Memories of Keorapetse Kgositsile (1938-2017), or Bra Willie, as he was affectionately known, are of a poet who always had a smile on his face, who exuded gentleness, and was soft-spoken. He died on Wednesday.
In his schooldays Bra Willie (78) managed to get access to African American poets Langston Hughes’ and Richard Wright’s poems. This was no mean feat in apartheid South Africa when schools for African children either didn’t have libraries or they were poorly-stocked, and African students were denied access to literature deemed to be “seditious”. Even my “whites only” school library had no books with African-American poems, still less the apartheid English setwork books.
His first job was working for a 1950s left newspaper, the New Age, which had strong links to the African National Congress. The apartheid regime banned it in 1962.
In 1962 Kgositsile went into exile in the US. His career flourished in Harlem; he gave numerous readings at African-American jazz clubs, and graduated with a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University.
In 1975 Kgositsile sacrificed his flourishing career to return to Africa to work for the ANC in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In 1977 he founded the ANC’s Department of Education in exile, and in 1983 its Department of Arts and Culture in 1983.
He continued to produce poetry and music, melding African and diasporic poetry influenced by jazz.
Kgositsile’s impact on a generation of South African left literary activists during the 1970s and 1980s was immense. Tattered photostats of his work passed from hand to hand were the samizdat of the oppressed under apartheid, which is how we learnt of his poems.
As soon as apartheid censorship ended in 1990, the Congress of South African Writers brought out a selection of his poems When the Clouds Clear. Willie returned to South Africa from exile, and was elected vice-president of the organisation.
Kgositsile wrote of the 1976 Soweto generation who revolted against apartheid, following the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.
In our land fear is dead
The young are no longer young …
South Africa’s youth reciprocated this admiration: again and again a youthful poet would recite from memory a Kgositsile poem, mimicking his voice to perfection. They enjoyed doing this to his face as much as in his absence.
In today’s literary establishment, none of the country’s literati command this sort of respect.
He was honoured with the South African Poet Laureate Prize in 2006.
Kgositsile won several literary awards including the Harlem Cultural Council Poetry Award and in South Africa the Herman Charles Bosman Prize, and in 2008 the Order of Ikhamanga (Silver) for
excellent achievements in the field of literature and using these exceptional talents to expose the evils of the system of apartheid.
The teacher stands in front of her Grade 4 class. The 45 nine and ten-year olds are crammed together at desks, huddled over shared books. Some are sitting on the floor. “Now, class, read from the top of the page,” the teacher says. They comply in a slow sing-song drawl.
“Stop,” says the teacher. “It is not ‘Wed-nes-day’, you say it ‘Wensday’. It is what?” “Wensday,” the class responds. “Again.” “Wensday.” The reading resumes, the teacher frequently stopping to correct her pupils’ pronunciation.
Sometimes the children read aloud in groups. At other times, she calls a child to come to the front and read aloud. Not once does she ask a question about what the story means. Nor do the children discuss or write about what they have read.
This is the typical approach to how teaching is read in most South African primary schools. Reading is largely understood as an oral performance. In our research, my colleague Sandra Land and I describe this as “oratorical reading”. The emphasis is on reading aloud, fluency, accuracy and correct pronunciation. There is very little emphasis on reading comprehension and actually making sense of the written word. If you were to stop the children and ask them what the story is about, many would look at you blankly.
Pronunciation, accuracy and fluency are important in reading. But they have no value without comprehension. Countries around the world are paying increasing attention to reading comprehension, as indicated by improving results in international literacy tests.
The problem with the oratorical reading approach is evident in the results of the recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016 tests. PIRLS’ purpose is to assess reading comprehension and to monitor trends in literacy at five-year intervals. Countries participate voluntarily. Learners write the test in the language of learning and teaching used in Grades 1 to 3 in their school.
The tests revealed that 78% of grade 4 pupils in South Africa fell below the lowest level on the PIRLS scale: meaning, in effect, that they cannot understanding what they’re reading. There was some improvement from learners writing in Sesotho, isiNdebele, Xitsonga, Tshivenda and Sepedi from a very low base in 2011, but no overall improvement in South Africa’s performance.
South Africa was last out of 50 countries surveyed. It came in just behind Egypt and Morocco. The Russian Federation came first followed by Singapore, Hong Kong and Ireland.
