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  • Writer's pictureSimon Stanton-Sharma

South Africa June 2023

Updated: 5 days ago


On 13th June 2023, five members of the South African Modernism 1880-2020 team travelled to South Africa from Salford (UK) and Adelaide (Australia) to take part in the Schreiner Karoo Writers Festival and screen our project film. Here Simon Stanton-Sharma and Jade Munslow Ong discuss some of the highlights of the trip.


 

Less than 12 months since we were in South Africa filming our short documentary, All That Is Buried, we were back to present research papers, run workshops and screen the film at the Schreiner Karoo Writers Festival in Cradock, and at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town.


Landing in Cape Town, the UK contingent (Maire Tracey, Sanja Nivesjö, Simon and Jade) undertook something of an epic two-day drive to Cradock in the Eastern Cape through the Karoo, a vast, unique and scarcely populated semi-desert, stopping off at Prince Albert and Nieu Bethesda along the way. We arrived on the evening of the 15th, where we met up with the fifth member of our team, Andrew van der Vlies, at Die Tuishuise & Victoria Manor, venue for the Schreiner Karoo Writers Festival, and our home for the next three days.



The festival, now in its 13th year, hosts academics, movie makers, teachers, arts enthusiasts and creatives to celebrate the legacies of author Olive Schreiner (1855-1920), the latest writing from and about the Eastern Cape, and histories, cultures and tales from the region.


We received an especially generous and warm welcome from Lisa Ker and her team on our first evening, enjoying a tasting menu with ‘Stoep Stories’ – yarns traditionally told to friends and family on the verandas of typical Cape Dutch house – before heading to bed.




The first full day of the festival began with a screening of All That Is Buried, which was really positively received. Maire and Simon then delivered a paper (co-written with Sanja, Jade and Emma Barnes) about the making of the film, explaining how Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on ‘dialog’ and ‘chronotope’ informed the decolonial production techniques, with specific focus on our collaboration with the four featured creatives: poet Zizipho Bam, writer Sindiswa Busuku, artist/activist Haroon Gunn-Salie and musician Dizu Plaatjies.


Simon and Maire then ran a filmmaking workshop for local educators, providing a model that they could then recreate with their own students. In the session, Simon and Maire broke down the filmmaking process into the key ingredients of visual storytelling, providing a roadmap to understanding the mechanics of narrative construction, applicable to almost any fictional or factual film. This was followed by a second activity on creative ideation with an exercise designed to support visual storytellers in dispelling fears over bad ideas. Within an hour, each of the small groups had over twenty story concepts to work with.


In the afternoon we headed to the Olive Schreiner House Museum. The house itself is one of the oldest buildings in Cradock and was declared a National Monument in 1986. It contains books from Schreiner’s personal library and an exhibition celebrating her life. The Ikhamanga Hall, built behind the house, is used for cultural and community events and it was there that the afternoon sessions took place. These began with poetry readings by writers and staff associated with the Amazwi South African Museum of National Literature. We were up next, hosting a panel based on our forthcoming edited collection, Olive Schreiner: Writing Networks and Global Contexts. Jade chaired, as Sanja spoke about the reception of Schreiner’s writings in the Swedish press between 1890-1920; Andrew on the influence of Schreiner on Nobel Prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee; and Paul on the origins and cultural heritage of the Olive Schreiner House Museum itself.



The final session of the day was ‘Stump the experts’ (which we admit we found a slightly daunting prospect!) in which guests at the festival were encouraged to ask Sanja, Andrew, Paul and Jade any questions they wanted about Schreiner’s life, writings, influence and cultural heritage. The discussions were wide-ranging and highly enjoyable, spanning everything from Schreiner’s prescient anti-colonial sci-fi interlude in her final, posthumously published novel, From Man to Man, to her flirtations with Samuel Cronwright (later her husband), and even to her great passion for the health benefits of Sanatogen!


After almost three hours of lively conversation and some readings from the team, it was time to head back to the hotel for more festival events, including an operatic performance and readings of letters by Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms.


The next morning, it was Jade and Sanja’s turn to run a workshop for the local teachers. Designed by Judy Kendall, the workshop invited participants to create ‘visual texts’ inspired by local writers and writing, histories, activism and environs. Participants were provided with prompts in the form of images and text by, and relating to, figures such as Schreiner, Cronwright-Schreiner and the Cradock Four, and places such as Victoria Manor, Cradock town and Buffelskop Mountain on the outskirts of town. At the end of the workshop, groups and individuals presented their visual texts, some of which can be seen here, together with a short video Simon made of the event. We were really impressed by the creativity of the participants and connections they made between various historical figures, ideas, their own interests, politics and passions.


You can read some of the news coverage of the festival here:

'Annual Schreiner Karoo Writers Festival to Kick Off in Cradock', News 24

'13th Annual Schreiner Karoo Writers Festival Coming to Cradock', The Herald

'Schreiner's Legacy Attracts International Contributors to Cradock', LitNet

'Makhandans Rub Shoulders with International Experts', Grocott's Mail


It was on Saturday afternoon that we were treated to perhaps our most special moment of the trip when Amy Coetzer collected us from the hotel and took us on a 75 minute drive into the Karoo mountains to her home, Leliekloof. Schreiner lived at Leliekloof when she was writing The Story of an African Farm (1883) and continued to mention the farm in her letters long after she had left.



