Should Literature Be Political?

Keynote address given by Antije Krog

First presented at the Open Book Festival, Cape Town

Antjie Krog Keynote text: “Should Literature Be Political?”

In South Africa with its history of colonialism and apartheid, each creative work makes a political point. Whether focusing on injustice or universal loneliness, here, one makes a political point. One is either part of what former Nobel Prize Committee member Horace Engdahl calls “the great dialogue of literature about the improvement of humanity”, or suggesting that one doesn’t particularly care for it.

Being raised within an Afrikaner ethnic clamp and language, of which the very foundations are political, the issue of whether writing SHOULD be political seems asking the obvious. What was interesting was the influence of Afrikaans literature on the formation of a community.

Two examples: a play called Die Pluimsaad waai ver, by NP van Wyk Louw, the best poet Afrikaans produced, formed part of the Republic festivities in 1966. The Anglo-Boer War tension within Afrikanerdom itself, was van Wyk Louw’s theme and underpinned by his belief in loyal resistance which reminded a nation that it was better to perish than to survive through injustice. The play therefore opened with an old woman walking on to the stage, asking: What is a nation?

The opening was attended by Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd. A few days later, on Republic Day at the Voortrekker monument, Verwoerd raised his disapproval of the play to three quarters of a million people – the biggest crowd ever to have assembled in the country until then. When will it happen, Verwoerd asked, that writers and poets step forward to sing the praises of our heroic achievements instead of asking waveringly: what is a nation? We want our writers to jubilate: This is our nation, this is how we made miracles…

He was loudly applauded and van Wyk Louw deeply hurt.

In the light of today, this interaction is something to envy. A head of state who goes to a serious play, commissioned by his department of Art, and then engages with the text, sounds like a head of state who goes to an art gallery. One who walks through an exhibition in which has only a little to do with genitals, but all about how his party has sold out their values, then goes out, not to censor, but to engage with the essence of the exhibition.

The second example of political literary engagement is a poetry volume by poet GA Watermeyer titled Republiek van ‘n Duisend Jaar, sponsored by the Afrikaner bank, Volkskas. The volume addresses teachers, police, youth, church leaders, war veterans, workers and captains of industry, calling them to excellence in serving the Afrikaner.

One poem says: the hand that draws the voter’s cross, is the hand that touches the future. In another the police say: We are the bridle that tames crime; we are the hand with which children safely cross the street; we are order, we are law; we are the eye watched by the Eye of God. To teachers: You are the casting forms of our youth; you are building with more than steel and stone, our being a nation revolves around this.

As I child I often heard these poems recited at school events or by politicians. The point I make is that literature was used, in contrast to censored, both to engage sharply about values and principles as well as creating a coherent vocabulary (in this case for the Afrikaner) about identity. But most important of all: the fact that the voice of the artist was valued proved crucial for later effective anti-apartheid resistance by writers and singers.

The ANC in exile also interacted with art. Those who attended any of their cultural events in Amsterdam, London, Zimbabwe, would never forget how art wove all the dreams, yearnings, furies, griefs into enduring visions of an all-encompassing beautiful and humane future.

The transformative use and political effect of art blossomed in the art pages of especially the Mail and Guardian and Vrye Weekblad. We dreamt that every library would adopt a writer to organise reading and writing circles; that every bus stop, train, train station, government waiting area, would have beautiful posters with the words of our poets; that every foyer guard would have books to read; that many small spaza-like book shops would shoot up as happened in Lesotho and Zimbabwe; that translation would proliferate; that class rooms would spin with books; that newspapers would plumb our literature; that we would know the words of our writers by heart; that young writers would find support to tell their breath-taking truths.

We knew how in other cultures ordinary people quoted the poems of their writers – Russian poet Anna Ahkmatova heard herself being recited while standing in a bread queue. Through Pablo Neruda, Chileans made love, salads and fought for freedom.

The ANC of 1994 continued its engagement with literature. Opening the first democratic parliament, Mandela used an Ingrid Jonker poem to cast the sorrow of the past into a transcendent embrace. Yes, Mandela is a reader. He mentions the effect of Xhosa poet SEK Mqhayi on him. He once engaged Afrikaans writer Elsa Joubert on the relationship between white and black in her book: Die Staf van Monomotapa.

