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“Writers in prison are obviously symptoms of disease, which is the failure of democracy and tolerance”

Interview with Margie Orford

By Ginevra Avalle

London, 7th May 2019

Margie Orford is an award-winning journalist, and internationally acclaimed writer, author of the Clare Hart series as well as several children’s books and works of non-fiction. She was born in London and grew up in Namibia. She was educated in South Africa and the United States. She was President of South African PEN, the patron of Rape Crisis and of the children’s book charity, The Little Hands Trust.

G.A. How many members does the South African Centre have today?

M.O. I can’t tell you precisely. When I was President, we had around 250 or 300. I stopped being President two or three years ago. Now there’s been a spike on people’s desire to be members.

G.A. Can you tell me one or two anecdotes from your presidency?

M.O. I became member of South African PEN in 2010, the reason why I became active is because South Africa had introduced this thing called the secrecy bill. After Mandela, freedom of expression was fully ingrained in the constitution. This bill would have brought in very heavy prison sentences of up to 25 years for any journalists that published articles based on classified information. This could be any information that the state declared to be secret. Like a list of children that didn’t get school meals or babies that had died in a hospital. My interest in PEN has always been political.  I have always been an activist.

G.A. Can you tell me about your detention?

M.O. It was my final year of University, 1985. I was arrested and put in political detention and I wrote my exams in prison. I was there for a few weeks and then I was charged for treason and the charges were luckily dropped. I was released in 1985 and there was a state of emergency. When I was in prison during that state of emergency there were around 35,000 people in political detention. Before that I’d been working as a student journalist and what we wanted to publish was getting banned. South Africa banned many writers and books and controlled the press heavily. Everything you wrote under the emergency laws was checked by the police and lawyers… we were working for a progressive left-wing newspaper and pushed the boundaries a bit, but you couldn’t report on politic gatherings, police action, shootings, etc.

There was restriction on access to books with lists of banned literature. I did my dissertation on Eastern European literature and a lot of that was also banned. If you had to read it for academic purposes you needed special permission. Then you went into a special section of the library and the books were brought to you.

There was extreme control of the TV and access to information was restricted. If you had banned material in your possessions, you could get extremely long prison sentences.

G.A. How did you study for your dissertation?

M.O. I got permission to read the books and had to read them in that special room in the library while being watched. Phones were tapped, houses were searched. I was arrested at a demonstration. When I was interrogated, the police had photos of every meeting and party I’d attended. After this ended, a lot of these files were destroyed to hide what they did. 

I valued enormously the freedom to read and write and think, and I knew exactly what happened to people when they took away their right. I saw how malleable and blind you make people if they can’t think for themselves and are kept under surveillance.

I became very involved with PEN at that point. I’d taken a break with PEN previously. I think they took the wrong decisions; they had this view that literature can stand outside of politics and that you can have nice reading clubs of lovely poetry while you have a totalitarian state around you. That wasn’t my politics at all. I saw PEN as holding a very useful potential possibility because it drew in so many writers that have a voice in South Africa. That took up a lot of campaigning time and I worked in coalition with other free speech organisations who opposed to the secrecy bill, it was called The Right to Know. We worked with them from 2010 for about five or six years. PEN South African joined them.

At this time there was medical negligence. In this one hospital around 100 babies died from an infection and this information kept being hidden. And this bill would have affected writers and journalists like me reporting on corruption, and it also meant the death of babies could be covered up. This is where my work with PEN started and we worked closed with PEN International, PEN America, English PEN.

In 2010 I went to congress in Tokyo. And this stuff about the bill came up, we said we need to do a resolution. I’d never seen one, so I wrote one in normal language, not resolution language. And people said it was full of feeling and passion and it brought in a change on how resolutions are presented because it stated the problems and the effect.

The membership in South African increased greatly. It started to draw more black writers because this was such a fundamental issue. Before, PEN South African was more of a club. They did amazing literary work. They ran this literary competition which was founded by John Sedensky, a British banker, and many of prominent African writers won that prize: Petina Gappah, Henrietta Rose… it launched a lot of careers. PEN South Africa ran this literary competition every two years which was for writers through Africa not just South Africa. For 15 years the main focus was fostering new talent that was emerging. Before 1984 people wrote, but a lot of them were banned so it was published abroad.

G.A. What’s the average age of the members in PEN?

