Mphuthumi Ntabeni examines the state of literature in South Africa and asks why literary prizes are so scarce and why the development of culture and literacy are so under-prioritised, especially by funders and the SA corporate sector who are dwarfed in their generosity by those in other African countries. As he points out, the consequences for our own culture and understanding of history are dire if this state of affairs is permitted to persist.
The Sunday Times literary prizes, the Alan Paton (non-fiction) and the Barry Ronge (fiction), have announced their shortlists. They look diverse and inclusive enough to draw any suspicions of political correctness. But if you look closer, and, like me, you've read sixty percent of the shortlisted entries, you will discover that this diversity was not achieved through compromising quality. Were I to be compelled to select the winners, I would say, Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang, for non fiction (incidentally we reviewed it here) and The Third Reel, by SJ Naude for fiction. In case you were wondering, I don’t personally know either author, I just liked their books.
It behooves me to ask the next question: how does our literature standard fare compared to the global and continental ones? If we may use the Sunday Times prizes as a gauge, then in my humble opinion, I would say we’re not there yet. Certainly, on the continent, Nigeria and Kenya are ahead of us. I've tried to marshal the reasoning behind this. Nigerians, both government and private business, hold literature in high regard – the first two prestigious African literary prizes (Wale Sonyika and 9 Mobile, former Etisalat) hail from Nigeria. 9 Mobile in Nigeria is not even a fraction of the size of MTN, who dominate the Nigerian mobile telephone market with an estimated 232,6 million subscribers (35%) as at the end of 2016. Yet they’re able to reinvest in the culture and literacy of their country. The only thing MTN is known for in this country is paying obscene salaries and bonuses to its CEOs and managers. The same can be said about Shoprite, who dominate the supermarket industry not only in South Africa, but in the Southern African region. Yet a small Kenyan supermarket chain is able to invest in the literacy of its people by sponsoring a prestigious literary prize.
It is not a coincidence that Nigeria, followed by Kenya, dominate things like the Commonwealth literary prizes. They take literature seriously enough to invest in it. Meantime what we’re good at is crying foul – that the judges favour these countries. But we refuse to ask difficult questions about whether or not our standards are on par. We also easily excuse our government and business community. Why, for instance, do we not, as in the UK, use the Lotto profits to invest in our culture? This is what has helped the BBC dominate the world stage in news and in the telling of stories for cultural and literary purposes. In the meantime we concern ourselves with foolish things -like buying R15 million buffalo bulls – when we have not even solved the basic problem of feeding ourselves and/or educating ourselves so that we can tell our own stories in a manner which is befitting of our national and cultural dignity. This is even more important because we have come from a wounded past, where our native voices were truncated. We have double the number of multi-millionaires than any other country in Africa. Sponsorship, therefore, of things that culturally uplift and improve literacy should be double that of any other country on the continent. Thia is, of course, if we had our priorities right.
The facts disappoint: More literary prizes have been reduced in South Africa in the last ten years due to declining sponsorship – the same is true for NGOs. Luckily, when I look at what is being published, there is hope that we're progressing in spite of the neglect from government and the private sector. Most dear to me is the rise of the historical novel, which means we’re beginning to deal with the unhealthy silences within our history that, for me, are the major causes of our disintegrating social landscape. We're finding ways of marrying our memory – the doorway into the future – with the imagination. This is what will eventually deepen our understanding of history and hone our cultural excellence. This is an imperative because in the past our history has been told in the language of prejudice that mistreated our native cultures, misdirected our education and mishandled our dignity.
We have to find ways of taming the volcano our present has been built on. Poets, novelists, and all artists are people who can offer us direction, away from this miasma, because they seduce us into seeing the truth with the immediacy of imagined living situations. They’re the sensualists who speak and convert the heart even when the mind is still not convinced. They are the theologians and philosophers of history.
In the words of my maestro, Leela James, as we look back we're moving forward, with the wisdom of the past that arms us for the future.
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