The first-ever dictionary of South Africa’s Kaaps language has launched – why it matters


Graffiti artist Falko Starr finishes a mural in the Cape Flats area of Cape Town.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP via Getty Images

Adam Haupt, University of Cape Town

It’s been in existence since the 1500s but the Kaaps language, synonymous with Cape Town in South Africa, has never had a dictionary until now. The Trilingual Dictionary of Kaaps has been launched by a collective of academic and community stakeholders – the Centre for Multilingualism and Diversities Research at the University of the Western Cape along with the hip hop-driven community NGO Heal the Hood Project. The dictionary – in Kaaps, English and Afrikaans – holds the promise of being a powerful democratic resource. Adam Haupt, director of the Centre for Film & Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, is involved in the project and tells us more.


What is Kaaps and who uses the language?

Kaaps or Afrikaaps is a language created in settler colonial South Africa, developed by the 1500s. It took shape as a language during encounters between indigenous African (Khoi and San), South-East Asian, Dutch, Portuguese and English people. It could be argued that Kaaps predates the emergence of an early form of Kaaps-Hollands (the South African variety of Dutch that would help shape Afrikaans). Traders and sailors would have passed through this region well before formal colonisation commenced. Also consider migration and movement on the African continent itself. Every intercultural engagement would have created an opportunity for linguistic exchange and the negotiation of new meaning.

Today, Kaaps is most commonly used by largely working class speakers on the Cape Flats, an area in Cape Town where many disenfranchised people were forcibly moved by the apartheid government. It’s used across all online and offline contexts of socialisation, learning, commerce, politics and religion. And, because of language contact and the temporary and seasonal migration of speakers from the Western Cape, it is written and spoken across South Africa and beyond its borders.

It is important to acknowledge the agency of people from the global South in developing Kaaps – for example, the language was first taught in madrassahs (Islamic schools) and was written in Arabic script. This acknowledgement is imperative especially because Afrikaner nationalists appropriated Kaaps in later years.

For a great discussion of Kaaps and explanation of examples of words and phrases from this language, listen to this conversation between academic Quentin Williams and journalist Lester Kiewit.

How did the dictionary come about?

The dictionary project, which is still in its launch phase, is the result of ongoing collaborative work between a few key people. You might say it’s one outcome of our interest in hip hop art, activism and education. We are drawn to hip hop’s desire to validate black modes of speech. In a sense, this is what a dictionary will do for Kaaps.

Quentin Williams, a sociolinguist, leads the project. Emile Jansen, Tanswell Jansen and Shaquile Southgate serve on the editorial board on behalf of Heal the Hood Project, which is an NGO that employs hip hop education in youth development initiatives. Emile also worked with hip hop and theatre practitioners on a production called Afrikaaps, which affirmed Kaaps and narrated some of its history. Anthropologist H. Samy Alim is the founding director of the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Language at Stanford University and has assisted in funding the dictionary, with the Western Cape’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport.

An album cover with the title 'Afrikaaps', an illustration of assorted cool looking young people with a mountain in the background.
CD art from the musical Afrikaaps.
Courtesy of Afrikaaps/Dylan Valley

We’re in the process of training the core editorial board in the scientific area of lexicography, translation and transcription. This includes the archiving of the initial, structured corpus for the dictionary. We will write down definitions and determine meanings of old and new Kaaps words. This process will be subjected to a rigorous review and editing and stylistic process of the Kaaps words we will enter in the dictionary. The entries will include their history of origin, use and uptake. There will also be a translation from standard Afrikaans and English.

Who will use the dictionary?

It will be a resource for its speakers and valuable to educators, students and researchers. It will impact the ways in which institutions, as loci of power, engage speakers of Kaaps. It would also be useful to journalists, publishers and editors keen to learn more about how to engage Kaaps speakers.

A Kaaps dictionary will validate it as a language in its own right. And it will validate the identities of the people who speak it. It will also assist in making visible the diverse cultural, linguistic, geographical and historical tributaries that contributed to the evolution of this language.

Kaaps was relegated to a slang status of Afrikaans?

Acknowledgement of Kaaps is imperative especially because Afrikaner nationalists appropriated Kaaps in order to create the dominant version of the language in the form of Afrikaans. A ‘suiwer’ or ‘pure’ version, claiming a strong Dutch influence, Afrikaans was formally recognised as an official language of South Africa in 1925. This was part of the efforts to construct white Afrikaner identity, which shaped apartheid based on a belief in white supremacy.




Read more:
Afrikaner identity in post-apartheid South Africa remains stuck in whiteness


For example, think about the Kaaps tradition of koesiesters – fried dough confectionery – which was appropriated (taken without acknowledgement) and the treats were named koeksisters by white Afrikaners. They were claimed as a white Afrikaner tradition. The appropriation of Kaaps reveals a great deal about the extent to which race is socially and politically constructed. As I have said elsewhere, cultural appropriation is both an expression of unequal relations of power and is enabled by them.

When people think about Kaaps, they often think about it as ‘mixed’ or ‘impure’ (‘onsuiwer’). This relates to the ways in which they think about ‘racial’ identity. They often think about coloured identity as ‘mixed’, which implies that black and white identities are ‘pure’ and bounded; that they only become ‘mixed’ in ‘inter-racial’ sexual encounters. This mode of thinking is biologically essentialist.




Read more:
How Cape Town’s “Gayle” has endured — and been adopted by straight people


Of course, geneticists now know that there is not sufficient genetic variation between the ‘races’ to justify biologically essentialist understandings. Enter cultural racism to reinforce the concept of ‘race’. It polices culture and insists on standard language varieties by denigrating often black modes of speech as ‘slang’ or marginal dialects.

Can a dictionary help overturn stereotypes?

Visibility and the politics of representation are key challenges for speakers of Kaaps – be it in the media, which has done a great job of lampooning and stereotyping speakers of Kaaps – or in these speakers’ engagement with governmental and educational institutions. If Kaaps is not recognised as a bona fide language, you will continue to see classroom scenarios where schoolkids are told explicitly that the way in which they speak is not ‘respectable’ and will not guarantee them success in their pursuit of careers.

This dictionary project, much like ones for other South African languages like isiXhosa, isiZulu or Sesotho, can be a great democratic resource for developing understanding in a country that continues to be racially divided and unequal.The Conversation

Adam Haupt, , University of Cape Town

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book review: Sindiwe Magona’s devastating, uplifting story of South African women


CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images

Lizzy Attree, Richmond American International University

Reading South African author Sindiwe Magona’s latest novel When the Village Sleeps reminded me of my time researching and teaching in the country’s Eastern Cape province a decade ago. While involved in community engagement for Rhodes University I heard stories of young people who would deliberately contract HIV in order to receive government disability grants.

