The AVBOB Poetry Competition | Blog


Youth entries soar in fourth annual AVBOB Poetry Competition    
Thu, 10 December 2020

A record number of entries have been received for the fourth annual AVBOB Poetry Competition, during the entry period from 1 August to 30 November 2020, which tells a reassuring story about the soul of South Africa. 
Celebrated Afrikaans poet, Antjie Krog, praised the competition, noting that, “a stunning event explodes in our midst annually: thousands of poems in all our country's languages! Written, read and translated! I can't think of any other competition in the world that is so extensive in terms of language, that attends so carefully to every poem, and is so uniquely effective as the AVBOB Poetry Competition.”
We learn from the raw data that no poet is too young or too old to pick up their pen: our youngest competitor this year was aged seven and our oldest competitor was 98. We discover a surge of high-quality poems in Siswati and Setswana, with increases in submissions of 254% and 118% respectively. We learn that people shared their feelings and fears, their hopes and hearts, despite (or because of?) the year of the pandemic, through an astonishing total of 41 139 poems; and that poets whose poems were selected for publication in the AVBOB Poetry Library collectively earned R1,23 million in usage fees.
Nightingale, sing us the sweet song
of statistics, math made
to improve man’s lot 
From ‘After Math’ (2011) by Mary Alexander Agner
We also learn that the real champions of this contest are the youth entry, with close to 75% of the total entries having come from writers under the age of 35. 
Editor-in-chief, Johann de Lange, said this was a truly exciting phenomenon. “The numbers speak to a passionate desire in the youth to articulate their experiences and to participate in creating a culture of reading and writing. It’s an enormously positive development, showing that poetry is alive to the younger generation. They have shown their interest in and commitment to creative writing,” he said. “If we accept that poetry is the channel allowing our deepest humanity to come to fruition, then we should anticipate better times to come because the youth are connecting around poetry and giving themselves a voice in this form.”
The expansion of interest in Siswati and Setswana poetry is significant to the poetry community. For De Lange this indicates a literary tradition emerging as a cultural phenomenon. “Historically, indigenous languages have not been fully represented in the literary canon, but a novel tradition is coming into bloom. This is significant for being filled out by young poets finding their unique register in original ways. Different from their ancestral forebears who told of the struggle for liberation, these expressions in the time of COVID-19 define a new and energetic determination and courage.”
Category judge, prof Stanley Madonsela, congratulated the community of Siswati poets for the noticeable improvement in quality and confidence of the entries. “Because poets understand nuance, their skilled use of language reflects the beliefs and values of Emaswati,” he said. “When using a person’s mother tongue, the message goes straight to the heart. Siswati poets are making a mark in the world. They have taken a stand – the Emaswati will not be left out of this remarkable opportunity to comfort the bereaved.” Madonsela concluded: “The quantity and the quality were amazing! I am profoundly reassured, considering the number of youth entries, that the future of our language looks safe in their hands.”
Xitsonga poet and academic, prof Ximbani Eric Mabaso, had high praise for the competition: “AVBOB Poetry is a manifestation of multilingualism and multiculturalism on a scale never seen before, which will not be matched for several decades to come. AVBOB has published, in just a few years, an unmatched number of first-time authors, unearthing hitherto unsuspected creativity that was hidden in human fields that were for years lying fallow. AVBOB Poetry has finally unleashed a competitive urge where novices and seasoned poets share a platform, reaping monetary rewards for being published, and winning awards. This is poetry for the people, by the people, which bridges the digital divide with hard-copy publications as well. Long live AVBOB Poetry!”
AVBOB CEO, Carl van der Riet, added his delight at the significant and heart-warming trends. Entries over the four-month submission period grew by 35% compared to 30 573 entries received last year. This is more than double the number of entries received in 2017, the first year of the competition.
"This phenomenal surge in entries tells us that ever more South Africans are finding purpose in poetry. We are honoured by their interest in the competition and by the impressive quality of entries,” he said. “An integral goal of this competition has always been to create a freely accessible library of poems in all 11 official languages. Each poem accepted into the poetry library receives a R300 usage fee (paid via EFT) once the poem is published. This year, a total of 4 100 poems were selected for publication by our judges. This means that AVBOB supported South African poets by investing R1 230 000 in usage fees.”
Van der Riet concluded, saying, “Supporting the arts is, indeed, something to sing about! The statistics discussed above bear witness to the construction of a living monument. This soulful and vibrantly evolving entity pays tribute to those we have loved and lost. It also honours those who live on, taking their creativity seriously, making art with life-affirming energy and dedication."
Winners of the R10 000 AVBOB Poetry Prize in each of the 11 language categories will be announced at the fourth AVBOB Poetry Gala in mid-2021, with shortlisted poets to be contacted during the first half of next year. Poets are encouraged to follow the AVBOB Poetry Project on social media for competition-related notifications, or visit the competition website’s blog at

