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Professor Graham Mort
Lancaster University
International Fellowship

Taking Liberties: ideals of freedom in contemporary South Africa

Graham Mort is exploring notions of liberty with students at the University of the Western Cape by means of creative writing, working individually in English and in collaborative forms through Xhosa, Afrikaans and English

Students in Taking Liberties writing workshop. Photo: G Mort.

In their 2014 general election, only one in three ‘born free’ South Africans registered to vote. There was, and is, a growing sense that South Africa is becoming a ‘failed state’ despite its economic wealth, and despite having the most liberal constitution in sub-Saharan Africa. What has happened to Nelson Mandela’s vision of ubuntu, of shared humanity, living space and power? 

Taking Liberties continues an exploration of personal, social and political liberty through creative writing practice that began in Uganda in 2001 and has continued through subsequent projects in Africa and Kurdistan. At its heart is the relationship between the political concept of liberty and our sense of personal freedom. The project will be situated at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), an institution with a linguistically and culturally diverse community of students, who form a generation of first-time attendees, following the dismantling of apartheid.

In 2015, Lancaster University and UWC staged the second Writing for Liberty conference in Cape Town. The event brought together writers, theorists and critics to share their understanding of how authors have confronted oppression and contributed to human liberty. Our debates were often hard fought, reaching down into a historical sense of partition and powerlessness. My project will build upon that legacy, engaging with students at UWC and building on my earlier multilingual work there in Xhosa, Afrikaans and English. We’ll build a new website, featuring the writing of students and community members, and acting as a showcase and resource for other researchers and teachers.

This project will be an exploration of original writing in new configurations, both individual (in English) and collaborative (in Xhosa, Afrikaans and English). It will show how language inhabits more than one place of meaning at once: an exercise in ambiguity, counterpoint, contradiction and multivalence. All that will be enacted through the subtleties and sleights of tongue that form the basis of research through creative writing practice. But perhaps it is only by embracing polyphony, by sharing the intermeshing narratives of self and history, that we can begin to understand the countervailing forces that co-exist in contemporary South African and that will influence its emergent participants and leaders.

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