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Visit the active LitNet platform at www.litnet.co.za

Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

Alan Paton Award shortlist: Q&A with Fighting for Justice author Jay Naidoo

Janet van Eeden - 2011-06-01

Untitled Document

What are the challenges of writing about something factual or “real” as opposed to writing a work of fiction?

I am an accidental writer. I started writing this book more to close a chapter in my life than to publish a book. It was only later that my wife, Lucie Page, a writer by profession, convinced me that I had a story to tell.

Like many activists I was reticent to write a book that was so personal. But we do not need more history books. People want to understand how the struggle influenced activists’ lives – the human side. At the same time we need to examine the impact of a very brutal period on our present-day psychology.

What apartheid and our struggle against it did to us as people? It is a very difficult challenge, but so much of what happens today – our debates, our rhetoric, our slogans and political dialogue – is related to the political baggage we carry. It is good to flush that into the open and to deal with these seemingly intractable issues in an honest, robust and unifying way. It requires courageous leadership from us all.

Do you think that because of South Africa’s troubled political past, we have more interesting stories to tell than other countries?

I spend all my time as a volunteer on global causes that I am still passionate about. Recently I was in Egypt and sharing our experiences of transition with the new revolutionary movements, new government, new independent trade unions and academics.

We have important lessons to share with countries that are facing transition. But each country is unique and faces all the complexity of our own transition. I believe we do have important lessons of what worked and what did not work. South Africa is still seen as a laboratory and a microcosm of the world and its challenges. We had a successful political transition, but 18 years later we are still a troubled teenager.

Are South African readers still keen to find out the truth behind the scandals reported in the daily media, or are they more interested in escapist fiction to immunize them against the chaos surrounding them daily?

I believe South Africans are deeply concerned with what is happening in South Africa today. We must never lose our voice in confronting abuse of power, whether in the public or private sphere. Our loyalty is ultimately to the Constitution, which represents the collective hopes and aspirations of our people.
Our struggle for freedom was based on a passionate commitment to democratic debate. South Africans are beginning to flex their muscles in demanding transparency and accountability from their leaders. Corruption is a cancer that we all need to fight. We should never be silenced.

Is there room for non-fiction writing that doesn’t encompass our apartheid past in this country?

Yes. Recently a whole new generation voted for the first time. They represent our future. They are not bogged down by our past. Hopefully they will seize the baton of leadership and take South Africa to new heights. They have their own stories to tell. This is their opportunity to weave the story of the new South Africa. Hopefully they will remain committed to the human rights culture that defined our struggle for freedom and is the foundation of our Constitution. That is something we must defend to our last drop of blood.

Do you think non-fiction, by its very nature, should have more prominence than fiction in the bookstores? In other words, is it more worthy of promotion than fiction? 

Absolutely right. There are hundreds of stories to be told of ordinary South Africans who fought our struggle. It was never about clever leaders. It was a struggle where the engine was our people. These are the stories that have to be told. We need our next generation to understand the role their parents played and why our democracy must be deepened by their efforts. My greatest fear is that we lose the human values of honesty, integrity, service, social solidarity and social justice that were the defining feature of our struggle for freedom.

What does this nomination mean to you and is it really good enough just to be nominated?

I wrote this book as part of my contribution and without any expectation of recognition. The proceeds all go toward promoting a culture of reading and writing. It is an honour to be shortlisted with such an eminent selection of writers.   

Are you keen to keep writing in the genre of non-fiction or do you plan to write fiction soon? If so, what attractions does fiction offer you as a writer?

I will continue to write about real people and their struggles for social justice and human dignity. I am working on a book which is an inter-generational conversation about the world we want.

Does receiving recognition like this not make writing your next book a bit daunting? 


Which authors have influenced your writing?

I love history. It has so much to teach us. I find myself inspired by the philosophy of Mandela, Biko, Gandhi, Martin Luther King. Other than that, all writers I read provoke and challenge my mind. But none as much as the human experiences I have the honour of sharing with the poor in villages, slums and hostels in the places I visit. There lies my greatest inspiration.

What inspires you?

That we are part of a shared humanity. What has happened in Egypt and Tunisia is evidence that the people ultimately triumph against powerful, predatory economic and political elites who dominate our global village and perpetuate the growing poverty and inequality in the world. I am  inspired by the next generation, who are demanding a world that sees social justice and human dignity as the core of our global vision.