Gordimer lecture is a timely reminder of what we all can give
As I reflect on Heritage Day, which has become quite ambiguous and amorphous as we struggle with our collective heritage as South Africans, my thoughts turn to the complementary relationship that creative writing has had in South Africa as we reconcile our country’s past, present and future. The South African and African writers I have encountered and been the most captivated by do not write of the fantastical world of fairytales, but of a fiction that often sets up parallel realities that still mirror the reality we live in, and asks probing questions about our society.
About two weeks ago, I had to miss the annual Nadine Gordimer lecture hosted by the University of the Witwatersrand, even though I had thought I would be able to go. Gordimer, a writer born in South Africa in 1923 of British and Lithuanian parents, was part of the anti-apartheid movement and had her works banned as a result. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.
The lecture has become quite the calendar event over the years and has been graced by various prolific thinkers, academics and activists in democratic South Africa. This year the keynote speaker was the illustrious activist, poet and author Dr Mandla Langa, whose address was titled “The Vocabulary of Witnesses”. One of South Africa’s most talented and thoughtful authors, Masande Ntshanga, was his respondent. To me, the event represented the perfect representation of looking to the past (Gordimer), the present (Langa) and the future (Ntshanga).
It’s always a treat for me to listen to others share their thoughts and ideas on our beloved country and how we can inch ever closer towards a society that makes us all feel included and proud. Having always fancied myself to have creative leanings in my writing, I have been fascinated by writers who distil the realities of the world through fictional writing and push readers to seek, even in their imaginations, social justice.
First encountering Gordimer’s works while I was at university, they were no easy read. I also got the impression that she was not an easy person, but her dedication to honesty in the pursuit of morality and racial justice is what captivated me. In my mind, being difficult is not the worst thing a person can be, because it is often through challenges that growth and transformation happen. We need both difficult and soft people in order for us to experience life fully.
In his keynote address, Langa said that the theme of his talk “could be seen as an appeal for all of us in this country to play our part as witnesses who are also activists and truth tellers… This call is even more vital for young people.”
He said when growing up in apartheid South Africa and encountering the “white gaze”, he thought white people were incapable of introspection. He had encountered Gordimer’s writing unexpectedly in the famous Heinemann African Writers Series among luminaries such as Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, something he found to be a testament to Gordimer’s character and pursuit of equality.
This to me cements Gordimer’s place in our country’s heritage because she could have chosen an easier path of enjoying the privilege into which she was born. Instead she chose to immerse herself in our country’s culture and politics as an activist writer, showing that we all have an active role to play using whatever means we have.