Botsotso is a coming together of poets, writers and artists who wish to both create Art as well as 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 and 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 Colonialism and Apartheid must still be examined, just as the challenges of our current moment in History throws up new difficulties, in all its complex nature.
Botsotso works with inter-action: the different elements of the South African and broader African mosaic colliding and synthesizing – affected both by social forces and each 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 nationalist 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 of BOTSOTSO (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 twenty-five 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 20 BOTSOTSO LITERARY JOURNAL editions, as well as the 50 books published through BOTSOTSO’S PUBLISHING division, 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 and publishers like BOTSOTSO (and TIMBILA in Polokwane, KOTAZ in Port Elizabeth, DYEHARD PRESS in Gauteng, DEEP SOUTH in Makhanda, the longstanding feminist publisher MODJAJI BOOKS, as well as new arrivals, DRYAD PRESS and KARAVAN PRESS, in Cape Town, VHAKOLOLO PRESS in Makhado and BLACKBIRD BOOKS in Johannesburg) we bear a vital responsibility to provide a platform for new literary writing, and particularly poetry, short fiction, and drama that mainstream commercial publishers will seldom promote on account of their limited buying ‘market’.
So, welcome to BOTSOTSO! “Gova” (come aboard!) to use board member, 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’.
Allan Kolski Horwitz – Siphiwe ka Ngwenya – Ike Mboneni Muila.
See also: A Thesis Featuring Botsotso
“Making space: the counterpublics of post-apartheid independent literary publishing activities (1994-2004)”
by Alan Finlay
Article In Social dynamics, 2010-03-01, Vol.36 (1), p.166-178
Full PDF download available through here: (PDF) Making space: The counterpublics of post-apartheid independent literary publishing activities (1994-2004) (researchgate.net)