The new parliament teemed with art – imbongis were everywhere, Jennifer Ferguson sang in her bench, an international art exhibition was on the walls, Trevor Manuel kicked off his budget speech with literary quotes and languages (he was for example the first to quote Ben Okri), labour minister Shepherd Mdladlana performed the legendary poem by JJR Jolobe, Ukwenziwa komkhonzi (The making of a servant) while being loudly applauded by fellow MP’s across party lines; Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi used poetry and of course so did the early Thabo Mbeki. He not only quoted from Mqhayi, Shakespeare and Yeats, but could do a traditional praise poem off the cuff or deliver his I am an African speech with such poetic rhythm and imagery that it deservedly became the most remembered, quoted and praised speech of this country. Remember also the debate within the ANC about John Coetzee’s Disgrace – engaging, not censoring; a political party who understood the value of literature.

However, this engagement was never properly supported by policy and deed. Since 1994, the Department of Arts and Culture is the harmlessness-inducing trashcan of the ANC: the IFP trade-offs and those politically-too-free tongued such as Winnie Mandela and Pallo Jordan. We produce dancers, singers and musicians of international quality, our writers are translated, read and engaged across the world, our visual artists count among the best – all without a focused supportive art department. Left in the lurch by efforts to eradicate poverty, stabbed in the back by an education system, talent is bursting from neglected grassroots in the blind hope of being picked up by talent competitions or patrons.

Why appoint somebody as poet laureate, or announce international or local awards to South African poets and writers without a proper program in place to foreground, translate and analyse eg the work of Willie Kgositsile, Wally Serote and Sindiwe Magona?

This makes me wonder: which books are on the bedside tables of our ministers? How many book shelves had been built into the newly renovated presidential and ministerial houses? How many reading circles are in the parliamentary complexes? What novels are the captains of industry reading there in business class? What poetry volumes are in the judges’ smart cases? What literary texts are to be found in doctors’ waiting rooms? On teachers’ or parents’ tables?

Do we really want to fund an SABC which feeds us the crass consumerism of programs like Top Billing or glamorous events where the brains of celebs, desperate to say something meaningful, rear around like newly hatched chicks in empty nests? How is it possible that our television channels are bookless, but feed a population, fatally choking on inequality, a continuous insolent stream of bling and décor by shoe-obsessed yappers for whom the phrase ‘under the breadline’ is just another diet. Radio, thank God, still has excellent English and Afrikaans book programs, Afrikaans an exquisite poetry program by Margot Luyt.

Why should a country read its writers? The short answer is so that one’s president does not need to ask: why do we rape babies and kill each other? He would have read Nkosinathi Sithole’s Hunger eats a man in Zulu and knew. He would have read what we write from our wounds and our anguished hopes and he would never see us as election fodder.

Because a government hears only its own voice, it knows it hears only its own voice, yet it likes to harbour the illusion that it is hearing the voice of the people, and it demands that the people too should harbour this illusion.

That is why a cabinet should read literature. Neither the state which they control, nor the good plans to turn the country around, would help in the absence of a visionary vocabulary (produced best by writers and poets) to create an inspired emphatic (Nussbaum) social cohesion.

The longer answer is that literature inflects the anguish of reality in a way the theoretical discussions of the same issues cannot achieve, making possible a kind of understanding not accessible by other means. (Gagiano) Being in the world and governing requires an intricate weave of perception and response of reacting and embracing. Reading literature’s continuous “precencing” (Heidegger) of the world, creates reflexivity and nuanced knowing.

But let me quote the poets:

Matthew Arnold: Knowledge of literature is beneficial to critical thinking and moral health and should be an undertaking as serious and valuable as moneymaking or sci­entific advancement.
Shelley: poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
Dylan Thomas: A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.
Walt Whitman: When a country ignores its poets, things are grotesque, eccentric, fail of their full returns. The poet is the arbiter of the diverse, he is the key,/ He is the equalizer of his age and land

Antjie Krog, 2012