In this 24th year of  Time of the Writer Festival as we face a global pandemic for the second year, it seemed important that as I looked at the larger festival theme The Writer: Witness, Canary in the Mine or Testifier, I focus too on the writer’s voice in a political, social and artistically-conscious world. I focus on this because it’s the world we live in. For what is writing, without politics or society, and how meaningful is it if not executed artistically?

Many readers in South Africa and  some on the continent are familiar with one of the festival guests’ Niq Mhlongo’s Dog Eat Dog and Thando Mgqolozana’s Unimportance. In the two novels, Dingz in Dog Eat Dog and Zizi in Unimportance, find themselves fighting an education system set up to make it near impossible for poor students to attain higher education.

Many would say Mhlongo and Mgqolozana were canaries in the mine, foreseeing the doom, or revolution (depending on which side of power you sit on) that was to come in our universities.

The #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests.

But I, a black child in this country, on this continent knew when I read them what they were talking about, knew people who had experienced the same and so to me, they had written from their past experience of being students and were testifying.

As a matter of fact, fourteen years ago as a debutante when I was invited in this space to the 10th Time of the Writer with my first novel The Madams, I wasn’t foretelling near doom even through humour about how race relations in this country  could destroy friendships. I was using  Thandi, Lauren and Nosizwe’s engagement to speak on what I could see but hoped the paler members of our society would realise. In so doing, I hoped this ten percent of our nation’s population would rethink their engagement with the majority of this country who are darker. Instead, these, my fellow compatriots relegated me to black chick lit. In publications that forgot that the majority of this country’s population is black and women or to use their term, chicks. That the majority of the country’s book buyers are black chicks. In a country, that does not have a literary category called white dick lit.

The year 2020 was bad for artists globally as it was for domestic workers, manual labourers, the hospitality industry, the airline industry and many other sectors of society. It was worse for the unemployed. Hope was lost. Family members who used to assist could no longer do so. In the midst of us all struggling to make sense of it, some things happened. Deaths happened. Covid deaths. And other deaths that could have been avoided.

On 10th April 2020, South African soldiers killed our brother Collins Khosa who was sitting at his home having an alcoholic beverage. Because booze had been banned during that time. The soldiers have been suspended but almost a year later, no-one has been convicted. Khosa’s loved ones have been robbed of justice because we all know, justice delayed is justice denied.

We are writers.

We were witnesses.

And we can testify.

On 25th May, Africa Day, a policeman put his knee on the neck of our brother George Floyd in the United States killing him.  African leaders made a statement. They swiftly condemned what was happening in the United States of America. They told us Black Lives Mattered. As writers, we put out a statement in solidarity with our siblings in the United States. We dared to hope that with their statements too, African leaders had woken up to the injustices against black people and were not just using brother George’s death for political expediency. On Twitter, Ethiopian writer Maaza Mengiste would remind us daily how many days it had been since the death of our sister Breonna Taylor and how none of the police who had been there had been  held accountable for her murder.

We were writers.

We are writers.

We were witnesses.

And we can testify.

On 3 June 2020, police in Brazil fatally shot 14 year old Joao Pedros Matos Pinto as he sat in his aunt’s living room with his cousin and friends. My son Hintsa was a few days to 15 so it hit hard. Joao too, was my son. The African Union said nothing.

I spent my 44th birthday on 30th July canvassing signatures on a statement because Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono had been arrested by the Mnangagwa regime next door for daring to expose them for stealing funds that should have been used for Covid. A day later, former Time of the Writer Festival guest Tsitsi Dangarembga was arrested for doing a protest questioning the government’s treatment of citizens, a right enshrined in the Constitution. They arrested Ms. Dangarembga while she walked alone with a placard in her hands wearing a mask. They could not even use the now old and abused ‘Covid violations’ as an excuse for the arrest. In both the Chin’ono and the Dangarembga instances, there was no word from the President of Zimbabwe’s largest trading partner, my country’s President, and the then African Union Chair.

Neither was there word when lives were lost during protests in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On 20th October, Nigerian government forces fired on peaceful protesters officially killing 12 during the #EndSARS protests at Lekki Toll Plaza in Lagos. As writers we wrote a letter in solidarity as we mourned the death of these our brothers and sisters but again, there was no word from African Union and its then Chair, my country’s President. And there has been silence from the African Union for a very long time over attacks on civilians in Cameroon by President Biya’s soldiers.

It becomes clear then that black lives only matter to African presidents when they have been taken by white people in the US or Europe. It seems the nature of the African Union not to say anything whenever their allies are involved. China’s racism towards Africans. India’s gagging of Kashmiris. Brazilian police’s killings of black people. Any African government against its citizens.

We were writers.

We are writers.

We were witnesses.

We are witnesses.

We can testify.

We shouldn’t have been surprised or as Cyril, Buhari, Mnangwagwa and Uhuru love to say “shocked” and yet we were. As writers, as readers, as citizens, as citizens who read, as taxpayers in whatever our African countries are, we have known what our governments’ contracts with us are. We pay taxes and they are supposed to justify, through their works, why we are paying taxes.

