TIME OF THE WRITER
My name is Nokuthula Mazibuko Msimang, a Research and Writing fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa Institute. I am honored – to present the 2022 – 25th year anniversary keynote address – at The Time of the Writer Festival.
The theme this year is Beyond Words: Memory, Imagination and Conscience.
We remember and celebrate Inkosi u Albert Mvumbi Luthuli as it is also the 60th. Anniversary of his autobiography “Let My People Go”. We are privileged that Inkosi uLuthuli left us the incredible gift of his thoughts and words – poignantly and eloquently authored in his autobiography. It is an important and insightful record of a man of peace who loved humanity and worked his entire life to build a better life for himself, his family and his community. As a teacher, a lay preacher in the Methodist Church, a chief and freedom fighter, Inkosi ULuthuli’s life is an important blueprint for great leadership and a life lived with grace and the courage of kindness. As a teacher, he was determined to use education to better his life and the lives in his community of Groutville in KwaZulu Natal, and beyond. He became a chief of the Umvoti Mission Reserve and later the president of the African National Congress from 1952 until his death in 1967. In 1961, he was the first African to be awarded the Nobel peace prize in recognition of his leadership and commitment to peace and prosperity. 60 years after his autobiography book was first published, we can reflect on how far we have come in our attempts as humankind to attain peace and prosperity. Like all good books “Let My People Go” is first and foremost an entertaining and engaging read. The book transports the reader back in time and through the prism of hindsight, gives insights about the good and
the bad that the human heart can conceive. It is a record of land dispossession, colonial and apartheid laws, the role of young people in fighting for freedom – and the women’s struggle as seen through iNkosi uLuthuli’s eyes. The book writes in an intimate way the big moments of history. We learn how in the 1940s the sugar farmers of Groutville, well aware that the land dispossession agenda which began centuries ago and was cemented through the 1913 land act was still at play, and could affect them at any time, became emboldened by the leadership of Chief Luthuli and pulled together their resources to buy the necessary farming implements to keep their farms operational and produce enough food to feed their families and sell the surplus. Luthuli, adept at bringing together diverse groups, worked with the Transvaal Indian Congress and the Natal Indian Congress to protect the rights of farmers. We learn about how the people of Umlazi resisted against their farmlands being sold off to a private company which wanted to cut the plots into much smaller pieces of land, compromising their food security and turning Umlazi into the Umlazi township we know today. Chief Luthuli writes that:
“At this time – the early forties – the crisis at Umlazi was of a different nature. The Anglican Church had already been guilty of a piece of unwisdom in that it had sold a part of the mission [glebe] to a private European company, and another part to the Durban City Corporation, thus making the further allocation of that land to Africans an impossibility. The extent of the available land was reduced to 8000 acres.
Now, in order to ease its own problems, the Durban Corporation was casting acquisitive eyes on Umlazi. Its claim was that it did not have enough land in the Durban area to accommodate its African workers. Its intention was to turn the mission, a farming area, into a location. It’s
method was to petition the government to cause Umlazi to become part of the land administered by the Durban Corporation.
To meet this crisis – a. very real one for the Umlazi people, who would cease to be farmers and become out-of-work denizens of a sub-economic housing estate – I was able, again helped by Father Zulu and others, to revive another moribund association, the Mission Reserve Association. Inevitably, I suppose, I became its chairman.” (Luthuli, 1962)
I was fascinated by this passage, because I had never imagined that Umlazi township used to be a farming area, where residents produced their own food and sold the surplus for profit. A far cry from the cramped space it is now. The passage is a reminder of land as physical and spiritual sustenance. A place to grow food, and a place where the ancestors reside and protect the inhabitants.
I am fascinated by how Inkosi uLuthuli used his God given talents and skills as a teacher to counter the dire effects of the Bantu Education Act which sought to under educate children.
He rightly believed that a quality education leads to a quality life.
When he was presented with the Nobel Peace prize in 1961 – it was in recognition of his decades of activism. He worked side by side with his loving and strict wife uMam u Nokukhanya MaBhengu Luthuli. Whilst raising seven children, they managed to campaign for better health services and were instrumental in ensuring that a clinic is built near where people lived. MaBhengu, also a trained teacher, was excellent at growing vegetables, sugar
cane and fruits (www.luthulimuseum.org.za). The Luthulis used the resources available to them to try their best to improve the world around them. In their private and in their public political lives.
Inkosi writes with humor and humility about how the rowdy ANC Youth League wanted to defy the states banning orders against him by physically and forcibly lifting his body to the historic Freedom Square Sophiatown meeting that planned the 26 June 1955 Kliptown presentation of the Freedom Charter. “Let my People Go” recognises the important role of women in the struggle for freedom, and praises their no-nonsense practical view that women’s empowerment, empowers everybody. Chief Luthuli admits that when he was reluctant to encourage the Natal branch to join the 1952 Defiance campaign because he felt that not enough planning had been done to mitigate the dangers, a woman present at the planning meeting heckled him shouting out “Coward!”