In the shadow of the two great Cypress trees that sat adjacent to the site of the original house, Amy read extracts from some of Schreiner's letters, including the following:


Who lives at Lelie Kloof? I'm going to buy it when I've made my fortune […] It’s full of fossils. (Schreiner to Erilda Cawood, March 1888)
A man who lives on a farm high up in the mountains, a farm where I lived for a year and a half as a girl and was so well, has offered to let me come and board with them. I am going there soon for a month before I go back to De Aar. I have the most ridiculous feeling that if I once get there I shall be quite well and a young girl again. I shall go away by myself on the dear rocks by the little river and dance and sing and throw up my arms from fullness of life and inward joy, like I used to when I was a little Boer schoolteacher living there alone and used to escape so joyfully too, when my school was over, to rejoice by myself. Of course I'm not such a fool as to think it can be the same; but I feel as if it would be. I can't realise it! To be at Lelie Kloof again. That's the little farm I've always wanted to buy. (Schreiner to Francis Smith, 9 January 1911)
Won’t it be lovely to be at old Lelie Kloof again? I feel as if I should be a young, young girl again if I go there & dance about on the rocks in the river & throw up my arms & shout from sheer excess of life & joy like I used to in the old days!! Of course I’m not such a fool as the think I shall, but I feel as if I would! (Schreiner to Cronwright-Schreiner, 11 January 1911)

Schreiner struggled with health issues - specifically asthma - for her entire life and Leliekloof was one of the few places where she felt the climate and environment gave her the most respite from her condition. Given the topics of conversation on the previous day, we were all highly amused when Amy read out some final lines from Schreiner’s letters:


I found the air at Lelie Kloof wonderful, as good as sanatogen’ (Schreiner to Minnie/Mimmie Murray, 2 April 1911)

The farm is indeed an wonderfully inspiring and captivating place, surrounded as it is by dramatic red stone cliffs and an abundance of wildlife - from kudu to king cobra. In the valley is the river that Schreiner talks fondly of in her letters (and into which she once contemplated throwing the manuscript of The Story of an African Farm!).




We felt real joy and gratitude to be able spend a few moments by the river, looking at the poplar trees and landscape that would have changed little in the more than 140 years since Schreiner was there.





Back at the Victoria Hotel, more music and poetry performances brought this year’s festival to an end, but the next day was an early start for the team as we headed off on a rocky journey up Buffelskop, the tallest peak in the area, to visit the final resting place of Schreiner, her husband Cronwright-Schreiner, their baby and dog, ‘Nita’. You can read more about Buffelskop in our blog post commemorating the centenary of Schreiner’s internment here.


Our journey was no doubt far easier and less dramatic than that of the inebriated local men charged with carrying Schreiner's casket to the top of the mountain in 1921. Riding most of the way in a bakkie (pick-up truck), we watched the sun rise as we made our way to the peak (with Andrew on boulder-moving duty whenever we encountered rocks in the road!). The final part of the pilgrimage to the sarcophagus is a 0.5 km climb on foot, and it is at the top where the real majesty and magic of the location reveals itself. The early morning sun’s orange glow throws glorious soft light across perhaps 40 or 50 miles of mountains in every direction from here. We took in the landscape in silent reflection for a long time, before Sanja, Andrew and Jade read sections from Schreiner's Dreams and The Story of An African Farm aloud to the group.



On the way down, passing kudu, blesbok and some very distant giraffe, and overlooking the whole of Cradock, it was easy to imagine what Olive loved about this location. For Schreiner, the unique stillness and beauty of the Eastern Cape surpassed all else she had seen, even in her extensive travels around South Africa, England, France and Italy.



Our time in the Eastern Cape now at an end, we embarked on another two-day road trip that took us through Gqerberha (Port Elizabeth), down to the coast and along the Garden Route to Cape Town. We met with Carrol Clarkson, her colleagues and PhD students at the English department at the University of Western Cape and discussed her upcoming plans for a Schreiner conference in 2025.


On 21st June we again screened our film - this time to an invited audience of contributors, their families and friends, academics and all who helped make the project possible. The screening was organised by one of the four participants, Haroon, in his exhibition space at the Castle of Good Hope, the oldest colonial building in South Africa. There was some trepidation in our team about the event, not least because after several screenings and panels with consistently positive responses, this was undoubtedly the most important test: the reception of the film by those who had trusted us to tell their stories. As the credits rolled at the end of the film, there was a wonderfully positive and enthusiastic response in the space, and this continued into the celebratory and emotional Q+A session during which guests asked Haroon, Dizu, Zizipho and Sindiswa about their art, ideas, politics and experiences – including laughter, tears, and everything in-between! It is most common in these kind of events for queries to be directed at the filmmaking team, but we felt a real sense of pride that the conversation had already moved on from the film itself to the importance of Haroon, Dizu, Sindiswa and Zizipho’s creative work and the issues they give voice to.


After the film, we mingled with guests, participants, their families and friends, and reflected on the filmmaking process. We feel so privileged and humbled to have been invited into the lives of these hugely impressive and inspiring people, and very much hope it won’t be too long until we see our friends in South Africa again!



 

Simon Stanton-Sharma, Jade Munslow Ong, Sanja Nivesjö, Maire Tracey and Andrew van der Vlies would like to thank the AHRC­, the School of Arts, Media and Creative Technology at the University of Salford, and Kungliga Vitterhetsakademien for funding our trip. We would also like to thank Lisa Ker, Emmelina Smit, Paul Walters, Haroon Gunn-Salie and Carrol Clarkson for their hosting and hospitality; our colleagues Martin Bull, Debra Prinselaar, Glyn White, Emma Barnes and Tim France their support; and all attendees at our events for so generously sharing their time and interest in our work.

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