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Creating a reading culture

The South African publishing industry is considered among the best in Africa – but we still have much to achieve. With National Book Week turning ten this September, and in honour of Women’s Month, Creative Feel looks at the publishing industry and the women who are fighting to grow it. 

Image in a mirror Department arts culture book books reading read South Africa

With R3 billion in turnover in 2017, the South African book industry isn’t exactly downtrodden. South Africa has a rich and diverse literary history, and the country’s writers continue to command respect throughout the world. We boast two Nobel Laureates for Literature, namely JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, and our writers headline international festivals and continue to win prestigious awards. 
     But the statistics on the state of reading in South Africa are quite frightening. The most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which assesses children’s reading comprehension, placed South Africa last out of 50 countries. It found that 78% of Grade Four learners in South Africa cannot read for basic meaning in any of the national languages. That is to say that they could not reach the Low International PIRLS Benchmark in reading. They could not locate and retrieve explicitly stated information or make straightforward inferences about events and reasons for actions. And looking at the country as a whole, almost 14% of South Africans are functionally illiterate. 
     In his State of the Nation Address in June, President Cyril Ramaphosa drew attention to this study and our dire need to create a culture of reading in this country. ‘Fellow South Africans, if we are to ensure that within the next decade, every 10-year-old will be able to read for meaning, we will need to mobilise the entire nation behind a massive reading campaign. Early reading is the basic foundation that determines a child’s educational progress, through school, through higher education and into the workplace.

‘All other interventions – from the work being done to improve the quality of basic education to the provision of free higher education for the poor, from our investment in TVET colleges to the expansion of workplace learning – will not produce the results we need unless we first ensure that children can read.’
     The Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) has long recognised that a culture of reading and writing needs to be established and that the book industry needs to be both sustainable and support all South African languages. Through its close work with the South African Book Development Council (SABDC) – the representative body of the book sector – the DAC has initiated a variety of strategic interventions to create publishing opportunities for aspiring writers, to encourage a culture of reading, and to recognise excellence in literature. Some of these include the establishment of National Book Week in 2010, which coincides every year with International Literacy Day on 8 September, and the annual South African Literary Awards (SALA). Support is provided for national literary events through the Mzansi Golden Economy funding. There is further support for national writers’ organisations and a partnership through the National Library with the Library and Information Association of South Africa. The Department further supports activities of book clubs, including through the Funda Mzantsi initiative together with the National Library. The Department supports discussions on books, including at book fairs and book festivals – Abantu Book Festival (Soweto), Open Book Festival (Cape Town), SA Children’s Book Fair (East London) and Time of the Writer (Durban), among others. The Department is also supporting a pilot incubator to promote reading and writing, as well as reading programmes at nine community arts centres. 

Most recently, the DAC established the Publishing Hub, which will play a critical role in promoting a culture of writing and reading, and in literary development, as well as expanding the work of the Living Human Treasures Project. While this is quite an extensive project, one aspect will be publishing books on living human treasures – individuals who possess the knowledge and skills required for performing or recreating specific elements of living heritage. Through recognising these living treasures, their knowledge is recognised, protected, preserved, and promoted, thereby ensuring the continuation and authentication of their knowledge to avoid myths or misinterpretation. The first two books to be published on this project are about Noria Mabasa and Dr Esther Mahlangu.
     Mabasa is a world-renowned artist who works primarily in ceramic and wood sculpture, influenced by her Tsonga heritage. Completely self-taught, Mabasa currently resides at the Tshino village in the Vuwani area of Venda, where she runs an art school in which she instructs her students in the art of clay pot and sculpture making. She began working with clay in 1974 and two years later, in 1976, she became the first woman of the area to work in wood.
     Mahlangu is an artist who is world-famous for her bold large-scale contemporary paintings that reference her Ndebele heritage. Mahlangu began painting when she was 10 years old and was taught the skill of mural painting by her mother and grandmother, following a tradition of her native South Ndebele people for females to paint the exterior of houses. She is best known for her 1991 BMW Art Car, and her tireless work in sharing her knowledge with the younger generation so that she leaves a legacy that lives on for generations to come. 

