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  Alex Smith
  Amanze Akpuda
  Amatoritsero Ede
  Amitabh Mitra
  Ando Yeva
  Andrew Martin
  Aryan Kaganof

  Ben Williams
  Bongani Madondo
  Chielozona Eze
  Chris Mann
  Chukwu Eke
  Chuma Nwokolo
  Colleen Higgs
  Colleen C. Cousins
  Don Mattera
  Elizabeth Pienaar
  Elleke Boehmer
  Emilia Ilieva
  Fred Khumalo
  Janice Golding
  Lauri Kubuitsile
  Lebogang Mashile
  Manu Herbstein
  Mark Espin
  Molara Wood
  Napo Masheane
  Nduka Otiono
  Nnorom Azuonye
  Ola Awonubi
  Petina Gappah
  Sam Duerden
  Sky Omoniyi
  Toni Kan
  Uzor M. Uzoatu
  Valerie Tagwira
  Vamba Sherif
  Wumi Raji
  Zukiswa Wanner

   Ntone Edjabe
   Rudolf Okonkwo
   Tolu Ogunlesi
   Yomi Ola
   Molara Wood

August Debut

Issue 2; October/November

Ben Williams and Bongani Madondo are well known names in South African arts journalism. In whatever country they ply their trade, arts journalists are usually fairly informed on the state of the arts, including its politics, so African Writing is delighted that these two contributors accepted the invitation to assist our readers in feeling the pulse of the contemporary in South African arts and culture.
Bongani Madongo
Bongani Madondo
Ben Williams

Ben Williams


: To an informed outsider South Africa seems almost an impossible balancing act for the simple reporter or editor in cultural journalism, with its extreme history and many political, racial and other fault lines. What have been the special challenges of your experience in SA arts journalism?

Bongani: Several.

One, the lack of a coherent, or even incoherent one national, all encompassing culture. To the outsiders, yes we are this one monolithic Mandela’s Midnight Children, under a Rugby winning squad aura or flag, but on the ground, there’s almost nothing like a South African arts and culture.

Thus, no South African ‘arts journalism’ per se.
We still exists as black and white, rich and poor, underground cultural offshoots, mostly driven by both children of the poorest of the poor and the richest of the wealthy.

The two disparities, do meet, especially in expressions such as hip-hop or what they refer to us African/ vernacular hip-hop, which they call Kasie Style. What’s clear though, is that South African arts journalists – most, showbiz reporters, and never cultural writers- display lack of class and racial, or even what I refer to as “style” analysis.

We rely a lot on Press Releases. The art of exploring the country in its diversity is dead- that is if it ever lived.

Two: lack of training, journalistic training. The big media houses, which constitute the mainstream, thus the most influential voice(s) on this country, have no interest at all in investing in the training of arts journalism.

They do, however, have big budgets to cover, stalk and engage with emerging tabloid stars, celebrities “on the come”, and cheap gossip pertaining to the lives of these upcoming/quickly fading stars. I must say though, that’s not a uniquely South African problem.

Ben: For me, the challenges have to do with the limits of the medium as much as anything: arts journalism online has a short reach in South Africa, where access to the web, while on the increase, remains quite limited. BOOK SA's main purpose is to make connections among those who are generating the country's vast literary output - wonderfully overflowing, everywhere one looks - and to help build the audience for local writing. This entails everything from covering local literature as news (we call ourselves an "SA Lit Daily") to assisting writers and publishers to assert themselves online more effectively. It's quite an exciting project; with each increment of growth, we feel a sense of accomplishment. So building an audience that will consume what you're producing is a key hurdle, much less deciding on what to report and how. One thing that certainly works in our favour with respect to the latter is South Africans' general tolerance of one another, despite the "fault lines" noted in the question. Audiences from all walks of SA life can be built, if slowly; and their members will be respectful, engaging, thought-provoking - not rancorous. One rarely hears literary discussions conducted with ill-will here.

