It was the most goosebump-inducing social of the year and easily the most lit book event I’ve attended. A who’s who of black writers, poets and storytellers travelled from all over the country and continent to Soweto this week for the inaugural Abantu Book Festival to discuss decolonisation and black life in the literary sphere.
With tickets free during the day and costing only R20 at night and free hot food at the sessions, visitors arriving at the official opening on Thursday night at the Soweto Theatre in Jabulani were met by a truly festive atmosphere.
Spoken-word artist and emcee Lebo Mashile announced that, in the spirit of transformation, only women would perform at the opening. Dry book readings, these were not.
People were on their feet with fists in the air from the moment the first song was performed by political, jazzy outfit Zuko Collective, whose version of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika became an anthem of the #FeesMustFall protests. Koleka Putuma, whose devastating poem Water, about black people’s relationship with the beach and the sea, went as viral as a poem can go during the Penny Sparrow saga, had audience members groaning and amen-ing. Political writers Eusebius McKaiser and Fred Khumalo, fallist Simamkele Dlakavu, and novelists Thando Mgqolozana and Zukiswa Wanner cheered from the stands. But the star of the show was storyteller “Doctor Sis” Gcina Mhlope, who sang, stomped, ululated, joked and spoke from the heart in one of the most unconventional keynote addresses ever heard in the book world. With the audience enthralled, Mhlope recounted her life story – from the freedom to perform behind the waterfall near the home in which she was born, to meeting Maya Angelou in the USA – all the while weaving tales of forgotten South African women. Her lecture culminated in the audience bonding while declaring: “I am bea-uuu-tiful”. Organiser Panashe Chigumadzi had to keep painfully shy founder and co-organiser Thando Mgqolozana from fleeing the stage while closing the opening event. “Are we allowed to be this free? Is it even legal?” asked Mashile at the culmination of the event, prompting joyful tears and pumping fists.
CAINE PRIZE WINNER AND COMPANY Brilliant young writer Lidudumali ngani Mqombothi and Jennifer Malec at Mofolo in Soweto earlier in the day BLACK LIKE ME Abantu Book Festival curator Panashe Chigumadzi with writers Sabelo Mcinziba and Malaika wa Azania BEAUTIFUL MINDS Abantu Book Festival founder and novelist Thando Mgqolozana and author Bongani Madondo THREE GENERATIONS The stars of the official opening of the Abantu Book Festival: poet Koleka Putuma, spoken-word artist Lebo Mashile and storyteller Gcina Mhlope ARE WE EVEN ALLOWED TO BE THIS FREE? Spoken-word artist and emcee of the official opening of the Abantu Book Festival, Lebo Mashile TAKE A BOW Organisers of the Abantu Book Festival Thando Mgqolozana and Panashe Chigumadzi at the Soweto Theatre