CityLife Arts

The novelist and the allegations of abuse

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

Sometime in 2017, I found myself at Mofolo Lifestyle Centre in Soweto, with a couple of other people in the media and the literary space.

We were at the launch of Abantu Book Festival, the inaugural event of the now well known book fair.  All the people who were at the event, we were quite excited that instead of complaining about the state of affairs in the publishing space, something that had gained some level of notoriety due to its monotonous nature, someone had done something about it.

The issue is this: Many black authors in South Africa, in as much as they enjoyed attending white organized book fairs to which they were invited before, they felt uncomfortable, and even alienated at such events. The better word is perhaps marginalized, and a feeling of not belonging there. If they did, they also felt like they needed to be grateful for being included, irrespective of the fact that they in fact belonged to such gatherings, based on the quality of their literary output. Such events invite authors, often of books that have just been published and are either making an impact, or will soon do so, in society.

But now, here was a black author, who was obviously tired of the same feelings I have just described above. But, instead of blaming the organisers of the other book fairs for whatever shortcomings he and others picked up at such events, in as far as accommodating black people in general and black authors in particular, is concerned, he was doing something about it. Not only did the emergence of Abantu Book Festival on the literary scene in South Africa in 2017, address a genuine grievance by black authors, it also was an answer to an actual need for books to be accessible in the most populous township in the country, Soweto.

Soweto did not have a book shop, and it still does not, a perplexing situation, especially because the sprawling township that is over 100 years, consists of over 30 odd townships, whose population is estimated at 3.5 million. The only book store that had opened at giant Maponya Mall, when the mall opened, was forced to close down shortly after. I am not sure about the circumstances under which Exclusive Books closed shop at Maponya Mall. That debate is a story for another day.

But anyway, on that fateful day in 2017 at Mofolo Lifestyle Centre, in Soweto, Abantu Book Festival was launched in style. We were all excited about it as you can imagine. After  the official launch, after listening  to speeches from a number of people, including the founder of Abantu Book Festival, novelist Thando Mgqolozana, and how he struggled to get sponsors on board, an official from the Department of Arts and Culture, the main sponsor, and others, it was time to party over drinks.

But then during the official presentation, author Panashe Chigumadzi, who was part of the organizing team, alongside Mgqolozana, told us bluntly that there was a code of conduct that we all needed to be aware of, and If I recall, we were also required to sign, and it had something to do with sexual harassment during the book fair festivities. That message was made implicitly clear that it was directed towards the males –would-be visitors or delegates to the Book festival. I was stunned at first, and immediately also got into a state of confusion as I was not sure If something terrible had just happened, pushing Mgqolozana and his team to take such seeming drastic precautions. To be honest, I felt such precautions appeared out of place at a book fair, where it is taken for granted that unwanted attention to a female by a male, is sexual harassment, and should not be tolerated or contemplated. After all this is an event attracted some of the brilliant thinkers and gifted individuals in society, whose sense of propriety should be above average.

Perhaps this feeling on my part had something to do with the way Panashe informed us. It perhaps also had something to do with my journalistic instinct, for the part of the world that I operate in, that is in journalism, you just do not say a controversial issue like that at a public official event and not give the context. But personally, It felt like there was something thing that the organisers knew in advance was going to happen during the book festival, and that is that one or some among us, it was given, we were going to sexually harass women delegates or visitors.

I confined in a friend, a fellow writer and journalist who was there that I was confused and feeling uncomfortable about what has just been said. I suggested that I felt I needed to find out more from Panashe or one of the organisers what was this all about.

But this friend said the following:”No, please do not do that because sexual harassment at book fairs is real, and in any case, they were going to think that you are one of the  apologists for harassers of women.”

 I was obviously shocked. Me apologist of men who harass women? I stopped and thought more careful, and within a short space of time, I started thinking about the horrible statistics of men who kill, abuse and harass women daily in society.  I also remembered how as a reporter on a Daily newspaper a few years ago, I took it upon myself to highlight how a mini-skirt glad young woman from Soweto  was almost stripped naked by patriarchal and perverted taxi drivers at Noord taxi rank in Johannesburg CBD. I took it upon myself to track down the poor young women, interviewed her about her experiences of being publicly humiliated just for nothing.  The public response and sympathy was overwhelming, pushing one events promoter to launch, a Mini-Skirt festival to raise awareness about the scourge of women abuse, and the face of that festival was none other than the young woman.

It then dawned to me that women abuse, including sexual harassment was in fact an issue, and If Mgqolozana and his team, have to remind their guests of this in the manner that they did, so be it for as long as the messge is sent out, and not how it is delivered.

I backed off, even though the thought of something as horrible as the suggestion without context given, that we were potential women harassers at the book festival kept on bothering me as I started asking myself If indeed I could be the person the organisers suggested all of us could be. I backed off and never proceeded to seek clarification and context, and I am glad that I did.

