Some talents are placed in the hands of people who cannot utilize them to the overall benefit of the world around them. Some are systematically suppressed and can never be expressed in writing, while some are caged from behind the ugly grey walls of prison cells. Such is that of an inmate at a Pietersburg Correctional Service facility where a Youth Writer’s Workshop was held, aimed at sensitizing, identifying and encouraging talented and aspirant young writers for purposes of exposure and possible mentorship.
The workshop, organized by the Limpopo Youth Commission in partnership with the Limpopo Provincial Department of Sports, Arts and Culture through its Provincial Language Board was meant to simplify my journey into finding a response to a question I was charged to answer. 'Where are Young Black Writers in a Post-Apartheid South Africa?' The workshop clearly exposed that youth writers are there and are facing tremendous odds to gain recognition in a world that underestimates any opinion expressed by them.
Through deliberations it surfaced that the same is the situation with the whole country today. A dire need has arisen for the guard to consider changing if young writers are going to be allowed their moment to shine. Obviously it will not be easy for a young novelist to write liberally about sexual foreplay and oral sex, knowing that their work will be evaluated by a panel that comes from an era where sex was only regarded as a baby making exercise and oral sex was unheard of. Even with an open mind on the part of the old guard, objectivity comes with a prize. The old school needs to conform.
Professor N.A Milubi , who is the Chairperson of the Northern Province Provincial Language Council echoed that, "there is a pressing need to have the youth rediscover the spirit of youth writing. We want you to become masters of your own destiny. We are afraid that as soon as the elderly writers disappear into old age there will not be anyone to take over". But the truth is that every generation is indebted to the one that came before it and obviously it is going to be difficult for up and coming poets, novelist and dramatists whose works are not getting judged on their literary merit but using that of known academics like Prof Es'kia Mphahlele and Prof Njabulo Ndebele as a yardstick to shine. Encouraging enough is that the new breed of youth writers is struggling hard to create its own style far removed from what the Western media perceive as orthodox and what academics embrace as the norm.
In his address, poet and author Mr. H.M. Lentsoane used the example of known and celebrated Sepedi author, N.S. Puleng who published his first novel while he was still doing his Junior Certificate in the 1970s. He indicated Puleng as a typical example of pride in language and wisdom beyond its years. A need was stressed for the youth not only to focus in English writing but also to utilize indigenous languages. He also touched a lot on academic Prof Eskia Mphahlele’s passion for poetry and writing using him as a shining example for post-apartheid poets.
Prof Milubi of the PLC later commented that, "As the watchdog of the language interests we believe that the youth in general can be redeemed. The disabled too must not be disregarded as we want every youth to be exposed to this creative spirit". He said that what they were doing was language development through activity. His words were crowned by the large number of prison inmates who were present and participated in the workshop.
When I earlier arrived at the Pietersburg Correctional Service facility to attend the ground breaking workshop I had my brief, which was to find an answer to a trivial question that hangs like a dark cloud in this country today. I found black writers struggling to express themselves in a foreign language, while some were in prison. At the end of the day I had a brutal admission to make which is an indictment on me too, I didn’t know where most where, but me and a small, disorientated starving bunch. This indicates what Prof Milubi said that the less there is a reading public, the lesser the youth will see writing as a lucrative thing to do and to be involved in.
At the end of the day as I left the facility, free like a bird, and the inmates got ready to be caged like animals, one consoling realisation filled my mind; which was that, these days they no longer make delinquents but writers in prison. I felt that if anything else failed for me as a writer outside the prison system, I might one day wake up, go out and commit a misdemeanor and relocate to lockdown where opportunities are in abundance. Maybe the next best thing to happen to young black writers, even a potential messiah will emerge from behind prison walls, in chains, with only his creative spirit being free.
UPDATE: Since then there has been a flurry of young black writers like Niq Mhlongo (Dog eat Dog), Kgebetli Moele (Room 207), the late K Sello Duiker (The Quiet Violence of Dreams), Phaswane Mpe (Welcome to our Hillbrow), Mmatshilo Motsei (The Kanga and the Kangaroo Court), Nokuthula Mazibuko (Spring Offensive), Morabo Morojele (How we buried Puso), Eric Miyeni (O'Mandingo! The only black at the dinner party) and many others
* Polokwane Library Services in collaboration with the municipality are staging the province's first indigenous language Book Fair for two days.
* Cape Town based Kwela Books recently made this refreshing statement on a reply in Sunday times, 'However, in South Africa there are still publishers, like Nelleke de Jager at Kwela Books, who are committed to investing in developing new authors'