#100PENMembers No. 56: Mothobi Mutloatse

Mothobi Mutloatse chaired the most significant experiment in the history of South African PEN during the apartheid years. 

Founded in 1927, South African PEN, which had two English centres, one in Cape Town, the other in Johannesburg, was the first branch of the new international association established in Africa. An Afrikaans affiliate also emerged in the 1930s, though it disaffiliated in 1967.

Despite PEN’s inclusive official membership rules, the South African branches remained almost wholly white, a perennially vexed issue which eventually led Alan Paton and Nadine Gordimer to renounce their membership of the Johannesburg centre in 1971. 

After a period in the doldrums, when it was largely defunct, the centre was eventually revived under Mutloatse’s chairmanship in 1978. It had strong backing at the international level from Gordimer, Per Wästberg, the President of Swedish PEN, and Wole Soyinka, a key figure in the Union of Writers of the African Peoples (1975-89).

The new centre brought together members of the more radical writers’ groups that had previously kept their distance from PEN: the white-led Artists’ and Writers Guild, the anti-apartheid Afrikaanse Skrywersgilde, and a number of community arts groups in the black townships around Johannesburg, including the banned Medupe Writers’ Association and the Creative Youth Association of Diepkloof, Soweto. 

The new grouping was also closely linked to Staffrider (1978-1993) – co-edited by Mutloatse – the most adventurous and significant literary magazine of the apartheid era. The issue for March 1979 carried this note, detailing, among other things, the difficulties community groups, like the Creative Youth Association, faced and the high point of PEN’s solidarity with black writers in the apartheid years.

As a genuinely non-racial grouping, the revived Johannesburg centre represented a decisive break with SA PEN’s past, though, as Gordimer commented, the alliance was fragile. ‘It is such a delicate fabric that we have managed to weave crisscross,’ she wrote in a letter, ‘we are aware that a snagged fingernail could rip it.’ The ‘snag’ proved to be the wider political climate of the time that made co-operation across racial lines untenable.

This was, after all, not just the era of Black Consciousness in South Africa, but a period of intense state repression, following Steve Biko’s murder at the hands of the police in September 1977. In the circumstances, it was decided to disband the centre in January 1981.

The key black members, including Mutloatse, Sipho Sepamla and Miriam Tlali, then formed the African Writers’ Association, which was not aligned to International PEN. The only other non-racial writer’s group to emerge in the apartheid era, the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW), founded in 1987, also remained outside PEN.

A PEN membership form published in Staffrider (July/August 1978).

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