When the Village Sleeps spans three generations of women in one family and the central role of ancestral belief and ancient custom – or a lack of it – in their lives. It initially focuses on Busi, a promising young student who benefits from an education at a good school due to the hard work and friendship of her grandmother with her former white employer.

It reveals the devastating motivation behind Busi’s teenage pregnancy orchestrated to produce a financial reward in the form of a child support grant from the state.

The shocking story at the centre of Magona’s latest novel is as heartbreaking as it is cruel – and yet the character of Busi’s daughter Mandlakazi (or Mandla) completely overturns the notion that her birth is a tragedy. She becomes the heroine who unites her family.

A book cover showing the title 'When the Village Sleeps' inside an illustration of a giant moon, trees and lands in the foreground and the name of the author, Sindiwe Magona.

Pan Macmillan/Picador Africa

Magona is a pioneering writer who, with this new novel, continues to feature challenging contemporary issues in her work, with incisive commentaries on power, masculinity and the role of women.

The old and the new

Mandla’s great grandmother, Khulu, who takes baby Mandla to the rural Eastern Cape to recuperate from birth disabilities and strengthen her, is central to the story and it is her unending devotion that seems to bring about such a significant change in the “broken bundle” she brings home to Sidwadweni.

Referencing the poetry and teachings of celebrated isiXhosa-language author and historian S.E.K. Mqhayi, the narration frequently shifts into poetry to enable the voice of Mandla to articulate her nascent consciousness which seems fused with her ancestors, “the Old”. From her earliest moments she would:

fall asleep to the ministrations

of her hands infused with care

and into that sleep

the lyrics of songs pouring from an ancient throat

sink deep into my mind

into my brain, my heart, my limbs.

No wonder Mandla is so transformed by the years she spends under Khulu’s care. She returns to Kwanele township in Cape Town with a divine gift that enables her to access the ancestral realm, and predict the future.

Central to the novel is abenzakalise (those who have harmed) and the consequences of their actions. On a personal level this relates to Busi’s strained relationship with her mother Phyllis and her estranged father, and then, as a teenager, the alcohol and the street drug tik she imbibes in order to deform her baby and receive the state’s disability allowance.

However, all of these characters are shown to be capable of redemption and change, as long as they adhere to Khulu’s wisdom – which is by no means a fixed regurgitation of “tradition” but a practical, living faith. So the resilience and strength of all the female characters shines through, as it does in Magona’s celebrated 2008 novel Beauty’s Gift.

A devastating critique

On a wider allegorical level the novel reads as a critique of South Africa itself, the impact of colonialism and the ruling African National Congress (ANC), who have harmed the people through corruption and a failure to tackle inequality, stunting the growth of a healthy, prosperous nation.

Explicit critique of the government and particularly government handouts which do nothing to really alleviate poverty, but just entrench feelings of helplessness, is evident throughout the novel.

Magona makes incisive judgements, through her characters – especially the elder Khulu and young Mandla – and offers possible solutions, which include honouring the earth and returning to self-sufficiency. This idealism can feel naïve at times but there’s something very seductive and straightforward about the self-care, and self-respect that comes from citizens helping themselves and transforming their communities from within.




Read more:
Learning from the story of pioneering South African writer Sindiwe Magona


Towards the end, the book tips into a kind of disabled girls’ manifesto or set of instructions for how to set up community-based support for disabled and marginalised young people. However Magona expertly shifts the narrative at that point back to a dialogue with the ancestors and manages to transform the didactic elements of the tale into wisdom that reaches up to the present day and the threat of COVID-19.

Very recent commentary on the difficulties of enforcing social distancing in communities which rely on food parcels during the pandemic, forcing locals to gather together to collect much needed help, is painful to read. The mistakes are so preventable and obvious and yet are made time and again.

The prophecy

Most interesting to me is the way in which the novel manages to balance the re-introduction of neglected female initiation rites alongside the magic realism of Mandla’s prediction of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the 15-year-old Xhosa prophetess Nongqawuse’s 19th century prophecy – which led to a millennial movement that culminated in the cattle-killing and famine of 1856-7 – Mandla’s foretelling that “the world will die”, comes true, although perhaps not on the scale the “voices” decreed:

The ground will not be able to swallow all the dead!

O-oh! The multitudinous dead!

There will be none left to bury the dead.

In many respects this prediction blurs, in my mind, with the scale of the HIV/AIDS pandemic that killed more than 2 million South Africans, with 7.7 million currently infected with HIV. Magona has written searingly on this topic before.

Once again excoriating the corruption and failures of government, the Fields of Hope project, which young Mandla initiates to grow food for the township, shines like a beacon when “what government help does for the poor is cement them in poverty… Here comes help that is real!”

Ending on a shockingly blunt and abrupt note, Magona leaves us, as always, with a lot to think about.The Conversation

Lizzy Attree, Adjunct Professor, Richmond American International University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

An intellectual love letter to Bhekizizwe Peterson, a South African literary giant


Bhekizizwe Peterson.
University of the Witwatersrand

Isabel Hofmeyr, University of the Witwatersrand

Bhekizizwe Peterson was one of South Africa’s foremost humanities scholars. Internationally renowned as an award-winning film writer and producer, he was a leading practitioner of community theatre, a literary and cultural critic and a public intellectual. His work straddled the academy and the community, foregrounding the knowledge of ordinary people.

In a round table discussion on his award-winning and acclaimed film Zulu Love Letter, Peterson observed:

It was created as a love letter to those who passed on and those still tasked with creating a better future for all.

For him, black cultural production always stands athwart past and future. Its makers are located in the midst of things, thrust into violent and unequal plots not of their own making. He believed that the black humanities offered unique resources for negotiating these contradictions. Literature, performance, theatre, film, music and art could, as he said:

facilitate dialogic and critical deliberations on individual and collective experiences and dreams.

The astonishing corpus that he created across his career – comprising film, television and theatre-making, creative writings, scholarly and critical works – were guided by these lode stars. The range of genres and media that he mastered speak to an important point: for him, what one created was as important as how and where one worked. Theoretical reflection went hand-in-hand with practice; knowledge had to be made in and outside the academy. Means and ends were inseparable; means became ends through the ethical practice they enacted.