The creation of this kind of content could be exactly what is needed to grow active book readers – currently only 14% of the population. In a recent presentation entitled ‘Publishing in Africa But Not For Africans: How the Publishing & Bookselling Industry Can Contribute to the GDP of the Country’, Yamkela Tywakadi of Sifiso Publishers noted that in order to create a reading culture in South Africa, citizens need to be given material that they can relate to, identify with and which validates them. She said that by creating content that people want to consume, i.e. African content by African authors in African languages, we will start to see an upswing in the number of people reading. 
     This type of content is growing, and independent publishers are largely at the forefront. But, books in African languages are few and not visible in bookstores. There is also the problem of distribution, which is currently centred around urban areas. 
     In addition to heading up trade publishing at Sifiso Publishers (which develops and publishes modern educational and entertainment content, catering to indigenous languages and accounting for the African continent context) as a commissioning editor, Tywakadi is herself a published author of ten books. Her first book to be published is an isiXhosa novel, which was approved by the South African Department of Education to be used by Grade Nine students learning isiXhosa in South African schools nationwide.

Her books include a folklore anthology in isiXhosa for FET phase, two children’s story anthologies in isiXhosa and isiZulu and four non-fiction children’s books in isiZulu. Her latest offering is an isiXhosa novel and an English one, Lies in Her Boots, both published by Weza Home Publishing. Lies in Her Boots is in the process of being adapted to a film by Final Chapta Productions.
     Mpho Motlohiemang’s Weza Home Publishing was founded with a strong focus on the development of all the indigenous South African languages. To date, they have published works for children and adults in English, isiXhosa, Sesotho, Setswana, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Siswati and isiNdebele. 
     Another independent publisher hoping to achieve the same is Seriti sa Sechaba Publishers. Started by Christine Qunta in 2013, Seriti sa Sechaba aims to publish fiction and non-fiction by black (African, Coloured and Indian) authors that reflect the lived experience and culture of the majority of the people in South Africa. It is dedicated to publishing such works both in English and indigenous languages, which at present are virtually invisible except for educational material. The name Seriti sa Sechaba means ‘dignity of the nation’. 
     Qunta is an attorney and author. She was an activist in the Black Consciousness Movement during the 1970s and spent 17 years in exile, returning in 1993. Her first literary works were published during her years in exile, a poetry collection entitled Hoyi Na! Azania: Poems of an African Struggle in 1979. Her volume, Heroes & Other Treasures: A Collection of Poems followed in 1990. Her book Who’s Afraid Of Affirmative Action: A Survival Guide For Black Professionals was published in 1995 by Kwela Books. More recently, she wrote Why we are not a nation, a collection of three essays on race and transition in South Africa.

Qunta began Seriti sa Sechaba because ‘mainstream publishers were not adequately publishing African authors or books that reflect African culture, history or lived experience. We want to publish impactful books that add value [to the public discourse] even if that means we only launch two books a year.
     ‘It’s often suggested that black people do not read,’ she adds. ‘That’s not correct. The reason people don’t read is that the books that are published don’t reflect their lived experience.’
     Seriti sa Sechaba’s most popular book has been Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle by Sindiwe Magona, one of South Africa’s most beloved storytellers. Magona is a writer, poet, dramatist, storyteller, actress and motivational speaker. She has published two autobiographical works: To My Children’s Children (1990) and Forced to Grow (1992). Her first novel, The Best Meal Ever!, was published in 1998. She has also written a number of children’s books, including Life is a Hard But Beautiful Thing. In 2008, her novel Beauty’s Gift was published. AIDS-activist Zackie Achmat described it as ‘one of the most important books about HIV/AIDS in our country’. 
     Mel Ferguson, author of Smacked, Hooked and Crashed and publisher of Jacana imprint MFBooks Joburg, says that she has noticed an ‘explosion’ in black readership now that there are more books dealing with content that contains black perspectives. ‘There is a huge hunger and demand; every month new books are being launched.’

