– by Lauretta Ngcobo *
If we talk of such things as ownership and authorship it is imperative for us to be honest with ourselves and with one another. We should not be afraid to bare our souls and explore those hushed –up areas of our experiences, for the function of our stories is to explore and come to terms with our past. Here we are as black people and white people joining hands, in quest of who we are and for the sake of ourselves and our children.
In fact, who are we? We are Africans who have tried hard to trample on our past while we seek to reveal who we really are. When our African fathers and later our mothers were first drawn through the imperatives of the times into the city experience they soon found out that they were at variance with the lifestyles of the city. They became self conscious about their dress, their songs, their dances, their food even. Ever since that encounter, African people have lived like chameleons on their long journey of adaptation. In the process of shedding all the paraphernalia, they also learned to look down on themselves and their culture as white people did. From then on, most Africans especially the educated ones are practitioners of a hybrid culture, forever grappling emotionally, intellectually and physically with the vexing questions of who they are, much like the American that is portrayed in the writings of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and others.
White people lately are faring no better in their turn, having to come to terms with the fact that if they are wealthy and better off in every way, relative to Africans, it is because that wealth was acquired dishonestly under a spurious belief that they had to oppress others so that they could prosper. And if they are poor it is because the only thing that had given them status before was their feigned superiority to the African people. The sanctuary of the skin. That is the burden they bear today. White people have to explain how they can be “good people” when everything they are, is based on the exploitation of others. Much the same as the white people of America are forever searching for the essential me in writers like Williams Faulkner, Margaret Mitchell, Harper Lee and many others.
Here we are standing naked before each other now, forced to tell stories, true, authentic stories that proclaim who we really are. Most African writers, brought up in the cities are forced to appropriate for themselves those selective cultural aspects of their original culture, often with half-baked understanding of what it all means and often mixed up and jumbled with aspects of the superior culture. Yes, superior, because we do draw from it often what we ourselves do not fully understand, now that we have shed our own. As a result, the stories that come up on our screens leave us unsatisfied or unfulfilled for aspects of the stories seem phoney and alien on our own uninformed mindscape.
The screen is a fleeting medium. And often after it is gone from view we sit and sigh because it has affected us deeply – not so much the storyline. We already know who killed who and why. You can even tell that it is about jealousy, vengeance reconciliation and so on, whatever the theme is. But deep in the recesses of the mind,
you continue to wrestle with the deeper human conflict that the text is dealing with. Basic truths, told in symbols, codes if you like, telling the human story of life and death, birth and renewal, time and eternity, providence and destiny; the origin of the world, the end of the world, the end of time, the creation of the world, question of time and eternity. Stories about all these delve deep in every culture. They come through stories, language, communication, religion, art, literature, drama etc. In other words, we look for hidden meanings, the symbols that filter through the stories we tell or read or dramatise. This treasure store does not owe its existence from direct experience only. They often come from the very ethos of ones existence as a practitioner of a culture. Many attitudes that the characters portray in drama are partly due to the writers own beliefs. How they live and why and how they die, what they will fight for and what they will defend with their lives.
Such values that influence our judgement and morals are taught to us in very subtle ways in the culture and become embedded in our interpretation of life and develop into legends and folk tales. They are the foundation of culture. Stories about gods, superhuman beings and extraordinary events in a time – span altogether beyond our comprehension. The actors in these mythical stories are people who influenced and changed the human condition. For the English such is the story of King Arthur and the Round Table, The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and other foreign legends. They have such a powerful hold on the thinking of the speakers in their societies. The values in such stories are internalised and passed on so that even the not so literate members of the culture are tutored through story telling.
Now, to come back to the Africans in South Africa. It is undeniable that very few city homes from which we draw most of our script writers are told on a regular basis, from early childhood the stories of Mabhejana, Sondonzima, Chakijana and many more from the varied languages in South Africa. In other words, while they labour and create, they are focused on the culture and the traditions of the other. Few Africans have assimilated and soaked up the stories of King Arthur and his Round Table, characters like Pinocchio among the Italians and other foreign legends. Yet they superimpose the values of these other cultures on their thinking for even though they do not live like the English do, they perceive the culture to be the centre point of expressing their inner-selves.
We come back to the thorny question of authorship and ownership of the books that the writers produce. In view of the background we have given, we pose this question and interrogate the issue. From the models we have cited it is clear that there are more than one body of stories that we are talking about. There are those that have been passed on to us and have influenced our thinking and form part of our culture. They insidiously work themselves into our lives and we use them in formulating our view of life. We own such stories. But on the other hand, they inversely own our creativity. We claim them for ourselves and use them as we wish. We tell them to one another over and over again. We, in Africa, are also privileged to be allowed to intervene in the retelling of such stories thus becoming co-creators as we put in our own variations of such stories. We feel no guilt in doing this. If we should be telling such a story to the young we may embellish the details to suit young minds. And conversely do the same with an adult audience. We can even create parallel stories that resemble the legends. No one can accuse us of plagiarising. The ownership is all inclusive.
In a mixed society, such as we are, there may be problems of ownership and authorship in such cases. There are fine lines that separate these categories. Among Africans, it is considered acceptable for a story teller to extend his/her imagination in the act of creativity. We have the case of one writer who chose to write about the African tokoloshe. A fine literary piece. But when another writer wrote his own contribution based on the same legendary figure of tokoloshe, there was an outcry for others perceived his writing as plagiarised. This is a cross-cultural conflict.
On the other hand, we have stories that spring from our own personal experiences and are evoked by our own imagination, a complex amalgam of personal thoughts as influenced by what we know of life. These we author on our own and lay claim to authorship. Ownership and authorship overlap for the former is common property and the latter is the product of one inspired creative writer. It flows from common experience whether of one singular person or a social group. So we appropriate them for self or a social group as we identify them through common experience.
There are no answers to these eloquent questions but in addressing them perhaps we could consider a new paradigm. True creativity is a matter of the heart. So should we not be moving towards a better understanding of our common humanity. That at heart our creativity has complex links, ancient origins and definitely defies linear description. But where would that leave plagiarism litigation?
* Novelist and essayist, Lauretta Ngcobo, was born in 1931, raised in the Ixopo District of southern Natal and educated at Inanda Seminary and Fort Hare University. Lauretta Ngcobo’s late husband, AB Ngcobo, a founder executive member of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), was detained in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. In 1963, she left South Africa, escaping imminent arrest, and went into exile with her husband and children, first in Swaziland, then in Zambia and finally settling in England where she worked as a teacher for 25 years.
She came back in 1994 at the time of the new political dispensation in South Africa, thirty years after she left her country of birth. After a short teaching spell she became a Member of the KwaZulu Natal Legislature where she spent eleven years before retiring in 2008. She now lives in Durban.
Lauretta Ngcobo is the author of several books and is the recipient of the annual South African Literary Awards’ lifetime Achievement Award, 2006. The rural community of Ixopo, where she was born and raised, is described in her most recent novel, And They Didn’t Die. She praised the unsung heroines, the rural women, whose struggles and complexities in harsh environments were further compounded by having to deal with the hardships of apartheid.
The above article appears in the South African Mail & Guardian (25 April-1May)