/ 29 July 2015

South African Book Fair’s thought-provoking reads

Outspoken academic: Xolela Mangcu will discuss why race still matters.
Outspoken academic: Xolela Mangcu will discuss why race still matters.

The publishing landscape is undergoing seismic changes. Technological advances have fundamentally changed the way people buy and read books, with the result that brick-and-mortar shops are on the decline.

Smaller independent companies are being bought out by a few multinational conglomerates that now dominate the global world of publishing and, in South Africa, changing buying patterns for school books have increased the levels of risk for educational publishers, which are the backbone of our industry.

If we add to this scenario the relatively small local book market, how are South Africa’s scholarly publishers faring?

Looking at the programme of the South African Book Fair, it is clear that this small corner of the ­industry is holding its own and producing exciting, thought-provoking and highly relevant books.

See for example the discussion, chaired by Shireen Hassim, Black and White in Colour: Why Race (still) Matters, with historian Hlonipha Mokoena, Afro-Jewish philosopher Lewis R Gordon, and outspoken academic and commentator Xolela Mangcu, among others.

Or explore how South Africa has come to find itself at “a fork in the road” with Steven Friedman, John Saul and Adam Habib: intellectuals whose views help shape our understanding of current realities.

Then there’s a panel on the highly topical question of the decolonisation of institutions, followed immediately by one on transforming the apartheid city of Johannesburg.

In spite of the “ambient wails of doom” (to quote Sam Leith writing about scholarly publishing in the Guardian on June 26) echoing across the global publishing world, scholarly publishers, and university presses in particular, play a vital role for general readers.

Far from being locked into ivory towers, university presses negotiate a space located somewhere between the academic world of research and the critically important arena of ­public debate.

Thinkers such as Achille Mbembe – one of those authors whose books, like Frantz Fanon’s, are so much in demand that they are regularly stolen from libraries – break down boundaries between the ­university and the high street (or perhaps the taxi rank, dinner table and student residence), contributing insights in ways that enrich our understanding of this frustratingly complex place we call home.

All are welcome to attend and participate in lively debate – or to find a quiet space in a beautiful venue dedicated to books for an entire weekend, simply to read.

*Veronica Klipp is the publisher of Wits University Press and a member of the board of directors of the South African Book Fair