Fiction | South Africa

Book clubs and the new Black literary scene

Publishers in South Africa have long thought that Black communities do not read all that much. New book clubs are finally changing this picture
The illustration shows many figures in a pattern, one motif is a portrait of the author Outlwile Tsipane

Towards the end of 2019, one of the foremost publishing houses in South Africa commissioned me to organise an event to take place in March 2020. It was to have been a night of competitions and giveaways, in which writers could engage with readers about their current and upcoming book projects; a celebration of the superb work being done by book clubs in promoting literature and enhancing the culture of reading.

It was not to be. COVID-19 struck, putting an end to an event which would have been a worthwhile gesture from a publisher and an acknowledgement that book clubs are playing a significant role in challenging misperceptions in South Africa’s literary sphere.

“Under the apartheid regime, the Black population was systematically deprived of cultural resources and infrastructure”

There is a common, if skewed, notion that Black people have a negligible effect on the literary eco-system of South Africa. Under the apartheid regime, the Black population was systematically deprived of cultural resources and infrastructure.

Libraries, art centres and services were completely denied or restricted in communities already suffering an imposed system of segregation. The socio-economic outlook of Black people was negatively impacted while other communities or races benefited from better facilities and infrastructure.

To add to the misery, important novels by Black authors such as Mariam Tlali’s “Muriel at Metropolitan”(1975) and Es’kia Mphahlele’s “Down Second Avenue” (1959) were banned­ during Apartheid. For Black communities in South Africa, access to books was scant for a long time.

Black readers without books

Historic imbalances such as these have not been adequately addressed and the processes to correct them are often frustratingly slow. Libraries constructed in the post-Apartheid era often don’t function at the requisite capacity: many are totally neglected or don’t provide sufficient quantities of books.

Bookshops and book-centric places have sprung up but mostly in areas where Black people have only passing or temporary access. If a new shop or literary offering is accessible to the Black community, the books on offer are often not relevant to the readers it is supposed to serve. The literature made available tends to be largely Western-centric with only a nominal amount of books written by Black or African writers.

“People are most likely to read books they find relatable – but the literature that is available tends to be Western-centric”

This failure to understand the requirements of Black readers in South Africa has resulted in a distorted picture of who the buying readership of books actually is. Important decisions by publishers and distributors have been based on this distortion.

Black readers have been given unfair odds: the misinterpretation is that they do not buy books, whereas in truth they are being sold books not necessarily suited to their interests. People are most likely to read and buy books they find relatable, a point the mainstream literary eco-system appears to have totally missed.

Book clubs and the new Black literary scene

Recently though, book clubs have started to strip away some of these myths by creating a burgeoning literature culture which thrives despite the unfavourable circumstances.

Increasingly, authors are invited to book club sessions in the kind of informal spaces likely to open up organic, robust, and fruitful engagement. I’ve been a member of a couple of book clubs and visited several others as a guest or observer.

I’ve heard from many authors that they prefer settings such as these; ones in which the conversations can seem more meaningful and convivial. For the authors, it can be an opportunity to learn about their readers, and to see things from their perspective, in a more relaxed setting than a formal book launch. 

All too often, official book launches take place far from the very people who are alleged not to buy books. In the city of Johannesburg, arguably the artistic epicentre and major economic hub of South Africa, book events are commonly held, mid-week, in shopping malls and in the same three or four city districts, with little consideration for interested readers who may be unable to attend due to the public transport constraints of the city.

In the spring of 2022, I organised a book launch for Fred Khumalo’s novel, “Two Tons O’ Fun”. When I read the book and realised it was set in Alexandra township, I decided that one of the launches should take place there.

Alexandra has an estimated population of over 700,000 people but no notable bookshop. Two weeks prior to the launch, I donated my copy of “Two Tons O’ Fun” to the academy hosting the event. By the night of the launch, the book had already circulated among six of its students.

“Black people want stories they can relate to and which represent them”

The event was attended by all and sundry - book lovers, students and business people from the township. On the night, the recurring commentary was one of appreciation that a book event had – for perhaps the first time ever – been brought to Alexandra. 

It is not only book clubs that are challenging the skewed perspective of South Africa’s publishing industry. Book festivals such as Abantu Book Festival, and publishing houses such as Black Bird Books and Vhakololo Press, founded by and for the Black community, have held their own in a very constrained environment.

Across Southern Africa, books are often difficult to get

I’ve witnessed a great yearning for books, worryingly hampered by availability, not just in South Africa but across the southern African region. In 2018, I set out on what was to be a personal education tour, travelling to literary gigs and launches in Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Nigeria.

I also managed tours across South Africa and in neighbouring countries, for writers including Angela Makholwa, Fred Khumalo, Zukiswa Wanner, Nozizwe Cynthia Jele and Niq Mhlongo. The experience was not just an exciting adventure but also revealed how, across South Africa and the continent of Africa, there is a hunger for books and book talks, but supply does not always meet demand.

“The book clubs and their passionate readers have become literature activists of sorts, re-shaping the book culture of South Africa”

In Mbabane for instance, the capital of Eswatini, the audience waited patiently for over an hour while we dealt with delays at the border. In Harare, Zimbabwe, so many people turned up to see Panashe Chigumadzi launching her new book, “These Bones Will Rise Again”, that her book sold out. A week later, at the launch in Johannesburg, all copies sold out again.

At the inaugural Gaborone Book Festival – the first ever book festival in Botswana – I scrambled to source the books written by authors appearing at the festival. With high costs and delivery times ruling out courier delivery, I chanced a trip to the airport to see if I could use Air Botswana as an unconventional courier. There I noticed the National Football Team of Botswana and asked one of its officials for help. Later that evening, the organiser of the festival, Kenanao Phele, had gotten the book to much relieve. This shows how availability often hampers the distribution of new literature.  

Building a readership without a publisher

In 2021, Dudu Busani-Dube, a writer who self-published her Hlomu book series, had her work adapted into a successful television series by Showmax. It’s an extraordinary feat - a first of its kind for the country - and a telling one: Black people want stories they can relate to and which represent them.

With a literary industry that seems slow to reflect the changes of recent years - continuing to offer books and book events which do not cater for all readers and which result in a skewed picture of would-be book buyers - it is the book clubs, and the passionate readers, who are changing the traditional narrative. They have become literature activists of sorts, re-shaping the book culture of South Africa.

This essay is part of the series „African literature today“ and was commissioned in cooperation with the African Book Festival 2022. Curated by South African writer and filmmaker Lidudumalingani, the event had a particular focus on literature from Southern African countries.