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Margie Orford: Higher education is at a point of crisis

By Margie Orford, written for Issue 3 2016 of the newsletter to the PEN SA membership

Student Protests

PEN South Africa has been watching the unfolding scene at our universities with rising alarm at the polarisation of debate around transformation and race and the accompanying violence and destruction. We have been distressed by the retreat of leadership and a devastating failure of imagination in addressing the very real problems about access to education.

The lack of foresight by those concerned with higher education – and here Minister Blade Nzimande must be held accountable – and others in government in not foreseeing the impact the much larger numbers of successful matriculants would have on university accommodation and other resources and on the ability of students to pay has been disastrous. Accompanying these educational survival issues are other grave challenges about representation – political, literary and artistic – and language in our diverse and fractured society. Very deep class and racial antagonism has flared up on all of South Africa’s campuses and they have revealed, brutally at times, the unresolved violences and exclusions of South Africa’s past.

That we are at a point of crisis is clear. What we do with this crisis is crucial and will define the next decades of South Africa as the negotiated settlement that ushered in our constitutional democracy defined the last 20 years. Difficult as it might seem this is the moment in which South Africa can and must be rebuilt in the image of a future that has a place for everyone.

PEN stands for freedom of expression and the free transmission of ideas. To put it most simply this means a dialogue in which listening is as important as speaking. This is not the first time in history that people have found themselves at this pass in South Africa, in Africa and in the world. Repression has been one way in which protest has been dealt with – and that would be the worst possible outcome. There are other ways and we – as writers and as South Africans – are citizens of a hard-won constitutional democracy which has defined itself by being able to imagine a future based on inclusion and human rights. Our history left many scars.

Old wounds have been reopened with regard to the emotive questions of language to the unfinished business of nation-building, the flag, the compromises made in South Africa’s transition to democracy, the dire state of the economy where the gulf between rich and poor, black and white has remained almost unchanged, and the fact that languages of power continue to be English and Afrikaans.

This is a time for questions. Here are just some of the questions that have been brought into sharp focus by the incendiary events on our campuses.

How do we ensure that languages other than English and Afrikaans are given power to stand on their own in trade and commerce and the sciences?

Should “Business” promote the use of other languages thus taking our cue from PEN International’s Girona Manifesto which sets out the right to mother tongue?

Should legislators contribute towards the creation of leveled playing fields with regard to language through real and sustained support of mother tongue education and reading?

Why aren’t we seeing these problems in other parts of Africa?

What is the meaning to this mixed community we call South Africans of the country named after a geographic position?

Do we need to rethink the name of the country, choose a new anthem and forget the illusion of reconciliation and rainbow nationalism?

How do we deal with the troubled history of public art and representations of a brutal and exploitative history?

How will we imagine another future and how should it be scripted?

What image do we have of ourselves in this future?

What is next and how do we move forward after the venting of student anger has resulted in the burning of buildings, the petrol-bombing of a vice-chancellor’s office and the closure of a university?

These are tough questions but they need to be answered, if we are to start addressing our issues as a people. A number of astute writers have addressed this crisis. These voices – from Sisonke Msimang, Mike van Graan, Pierre de Vos, Panashe Chigumadzi, Lovelyn Chidinma Nwadeyi, Angelo Fick, Jonathan Jansen, Nic Spaull & Debra Shepherd, Breyten Breytenbach, Evita Bezuidenhout and Brian Kamanzi – express a range of views. These responses and the many others that are being published are the foundations of this vital national conversation. Words are important, the tolerance of the expression of a diversity of views is as important.

Much of the fury expressed in the last weeks and months has legitimate origins because of the tenacity of discrimination and privilege and a failure of leadership to address these problems. Guns are not a solution, shooting at students is not a solution. Talking and writing and listening can be. It has been done in this country before and it needs to be done again.

Margie Orford
President, PEN South Africa

(Image courtesy of Don’t Party)

State-run media in Iran announce $600 000 bounty to revive fatwa on Salman Rushdie


Statement from PEN International:

Iran: End 27-Year Threats Against Rushdie

London, 26 February 2016

PEN International joins PEN America and English PEN in deploring the effort at intimidation mounted by 40 state-run media outlets in Iran that have announced a US$600 000 (about R9 410 760) bounty put forward this week to augment Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 death fatwa on the writer Salman Rushdie. The spectre of a new financial reward being added to this longstanding threat is a craven attempt to fan the flames of religious extremism and hatred.

