A Short History of Botsotso

One leg in
another leg out
tight me up
strongly sewn
visible mending
back pocket trademark
silver buttons attached
not woven once
twice or thrice
die is mos botsotsos

back pocket
front pocket
nog 'n maal talk to me
die is mos botsotsos

pull high
stretch on a high way
ons pedetry moet doves 2
no attention to whistlers my weebit
no hearing sweet nothings
strongly sewn
die is mos botsotsos.

Isabella Motadinyane

Botsotso, as a publishing house and platform for performance, was formed in 1996 by members of the Botsotso Jesters poetry performance group. The Jesters had come together in 1994 and consisted in its initial stages of Siphiwe ka Ngwenya, Roy Blumenthal, Isabella Motadinyane, Ike Mboneni Muila and Allan Kolski Horwitz. The group created a collage of poetic identities to reflect the changing South Africa and dramatized poems so as to reach a wider audience than poetry had traditionally attracted notwithstanding the new and vital role that poetry was playing in the political struggle at meetings and funerals. After the resignation of Roy Blumenthal, Anna Varney joined the group and a new phase of collective writing ensued which culminated in the launch of Botsotso’s publishing and curatorial activities.

The following set of objectives was defined:

Botsotso is a grouping of poets, writers and artists who wish to both create art as well as to generate the means for its public communication and appreciation. We speak particularly of art that is of and about the varied cultures and life experiences of people in South Africa – as expressed in all our many languages. We are committed to a proliferation of styles and a multiplicity of themes and characters. Multidisciplinary art forms and performances are similarly embraced. The transition from a closed, authoritarian society to a pluralistic and democratic one offers artists an opportunity to explore the truths of our inner and social lives with a freedom that has not existed before. Flowing from this, the consequences and lessons of Apartheid must still be examined while the challenges of the current period throw up their difficulties, their complexities. Botsotso works with inter-action: the different elements of the South African mosaic colliding, synthesizing – affected both by social forces and the individual’s uniqueness.

As such, the group advanced a radical aesthetic to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies of the literary/cultural establishment and, in Jester style, sought to expose the limitations of the colonial canon by encouraging multi-lingualism (with isicamtho being celebrated) as well as other linguistic modes rooted in working class culture. In this manner the torpid boundaries set by socialist realism and the irrelevance and insipidness of bourgeois art were both transcended.

The first practical initiative in this vein was the October 1994 launch of a literary insert in New Nation (one of several weekly newspapers established in the 1980’s to reflect debate and report on the struggles for a free South Africa). The supplement – containing poetry, fiction, short essays and graphics – was edited by the Jesters who became its editorial board. This new platform for creative writing was extensive in that New Nation had a substantial readership (at its height some 150,000 people). Artists were invited to contribute work that challenged accepted and perceived wisdoms of all classes and cultures; art that would explore our identities and traditions, and do so without inhibition.

It is worth revisiting a paragraph in the editorial of that first edition so as to contextualize its emergence: “BOTSOTSO is independent and follows no specific political or aesthetic doctrine. The main criterion for publication of work is that it has integrity and worth as an expression of individual experience and of our society.” In response, writers and artists from all over the country sent in material that filled the pages of the following eight editions before New Nation, like most of the publications that had their roots in the Struggle period, was discontinued (ironically by its last owners, who also owned THE SOWETAN). As such, this happened in the midst of a wider cultural setback that accompanied the growing retreat from radical change that came to identify the ANC adoption of neo-liberal economic and political policies.

The literary vacuum that the inexplicable closure of Staffrider left in 1996 together with the collapse of COSAW (the Congress of South African Writers) and COSAW Publishing and the collapse of the Black Consciousness/Africanist organization AWA (African Writers Association), due to mismanagement, lack of accountability and incoherence, led the Botsotso editorial board to take up the challenge of converting the ‘insert’ into a ‘stand alone’ literary/cultural journal as well as to start publishing individual collections and anthologies of poetry and short fiction. In addition, the collective began organizing readings and exhibitions. In this spirit, the first publication, We Jive like This by the Botsotso Jesters, was followed to date (2019) by some fifty publications (catalogue attached). In combining public arts funding with income from sales, a momentum has been sustained as submissions of new and vital writing continue to flow in. Despite the death of Isabella Motadinyane in 2003 and Anna Varney’s resignation in 2012, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Siphiwe ka Ngwenya and Ike Mboneni Muila remain as editorial board members and new initiatives, such as the launch in 2015 of a literary website, managed by Deon Simphiwe Stade, have continued to provide a platform for new writing.

The latest innovation was the formation in 2016 of the Botsotso Ensemble, a group of five young black actors, to take socially aware theatre to working class schools. This program has reached over eighty schools and some 14,000 learners performing both prescribed plays and workshopped ones dealing with issues like community activism, the importance of reading skills and the challenges of adolescence. The potential for expansion of this program is enormous and a partnership with the National Arts Council and the Department of Education is being activated.

Given that the life of Botsotso extends from the mid-1990’s when the first democratic election took place and that its founders were anti-apartheid activists as well as being poets, the need to remain faithful to the spirit and modus operandi of the 1980’s mass democratic movement has tested the collective. As the ANC government has embraced neo-liberal capitalist perspectives on culture by emphasizing that artists must become entrepreneurs who are responsible for funding their art making by selling their products, so the space for the type of art that Botsotso seeks to create has shrunk. However, despite these obstacles, the group has not been deflected from what it sees as the necessary tasks of progressive artists and new publications and programs are regularly generated.

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