Achmat Dangor Literary Prize Launch: A literary prize for a better South Africa

 In How to write a book, Tips for Writers

I had the honour of attending the launch of the Achmat Dangor Literary Prize last Tuesday, a new award aimed at supporting Black South African writers.

The Prize is, of course, named for renowned writer and activist, Achmat Dangor, who used his literature to explore and interrogate themes of apartheid and the many injustices we face beyond apartheid.

He understood the power of the arts and literature to empower people and create social change. It was in this spirit that, on 6 June, the prize was launched, to continue Dangor’s legacy.What is the Prize?

The prize is a collaboration between The Nelson Mandela Foundation, The Achmat Dangor Legacy Project and Leseding La Dinaledi Foundation. It is designed to support Black South African authors who are currently working on their second manuscript. It will provide them with the concentrated time and space to complete their manuscript, by offering them a writing residency, a cash stipend, and final editing of their complete book. The project will be managed by the Leseding La Dinaledi Foundation, led by Thabiso Mahlape, the founder of Blackbird Books.

What does the winner receive?

As Elinor Sisulu said during the panel discussion, “Writers need space – a room of their own, as Virginia Woolfe said, and some money to sustain them.”This prize is designed to provide writers with exactly this.

The winner of the prize will receive a three-month writing residency at the Nirox Foundation. They will certainly have “a room of their own” in the form of a two-bedroom double-storey house with a large double-volume studio, mezzanine workspace, lounge, dining, and entertainment facility, and a separate self-contained two-bedroom cottage overlooking the water of the beautiful Nirox Sculpture Park in Kromdraai, Krugersdorp.

The money to sustain them will come in the form of a R45 000 cash prize and R30 000 worth of editing to help the winner complete and publish their book.

How to Enter

The Book Prize is open to all published Black South African authors who are currently working on their second manuscript. To enter, you must submit a synopsis and three chapters of your manuscript as well as a short bio, to Blackbird Books before the end of July.

The winner will be announced in October 2023. The writing residency will take place from April to June 2024.

Why is this initiative so important to South Africa?

In South Africa, we have a rich history of using the arts for activism and social justice. From the literature that captured the true horrors of apartheid to the protest theatre that inspired similar movements worldwide, we have always had an understanding of the power of the arts to empower, inspire and create change.

Despite the devaluation of the arts we are seeing now, this is still true today so perhaps this is something we need to be reminded of. In a country where we still face so many injustices and inequalities, I believe that initiatives like this are crucial in bringing us towards a more equal and just society.

The need for a greater diversity of stories and literature

The discussion at the launch centred on the value this prize will bring to the country. It revolved around the need for a greater diversity of stories and literature in South Africa and the larger systemic issues that sometimes prevent this diversity.

We often talk about how many stories are not told in South Africa. We see particular stories from certain demographics. This is partly the result of systemic issues. It is very difficult for a writer to complete a manuscript if they do not have a space away from all the distractions of everyday life.

Access to time, space and money

Similarly, writers find it very difficult to complete a manuscript if they don’t have the time, due to the many hours they have to spend working to make ends meet. Thus, many of the stories we see are from those who have access to time, space and money. This prize is designed to give writers access to these essentials in order to concentrate on their creative work.

The hope is that this prize will inspire a greater diversity of stories, which is a crucial part of creating a better South Africa. Speakers pointed out that, if people have their voices heard and their stories and experiences reflected back to them, it empowers them and gives them a sense of strength and hope.

Story is one of the most powerful tools we have for social change. Talking about social injustices in broad political terms often leaves people feeling bored and flat. People have nothing to connect to, which means it doesn’t really inspire social change. Hearing personal, individual stories gives people something to connect to.

A crisis of literacy

Lastly, the importance of this prize to literacy was brought up multiple times throughout the discussion. We have a crisis of literacy in South Africa and this has far-reaching implications. Literacy is an incredibly important aspect of empowering people and giving them opportunities in life –  and this is partly due to a lack of accessible literature.

People find it easier to read in their own language and to read stories they can relate to. Part of the aim of this prize is to create greater access to literacy for all South Africans. It is designed to make it possible for the kinds of books to be written and published that larger numbers of people can read and engage with.

As  Thabiso Mahlape, said in her address “No one is coming. It is our job as a nation, as people, to help those who don’t have access to literacy.”

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