“PEN has supported Rushdie since the fatwa was first passed and writers around the world stand in solidarity with him. It’s highly disturbing to hear of this bounty offered by state-run media which should be rescinded immediately,” said Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International.

“The Iranian government should make it clear that they do not condone any violence directed against Rushdie, and undertake all necessary steps to guarantee his physical safety. Any Iranian citizen or organisation against whom there is evidence of aiding or advocating Rushdie’s murder must be brought to justice.”

Rushdie, a former President of PEN America, a resident of the United States and a citizen of the United Kingdom, has lived for 27 years under a religious death warrant because of his novel The Satanic Verses. Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa led to the killing of a Japanese translator of the book, as well as other violent attacks.

In spite of the threat, Rushdie’s outspokenness and passionate defence of imperilled writers the world over stand as an inspiration, providing a daily reminder of what is at stake in safeguarding free thought.

PEN also calls on Western governments that are now expanding relations with Tehran to insist that the Iranian government nullify its threat and bounty, disavow the fatwa once and for all, and uphold its international obligations to protect free expression.

Image courtesy of PEN International

Free the Word! Keorapetse Kgositsile, Chris Wanjala and Simona Skrabec at The Orbit

Keorapetse Kgositsile

PEN International, PEN South Africa, and the University of Witwatersrand are delighted to invite you for an evening of readings, discussion, and debate in Johannesburg’s celebrated jazz venue The Orbit.

Thursday 10th March 2016, 7.30pm – 8.30pm Orbit Jazz Club, 81 De Korte Street, Johannesburg, Gauteng

Towards a World Literature? Translation, identity and the nation

Poet Laureate, Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile, and Professor Chris Wanjala, literary critic, Kenya in conversation with Simona Škrabec, chair of PEN International’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee.

The event will seek to discuss how literary translation is only open to cultures that enjoy a written language and have produced written works, that is, cultures with readers who are able to read these works in their own tongue. The panelists will explore how literary translation reveals conflicts of identity, latent or otherwise; and how literary translation represents the opposite moment of cultural assimilation or even the obliteration of identities. We will try to raise awareness about how literature can promote the voices of those who are suppressed or silenced and promote an open dialogue between cultures. Keorapetse Kgositsile was born in 1938 in South Africa, and was a founding member of the African National Congress Department of Education and Department of Arts and Culture.

He left the country in 1961 and from 1962-1975, lived in the US as a student then teacher at various Universities, extensively studying AfricanAmerican literature and culture and developing a deep interest in jazz. His first poetry collection, Spirits Unchained, was published in 1969, and in 1971, his influential collection My Name is Afrika established him as a leading African-American poet. He also became well-known for his performances in jazz clubs in New York City and his significance in the Pan African movement.

After the end of Apartheid, he returned to South Africa in 1990 and settled in Johannesburg. When the Clouds Clear (1990) was his first book to be published in his native country. His selected poems If I could Sing was published in 2002. He has also written a book about writing poetry – Approaches to Poetry Writing (1994) and edited The Word is Here: Poetry from Modern Africa in 1973.

Christopher Lukorito Wanjala is Professor of Literature in the Department of Literature, Faculty Arts, and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Nairobi. Professor Wanjala, is the current Chairman of the National Book Development Council of Kenya (NBDCK) and Chairman of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee of Kenya PEN Centre. He is one of the foremost literary critics of the region having authored several book on East African literature and given commentaries on literature, politics and culture on radio and television, and as a poet and novelist and has been awarded the Order of Elder of the Burning Spear (EBS) for his work in the promotion of the reading culture in Kenya.

Simona Škrabec is Chair of PEN International’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee. Born in Slovenia, she has lived in Barcelona (Catalonia, Spain) since 1992, where she is a Professor at the Open University of Catalonia. Her book L’estrip de la solitud (“The Descendants of Solitude”, 2002) on 20th Century European literature won the Josep Carner Prize for literary theory. She has translated over twenty books between different languages. She is also a regular literary critic with various Barcelona based newspapers.

Free the Word! is PEN International’s roaming event series of contemporary literature from around the world. The Free the Word! team works with PEN Centres, festivals and book fairs to develop an international network of literary events. Each event is rooted in its local culture, but international in outlook. – See more here.

