Humanities lecturer in 130th commemoration for library

Creative Writing Lecturer, Sabata-mpho Mokae, was invited to deliver a speech at the Beaconsfield Library’s historic 130th anniversary speech. The text follows:

“Once upon a time a brightly shining star hurriedly traversed the skies from east to west, splitting the heavens and illuminating mother earth. No one knew from whence it came, no one knew whither it went, but it delighted with its astonishing beauty and glory surpassing that of any other star.”

These words could very well be describing ta diamond that just got discovered in Hopetown or in Griquatown or in Dikgatlong in the late 1860s and early 1870s, for these were the discoveries that led to the Diamond Rush and saw the multitudes from near and far flock to Bultfontein farm in the dry interior of South Africa. Overnight a hillock became a hole and the farm became a town called New Rush. Time flew and New Rush became a cosmopolitan city of Kimberley.

As the the 17-year-old Cecil John Rhodes and 18-year-old Barney Barnato came to Kimberley and made a fortune and the sons of Bafokeng came and worked and with their earnings bought the land on which Africa’s richest nations live, Kimberley also became a city of firsts: the first postal service in 1871, the first drive-in bar in 1875, the first professional training of nurses in 1877, in September 1882, Kimberley’s streetlights came on before that of the city of London, making it the first city in the southern hemisphere to have electric street lights, in 1883, Kimberley gave the country its first stock exchange, in 1889 it became the first city to have a hotel with electricity, in 1911 the first public flight using an aircraft built in South Africa and the first to have a plane accident in 1913 and so the story of Kimberley’s first continues.

Then World War I started in 1914 and mining operations ceased in the world’s biggest excavation. That excavation turned into a tourist attraction, the world’s biggest human-made hole, it was sold to the world. Kimberley became the Big Hole and the Big Hole is a museum. Histories are displayed in museums. Diamonds deplete every time a diamond is extracted from the ground. At the moment, Kimberley is known all over the world as the City of Diamonds. But that is merely a historical fact. Diamonds are going and soon we will need new diamonds.

The quote in the beginning comes from a biography Lover of his People: a biography of Sol Plaatje by Modiri Molema. In this accessible biography, Molema opens by describing the birth of a man whose existence can be likened to that of a diamond in Kimberley, Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje in October 1876, at the height of the Diamond Rush. Molema describes Plaatje as “a meteoric star” and perhaps that description was prophetic for the star that Plaatje was illuminated our city and the world, and created a path on which many other lovers of the word walked on as they follow on his footsteps.

Plaatje arrived in Kimberley as a young man, barely out of his teens, just a few years after the arrival of Olive Schreiner, the famous author of The Story of an African Farm who wrote Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland while she resided at number 22 Otto Street in Homestead, Kimberley.

As diamonds get depleted in Kimberley, writers and other professionals who wrote a book or two came to Kimberley from other parts of the world and others were born here and in nearby towns and farms: Olive Schreiner, Solomon Plaatje, Budlwana Bud M’Belle (Plaatje’s mentor and brother-in-law who wrote A Kaffir Scholar’s Companion), Zacharia Keodirelang Matthews (a professor and diplomat who write Freedom for My People), academic and politician Robert Sobukwe, renowned journalist Aggrey Klaaste and a member of the famous Die Sestigers and poet who died too soon but left a lasting legacy Ingrid Jonker, whose poem The Child Nelson Mandela read during his inauguration in May 1994.

Modiri Molema, Plaatje’s protégé also lived briefly in Kimberley when he was a teacher at Lyndhurst Road School where the fire station is today. He later wrote not only a biography of Plaatje in Setswana, the only biography of Plaatje written by a person who knew him personally and lived with him, but also a book titled Bantu Past and Present which he wrote when he was in medical school in Scotland.

That so many people who wrote books and also articles in newspapers and other periodicals lived in our city supports an argument that the new diamonds in the historical City of Diamonds are stories and books.

Eleven years ago, upcoming and seasoned writers descended on our city to participate in the inaugural Northern Cape Writers Festival. These writers included the late South African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, Don Mattera, Lebo Mashile, Phillipa Yaa de Villiers, Napo Masheane, Gomolemo Mokae, Pitika Ntuli, Credo Mutwa, Vonani Bila and David Maahlamela. The convergence of these wordsmiths in Kimberley was no coincidence; the city has a long history with the creation as well as the appreciation of literature.

With the establishment of the Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley in 2014, many writers from near and far visited the city, just as fortune hunters did at the height of the Diamond Rush in the late 1800s. These writers include Franca Treur from the
Netherlands, Mamle Kabu and Martin Egblewogbe from Ghana, Chuma Nwokolo and Bankole Omotoso from Nigeria, Wame Molefhe from Botswana, Elizabeth Williams from the United Kingdom, Zukiswa Wanner from Kenya, Percy Zvomuya from
Zimbabwe, Abdullah al Wesali from Saudi Arabia as well as South African wordsmiths Fred Khumalo, Flow Wellington, Phehello Mofokeng, Bongani Madondo, Niq Mhlongo, Tuelo Gabonewe and Lesego Rampolokeng. That so many writers find their way to the city gives testimony to the fact that the city indeed appreciates literature and that books, which will always be relevant as long as humans inhabit the world and tell stories, are the city’s new diamonds. Of this timelessness of stories, Ben Okri writes in The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling: “Stories appear to bend themselves to our time. That maybe because, in order to exist, stories must intersect with time. The difficulties human beings face, the enigmas of life, will not go away. They will not go away till we are perfected. And we are not going to be perfected for a very long time.”

Also that we are gathered here to witness the 130th anniversary of a library that has been in the same address serving the local community since 1889, give credence to the word as the new diamond that never cracks.

The only way we can maintain our new diamonds is to keep reading and read our own, from Cape Town to Cairo, from Madagascar to Morocco. Perhaps the new generation of African writers will find our city a literary destination, if not a pilgrimage.

However, as the city beginsto have books as its new diamonds, it will have to embrace and encourage the telling of new stories in its various languages. These will be the stories that will mirror our lives and our times. Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe in an essay titled My Home under Imperial Fire makes reference to an Igbo phrase that says “no man should enter his house through another man’s gate”. Chances are plenty that we may not find a way into ourselves through stories told by others from elsewhere. 

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