Gcina Mhlophe

The 20th Time of the Writer International Festival took place in Durban, South Africa from 13 – 18 March 2017. The Festival theme was “The Past Paving the Future.”

The festival begun on Monday March 13th with an opening ceremony at the Sneddon Theatre as has become tradition with Siphindile Hlongwa as emcee. There were speeches from David wa Maahlamela and Prof Stephen Mutula the acting deputy vice chancellor of humanities at University of KwaZulu Natal. There was also a gentleman representing the eThekwini council who made remarks.

The event proper then kicked off as you would expect it to at a proper South African literary festival with a keynote from Gcina Mhlophe. We last heard her doing justice at the Abantu Festival in December 2016 and she did a similarly stellar job in Durban. Her address referenced her past and moving to another part of South Africa where she found she couldn’t speak the local language and how she was able to cope. She then moves smoothly into the period when she was in Johannesburg as an adult as met writers who were living and breathing. She started referencing the writers now and in the past who had inspired us in the now. It was an amazing opening from our Dr Mhlophe.

This was followed by four minute address from the writers who would feature at the week of literary output that would follow on the city in the shores of the Indian Ocean. Some took the opportunity to introduce themselves like Lidudumalingani Mqombothi the Caine Prize winner and political writer Ralph Mathekga whose focus was nonfiction with a politics specialisation.

Then there were the writers who write in languages that are not exclusively English. EKM Dido for instance is a writer who in her seventh book and writes exclusively in Afrikaans the language that is much loved in South Africa. She reminded the audience that the Afrikaans she used was the local one; not the one that led to deaths in 1976. The latter version of Afrikaans she rejected.

Then there was the writer with the stutter Nakanjani Sibaya who writers in isiZulu and Nkosinathi Sithole who writes in both English and isiZulu. Strangely enough, Sithole’s books in English have become more successful that in isiZulu which he doesn’t appreciate.

Then there was Sabata-mpho Mokae who writes in Setswana who gave the story of moving to Kimberley from the big city of Joburg to do work on the Sol Plaatje legacy and ended up working on a university bearing his name. He would find out a lot about the legacy of the writer who was the first black South Africa to write a full length novel (in 1932). He was inspired to write in the Setswana following in Plaatje’s footsteps.

Some of the writers read from their work. One of these was Nigerian poet, writer and academic Folu Agoi who would be representing the rest of Africa. The poet who was making his first appearance in South Africa spoke of being in the country virtually through the voices of Miriam Makeba, Ipi Tombi and Yvonne Chaka Chaka. He read poems like Just A Game Of Hide and Seek and With Love from his sixth poetry collection Smell of My Lovers Skin. Also speaking was Fred Khumalo who read from his newest novel Dancing The Death Drill which is based on the SS Mendi a ship that crashed and led to the lives of many South African soldiers one hundred years ago.

Then there was storyteller Nomsa Mdlalose who learnt her craft under Dr Gcina Mhlophe and wrote under many genres like newspapers, magazine as well as in scholarly journals. She was at the festival as a children’s writer a genre she recently discovered and has been pursing. She introduced the audience to her books like Catch Up My Son, When Eagle Could Not Fly as well as A Frog With A Problem.

Also on stage on that evening was a star struck Sibongile Fisher whose rise to fame was her winning of the Short Story Day Africa Prize last year. Fisher isn’t just an award winning of short stories of course. She is a poet and recovering catholic as well as a works with young people in facilitate theatrical workshops. Her hope from the festival was that they enticed the audience to read more South African writers and not just African Americans, Nigerians and Ghanaians. Also #FeesMustFall and feminists are not irrational; let’s be real.

Unathi Magubeni, who is a Sangoma was there because of his debut novel Nwelezelanga: The Star Child which was recognised at the Etisalat Prize for African Writing last year with a longlist.  He reminded us that most of our stories are in the oral form and we needed to go back there to get them.

The final speaker who made a presentation was the legend that is Zakes Mda.  He started with an apology to the younger speakers who preceded him as his generation had fought for freedom then messed the country up. He then explained that he had recently retired from academia, :’(, and would be concentrating on writing books for children. He would be doing this with his son Neo who happens to be an animator and other players.

With such an opening night, you would expect an amazing festival.