Sadly in all of Africa, our governments have treated us, the citizens, as though we are their slaves and not as though they are our employees. As writers then, we are witnesses to this abuse and may feel the need to call it out. And because we look back so as to move forward, we know this has happened before. So while we may want to claim to be canaries in the mine, we probably are not. We are just engaging with our past and knowing how it will shape our future and we seem prophetic only because our leaders are so anti-intellectual, so anti-literature that they do not read so they too can heed the warnings. I hope this is the case.

Because the alternative is that they do read.

And they know the past and how their decisions can damage us but they do not have this continent’s citizens and interests at heart. That they are just izinduna for eastern or western capital. I want to be wrong on the latter and right on the former and hope they can read us and change the status quo.

We are writers.

We are witnesses.

But here is the thing about being witnesses and testifying.

If a tree falls in the forest and white media, think CNN, BBC, AFP or eNCA don’t know it, did it fall at all?

If a writer writes whether as a witness, canary in the mine or testifier and no-one reads it, does it matter?

As my friend and fellow writer Durbanite Azad Essa says, “this question may also be related to the role of journalists on the continent. Journalists who are no longer asked to or expected to do serious journalism. Because no one wants to pay for the canary to go down the coal mine. The result is a type of news reportage and a type of literature made up of noise and not ideas. It’s about a systemic and latent disrespect for the arts and literature towards maintaining or becoming the witness/canary/testifier. It’s about extending this disrespect to future generations too because it says we refuse to invest in our imagination. This anonymity, this disrespect, allows writers to remain dispensable to the system. And a society that does not respect its artists is a society that is not interested in free speech.” END QUOTE.

If a writer writes whether as a witness, canary in the mine or testifier and no-one reads it, does it matter?

I would posit that at the moment, it doesn’t.

How then do we get everyone questioning the abuse of domestic workers by their employers as shown in Makanaka Mavengere’s Perfect Imperfections or festival guest Abi Dare’s The Girl with the Louding Voice?

Or know the intricacies of isthembu as shown in Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes or Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives?

How do people get to question how liberators become oppressors if they have not engaged with Shimmer Chinodya’s Harvest of Thorns, Waiting for the Wild Beast to Vote by Ahmadou Kouroma or Mukoma wa Ngugi’s We, The Scarred?

How do we, as South Africans, as Africans, know how patriarchy hurts all of us if we haven’t read Angela Makholwa’s Black Widows Society or perhaps Wanner’s Men of the South?

What I am asking is how we make literature as significant and relevant as an art form as we do dance, music or film. After all, literature when well executed not only entertains but educates.

At every literary festival, including this one, I have seen omajaivana, singers and sometimes films being screened. And the participants bring another art form, fashion. Up and coming and established designers are worn by keynote speakers and other literary guests. We invite Ihashi Elimhlophe because we hope people will turn up for him and oops, discover books. It’s not unique to South Africa. It is all over this continent. As an example, for the longest time one of the prime literary festivals in Kenya was Storymoja Festival. Storymoja Festival kicked off as Nyama Choma Storymoja Festival. It was meant to attract cool people who wanted to have some braaied goat. And as they were there, they would discover books and writers.

It seems literature practitioners and curators are so lacking in confidence that on this continent we need to bring other art forms to the table to validate us. I have never seen writers invited to Jomba Dance Festival or Durban International Film Festival. Or Cape Town Jazz Festival.

But perhaps this has much to do with our societies and their engagement with literature too. South Africa knows ‘influencers’ with x amount of followers on Twitter or Instagram because they change cars frequently and showcase an affluent lifestyle. We do not question where our influencers’ finances come from. South Africa does not know who Zanemvula Mda or Sindiwe Magona or Nozizwe Jele are even as they know all the actors and actresses who starred in the movie adapted from the latter’s novel Happiness is a Four Letter Word. Heck. Durban does not know who Sihle Mthembu or Sifiso Mzobe or Shubnum Khan or Ronnie Govender are.

What to do?

On Friday 5thMarch, I was one of 400 artists who joined a National Arts Council’s Presidential Employment Stimulus Programme (PESP) webinar. Three hundred million rand was allocated to the arts. Among the applicants were council members. Yes. No-one saw any conflict of interest there. Council member Advocate Makhosini Nkosi told artists if they had a problem, they should take it up with the Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture.

Equally interesting was that some of the artists and organisations that received the grant are now being offered much less than what they were initially offered and can no longer execute what they wanted to while others got significantly more.

All this in a situation where National Arts Council has run out of money and is asking for R3 million more from Department of Sports, Arts and Culture (DSAC) so as to be able to pay artists who were approved to get the PESP grant. Where did the money go? Why has National Arts Council not seen fit to give South African artists a list showing each individual or organization that received the grant, how much they received and when it was disbursed? Why do they need a bailout?

Today, Monday the 15th of March, marks 13 days since artists led by one of our nation’s top opera singers, Sibongile Mngoma went to #OccupyNationalArtsCouncil demanding accountability on PESP funds.


