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Andrew Brown - 2014 Franschhoek Literary Festival Launch Speech

Andrew Brown - 2014 Franschhoek Literary Festival Launch Speech

I want to talk about books tonight.  The idea of books, the importance of books, the love of books.

Tonight you have heard from Niq Mhlongo, a rising star amongst the new breed of writers in South Africa.  The front cover of Niq’s book says “Niq Mhlongo comes of age.”  But I think that we are all ‘coming of age’ – we are all growing up in terms of what we write as writers, and what we expect as readers.

Let’s just take a quick tour of the 2014 Franschhoek Literary Festival:

  • This morning I was on a panel with Niq, Brent Meersman and Paul Morris. 
    • Niq’s book (Way Back Home) is a brilliant but absolutely searing look at Umkhonto we Sizwe, at what power can do to us, at where we have come from.  It is unrelenting and honest and without any PC illusions or baggage. 
    • Brent Meersman’s book (Five Lives at Noon) – fascinating structure with journalistic pieces woven into a fictional narration - about coming home after 1990, about not coming home after 1990, about South Africa at its crossroads. 
    • Paul Morris (Back to Angola), writing about returning to Angola to meet his demons after fighting their as a troepie in the SADF 30 years earlier.  Personal, vulnerable and brave.

 

  • Tomorrow I will be on a panel with Antony Altbeker, Marianne Tham and Liza Grobler – can we still trust the cops ?  Each of their books is a courageous expose on corruption in the police force.  Senior cops are named and shamed, politicians are expose, police management is analysed and sharply criticised.  No one is holding back in these books; no one is afraid to say just how it is.

 

  • At some stage this weekend, I will share a beer with my friend, Jonathan Shapiro.  He makes a living from portraying our President with his penis in his hand and a shower head on his head.

 

  • On Sunday I will be in discussion with Judges Edwin Cameron and Chris Nicolson. 
    • Judge Cameron has written an extraordinary and moving account of our constitutional democracy (Justice: A Personal Account). It may be the most uplifting book you read this year, both intellectual and yet personally revealing – but it also contains a damning, scathing attack on President Mbeki and his AIDS denialism. 
    • Judge Nicolson (No Sacred Cows) has written a series of short stories that challenge our ethics and morals in a new society.
    • These are senior Judges putting their views out there, making themselves vulnerable to challenge, making their intellect felt.

Am I making the point ?  We are growing up – the adolescence of struggle poetry, the lentil stew, the long hair, the silent protest, the experimental sex, the stone-throwing, the Marxist reviews of Jane Austin – it’s gone, we’ve moved on.

The early youth of white angst, the PC language, the muted debate, the soft racism, the surreptitious enquiries at the Australian embassy, the voting for Madiba – they are gone, we’re moving on.

We are growing up.

And just look at the breadth and the courage of what our writers now have to say.  These books are all both brutal and uplifting, troubling and comforting.

  • Yes, Selebi was a crook, but Marianne’s book is about how he was brought to book and sent to jail. 
  • Yes, Niq’s book is traumatising, but look at the human relationships, the frailties that are in all of us, that are so sweetly exposed.
  • Yes, Mbeki send countless people to their grave by withholding ARVs, but read Judge Cameron’s enthralling description of the ultimate triumph of the Courts over the executive.

We are so blessed in South Africa right now.  And I think that perhaps we don’t see it.  Maybe we feel it, but I wonder whether we really conceive just how extraordinarily fortunate we are.

Firstly, whenever a group of people get together, at some point someone is going to ask “so what are you reading” or someone is going to say “you have to read Niq’s new novel”.  Reading is part of who we are.  Our children read before they fall asleep.  Literary Festivals are sold out and you can’t find a bed to sleep in or tickets to a session to attend.  Do enough South Africans read ? Of course not, not even close.  But there is an understanding that reading is important; NGOs exist to pursue it; people donate for libraries in schools; volunteers accept books at the Bookery for distribution. Many of our national heroes are writers.

But secondly, look at what we write.  Look at the freedom with which we write.  I have just come out of Uganda and South Sudan.  I dare you to sketch a cartoon of President Museveni with his penis in his hand; I dare you to write a book slamming President Salva Kiir for ethnic cleansing in South Sudan.  Edwin Cameron would be locked up in both countries, in one for being gay and in the other for criticising the president.  Is there another country in Africa where Judge Cameron would be secure ? 

Would Jonathan, or Marianne, or Liza be able to write what they write anywhere else in the continent?  Indeed, where else in the world could they write like this – the nations are few that can tolerate this level of critical thinking.

We need to be alive to the privilege that we have.  At a festival like this, we need to feel it most keenly.  Books are knowledge, and knowledge is power;  books are thoughts, and thinking is what makes us human. 

