On Franschhoek during a literary festival

ESSAY: On Franschhoek during a literary festival

Wamuwi Mbao considers the contrasts and complexities of the recent Franschhoek Literary Festival


I drive into Franschhoek on Friday morning, wending my way through the valley that receives improbably gilded sunshine even when the rest of the Cape is succumbing to winter. I’m here for the Franschhoek Literary Festival, a yearly meeting of the country’s writerly voices that takes place over the weekend.

Franschhoek is an odd place. The Wikipedia page tells me that the town “is notable for having some of the top restaurants in the country within its quiet borders”. It tells me about the strong wine culture of the area, and how “the ideal summer weather, snowy peaks in winter and proximity to Cape Town have turned Franschhoek into one of South Africa’s most sought after residential addresses”.

That’s all fine and well, but it’s also a town that requires a swift and firm suspension of disbelief. As I roll down the oak-lined ribbon of tarmac that beckons one into the heart of the French corner, I see another story. It’s a story of distressingly kitsch gated communities on the one hand, and of the Langrug informal settlement hiding apologetically out of sight on the slopes of the mountain.

Indeed, it takes a different set of eyes to not find this peculiar settler town semaphoring its historical connections so openly – a morbid symptom of our country’s great identity crises. I park at the Town Hall, as I do every year, and find the main street, not fully awake yet at 8:30am. The shops all sell variations on the Good Living theme: mohair rugs, silk wraps, colonial figurines of Africans in serving wear. I walk past the First National Bank (which looks like it WAS the first national bank), past the post office and the town library. In many ways, Franschhoek bears the traces of being a one horse town.

The anchor of the urban road is the Huguenot Monument that sits set back from the roadway.  It’s a looming reminder of where this town’s social and political landscape is weighted. It’s also just a large and quite anonymous structure, and the folk criss-crossing its lawns on their way to garden or waitressing jobs seem indifferent to the Huguenots and their achievements.

In the short while it takes me to traipse back up the road to the lovely Sacred Ground patisserie, the town has woken up. All the middle-aged men in Franschhoek wear cashmere sweaters, and all the middle-aged women wear painted expressions and linen blouses. I have a craggy scone and a latte at (on?) Sacred Ground and I think I could quite wonderfully pass my life in such idle splendour. If the street lacks the architecture to quite pull off the French theme, the pace of the town centre certainly approximates Beaune or somewhere else.

I suspend my reveling in the pleasures of the day and walk across to the Town Hall. I run into Brent Meersman and we share the stroll and a chat about the festival. This is the literary Franschhoek – writers everywhere, people jostling to see what they can attend and rueing their luck as the popular panels sell out.

The first panel I attend has Meersman in conversation with Niq Mhlongo, Andrew Brown and Paul Morris. The doorkeeper asks me if I’m Niq Mhlongo: last year, they thought I was Ndumiso Ngcobo. I sit up front, and I take in what turns out to be a fascinating discussion on violence, conflict and memory.

I walk into the town hall afterwards, and I’m not there for even 30 seconds before I run into Kgebetli Moele. I met Moele at last year’s Open Book Festival, and I look out for him ever since – he’s always incisive in his commentary on these events. He dragoons me into his session,  a panel with Azila Reisenberger, Carole Bloche, and Billy Kahora (from Kwani?).  Kgebetli makes a point I inwardly applaud when he asks, “How can we say South Africa doesn’t have a culture of reading?” He goes on to point out that just because South Africans don’t buy into the middle class commodity industry of which novels are a part, it doesn’t mean they don’t read. The audience draws its breath like it’s never thought of the idea before.

The next morning, I’m on the streets bright and early, but something has changed. Friday’s sleepy Provencal day has been replaced by out-of-town wealthy weekenders in Porsches and on Harleys.  I head to the Congregation Hall, where Mark Gevisser, Shaun Viljoen and Finuala Dowling are in conversation with Henrietta Rose-Innes. I sit with one of my colleagues and she points out that the audience for the gig is almost entirely white and elderly. I wonder how much of this is perception – there aren’t official numbers for these things, but I see enough students milling about to hope that this idea of the festival will change. Later, I liaise with my colleague Adrian, who’s been in creative writing and poetry workshops with schoolkids from Pniel and Bridge House – part of an initiative called the Book Week for Young Readers which sees each of the Franschhoek valley’s 4500-odd learners engage with one of 50 poets and writers. His enthusiasm about the engagement of these children makes me feel guilty for being cynical. There is more going on beneath the surface than I assumed.

In the Town Hall, young urban sophisticates take selfies with authors – the festival feels more digital every time I come here. A side effect of this phenomenon occurs later when I realize I’m being glared at by a silver-haired septuagenarian two rows down from me, who doesn’t realize that I’m live-tweeting, not rudely texting during the session. Later, a fellow hack relates being reprimanded loudly by an audience member for doing the same thing.

The rule of the weekend is that you should try to see as much as possible. I find myself in the new school hall (the old school hall still stands) watching Saleem Badat, Prince Mashele and Max Du Preez discuss the future of the ANC. They all think that Jacob Zuma won’t see 2018 as president. One woman asks if Jacob Zuma won’t “pull a Mugabe” on ‘us’”. I’m not sure I’m part of the “us” she has in mind.

I walk up the Main Road, past the weekend market – Franschhoek is not immune to this scourge – where a choir of black teens serenades nobody in particular. The further up you go, the more the other Franschhoek intrudes. There’s a Pick n Pay (larger and more robust than the one in the town centre), and a Chinese store.  It all sits and jostles for your interest. This is a Franschhoek that doesn’t care about hashtagging, or about the pithy quotes hanging from the streetlights. It’s refreshing to contrast the two.

All too soon, the festival is at an end. The afternoon always grows colder as the literary types head back to Johannesburg or to their homes in busier parts of the Cape. The posters flap in the breeze and for a moment it feels like the town will come to a dead stop. It won’t, of course, but the literary festival animates Franschhoek in a quite different way, and as the energy of the weekend diffuses into the Sunday evening, I feel a twinge of almost-nostalgia.

Wamuwi Mbao is a literary critic and writer of short stories.



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