M.O. We have a lot of young members now. We don’t have the problem of an old membership like other Centres.

G.A. How did you attract the new generation?

M.O. I think it was the work that we did. We did a lot of activist work around the secrecy bill and newspaper monopoly, copyright, and stuff; we started a newsletter in which we conducted a lot of public debate on literature which gave people an option to promote their work. How I conceptualised our work is that PEN should hold a nonpartisan political space, which is difficult.

G.A. How did you do it?

M.O. By taking on very difficult issues. One of them is the challenges of free speech in the Western world. Flemming Rose, who was editor of a Danish newspaper where some Muhammed cartoons were published, was invited in 2016 to give an academic freedom lecture in the Univesity of Cape Town. Two weeks before, the University cancelled the lecture and they said there had been dead threats. Islam is a very old established religion in South Africa and the fault lines around religious animosity that you have in Europe don’t exist in South Africa. It’s a different environment. The Muslim Tradition Council of Cape Town suggested instead of giving a lecture he should have a discussion between him and chief of the Muslin Council in Cape Town, which I thought would have been ideal. The University wouldn’t let that happen. It was an extremely contentious issue. My board split between those who said it was a simple free expression issue and others who said it was a highly complex issue in a very provocative time. A third of the members were Muslims.

I didn’t want the board to split. What could PEN do which gets us out of the ping pong? I tried an experiment. It’s a complex issue and people have different views; we can slow down a bit and take on the different point of views. The lecture never took place, but the debate actually happened through the forum that African PEN provided. This wide range of views of what freedom of expression is, what it is in relation to islamophobia, how you need to take into consideration the wounds and damage of history. The whole conversation happened, and it was transformative for me as President to see how to chair properly such a complex issue and handle all that nuanced thinking.

G.A. Was it an online forum or an actual debate?

M.O. It was online in terms of people writing papers; then we put them together and there were public events where they were discussed. I thought this is a role that PEN played well, to calm down the conflict, working together and listening to each other. You have free speech but also the obligation to listen. It gave people with very opposite views a way of thinking through these things, some changed their minds some didn’t. And for all of us in South African PEN it gave us a practical way to understand the complexity of a post-war society where conflict can rapidly end up in a fight.

G.A. Do you think this happened because it was a less institutional or political way of dealing with such a big issue?

M.O. Yes, I think so, because of the flexibility and also because it brought in the idea you have to have flexibility and empathy. It drew a lot of attention from young writers and thinkers. We approached free speech in a way which is helpful for them to navigate society. Not like free speech fundamentalism, which is often an excuse to bully and drawn out other voices. 

G.A. You said that South Africa has had an old Muslim community, did that help as well?

M.O. Yes; I think it’s alien to South Africa to think that Islam might be your enemy because it’s literally something you never hear. South African PEN’s new President Nadia Davids is Muslim herself, and she was integral to the conversation.

G.A. What about women and gender debates?

M.O. One of the cases that touched a nerve in young writers was a Ugandan woman called Stella Nyanzi. There are elements of great social conservatism about how women should speak out, but especially young South African women have become more and more vocal about claiming their place. It was about the hostility that women receive when they speak up. This woman spoke back to patriarchal power and got a prison sentence.

G.A. What other campaigns have you been doing during your presidency?

M.O. We worked a bit to stop the monopoly of the newspaper, which is owned by one family; to keep the diversity of the press.

G.A. What other PEN Centres have you worked closely with?

M.O. We did some work with Ethiopian PEN, also with the ones who stayed in Canada after Quebec, we brought them to do some training that Norwegian PEN funded. We’ve done two reports on freedom of expression in South Africa, which were published. There are very few threats to free speech, but some things need to be spoken about. We work closely for instance with South African editors’ forums and other organisations.

We would also speak about other political bills on hate speech; we made objections because the definition of hate speech was very broad and you can’t define it; and if you start it you start banning all sorts of speech. We were successful on that and the bill was stopped. We do some legal monitoring. We did some things on bills of surveillance too.

