Wole Soyinka was arranged to be in “conversation” with Kopano Matlwa, the winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature at the very pink Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town.

Outside, guests are ushered about by young men topped in very curious khaki-colored woven hats meant to “recall” pith-helmets (Sri Lanka’s Mount Lavinia Hotel has grown men do service in boxy white shorts, knee-socks, and actual white helmets).

And the room that the Jacana (Matlwa’s publisher) Jamboree has organized for the event? The Lord Nelson, the entrance to which is flanked by images of royals from another era. Time: high tea (good cream cake and cucumber sandwiches, horrible scones). Cost of this treat? R165.

About forty people packed the small Lord Nelson Room. Soyinka, along with his gorgeous head of silver-sea hair and resonant-bell voice, parted the seas, opening with jokes about how embarrassing it is to have so many Nigerians win this prize: he arrived before this year’s selection committee hoping that “it’s not another bloody Nigerian”.

“By the way,” he clarified, “I’m in no way involved with the WS literary prize – not in the selection, not in the award money, nothing. This was initiated by enthusiasts.” He then joked about how women are taking over the book-publishing world – only to reflect seriously on how “tradition” is often used to mask the “insecurities” of males, as well as the hopeful signs of “shifting sociological conditions” indicated by having a wave of African women win literary prizes.

What has the WS Prize done for Matlwa? Awestruck as she was, the author of Coconut (2008) and Spilt Milk (2010) had the presence to say, “The prize allowed me to be more courageous with my pen”, allowing her to write about inner conflicts: “We’ve been fortunate to have forefathers who created the foundation for us, in tackling apartheid and colonialism. We have to build the roof now. And [find] how can we do that honestly and truthfully and without greed.” Soyinka added to Matlwa’s observations: accompanying the literature of “immediate [political] issues is the literature of our primordial concerns.”

At the more egalitarian gathering Soyinka attended at the Book Lounge, located on the corner of Roeland and Buitenkant (where those without R165 could also catch the first African to win a Nobel Prize – and some elaborate snacks made by the bookshop staff), he was asked about everything from his views on what “Madiba” and South Africa meant to him, the future of Panafricanism, and Chinese involvement in Africa.

On the role of new media in challenging authoritarian regimes: “Sometimes I think the inventor of the internet should be decorated, given the key to the city, put on a white horse, and then…hung from the nearest lamppost,” he joked; “it’s amazing how technology has been used for libel, ignorance, and the abuse of the notion of freedom. That’s why I stopped at email”. But “in more atavistic zones”, he hopes the internet will contribute to the exposure of corruption and violence.

On the Chinese in Africa: “I know nothing about business, by the way. But as long as we are in a cut-throat, capitalistic nation,” the Chinese simply provide another opportunity and option – “as long as we are not substituting one form of indenture for another.”

And on the 50 year Independence celebrations: Soyinka related a story about a South African journalist who broke down in front of him as she listed off stories about blatant and sometimes violent sexism so routine in the workplace – as a radio presenter, men call in to threaten her with sexual violence. Her story so disturbed Soyinka that he related it at both events – leading to reflections about what it means to have political “liberation” without freedom, autonomy, or the ability to negotiate for the terms of an equal partnership. He wonders if, at this moment, when African nations are celebrating 50 years of independence from colonial rule, if we are “truly independent” – autonomous, equal partners in every conversation, be it between nations, or between two human beings.

* Photo Credit: Booksa

Further Reading

Where the social is political

On 9 May 2017, residents of six neighborhoods across South Africa’s richest province, Gauteng, protested about lack of basic services, housing and employment. A local TV news crew captured the frustrations of a resident from Ennerdale, one of the affected neighborhoods: “When …

Hack, make, sell

How to change the erroneous perception of Africa as technology backwater. Go look, for example, at what the “Maker Movement” is doing in Ghana and Nigeria.

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.