[The JRB Daily] Thando Mgqolozana, founder of Abantu Book Festival, accused of intimate partner abuse

Update: Mgqolozana has responded to the allegations in a video posted on Facebook and Twitter. See below.

On Saturday, 21 August, the South African and greater Pan-African literary community was sent reeling by a series of tweets accusing Thando Mgqolozana, writer and founder of the Abantu Book Festival, of gender-based violence.

The tweets were deleted later that evening. The JRB is not naming the person out of respect for her privacy, and as a precaution in case legal processes are underway.

Mgqolozana has yet to respond to the accusations.

Mgqolozana has long been one of the leading figures in South African literary circles. He is the author of the novels A Man Who is Not a Man (2009), Hear Me Alone (2011) and Unimportance (2014). He was the co-writer of the film Inxeba: The Wound (2018), which received nineteen awards at forty-four film festivals worldwide. In 2018 he founded Abantu Publishing, reclaimed his book rights and began releasing his own novels independently. In 2020, his debut novel was reissued in an international edition by Cassava Republic Press. 

In 2015, Mgqolozana made news when he publicly quit South Africa’s ‘white literary system’, vowing to decolonise the literary landscape. A year later, he established the Abantu Book Festival, an annual event in Soweto for Black writers and readers that brought Mgqolozana international acclaim. On the day the accusations emerged, Mgqolozana had just launched, through the festival, his most recent project, The Ultimate Book Show, a thirteen-episode series of fifty-minute conversations. 

The work Mgqolozana has done over the years to decolonise the South African literary system and create a safe space for Black writers and readers made the accusations of gender-based violence against him all the more shocking. August is South Africa’s Women’s Month.

The JRB has a zero tolerance policy to sexual gender-based violence. We strongly condemn all forms of violence, abuse and discrimination. 

In South Africa, a woman is killed every three hours. The femicide rate in South Africa is five times the global average. Between 25 and 40 per cent of South African women have experienced sexual and/or physical intimate partner violence. Just under 50 per cent of women have experienced emotional or economic abuse at the hands of their intimate partners.

Despite this, survivors of gender-based violence still face public scepticism when they come forward. To do so takes enormous courage and strength. Pen South Africa addressed this in its statement on the matter:

While we do not know if a legal process is underway (and if so, what the outcomes will be), we do know it takes inordinate courage for any survivor of assault to come forward because the personal, emotional, and legal barriers to speaking out are significant. […] Our ethical duty to any and all survivors when they come forward is to say, ‘We Believe You’ and we offer those words here to the survivor of this assault, ‘We believe you. We stand by you.’

At The JRB, we concur with this ethical duty, and through our Publisher have stated that we believe and support the survivor. It is worth reiterating these words, from The PEN International Women’s Manifesto:

For women to have free speech, the right to read, the right to write, they need to have the right to roam physically, socially and intellectually. There are few social systems that do not regard with hostility a woman who walks by herself.

In the wake of the allegations, Imbiza Journal for African Writing has postponed the launch of its Women’s Voices edition, which had been scheduled for Saturday, 28 August. Literary collectives The Cheeky Natives, Literary Alliance, BookWormers and The Johannesburg Book Club have stated that they believe and support the survivor. Dozens of writers, including many affiliated with the Abantu Book Festival, have also sent messages of support on social media to the woman who spoke out against Mgqolozana. 

With thanks to Pen South Africa, which compiled this list, here are a selection of links to organisations that support survivors of domestic and gender-based violence:

The JRB reiterates its support for the survivor.

Update: Thando Mgqolozana responded to the allegations today, Friday 27 August, in a video posted on Facebook and Twitter.

[The JRB has redacted the name of the woman who has accused Mgqolozana of abuse in this transcribed text.]

In the video, he says: ‘It has taken me six days to respond to the tweets posted by [T], my ex-wife, because I had to ensure the safety of my daughter first, and that of my ex-wife, before I did anything else.

‘I will share the substance and details of the full story behind those tweets in due course, if it becomes necessary.’

Mgqolozana says that his relationship with his ex-wife became ‘toxic’, but states: ‘It is, however, important for me to place it on record that I have never abused [T]. And god help me to never, ever do that.’

He continues: ‘In my written work as well as the curatorial of the special space like Abantu Book Festival (sic), I am passionate about the basic proponent against gender-based violence, which is that if a woman reports that she has been abused, believe her. Believe her.

‘Living in this society where men rape, maim and murder women every minute, it is important for us to rally support for those who report. And I will not waiver from this important pillar of the fight against gender-based violence, even as I look everyone in the eye and honestly tell them that I am not one of the perpetrators.

‘To this effect, I hope that someone can also help [T] to formally lay charges against me so that a court of law can rule on this matter. For my part, I have finally been granted an interim protection order to prevent any further abuse towards me, my friends and my colleagues. [T] deserves justice as I deserve closure on this matter.’

Further, Mgqolozana makes ‘an impassioned plea’ that people ‘separate this story and Abantu Book Festival’, asking that people do not call for the boycott of the festival or ‘drag authors associated with Abantu into this story’. He says that while this ‘matter is being attended to’, a person will be appointed to oversee and administrate the facilitation of The Ultimate Book Show and the next edition of the Abantu Book Festival.

Watch the statement in full here, or on Twitter:

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