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South African author Thando Mgqolozana on decolonizing South African literature, the Abantu Book Festival, and his upcoming novel

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The importance of literature in the decolonial struggle! South African author Thando Mgqolozana spoke with Ivo Maria de Lonet Delgado Jörgens and explained why literature plays a key role in the struggle against colonial legacies of the Apartheid Regime, why he founded the Abantu Book Festival for black authors and readers in 2016, and how it is linked to the #RhodesMustFall movement.

Awarded the Mandela Rhodes (2006) and Canon Collins (2018) scholarships and  named one of the 100 most influential African in 2016, Thando Mgqolozana is one of South Africa’s most distinguished novelists. He initiated the Abantu Book Festival in 2016 in response to the marginalization of black authors and readers in South African society, and has since become a key figure in the fight against the apartheid regime’s colonial legacy in the country. He met with the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in the midst of organizing the Abantu Book Festivals’ fourth edition, set to take place from 5–8 December 2019.

In May 2015 Mgqolozana participated in a panel at the Franschhoek Literary Festival where he publicly announced his intention to opt out of South African literary festivals due to their incapacity and reluctance to address the colonially constructed exclusion of black writers and readers. That Chumani Maxwele instigated the #RhodesMustFall movement on the very same day by throwing human faeces on the statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town was if nothing else a very suggestive coincidence, as both actions targeted the ongoing reproduction of colonial injustice within academia and South African society in general.

In more ways than one the Abantu Book Festival is very connected to the wave of student protests and the consciousness that arose from that. I would like to think of it as one of the many practical ways in which we can even begin to think about decolonization, because essentially decolonization is taking those who were placed last by the system and putting them first. But obviously protests last for a very limited period of time—even though this one lasted very long and had a deep effect across the world—and I hope Abantu Book Festival could be seen as one of the legacies of that movement. I think that what the student protests did was to make it possible for society to even think about something like Abantu Book Festival as a thing that can be done and stay.

The #RhodesMustFall movement consists of young people who often have no personal experience of the apartheid regime but are nevertheless beginning to take up their parents’ struggle by dismantling the colonial practices that persist until today. In last year’s edition of the Abantu Book Festival, Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile, Dr. Sindiwe Magona, and Mandla Langa (who all lived through apartheid as writers) participated in a panel discussion with members of the younger generation who are increasingly taking the lead in political activity. They acknowledged that “one of the biggest mistakes their generation committed was that … the people who had been at the forefront of the struggle … now stepped back and said ‘we’ve arrived and there’s a government, make it happen’.”

Today “these children are waking up to the fact that those things did not happen. All the small things that should have been changed did not change—like not having books, not having libraries … so they are demanding society to not ignore them anymore, to change so that they can be part of that society without feeling like they are on the margins or they are being tolerated.”

The Abantu Book Festival challenges colonial legacies through literature, a place where cultural oppression intersects with political and social exclusion to this day. Mgqolozana explains that he chose this approach as a consequence of culture’s centrality to the decolonial struggle. Under colonialism books were written by European authors about European people, excluding divergent perspectives, negating other experiences and cultures, and thereby silencing black authors. Independence failed to put an end to these practices, so that even today black people in South Africa most probably will not find books about protagonists they can identify with, let alone written in their mother tongue.

As a novelist myself, I felt that the people I write about and for hadn’t ever had access to the work I’m writing. … They are the last if at all to get access to the work that we are writing and we’ve come to accept it as normal. But it raises questions about who you’re writing for. So this is literally what we are doing: bringing relevant culture in the form of literature to the people and making it possible for them to be confident in themselves. Because that’s one of the things colonization did: it took away the sense of being, so that for a little black girl in a township to read about a character in a book who has the same type of hair as her is so empowering, more empowering than any education she could ever get, because it says that it’s normal and OK to be me. … Literature is a part of culture because it’s about the people and their ways of being. We are now there for talking about whose culture matters and who has access to this culture. That’s the question the Abantu Book Festival addresses—so that a kid from Soweto can go to a library and find a book that speaks their language and has characters that looks like them.

Alongside creating a safe space for black people of colour the festival also targets children, who are encouraged to participate in a children’s programme designed to spark their interest in literature. At the programme’s conclusion every child can choose a book, ideally in their mother tongue, to start “their own miniature libraries at home”. Because this sort of literature is often hard to find in the country, attendees to the Abantu Book Festival buy plenty of books. Mothers in particular seem to take advantage of this situation and already buy many of these essential books for their children to read while growing up.

Mgqolozana has invested four years of extensive work into organizing the festival, promoting an old idea that had lost strength in South Africa since formal independence. While giving a voice to silenced authors he himself fell silent, and only recently took up writing again. In his new book he poses the question of what would have happened if the people from Nelson Mandela’s village had decided to rebury him according to traditional customs. Mandela’s burial was a state funeral featuring speeches by intellectuals and politicians instead of the designated people from his village who would have spoken at a traditional burial. This decision, itself part of the South African reconciliation process, in some way stood in the way of decolonizing South African society as a whole.

Mgqolozana’s new novel will shed light on a possible future for South African society based on the cultures and traditions that continue to be excluded and oppressed even after independence. The novel which he is going to write twice, once in English and once in isiXhosa, can be seen as another step in his struggle for decolonization, and I cannot wait to read it.