*****************THIS EVENT IS FREE TO THE PUBLIC******************

Space is limited – please RSVP by emailing: For more information, or if you have any questions, please contact PEN International’s Congress, Centres and Committees Coordinator, Jena Patel on or Lindsay Callaghan on

(Image courtesy of Books LIVE, photographer: Victor Dlamini)

Call for submissions for the PEN South Africa Student Writing Prize – topic: #FeesMustFall

From PEN South Africa:

PEN South Africa is a writers’ organisation that defends freedom of expression and promotes literature. We believe in the power of writing to effect change and inform the way we see the world and ourselves. With this in mind we are holding the PEN South Africa Student Writing Prize, which calls on young writers to submit fiction, creative non-fiction or poetry on the topic of the recent #FeesMustFall movement and the student protests.

Students across South Africa have been making their collective voices heard through the #FeesMustFall movement but there are undoubtedly many individual stories that have yet to be told and we want to hear them.

The winning writer will receive R5 000 and will get the chance to attend a seminar at the University of the Witwatersrand, followed by a prizegiving. The seminar aims to encourage public discourse around freedom of expression and will examine the role the media has played in the #FeesMustFall movement.

Entries must be a maximum of 5 000 words and entrants must be under 30 years old and currently living in South Africa.

Please include your name, contact details and a copy of your ID and send entries (one per person) to by 29 February, 2016.

Note: Worldwide copyright of each entry remains with the author, but PEN SA will have the unrestricted right to publish entries in an e-anthology, in print, on the website, and in any relevant promotional material.

Reduced sentence and flogging for Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh ‘wholly unacceptable’ – PEN SA



From PEN South Africa:

A Saudi Arabian court on 2 February replaced a death sentence for Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh with an eight-year prison term and 800 lashes on charges of apostasy.

Since a death sentence was handed down on 20 November 2015, PEN has campaigned for Fayadh’s immediate and unconditional release in the belief that his charges are simply for exercising his rights to freedom of expression and freedom of belief.

PEN International executive director Carles Torner says: “Instead of rightfully acquitting and releasing poet Ashraf Fayadh, today the Saudi courts have simply prolonged this injustice by imposing a lengthy prison sentence and abhorrent physical punishment. Ashraf Fayadh has already served time in prison simply for exercising his legitimate right to freedom of expression – we will continue to press the Saudi authorities for his immediate release.”

Fayadh, a Palestinian poet and member of British-Saudi art organisation Edge of Arabia, was first detained in August 2013 in relation to his collection of poems, Instructions Within. He was released on bail but rearrested in January 2014, accused of “atheism and spreading some destructive thoughts into society”, before being sentenced in May 2014.

On 27 November, 2015, over 1 000 poets and writers from around the world, including Adonis, Paul Muldoon and Charles Simić, signed a letter calling for his release, which was published alongside an open letter from International freedom of expression organisations. On 14 January, 2015, PEN Centres took part in a worldwide reading of Fayadh’s poetry, which took place in more than 40 countries.

PEN South Africa took part in the worldwide reading in support of Ashraf Fayadh, watch the readings here.

Image credit: PEN South Africa

Umlungu, What is Your Place Going to be in the Coming Azania? – David Attwell on Engaging With Africa Through Literature

David Attwell
The Female EunuchI Write What I LikeThe Eye of the NeedleBurger's DaughterJuly's PeopleDown Second Avenue
The African ImageBury Me at the MarketplaceMhudiWrath of the AncestorsDecolonising the Mind

The View from Ilorin
by David Attwell

This is part of the PEN SA essay series on South African literature. If you are interested in submitting a piece, contact us on

I spent the month of September in Ilorin, Nigeria, as a visitor at Kwara State University. I had personal reasons for wanting to visit Nigeria, which go back to being a student at Natal University in Durban in the late 1970s. To any young person with a conscience, the 1970s were bracing, not unlike the present. Black students who rallied behind the Black Consciousness movement were in the firing line; white students, who were freer to choose their battles, were often marked by the times too, even at historically white institutions like Natal.

Something was afoot in Durban, specifically. After the industrial strikes of 1973, which brought the trades union into direct confrontation with the State for the first time, NUSAS’s Wages Commission involved students in union work. The Special Branch took this very seriously and it was conspicuous on campus. (They even meddled in gender politics: when we ran a review of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch in Dome, the student newspaper, they came looking for her.) Stephen Biko and Rick Turner both had Natal affiliations. Their murders gave their work more currency: I Write What I Like was banned but Biko’s speeches and articles circulated in photocopies; Turner’s The Eye of the Needle became a bible of sorts, for the philosophically discerning.