Theory and praxis

I first met him in 1985 when he signed up for an Honours degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in the recently established Department of African Literature, headed up by Es’kia Mphahlele. He had completed a drama degree at the University of Cape Town and was working with Benjy Francis at the Afrika Cultural Centre, creating community theatre.

Like everything he did, this work wove together different domains, uncontained by any one realm. In his graduate work, he brought a Black Consciousness lens to white-dominated Marxist revisionism which used class to trump race, and in turn imported his ideas into his theatre-making.

After completing a Masters in the UK, he joined the Department of African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1988. He soon established himself as a prominent voice in African theatre studies, his scholarship made distinctive by the mix of theory and praxis that he brought to it.

Always deeply interested in those who had come before, he explored the histories of black theatre practice in South Africa, the topic of his PhD and his monograph, Monarchs, Missionaries and African Intellectuals: African Theatre and the Unmaking of Colonial Marginality.

Set between Mariannhill mission in Kwa Zulu-Natal, and Johannesburg, the book explores how a range of figures used theatre practice and debates about drama to negotiate and contest white hegemonies. The volume is due to be republished in August 2021.

The monograph drew on extensive archival labour, and demonstrates Bheki’s talents as an adept archival scholar.

The idea of the archive became an important focus in his thinking, and was informed both by his hands-on experience and his desire to create a substantial archive for teaching and researching the black humanities.

The builder

Part of this scholarship is what we might call infrastructural intellectual labour, the painstaking and unglamorous work of making important texts available, producing scholarly editions, writing encyclopedia entries and handbook chapters, editing special issues of journals.

It also involved a dedication to projects that would move black literary traditions from what he called “the anteroom of history”. In all of them he cultivated a meticulous scholarly craft, keeping his head down and doing the work.

A systematic builder, he eschewed the limelight and would have no truck with careerism, academic vanity or posturing. For similar reasons, he was repelled by social media with its speed and superficiality, its dialogue of the deaf.

He, by contrast, was an exceptional listener. For anyone who ever had a serious conversation with him, one will always remember the deep sense of being heard, seen and understood.

His scholarship was likewise a mode of deep listening, a dedicated and respectful attentiveness to what writers and cultural producers were attempting to say.

His intellectual orientations were always broad and generous, looking out to the continent, the diaspora and the world. The bookcases in his office sported two shelves of the African Writers Series, with their unmistakable orange and white spines. Over the course of the 1980s, he had garnered this collection, despite the fact that several titles were banned. He had read them all, one sign of his deep engagement with African literary traditions across the continent.

His knowledge of Caribbean and African American literary and cultural forms was legendary.

He possessed a particular gift for analysing popular cultural forms whether kwaito, popular television, or “swagger in Soweto youth culture”. This emphasis formed part of his unwavering commitment to placing the quotidian and the everyday at the centre of the black humanities. As he explained, he was concerned with:

the lives of ordinary people … in ways that celebrated their knowledge, agency, resilience, hopes, and fears.

In his theatre, film-making and scholarship, he foregrounded their “everyday senses and ways of being that are often ignored, downgraded, or erased by the lenses favoured by parochial and patriarchal nationalists, capitalists, and whiteness in society and culture”. These themes undergirded the Mellon project on Narrative Enquiry for Social Transformation which he co-directed.

The teacher

Central to his vision of the black humanities was his teaching, mentorship and supervision. A demanding supervisor, he sought to teach graduate students the craft of serious research. At the same time, he was generous with his time, spending hours listening to students, understanding them and their interests.

As a scholar and creative practitioner, he enjoyed a huge international reputation which sought him out, rather than the other way around. There were many awards, prizes and keynote addresses.

He was deeply beloved by those who worked closely with him. We loved his profound wisdom, his brilliance, his amazing wit, his generosity, his integrity, his commitment to equality. We even loved his famously untidy office, his stubbornness, and his determinedly casual dress code – not least his hallmark leather jacket from the 1980s.

It was one of the good fortunes of my life to have worked with him for more than three decades.

Bheki has left us to join the ancestral realm. We now owe him the attentiveness and care that he showed to his literary forebears. We need to think of the intellectual love letters we can write about his work and how we can take his vision for the black humanities forward.The Conversation

Isabel Hofmeyr, Professor of African Literature, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Remembering Achmat Dangor, the South African novelist who redefined identity



Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images

Ronit Frenkel, University of Johannesburg

In his 71 years, Achmat Dangor was many things to many people, both in South Africa and across the world. He was a lifelong activist and social justice advocate. He was once banned for his political activities in resistance to apartheid. He was a cultural leader at the centre of the Congress of South African Writers, a tireless development organiser and, for six years, the chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. For me, he was above all an extraordinary novelist and poet who expanded how I think.

I was a graduate student when, quite by chance, I picked up a copy of Dangor’s 1997 novel Kafka’s Curse in Exclusive Books in Johannesburg. It was 2001 and I was starting to write my dissertation proposal. I read Kafka’s Curse and realised that I had to change topics, such was the impact of the novella on my intellectual life.

It remains a formative novel in my understanding of South African culture, and a favourite novel due to the sheer pleasure to be found in its writing, in its gorgeous prose and magical, mythical landscape.

The complexity of culture

In Kafka’s Curse the characters shift and transform. The protagonist Oscar Kahn is revealed to be Omar Khan, both coloured and Muslim, who has passed as Jewish and white by changing two letters of his name. His wife leaves him as his illness progresses, an illness which poisons his lungs and turns his skin into bark just as Nelson Mandela becomes South Africa’s first democratically elected president.

In many ways, Dangor’s fiction represented the shifts that South African literature and culture underwent in the early days of the country’s transition to democracy. His was a focus on the relationship between race, memory and apartheid constructions.

Both the form and the content of his novels highlight the ambiguous character of identity and history. They offer a complex and nuanced alternative to dominant understandings of South Africa, ones that moved away from a logic of black and white, good and bad, past and present, and into a textured and intricate conception of the country’s culture.

An illustration of a tree with an orange fruit in its branches.

Pantheon Books

They certainly changed my own understandings of my world. Kafka’s Curse showed me that South Africans were not always one thing or another, but had to deny the complexities of identity in order to fit into apartheid’s system of racial categorisation.