In fact, because the NAC refuses to let artists know who got what, there is word that a kwaito artist with ties to some council member received 9 million rand for a CD launch. This would be an easy rumour to dispel. All the National Arts Council would need to do is make their books public. But perhaps this is a war that we in literature, low on the NAC artistic totem pole, will not win.  Literature low on the NAC totem pole? whatever do I mean?

I speak from experience.

Back in 2009, I applied for a grant while writing my third novel. National Arts Council offered me the princely sum of Twenty Five Thousand Rand. I was a single parent with fees to pay for a child. Somehow the National Arts Council felt Twenty. Five. Thousand. Rand (given in three instalments) was enough to sustain me as a wrote a book. And I had to acknowledge them when the book came out. As my friend Siya likes to say, ‘what a joke, my darling.’ And yet it wasn’t.

What to do?

As art music has SAMRO. Yes, yes. There are problems there too but at least Bhuti Ringo knows where to go and protest when his royalties fall short. Our Ministers consider music an art form to such an extent that they rightly lobby for more local content on playlists on our radios. Indeed if memory serves, a former Minister of Arts and Culture decided to miss a gala dinner in Cape Town with Africa’s first Nobel Literature Laureate Wole Soyinka because he was going to hang out with pop artists at Durban July.

Film has a National Film and Video Foundation.

Film and literature’s close relative, theatre, has the Naledi Theatre Awards.

Perhaps it’s time that literature stands on its own.

Maybe it’s time for literature to have what Thando Mgqolozana has fantasized about.

A literature foundation.

This foundation could be a blueprint for the continent.

It would ensure that literature is accessed in villages as much as it is by the middle and upper classes. It would monitor that there is no ‘Africana’ section in bookstores because Africana would comprise majority of the stock because, where are we? Is this not Africa? Is there an Americana or Europeana section in bookstores in America and Europe?

Writers would not need to witness, prophesy or testify for the people who don’t know they have done it. People would do it for themselves. Our people across economic brackets would quote the work of the writers who are in this festival, who are in this world because they know it and it resonates.

We would not hear such statements like ‘African writers don’t write sex/humour/crime/fantasy/sci-fi/romance/politics/YA/children’s books.’ We have written those books, we are writing them and we shall continue to write them. A literature foundation would help to publicise this.

In villages, in farms, in townships across this great continent, children would chant “Refilwe Refilwe let down your locks, so I can climb the scraggy rocks” because they would know about an African retelling of Rapunzel. May be they would not even know of the Brothers Grimm version.

They would know ngano as we heard it from our grandparents because we have written them.

They would know Gambian writer Maimouna Jallow summoned the spirit of Mami Wata so that they could know the history of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade all the way to our brother Eric Garner whispering to yet another policeman who had his knee on his neck ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe’ 14 times.

Our children would know why the chicken does not fly because their Nigerian big brother Nnamdi Anyadu would have told them. And as their parents read these stories to them, they would question their docility and inaction towards bad governance.

Our continent would be immensely enriched if each country had a literature foundation where writers would not need to debate whether to take Ngugi’s side or Achebe’s side on the language question. Because you see, writers, like painters, would paint in a colour or language of their preference, but be certain that their work, if engaging enough, could be translated into another of our languages. And our universities would not allow anyone to earn a Master’s degree in any language if they have not translated a book from this continent from one language to another.

Writers would not need to hear the question when they state that they are a writer, ‘ja but what exactly do you do for a living?’ Because everyone would know that writing is a profession.

The literature foundation would also act as arbitrators between publishers and writers, providing auditing services where writers have queries about royalties. And no.  Even though we do not yet have the organization, our royalty fees would still travel from publisher directly to the writers as happens now and not through the foundation.

The African Continental Free Trade Area which many of our countries have signed and ratified would ensure easier movement of books and cancel VAT on books because, how can we tax knowledge and art? Why would we tax art knowing what we have learnt during this pandemic about its ability to heal us?

Educated but unemployed villagers would work as librarians, teaching literacy through our stories. We would have literary awards where people would fight for an invitation as much as they do for music or film or theatre awards. Because our leaders would understand that a reading continent is a leading continent, moreso as it already has all the other resources that the rest of the world wants. As a country, as a continent, we would be unstoppable. Because to be truly powerful is to have your own voice and tell your own story. And stories are literature. And literature goes hand in hand with literacy.

Advocacy. Policy. Grants for publishing and translation. An annual award ceremony. That would be part of what a literature foundation would do.

Maybe I am dreamer. I know I am a dreamer. Because to be a writer, an artist, is to constantly hope for the better. But I believe a lot of the phobias our societies deal with: Afrophobia, homophobia, womanophobia would be dealt with if people had access to literature. We would then realize that we all love, laugh and hurt and question our own judgments of others. We would question our othering of others.

As writers, we can be witnesses, appear to foretell doom or testify. Unfortunately, as long as no-one reads us and engages with our work, it will not matter. After the end of this 24th Time of the Writer Festival, I can only hope that the narrative is changed.

I am Zukiswa Wanner, a citizen, a lover and a believer in this rich but poor continent. I am sometimes mistakenly thought of as a canary in the mine but always I am a witness, a testifier and a writer. Thank you.


This essay was presented as the keynote lecture at the 2021 Time of the Writer Festival.