As a white male, if you were not going to take the gap for Amsterdam or London to avoid wrestling with the beast of military conscription (assuming you had ruled out six years of imprisonment for refusing altogether) you had to ask yourself: umlungu, what was your place going to be in the coming Azania? Roger Lucey and Johnny Clegg sang your condition; Nadine Gordimer wrote it up in Burger’s Daughter and July’s People. (Nearly 40 years ago, Burger’s Daughter gave a graphic account of the ferocity of Black Consciousness’s rejection of white patronage.)

For the literary-minded, one route open to engaging with Africa was through its literature. If Kenya, Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria would not let you in, you could at least inhabit such places through the word. It is clearer now how the confluence worked: Heinemann’s African Writers Series (AWS) and a burgeoning journal literature flowed into South Africa, to be taken up eagerly by readers hungry for a more Afrocentric identity. Natal’s English lecturer Mike Kirkwood, who had taught Yeats, Conrad, Faulkner (who were on the syllabus) and who referenced Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi (who were not), left for Johannesburg’s Ravan Press and started Staffrider, the local adjunct to the continent-wide flowering of cultural decolonisation. Black Consciousness had its own agenda; for white students, African Studies, especially African literature, made it possible to explore new forms of belonging.

The AWS was the bait and we took it. I was mesmerised especially by the mythic power and virtuosity of Wole Soyinka. That a replete mythological system founded on Yoruba tradition could be so powerfully alive and so artfully blended with literary modernism was a revelation. You felt the urgency, the ambition, the gravitas of Soyinka’s language, even – no, especially – in the land of Mongane Serote’s dry white season.

It is more obvious now that the books were a substitute for real social connections, but then literature has always marked out ethical alternatives when society falls short. In the early 1980s, when I was privileged to be teaching at UWC (which invented transformation in higher education, years before the term came into general use) those ethical alternatives seemed to take on the shape of reality in a community determined to do things differently.

So when an invitation from Ilorin arrived, perhaps for nostalgic reasons I was ready to take it up. Ready, as I discovered when I got there, to be swept along by the romance of towns and road-signs that had long been places of imagination: from Lagos north and west to Ibadan, Oyo, Ife, Abeokuta, Oshogbo, Ilorin. There was also the vicarious déjà vu of scenes first encountered in Es’kia Mphahlele’s writing, in Down Second Avenue (1959), The African Image (1962) and the letters of Bury Me at the Marketplace (1983, 2010). (Having co-edited Mphahlele’s letters, it felt as if the energetic writer-cum-activist of his early years had been everywhere before me.) By the late 1980s, as a graduate student in Austin, Texas with an editorial fellowship on Research in African Literatures, I laid down other memories that were re-ignited by these travels. One stands out in particular: receiving a letter from Amos Tutuola, thanking me for the typewriter ribbons that I had managed to procure for him from a Texas warehouse.

It was not long before my host, Abiola Irele, revealed to me the real reason for his invitation. He had outlined the background in an obituary for Chinua Achebe, which he had published in The Savannah Review. When Achebe died on 21 March, 2013, the Nigerian press was filled with eulogies, but one claim repeated in the general outpouring of national feeling prompted Irele to object: Nigerians were saying that Achebe was “the father of modern African literature”. Irele pointed out that the description foreshortened the field – it obscured the depth of oral cultures, the longevity of written literatures in Ethiopia and north Africa, and the vitality of literatures in indigenous languages. If “modern African literature” meant literary writing from the mid-twentieth century onwards, mainly in colonial languages, then yes, Achebe’s presence was immense.

But Irele didn’t stop there: the origins of “modern African literature”, he said, lay not in Nigeria after all, but in South Africa:

We are obliged to locate the beginnings in South Africa, in the work of early writers such as Tiyo Soga, Benedict Vilakazi, and especially Sol Plaatje, whose novel Mhudi … builds on an ancestral myth to recount the fortunes of a primordial couple as symbolic of the very genesis of African self-awareness … The force of statement in Plaatje’s work and much of this early literature in South Africa determined the character of an African awakening in what may be considered the first Renaissance, anticipating developments that were to follow on a broader front in later times. (The Savannah Review, November 2013, p. 113)

Such is the view from Ilorin. It is a generous assessment, to be sure. When I read this, I realised the alarming responsibility that Abiola had thrust into my hands. It was my task to give some substance to his narrative for the students and staff of the School of Languages and Literary Studies at KWASU. The responsibility was driven home still further when I learned that my audience included one Gabriel Ajadi, the first translator into English of DO Fagunwa, a writer of Yoruba on whose shoulders Soyinka, among others, stands.