: It does seem to us also from our perhaps simplistic outsider perspective, looking at the ‘special interests’ character of much SA writing, with the differently developing communities of writers and readers proclaiming their different but equal rights to resources for their different languages and perspectives, that the trumpeted ‘Rainbow Nation’ of the Mandela-Bishop Tutu reconciliation experience is not yet available in the bookshops and performance venues where Literature happens. Is this a fair assessment or are there some notable writers and performers writing and performing across these divides? What are the critical and public responses to them?
Bongani: The Mandela-Tutu Rainbow was a mirage from the word go. Still born, feel good racial soundbite politics at best. But what exactly is your question? Is South Africa’s literary stories expressing the two old men’s political wishes? Is that what you are asking?

Or, to rephrase, are writers tackling the racial inclusivity the country prides itself in achieving? Lemme play devil’s advocate here: why should they? Writers should tell stories they see and feel, or those they fantasise about . . . dreams . . .not what we critics and the outside world wish to read.

Ben: A marketplace-based study - books on shelves, books being sold - might conclude that a literary duopoly operates in South Africa: the white Afrikaans and English markets are dominant, and thus catered for above all others. This can largely be chalked up to a combination of economic inequality - whites still have the most money - and the legacy of whites' hegemony over resources in the past, which necessarily extends into the sphere of literary and cultural production today. But from the point of view of many, if not most, South African writers, performers and small publishers, I suspect, the world of literature is flat, democratic, with space for anyone who picks up a pen or utters a poem. And this world, thankfully - a burgeoning place - has begun to influence the status quo. Thus the work of Bongani Madondo, say, or Lebo Mashile, permeates to the farthest reaches of cultural consumerdom (yes, including the white suburbs!); and meanwhile "underground" movements such as those driven by Aryan Kaganof are bubbling merrily through all manner of pipelines (yes, even in the black townships!). So future prospects for literature and performance as lekgotla space for all South Africans appear bright, even in terms of commercial performance. Those hoping to see a unifying aesthetic forged in this space (lekgotla="court" or "meeting place") will be disappointed; those seeking talent's pageant won't.

: Are you satisfied with the coverage of literature in the South African media, and in which print and broadcast media would a visitor, including an online visitor, go to find the creative arts? Any new media developments of significant value to the arts?
Bongani: It is not up to me to be satisfied with the coverage. Perhaps because I am insider and a cynic to boot, but I do not rely on the media to update myself or be educated insofar as fresh stories, new authors, or challenging themes are concerned.

As a reader, one must acknowledge though that yes, South Africa has a wide – don’t know how deep- reviewing culture and space in the mass media. The best is Sunday Times ’ Lifestyle section –where, I must declare, I work, even though I do not necessarily focus on literature- the Mail & Guardian and an wonderful online platform called, Lit.Net, sponsored by the bank, Absa.

There are also great, brave blogs and websites such as the one run by a lone ranger in promoting South African Literature online, Victor Dlamini.

Ben: I'm certainly not satisfied. The scarcity of literature-oriented journalism in South Africa is one of the main reasons BOOK SA was founded. (Though it's undoubtedly self-serving, I'd like to include our iniative as a "new media development of significant value to the arts". Find us at http://book.co.za!)

The fact is that space given to local literature in the mass media is tiny. This is changing a bit for the better, thanks to the current "local is sexy" Zeitgeist (produced largely from litres of sweat off writers' brows and the frantic efforts of their publishers), and to the commercial viability of more and more local books. But coverage isn't nearly as good or creative as it could be. Television is practically a write-off - I haven't seen a local book featured on SA TV ever (but then again I don't watch too much telly...) - and radio stations will typically give 1-3 hours a week to books, not nearly enough (in my, erm, book)

Among newspapers, the best book reviews (in English) are to be found in the Sunday Independent (currently available online to subscribers only) and The Weekender (most reviews free online, with the Mail & Guardian coming in third  - although the quality of the M&G's writing occasionally sees it leapfrog the other two. The worst paper for book reviews, to my mind, is the Sunday Times, which, being the largest newspaper in the country, has the resources to be the best, but which hardly accords any space to local books - and this despite the fact that it's the sponsor of SA's largest literary awards, the R75 000 Fiction Prize and the equally lucrative Alan Paton Award for nonfiction.

