The Centre for Creative Arts (CCA) within the College of Humanities, in partnership with the National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS), French Institute of South Africa, and Total, virtually hosted the 25th Poetry Africa International Festival. The festival was pre-recorded at Phansi Museum in Durban and hosted on the festival’s social media.
The theme for this year’s festival was Unmute: Power to the Poet.
Poetry Africa curator Ms Siphindile Hlongwa welcomed more than 800 viewers to the virtual opening, saying, ‘The COVID-19 pandemic may have shut down our theatres, galleries, music halls and museums, but it has not shut down the voices of our poets. It is the poetry that has held us together through these two dark years. This year’s festival recognises the power of the poet. Behind their masks, the voices of our poets have continued to remain unmuted.’
Opening the festival Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Humanities Professor Nhlanhla Mkhize said, ‘The theme of this festival is significant as it speaks to the power of arts and poetry in combatting oppression and injustices, leading to the emancipation of humankind. Poets are not only living libraries of their people but are also public intellectuals who speak truth to power without fear or favour.’
Dean and Head of the School of Arts Professor Nobuhle Hlongwa added, ‘We are proud to host the 25th anniversary of Poetry Africa and are grateful to the NIHSS for awarding a catalytic research grant to the CCA to host the festival from publications to community engagement. Many of our young staff members from African Languages, and Drama and Performance Studies also form part of the festival.’
Speaking to this year’s Slam Jam, School Competition, and Open Mic Competition, CCA director Dr Ismail Mahomed said, ‘We have been overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response from young people to our public participation programme. We are delighted to offer young people a platform alongside legendary poets. We hope that the cross-over of ideas, rhythms and their voices will be the threads by which we weave a better nation.’
Ambassador of France to South Africa, Mr Aurélien Lechevallier, emphasised the achievement of 25 years of Poetry Africa, highlighting ‘that poetry does not only tell a story but also opens a dialogue.’
South African poet, playwright and producer, Ms Siphokazi Jonas was the featured poet during the festival while another poet Dr Stella Nyanzi, a multiple award-winning medical anthropologist specialising in sexual and reproductive health, sexual rights and human sexualities in Uganda and The Gambia, delivered the keynote speech.
In her address on Unmuting Democracy, Nyanzi stated that ‘it is very empowering to publicly talk about unmuting. For many years in my country Uganda, I have been struggling hard to unmute my poetic voice.’
Nyanzi was arrested in 2017 for insulting the Ugandan president, following which she was suspended from Makerere University. She appealed the decision with Makerere University’s appeal tribunal, which directed that she be reinstated, promoted to the level of a research fellow with immediate effect, and receive back pay.
Makerere University refused to abide by its tribunal’s decision. Nyanzi filed a lawsuit against the university requesting reinstatement and back pay. In December 2018, the university dismissed her, along with 45 other academics, arguing that her contract had expired.
She said, ‘If democracy is to thrive in the different countries and societies that comprise our African continent, then creative thinkers, writers, artists, and performers must be allowed freedom of expression. Poets must be unsilenced, unmuted, the gags torn, and the boots on our Adam’s apples lifted. Unmuting critical, creative voices is mandatory for democracy to thrive. Unmuting democracy indeed necessitates rendering more power to the poets!’