“For much of my professional career, I was a teacher of English – and I managed to do some teaching even when I became a headmaster. I always refused to separate the teaching of language from the teaching of literature; literature is after all language in its most imaginative form. That meant I taught creative writing too, because attempting to create yourself what you've admired on the pages in front of you enhances your appreciation. Moreover, setting down in words what you feel inside you is a way of defining and clarifying what's there, until you explain what you think you can't really know what you do think. The AVBOB Poetry Competition is a brilliant way of encouraging a huge range of people to write their own poems in their home languages, so enriching their lives and the lives of those around them.”
Cape Town-born Jonty Driver is the ex-Master of Wellington College, UK, and has published five novels, five books of non-fiction (biography & memoir), nine collections of poetry, four poetry booklets and a book of verse for children.
“Since its inception in 2017, the annual AVBOB Poetry Competition (amazingly, run in the eleven official languages) has attracted increasing numbers of entries. The fact that in 2020 over 41 000 poems were entered is testimony to the great human need to articulate thought, to order experience, to distance and distil emotion, and to reach out to and resonate with readers. The competition’s theme, ‘I wish I’d said…’, seems to me to have been an inspired choice. One can only marvel at the number and extraordinary range of poems already lodged in the competition’s Poem Library; they demonstrate just how much people need, want and like to write.”
Moira Lovell is ex-Head of English at Wykeham Collegiate, Pietermaritzburg. Her work has appeared in numerous poetry journals and anthologies and she has had four collections of poetry published. She has also written a number of short stories and plays, and in 2000 she won the Olive Schreiner Award for her play, Bedtime Stories.
“Poetry competitions originated in classical Greece, and there is in fact no more democratic, egalitarian way of evaluating and disseminating poetry than through their means. For me, two things above all make the AVBOB Poetry Competition special. Firstly, its linguistic scope: I cannot think of another competition that encourages so many different national languages. The ambition of that scope is breathtaking, and the annual anthologies, featuring the best from all of these languages, are humbling and inspiring, a lesson in tolerance and inclusiveness. And secondly, the competition’s focus on the serious and heartfelt themes of death, hope, love and birth lends an air of dignity and compassion to the whole enterprise. There is no doubt that this wonderful instrument of democracy, by encouraging their first efforts at literary composition, will be enable some of the finest new South African poets of the future.”
Born in Cape Town, Basil du Toit has a postgraduate degree in Philosophy from Edinburgh University. Shortly after moving to Scotland in 1980, he was awarded a prize in the National Poetry Competition. In 1989, he shared the Sanlam Prize with the poet Douglas Livingstone. In 2015, he was one of the prize winners of the Poetry Business Book & Pamphlet Competition (UK). He has appeared in many poetry magazines, most recently Poetry Salzburg Review, and has published two collections of poetry, Home Truths and Older Women. More recently, a pamphlet, Old, was published by Smith/Doorstop in Sheffield.