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Centre for Creative Arts

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Time of the Writer 2012: Writers Celebrate Human Rights Day

Lebo Mashile and Shubnum Khan

In celebration of Human Rights Day, Wednesday’s Time of the Writer sessions took place under the banner of “Human Writes”. The host for the evening was Lebo Mashile, who commented on how participants Chris Abani and Ronnie Kasrils share an interest in social justice, and use writing as a “tool, a weapon, a form of healing”.

In a Ribbon of RhythmGracelandThe Unlikely Secret AgentKasrils spoke about his memory of Sharpeville Day, which he said compelled him to give up his job as a budding scriptwriter and come to Durban, where he met his future wife, Eleanor, the subject of his award-winning book The Unlikely Secret Agent. Kasrils read an excerpt from the book, which described the shocking violence that Eleanor witnessed when arrested by the Special Branch under the Sabotage Act, and sent to Fort Napier, a hospital for the “criminally insane”. Kasrils noted that Eleanor, despite being physically small, found the emotional strength to face torture and survive. Kasrils said that it was through writing The Unlikely Secret Agent that he came to realise just how tough women are.

Mashile noted that Abani also focuses on powerful women in his writing. She pointed out that the protagonist in his book The Virgin of Flames has a secret desire to be a woman, appearing to his community as the Virgin Mary. Abani spoke about the inspiration given him by his mother, who, despite being a staunch Catholic was also an early feminist. According to Abani, the history of Nigerian activism lies with women, “women lead the revolution in Africa, men just turn up for the photo opportunities”.

Mashile addressed Kasrils and Abani with the question, “What happens to a country that loses its memory?”. Kasrils responded with a quote from Milan Kundera, who said that “the struggle against tyranny is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. He noted that it is important for South Africans to remember that the people in the armed struggle were in it for the “greater good” and not for personal gain. A young man in the audience asked Kasrils what South Africa’s prospects are “moving forwards”. He said he was not altogether pessimistic, but that SA would need to find a way to fight “the poison of corruption, while building civil society”.

Abani, a frequent visitor to South Africa, spoke of the challenges of the middle class. People “want trappings of wealth, while the infrastructure to provide this is missing”, he said. He noted that, while many black leaders have pushed socialist agendas, they “couldn’t deliver on a capitalist system”. Abani did, however, praise South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, saying it is something that even the US has not managed to achieve. He called on South Africans to be “peaceful, like the Yoruba”.

After a brief interval, Abani and Mashile were joined on stage by David wa Maahmela and Kwame Dawes. The four performed a selection of their own poems in commemoration of World Poetry Day. Mashile’s mesmerising delivery of a paean to South Africa was a suitably forceful conclusion to a fascinating evening.

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A selection of Time of the Writer tweets:

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