President’s Speech: Inaugural NWASA Conference 20th – 21st March 2021
Thank you to all members who are attending the Inaugural Conference. This conference has been preceded by a long wait, a large part of it induced by realities brought about by the Covid-19 virus. In this time, the organisation’s Interim Steering Committee has held the torch aloft. The passing away of the chairperson of the ISC and the interim NWASA president, Walter Chakela, a fount of vision and energy – and one who has sustained the plan to form an organisation over several years — has been a particularly severe blow to the emerging organisation. Thank you also to partners who have stood by NWASA’s side as the interim structure worked towards a formal inauguration of the organisation.
The need for a national writers’ organisation such as this one, with a clear historical sense, continental linkages and a strong awareness of development goals, has been recognized from many quarters. Perhaps we shall hear voices from government, partner bodies and voices who are leading lights all calling for strong, broad-based dynamic and value-adding writers’ organisation on these shores.
Suffice to say, diverse needs inform the founding of the organisation, and these reasons come together elegantly, dynamically and to good effect in the formation of an organisation such as NWASA. I wish to focus, however, on imperatives that emerge from the community-level – from less-resourced communities in metropolitan areas as well as from the far-flung areas of the country. The aspiration for an organisation such as NWASA has been heard from emergent writers constantly in much of the democratic period. Embedded in these messages/calls/yearnings are the need for support, the need for opening access, the need for assisting with resources and the need for progressive change to the context in which writers operate.
This articulation of this need must be seen in the context of the interrelationship between community arts centres and the past work of organisations such as COSAW, African Writers Association, Writers Forum and so on.
Those invested and deeply interested in the arts know that the community is rich in stories and artistic talent; at the same time, there are the barriers and deprivation(s) which constrain the growth of arts production, arts dissemination and arts appreciation in communities. For many arts forms, it manifests as a lack of facilities, lack of educational opportunities slanted to that particular art form, lack of space
to practice and lack of equipment. It is in this context that the movement of arts centres and movement of progressive writers’ organisations intertwine.
The artists from other genres speak of their constraints (lack of materials, opportunity and access to further training, for example) in ways specific to them. For writers who come from a context of deprivation, marginalisation and past oppression in our land, these are the comparable needs: books and access to connectivity; good libraries; spaces to meet other writers to obtain and provide feedback, and (very often) quiet spaces to write. And then there are requirements beyond the basic needs. Some of these needs revolve around the desire/need to be heard by a wider audience than just your family and friends – access to print publication, the airwaves, textbook procurement opportunities as well as the marketing and publishing capacities of the internet. There are also higher-level needs (often shared by both emergent and established writers); these include the chance to be part of a community of interest, to discuss things of interest to writers and to have a collective voice. At this level writers seek actualization and find meaning collectively as they engage around topics, for example such as censorship, reflect on the societal role of literature, elevate the voices of women in writing, advancing understandings of literature in Africa, etc.
Looking at the SA context, the struggle facing writers – to overcome the barriers and open fully the doors of culture for those involved in literature – dates back to the decades of apartheid and centuries of colonial oppression. Where are we now? One may well ask: to what extent have the burning needs been met in democratic South Africa? Suffice to say, although there has been some progress in certain areas, (for example, government has involved organised writers extensively in the early policy development on culture) there is still much work to be done.
Many of the most dynamic organizations (in the cultural sphere and focusing on particular art forms) went into recess after liberation. There was a strong belief that the new or transformed arts structures (such as the former performing arts councils) as well as the national broadcaster, SABC, would ensure support, access and resource flows to those from marginalized community who wanted to practice the arts. It was envisaged that arts centres would give way to, for example, multi-functional centres – supported by more than one government department and prioritizing arts expression – as ways of addressing the uneven distribution of infrastructure and facilities in localities and between localities. This of course did not materialize.
Many organisations and arts centres closed down. Many strong grassroots-based organisations folded. Organisations like COSAW, COSAW, FAWO, PAWE, and MUSA existed around 1994 but exist no more. Centres such as the Community Arts Project and Culture and Working Life Project came to an end. In current times there are new national arts bodies that represent hopeful signs. The self-interested and over compliant ‘sweetheart’ organisations aside, the sense of organisation among artists show potential and signals of movement to a situation where artists again feel organised enough so can ensure their voices are heard in policy development; mobilization of substantial resources towards removing barriers at community level; proper government relief for the sector, and; the rolling back of exploitation of artists. In this context, where broad-based national organisations are forming to represent the arts, there is a huge gap: a national writers’ organisation bringing together emerging and established writers
committed to working together to advance literature within the broader goals of opening the doors of culture.
The Arts and Culture White Paper of 1996 called for the establishment of multifunctional arts centres throughout the country as a means of correcting the uneven distribution of infrastructure and facilities outside the main metropolitan areas. This has not been achieved for a host of reasons.
