Juxtaposing the politics and poetics of old age – Fellows’ seminar by Catherine du Toit and Frans Viljoen

16 October 2020

“In 2016, the African Union adopted the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Older Persons. At least 15 AU member states need to ratify this Protocol to ensure its ‘entry into force’. However, some four and a half years later, only two states (Benin and Lesotho) have ratified the Protocol,” said Frans Viljoen of the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria. “This project sets out to reflect on possible reasons for this lukewarm reception, by juxtaposing the provisions of the Older Person’s Protocol with the representation in contemporary African literature of old age and the lived experiences of older persons in Africa, and to understand to what extent (if any) these differ from representations of ageing and old age in world literature.”

STIAS Visiting Scholars Frans Viljoen and Catherine du Toit presented their seminar on 13 October 2020

Viljoen and Catherine du Toit of the Department of Modern Foreign Languages at Stellenbosch University, will look more closely at the representation in African literature of old age and the lived experiences of older persons in Africa to try to unpack in detail the extent to which popular conceptions and representations of old age are coloured by cultural nostalgia and traditional roles, and the way in which such constructs of ageing may influence social and legal discourse around older persons.

“Our assumption is that one of the reasons the treaty has not been ratified is because it conceptualises old age in a way that doesn’t resonate with or have cultural legitimacy and does not speak to lived experiences,” said Viljoen. “We want to test this by looking at modern African literature to extract an understanding of the life worlds of older persons and juxtapose that with the treaty to try to make sense of the treaty’s cultural legitimacy.”

He emphasised also that the treaty’s reliance on United Nations’ principles may mean that it is seen as being guided by normative Western frameworks that are not African, and states may anticipate difficulties in enacting these frameworks within domestic legislation.

He also pointed to the paradox of a long-standing image of African elders being respected in a very particular way with an increase in their rights being violated by the rising prevalence of abuse and neglect of the elderly in our society.

“Are the rights of older people being protected?” he asked. “Yes, in the sense that they are rights holders, and are subject to the Constitution. But are they sufficiently protected in terms of policy, legislation, institutional mechanisms and resource allocation? Generalising, one would say that that is not the case.”

Living longer

With the rapid expansion of the ageing population, these are issues that require attention. Du Toit pointed out that ageing is an increasingly critical area for interdisciplinary research.

“There have been significant changes in life expectancy over the last 30 years – sexagenarians are now about 7.5% of the global population but projected to increase to 23.6% by 2050. Disability-free or healthy life expectancy has also increased making the elderly more visible. The question of ageing is rapidly becoming one of the major challenges of the 21st century.”

Despite the resulting proliferation of research on ageing in various disciplines, fiction has not received much attention and African literature even less.

Du Toit explained that the project will examine both legal and literary texts “to see if we can identify common ground and striking contrasts. We will allow each discipline to inform and enrich the other.”

Reading from some of the contemporary European and African literature in French and English that they have examined thus far, Du Toit pointed to some emerging themes. These include images of ageing related to the seasons, contraction, shrinking, physical weakness, decay of senses, loss of contact with the world, declining mental acuity, loss of memories, abandonment and alienation.

She pointed to an often-present discord in literary protagonists between body and mind, and between self-image and the perception of others. “Of being ashamed and no longer identifying with the body image. Biological age does not necessarily coincide with perceptions of old age.”

Terminology has been identified as an area for further investigation. “Terminology is embedded in history, culture, tradition and administrative processes,” she said. “In French, for example, old age has distinct categories.”

Describing their interest in the topic as arising from their own need to care for ageing parents, Du Toit said: “The importance of family appears in texts as well as the upheaval in intergenerational family relations with a generation of older persons having to care for even older parents. This can increase intimacy or accentuate existing problems.”

“Caretaking may also propel people to relive past experience as well as to anticipate their own future and death.”

Who wants to live for ever?

She highlighted an increasing emphasis on technological aspects and the medicalisation of old age in many of the works.

“In the 21st century, in an age where everything seems possible and where the fountain of eternal youth seems increasingly accessible due to astounding scientific advances, several ethical complexities are added to the stakes when it comes to ageing. Biomedical interventions as well as tangentially related research in, for example, cloning, have created a discourse of ageing as ambivalent and at odds with longevity.”

“Nanotechnology, stem-cell research, genetic modification, cloning and cryonics all mean that ageing is not inevitable but fictional accounts remain sceptical.”

“The writing reflects the astonishing contradiction in contemporary society – longevity is seen as desirable but old age scorned,” she said. “Leading us to ask ‘Do we want the cake if we are not allowed to eat it?’.”

Turning specifically to issues addressed in African literature she emphasised that in the texts she has examined thus far from Madagascar, Mauritius, Mali, Chad, Senegal, Rwanda, Ghana and Kenya few have ageing or an ageing subject as their principal theme or protagonist. “It’s usually a secondary narrative with the ageing subject often represented in terms of their embedded relationship within a community, or their functionality.”

“The elderly are also sometimes depicted as responsible for corruption, a scourge on society, as having collaborated with former colonial powers.”

The effect of the diaspora on the aged parents left behind is another clear theme.

She pointed to ambivalence in the texts about the importance of continuity and accumulated knowledge seen as being the purview of the elderly versus the idea that society should be moving ahead.

She also highlighted the challenges in finding suitable texts which will continue during their period at STIAS. “There is no real bibliography for novels about ageing. You have to look for texts, ask for suggestions and read incredibly widely. We want to understand fully what is global and what is typically representative of African literature.”

Turning to the present, she said: “Our current reality – the COVID-19 pandemic – has once again underscored the vulnerability of the elderly as well as some hidden attitudes towards them.”

“In some cases, this has highlighted their apparent dispensability in the eyes of governance and society at large – for example, in triage practices denying care – but also in media and official channels highlighting the higher mortality rate in the elderly almost in an attempt to reassure the public that it only happens to older persons. This was played out to such an extent that younger people initially thought of themselves as invincible.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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