Botsotso is a grouping of poets, writers and artists who wish to both create art as well as to generate the means for its public communication and appreciation. We speak particularly of art that is of and about the varied cultures and life experiences of people in South Africa – as expressed in all our many languages.
Botsotso is committed to a proliferation of styles and a multiplicity of themes and characters. Multidisciplinary art forms and performances are similarly embraced. The transition from a closed, authoritarian society to a pluralistic and democratic one offers artists an opportunity to explore the truths of our inner and social lives with a freedom that has not existed before. Flowing from this, the consequences and lessons of Apartheid must still be examined while the challenges of the current period throw up their difficulties, their complexities.
Botsotso works with inter-action: the different elements of the South African mosaic colliding, synthesizing – affected both by social forces and the individual’s uniqueness.
BOTSOTSO was launched in October 1994 by the BOTSOTSO JESTERS, a poetry performance group, as an insert in NEW NATION (one of several weekly newspapers established in the 1980’s to reflect debate and report on the struggles for a free South Africa). We had earlier that year celebrated the first democratic election in our history and the end of a civil war whose violence had taken over 16,000 lives.
As a result of our new Bill of Rights we enjoyed open political activity on a scale and with a scope that had never before existed in our tortured society. The Broederbond control of Afrikaner politics meant that even in that limited constituency there had not been free debate and decision making and despite the direct, revolutionary democracy practiced to a great degree by the broad Mass Democratic Movement, the clandestine nature of underground struggle forced many formations to live a double life.
On the one hand there had been the outward transparency of mass public gatherings (of trade unions, civics, youth, women, cultural and sports groups, the UDF). They were highly accessible and open to scrutiny and robust debate and developed a culture of mandate and report back. On the other hand, parallel to, but intersecting, had fermented the secret, inner workings of the liberation parties – the ANC, SACP, PAC, MWT, AZAPO, to mention the biggest and most influential – whose activists/cadres were participating in the ‘open’ organizations, but were simultaneously working to advance the positions of their political parties. 1994 meant that these parties could emerge from the murk of the underground and practice a democracy that had no need for methods necessarily demanded of cells whose security concerns demanded centralization and secrecy. We could think aloud – dreams and nightmares could be brought to the surface in a South Africa, still in convulsion, but enormously relieved to have brought about the end of racist rule and the consequent opening up of life for many millions of people within our own borders, and generally in southern Africa – the civil wars in Mocambique and Angola could finally be addressed without Pretoria stoking their fires. Indeed, for the first time, all South Africans could enjoy a constructive relationship with the rest of Africa, if not the world.
Botsotso, conceived as a magazine of ‘contemporary South African culture’, hence concluded the agreement with NEW NATION with a sense of excitement. Poetry and fiction, as well as polemic touching on ‘food for the soul” as well as for the stomach, could find a substantial readership (at its height NEW NATION was read by some 75,000 people). Artists were invited to
contribute work that challenged accepted and perceived wisdoms – in all areas, of all classes and cultures; art that would explore our identities and traditions, and do so without inhibition – except with regard to crassness or the giving of gratuitous offence! It was also art that was encouraged to experiment and perfect itself technically.
It is worth revisiting a paragraph in the editorial of that first edition (so as to both contextualize its emergence, as well as to have a measure with which to evaluate the changes that have taken place over the past ten years): “BOTSOTSO is independent and follows no specific political or aesthetic doctrine. The main criterion for publication of work is that it has integrity and worth as an expression of individual experience and of our society.” To demonstrate that, the edition carried work by Tatamkhulu Afrika, Seitlhamo Motsapi, Ike Mboneni Muila, Anna Varney, Nthuseng Phedi Thlobolo, Siphiwe ka Ngwenya, Peter Horn, Isabella Motadinyane and Alan Finlay – surely as fine a selection of our poetic voices as one could hope to find! There was also an article on “The Vexed Question of Language” by Kenyan academic, James Ogude, and a series of drawings by student artists at the Johannesburg Art Foundation as well as by David Koloane.
Thereafter writers and artists from all over the country sent in material that filled the pages of the following eight editions. However, sadly, like most of the publications that had their roots in the Struggle period, NEW NATION was discontinued (ironically by its last owners, who also owned THE SOWETAN). And with the shutting off of this mass readership BOTSOTSO had to revaluate its position.
In 1996 the challenge was met with the establishing of a collective to produce the magazine as a ‘stand alone’ publication, as well as for the publication of books – the first being WE JIVE LIKE THIS by the Botsotso Jesters. The combining of public arts funding with income from sales helped to maintain a momentum even as submissions of new and vital writing continued to flow in. As a result there is today a confidence that the financial base so necessary to sustain publishing and other activities like poetry performance has been consolidated.
But, as importantly, in casting an eye over the material that has appeared in the 13 Botsotso editions as well as the 11 books, there is the realization that, in the absence of a well organized and coherent writers organization and non-profit publishing house (following the deaths of COSAW, COSAW Publishing and AWA through mismanagement, lack of accountability and incoherence) and the dormant nature of the Publishers Association of South Africa (PASA), independent collectives like Botsotso (and Timbila in Polokwane, Kotaz in Port Elizabeth, Dyehard Press in Gauteng and Deep South in Cape Town) bear a vital responsibility to provide a platform for new writing, particularly poetry and short fiction, that commercial publishers will seldom promote on account of their limited buying ‘market’.