In a post-apartheid context, Dangor’s characters reveal the irrepressible mix of South African identities. In Kafka’s Curse he applied the legend of Majnoen to South African culture in a short novel written of rich prose that is often described as magical realist in terms of genre. In an interview with Bold Type magazine, he himself described it as follows:

The ancient Arabic legend of Leila and Majnoen (‘a name as well as a madness’) is a cautionary moral tale: tamper with the hierarchy of a society’s structure and you threaten its orderliness, and hence its very existence.

Ask the Caliph who caused his daughter Leila and her lover Majnoen so much suffering: his caliphate probably did not endure as long as their legend.

The legend of Majnoen in South Africa becomes a story of enduring love that defies despotic rule. Apartheid meanings are interrogated from the points that it denied existed – the ambiguities or overlaps between its lines of racial categorisation. This is embodied by the figure of Oscar/Omar.

Like when I first read it, these ambiguities unravel what my own graduate students think they know when I teach this book today. Kafka’s Curse muddies the line between the imagined and the lived reality of racial constructions.

The uncertainty of the past

In his internationally acclaimed 2001 novel Bitter Fruit, Dangor continued his investigation of ambiguity by exploring the line between silence and speaking up. He did this by looking at the impact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), set up by the Mandela government to deal with the atrocities of apartheid. While Kafka’s Curse explored these issues around South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994, Bitter Fruit dealt with similar issues around the second election in 1999. Its focus was the uncertainties of history and memory.

A painting of a pomegranate torn open on the cover of a book.

Atlantic Books

Bitter Fruit was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2004 and is probably Dangor’s best-known work. Set in urban Johannesburg, the narrative focuses on Silas and Lydia Ali and their son Mikey. As their relationships begin to unravel at the end of the Mandela presidency, silence surrounds the characters’ pasts as a counterpoint against which to examine the impact of the TRC as a form of cultural articulation.

How do we deal with our past and the uncertainties of history, Dangor asks, in a novel that floats back and forth between present and past, speech and silence, public and private.

Bitter Fruit’s three sections – memory, confession and retribution – act as counterpoints against which the TRC’s processes of speak, grieve and heal are situated. He doesn’t offer any neat solutions, but traces different ways of dealing with our past. In much the same way that the TRC could not construct a unified idea of South African history but merely offered one piece of a fragmentary story, Dangor illustrated the ambiguity inherent in the various ways we synthesise that past as individuals and as a society as a whole.

In each of his books, he explored questions that shifted these sorts of cultural debates. Dangor’s last novel, Dikeledi (2017), sits on my bedside table and I wonder what new knowledge lies within its pages for me to discover, what questions will be explored that I cannot articulate myself.

Rest in peace Achmat Dangor, my teacher in novelistic form.The Conversation

Ronit Frenkel, Professor of English, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dennis Brutus: South African literary giant who was reluctant to tell his life story



Dennis Brutus’s life is synonymous with South Africa’s freedom struggle.
@mjb/Flickr

Tyrone August, Stellenbosch University

This is an edited extract from a new biography about Dennis Brutus, the anti-apartheid activist, poet and author. Brutus died in 2009. The extract records Brutus’s reluctance to write about his life when he was still alive. But as Tyrone August, author of the biography, writes, it was inevitable that his life story would eventually be told: “Brutus’s life is woven far too deeply into the fabric of the recent history of South Africa.”


Dennis Brutus, the South African poet and veteran anti-apartheid activist, lived in Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape, during the first half of the twentieth century. This tumultuous period saw the emergence of apartheid, a legally codified system of racial segregation and discrimination. It was followed by the development of a ruthless state apparatus designed to systematically eliminate any resistance.

It was in these grim circumstances that Brutus, who was classified as coloured – a term used to refer to people of mixed European (“white”) and African (“black”) or Asian ancestry – under the Population Registration Act of 1950, distinguished himself as a student, teacher, poet, journalist, sports administrator and anti-apartheid activist.

Yet, despite this range of achievements, there was not a single biography on him – until now. Nor did he publish any extended autobiographical work in a single volume. In a letter to the South African writer and academic Es’kia Mphahlele in November 1970, he confirmed his ambivalence about

get (ing) that mess of autobiographical material out of my system.

He expressed a similar sentiment in a tape recording in October 1974, and attributed his reluctance to embark on a full-scale autobiography to his belief that there was no coherent or unifying narrative in his life.

I fail to see in my life any kind of cohesion or pattern or unifying thread which would justify an autobiography … It seems to me that autobiographies need organisation of one’s knowledge of one’s life in such a way that a pattern emerges, some kind of intelligibility is made of the mass.

He added emphatically that he saw no such pattern in his life. And, until he could impose some such order on what had happened to him, it didn’t seem to him that he was entitled to write about it. He thought that, although some instances in his life might be exciting or flattering to him, they did not justify a book.

Aversion and ambivalence

Despite his aversion to writing an autobiography, Brutus conceded in the same tape recording that he was beginning to find the prospect “less repellant” than before. He went on to entertain the possibility of at least writing what he described as fragments of an autobiography in the form of essays.

So, by the time Hal Wylie, a University of Texas academic, approached him in 1988 about working towards an autobiography, he was more amenable to the idea. Wylie offered to assist with “spade-work and organising, etc”.

He tried to persuade Brutus that an autobiography would be preferable to an academic work on his life as it would be enriched by certain poetic and literary qualities. It could focus on existential details, memories, personal aspects that would not be appropriate for an official biography, but would be more striking, interesting, with greater human interest.

In an admittedly subjective work one would have more choice and editorial focus. It would be more direct and forceful.

In addition, Wylie submitted that Brutus’s life was closely interlinked with the rise of apartheid and, at the same time, offered “a new way of looking at the anti-apartheid struggle”. He drew particular attention to Port Elizabeth and the Eastern Cape as major sites of this struggle. In response, Brutus wrote encouragingly: “I like the project.”

Nevertheless, Brutus expressed concern about the amount of work required by an autobiography. Instead, he advised, he would still prefer a biography written by Wylie or, alternatively, a biography “as told to Hal Wylie”. Despite his reservations about writing a fully fledged autobiography, Brutus started working with Wylie on a rough draft. This effort was provisionally titled – in a handwritten addition – The Autobiography of the South African Troubadour (or, alternatively, The Story of a Troubadour/Griot).

Wylie recalled in personal correspondence how this draft was created: “It was based on tapes that Dennis recorded, which I then transcribed and typed up. It was then supplemented with additions he wrote in by hand and responses he gave me in response to my questions.”

However, this collaboration eventually collapsed. “When we got to late adolescence and adulthood he clammed up and wouldn’t respond to further questions, so it was abandoned at that point”, Wylie stated.

