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Mandla Langa says Thando Mgqolozana is Following in Biko’s Footsteps – and Calls for National Writers’ Conference

The Lost Colours of the ChameleonThe Texture of ShadowsMandla Langa has called for a countrywide writers’ conference, in response to Thando Mgqolozana’s boycott of white-dominated literary festivals and what he calls South Africa’s “colonial literary system”.

Writing for the Sunday Times, Langa, the executive vice-president of PEN South Africa and author of, most recently, The Texture of Shadows, recalls the “viable and vibrant literary tradition” among black people that dates back to colonial times, including newspapers such as Imvo Zabantsundu and Ilanga lase Natal, Drum magazine, and writers such as Peter Abrahams, Es’kia Mphahlele, Bessie Head, Noni Jabavu, Miriam Tlali, Lauretta Ngcobo and Agnes Sam.

Langa sums up Mgqolozana’s actions, which have been greeted by both shock and enthusiasm, with a quote from Derek Walcott: “Break a vase and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.”

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Mgqolozana’s stance and that of many young writers could be following in the steps taken by Steve Biko and Barney Pityana and earlier ideologues of the black consciousness movement in the late ’60s, who broke from the National Union of South African Students to form the South African Student Organisation. It was a crucial moment that defined student politics of the era and beyond and — this must be said — became the creative crucible for the newfound assertiveness by black people that laid the basis for later uprisings. Those uprisings were the seed of the tree of today’s democracy.

I am not here suggesting that we need to set up a parallel black-owned publishing industry, although that wouldn’t be a bad thing in itself. We now have a chance to reinvent ourselves across the whole chain of literary production.

At the risk of determining policy on the hoof, organisations such as PEN South Africa should pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Mgqolozana and many, many voices out there and call for a countrywide writers’ conference.

Even though it would not be a panacea for all evils — evils, for instance, such as the nonavailability and rapid remaindering of titles by black authors — it would get the writing community doing what it does best, thinking and strategising and finding solutions to problems. It would be a conference that confronted the question of booksellers and their penchant for presenting South Africa literature as an afterthought or a poor cousin of US or European offerings.

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