The savage attack on Zainub Dala shows the terror of the freedom to use words, and the desire to obliterate them.
On Wednesday March 18 author, Zainub Priya Dala was violently attacked as she left her hotel during the Time of the Writer Festival in Durban. A woman driving alone, she was harassed by three men who forced her off the road, cornered her, held a knife at her throat, smashed a brick in her face, and called her “Rushdie’s bitch”. The day before she had been asked about writers she admired: Salman Rushdie’s name had figured on a long list of others. People walked out in protest.
Writers do not fear difference of opinion. On the contrary, we thrive on difficulty, on complexity, on posing vexed questions and exploring unresolved ideas. We sketch characters with conflicting emotions, fraught relationships with their families, their lovers and their gods, we place them in troubled circumstances, sometimes offer them redemption. This is the stuff of good drama, of engaged fiction. We gravitate towards, not away from, debate and nuance, knowing that the more considered the idea the better the text.
But what we do not thrive on, and what we will not tolerate, is violent intimidation. Like us, Dala is a writer. She is a reader. She is both a consumer of and producer of words. She would not have avoided a conversation; she would not have shut down a debate. But debate, conversation and engagement are not possible in the face of violence.
And this type of violence – cowardly, sinister, designed to create fear in the moment and silence in the future – is the sort that simultaneously demonstrates its terror of words and its desire to obliterate them. In South Africa, our freedom of speech and movement is a fundamental right. Our Constitution insists on them. It is the same Constitution that protects the rights of those uncomfortable with or offended by Rushdie’s work.
The question of freedom of expression, of speech, has occupied South African writers for decades and is one that has changed shape over the years as we’ve moved from repression to democracy and into the troubling era of the “secrecy Bill”. As South Africans, as writers, we have not always experienced freedom but we have always known what we were fighting for, sometimes at a fatal cost.
We have always known that freedom of expression is, at its deepest, most profound level, the right to speak without fear. It is the knowledge that sharing an opinion with the public should at best be met with passionate engagement, at worst with disinterested dismissal. It is, in its simplest form, the right to speak. It is also the right to listen and to be heard.
There is no glory to be had in attacking an unarmed woman alone. There is nothing heroic about attempting to intimidate people into silence. This was an unconscionable and shameful act. Above all, it was criminal.
As writers, as South Africans, we wish to make this plain: we will not be silenced and intimidated by brutish thuggery. We stand in solidarity with Dala. She is one of us, and in the tradition of our country’s resistance and resilience, we say clearly and unanimously that an injury to one is an injury to all.
PEN South Africa, the local chapter of PEN International, a worldwide association of writers; Njabulo Ndebele, Nadia Davids, NoViolet Bulawayo, Rustum Kozain, Mandla Langa, Margie Orford, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, Imraan Coovadia, Gabeba Baderoon, Fourie Botha, Imran Garda, Kirsten Miller, Thando Mgqolozana, Ben Williams, Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho, Dilman Dila, Siphiwo Mahala, Fiona Snyckers Helen Moffett, Nthikeng Mohlele, Percy Zvomuya, Jacob Dlamini, Zakes Mda, Ivan Vladislavic, Elinor Sisulu, Rachel Zadok.
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