By Publishing Perspectives
Paul Mashatile, South Africa’s Minister of Arts and culture today launched National Book Week at the Babs Madlakane Hall in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape. An initiative by the Department of Arts and Culture in association with the South African Book Development council, it has one simple goal in mind: to encourage South Africans to read.
The event which runs through this Saturday, includes activities such as puppet shows, story telling, and creative workshops led by prominent authors, including McIntosh Polela, Deon Meyer, Chris van Wyk, Thando Mgqolozana, Angela Makholwa, and Ndumiso Ngcobo. Mashatile says that while this week is set aside to encourage people to read books published in indigenous languages, the most important thing is to encourage reading, period. “We come from a history where, particularly in African communities, libraries have not been very important. So people in general did not see reading as an important thing.”
At the same time though, writing in South Africa’s Times Live!, novelist Siphiwo Mahala, (African Delights, Jacana Media, and When A Man Cries, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press), expressed serious concern about the general availability of works by South African writers in the national itself, whether in English or indigenous languages. “This lack of appreciation came to the attention of literary giant Ngugi wa Thiong’o during his recent visit to the country. ‘I find it extremely embarrassing that every time I enter a bookshop in Johannesburg and Cape Town, I cannot find books by even South African writers on display,’ he said. This discovery was not a surprise to many of us. More than 70% of books sold in the general markets are imports, mainly from Europe and the US.”
Indeed, Mahala points out that to find South African literature in most mainstream bookstores means searching out a small shelf labeled “African literature,” meaning, of course, that not only are the rest of the books in the shop “non-African,” but everything published in Africa, from Cairo down to Cape Town is pigeon-holed into that space.
So while a celebration of South African National Book Week is definitely a good thing, as Mahala concludes; there are ambiguities remaining that must be kept in mind and resolved.