Thanks largely to the dramatist Femi Osofisan the audience knew about Athol Fugard, but that’s about as far as it went. Following a quick tour of South African languages, my agenda had to be the elaboration of a South African canon of writers, few of whom the Nigerians had heard of: Tiyo Soga, Walter Rubusana, Thomas Mofolo, Sol Plaatje, SEK Mqhayi, Nontsizi Mgqwetho, AC Jordan, HIE Dhlomo, BW Vilakazi, Es’kia Mphahlele, Lauretta Ngcobo, Bessie Head, Njabulo Ndebele, Zakes Mda. I tried to tell them about younger writers, like Lesego Rampolokeng, Lebo Mashile and Niq Mhlongo, as well as those whose lives had ended too early, Phaswane Mpe and K Sello Duiker. I sketched out an “unsettled settler tradition” of white writing, as it might be seen from Ilorin: a form of modernism in which Africa makes itself felt as silent interlocutor, an insistent demand that was expressed in formal fractures and displacements – a tradition culminating in JM Coetzee.

At certain points in this story, we stopped to reflect on the resonances between South Africa and Nigeria. Two decades before Things Fall Apart, in 1940, AC Jordan published Ingqumbo yeminyanya, translated as The Wrath of the Ancestors (1980). The structure of ideas in Jordan’s and Achebe’s novels is strikingly similar: a careful portrayal of precolonial culture, then a tragic hero whose life and death measure out an ambiguous path through modernity.

We reflected on the dispersal of the Drum generation, the generation of Nigeria’s own literary Titans, with Mphahlele himself making his way to Lagos and Ibadan where he published Alex La Guma and Dennis Brutus in Black Orpheus. It was Mphahlele who organised the famous conference at Makerere University in 1962 on African literature of English expression, the very conference that Ngũgĩ refers to with scorn in the opening paragraphs of Decolonising the Mind.

But as I made my way through the standard landmarks of South African literature, misgivings began to form at the back of my mind. The first was this: how seriously do South Africans themselves take their literary history? The second was the realization that if I were back in South Africa, as a white academic in the current climate it would not be me who would be asked to facilitate this conversation.
The #RhodesMustFall movement had kicked off at UCT back in March, with Chumani Maxwele throwing a bucket of shit over Rhodes’s imperial visage. A gesture of self-conscious shaming but a gesture, nevertheless, that was unable to rise above its impoverishment. If a budding Soyinka of the Western Cape had been part of #RhodesMustFall, he might have made a different kind of statement – a play in isiXhosa, perhaps, performed on the Jameson steps, in which Rhodes on his plinth is put on trial, covered with a kaross. After all, Soyinka had dared something on that scale when he questioned the hubris of the Nigerian independence celebrations in A Dance of the Forests.

Not long after Maxwele’s act of protest, the writer Thando Mgqolozana, following his intervention at the predominantly white Franschhoek Literary Festival, sought to decolonise South African literature in a series of 20 tweets. Cultural decolonisation on the scale demanded by Ngũgĩ will take harder work than that. It needs a canon, touchstones, a vocabulary, debate. I doubt that it can be done at all on a platform of social media. To his credit, Mgqolozana has gone on to organise a programme of literary events in Khayelitsha.

In fact, the movement’s symbolic vocabulary has rapidly expanded (its key documents are now usefully archived by the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism) but the early statements show that in a particular sense, the students were right: if their dignity, their right to cultural sovereignty, had always been assumed, such desperate acts would not have been necessary. By comparison with Nigeria’s universities, South Africa’s are stratospherically privileged, except perhaps where it really counts and that is in affirming the dignity of the student. The infrastructure of Nigerian universities may be poor but in one respect they have got it right.

The fact that #RhodesMustFall has evolved into #FeesMustFall’s direct challenge to the State over its failures in higher education is altogether a good thing. We are beginning to catch up with Achebe who stated unequivocally in The Trouble with Nigeria that the problems of the postcolony start with the failures of the national leadership.