Among smaller print media, it's hard to do better than Chimurenga, our top arts "little magazine"; and for poetry Carapace is still the best, despite the fact that it's becoming positively venerable!

Online, Litnet is a splendid literary resource and news outlet; iBhuku punches far above its weight; KZN Literary Tourism is the most promising newcomer; and the archives at the University of KwaZulu Natal's Centre for the Creative Arts are a treasure trove. I'd also like to point readers to The Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast, for its singular contribution to local letters: writing, photography and audio broadcasting braided into a single literary experience.

: What kind of institutional assistance from government, business and other agencies are available to support SA writing and its contributors from the press.
Bongani: Almost none from business other than this ABSA Litnet thing, even they only sponsor a platform and not writers’ grants. There’s a National Arts Council that offers literary grants as part of a wider categories of grants intended for other aspects of the arts. Yet, even these are less than crumbs.

Some poets have published their anthologies through independent publishers this way, so we should not pull up our noses.

But the department of Arts and Culture has several well meaning and visionary personnel within their staff. Some of them published novelists and poets . . . lately, they’ve been talking a pretty good rap. As to whether there are actual programmes I don’t know. If there were, I would be in the know.

Ben: Like artists everywhere, South African writers have to work hard to attract financial or other support from third parties. The SA government throws a few bones through the Department of Arts and Culture, the National Lottery and - perhaps best of all - the National Library and its Community Publishing Project; there are a few corporate-sponsored events and a healthy number of awards; and local universities make bursaries available for creative writing courses, etc. All in all, I get the impression that the pickings are too slim, however: a lot more could be done to support the literary arts from those who have the cash. In fact, most of the writers I know who have found support, found it one way or another through Europe and its various funding agencies.

: Is arts journalism very much a labour of love in South Africa as in most countries, full of literature enthusiasts, writers and would-be writers, and if so what opportunities are available for training and the reward of excellence?
Bongani: Abso -bloody- lutely!
T’is a labour of love.
Sad thing is: I do not feel this love anymore.
To pilfer blues pioneer BB. King, the thrill’s gone baby!
The love is gone. No “diaraby” any more.

My lover seems to have disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean, in one of those ocean liners that capsize on their way to America.

It is all American showbiz all the way; rather, American showbiz cargo ship sinking midway to the new world: unrealised dreams. Don’t get me wrong: I too, love American cultural expressions.

As an international African – the emphasis on the latter- I believe our arts journalism should be creating some sort of robust, localised arty-tude, define or fail to define itself, constantly dialogue with itself, and not come across as “counter”-fakes, purchased by People, Heat and Hello magazines. Which is the case, in South African write now: We are on sale.

Yes, we need more than training: we need a new state of mind. But arts journalists are like most professionals today in this country: too greedy and too lazy. They all want to be the celebrities they write about.

Ben: Strictly a labour of love. There are few journalists indeed who are able to focus solely on literary matters, to the exclusion of other beats. The just-established award for excellence in literary journalism will hopefully help incentivise greater interest in the field, along with higher standards and so on, but the fact is that journalists need to be quite flexible in what they're prepared to cover to make a living here!

