Soos ‘n Koeipaal op ‘n Plaas: Community, Belonging & Monuments Made of Literature - Ronelda Kamfer delivers Jan Rabie and Marjorie Wallace Memorial Lecture 2018
“Many of us here are the descendants of one of the oldest groups of people on the planet, but that history is written in sand. Our history is truncated, whole communities were removed and moved to the side in their own stories, their lives reduced to footnotes.”
So said South African writer Ronelda S. Kamfer, 2016 recipient of the Jan Rabie and Marjorie Wallace Writer’s Bursary, delivering the accompanying Memorial Lecture at the University of the Western Cape on 24 April 2018.
Kamfer is a celebrated poet, a UWC alumna and author of the book Hammie and poetry collection Noudat slapende honde - and the first person of colour (and first woman) ever to have received this award.
She is also, as it happens, married to fellow author Nathan Trantraal - the 2018 recipient of the Bursary (and 2020 deliverer of the Lecture) - making them a truly creative couple; much like the people for whom the award is named.
“I never thought that those poems would carry me so far,” she said. “I never would have thought in standard nine when, we read ‘Ek het jou gemaak’ as prescribed literature, that my lifeline and that of Jan Rabie and Marjorie Wallace would cross. But I am unbelievably grateful for it.”
The Lecture is aimed at celebrating the lives of two of South Africa’s great artistic talents: Marjorie Wallace, the youngest person to be elected to the Royal Scottish Academy of Arts and recipient of South Africa’s Order of Ikhamanga in Bronze for outstanding contributions to the visual arts in 2005; and Jan Sebastian Rabie, a renowned Afrikaans writer and one of the Sestigers, a group of influential 1960s Afrikaans writers that included Andre Brink and the late Adam Small.
The Lecture honours their sense of community and vision of a united and diverse South African literary community. The Jan Rabie & Marjorie Wallace Writer’s Bursary is awarded for excellent Afrikaans writing, and is worth R400 000, making it the biggest prize for creative writing in South Africa, and is a natural outgrowth of Rabie & Wallace’s vision and sense of community spirit.
Kamfer's husband, Trantraal, the current bursary winner, who regularly writes about his experiences growing up in Mitchell’s Plain and Bishop Lavis, says the award is very meaningful to him.
“Writers who are people of colour don’t often get this opportunity, especially when it's written in the dialect that I’ve chosen. It’s the kind of conversation we should be having, but it is often referred to as one of being ‘an angry black man’. I believe we go forward by virtue of conversation.”
The size of the bursary doesn’t hurt either.
“The prize money allows you the freedom to write a book and not worry about the financial obligations of having a book published,” he noted. “That is encouraging - especially since I certainly don’t have a lack of material to write about.”
Soos ‘n Koeipaal op ‘n Plaas
“There was a milking post on the farm in Grabouw, but no cows. Just apples, lots and lots of apples. For those that do not know, a milking post is the post to which stubborn cows are tied when they are milked,” she explained.
“I liked looking at the milking post, without wondering why. I searched for my place on the farm for years and then realised one day while I was staring at the milking post, that the milking post and I were the same: I was there, but there was no use for me between the apples, but no one wanted to remove me, because they had already decided that I belonged there. But I didn’t really belong there.”
It wasn’t just Grabouw, though.
“Wherever I stayed, felt like it was only temporary and the only reason that I can think of for this, is that I could see what happened to people once they started to believe too much in where they belonged.”
But despite that, Kamfer found acceptance, and belonging - and a way with words.
“My new book Kompoun is more than just a tribute to the farm [where she grew up under challenging circumstances], it is a way for everyone who went before me, to be part of Afrikaans literature with me. Kompoun is the fresh flowers on the graves of all those, who for decades, existed in silence,” she said.
“But it’s also a thank you to the few people who judged me just on my writing:like [former UWC academic] Antjie Krog who forced me to read Raka out loud as some form of cruel and unusual punishment, because she wanted me to learn that a writer can only write if he or she has read everything that has come before them - and now I’ve read everything and I still don’t like NP Van Wyk Louw.”
She also thanked lecturer, journalist and editor Anastasia De Vries, particularly for her support when she was Rapport’s book editor - in particular for putting Kamfer’s face and her second collection of poetry on the cover of the newspaper’s book supplement.
“I think to this day that that was one of the greatest gestures of defiance,” Kamfer said.
Kamfer said there was a lot more interesting creative talent waiting to be discovered.
“Someone asked me recently what I thought of all these new brown writers who are being published now,” she commented, “and I said that I think it’s too few - there should be more; there should be a lot more.”
“There are so many lives, experiences and areas of knowledge that have already been lost. There is so much of our culture that is already extinct. And there are no monuments of stone, marble, bronze captured as part of the literature in order for future generations to be able to rediscover it.”
Kamfer’s words are a step in that direction - and may many others build monuments of their own, and share their words with generations to come.