He then passed the project to another biographer, whose name has since escaped him, but it did not get any further. This is not surprising.

A simple lust

Although initially Brutus felt sufficiently comfortable about working with Wylie on an autobiography, he continued to harbour deep suspicions about the intrusive nature of biographical writing.

His discomfort with the possibility of potential biographers invading his private life is clearly reflected in an untitled poem published in 1973 in his collection, A Simple Lust:

Finding this rubbish,

this debris,

of mine after

I am dead,

when they come to pry

mouse-rustling in my papers,

ghoulishly-hopeful in my things,

what rubbish they will find!

Will I shrivel, inanimate, in my shame?

Will the dead flesh curl up in protest

being assessed by curious strangers’ hands?

A life woven in history

But, in the long run, renewed interest from potential biographers was probably inevitable. Brutus’s life is woven far too deeply into the fabric of the recent history of South Africa. This is true especially of the first four decades of his life, which, as the most important period in his personal, literary and political development, is the particular focus of Dennis Brutus, The South African Years, published by Best Red, an imprint of HSRC Press. Brutus died of prostate cancer at his home in Cape Town on 26 December 2009.The Conversation

Tyrone August, Research fellow, Stellenbosch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How women’s untold histories shaped South Africa’s national poet



Keorapetse Kgositsile with US author Alice Walker, 1996.
Anacleto Rapping/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Aretha Phiri, Rhodes University and Uhuru Portia Phalafala, Stellenbosch University

Keorapetse Kgositsile, the South African-born poet who passed away in 2018, lived in exile in the US from 1962 to 1975 and was at the centre of the country’s 1960s and ’70s Black Arts Movement. Informed by his South African and Tswana background, the poet makes a case for multiple inflections of voices, geographies, and histories in the making of transnational black modernity.

Analysing his work offers ways in which African poetry can disrupt dominant thinking on Black Atlantic studies, particularly Paul Gilroy’s
1993 text The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. The Atlantic world referred to by Gilroy tells the histories of Europe, Africa and the Americas, two hemispheres joined by the Atlantic ocean and exchanging influence. Kgositsile’s poetry can be read as challenging the direction of influence from north to south.

Uhuru Phalafala considers the rich oral traditions passed on from Kgositsile’s grandmother and mother as a key system of knowledge that informed and shaped his black radical imagination. Aretha Phiri interviewed her.


Aretha Phiri: Your colloquium paper situates the celebrated poet-in-exile at the centre of and as uniquely influential to the Black Arts Movement?

Uhuru Phalafala: It was a time when African Americans were seeking to define their identities, with Africa as key metaphor. Kgositsile happened to not only come from that continent, but also used his mother tongue, Setswana, spiritual practices, and music from southern Africa in his work. By interweaving Tswana vernacular with the black diaspora parlance, he affirmed African America’s legitimate affiliation to the continent, as seen in the example of his influence on “the grandfather of rap music”, The Last Poets.

He also came from a mass liberation movement that was experienced in politics of armed confrontation, generated solidarities with other liberation organisations, and adept in decolonial politics. His work became a resource for his contemporaries. Today, when we look at, for example, Kendrick Lamar’s influential album, To Pimp A Butterfly, and the number of references to South Africa in it, we must understand it as grounding itself in the foundation that people such as Kgositsile laid in the sixties and seventies. South Africa will always have an enduring place in the African American imagination.

This is diaspora consciousness. He also admired Nina Simone’s sound, which he called “future memory” to signal that it is not new or emergent, but reminiscent of the protest tradition of South Africa.

Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), 1975, best known member of the Black Arts Movement that embraced Kgositsile.
Bettmann/Getty Images

Aretha Phiri: In focusing on the oral traditions inherited from his female lineage, you make a case for the specific use in his poetry of a “matriarchal archive”?

Uhuru Phalafala: The colonised come from different conceptions of time (temporalities). Colonial temporality is not only racialised but also gendered. The arrogant coloniser inaugurated the beginning of history in his assumption that we did not have a history before he arrived. “History” began with the arrival of the coloniser, and marched forward in a linear fashion. With time, black men accessed modernity’s time – through missionary education and working in the mines – at a different period than women.

We now know that when anti-colonial wars were fought they were primarily and solely about the emergence of the black race from subjugation. When women and queer people attempted to bring the particularities of their oppression to the agenda they were told to wait. When independence was achieved those doubly and triply marginalised did not attain their independence at the same time with their countries because they continued to fight against black patriarchy.

If we backtrack we can then make certain observations. A type of double location of time was constructed when the colonisers’ history was instituted: theirs and ours. Because of lack of contact with missionary education and industrialisation, loosely speaking – of course there were women who accessed modernity – women occupied a different temporality. One of continuity from precolonial to colonial time, with its attendant way of life, philosophies, worldview, oratory practices, etcetera.

Aretha Phiri: In describing this archive, how do you guard against potential accusations of advancing a gendered essentialist claim?

Uhuru Phalafala I do not wish to rehash gendered essentialist claims. This is just historical process. My grandmother never set foot in a classroom but has a world of knowledge, so to say. Men who were later ferried to missionary schools, or those who went to work in the mines en masse, existed in a double location of time. The flow from precolonial to colonial time was interrupted by modernity’s time, fashioning a coexistence of the two.




Read more:
Black and queer women invite the Black Atlantic into the 21st century


These men came face to face with the colonial alienation and “first exile” from their home cultures which were denigrated by colonial assumptions of superior culture. This is how temporality is also gendered. The women who suffered the blows of this history, mostly in the rural countryside, continued to live life on their own terms, without their men. They continued to practise their indigenous ways of knowing – which are not an event but an ongoing process.

These knowledges evolved with time and did not freeze in some dark past. They progress, transform, and evolve as humans do. Today when we call for decolonisation we are actually wanting to retrieve this knowledge that was silenced and erased by the multiheaded hydra of colonialism. Where can we find it if not from those who had little contact with this hydra? In my view black women, in the context of southern Africa, are that “matriarchive”.

The book Black Radical Traditions From The South: Keorapetse Kgositsile and the Black Arts Movement by Uhuru Phalafala will be published shortly.