I’d like to tell you a story from my latest travels in South Sudan.  It is still very raw for me, so if I am not able to finish the story I will ask Niq to read it for me.

 “The first attack was not so bad.” 

Father Peter sits with his back straight, his hands held in his lap. He is far thinner than before, but the same quiet dignity shines through.  For months I feared that he had been murdered; now I sit riveted once more by his stories and his smile.

In 2013 I had travelled to the northern town of Malakal, South Sudan, to visit the huge refugee camps established there.  I was helped by this tall respectful man, Fr Peter Othow, a Catholic priest stationed in the dusty bustling town. He took me under his wing in what was a difficult and probably foolish expedition.  He organised a place for me to stay, a Land Cruiser, a driver and a vital point of human reference. Fr Peter lived in a small room in the Cathedral grounds, together with three other priests.  Together they owned only the bare essentials.  I enjoyed simple but generous meals with him and his colleagues.

As a paltry thank you, I brought him a bottle of whiskey and a copy of my book, Inyenzi.  He sent me a message a few weeks later to tell me how much he was enjoying reading it.

In December 2013, the Dinka-Nuer fighting that had started in Juba spread to Malakal and the town was overrun by Nuer rebel soldiers loyal to ousted Vice-President Machar. This was the first attack of which Fr Peter spoke.  The government soldiers retreated and Malakal became a Nuer rebel town.  The government, embarrassed by their retreat, came back – with a vengeance.  The rebels were forced out of the town into the bush.

"Still this was not so bad," says Fr Peter.  It was soldiers fighting other soldiers. Civilians hid – some in the church grounds – and emerged once the worst was over.

But then the government troops changed the rules – unforgivably. They targeted Nuer people, civilians, based on their ethnicity alone. Those on the wrong side of the divide had their homes looted, many were simply executed.  A Presbytarian pastor – a Nuer – was executed in the town square in front of a crowd.  All hell broke loose. The rebels returned, far more determined this time. 

Attacks came and went, the town changed hands repeatedly. Each time more civilians were killed.

Then the rebels attacked a last time. "This was not good," says Fr Peter.  "This was a bad time." 

He pauses in his story and looks at the ground, perhaps remembering, perhaps trying to forget.  The Nuer soldiers killed everything in their path.  They cut the pipes supplying water to the UN Refugee compound and waited outside to shoot anyone who tried to come out to collect water from the river.

And then the rebels came for the church. 

They broke the gates open and marched around the compound with their weapons, seeking out Dinka. Those they found, they shot in front of Fr Peter – they murdered innocent people inside the church grounds.  Fr Peter looks at me in horror.  It is unimaginable for him.

Eventually, perhaps bored, the soldiers withdrew. But told Fr Peter they would return the next day to ‘finish their business’. Still Fr Peter debated what they should do.  His main concern was for the safety of the Bishop and the remaining refugees.  And their lives were clearly in danger. Early the next morning, as the sun rose, the decision was taken – they would make a run for it.

They crept out of the compound and made for the river. They were quickly spotted by soldiers who opened fire on them.  Many were struck and fell.  Fr Peter rushed with the Bishop towards the Nile.

Together they plunged into the river, making for the far shore.  The soldiers reacted immediately, firing into the water as they swam.

"This was when I decided: if today is my day, then let it be so.  I was so calm. Swimming in the river with the Bishop, the bullets striking the water around me."

Unbelievably, Fr Peter, the Bishop and all of the priests from the Cathedral made it out of Malakal alive. They went on foot for many kilometers before being picked up by a UN patrol. He finally reached Juba, with just the clothes on his back. This is where I met him again.

Fr Peter heard that, after they had fled the church compound, some Nuer Presbyterian pastors arrived looking for him. Only a few months before, these pastors had sat in workshops with him discussing diversity and tolerance.  Now when they found the door to his room locked, they ordered soldiers to open fire.  When the door was in pieces, they entered to see whether they had killed him. But he was gone.

"They did leave a body in my room," Fr Peter tells me. "I don't know if they shot him there, or if the victim ran in there wounded and died. I don't know who he is.  But I hear the body is still in my room. Rotting on my bed." 

It is clear that this distresses him. Not that it is his room, his bed, but that it is church property. He cannot conceive of it.

Fr Peter falls silent in his story. I feel wretched, but I have absolutely nothing to say. Then he looks up at me and I can see that he is more troubled at this point than he has been throughout the tale.  He shakes his head with sorrow. 

I feel my heart contract, what more can there be?  Do I really want to hear it? 

"I am so sorry, Andrew. I had to leave your book behind.”

May we always be cognisant of our gifts in this country.  May we protect them, may we cherish them, may we revel in them.  And may we never, ever have to leave our books behind.


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