By Lesley Cowling

The Wits Centre for Journalism recently partnered with the Rhodes School of Journalism to set up the first ever regional meeting of the International Association of Literary Journalism Studies (IALJS). Hosted by Rhodes Journalism, the two-day workshop focused on the teaching of literary journalism and narrative non-fiction in South African universities, both as practice and as a scholarly area.

Wits Journalism researchers also took part in a panel presentation on South African non-fiction narratives of coercion and confinement, which connected to the IALJS 2022 conference via Zoom. The panel examined writing on the country’s painful history, from the Boer War, to prison life and the harassment and surveillance of the apartheid state (see video here).

Wits graduate Shelley Roberts showed how the reports of British activist Emily Hobhouse alerted the world to deaths of Boer women and children in the concentration camps, while doctoral candidate Lesley Mofokeng discussed the literary journalism of the only known account of black experience of the Boer War, Sol Plaatje’s Mafeking Diary. UK scholar Peter auf der Heyde looked at Herman Charles’s Bosman’s prison memoir, Cold Stone Jug, against the background of South Africa’s rich prison literature, and Wits Journalism’s Lesley Cowling examined the histories of prison gangs as described in Jonny Steinberg’s The Number. Finally, director of the Rhodes School of Journalism, Anthea Garman, focused on the work of Jacob Dlamini on apartheid coercion, in particular, The Terrorist Album, which describes the ways in which the state surveilled individuals considered to be working against the system.

The workshop sessions noted that, despite the rich history of non-fiction writing in South Africa, there is very little formal teaching and research of literary journalism and/or narrative non-fiction in literature, media and journalism departments. Non-fiction also tends to be overlooked in literature departments in favour of novels, poetry and plays.

The participants, who included narrative non-fiction scholars from Rhodes, Wits, the University of Cape Town and the Western Cape, noted also that African and South African writing mostly does not find its way into the growing area of global scholarship on literary journalism. Much of this scholarship finds a home in the IALJS, and is shared in its annual meeting. The organisation is still dominated by Northern scholars and concerns, and Africa is largely unrepresented, with the exception of occasional scholars from South Africa participating in conferences and publishing projects. Participants of the regional meeting agreed that South African scholars should create a local association to share research and teaching experiences, and to encourage the expansion of curricula (especially in journalism and media studies departments) to include narrative non-fiction and literary journalism.

By Lesley Cowling, Associate ProfessorDepartment of JournalismSchool of Literature, Language and Media