This article is part of a series called Decolonising the Black Atlantic in which black and queer women literary academics rethink and disrupt traditional Black Atlantic studies. The series is based on papers delivered at the Revising the Black Atlantic: African Diaspora Perspectives colloquium at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.The Conversation

Aretha Phiri, Senior lecturer, Department of Literary Studies in English, Rhodes University and Uhuru Portia Phalafala, Lecturer, Stellenbosch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Anniversaries spark renewed readings of South Africa’s celebrated Sol Plaatje



Flowcomm/Flickr/Sol Plaatje House Museum

Chris Thurman, University of the Witwatersrand

Over the last decade, inquiry into the life and work of South African writer, intellectual and politician Solomon T. Plaatje has been spurred by a series of hundred-year anniversaries.

In 2010 it was the centenary of the formation of that dubious political and geographical structure, the Union of South Africa, which would shape the focus of Plaatje’s many projects until his death in 1932. It was also in 1910 that he founded his second Setswana-language newspaper, Tsala ea Becoana.

Two years later, Plaatje was one of the eminent group who formed the South African Native National Congress, which would later become the African National Congress (ANC). In 2012, when the ANC celebrated its centenary, Plaatje’s name was often cited, although he has been more readily associated with a cosmopolitan, erudite – “elitist”? – strand in the ANC that did not fit with the populist brand emphasised by the party in the shift from Thabo Mbeki’s presidency to Jacob Zuma’s.

There was another hundred-year anniversary in 2016, this time of the publication of Native Life in South Africa. The book was Plaatje’s seminal response to the passage of the Natives Land Act of 1913. This notorious piece of legislation set a traumatic tone for the dispossession, segregation and violent oppression that would characterise late-colonial and apartheid South Africa as the 20th century wore on.

Here was Plaatje in strident “Give back the land!” mode, an appealing figure to those advocating for more radical approaches to redressing the disenfranchisement of black South Africans.

The South African Native National Congress delegation to England, June 1914. Left to right: Thomas Mapike, Rev Walter Rubusana, Rev John Dube, Saul Msane, Sol Plaatjie.
Unknown photographer/Wikimedia Commons

The year 1916 is also significant in the field of Plaatje studies because it was when he contributed his short bilingual English-Setswana essay “A South African’s Homage” to the Book of Homage to Shakespeare.

Here again, we have the paradox of Plaatje writ large. The “Homage” signals his future undertaking as a translator of Shakespeare’s plays into Setswana. He saw this as complementary work to his wider promotion of the language. Yet his affinity for Shakespeare cannot be disconnected from his attachment to Britain and to its empire, his role indeed as an imperial apologist, which can seem difficult to reconcile with some of his other political and literary credentials.

To make sense of this requires a deeper understanding of Plaatje’s historical context as well as his life’s trajectory, and the people, convictions, accidents and circumstances that shaped it. Happily, this is made possible by historian Brian Willan, who has chosen Plaatje as the main focus of his own life’s work and who knows his subject better than anyone else. Willan wrote a biography of Plaatje in 1984. The book seemed definitive until, in 2018, Jacana Media published his Sol Plaatje: A Life of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, 1876-1932.


Jacana Media

A magisterial biography

“Magisterial” is a word too often applied to biographies that don’t quite merit the moniker. But in the case of Willan’s book it is entirely apt. This may not be the final word on Plaatje. Nevertheless, it is a text to which all future scholars and researchers working on Plaatje will have to refer.

At almost 600 pages it is an encyclopaedic tome, documenting Plaatje’s life and times in rich detail. The true achievement of the book, however, is that it manages to do this in an engaging manner and with a prose style that – while never “chatty” – imagines a kind of conversation with the reader.

One can follow the chronological narrative, through 18 chapters marking out distinct periods in Plaatje’s astonishingly productive life. Alternatively one can dip into and out of its pages, navigating its riches via the index, or even flipping idly between phases and themes.

Fortunately, Willan is neither zealous nor jealous when it comes to his subject. His collaborations with other scholars have yielded fruit in various other Plaatje-oriented publications. In 2016, Wits Press published a collection of essays on Native Life co-edited by Willan, Bhekizizwe Peterson and Janet Remmington.

Mhudi gets a new collection

Later this year, Jacana will publish a similar collection, co-edited by Willan and fellow Plaatje biographer Sabata-mpho Mokae, focusing on Plaatje’s novel Mhudi. I am fortunate to be one of the contributors to this volume.

Mhudi appeared in 1930 after an exhausting 10-year battle to get it into print. So 2020 marks another centenary of sorts.

First edition of Mhudi, Lovedale Press.
Blessing Kgasa/Kanye Records Centre/Twitter

What are we to make of this novel, with its eponymous heroine and her husband Ra-Thaga, whose lives coincide with major colonial-era clashes in the first half of the 1800s?

It seems, by turns, to be an imperial romance and an allegory that is critical of empire; a naïve vision of interracial cooperation and a reminder that history is relentless in its cycles of violence.

Is it an affirmation of tribal tradition, or a feminist riposte to patriarchal culture? Is it a patchy experiment in need of an editor, or a genre-busting proto-postmodern pastiche influenced as much by oral narrative traditions as by the polyvocality of Shakespearean drama?

What is beyond question is the significance of Mhudi as the first novel in English by a black South African writer.

The next wave

Strandwolf’s new edition of Mhudi.

The novel’s original publisher, Lovedale Press, sadly faces the prospect of closure. But it is encouraging to note that other independent publishers have committed their resources to keeping Mhudi current. Blackman Roussouw’s Strandwolf imprint has brought out a new edition. Jacana also has plans to publish another edition alongside Willan and Mokae’s critical volume on the novel.

It is to be hoped that, by the time we reach the centennial celebration of Mhudi being published by Lovedale (1930) and the centennial commemoration of the author’s death in 2032, the new wave of scholarship on Plaatje will have challenged readers to grapple with this enigmatic, protean polymath anew.The Conversation

Chris Thurman, Associate professor, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

South Africa’s copyright bill is good for digital archives. Here’s why



Digital archives.
Shutterstock

Denise Rosemary Nicholson, University of the Witwatersrand

To fulfil their mission in the 21st century, libraries, archives, museums and galleries must engage in a wide variety of new activities.

Libraries, for example, house collections of printed works but must now also provide access to online journals, e-books, multimedia, Africana and archival treasures, images, government publications and legal material, posters and artworks. Collection, development, cataloguing, lending, preservation and replacement must take place online as well as in hard copy.

Academic libraries – and even some school ones – are now embedded in core teaching programmes. They support education and innovation and provide services for people with disabilities. Library services include teaching, literacy programmes, research support, data management, and copyright and plagiarism awareness training.

