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Literary festivals, white tears and the myth of the rainbow project.

The first literary festival I ever attended in South Africa was the Time of the Writer Festival in Durban, a few months after the publication of my first novel. In that space with writers from all over the continent, Tom Eaton, Mary Watson, Imraan Coovadia and all other South Africans there were just that--South African writers, and our writing was what we discussed.

This may have had to do with Peter Rorvik's skills as a director or with the fact that the literary festival was at a state-funded tertiary institution, I do not know. What I do know is that Time of the Writer set the standard for what I expected of literary festivals. Sadly many did not measure up, least of all those in South Africa that should have learnt from this consistently impressive festival.

I started getting invited to other literary festivals. And it was then I got to know that I was now, as a white writer stated in a review in one of the leading publications, the first writer of "black chick lit". From then on I noticed that I and many other writers of my complexion were also "black South African writers" or in the case of women, "black South African women writers", while white was the standard for anyone deserving the label of South African writer.

At literary festivals that were and are not Time of the Writer, white writers spoke of their works on panels; whether at Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF) or at Open Book, black writers were supposed to critique the governing party and explain blackness.

While many of us had not necessarily bought into Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu's notions of a "Rainbow Nation", there was some hope that we could live together and learn from each other in literature as in other art forms. In discussions with festival organisers and in our writings, many black writers questioned this odd state of affairs.

My last public engagement with white South African literati stemmed from a blogpost I wrote in 2014. In the discussion, moderated by Open Book festival organiser Mervyn Sloman, author Thando Mgqolozana and I repeated much of what had been in the blogpost.

We questioned white South African literati's curious engagement with black South African writers from different social and political backgrounds in literature as monoliths. Having been in Khayelitsha the day before, I also questioned Sloman and his team's advertising for the festival as the book-loving staff at the Khayelitsha library were not aware that Open Book was happening.


As with the blogpost that went viral, there was a minute of mea culpa from white South Africa and then life resumed as usual.

As proof that white South Africa had all along not listened, almost a year later when Mgqolozana publicly stated at Franschhoek that he would no longer attend white festivals in South Africa, he was met with white tears as organisers felt injured by this "unfair" proclamation.

It's possible Mgqolozana was finally listened to because he attended Franschhoek after the #RhodesMustFall protests which had started two months earlier in March, while they had ignored what he had said in Cape Town nine months before and what many other writers had been saying for years.

The #RhodesMustFall and the eventual #FeesMustFall campaigns showed the myth of the Rainbow Nation to the rest of the country in a way that the black literati had long known.

2016 has shown that the Rainbow Nation continues to be a myth. At the beginning of the year, a non-black Durbanite, Penny Sparrow, referred to black people as monkeys in a Facebook post. In the same month, then-prominent economist Chris Hart lost his job when he showed his distaste for any form of post-1994 affirmative action in a tweet.

In April, a young man referred to black people as kaffirs in a Facebook post. Still on Facebook, Gauteng High Court Judge, Mabel Jansen, was exposed for public posts where she stated that 99% of black men are rapists. And these are the publicly known racial pronouncements. In all these incidents, the apologies have been half-arsed, more "sorry I got caught" than just sorry. Rape continues to be one of South Africa's nightmares, as academic Pumla Gqola has called it, but to pretend that it's a crime where sex is for pleasure and one that is perpetrated by one race is disturbing when such a statement comes from someone responsible for dispensing justice.

It is in the context of the above incidents that the anger of trans-black activist Wandile Dlamini and the eventual elation of #RhodesMustFall activist Ntokozo Qwabe, which got the latter in trouble with white people in the UK and South Africa, must be understood.

After being served by a white waitress in a restaurant in Cape Town, instead of a tip, Dlamini wrote, "We will give a tip when you return the land."

On reading this, the waitress cried and Qwabe posted his elation. What resulted was disgust at Qwabe and a campaign was started by Western Cape Social Development spokesperson Sihle Ngobese to make the crying white waitress feel better.

Some crowd-funding was done and Schultz would eventually get over $10,000. This "tip" showed yet again that white tears matter more than black pain, even for a black Social Development employee.

It is after all in Cape Town that a grandmother and her grandson were publicly humiliated in Pick n Pay supermarket because her grandson allegedly broke a chocolate. For her pain? A $37 gift voucher from supermarket management.

It is in this same city too that a man who was making his way was urinated on by young white men on the balcony of a nightclub. It is in this same town that a domestic worker was beaten with a sjambok by a white man whose excuse was that he thought she was a sex worker.

In Cape Town too, on a public train, there is a young man who was a football coach who may never be able to walk because he was thrown off a train by criminals while defending a pregnant woman from getting robbed.

In all the above, the Spokesperson for Social Development and his department did not feel that these incidents were worth raising funds for. It was the white girl who did not get a tip who was most deserving of crowd-funding. Because there is not a single black "waitron" in South Africa who has served white people and has not got a tip.

The good news about this tip story is that South Africans on social media have started an account so that instead of complaining helplessly of racism, they will be able to assist victims in future.

On the literary scene meanwhile, Mgqolozana has talked of the need for black literary festivals "for us, by us" and is indeed in the middle of organising one in December in Soweto. The stories above, and many others, make it difficult to think of working with a white South Africa in literary spaces that refuses to walk a few metres to meet the goodwill that black South Africa has extended towards it, 22 years later. Lack of self-reflection on the privileges that continue to be enjoyed by the nonblack population and their inability to apologise in words and deeds have made it difficult for some of us who had hoped that engagement would result in positive change. I, for one, am tired.
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Author:Wanner, Zukiswa
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jun 1, 2016
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