There is one particular conversation in Ilorin that left a strong impression on me. Irele told me about the early 1960s when Mphahlele was working for the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Paris. His interactions with the négritude intellectuals of Présence Africaine and the Society of African Culture, Alioune Diop and others, left a sour note. Mphahlele disliked négritude in these early years; to him it ignored the proletarian, urban realities of black life in a city like Johannesburg.

Irele told me that the négritudinists were dismayed by Mphahlele’s gauche politics and parochialism. After all, négritude, they felt, was universalist – a parenthetical space in the world republic of letters. Its purpose was to affirm racial pride but its discourse was cross-cultural in poetry and philosophy. This is a paradoxical truth whose import is light years away from the essentialism of South Africa’s identity politics.

Such was the view from Ilorin. I left in gratitude to Abiola Irele for showing me in his generosity that it was possible for the great achievements of cultural decolonisation to become a shared heritage. But I also left with a sense of foreboding, realising that the conversations I was party to in Nigeria were becoming increasingly factionalised and out of reach in my own country.

The space for the free exchange of ideas across our racial cantonments appears to be rapidly closing down. When the barricades that we are building become so high that we can’t hear one another, or even shout at one another anymore, what will we do then? Will we re-emerge from behind them, resigned to the inescapable fact that history has thrown us together?

Related stories:

Book details

  • The Eye of the Needle: Towards Participatory Democracy in South Africa by Richard Turner, Tony Morphet, Rosalind C Morris
    EAN: 9780857422378
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PEN South Africa Concerned About Draft Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill

PEN South Africa has read the draft Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill (B-2015) with extreme concern. There are many features of the Bill which have the potential to harm and make inroads on freedom of expression and impose wide-ranging controls over people who use the internet.

We concur with Right to Know (R2K)‘s assessment of the bill, which highlights its “Seven Deadly Sins“, as well as the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI)‘s concerns regarding the Bill’s potential to infringe the rights to freedom of expression, access to information and the right to privacy.

We have submitted feedback to the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, requesting that the Bill be withdrawn and redrafted with input from civil society. We have asked that the Bill be reformulated in such a way that it achieves the protections sought in the safest way and which takes into consideration the freedom of expression clauses in the Constitution and protection of the public interest.

PEN South Africa will take part in the public hearings on the Bill if given the opportunity and will be following the legislative process closely.

Writers Speak Out About Why #TextbooksMatter

Writers Karen Jennings, Achmat Dangor, Lauren Beukes, Gabeba Baderoon, Yewande Omotoso, Sisonke Msimang and Njabulo Ndebele have all shared their thoughts on why #TextbooksMatter. This is part of SECTION27′s campaign ahead of the upcoming court case regarding the government’s responsibility to provide schoolchildren in Limpopo with textbooks. Other writers have shared videos of their statements, which can be watched on Basic Education for All’s Facebook page.

For more information on the case read our call on the Department of Basic Education to ensure access to textbooks and books for all schoolchildren. Writers, add your voices to the campaign by signing your names to our statement here.

Click on the images to enlarge:

Karen Jennings
Achmat Dangor
Lauren Beukes
Gabeba Baderoon statement
Yewande Omotoso
Sisonke Msimang
Njabulo Ndebele

(Image of Karen Jennings courtesy of Books LIVE)

PEN SA Calls on the Department of Basic Education to Ensure that All Schoolchildren Have Access to Textbooks

“An education enables that most foundational of rights – freedom of expression. It is key to a vibrant and growing economy as it is key to a cultural life and to literature.”PEN SA President Margie Orford

Writers: Add your name to this call by clicking here and filling in the form.

Books are to education what oxygen is to life. Without books there is no learning, no knowledge, no understanding, no empathy. A book is a wonder – it is the distillation of what we know and how we live together. It is outrageous to think that just because a child is poor they should be cut off from books – the lifeblood of our shared community.

A book – and this includes the textbooks which are for so many millions of South African children the only books they will possess – is companion, guide and freedom. A book – a textbook – gives a child the autonomy they need to study and read at their own pace. This is not a luxury. Books and the hands that hold them give the shape of our shared futures. To deprive children of books – to which they have a right – is tantamount to depriving those same children of food.

