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The poetry project’s inspiration    
Fri, 04 August 2017



What inspired the poetry project? We share CEO of AVBOB, Mr Frik Rademan’s emotional letter to the press…
 
Dear Reader
 
I have to confess, finding the right words for this press release is so much more difficult than I ever imagined. At first, it may sound like a fairly simple undertaking, namely the announcement that AVBOB has decided to sponsor a poetry platform, but that would be a gross over-simplification. The truth is, neither AVBOB nor any other business can actually ‘sponsor’ poetry. All we can claim is that we wish to be associated with the power of poetry – and with the beauty of the human spirit.
 
For a brand to associate itself with poetry is, however, a matter that has to be approached with the utmost care and caution. Poetry is more ancient and established than the world's oldest brands. In fact, it is as old as mankind itself, and has been recorded in all the languages of the world, on cave walls, in parchment rolls and within the antique pages of centuries-old manuscripts. It is alive in books, theatres, music, street sounds, and in the words of figures gathered around braaivleis fires, silhouetted against the African sky. It belongs to philosophers, scientists, clergymen, artists and all who express themselves in language. In short, poetry belongs to us; it is the property of the people.
 
To suggest that AVBOB can do anything meaningful for poetry would therefore be completely erroneous. Rather, it is the other way around: poetry can mean so much to AVBOB and its people, and it is with this sentiment in mind that I write this statement.
 
It is important to point out, though, that AVBOB is no ordinary business. It is a business with a long history of caring for people. And it is a business without any shareholders. As a mutual assurance society, we are owned by our policyholders, and this is why we plough our surplus profits back by increasing the value of our policyholders' policies with special bonuses. In the past nine years alone, we have declared R6.5 billion worth of special bonuses. Ever since its inception in 1918, AVBOB has belonged to ordinary people. Indeed, it was originally established for humanitarian reasons to help families in times of need during the difficult years after World War I, when people suffered bitterly.
 
Today, 99 years later, people still suffer, and despondency is becoming an ever-increasing threat to our self-preservation. Our people are generally divided and riven with uncertainty. Work is scarce, and meaningful work even scarcer.
 
Squatter camps shoot up like miserable concentration camps all around us. Moreover, the conversations of our time are simultaneously laced with blame and desperation; the one feeds off the other. At this point in time, loss also rears its ugly head at every opportunity.
 
Loss makes people vulnerable, whether it is the loss of income or the loss of a dream at the death of a loved one – a mother, a father, a child – and, consequently, we are at a loss for words to say goodbye. And if we do not have the words to send off our loved ones, the ritual of parting is muted.
 
AVBOB's invitation to poets to write poems with an elegiac feel in all our official languages is thus, of itself, a strategic decision, aimed at building a bridge between those who have the words (established and aspiring poets) and those who so desperately need to hear those words (the bereaved). Our sponsorship is thus aimed at providing a platform for poets, both unknown and lauded, to offer words of comfort through their craft.
 
For centuries, poets have been writing about the seamless cycle of life and death. In fact, it is the genre within which most poets deliver their best work. However, to write - or read - about death is not necessarily a morbid thing. Indeed, death implies life; the one simply cannot exist without the other.
 
To bring this poetry project to life, we are launching a website – www.avbobpoetry.co.za – on 18 July 2017, on Mandela Day, that will be completely devoted to South African poetry. The main features of the website are twofold. First, we want to publish as many quality new poems as possible, in all 11 of the official South African languages. These poems will be freely available to all lovers of this enchanting and everlasting literary form, and to all those searching for a verse to give expression to the complex and unique emotions they are experiencing.
 
Secondly, the website will form the platform from which we will launch a nationwide poetry competition. Again, just as AVBOB belongs to the people, so too does poetry – it knows no boundaries, and transcends all differences. For this reason, we have made a massive effort to make the competition as inclusive as possible. The competition will thus be open to all South Africans, in all 11 official languages, to celebrate the richness and diversity of all the voices of our land.
 
Every language is richly layered with nuances that can only be fully understood by someone who speaks, thinks and dreams in that language. For this reason, we’ve appointed a reputable editor in every one of our official languages to evaluate the entries fairly.
 
Should a poem be accepted by one of our editors, it will open up a world of exciting new opportunities for the entrant of the poem. First, every poem which is approved by the relevant editor will feature alongside other poems on the AVBOB poetry website, where it will become part of a library of content to provide words of beauty and comfort to the people of South Africa. As a token of our appreciation, an incentive of R300 will be paid for each poem selected.
 