South Africa also performs poorly in the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality surveys. These show that in reading and numeracy South Africa is lagging behind much poorer African countries such as Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
Our research on reading at a rural primary school and an adult centre in the KwaZulu-Natal province showed that the oratorical approach to teaching reading was dominant both in the school and adult classes. Both adults and children were not learning to read with meaning, and so were not achieving literacy despite attending classes. Our findings confirmed the results of other South African studies.
So where does the problem lie and how can South Africa address it?
To understand the situation more deeply we interviewed teachers and explored how they had learned to read. We found that they teach as they were taught; an indication that oratorical reading is a cycle repeated from one generation to the next unless it is broken.
Teachers told us they assessed pupils’ reading ability just as they were assessed by their teachers: by having them read aloud. Marks were allocated for individual oral reading performance. This was based not on understanding the passage, but on fluency and pronunciation. There was no written assessment of reading comprehension. Reading was about memorising sounds and decoding words.
This suggests that the problem in learners’ performance lies in how reading is taught in most South African schools. Learners are taught to read aloud and pronounce correctly, but not to understand the written word and make sense of it for themselves. Another consequence is that the pleasure and joy of discovery and meaning-making are divorced from school reading.
There are no quick fixes, but there certainly are slow and sure ones. The first is to get reading education in pre-service teacher training right. A report by JET Education Services, an independent non-profit organisation that works to improve education, found that universities don’t give enough attention to reading pedagogies.
Universities need to teach reading as a process that involves decoding and understanding text in its context, not just as a “mechanical skill”. Countries such as India, with its great diversity and disadvantaged populations, have begun to address the need for this change in how reading is taught.
The second “fix” concerns in-service training. The Department of Basic Education has a crucial role to play here. Teachers need to reflect on how they themselves were taught to read and to understand the shortcomings of an oratorical approach.
Effective reading instruction, such as the “Read to Learn” and “scaffolding” approaches, should be modelled and reinforced. In a multi-lingual African context, strategies that allow teachers and learners to use all their language resources in making meaning should be encouraged. Teachers’ own reading is vital, and can be developed through book clubs and reading groups.
The school environment is also crucial. According to the PIRLS interviews with principals, 62% of South African primary schools do not have school libraries. These are central to promoting a reading culture, as work in New Zealand shows.
Schools should develop strategies such as Drop Everything and Read slots in the timetable, library corners in classrooms, prizes for reading a target number of books and writing about them, and creating learners’ reading clubs. Learners can draw on local oral traditions by gathering stories from elders, writing them and reading them to others.
Finally, the home environment is vital. The PIRLS research showed that children with parents who read, and especially read to them, do better at reading. Our research found that children with parents who attended adult classes were highly motivated to learn and read with their parents. Even if parents are illiterate, older siblings can read to younger children. The Family Literacy Project, a non-profit organisation in KwaZulu-Natal, has done excellent work in creating literate family and community environments in deep rural areas, showing what is possible.
Developing families as reading assets rather than viewing them as deficits can help to strengthen schools and build a reading nation.
South Africa has produced two must-read thrillers in the past week. They are non-fiction, yet are as gripping and readable as any page-turner.
Veteran investigative journalist Jacques Pauw’s “The President’s Keepers” has, within a week, become a global best seller. It has had the advantage of the best available marketing push by South Africa’s State Security Agency, under the illusion that they were going to stop the book. The State Security Agency sent a cease and desist letter to a defiant Pauw and his publisher, claiming the exposé is in violation of the Intelligence Services Act.
I recommend you read them together. It will take some courage, as they are a most unsettling combination, but worth it.
Pauw’s book takes you on his journey to uncover the nature of Jacob Zuma’s presidency and its impact on South Africa, a trip that begins in the small Western Cape town of Riebeek-Kasteel and goes, via Moscow, to the Tshwane coffee bars where he meets his sources. Much of what emerges has been reported in bits and pieces elsewhere, but he weaves it together with great storytelling skill, and adds some important new revelations.
It is the most comprehensive picture of the rot at the heart of the Zuma presidency and the toll it has taken on important state institutions. Once he has worked through the tax collector, the South African Revenue Service, the National Prosecuting Authority, and the police, one is left gasping for air at the scale and depth of the destruction.