I am revisiting this story because this past week, a story broke out, based on a series of tweets that have since been deleted, emanating from a woman, believed to be the mother of Mgqolozana’s child, accusing the novelist of abusing her. That story has shaken the literary establishment to the core, as to date, it is one of the biggest scandals to rock the literary establishment in recent years in South Africa. Its full repercussions are yet to be gauged, especially in a country struggling with two pandemics, the global Pandemic, Covid-19, and the South African pandemic, Gender Based Violence, as described at several official events by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Here I am not going to try and get into the merits and demerits of the allegations against the novelist, for that is not my space and an explanation is perhaps in order here.

Of course I have known Mqgolozana, have interviewed him in the past, the last interview being in 2018, during the Inxeba: The Wound’s storm. This is the multi-award winning film- that Mqgolozana was a part of as co-author, released in 2018, and which became controversial, with the team behind the film, even getting threatened with violence and death by faceless people. Those were mainly faceless people who disapproved of this movie that touched on the issue of the passage of rite initiation, practiced by several ethnic groups in southern Africa, including the Xhosa people, an ethnic group from which Mqgolozana is culturally part of.  The film also delved into the theme of same sex relationships.

At the height of the controversy, amidst threats of violence promised to be meted out to the crew and actors at venues where the movie was to screen,  I was  commissioned by Business Day newspaper to do an article on the issue. In the process, I had to interview the novelist in his capacity as the co-author of that story that caused all the trouble. After that, we may have met once or twice, at arts events and that is about it.

Other than that professional relationship, and  other encounters here and there, mainly at arts and culture events, and of course through his beautifully written books, I do not know much about Mgqolozana to have an opinion of a personal nature. And of course I also do not know his accuser. Therefore, the matter of judgment, I leave that to those that know the couple well.

But there is one thing that is quite clear about this story, and that is the potential threat this scandal has to undo the great work that Mqolozana has done with regards to bringing literature to the people. These are a people that for the longest of time, were generally believed to be non readers. But that has been proven false as going to Abantu Book Festival over the years, I have seen people buying books in big numbers. These are the very same people that were said not to be lovers of books.

In other words, can the Abantu Book Festival exist outside and beyond the woman abuse accusations leveled against its founder and the main brains behind the book festival? This is the question to think about critically in the face of these acusations.

In the meantime the effects of this story is being felt in all literary circles. How would it not because, the person who is accused of perpetrating this terrible scourge in society, has emerged as an influential figure in literature on the continent, as he has changed the narrative about black people in South Africa, generally having no interest in books?  Mgqolozana has done that through founding Abantu Book Festival,  that has since been embraced by all and sundry.

Abantu Book Festival has become a major literary event on the African continent, attracting even the foremost leading feminist literary voice right now, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, the US based Nigerian novelist,  whose presence at the 2019, Abantu Book Festival, saw a near stamped, as many people tried to get into an already oversubscribed venue where the internationally reputed feminist writer was speaking.

Let us hope that this issue does not affect the future of one of the most interesting book fairs on the African continent.

But so far, literary figures and literary organizations, have come out to distance themselves from the alleged abusive behavior of the founder of Abantu Book Festival, and a gifted novelist and an imaginative story teller.

PEN South Africa has released a statement on the allegations of abuse. “PEN believes that violence against women, in all its many forms, both within the walls of a home or in the public sphere creates dangerous forms of censorship,” the organisation, the foremost custodian of literay heritage said, quoting the PEN  Women’s Manifesto.

In continued to clarify its position on the allagations:  “Dear Friends. We write this statement with a combination of anger and grief.

On Saturday the 21st of August (2021) a series of Tweets appeared accusing Thando Mgqolozana, the writer and founder/director of the Abantu Book Festival, of brutal acts of gender-based violence. The tweets and images have subsequently been deleted. Out of respect for the survivors stated desire for privacy we have refrained from using her name in this statement. We extend our support and solidarity and offer the same support to all women writers and journalists, and to all women who may be living in circumstances involving intimate partner violence.

While we do not know if a legal process is underway (and if so, what the outcomes will be), we do know it takes inordinate courage for any survivor of assault to come forward because the personal, emotional, and legal barriers to speaking out are significant. In a context in which just under 50% of South African women report experiencing physical and/or emotional abuse in their lifetimes, her claims are all too familiar. Our ethical duty to any and all survivors when they come forward is to say, ‘We Believe You’ and we offer those words here to the survivor of this assault, ‘We believe you. We stand by you,” PEN South Africa said in its statement..

Other people in the literary world have also come out to express their position on Gender Based Violence in light of the abuse scandal, one of the biggest to rock the literary establishment in recent years in South Africa, including Mgqolozana’s close friend and academic Dr. Siphiwo Mahala (see separate story in this edition) who also distanced himself from the allegations  involving his friend that he refers to as “my brother”.

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