Since launching MFBooks Joburg in 2012, Ferguson has published a selection of critically acclaimed books. Among these are Sara-Jayne King’s memoir Killing Karoline; Reflecting Rogue: Inside the mind of a feminist by Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola; Brutal Legacy: A Memoir by Tracy Going; Lauren Segal’s Cancer: A Love Story; and Rough Diamond by Dr Tshidi Gule.
     Also an imprint of Jacana is Thabiso Mahlape’s BlackBird Books, a platform and a publishing home to both new voices and the existing generation of black writers and narratives. Mahlape was named one of the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans in 2017 and is the first black woman with her own publishing imprint. 
     ‘I wanted to be able to curate, on my own terms, the kind of African literature that I think people who look like me should be reading. But also because it was important to create work that represented black people in a more realistic way,’ says Mahlape. ‘Blackbird Books publishes some of the most exciting new voices in South Africa. Read them because it is an incredible way to have your finger on the pulse of what the South African youth is doing and what their thoughts are.’
     BlackBird Books has published almost 20 books since its inception in 2015, among these are Ijangolet S Ogwang’s debut An Image in a Mirror; Grizelda Grootboom’s memoir Exit!; Sweet Medicine by Panashe Chigumadzi; Malebo Sephodi’s SALA-winning Miss Behave; Chwayita Ngamlana’s debut If I Stay Right Here; and Marah Louw’s It’s Me, Marah – An Autobiography.

Independent publisher Modjaji Books was founded in 2007 by Colleen Higgs to address current inequalities in the publishing industry by providing an independent outlet for serious writing by women. Named after Modjaji, the rain queen, it aims to be a powerful female force for good, new life and regeneration. 
     In a few short years, Modjaji titles have won a number of prizes or been short-listed for prizes. The prizes include the Ingrid Jonker prize for debut poetry, the UJ prize for debut creative work, the NHISS prize for fiction (single author), short-listings for the Sunday Times fiction prize and the M-Net film prize, several SALA prizes as well as a short-listing for the Caine Prize. In 2014, Bom Boy by Yewande Omotoso was one of the three titles shortlisted for the inaugural Etisalat prize for debut African fiction. 
     Higgs says, ‘I wanted to offer a platform for women writers, in particular, black women writers who would be unlikely to be published by more commercial publishers…
     ‘Things have shifted considerably since Modjaji started twelve years ago and there are many more black women being published now by most of the relevant publishers. The proportion to population in the country is still low. It has to do with South African history and power politics, and who makes decisions. Modjaji was a pioneer, providing a home for fresh new women’s voices that couldn’t access or had been rejected by the mainstream publishing houses. It was also crucial for me that this was foregrounded as Modjaji’s mission.’

Modjaji Books is the publisher of Carol-Ann (C.A.) Davids’ critically lauded novel The Blacks of Cape Town. Davids recently launched everychild books, an independent children’s publishing house based in Johannesburg that publishes beautiful, intelligent and inclusive books for children between the ages of 1 and 9. Their first book was Davids’ The Hair Fair, which was selected for the Exclusive Books Homebru List, chosen as a Sunday Times favourite read by author Nadia Davids and as a bestseller at The Book Lounge in Cape Town. Their most recent book, Mapule Mohulatsi’s Mizz President, is a delightful story about a young girl who finds herself thrust into the unexpected position of being president of her country. 
     ‘I would love to see a concerted, coordinated effort from civil society, writers, publishers, government and non-governmental organisations to alter our reading habits (and trajectory) and the space given to literature in our country. It can and has been done elsewhere… but we would need to work together and plan 20 years into the future,’ says Davids.
     More recently, the poets Vangile Gantsho and Sarah Godsell, together with digital specialist Tanya Pretorius, started Imphepho Press in May 2018 with the aim of ‘championing brave, particularly feminist voices committed to literary excellence’. They have published five titles to date.
     There is still so much to be done, but with initiatives like the South African Book Fair, which takes place this September and which will focus on bringing children to enjoy the programme that has been specially curated to entice young children to read, there is hope that we can make reading an enjoyable pastime that every South African wants to engage in. For these initiatives to succeed, we need to support them: buy books, visit your local library (and take a child with you), pass on a book you have loved, and spread a love for reading – it is vital for the future of our country.

To keep up-to-date with the latest arts and culture news in South Africa, purchase the August 2019 issue of Creative Feel or subscribe to our monthly magazine from only R180.00 to R365.00 per year! SUBSCRIBE HERE!

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