In addition, all entrants of approved poems will be in line for the AVBOB Poetry Prize, in the specific language categories (there will be a winner in each language). The respective prizes will bring cash rewards. We will announce these winners towards the end of March 2018 and we plan on rolling out the red carpet for them at a prestigious awards ceremony.
 
This initiative is by no means accidental. I am extremely grateful to say that, over the years, AVBOB has been a proud supporter of the arts in our country. We have always believed that the arts provide emotional and intellectual upliftment for our people, and that it is a way to liberate them from the difficulties of daily life. It is this very sentiment that also drives our support of the Mzansi Youth Choir. It is what motivates our every initiative at the AVBOB Foundation. Ever since we first pledged to do so in 2013, the Foundation has donated 41 container libraries to underprivileged schools. To continue this legacy in a meaningful way, we are busy developing nine new schools that will be opened in 2018, in celebration of our 100th birthday. The formal announcement with regards to this initiative will be made on Mandela Day.
Essentially, this is how we show our hearts to our people. Our slogan promises “We’re here for you”, but because actions speak louder than words, we trust that efforts like these show that we sincerely care for you.
 
This brings me to the final opportunity that all entrants of the AVBOB poetry competition will be exposed to, and one that I am truly excited about. Every person who enters will stand an equal chance for their work to feature alongside that of some of our most accoladed poets in a 100-poem print anthology, entitled “I wish I’d said”. The anthology will be published in August 2018 – again, to coincide with our centennial. As far as we know, it will be the first time in South African history that a poetry publication will be undertaken on such a scale, in terms of its inclusion of all 11 official languages, and we are immensely grateful that it is within our means to make it possible.
 
The title of the anthology, “I wish I’d said”, will also be the theme for the poetry competition. This theme resonated deeply with us because all of us, at some point in our lives, have felt regret for the things we’ve left unsaid. Perhaps we wish we’d said, “I love you”, “forgive me” or “I will never forget you”.                                                                                                  
 
Regardless of what this phrase means to each individual, it is our wish that the AVBOB poetry project will become a vehicle for people to finally express those unspoken whispers of the heart.
 
Poetry brings us closer to those we love, and binds us to the universe in which we abide. Perhaps, most importantly of all, poetry brings us closer to our truest selves, and reaches chords within us that cannot otherwise be touched. This unique competition is AVBOB’s way of “catching hold of a moment, and lifting it out of the ordinary”.
 
Besides the competition and the anthology that will flow from the project, we have also produced two documentaries on poetry, that are respectively titled “I wish I’d said” and “Ek wou nog sê”. We will finally be able to share this with the people of South Africa on 18 July, when these documentaries make their debut on DStv’s VIA channel, Soweto TV and KZN TV.
 
These documentaries tap into the psyche of some of the most acclaimed poets of our time, including Antjie Krog and Vincent Oliphant. Also featured are remarkable performances of selected poems and guest appearances by some of our country’s most loved artists, such as Brandon October, Amanda Strydom, Pieter-Dirk Uys, Francois van Coke, as well as the Mzansi Youth Choir.
 
“I wish I’d said” is presented by retired English professor, poet and academic researcher Tony Ulyatt, and Professor Stanley Madonsela from the Directorate of African Languages at the University of South Africa, and “Ek wou nog sê” is presented by Coenie de Villiers.
 
In line with the inspiration behind the entire AVBOB poetry project, the main aim of these documentaries is to remind us of this powerful art form in a time of great need, and, perhaps more importantly, to help to bring poetry back to the people on a grander scale.
 
This is something which I believe we need now, more than ever. Because now, in the month of July, as every South African pauses to reflect on the legacy of our beloved Madiba, we cannot help but confront this irony: all the more, we are increasingly bombarded by messages of adversity and despair.
 
We believe that poetry has the power to change that. Our nation may be a cauldron of cultures and languages, but we all understand the language of the heart, and poetry gives expression to that language. Poetry brings new hope in the face of hopelessness. When circumstances have blinded us to the beauty of life, poetry empowers us to rediscover that beauty.                                                                                                                             
 
When grief has rendered us mute, poetry enables us to capture the legacy of our loved ones for all eternity, and to express our loss in a meaningful way.
 
Now is the time for us, as a nation, to take up the pen and not the sword. This is when we should focus on what unites, rather than divides us. And the AVBOB poetry project strives to do exactly that.
 
Sincerely,
 
FRIK RADEMAN
AVBOB CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER