Today we focus on one of the most pivotal PEN members in its history. Nobel Prize winner, Nadine Gordimer, was not only a prominent figure within International PEN for many years, she also played a leading part in challenging the racist exclusions within South African PEN. She was central to the creation of the short-lived, black-led branch of Johannesburg PEN from 1978 to 1981, and a lifelong campaigner against apartheid.
Up until this point, South African PEN had largely excluded black writers. Gordimer was, like the wider PEN membership across the world, concerned about the South African centre’s long-standing failure to live up to PEN’s non-racial ideals. She had been a combative figure in South African PEN since the early 1960s, and had long thought that most members were amateurs, not really writers. In 1975 the newly formed local Artists’ and Writers’ Guild chastised Cape Town PEN – then the only active branch – for its ludicrous categories of membership and for being unaware of the names of black writers.
Things came to a head at the International Congress in Stockholm in 1978. The new black-led Johannesburg PEN centre received strong backing from delegates at the Congress, including Wole Soyinka, who spoke on behalf of the Union of Writers of the African Peoples and Per Wästberg, the President of Swedish PEN.
At the meeting Mothobi Mutloatse, who went on to chair the Johannesburg centre, also called for the disestablishment of Cape Town PEN, ‘for its unsatisfactory record up to date.’ Though Peter Elstob, the International Secretary, defended its record, Mutloatse’s intervention provoked a media storm and much heated debate.
In the end, Johannesburg PEN, with Gordimer’s help, brought together members of other writers organisations to create a genuinely mixed racial grouping.
By so doing it represented a new departure for South African PEN, though, as Gordimer commented, the alliance was fragile. ‘It is such a delicate fabric that we have managed to weave crisscross’, she wrote in a letter, ‘we are aware that a snagged fingernail could rip it’. The ‘snag’ proved to be the wider political climate at the time that made co-operation untenable.
After the new centre was disbanded in January 1981, key black members, including Mutloatse, Sipho Sepamla and Miriam Tlali, formed the African Writers Association, which was not aligned to International PEN.
Gordimer, however, continued to work for International PEN. As John Ralston Saul, PEN International President, said when she died in 2014, she was, ‘a great writer imbued with great courage. Nadine Gordimer was one of the defining voices of PEN in the modern era, combining creativity, ethics and the resolve necessary to stand up to racism and authoritarianism’.