Our land: Back to the past, forward to the future

EVENT: This is my Land: Erpenbeck, Magona and UWC students (Friday, 23 September; Townhouse Imbizo)


Jenny Erpenbeck, Sindiwe Magona and students from the UWC Creative Writing Programme explore notions of home, landscape and memory. Featuring readings in German, English, Xhosa and Afrikaans.

Ever an emotive issue, land – and lack thereof – is something that was, and still is , very much unequally distributed between the haves and the have-nots, with the poor, and, by implication, black people, holding the short piece of the wishbone. Historically dispossessed of their land, the need for redistribution is a hotly debated topic, regularly making newspaper headlines.

Exploring the skein of home, landscape, memory and language, South African writer and poet Sindiwe Magona put forward that before Apartheid caved in, black people were “not South Africans in the real sense of the word”, because they could not own property. Denied this fundamental right, Africans were forced into the discrepant position of being native to a land that was not theirs.

Chair and local writer, Meg Vandermerwe, considered language to be inextricably bound to the concept of nation and belonging, therefore this multilingual event went further than land, right to the heart of the issue.

Meg explained that multilingualism is at the core of UWC’s Creative Writing Programme, which encourages students to engage with South Africa’s complexities of race, culture, religion, and history. The idea of the organisers – UWC and CIPCA – was to create a platform for the students to engage with one another, as well as with Sindiwe and Jenny Erpenbeck, the German writer and director.

Sindiwe, a phenomenal woman of letters who recently received a Presidential award for her contribution to South African culture, as well as a Creative Writing Fellow at UWC, where she teaches creative writing in Xhosa, read in her mother tongue from her novel, Mother to Mother.

Jenny, described by the UK’s Independent as “one of the most striking and original new voices in German writing”, read in German from her novel, Visitation.

She said Visitation was based on a true story: “I wrote the book as a result of reflecting on what it means to lose a home,” explaining that she had come to South Africa hoping to find somebody from a family that had lost their home in Germany before immigrating to South Africa.

One of Magona's students, Wanga Gambushe, read from a work in progress, "The Rhythm of Dream" – a powerful and poetic homage to ancestors and land.

Honours student Jolyn Phillips also read from a work in progress, featuring a character who starts as a ghost but who refuses to remain that, choosing instead to be fully alive, although haunted by the past. Jolyon explained that her story was born of her lecturer’s challenge to the class to research the history of their families – something they perhaps had not thought important before.

The lively and edifying gathering provoked deep and explorative discussion on the fundamental concepts of home, nation, land and language.