I don’t think it is necessary to weigh up the accuracy of his much-detailed and well-documented story, except to say that Pauw is a veteran muckraker whose credentials for getting sources to talk, putting his hands on the evidence, weaving all this into readable horror-stories, and withstanding the attacks of those who would stop him, are well established. So much so that the onus is on his detractors to disprove what he is saying. Even if half of it is true, it is chilling.
Oil for the ANC’s political machinery
Olver’s book might be even more important. It’s an insider’s view of how corruption has become the oil that keeps the ruling African National Congress’s political machinery working. Olver was sent in by ANC leaders to help clean up the metropolitan Nelson Mandela Bay region on the country’s east coast and pave the way for local politician and national football boss Danny Jordaan’s 2016 mayoral election campaign. At the same time, Olver was commissioned by then Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan to clear out the rot in the city structure.
Olver’s story of how he identified and drove out the worst culprits in the city’s corruption, is heartening. He shows that it can be done when you have the political will, and Olver’s toughness. But he also describes how every cent raised to fund Jordaan’s campaign was exchanged for a job or a tender.
The ANC political engine runs on the fuel of transactional politics; without the offerings of jobs and tenders, the machine grinds to a halt. His tale provides rare insight into how the party funding system works as a driver of corruption.
Olver himself starts off as a knight in shining armour, but finds himself increasingly compromised as time passes, until he loses his political backing and flees the region.
Both these writers showed great courage. Pauw left the peace and quiet of running a country restaurant in Riebeek-Kasteel, knowing that this book would bring him the kinds of threats and harassment he experienced in the 1980s when he exposed the dark heart of apartheid’s police hit squads. Olver had to have a bodyguard at his side, so tough was the fight to regain control of the party and city.
Pauw’s book is a triumph of investigative reporting, but also contains a worrying critique of some of its practitioners. Pauw details at least three instances when his fellow reporters have allowed themselves to become part of the partisan mudslinging aimed at driving the good people out of state institutions, and protecting the venal. It is striking that some of the same names come up in all three instances, and all are centred around the local Sunday Times.
While South Africans can celebrate the important role investigative reporters have played in exposing state capture, they should be reminded that some have facilitated it, wittingly or unwittingly.
African literature is the object of immense international interest across both academic and popular registers. Far from the field’s earlier, post-colonial association with marginality, a handful of star “Afropolitan” names are at the forefront of global trade publishing.
Such commercial prominence, though, has attracted considerable and unsurprising push back from Western and Africa-based critics alike. Far from advancing narratives with deep roots in local African realities, such critics fear, many of Africa’s most “successful” writers hawk a superficial, overly diasporic, or even Western-focused vision of the continent.
The most visible of these critiques has been directed at the Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo’s “We Need New Names” (2013). The Nigerian novelist Helon Habila worried in a review in the London Guardian that it was “poverty-porn”. The popular Nigerian critic Ikhide Ikheloa (“Pa Ikhide”) frequently makes a similar point. Fellow Nigerian writer Adaobi Nwaubani critiqued the West’s hold on Africa’s book industry in a much-circulated New York Times piece called “African Books for Western Eyes”.
Such debates about African writing could, and likely will, go on forever. Questions about Africa’s place in the current global literary marketplace broaden some of the most urgent queries of the postcolonial era. Who gets to document African realities? Who are the “gatekeepers” of African publishing traditions?
It goes on: To what sort of audience does African writing cater? What is the role – and what should it be, if any – of Western institutions in brokering cultural prestige?
All these issues merit concern.
Between the default poles
Too often, though, African writing ends up volleyed between two default poles of “corporate global” and “activist local”. Some onlookers, as in a recent essay by the Canadian scholar Sarah Brouillette, go as far as to name the biases of even Africa-based print outlets. Kenya’s Kwani Trust is exposed as “Western-facing” due to a web of donor relations. “West” here is code for neoliberal. “Western-facing” is for complicity with a market that skews toward British and American interests.
Faced with a “world system” argument like Brouillette’s, African literature would seem trapped between a rock and a hard place.
But, in fact, this tells only a small part of the story of how African writing now makes its way through the world. It is incomplete to the point of being outdated, given the boom over the past five years in new, globally conscious small US literary presses collaborating with African writers.
A “West subsuming Africa” brand of critique works fine for scholars with no real skin in the game of literary publishing. It also denies real agency to a lot of African writers and other literary professionals. On the ground the literary field is far more forward-thinking and diverse.