Historical narratives in the form of life stories like “Let My People Go” and historical novels have illuminated the role of African literature in Memory, Imagination and Conscience. Sol Plaatje’s classic – “Mhudi”- published half a century earlier in 1930, also recorded the chaotic effects of the displacement of African people by colonialism during the 1800s. The book’s female hero Mhudi leads her people in resisting displacement from their land by Afrikaner and Zulu forces. The historical novel foregrounds Plaatje’s assertion that patriarchy and racism are disastrous for human progress. Written more than one hundred years ago, the book (which continues to be studied thanks to the excellent work of scholars like Sabata Mpho Mokae…) resonates today because we still live in a world where inequalities along gender, race, cultural and sexual orientation persist. At this moment in 2022, the world is a
scary place that is polarised and at war. The fight for resources continues, and women and children continue to be at the margins, suffering the most during times of war, or terrible pandemics like the corona virus which has been wreaking havoc in our lives. Like in “Mhudi”’s wars of the 1800s which forced women to band together to survive the atrocities of war, writers have brought into sharp focus the cost of oppressive systems and the resultant wars. The 2022 Time of the Writer featured author Mandla Langa’s novels “The Memory of Stones” and “The lost Language of the Soul” lament the ravages and displacements caused by war, especially for women and children who are not at the center of decision making.
The African literature canon that flourished in the 20th century through the classic novels and biographical work of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Buchi Emecheta, Mariama Ba, Bessie Head, Nawaal El Sadaawi, Nadine Gordimer, Zakes Mda, Zoe Wicomb, Miriam Tladi, Tsitsi Dangarembga – has given a critical historical lens from which to write and imagine hopeful futures, beyond wars and displacement.
We are in an exciting era for African Literature as the African novel enjoys another wave in the sun. In recent years – big Literary prizes have been won by African writers. Abdul Razak Gurnah brought home the Nobel for literature, Damun Galgut secured the Booker, Tsitsi Dangarembga won The `Peace Prize of the German Book Trade and Zukiswa Wanner became the first African woman to win the Ghoethe Medal. The African Writers Series which played such a pivotal role during the first exciting wave of the production of African Literature classics has been relaunched and there is an exciting buzz of new novels, literary festivals and a boom in book-clubs. The digital revolution has given many more people access to books and festivals.
Books have helped us survive the corona pandemic. More people are staying home and reading. It is indeed exciting times for the African novel. Women writers and especially women writers of historical fiction are being recognised, and The Time of the Writer has curated a program where 70 percent of participants are women. The program is diverse and dynamic.
It is especially pleasing to witness the work of female historical novelists who continue to write women into history and insist on the value of diverse voices. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has dismantled the box of a narrow Africa and brought a female perspective to Nigerian histories. In her factual and fictional work Adichie has insisted that diversity and feminism liberate everyone. Women writers have centered themselves in the project of memory making and holding up history’s mirror to help us make sense of the present and future.
Maaza Mengiste’s Booker shortlisted “The Shadow King” resists the erasure of women in history. The novel centers two women Hirut and Aster who become soldiers defending Ethiopia against Mussolini’s 1935 invasion. Like Mengiste’s own great-grandmother, the women pick up arms and fight for their lives. Mengiste uses the voice of a Greek chorus to look on as the war unfolds. The chorus is the all seeing eye of conscience. It looks on as atrocities are committed. Human beings mercilessly flung off cliffs and killed. The chorus weeps for the senseless loss of lives. The chorus also salutes the women soldiers whose lives
are in disarray because of patriarchal decisions taken far away from their villages. Through the chorus, Mengiste commends the women’s bravery as follows:
“Sing, daughters, of one woman and one thousand, of those multitudes who rushed like wind to free a country from poisonous beasts. Sing, children, of those who came before, of those who laid the path on which you tread toward warmer suns. Sing, men of valiant Aster and furious Hirut and their blinding light across a shadowed land.
Sing of those who are no more,
Sing of the giants still amongst you,
Sing of those yet to be born.
Mengiste’s brilliant novel preserves and honours the memory of the women who suffered unspeakable violence and it confronts our conscience about a world that sees value in conflict. And profits from suffering.
In closing – I would like to congratulate the authors participating at this year’s Time of the Writer in what will be a rich exchange of ideas, and visions. The program’s bold inclusion of women’s voices and the authors of children’s books – deserves our loud and appreciative applause. Thank you.
Time of the Writer set to Inspire, Provoke, Challenge and Entertain
More than one hundred writers, poets, and wordsmiths will be featured in the 26th edition of the Time of the Writer festival, presented by the Centre for