Black South African writers 'break free,' publish own books

AS a writer, Mothobi Mutloatse has due respect for ''Shakespeare and people like that.'' But as a black South African, Mutloatse expresses an almost universal feeling among blacks here when he says he would like to break free of what he feels has been an imposed European tradition - in literature as well as in other fields.

''We want to look more at our own past,'' says young Mutloatse in an impassioned tone. ''Africa is still unknown to us. It's as if we were an island in Europe.''

Thanks to the efforts of Mutloatse and a small group of other writers, South Africa's black literary community has taken an important step toward greater black self-awareness. Mutloatse and the others in late 1982 founded Skotaville Publishing, the country's only independent black publishing house. Skotaville is now well established, if not yet commercially self-sustaining.

Blacks in South Africa are struggling to develop their own literary voice amid discrimination, overt censorship, and a white-run education system that blacks feel is designed to mold their minds into an acquiescence with apartheid. One strong criticism of the government-controlled schools is that they overemphasize a white, European tradition and outlook and give short shrift to what is indigenous and African.

When blacks emerge from school in South Africa, ''We all have negative attitudes about literature as not relevant, not contemporary,'' Mutloatse says. The aim of Skotaville Publishing is to produce black literature that is relevant and contemporary - and to do it under black control from start to finish.

There is diversity in the subject matter and style of South Africa's black writers. But the works are bound by an often angry tone and a focus on black self-awareness and assertiveness.

''In the poem, the play, the fiction, we hear the cry of an angry, embittered , tortured soul,'' writes Es'kia Mphahlele, one of South Africa's best-known black authors, who is also chairman of the board that governs Skotaville.

''Whatever different things we may be doing,'' he says, ''we black writers are no longer talking to the white man, pleading, trying to appeal to common decency. No. We are writing at one level to arouse and strengthen each other as an oppressed people, and at another to whoever may care to tune in.''

Skotaville Publishing was established about 15 months ago, catering to black authors and a black audience. So far it has published five books and revived Classic, a literary magazine founded 20 years ago by some of South Africa's leading black journalists.

Skotaville's books contain a wide range of subject matter - poetry, a history of black soccer, and a compilation of speeches by Bishop Desmond Tutu, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, among them.

But there is a common thread.

''All our books reflect black people doing something for themselves,'' says Mutloatse.

Indeed, Skotaville itself is an assertion of black independence, founded because black writers felt it was needed if not necessarily financially viable.

''Financially we depend on handouts,'' Mutloatse says flatly, though he hopes Skotaville will be self-sufficient in five years.

Skotaville Publishing is a nonprofit cooperative, run by a staff of five that includes Mutloatse and writer Jaki Seroke. It is governed by a board made up mostly of other black writers.

Black writing has been published, even emphasized, by some of South Africa's established white-run publishing houses.

But in 1981, the African Writers' Association decided it was time that ''we do our own thing,'' says Mutloatse. ''We were tired of producing for other people. We decided to do everything ourselves, from writing to publishing,'' he says.

Skotaville Publishing is only interested in writing that ''has a purpose,'' which Mutloatse defines as ''promoting the liberation struggle'' of blacks. He says this is necessary if Skotaville is to reflect the black community.

But Mutloatse says this does not mean that the black publishing house will only deal with works that are ''overtly political.''

Last year, for example, Skotaville published a book on African folk tales for children that Mutloatse regards as just as important to ''liberation'' as the compilation of political speeches by Bishop Tutu.

Some critics of black writing feel it is too angry and raw, and too preoccupied with being relevant. These critics say black writers are not paying enough attention to style and are ignoring themes that may be too personal or too universal to touch directly on contemporary South African issues.

''We are not blind to this,'' says Mutloatse. However, he says, black writers feel more and more that ''we must create our own standards.''

He explains: ''our writing is almost in an experimental form. Blacks are trying to join the oral traditions of African folklore with the written European traditions.''

Joining those traditions may produce some unconventional phraseology. As Mphahlele puts it:

''. . .The people's speech finds its way into black writing, the conversational and declamatory tones predominate.''

Skotaville takes its name from T.D. Mweli Skota, an early secretary-general of the now banned African National Congress black liberation organization. Skota is regarded as a pioneer black writer; he was one of the founders of the ANC newspaper Abantu-Batho. The name Skotaville was selected primarily in recognition of his individual efforts, says Mutloatse.

Skotaville ran into official opposition early on. The first issue of the revived Classic magazine ''had the distinction'' of being promptly banned, Mutloatse says. However, an appeal against the ban was successful.

Being a banned writer or having one's writings banned is a hazard of becoming a black writer in South Africa. In that first, temporarily banned issue of Classic, Mphahlele wrote: ''Life for an oppressed person is one long, protracted , agonizing compromise.''

But as a writer, Mphahlele found a life of compromise in South Africa preferable to exile. He left South Africa in 1957 and returned 20 years later after discovering that ''as long as I cannot remember a place by its smells and the texture of its life, I cannot create a sustained literary work out of it.''

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