As knowledge hubs, libraries must meet the various information needs of a country’s citizens. In addition, they promote authors and publishers by purchasing, collecting and preserving their works for perpetuity.

Without access to library and archival collections, creativity and innovation would be almost impossible.

But South Africa’s current copyright law dates back to 1978, and is completely inadequate, outdated and irrelevant in a digital world. It has been a barrier to access to information for far too long.

South Africa’s Copyright Amendment Bill is waiting for President Cyril Ramaphosa’s signature. The bill has been strongly contested. Academic Sanya Samtani, for example, supports the bill with an argument based on her PhD research. For its part, the Coalition for Effective Copyright strongly opposes it.

There is merit in all these arguments. But my view is that there is positive news in the Bill’s provisions for libraries, archives, museums and galleries. For example, it will ensure that valuable documentary records and cultural heritage can be preserved for future generations.

What has been missing

The current Copyright Act has no provisions for libraries, archives, galleries and museums. As an afterthought, limited provisions were included in Section 13 regulations for libraries and archives.

Digitisation is the main form of preserving material in the 21st century. Yet the country’s copyright law doesn’t permit it. This causes serious problems for libraries, archives, museums and galleries. They are currently unable to digitise any of their works without first having to get copyright permission, and to pay high copyright fees.

Such entities have large collections of fragile material which can no longer be handled. The only way to preserve this material – and to make it accessible – is to digitise the content. For example, there are media libraries full of Beta and VHS video tapes, film reels and other material that can no longer be accessed as the technologies are obsolete.

To convert these works to current technologies, libraries and related entities must first get copyright permission. In many instances, rights-holders ignore the requests, or are impossible to trace (making them orphan works). In some cases permission is denied. Collections end up with gaps in them.

These issues affect access to archives, which are used for research, teaching and learning, creating and innovating and sharing information. They get in the way of the civic right to access information provided in the South African Constitution.

Lack of adequate and appropriate copyright limitations and exceptions for libraries, archives, museums and galleries have inhibited or prevented them from carrying out their statutory mandates. They have large collections of valuable documents, posters, artworks, artefacts, newspapers, recordings, and images that cannot be reproduced or even accessed. Often this is because the rights-holders cannot be traced, and there are no provisions for orphan works in the current law.

On top of this, restrictive licences and contracts often prevent libraries and similar entities from carrying out their duties. Cross-border exchanges aren’t permitted. Interlibrary loans are permitted in the current law, but this does not extend to digital sharing.

Positive news

The new Copyright Amendment Bill takes cognisance of existing international conventions and treaties, treaty proposals and foreign laws. It also draws on the country’s Constitution and the excellent EIFL Model Copyright law, drafted by information specialists in various countries, including South Africa. This document is a practical guide to assist librarians, as well as their legal advisors and policy-makers, when national laws are being updated. It is designed to support access to knowledge and the public interest mission of libraries.

The Bill also implements the principles of the 2015 Cape Town Declaration, signed by South Africa and 12 other African countries. This includes the commitment

to encourage the implementation of fair and balanced copyright laws to facilitate access to information for all.

The Bill doesn’t use the word “digitisation” specifically. But it will allow libraries, archives, museums and galleries to engage in preservation, digital curation and format-shifting. This will ensure their collections are preserved and made accessible for future generations.

They will be able to share information and replace lost or stolen works. They will also be able to provide information, images, recordings or other media for historical events, exhibitions and educational purposes.

Legal deposit libraries will also finally be able to carry out their statutory mandates. These include that they collect, preserve and make accessible the country’s cultural heritage and historical documentary records in the digital space.

The Bill has been given the thumbs up by the International Federation of Library and Institutions – the leading international body representing the interests of library and information services and their users. It represents over 2.3 million libraries worldwide, serving over a billion users. It has labelled the Bill both progressive and practical. The International Council of Archives, the umbrella organisation that promotes international cooperation for archives and archivists, has also formally supported the Bill.

This suggests that South Africa is about to have a copyright law that could serve as a precedent for other countries.The Conversation

Denise Rosemary Nicholson, Scholarly Communications Librarian, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How Toni Morrison’s legacy plays out in South Africa’s universities



Toni Morrison’s legacy echoes across the world.
EPA-EFE/Arturo Peña-Romano

Aretha Phiri, Rhodes University

I first encountered Toni Morrison during my undergraduate years at Rhodes University in South Africa where her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved (1987), was taught as part of an American Literature course.

It moved me in ways that no other academic account of transatlantic, African American slavery had. Beloved is set in the 19th century. It tells the story of a runaway slave who commits infanticide rather than seeing her child returned to slavery. As with Morrison’s entire fictional oeuvre, the novel profoundly embodies and humanises black life.

Part of what motivated Morrison – who has died at the age of 88 – was impatience at how black literature was typically taught as sociology but was considered intellectually and artistically bereft.

In her Tanner lecture series delivered at the University of Michigan in 1988, she defiantly stated, in defence of a generically marginalised African American presence:

We have always been imagining ourselves … subjects of our own narrative, witnesses to and participants in our own experience … We are not, in fact, ‘other’. We are choices.

The inspiration provided by her fictional writing and critical scholarship around the ideological, artistic and scholarly place of black literature helped carve out an imaginative and actual space for the likes of me – a black African female – within a predominantly white and male, largely Eurocentric literary and intellectual establishment.

Today, I teach at the same university where I first read Beloved and discovered this remarkably talented, intellectually formidable African-American woman novelist. And her work continues to echo. Not just for me, but for the new generation of literature students who cross my path each year.

A complicated place in the canon

In some ways, perhaps Morrison is even more relevant in South African universities today than she’s ever been. Race is a topic that’s simultaneously sanitised and amplified in the country’s everyday discourse. Morrison’s determined refusal to shy away from race reverberates across the Atlantic, resonating with students who still live the enduring political and economic legacies of racial colonialism and apartheid.

On the face of it, the country’s demands for social redress would seem to align with Morrison’s thinking. But a closer reading shows how her fiction strains against the confines of parochial societal interpretations and exercises. It makes the demand for more than superficial change implemented along purely racial lines. It insists on an interrogation and re-imagining of the entire architecture and workings of race.

This reveals how Morrison’s place in both the African-American and global literary canon is quite complicated. It also makes clear why it is that she appeals to so many of my students, across the (proverbial) divide. Each year I watch students from varied racial, social, cultural, economic and gender (or gendered) backgrounds engage with her novels in my classroom. Their readings are intuitive and discerning. This yields often interesting and vigorous discussions, and even heated debates, that reflect the complexity and applicability of her experiences and intellect – and theirs.

