The poet, novelist and activist—and founding patron of The JRB—Achmat Dangor, died in Johannesburg earlier today.
One of the founding members of the Congress of South African Writers, COSAW, Dangor, who was born in Johannesburg in 1948, published some ten works, including the 2001 novel Bitter Fruit, which was shortlisted for both the prestigious International Dublin Award and the Booker Prize. In 2015 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the South African Literary Awards (SALA). His latest novel, Dikeledi: Child of Tears, No More was published in 2017.
In 2018, The JRB published an excerpt from his current, untitled work in progress. Read the excerpt here. Most recently, Dangor was involved in the effort to allow for the sale of books during the Stage 4 lockdown restrictions imposed during the coronavirus epidemic.
‘It is with sadness that we announce the passing of our brother Achmat Dangor,’ said his brother, Zane Dangor. ‘He is mourned by his wife, Audrey Elster, his children, Yasmin, Zane and Zachary, his grandchildren and his brothers and sister. Achmat will be buried in accordance with Muslim burial rites later today.’
During the turbulent nineteen-seventies, Dangor, together with thirteen other writers, founded a group call Black Thoughts. Its mission was to overcome the rigid education system the apartheid government had imposed on black schools, forcing children to learn in Afrikaans, and severely restricting what they could read. Black Thoughts did readings in township schools and churches, introducing scholars and the public to the work of ‘Third World’ writers, included South African books that had been banned.
The Black Thoughts writers themselves were banned by the apartheid government, which prohibited them from attending any gatherings. Achmat found employment under the Leon Sullivan code with the American company Revlon, where he was trained as packaging engineer. He subsequently entered the development sector where he was CEO of various organisations, including the Kagiso Trust, the Nelson Mandela Childrens Fund and the Nelson Mandela Foundation. He was also Director of Advocacy at UNAids, and the Ford Foundation’s Southern Africa Representative. He continued writing throughout these years.
Dangor’s fellow novelist and patron of The JRB Ivan Vladislavić said:
‘Achmat was a treasured friend and greatly admired colleague. He had a streak of magic in him, and a fearless imagination, tackling subjects most writers shy away from. His passing is a huge loss to the writing world. My sympathies to Audrey and Zachary, and to all his family and friends.’
Dangor’s agent, the poet Isobel Dixon, posted this tribute:
His publisher, Pan Macmillan South Africa, posted the following words:
Dangor agreed to become one of The JRB’s three founding patrons in March 2017, after a conversation over coffee at a favourite cafe of his in Parkview, Johannesburg, where he lived. He was ‘honoured to accept becoming a patron of this project’, he said in a later email to us.
‘He supported us at every turn,’ The JRB Publisher Ben Williams said. ‘A more thoughtful, engaged and humane writer you would be hard-pressed to find. He was a person of quiet purpose, but also sly humour—his presence illuminated any room he chose to walk in. He will be profoundly missed.’
The JRB extends its condolences to Achmat’s wife and family. A giant has fallen—may he rest in peace.
Exiles Within (1989)
Private Voices (1992)
Waiting for Leila (1981)
Strange Pilgrimages (2013)
Z Town Trilogy (1990)
Kafka’ Curse, Novel (1998)
Bitter Fruit, Novel (2001)
Dikeledi: Child of Tears, No More, Novel (2017)