There is an entire new body of African writing that escapes this closed circuit of damning truisms. A wave of new or recently galvanised independent literary presses in the US and the UK are working in tandem with some of Africa’s most generative outlets. Together they are publishing and promoting work by young and adventurous African writers.
Labours of love
Books published originally by presses like Umuzi (South Africa), amaBooks (Zimbabwe) and Kwani (Kenya) find second lives with international publishers working to defy the constraints of profitability. They’re mostly labours of love with skeleton staffs that speak to a transcontinental commitment to innovative African writing.
These include Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Ugandan epic “Kintu” which was originally launched by Kwani. It was the first Anglophone novel put out by the brand-new Transit Books based in Oakland, California. The press seeks maximum visibility for translated fiction alongside texts originally written in English. They advocate for more ethical legal and financial dealings with translators, as well as international writers.
Also dedicated exclusively to works in translation, LA-based Phoneme Media in 2016 published the first ever Burundian novel in English, Roland Rugero’s deeply contemplative “Baho!”. Phoneme’s tagline, fittingly, is “curious books for curious people”.
In a similar vein, Brooklyn’s Restless Books was founded to combat “parochial, inward-looking, and homogenised trends in American publishing”. Among their forthcoming titles, translated from the French is Naivo’s “Beyond the Rice Fields”. It’s the first novel from Madagascar to see its way to English.
Every one of these throws a wrench in a clear, cynical sense of what kind of novel Western presses prize. That is not to mention the many African writers, publishers, and editors working in concert to promote these same texts.
Small, focused channels
It applies to the Anglosphere too. Books that offer a decidedly more locally textured experience than those of the “Afropolitan” rock stars have made their way abroad through small, focused channels.
Clearly, this collection just scratches the surface. But what these works have in common is an investment in stylistic and structural experimentation that confounds rather than caters to an international taste for “digestible” fiction, or to mostly Western points of cultural and institutional reference.
This counter-current of transnational African literary life complicates the equation of culture, geopolitics and economics in more useful ways than stale materialist critiques.
As such titles and presses continue to gain acclaim and recognition by an international readership that is aware of and hostile to shallow representations of Africa – and who crave engagement with challenging fiction, regardless of its origin – critics will need to rethink some of their orthodoxies.
There is more to both African literature and Western publishing than meets an eye too practised in its suspicion. If literature is doomed only to echo the failings of globalisation, then why bother? On the contrary, a new generation of writers and publishers deserve our awareness of the “global literary marketplace” as a meaningfully multidimensional space.
Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o was the bookies’ favourite for the second year to win the Nobel prize in literature. But singer songwriter Bob Dylan won it for creating “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. But, as Kenyan academic Peter Kimani tells The Conversation Africa’s Julius Maina, this doesn’t take the sheen off one of Africa’s greatest living writers.
Who is Ngugi wa Thiong’o?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o is regarded as one of Africa’s greatest living writers. He grew up in what became known as Kenya’s White Highlands at the height of British colonialism. Unsurprisingly, his writing examines the legacy of colonialism and the intricate relationships between locals seeking economic and cultural emancipation and the local elites serving as agents of neo-colonisers.
What sets Ngugi above and apart from the hundreds of other African writers?
African fiction is fairly young. Ngugi stands in the continent’s pantheon of writers who started writing when Africa’s decolonisation gained momentum. In a certain sense, the writers were involved in constructing new narratives that would define their people. But Ngugi’s recognition goes beyond his pioneering role: his writing resonates with many across Kenya and Africa.
One could also recognise Ngugi’s consistency at churning out high-quality stories about Africa’s contemporary society. This he has done in a manner that illustrates his commitment to equality and social justice.
He has done much more in scholarship. His treatise, Decolonising the Mind, now a foundational text in post-colonial studies, illustrates his versatility. His ability to spin the yarns while commenting on the politics that goes into literary production of marginal literature is a very rare combination.
Finally, one could talk about Ngugi’s cultural and political activism. This precipitated his yearlong detention without trial in 1977. He attributes his detention to his rejection of English and embracing his Gikuyu language as his vehicle of expression.
Which work or works best illustrate his thinking?
It’s hard to pick a favourite from Ngugi’s over two dozen texts. But there is concurrence among critics that A Grain of Wheat, which was voted among Africa’s best 100 novels at the turn of the last century, stands out for its stylistic experimentation and complexity of characters.
