South African Book Fair and Book Week: Toward a Reading Culture

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Citing figures that show only 14 percent of South Africans reading books, the South African Book Fair and indigenous language festivals address the issue.

At the 2018 edition of the South African Book Fair in Johannesburg. Image: SABF

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

The Book Fair Is Part of National Book Week
Established in 2006 as the Cape Town Book Fair and managed at the time by the Publishers Association of South Africa, the event was rebranded a decade later as the South African Book Fair and moved to Johannesburg. Its management was taken over by the South African Book Development Council and the fair was relaunched in 2017 as a national event in association with the council’s National Book Week.

This year, National Book Week runs September 2 to 8, and the South African Book Fair is set for the final three days of the week,  September 6 to 8.

Both events are consumer-facing, with National Book Week now in its 10th year and citing some challenging figures:

  • Only 14 percent of South Africans, Book Week’s organizers report, read books.
  • Some 58 percent of South African homes, per Book Week, own no books at all.

In light of such daunting figures, the program’s mission to develop the “reading habit” of the population is an urgent one.

The Book Development Council’s landmark 2016 study found that reading accounted for 6.2 percent of adult leisure time, putting it in eighth place after watching television (20 percent), listening to radio (17.7 percent), socializing at home (9.1 percent), and other activities.

Source: South African Book Development Council

Mission Defined: Promote a Book Reading Culture

The 104-page study (found here in PDF) was pivotal in helping to orient the type of programming we see today both in the National Book Week and South African Book Fair plans for early next month.

“How can book development,” the study asked, “increase access to books and promote a book reading culture in South Africa?”

The #BuyABook campaign urges citizens to pay 20 rand (US$1.31) for a copy of a children’s book recommended by the Book Development Council and drop it into a donation bin. The donated book then will be made available to young beneficiaries of the program. Through September 8, those who want to help can buy the selected books at stores including the nationwide chains Exclusive Books and Bargain Books, and drop them into the bins.

National Book Week also promotes a network of Indigenous language reading festivals, and you can find a calendar of those events here. They include:

  • In Polowane, a Pedi reading festival, September 2
  • At Qwa Qwa, a Sotho reading festival in Free State, on September 3
  • At De Aar, a festival of Afrikaans and Xhosa in Northern Cape, September 3
  • In Harding in KwaZulu-Natal for Zulu, September 4
  • At the Mabeskraal Village’s Setswana festival, September 4
Book Fair Events: Current Events, Issues

At the 2018 edition of the South African Book Fair in Johannesburg. Image: SABF

The second of the Book Development Council’s key campaigns—found under the hashtag #OurStories—attaches directly to the South African Book Fair at Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill, the former prison and military fort that today houses the country’s Constitutional Court.

The fair emphasizes that the campaign is an effort to prioritize South African and African literature. This is paralleled by an interest in making some of the show’s more-than 25 presentations reflective of current events and political realities.

Organizers in touch with Publishing Perspectives point, for example, to several discussion and debate events, including:

  • “Africa Reimagined,” September 7, brings together younger political scholars and activists to discuss the African identity, myths of the rainbow nation, and realities of  democracy. Speakers include Rekgotsofetse Chikane, Gaongalelwe Tiro, and Hlumelo Biko.
  • “Land of Our Ancestors” on September 7 is led by Botlhale Tema, talking about her family’s co-ownership of Pilanesberg National Park, their ancestral home. She’s to be joined by Ben Cousins, who has written on land policy and how it can alleviate poverty.
  • “Rebels, Rage and Revolution,” September 8, is a panel with Wandile Ngcaweni and Sarah Mokwebo–editors of  a collection of essays by the students behind the Fees Must Fall movement–debate the effort’s meaning with the then-chancellor of Wits University, Adam Habib, and Oxford scholar Rekgotsofetse Chikane.
  • “Black Tax and its Discontents,” September 8, features Niq Mhlongo, writer Dudu Busani Dube, and publisher Phehello Mofokeng in a “close look at how history keeps a whole generation in debt.”
  • “Lawfare: The Fight for Justice in South Africa, Then and Now” on September 8 features class-action human rights attorney Charles Abrahams and international legal specialist Michelle le Roux, co-author of Lawfare: Judging Politics in South Africa, discussing the place of the courts system in the fight for justice. They’re to be joined by retired Bishop Peter Storey.

Other features of the newly energized South African Book Fair are a poetry cafe, an African philosophy cafe, family programming in a “magic tent,” and a marketplace. An “Authors’ Corner” is devised to provide services to writers looking for publication.

Authors participating in the show’s programming are here. More than 100 writers are expected to participate in various events.

The book fair is produced in association with one of South Africa’s more-than 20 “sector education and training authorities” or SETAs, the Fiber, Processing, and Manufacturing SETA.

Ticketing information—10 rand for adults, with children 16 and younger entering free—is here.

At the 2018 edition of the South African Book Fair in Johannesburg. Image: SABF


More from Publishing Perspectives on the South African market is here, and more from us on the complex African publishing scene and its challenges is here.

Our special magazine for the International Publishers Association’s (IPA) “Rising Africa” 2019 seminar was printed by Modern Lithographic Kenya and was provided in print to delegates as the conference took place on June 14 and 15 in Nairobi.

We hope you’ll download a free copy here in PDF and join us in welcoming these annual IPA Africa Seminars events. 

Publishing Perspectives is glad to be the IPA Regional Seminar Programs’ media partner.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.

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