“You feel like you are a dancing monkey,” Zakes Mda said this week, referring to being a black writer at a predominantly white literary festival. The celebrated author – who has vowed not to return to the Franschhoek Literary Festival – expressed solidarity with Thando Mgqolozana, who sparked a national race debate when he attacked the lack of transformation of the South African literary scene at the event. But he disagreed with the target of the young novelist’s anger.
“I share his experience to a very large extent,” said Mda in an interview with City Press this past week. “It is the same thing that one gets in Europe when you attend these literary festivals – which I no longer do, by the way, not for a few years now. Oh no, no. If you see me in Europe, it’s not at a literary festival. It’s at a launch of my book or my own book tour.”
Mda said black writers were treated as anthropological curiosities. “You are some figure that’s being scrutinised and studied. Some amazing animal. Oh look, they can write too. And even the questions they ask you are very patronising ... A place like Franschhoek replicates that kind of situation and I can understand how he [Mgqolozana] felt.
“I also decided that I would never go back there. Not for the same reasons. I will still go to festivals in South Africa because South Africans of all colours buy my books.
“I decided I would not do Franschhoek again because of my personal experience there, which was in the sessions I was placed, the panels, and so on. I found that the people who were chairing them had mostly not read my books and the discussions were irrelevant as far as my work was concerned. I decided it’s a waste of my time to fly all the way from America. Why am I there? You experience it in Europe, but you don’t expect to experience it in South Africa, a black country. His [Mgqolozana’s] complaints are valid.”
Regarding a similar lack of transformation around the inclusion of black African novels in school curriculums, Mda said: “Who’s in charge of the syllabus? It’s us. Thando should be angry with us mostly. Because we run this country now and we’ve been running it for 21 years. If there’s anything wrong here, we should have changed it. You don’t hear me going around saying whites this and whites that. If whites are doing that it’s because we have allowed them to do it. That is why my criticism is directed at the people I have employed to change that situation. The people I elected and then also us who must work towards changing it.”
Mda used the analogy that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni employed in a speech to the South African Parliament: If a man gets drunk and falls asleep in the street and is robbed, it is the man’s fault, not the thieves.
“Why are the whites doing that? It’s because we are sleeping. And why are we sleeping? We did not change that situation because those of us who are in power are benefiting from it.”
Discussing the largely dismal state of libraries and government literacy programmes, Mda did not hesitate to comment: “In many instances, you will find the wrong people running these institutions. A lot of this is about cadre deployment. People are not there because they have the right qualifications; they are there because they have the right loyalties.”