Analysis paralysis?

Teenagers are notorious for giving their parents a hard time — so apparently are countries.

As with any other 14-year-old, South Africa can’t wait to shake off its parental shackles and venture out into that exciting outside world. And like parents the world over, we worry that our daughter will wear her dresses too short and too tight, pick the wrong boy to kiss and, heaven forbid, get caught up in the wrong crowd.

We, the teenager’s parents — the citizens and custodians of our budding democracy — want to keep a watchful eye on our offspring who seem to be growing up faster than we can invent rules. To be responsible parents we need all the help we can get. Today, thankfully, we need not look very far.

Because of South Africa’s historical circumstances, the political book has always had a market here, says Jonathan Ball publishing director Jeremy Boraine. “We have always been a politically focused nation and there have always been opportunities to publish political books. Divisions within the ANC have opened new debates in the past couple of years and people want to see what the future holds.”

The last few years have seen a slew of books appearing that, in one way or another, interrogate the state of our young nation. Mamphela Ramphele’s Laying Ghosts to Rest (NB Publishers, 2008) and Xolela Mangcu’s To the Brink: The State of Democracy in South Africa (UKZN Press, 2008) are just two of the several new offerings adding to this genre.

Perhaps, by evaluating the early years of democracy and the people who shaped them, we hope to feel our way into a braver new world. At this prolific rate, however, overload could become a factor and in our frenetic search for solutions to national problems we might just end up with a case of analysis paralysis instead of the illumination we seek.

In the past few years local publishing in general has seen enormous growth. Five years ago South African content accounted for 5% of book sales in the country. Today that figure has doubled. That is a dramatic increase, but still a long way from the 50% of home-grown material being read by the Australian public.

The political book makes up a substantial portion of the national literature South Africans increasingly read. It could be argued that political subjects offer that rarest of crossover consumer demographics in a population that continues to confound marketers.

It all started three years ago with a book that really blew the lid off what had traditionally been a very small political press in South Africa. William Gumede’s Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC enjoyed runaway success never before seen in the genre. So phenomenal was its reception that it caught publishers Zebra on the backfoot, selling out almost before it hit the shelves in 2005.

Within a couple of weeks of publication the book went into its second print, effectively showing the publishing industry the depth of the public’s desire for this type of book and opening the door for others to follow — which, of course, they did.

After Gumede’s book, it was game on. The genie was out of the bottle — notably Andrew Feinstein’s controversial After The Party (Jonathan Ball, 2007), of which about 30 000 copies have been sold so far, and Terry Crawford-Brown’s Eye on the Money (Umuzi, 2007). Neither of these books pulls punches in analyses of the arms deal.

It seems that deference to the political class has begun to wane. In the past five years we have come to a stage in our transition where we want to pick things apart and, luckily for us as a democracy, we can do that.

Feeding into the literary zeitgeist is the reality that members of the “golden age” of the ANC leadership are one by one reaching the stage at which memoirs must be penned and biographies written.

Just after the ANC’s Polokwane conference, in late 2007, came the publication of arguably one of the most important additions to our shelves after Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom: the extensive account of Cyril Ramaphosa’s life by Anthony Butler (Jacana).

This followed George Bizos’s Odyssey to Freedom (Umuzi, 2007), Ray Alexander Simon’s All My Life and All My Strength (STE Publishers, 2004), and Ben Turok’s Nothing But the Truth: Behind the ANC’s Struggle Politics (Jonathan Ball, 2003), among others. More are certain to come — both Kader Asmal and Tony Leon are said to be working on memoirs.

And sufficient time has elapsed for books to be completed by authors embarking on more intensive research. One such is Mark Gevisser, whose Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred (Jonathan Ball, 2007) took eight and a half years to complete.

Being less academic in tone and therefore more accessible to the average citizen, the modern South African political book is finding its audience ready and waiting, as Zebra sharply discovered when it ran out of food and drink at the various launches of Gumede’s book three years ago.

What’s more, that audience wants nothing less than the truth. It is no longer prepared to accept at face value whatever crumbs of half-truths and untruths politicians deign to dish out.

Combined with changes in the dynamics of the ANC itself, where absolute silence no longer rules and internal discipline no longer suffices to keep critics from breaking rank, the South African political book has become an important ingredient in the shaping of the country’s future.

We have become grown-up enough to be critical of our leaders and to lay bare those betrayals that cut so deeply, and because of this the political book is one of the main focuses at the Cape Town Book Fair. The programme is filled with debate, indicating that we are still struggling to understand how the dream that Thabo Mbeki is accused of deferring might yet be resurrected.

Linda Cilliers is a freelance journalist and editor

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