. He did not only critique society passively, but he was actively involved in the liberation struggle. Plaatje was the first Secretary General of the South African National Native Congress, the predecessor of South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress. His political activism was coupled with other responsibilities in society, including working as a journalist, court interpreter, translator, to name but a few. His writings inspired several generations of readers and writers worldwide.
The saying, “a pen is mightier than the sword,” rings true to South Africa’s recent history more than anywhere else in the world. Writers and other thinkers have the innate responsibility to constructively critique society and guide us to the right direction. They have the responsibility to keep their fingers on the pulse of the nation and tell the South African story to the world. The challenge for the current generation of writers is to continue with the tradition and occupy the frontline trenches in articulating the collective views and aspirations of the masses of our people. They have to chronicle the ecstasies and anxieties of the people.
Over the past twenty years, a host of new writers have emerged and their thematic content explores diverse themes and perspectives. The imaginative power of the new generation of South African writers is increasingly gaining recognition worldwide. Our panel this evening brings together some of the leading voices in South African literature to reflect on the trajectory of our literary landscape and its future prospects.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we are honoured to have amongst us some of the most prolific contributors to South Africa’s literary heritage. In spite of its gender biasness, we have an impressive list of panellists who are internationally acclaimed writers and public opinion makers. They straddle a very important landmark in the history of South Africa. They are part of the generation that can write authoritatively about living in apartheid South Africa, much as they can write about the post-apartheid condition. They are part of the ongoing discourse that seeks to change the architecture of the literary landscape in South Africa.
The book sector remains one of the most untransformed industries in the Creative Arts. We should all work towards ensuring that authentic South African voices are heard and that books are accessible to the majority of our people. we need new publishing houses, alternative book distribution channels and new book outlets so that reading can become a common pastime among our people.
As we strive to transform our society, we should do so in a principled manner and in accordance with the prescripts of the law. I have on previous occasions made the example of the Arab Spring and I sincerely encourage South Africans to take a leaf from the youth of Egypt.
In the midst of the Arab Spring in 2011, young people refused to be a passive audience witnessing the destruction of structures that add meaningful value to their lives. They formed a human chain and protected the historic Alexandria Library which was about to be burned.
That kind of principled and logical reasoning is fundamental if we are to build a prosperous nation. It is the kind of thinking that should prevail amongst the people of Vuwani in Limpopo province, where we saw several school buildings being raised to the ground. The various stakeholders in the book sector, including government, civil society and the private sector, must join hands and collectively address the challenges that bedevil the industry.
As the Department of Arts and Culture, we will continue with our efforts to cultivate a culture of reading and writing that would contribute towards the development of a thriving and globally competitive book sector. It is my wish that every book by a South African writer should be available in each and every public library in the country.
I trust that our panel of experts this evening will shed light on viable ways promoting literacy and the culture of reading.
I believe that literacy holds the key to the prosperity of the nation. We owe it to our children to ensure that books are available to everyone. For books have the power to change lives.
I thank you.