Others consider the novel as the last signpost before Ngugi’s work became overly political. For other critics, it’s Wizard of the Crow – which came out in 2004, after nearly two decades of waiting – that encapsulates Ngugi’s creative finesse. It utilises many literary tropes, including magical realism, and addresses the politics of African development and the shenanigans by the political elite to maintain the status quo.
What are Ngugi’s lasting contributions to African literature?
Without a doubt, Africa would be poorer without the efforts of Ngugi and other pioneering writers to tell the African story. He is also an important figure in post-colonial studies. His constant questioning of the privileging of the English language and culture in Kenya’s national discourse saw him lead a movement that led to the scrapping of the Department of English at the University of Nairobi and replaced by the Department of Literature that placed African literature and its diasporas at the centre of scholarship.
Ngugi is still active in writing and his latest offering is the third instalment of his memoir, Birth of a Dreamweaver that looks back on his years at Makerere University in Uganda. This is the period when he published his novels, Weep Not, Child and The River Between, while still an undergraduate. Also at this time he wrote the play, The Black Hermit, which was performed as part of Uganda’s independence celebrations in 1962.
His work has been translated into more than 30 world languages.
Ngugi has appeared on the list of favourites to win the Literature Nobel for a number of years. This was yet another year.
Yes indeed, Ngugi has been among the bookies’ favourite for the past couple of years. But since the workings of the Nobel award committee remain secret —- the list of the committee’s deliberations are kept secret for 50 years —- its choice for this year, the American singer Bob Dylan raises interesting questions about the Nobel committee’s interpretation of artistic production as writing.
South African librarians were shocked in 2013 when one of the top researchers at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology claimed that he no longer needed the library to do his research.
Professor Johannes Cronje’s paper echoed an increasingly common way of thinking. Why, after all, do we need libraries when the Internet does such a good job of providing us with information?
But libraries are not just collection points for information. The best ones also help create it – and those which embrace this role will flourish in a completely changed world. This is particularly true for African libraries: there is more of an opportunity than ever before to bring the continent’s knowledge to the world.
A dual role
Libraries collect information and make it available to a particular community or communities. Some, like church libraries, specialise in collecting certain kinds of information.
The Internet can do exactly the same thing. Anyone can create a collection of information online and make it available to users. And who needs librarians when search engines like Google are on hand to help track down information?
Such technological advances mean that the traditional library is losing customers who just want to find information.
Libraries fulfil another crucial role, though. They help to create information. Modern libraries offer many services that help their users to put information online. Most academic libraries, for instance, have repository services that collate a university’s research output and make it publicly available.
They are extending this service to research data, which will save future researchers from collecting the same data and taxpayers from paying for it again.
These services are becoming common in public libraries as well, through an innovation called makerspaces. Here, users can make items of information. They can create music, produce items using 3D printers or engineer complex designs.
In makerspaces, librarians aren’t helping users to find information from the world. They are helping users to find information in themselves. Libraries should continue to develop services that help people create information.
In a way, these “new” developments really aren’t that different from what libraries have always done. Libraries curate and disseminate information. In the past, librarians curated information from foreign creators and disseminated it to a local community. Modern librarians curate local information and disseminate it to a foreign community. The flow of information has flipped.
Opportunities for African libraries
African libraries have been slow to embrace this evolution. There are twice as many repositories in Asia as there are in Africa, and ten times as many in Europe. But the continent is slowly gaining ground.
The University of Cape Town is the first in Africa to offer a Masters of Philosophy in Digital Curation. Early in 2015, the University of Pretoria opened up a makerspace, the first educational one on the continent.
The altered role of libraries is a great opportunity to showcase African knowledge. Getting information into the world is easier and cheaper than ever. African libraries need to take up the responsibility of being partners in information creation.
This means that policies must be altered – and, of course, that budgets must be increased. University leaders, decision makers, governments and library users need to understand and support the changes that are reshaping libraries.
Librarians, too, must embrace these changes. They will require new skills to support the creation of information. Many library schools are already responding to these new needs by offering advanced degrees in digital curation.
It will be also be important to reconsider the very physical space of a library. Paper-and-glue book collections are shrinking and, in some libraries, disappearing. These collections have long been the symbol of quiet thinking. Will libraries still be silent spaces of learning without them? How will libraries retain their users’ trust if they are turned into cool cybercafés?
These are some of the tough questions that librarians must answer if they expect their funding to continue and to rise – and if they want to remain relevant well into the future.