So welcome to Botsotso! Gova (come aboard!) to use Ike Mboneni Muila’s poetic greeting. The 1950’s Soweto tight jeans that were ‘botsotsos’ remain ‘strongly sewn’. ‘Nog ‘n maal talk’ – we do hear ‘sweet nothings’ and other voices; ja/yebo, ‘die is mos botsotsos’.
The Editorial Board
Allan Kolski Horwitz, Siphiwe ka Ngwenya, Ike Mboneni Muila.
EDITORIAL – Botsotso 16
Yes, Botsotso in ‘hard cover’ is back! For the past three years, due to a lack of funds, we have had to restrict publishing to the website (now at www.botsotsoportal.com). In this regard much thanks to Deon-Simphiwe Skade for keeping the website active, both as co-editor and as webmaster, and to the Multi Agency Grants Initiative for providing sufficient funds to cover the publication of two hard cover journals.
Having started with the ‘good news’ is there more to come? – considering that the past three years have seen a number of problematics worsen. For is it not true to say that we are living through a ‘dry season’ as far as culture is concerned? Is the vitality of our society not ebbing away in terms of general interest in the ‘serious’ arts (as opposed to entertainment and sporting diversions) – particularly with respect to literature and theatre that tackle the root issues defining our lives? Has the promise of radical change (which would include financial support for creative projects over all the arts) been stifled by incompetency and corruption? A key example is the misuse of the National Lottery Development Trust Fund (NLTDF). We also know that the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) funding for literature has been reduced and that its annual calls for funding applications have been cut back (from two to one); literacy levels are floundering (as evidenced by recent literacy and numeracy tests of our schools pupils); sales of books by the chain stores and independents have fallen as the overall economic recession has caused purchasing power to drop and steep increases in printing prices have raised book prices by more than 30% over the past two years. South Africa’s Internet penetration is still below 15% of the population. As such, both e-book sales and e-sales of hard cover books are too low to make up for the drop in over-the-counter sales. To sum up: there appears to be both a crisis with respect to interest in ‘serious’ art making and in its economic base with the result that the Printed Word, and everything associated with it – intellectual vigour, promotion of in-depth debate and enquiry – seem to be on a down slide. So does this mean that literary life is dying in South Africa?
The answer on the creative side is absolutely no! And just one proof is the vitality and quality of the poems, stories, essays and art work brought together in this edition. This quality is reflected in both the range of the themes and situations dealt with and in their depth and vital use of language. So we are not at all despondent about the actual work being produced by an increasing number of writers. The concern arises from the means available to keep publishing and then the means to distribute such work as widely as possible.
For some time now Botsotso has tried to engage with the National Library system and with the National Arts Council (in collaboration with a number of NGO’s in the cultural field) to secure funding for the sort of inclusive, contemporary literature that we are trying to promote – literature that the mainstream publishers will generally not touch.
The model put forward is quite simple: That the National Arts Council (NAC) provide seed money for several publications (let us say four books which would cost in total approximately R200,000 to produce); that the national library system then buy a copy of each of these publications for the over 3,000 public libraries spread out over the country; that the Department of Education also buy one copy for every school library (despite the terrible statistic that only 15% of schools currently have libraries there are still several thousand such libraries); given these numbers, a print run of 6,000 copies of each of these books will easily cover its production and leave a sizeable surplus (profit) which can be ploughed back into new publications. In this way the publisher will never again have to receive funding from another source and, as importantly, will potentially reach hundreds of thousands of both adults and children. Of course, the quality of the publications will have to be monitored but that in any case is the function of the NAC’s literature committee – we are talking here not of censorship but of maintaining an objectively high level of literary expression.
Despite several meetings with representatives of the DAC, the national library department and the NAC, no progress has been made – in fact, despite vague indications that the idea was seen as worth pursuing no concrete response has been received from these key state departments. As such, projects like Botsotso will continue to stutter on and hope that other funding agencies that are more proactive and concerned about ‘non-commercial’ writing will step into the breach.
Having said this, there are indications that the tide may be turning. Indeed, we had very good news a few weeks ago. A determined coalition of non-profit organizations has forced the Department of Trade and Industry (under whose jurisdiction the NLDTF falls) to adopt several very important recommendations that will bring the NLDTF under far greater public scrutiny and control and thus enhance its effectiveness. We can only hope that these very welcome and long overdue changes will bear fruit because the future of many important and worthwhile organizations and projects is dependent on the support they can and should get from the NLTDF. Witnessing (and to an extent, participating) in this campaign was very encouraging and goes to prove (yet again) that without effective organization such necessary changes will not come about.
Indeed, the central problem still facing the development of a national literature that embraces all our society’s varied cultures, languages and experiences is the lack of a writer’s organization with a non-profit publishing house that distributes the work being produced outside of the commercial realm. The collapse of Cosaw and Cosaw Publishing and the passing of Staffrider in the 1990s were setbacks that we have still to recover from. Journals like Botsotso have attempted to fill this vacuum but the absence of a writers organizations with chapters around the country has meant that distribution of literary journals is haphazard and uneven and that the advancement of literature and literacy cannot take place in a systematic way and so reach the multitudes of people who live outside of the world of books.
The rebuilding of a writers organization is thus a central task. But is there any sign that the DAC and the NAC are alive to this? Sadly, the answer is no. Inertia and indifference seem to rule. How can we wake them up? Bua, maqabane, bua!!!! And write about it, ‘perform about it’ and then (like the coalition formed to challenge the NLTDF), let’s toyi-toyi so that they get the message and start taking their mandate to serve South African culture seriously.