Interest in women writers in South Africa, is undeniably in demand. If ever there are ‘Doubting Thomas’s’ such as those questioning the existence of women writers in South Africa, alongside those who question the level of interest about women writers from South Africa and elsewhere, then such pessimistic folks are amiably advised to seek for the feedback of those who attended, what University of Johannesburg (UJ) fittingly dubbed as The Johannesburg Festival of Women Writers: An Intergenerational Conversation. The latter was an inaugural conference, hosted by the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study (JIAS) on Sunday 12th February 2023, at Johannesburg Business School (JBS). This venue was formerly known as Media Park, which formerly operated as the headquarters of ‘Media 24’). A fun fact about the specific section where the conference proceedings took place (on the far right from the main gate of JBS), is that this venue was once utilsed as a parking lot. The range of stalwart and budding women authors selected to serve as panelists and the few book vendors, who came to sell some of the latter’s books, combined with an intergenerational audience certainly assures me, that replies from the bulk of attendees, ought to affirm my opening salvo.
UJ’s seriousness in hosting their inaugural ‘Festival of Women Writers’ was evident, from the presence of its most senior leaders, whom were allocated respective slots on the programme. The only conspicuous absentee listed on the program, was Prof. Letlhokwa Mpedi (the incoming Vice-Chancellor and Rector of UJ). For me another critical absentee although not a member of UJ’s Management was Prof. Victoria J. Collis-Buthelezi, on the basis that she is UJ’s Director of the ‘Centre for the Study of Race, Gender and Class’. During the ‘Plenary Session’ in Room LG 023, which was packed to capacity prior to lunchtime, conference attendees were informed by Prof. Tshilidzi Marwala, the outgoing Vice-Chancellor and Rector of UJ (his tenure ends this month), that this inaugural conference was the brainchild of Dr. Barbara Masekela (introduced on the conference program as an ‘author, poet, educator, activist and JIAS Fellow’). Dr. Masekela’s book Poli Poli (2021), is a must read which amongst others will enable the South African public to know her, beyond being bra Hugh (or Minkie) Masekela’s younger sister. The Director of JIAS Dr. Bongani Ngqulunga was acknowledged as an enabling piller towards realizing Dr. Masekela’s proposal. Amongst those that supported Dr. Masekela, was Elinor Sisulu (introduced on the conference program as an ‘award winning writer, Children’s literature specialist and activist’). Prof. Marwala also announced that Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, as the Chancellor of UJ, has been entrusted to be the Patron of this ‘Johannesburg Festival of Women Writers’ which will be hosted annually. Leading by example, as an author of about 16 books, Prof. Marwala presented his latest book (published last week) to the UJ Chancellor titled The 4th Industrial Revolution and International Relations. Those familiar with Prof. Marwala’s speeches expected to hear (and we did) his mantra “Those who do not read must not lead, lest they mislead us into temptation and deliver us to Satan”. This festival will serve, as part of Prof. Marwala’s legacy at UJ. Imagine leaving, on such a high note.
This festival was open to the public for free but too much was crammed for a single day. Dr. Masekela and her organizing team hosted nine sessions. Most of the slots ran parallel, with the exception of the well attended ‘Plenary Session’ (1pm-1.40pm) and poorly attended ‘Closing Session’ (4pm-4.15pm). The first two panels from 10-11:15am were themed ‘Trends in, and vision for contemporary writing in South Africa’ (moderated by Dr. Danyela Demir) and ‘Children’s Literature: The challenges of creating a cultural and linguistically relevant children’s literature rooted in our storytelling traditions’ (moderated by Nthabi Sibanda-Founder of Puo Books). The 11.30am-12:45 timeslot featured my favourite theme ‘Life writing: Celebrating and Writing Life-Biographies, Autobiographies, and Memoirs’, alongside ‘The ARC: From your head to my bookshelf (moderated by Jenny Crwys-Williams- an author) and my other favorite theme was ‘Poetry: Song, spoken words and heritage’ (moderated by Dr. Gcina Mhlophe- a storyteller). The 2.30pm-3.45pm slot featured ‘The UN Decade for Indigenous Language 2022-2032’ (moderated by Dr. Athambile Masola) and ‘Academic writing: The Politics of citation and importance of correct referencing’ (moderated by Dr. Danyela Demir). Dr. Sindiwe Magona’s keynote address in the ‘Plenary session’, was in sync with these words from the programme of the festival “Women write to make their voices heard, but those voices risk being muted if their books do not reach their intended audiences. More platforms are needed that celebrate and promote the voices into all our cultural and educational models to reflect the full range of joy, play and pain found in the work of South Africa’s women- be they writers. Performers, dramatists, storytellers, screenwriters or poets”. It would be great for the duration of the sequel festival to be hosted over three days, if possible the organizers should consider including panels for publishers, representatives of local bookshops (who vitally sell books by women writers) and alas invite male authors writing about women. Malibongwe igama lamakhosikazi!!
Dr Tshepo Mvulane Moloi (Postdoctoral Research Fellow)
Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education Studies (AMCHES)
University of Johannesburg