Celebrating National Book Week with African writers Yewande Omotoso and Sandile Memela

Posted on September 15, 2016

Every year, South Africa commemorates National Book Week during the first week of September. It is an initiative of the South African Book Development Council in collaboration with the National Department of Arts and Culture with the aim of promoting a love of books and reading. In celebration of National Book Week, the departments of English and Library Services at the University of Pretoria hosted an event titled: 'Meet your African writers: Yewande Omotoso and Sandile Memela'.

After the writers had read some of their literary works, they were asked how they strike a balance between their artistic creativity and censorship. Both Ms Omotoso and Mr Memele shared their experiences and advice regarding the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of South Africa. They also reflected on censorship and how it has influenced their freedom of artistic creativity. 

Essentially, Ms Omotoso considers writing a personal and intimate endeavour. 'It is my own project before it is for people. I see my writing as a means of understanding myself,' she says. She adds that there is not much self-censorship involved in her writing because she writes, first and foremost, for her own wellbeing. 'That space is sacred to me and I protect it,' she explains. She does not deny that censorship exists, however, and says that it would be dishonest to say, 'Oh, well, I write whatever I want!' She says that her censorship is for her father, who is a massive fan of hers. He buys all her books and shares them with uncles and friends. 'So it takes a while to write when I want to write about sex. I want to go full-out but it is hard,' she says. Ms Omotoso would have to talk to her father and explain that even though she is his child, she is also an adult. 'Dad, listen. Don't buy this book or give it to uncle so-and-so. But if you do, please understand that I am doing my thing. Be prepared,' she says jokingly. She concludes by saying that censorship is complex with regard to how our minds work and the society in which we find ourselves.  

Undoubtedly, there are many forms of censorship around freedom of expression, and Mr Memela had a different experience to reflect on. He says that the concept of freedom of speech and censorship 'hits a nerve', and that it is an important pillar of a democratic society. 'Freedom of expression is a tightrope. We need to be very vigilant and do what we can to defend it.' Mr Memela believes that despite the fact that there is democracy in South Africa, there is still progress to be made: 'After 20 years, people are finally beginning to come forward and speak, yet it is still not enough.' He says that our socio-economic society promotes fear and people are afraid to be themselves. 'Before I am a governmental apparatus and an official of the state, I am a South African citizen and I have the right to express myself. The Sandile who writes is Sandile the citizen.'

Mr Memela's passion for writing does not allow him to be censored by anyone. He says that, growing up, he always observed that his mother was bold. She expressed her thoughts freely. Even at school Mr Memele did not allow others to stop him from writing commentaries. 'I would say to my classmates, "I stand by what I wrote," even when I was threatened with violence and forced to apologise.'

In order for us to enjoy the artistic creativity of literary works while promoting a culture of reading in South Africa, our writers must be protected from censorship.


- Author Mikateko Mbambo

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