Book extract: The altar of Americanness

2018-03-12 08:42

South African novelist Zukiswa Wanner, born in Zambia and based in Kenya, is a much-loved literary figure across the continent. Anyone who tracks her posts on social media will be eagerly anticipating her new book of literary travel tales. In this edited extract, she heads to a ‘kak festival’ in Durban, the last colony of America ... 

Towards the end of September I received an invite to Durban for Articulate Africa which was part of the Essence Festival.

The festival, named after and organised by the people who run the African-American magazine has been going for more than 15 years in the US but 2016 would be the first time it would be hosted in two cities: the usual New Orleans and in its twin city of Durban.

The dates worked well as they came towards the tail end of my residency and before Ake Festival [a book festival in Lagos, Nigeria].

I was also pretty impressed with the line-up of artists on the programme. Having been informed that as partial payment I would get VIP access to everything, I looked forward to seeing favourites, such as Thandiswa and Black Coffee, perform up close.

More importantly, there would be sunshine.

You truly never know what you have, as an African, until you lose it. Even if it’s something as seemingly unimportant as sunshine.

It seemed like a win-win.

I flew out of Copenhagen on Friday November 12 at midday, with a three-hour stop in Cairo.

I had had an eyebrow-raising moment as the ticket arrived three days before the festival.

I would later find out that I was not the only one who suffered this fate. Pretty much all writers did with at least one writer buying her own ticket.

On landing at King Shaka Airport, I was delighted to see Thando Mgqolozana. My friend and fellow rabble-rouser since 2009, I thought there was something to this that the first face I saw on landing back on South African soil was one of my favourite people.

He would turn out to be bad luck.

When we got to the hotel that I had been informed just 24 hours earlier that I was checked into, it turned out I was not booked there.

Meanwhile, the driver had already left. Fortunately, I had Thando to keep me company and to call another of the organisers.

It was then that I was informed that I was at the wrong hotel.

I was not the only one. In conversation with many of the writers, it turned out that they too were not reserved in the hotels they had been informed they were and had to await transport again to be taken to the correct place.

The organisers sent an email apologising – only to continue doing the same until the end of the festival.

And then there was the joke that was the panels.

US musicians Beyoncé and Solange’s mother Tina Knowles and her husband of three years had been flown in.

The couple were on a panel with thrice-married Hollywood star Steve Harvey and his wife to discuss and tell Durbanites how to keep a marriage.

While the idea of anyone condescending to stoop to the level of telling anyone else the best way to sustain a marriage is a bit awkward, this was made all the more so by the panellists selected.

If the festival organisers badly wanted celebrities to tell others how to keep marital bliss, they might have been better off getting Yvonne Chaka Chaka and her spouse.

Another senseless guest was some woman who I later heard was on a reality show called The Real Housewives of Atlanta.

She was invited to speak on “raising boys as a single mother”.

Now, honestly, more than 60% of South African households are women-headed.

The city of Durban and Essence in their wisdom, however, thought it would be an excellent idea to get a US reality television single parent to advise the single parents in South Africa on raising boys, despite the different socioeconomic factors between the two countries.

It was truly baffling.

Those VIP tickets that we had been promised for performances? That was like pulling teeth. When we asked for them, we were given ordinary tickets.

“But we were informed we would get VIP tickets?”

It took a lot of fight to get those tickets.

Then we waited for one of the drivers to take us to the stadium but, realising no one was coming, we ended up taking a cab. The cab driver managed to drop us inside despite the heavy security.

“I am driving VIPs from America and Pretoria,” he told security guards who tried to stop him.

And it worked like magic. Forty years old and it took a trip to a kak festival to find out that Pretoria is a relevant town to claim one is from. Eish.

But, we would not have fought so much for the tickets had we known that our alleged VIP-ness did not allow us access to any VIP lounges at the stadium but rather, would allow us only to the ground.


Then there was the drama of the last day of the festival.

The literature people and visual artists had been designated an Articulate Africa zone.

There, artworks were exhibited and books were sold by various publishers and bookstores which had been invited to do so. One of the publishers from Kenya was there to showcase and sell her titles.

Unfortunately, it turned out she could not get into the space. “But I am exhibiting in there and I am here for that, why can’t I go in there?”

“Because,” the guard answered, “there are VIPs in there.”


The way my people were bowing down at the altar of Americanness was ridiculous.

Conferred with this false sense of importance, I saw how some of this got to some of my US brothers and sisters’ heads.

In a restaurant I overhead a US woman condescend to tell our rather efficient and smiling waiter Walter: “You know in the States you would have brought ...”

Knowing that Walter could not say much, customers always being right and all that, I was that African who decided to buy that story.

“Excuse me, sister?” I said with a slight cough.

She turned her head to me in surprise: “Yes?”

“I couldn’t help overhearing what you just told Walter over there who is serving both your table and mine. It may not look like it this weekend but this town is not a colony of the US.”

She was fair-complexioned enough for her blush to show.


After the festival there was again communication with profuse apologies for the way things went. But worse was still to come. Inquiries regarding payment of the honorarium went ignored.

It would take me and my fellow writers going to the media and threatening to sue before we would be paid the small amounts owed to us.

That lover of writers, Charl Blignaut at City Press, did much to ensure that those in Durban jumped. Sadly, there were some writers and musicians who never got paid and who decided to write it off as bad debt.

Even sadder was that it appeared as though the process was not as clean, as some of our payments came from a personal account of an employee of the city of Durban.

But here, 10 years after my first book came out, I was learning a lesson.

I was learning, admittedly the hard way, to value myself and my work even more. Henceforth, things would change.

You can find the book in stores or order it from shop.blackletterm.com

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December 9 2018