There were changes, but in many cases, the changes involved a measure of widening of access to a skewed and imbalanced system. (For example, in a 2019 paper, van Graan noted that 15 individuals in top management positions at the country’s subsidized theatres earned a total of R21 742 455 between them). The bigger challenge is to increase resources and public sector support, reduce unevenness and more extensively widen access so that the creative, artistic and cultural voices of all South Africans can more easily be heard.
As indicated, one can point to a ‘host of reasons’ for the lack of transformation – for the persistence of barriers facing our members and potential members and others involved in the arts. The Department of Sports, Arts and Culture’s revised White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage (October 2017) in Chapter 3 give us clues. It states these shortcomings as the reasons it wants to revise this central policy document:
a. Divergence from the integrated architecture proposed in 1996 White Paper for heritage resulted in a fragmented and uncoordinated heritage dispensation;
b. Slow transformations in the sector;
c. Inefficient and cumbersome administrative procedures;
d. A lack of coordination between national, provincial and local arts, culture and heritage policies and the need for greater interdepartmental cooperation;
e. Inadequate formal education and training opportunities for art, culture and heritage; f. The uneven distribution of infrastructure, facilities, material and resource outside the main metropolitan areas;
g. The persistence of the perception of arts, culture and heritage as marginal luxuries; h. Insufficient attention to the role of the private sector in funding and developing
Some of these issues in the list, together with self-enrichment and corruption, have regrettably reared their heads recently in relation to Covid-19 Relief Funding. In programs that potentially could (and sometimes did) disseminate resources widely to artists, the disbursement failures have resulted in conflict, tension and – for struggling artists – dealing with delays and cuts in promised amounts, anxiety and frustration.
In 2021, a writers’ organisation such as NWASA thus comes into a difficult space, when the challenge is great, cohesion between genre-based organisations is weak and when – at so many ways – the capable state has not yet been attained. There is much work to be done (I repeat). This work, of course, does not only include the work at community level. It also includes, for example, the ongoing cultural policy development work, pressing for implementation of well-conceived past policies, contributions to struggles around language and book policy, input into more intensive Africanisation of South African society (decolonization), and so on.
Moving away from this paper’s bias (opening the doors of culture for writers in under-resourced neighbourhoods, far-flung communities and that form part of the working class), I want to set out more general strategic issues that NWASA should consider.
The following set of strategic objectives emerge from an understanding and experience as a cultural activist working as a practitioner in the sphere of literature in a changing South Africa. These key imperatives, in my personal view, face a writers’ organisation such as NWASA. The national writers’ organisation, being launched and backed by its strong but still growing membership base, should:
a. Engage in policy development on the arts and related matters in the interests of writers and in line with our values and mission.
b. Assert the presence and voice of writers in struggles by creatives/arts practitioners for recognition and adequate support from national, provincial and local government.
c. In addition to supporting reading and writing in all languages, support struggles for ending the marginalisation of indigenous languages.
d. Give writers at community-based level a sense of belonging and a place of mutual support.
e. Engage the publishing industry and support book development policy with a view to removing barriers to wider access to books and publishing.
f. Create a greater sense of connection of, awareness to and mutual support with writers in the rest of the African continent; in this regard, NWASA’s links to and participation in PAWA forms a powerful base from which to proceed.
g. Create and run programmes, whether on our own or in partnership with other bodies, that give effect to the member benefits cited in the NWASA Constitution.
h. Wherever possible, forge partnership with Arts and Culture departments at different levels with a view to opening the doors of culture, pushing ahead with transformation goals in relation to book policy, broadcasting, language issues, internet access, etc., and to advance the interests of writers.
In addition, NWASA should engage with other writers’ organisations in the country such as Pen, ANFASA, etc. While recognizing that sometimes areas of focus mean distinct priorities and distinctive programmes, NWASA and other organisations should work on minimum areas of co-operation, support and solidarity. Covid-19, as well as the organizational imperatives of organising the launch with a small team, has made such engagements difficult. However, going forward, these partnerships can and should be strengthened.
I wish the new National Steering Committee well as it takes up the mantle. I would like to encourage NSC members, even as they devote substantial time to building the organisation and serving members, to continue with artistic production. There is nothing like the challenge, pain and accomplishment of producing work to keep one’s activism relevant, current and vital.
I express my thanks to the Interim Steering Committee in its various iterations for its tremendous work in establishing the organisation, and for the perseverance and dedication it has shown in arranging this inaugural conference.
I salute our partners, including the veteran writers who continue to give their support whenever called on as well as role players such as DSAC and the Pan-African Writers Association. Finally, I express thanks to the NWASA members, always vibrant and engaging, often mutually supporting and ever-committed to the advancement of literature; all indications are that they will continue to assist NWASA to make an impact, to serve writers effectively and to take its place among the other great national writers’ organisations on the continent. Pula!
18 March 2021