There are those who believe that to enthuse is to disclose a dearth of intellect, or at the very least that this kind of self-gratifying conduct should only be performed in solitude. Rian Malan strikes me as someone of this persuasion. However, at the risk of seeming shallow or obvious, allow me to express my excitement at this year’s Franschhoek Literary Festival. To be sure, the balmy weather helped, as did the generous sponsorship of Porcupine Ridge Wines. The weekend ranged from the entirely predictable (the intra-Afrikaans spat between Malan and Antjie Krog) to the surreally unanticipated (Mark Behr providing a rendition of Miriam Makeba’s ‘Click Song’). But what intrigued me most was not the presence of intellectual giants like Philip Gourevitch, the uncomfortable wit of Imraan Coovadia or the freshness of Niq Mhlongo, but rather the reflection, on departing, on what had been left out, what had not been said.
The first notable absence was the omission of HIV/AIDS as a topic for discussion or argument. This might initially appear to be a grave fault, but – on the contrary – it may be indicative of a level of comfort with the shifting of political will. Blessedly AIDS denialism appears to no longer be an issue necessary for debate, as its political power base has shuffled off the centre stage. Policy and implementation remain critical issues, no doubt, but at least we are spared the voices of madness.
The second, and perhaps more significant, was the failure by any member of a panel or audience (that I saw) to perform the South African ritual of the dying hamster – by raising their two hands to shoulder height and tweaking their fingers while speaking. The bakkie conveying the horror of the politically correct inverted comma appeared to have broken down on the road somewhere outside Paarl. In its place, there was an honesty and a courage that has been lacking in debate for so many years, certainly in the rarefied airs of Cape Town. Jacob Dlamini referred to the middle class property-owning pretensions of the ANC (to applause from Malan), Coovadia trashed J M Coetzee’s latest work, Graeme Bloch hit out at Exclusive Books (god bless him), the pre-1990 greats like Gordimer and Brink were described as pious, one panellist told another to ‘fuck off’, and so it continued. Gourevitch turned humanitarian aid agencies on their heads, accusing them of self-serving motives, while a startled audience of dinner guests was presented with the detail of a 1960 engineering report on the faecal load of blacks for the planning of township sewerage systems.
Make no mistake, there is always a high level of fawning at occasions such as this, for the literary community is a desperately small one and there needs to be some stroking of egos to keep the peace. But beneath the platitudes and hangovers, there seemed to me to be far less flinching and supplication than before. The untouchables are no longer immune from challenge. Even the ever-likeable Kader Asmal had to try and stand his ground. No one referred to anyone else as “so called”. Ultimately it was the directness of expression and intent that made this weekend refreshing. This does not signal the death of political correctness – by no means – but we can only hope that we are hearing its first tuberculotic coughs.