The President's Desk

Speech from Outgoing NWASA President – March 2021

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!  

Frank Meintjies  

18 March 2021