With this in mind PEN South Africa supports SECTION27 and Better Education for All (BEFA)’s #TextbooksMatter Campaign. SECTION27 is a public interest law centre that seeks to influence, develop and use the law to protect, promote and advance human rights. BEFA is a community based organisation made up of parents, school governing bodies, learners, educators and other community members in Limpopo.

On 24 November, the South African Department of Basic Education will be appealing the Limpopo textbook judgement which was brought by BEFA (represented by SECTION27) in 2014.

In April 2014, the High Court ruled in favour of that the textbooks shortages were a breach of learners’ rights and ordered the Department to complete delivery within two months. This was the fourth court order in three years to be made against the Department requiring them to deliver all outstanding textbooks to schools in Limpopo. The Court declared that each learner at a public school in Limpopo has the right to be provided with every textbook for the learner’s grade before teaching of the curriculum is due to start. It described the failure to do so as “a violation of the rights to a basic education, equality, dignity”.

The Department is appealing this judgement as it argues that this is tantamount to “an impossible standard of perfection” and that the court should rather ask whether the government has taken “all reasonable measures” to fulfill the right. PEN concurs with SECTION27 and BEFA’s position that the right to basic education is an “unqualified right” and one that should be realized immediately.

There is extensive evidence that books are key to educational success and literacy. Access to textbooks, as well as libraries and books in general, is key to a good education.

As writers we call on the Department of Basic Education to prioritise immediate access to textbooks and libraries for all schoolchildren in South Africa.

We need an education revolution. We need for apathy to fall and for textbooks to flood our schools. #TextbooksMatter #LetOurKidsLearn #LetOurKidsRead


Louis Greenberg
Michael Morris
Kobus Moolman
Rachel Zadok, Short Story Day Africa
Karen Jennings,
Christine Coates, Poet
Alexander Matthews
Vertrees Malherbe
Karin Brynard
Kirsten Miller
Marie Philip
Hsien Lou
Ashraf Kagee
Willemien de Villiers
Harry Owen
Raymond Louw, Vice-President of PEN South Africa
Maxine Case
Angela Quintal
Julia Norrish, Book Dash
Justin Fox
Colleen Higgs
Margie Orford, President of PEN South Africa
Rosemund Handler
Beverly Rycroft
Byron Loker
Olivia Forsyth
Danie Marais, Manager of PEN Afrikaans
Jerilyn Miripol
Achmat Dangor
Jacqui L’Ange
Bernard Odendaal
Gillian Slovo
Mike van Graan
Nicholas Kawinga, President of Zambian PEN
Helen Moffett
Dawn Garisch
Jenny Hobbs
Ishtiyaq Shukri
Adre Marshall
Maren Bodenstein
Melissa de Villiers
Mark Heywood, SECTION27
Jenny Crwys-Williams
Mphuthumi Ntabeni, Qhamisa Publishers
Karin Schimke
Arabella Koopman
Izak de Vries, PEN Afrikaans
Jade Jacobsohn, Nal’ibali
Tosin Tume, ASSITEJ
Dessale Abraham, PEN Eritrea
Bridget Pitt, Author
Tade Ipadeola, PEN International
Mohamed Sheriff, PEN Sierra Leone

Writers: Add your name to this call by clicking here and filling in the form.

Join PEN SA in Commemorating the 2015 Day of the Imprisoned Writer

PEN South Africa and Kalk Bay Books invite you to an evening of rousing music, poetry and free speech to commemorate the International Day of the Imprisoned Writer.

Join master of ceremonies Finuala Dowling as she hosts an event that will include award-winning writers Sindiwe Magona, Claire Robertson and Jim Pascual Agustin. Famous freedom songs will be performed by prizewinning songwriter and vocalist Emma Rycroft together with Nielan Prinsloo of the band Blacksmith.

The aim of the event is to draw attention to the plight of all detained authors, but especially to the five specially selected cases of 2015:

1. Raif Badawi (Saudi Arabia)
2. Amanuel Asrat (Eritrea)
3. Juan Carlos Argenal Medina (Honduras)
4. Patiwat Saraiyaem and Pornthip Munkonge (Thailand)
5. Khadija Ismayilova (Azerbaijan)

The event is free but as seating is limited, please be sure to book.

When: Monday 16 November at 6 for 6.30pm
Where: Kalk Bay Books, 124 Main Road, Kalk Bay, Cape Town
RSVP: 021 788 2266 or

Day of the Imprisoned