: South Africa is the only African country with two Nobel Literature Prize winners, and many of its other writers are well known and respected all over the world, even in translation. There is also talk of a post-apartheid literature boom or renaissance, with many new writers being published, winning national and international prizes. Is it a true reflection of the contemporary in African writing to say it is all going South Africa's way, and all bright and happy down under?
Bongani: I am working on the story aiming to explore if we are experiencing a Renaissance, or what I call “New Negro Lit. Boom”
I will inform you of the results of my research, much later.
Ben: It may very well be true to say "all is bright and happy down under" - more South African writers are enjoying success than ever before, some of them at unprecedented levels (John van de Ruit's Spud has sold over 100 000 copies in SA alone, for instance) - but I don't think it's the case that a major continental shift is underway. Perhaps this is because so many of the writers I know look toward other African countries, not SA, for inspiration. Locally, the new generation of Nigerian and Kenyan writers are held in great esteem; and it seems to me that they more than hold their own, from an international perspective, against the rising South African tide.
That said, it is a genuine tide with a full-throated roar, and a long way to run before any hint of an ebb. A big question on many writers' minds here is - When will the tide overwhelm the national boundary, and the inundation spread to more parts of the world? Only time will tell whether we have the combination of quality and persevearance to see it happen (not to mention the negotiating skills: we're sorely in need of two-way rights agreements with European and American publishers).

: What additional information or thoughts on South African writing or the media coverage of it would you like to share with readers of magazine?
Bongani: That, there are new writers coming up, and our stories and heroes are much more diverse than Nelson Mandela, Arch Tutu, Nadine Gordimer, JM Coetzee, blah blah.

But also, I think this country needs to start exploring, in its fictions, the issue of feminism, lesbianism and homosexuality, for example involving African males, or even to push it a bit deeper, African males and white male unions. Those kind of previously “taboo” subjects.

I am for the breaking of the walls/perception kind of literature, and to that effect and quite glad to say there are authors I personally know and have engaged in discussions with, doing exactly that. The late Sello K. Duiker for instance, and now guys such as Fred Khumalo in his latest novel, 7 Steps To Heaven (Jacana Media).

It is exciting . . . but such bravery is quite rare in our literary landscape.

We should all get out of our ghettos and explore ourselves much deeper.
To the world: apologies for disappointing you. There’s just no romance about my country I am prepared to share with you.

Try next door. Try India . . . there’s always “spicy” magic realism going on in there, isn’t it? Or so the West tell us.

Thank You.

Ben: In terms of trends to watch out for, indigenous-language publishing's time may have come in South Africa. The marketplace for all kinds of literature has built up quite a head of steam over the past ten years - just enough, perhaps, to assure the commercial viability of novels and poetry collections published exclusively in Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and Tswana on a relatively mass scale. The idea has been around since Sol Plaatjie's Mhudi, I daresay (the first English novel by a black South African, published in 1930; Plaatjie also translated Shakespeare into Tswana), but has consistently met resistance - commercial, ideological and otherwise. Now, the SA government is backing several indigenous language publishing projects; and the demand from readers for original works in the languages mentioned above has grown stronger. Children's literature is leading the way here, with numerous indigenous-language childrens books achieving respectable sales levels already. (uTshepo Mde comes immediately to mind.) It's quite possible that, in a few years, we'll have cause to discuss the South African book/boek/incwadi industry.

Bongani Madondo is the highly regarded Profile and Arts writer in The Sunday Times, South Africa. He has also written for Mail&Guardian, City Press, The Sunday Independent and Sowetan Sunday World, focusing on South African literature, music and film. Professional honours include Vodacom Features Writer of the Year (Gauteng, 2004), Arts and Culture Journalist of the Year (2003) and The Steve Biko Journalism Fellowship (1999). He recently published a book of his Sunday Times arts journalism pieces.
Ben Williams moved to South Africa in 1995 from the USA. He received his education both in Chicago and Cape Town. He has been involved in South African literary developments for over a decade, and co-directed, with Antjie Krog, the 2004 Tradewinds International Literature Festival in Cape Town. He is the publishing editor of BOOK Southern Africa, a "web 2.0" initiative designed to build a wider audience for South African fiction, poetry and literary non-fiction. He lives in Cape Town with his wife.

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