Address by Andrew Mlangeni to the ANFASA AGM

In 2017, mindful that the theme of the ANFASA AGM was ‘Authors as the conscience of the country’, we invited Andrew Mlangeni to deliver the keynote address. On the day itself, Dr Mlangeni was ill, but he sent us his speech to be read out on his behalf. This is an edited version.

Address by Andrew Mlangeni to the ANFASA AGM, 18 March 2017

Your Annual General Meeting comes three days before Human Rights Day on 21 March, the day on which 69 people were killed in the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960. Innocent people were heartlessly killed for refusing to carry documents that not only declared them persons not appreciated in their own land but also enforced their daily misery from birth to death. On 27 April, South Africa will celebrate Freedom Day on the 23rd anniversary of becoming a democratic country. The common factor between these two dates is the conscience that lives in all of us to decide between what is tolerable and what is not tolerable.

Conscience is that inner voice in us that tells us to be truthful, honourable, principled, ethical, fair, to abide with justice and to rebel against tyranny and inhumanity. In the societal scheme of things, conscience directs us to uphold the universal values that affirm our common humanity.

Without conscience, nothing would have propelled the oppressed to take a stand against the might of a heartless oppressive order to declare first to themselves and then the world that ‘enough is enough’, as they did in Sharpeville in 1960. My comrades and I may not have foreseen that the stand we took against the oppressive regime would land us in a treason trial and that saw us sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964, but once on Robben Island we embraced the consequences of conviction without regret because we had the backing of our conscience that ours was a justifiable cause worth fighting for.

Memory is a weapon. Outside the country’s prisons, the struggle continued. The country and the world did not forget. Neither did we forget behind prison bars. Memory kept us together. Memory kept hope alive in our unshakable belief that someday we would all be free.

Writers are the conscience of the country. Some may not recognise the importance of writers to keeping people’s consciences alive, but were writers to allow denial of their roles in society the line between right and wrong would be difficult to make, as our collective sense of judgment would have been diminished.  While all of us have a conscience, and some of us can speak and act with the backing of conscience that landed my comrades and me in the Rivonia Treason Trial, not all of us have the talent and gift of words to place on record the facts behind the true nature of our collective experiences in as cogent a manner as writers and authors can do. Yours is a vocation. Writing places on record what the spoken work is unable to. Writing accords truth permanent record. And for as long as there are people, forces and interests in society that are threatened by the truth, its suppression remains the primary responsibility of writers, authors and journalists to fight against, as well as to protect and defend it. This, writers, authors and journalist must do to ensure that conscience never dies in society.

Thank you and best wishes in your AGM deliberations.