We had the literature competitions, and also bringing writers to South Africa like Andrei Kurkov from Ukraine. South African PEN would host some major literary festivals where you could have a discussion of literature ideas, not the current bestsellers which is what publishers pay for.  We wanted to bring writers whose works were interesting and in tone with South African concern and interested but weren’t on the most commercial list currently. The other work that we did was partnered with an association called Nal’ibali which was around children literature, mother tongue and translation work in poor communities. We didn’t do it as a charitable thing, but under the idea of free expression. If you are poor and you don’t learn how to read properly you will never achieve full citizenship, you are excluded as an adult, which is where the enlightenment’s concept of free speech comes from. The denial of full literacy to children was denial of full citizenship. Free expression is a democratic fundamental human right. The literacy work was framed in a political frame. It was a political choice if the children were denied of literacy. A political crime.

G.A. How can PEN be neutral and defend everybody while also being very linked to politics?

M.O. That word, nonpartisan, is important. You’re not supporting any party politics. So, gender for instance, is a distribution of power. If you look at the relationship between languages, you get dominant ones and subordinate ones. One of the things that PEN can do is reveal the distributions of power. It’s not about a political party having power, but how the access to libraries and power is organised in a society. It’s not neutral because much of the work PEN does is to support writers who have been disempowered. It doesn’t matter which political party they belong to; it’s saying these people should be heard, they have a right to speak. There’s nothing that’s not political about it. In South Africa it’s not possible to ignore politics. There hasn’t been a minute of my life in which the privilege of my white skin hasn’t been political. That’s why PEN Centres get anger, because they challenge politicians all the time where it is needed. I’ve had this argument with members of PEN South African and they said the work you’re doing isn’t political and I said it is. For example, with the Women’s Manifesto and LGBTQI rights, you’re going directly into the political distribution of power in the family. Under Putin they are under consolidation of patriarchal rights and everything else is a threat to that, so it’s not possible for us to do any of our work without stepping over political lines.

G.A. How does PEN International defend itself from the attacks of power? Have you been personally attacked because you were defending a writer in PEN?

M.O. Usually it is a good sign if you’re being attacked, it means you’re on the right path. Once when I was in Turkey someone was very irate about this writer being a terrorist, which they weren’t. But it doesn’t bother me at all.

G.A. Can you think of any documents that you have from when you were the South African President that can tell a story?

M.O. Because so much of what we do is electronic and remote you don’t pay attention to documents because it’s not tangible. I saw a couple of letters which I found very touching from people who won the literary competition, they were thrilled to be published.

G.A. Is there anything that really reminds you of your time in South African PEN?

M.O. The newsletter, it’s the document that now holds 10 years’ worth of public memory around really important debates. I’m very proud of that. It’s quite widely distributed so it’s like a virtual family for South African writers and people who are interested. It’s kind of an archive. You accumulate stuff and you can look back on it and see the patterns that came out, taking a tiny organisation and making into something with a powerful voice with other people… We’ve managed collaboratively to stop bills that would have been very damaging.  We managed to defend a number of writers and open up conversation and debate which is closing down in the world not only because of repression like China, Russia, Turkey but the place for public intellectual thought has been diminished because of social media and stuff.

G.A. Do you have any regrets of not being able to do something when you were there?

M.O. I regret that we couldn’t campaign more around bringing actual politicians and policy makers around to the idea that not providing good books and reading to young children it’s a denial of human rights. You see this all across the world. Why is free speech so important? Why do people die for it? It’s because it’s the way to hold power, the key to have human rights and democracy. And I think this massive social division around access to the knowledge is creating two classes of people, the upper one and the people who are excluded from that. And part of our work should be around that.

G.A. Is this something you would add to the work of PEN International?

M.O. I think the work of PEN International should be infused with this strategic thinking. It’s a reason why we do the work.

G.A. What would you like to see achieved with the PEN Centenary Archive Collection?

M.O. One of the things I have argued strongly for South African PEN Centres and PEN International is that if part of what we do is treat the symptoms (which is writers in prison); those are obviously symptoms of disease, which is the failure of democracy and tolerance. There are a number of countries which have very repressive legislations on the books but they’re not currently being used yet. So, when John Ralston was President, I said we need to target that legislation, in case they slip towards repression, so they don’t have the laws to arrest people. That campaign in Africa has taken some years, but an increasing number of countries are removing criminal defamation laws. That’s something PEN can do, thinking broadly in terms of social and political problems that are coming looking at the future. When you go and look back at the PEN documents you can see when people had courage and did the right thing and when they didn’t; when they took decisions that weren’t the right ones.  You could also learn about what the results were. The socio-political aspect comes up in the way people write about these issues, issues of exclusion and inclusion.