Take her debut novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). It provides a delineation of racial self-hatred, incest and familial violence that critiques the deleterious effects of white hegemony. But it also controversially explores and confronts the internalised delimiting contours of black counter-narratives.

The book’s feminist focus on the sexual abuse of women speaks to the damaging effects of patriarchal ideologies and practices within black communities. It resonates with all people in South Africa – a country with incredibly high rates of gender violence.

Jazz (1992) is another Morrison novel whose complex existential narratives require equally complex interpretations. Structurally, it mimics the musical genre’s polyvocal, sometimes cacophonous, intonations to trace the lives of African Americans across time and space. It’s a tough read for two reasons.

First, it requires that students have an appreciation of the technical workings of the artistic cultural form that is jazz. Second, the novel demands from them a critical inquiry into and participatory reading of the experiences of “a people”; of histories that are both outside of and intersect with their own.

This is particularly important at a time when calls are rampant in South African higher education circles for the “Africanisation” of curricula. These calls appeal to contemporary nationalist demands and are in direct contrast to Morrison’s stated intolerance of “lazy, easy, brand-name applications”. Instead, she and her work insisted on the painstakingly “hard work” of non-prescriptive and interrogative, “border-crossing” analysis.

The measure of a life

In her 1993 Nobel Prize speech, Morrison stated:

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

And that is the measure of Toni Morrison’s life. Her dense, demanding prose reflects our continued need – in post-apartheid South Africa’s university classrooms, and elsewhere – to meditate critically and consciously upon our own fragile and imperfect existences. Her narratives put forward morally responsive and socially transformative ways of being in the world. Morrison’s legacy, then, is not just to literature: it is to the imperatives of social justice and to the ideals of humanity not yet realised.The Conversation

Aretha Phiri, Senior lecturer, Department of Literary Studies in English, Rhodes University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why nonfiction books dominate bestseller lists in South Africa



File 20190423 175510 1w4md7.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s “Gangster State” is one of South Africa’s top sellers.
Charles Leonard

Beth le Roux, University of Pretoria

Books in South Africa don’t often make headline news. But a controversial subject, protests and disruptions at a book launch, and threats of book burning are sufficient to get South Africans talking about the place of books in society once again.

This is exactly what has happened with investigative journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s latest book “Gangster State”.

“Gangster State” is an exposé of current African National Congress (ANC) Secretary General Ace Magashule’s alleged murky dealings as premier of the Free State province, and his rise to one of the governing party’s most influential positions. The book has stirred up passionate reactions, both for and against its contents.

This last happened in late 2017 when another investigative reporter Jacques Pauw published a similar book, “The President’s Keepers”. That book dealt with South Africa’s previous head of state, Jacob Zuma, who’s been closely linked to massive corruption. Zuma denies the allegations.




Read more:
Two books that tell the unsettling tale of South Africa’s descent


Clearly, this kind of book touches a certain chord in South African society. A quick glance through the top-selling books in the past few years shows that non-fiction, and particularly political non-fiction dealing with very topical events, is the most popular genre.

The trend can be traced back through a number of years, with nonfiction consistently dominating the Nielsen’s BookScan sales charts – the most comprehensive figures collected on book sales through commercial booksellers. This raises the question: why do political books do so well in South Africa?

Celebrities

This isn’t a uniquely South Africa phenomenon. Nonfiction is popular around the world. Celebrities’ memoirs or biographies, as well as history titles, are more likely to become bestsellers than any other kinds of nonfiction. Indeed, Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming” caused a paper shortage in the US towards the end of 2018, as it was reprinted in such large quantities and at short notice to keep up with audience demand. This title has now sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.

Where South Africa differs is in the balance of sales between nonfiction and fiction. In most of the largest publishing markets, fiction is bought at much higher rates than nonfiction. In the US, for instance, average sales for fiction titles are between 4 000 and 8 000 copies, while the nonfiction average is lower, at 2 000 to 6 000 copies.

In South Africa, it’s the reverse. Nonfiction outsells fiction. This is not a new trend, either: political books found a ready audience throughout the apartheid period.

There are a few categories of nonfiction that do particularly well: political nonfiction, South African history (especially political history), religious books – and the ubiquitous cookbooks. The authors that have the edge tend to be journalists rather than academics, probably because their writing is so much more accessible.

Statistically, too, men write more nonfiction than women in South Africa, and so are more likely to produce top-selling titles, as was found by one of my post-graduate students, Kelly Ansara, in her Master’s study of the gender balance in SA publishing.

South African trends

In analysing the publishing lists and sales figures of the local nonfiction publishers – Pan Macmillan, Jonathan Ball, Penguin SA, Tafelberg and Jacana, on the whole – another difference becomes apparent. Books by and about celebrities are not as popular in South Africa as in the US and UK. Their sales are thus less predictable.

For instance, while former Springbok rugby coach Jake White’s “In Black and White” sold more than 60 000 copies in a week in 2008, star rugby player Joost van der Westhuizen’s “Man in the Mirror” was less successful. Comedian Trevor Noah’s memoir, “Born a Crime”, has been extremely successful, but titles by local musicians and actors such as Bonang Matheba and Somizi Mhlongo have sold comparatively few copies.

The raft of competing titles that hit the shelves after the murder conviction of former Paralympian athlete Oscar Pistorius did not take off as well as expected. Excellent titles on topics as diverse as climate change and South African art sell a respectable number, but don’t make the bestseller list.

Many of the country’s nonfiction titles sell several thousand copies very quickly, but few of them have staying power. Current interest is intense in topics like state capture and corruption scandals. But it fades quickly, leading to a short shelf-life for a number of political books. Only a few gain the perennial interest and staying power of a title like “I Write What I Like” by Steve Biko or Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom”.

Making sense

Many commentators suggest that the interest in political and current affairs titles reflects a nation trying to make sense of its tumultuous political environment. The huge political and social shifts of the past 20 to 30 years are still influencing South Africans’ daily lives. With one corruption scandal following another, trust in the authorities is low. But citizens still seek authoritative overviews and answers – in the nonfiction titles that line our shelves.

There is little reason to predict that the trend will change. However, if the threats mount, then we may see authors and publishers shifting to less controversial topics. For now, it’s great to see books in the news again.The Conversation

Beth le Roux, Associate Professor, Publishing, University of Pretoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.