Preaching to the converted

The Cape Town Book Fair is a gala networking event for publishers and book professionals, but little is being done to bring literature to ordinary people

At a gala dinner hosted by the department of arts and culture during the Cape Town Book Fair (CTBF), guest of honour and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka began his speech with a poignant anecdote from his visit to the Cape earlier this year. After recording a BBC programme, he was on a drive through the city when he was “starkly confronted” by a troop of youthful marchers demanding access to books and libraries, something he described as “a most bracing moment” for him.

The protesters were obviously literature savvy, because they recognised the hoary, luxuriant mane and beard sported by Soyinka. Realising the value of such a literary luminary, some promptly invited him to join their demand for books. “This is your fight—demanding the right to literature,” the activist-writer told the young South Africans, pointing out that the best he could do was to provide “moral support”.

I wonder whether Soyinka saw similar scenes when he arrived at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, home of the CTBF, for the official opening on July 30. Outside, on the lawns adjacent to the convention centre, scores of learners, teachers and parents from Equal Education (EE) were assembled, hungry after a 24-hour fast that was scheduled to end at roughly the time Soyinka was set to begin his address. Five thousand others across South Africa were also fasting in solidarity.

“The picket is not a protest against the Book Fair,” EE was keen to emphasise in a statement. “The picket is a reminder ... that the world the Book Fair represents—the world of books, of reading for pleasure and reading for knowledge—is closed off to the majority of our people because books are too expensive and there are no libraries in 93% of South Africa’s schools.”

The organisation argued that publishers have a “constitutional and moral duty to help to solve this problem” and that government should “investigate the feasibility of a VAT exemption on textbooks and books bought for school libraries”. It said that “the cost of learning and reading materials cannot continue to be beyond reach of the children who need them”.

Perhaps that is the point a Malawian publisher was attempting to make when he said of the CTBF that “it’s only white people coming here. Where are the blacks? What does that mean? Does this mean blacks aren’t looking for knowledge? This is what separates us from other races.”

When asked whether this was a better fair than last year’s, managing director Claudia Kaiser wouldn’t be drawn. “It’s difficult to say, but this is a different fair.” She said that after extensive consultation with publishers “we decided that we should take this to a different level”. This, she explained, was the rationale behind the African Books Collective, a gaggle of 12 publishers from around Africa who came courtesy of the Goethe-Institut. July 29, the day before the fair officially opened, was conceived as a networking opportunity for publishers and other book professionals.

The idea, she said, was to make the fair viable for the book merchants while at the same time making it worthwhile for the book-buying public. “The programme we offer is of big interest to the public ... but we also had to strengthen the trade aspect of the fair,” she said.

What, though, to make of notable absentees, such as publishers Penguin and Random House Struik, retailer Exclusive Books and learners who usually throng to the fair on the Monday? (Perhaps the learners were absent because their teachers are thinking of striking.) When asked why these big players were not present, Kaiser said: “You would have to ask them.”

Muted talk among some publishers seemed to suggest that the fair doesn’t compensate them enough for their troubles. Maybe it’s a question of logistics. The costs of getting staff there, accommodating and feeding them, ensuring book stock is on hand and hiring exhibition space take a sizeable chunk out of annual budgets: too sizeable, probably, for publishers based outside Cape Town.

Possibly it’s a question of location—after all, 40% of the book-buying public is based in Johannesburg. Quizzed on that, Kaiser would only say: “For now it makes sense to have the Book Fair in Cape Town rather than in Johannesburg. What happens in the future, we’ll see.”

Kaiser pointed to the fair’s achievement of opening reading and learning rooms in Mfuleni and Khayelitsha, Cape Town townships, on July 29.

On the ground, at the stands, I talked to four exhibitors after the fair’s end, when they were busy packing up. “It was a good opportunity for networking,” one said, whereas another was pleased with her good sales and said she was getting ready for the Jozi Book Fair in Johannesburg, an initiative of Khanya College.

Now in its second year, after an inaugural event that featured about 45 publishers, 63 authors and speakers, the Jozi Fair describes its role as “a vital and necessary intervention for small and alternative publishers in South Africa”. In a press statement it said its project “makes possible the promotion of more marginal works, as well as the strategic networking between writers and publishers and distributors”.

The Fair, to be held in Newtown instead of the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, has the potential to showcase a different type of publisher and attract—to corrupt the title of a novella by Alan Bennett—“the common reader”.

Two book fairs on successive weekends, even 1600km apart, might seem excessive, but considering its appallingly low levels of reading and book buying, South Africa can do with as many book gatherings as possible.

But it is a moot point whether a growing culture of book fairs will help to erode the treasury’s resistance to dropping VAT on books or induce provincial governments to set up school libraries and properly stock public libraries. Before that happens there might have to be a few more hunger strikes.

The Jozi Book Fair opens on August 6 at Museum Africa in Newtown. Admission is R10. Tel: 011 366 9190 or 084 377 3003

Percy Zvomuya

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