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Reading can enhance race relations

- Wits University

Reading begets more reading and helps to counter the poison from dinnertime conversations, says acclaimed author Mandla Langa.

Cultural activist and award winning novelist Dr Mandla Langa has decried the poor reading culture in South Africa, describing it as “an enduring tragedy of our country.”

In his view, “the culture of reading should be as mandatory as carrying a pass”, intimating that a more systematic approach to literacy is required to engineer a better South Africa.

Langa shared his views at the 2022 Nadine Gordimer Lecture at Wits where he delivered the keynote address. 

The role of reading in enlightening minds and eradicating prejudices was one of the running threads of his address, titled The Vocabulary of Witnesses.

A celebrated author, Langa revealed that it was through reading that he, as a revolutionary youngster with little regard for white people, discovered Gordimer and her writing. This encounter subsequently challenged his view that “white people were incapable of introspection. For them, I believed, there wasn’t that possibility of doing what James Baldwin calls, ‘wrestling with the conscience in the snarling loneliness of the midnight hour’.”

In his speech, Langa ventured into the race domain by answering the question on why celebrate a white writer [Nadine Gordimer] and dissected the Nobel Laureate’s novels, which reflect witnessing South Africa in the dark days.

On race, Langa said:

“Given the history of our country, with its hideous past – a past that still flexes its muscle in the present – and its racial nightmare, a question can arise: Why celebrate a white author? What is so special about Nadine Gordimer? The question of race – a social construct – is something that flavours our dinnertime conversations and sometimes causes speech to stutter and becomes the elephant in the room. It has been exploited by shrewd and unprincipled politicians of every stripe. The logic behind the question is that Nadine’s route to literary success was pre-ordained by her birth and social standing, which warranted access to the best research facilities, etc. But whiteness alone does not necessarily endow a person with the magic wand, which suddenly gifts the owner with wisdom and talent. Like muscles that must be trained, those qualities must be worked for if the person, black or white, will become a writer of integrity.”

He argued that Gordimer was a distinguished conscious writer, who possessed qualities of “integrity, of empathy that one as a writer makes a conscious choice about in their writing or in the production of any creative work.”

Indeed, the respondent to the keynote address, Masande Ntshanga, award-winning author and the 2022 Mellon Writer-in-Residence in the Department of Creative Writing at Wits, agreed that Gordimer had unique attributes.

“She had the ability to balance nuance with her personal convictions, even though these were contentious,” he said.

“She was able to take a stand that could cut through both sides of a matter and remain consistent with a particular vision that she had of a better and safer world. 

Watch the lecture  by Langa below. To the engagement between Langa and Ntshanga, click here.

About the Nadine Gordimer Lecture

The Nadine Gordimer Lecture was established at Wits University d to pay tribute to a great South African writer. Gordimer (1923–2014) was active in the anti-apartheid movement and sought to reflect the painful realities of life in South Africa through her many short stories and novels. She received international acclaim, winning major literary awards. 

Though Nadine Gordimer and Mandla Langa were born thirty years apart (Gordimer’s first novel was published when Langa was only three years old), they share an important part of the literary and political history of South Africa. Langa was imprisoned and then went into exile in the tumultuous and terrible year of 1976, by which time Gordimer had published nine collections of  stories and six novels. Langa wrote his first novel, Tenderness of Blood while in exile and in MK training camps in Angola, and its publication in 1987 coincided with that of Gordimer’s novel A Sport of Nature. In an interview with Allison Drew, Langa observes that, ‘White writers, no matter how well meaning they may be, cannot fully understand the experience of black South Africans. But some have the humility to understand that they must deal with the subject in a manner that shows a recognition of this.’ He goes on to say that, ‘What redeems writers like Gordimer is that she understands that she is not in her terrain when dealing with black characters, and she chooses to express what she sees through white characters.’

Despite their different experiences of South Africa, however, what Gordimer and Langa share is a deep love of literature, a respect for each other as writers, and a conviction that in order to tell stories that are not simply reports on the status quo, one must, as Langa has said, breathe life into characters.

Acclaimed author Mandla Langa delivered the 2022 Nadine Gordimer lecture.Author Masande Ntshanga, gave an insightful response. Ntshanga is a 2022 Mellon Writer-in-Residence in the Department of Creative Writing at Wits