/ 8 February 2019

SA needs to play catchup with India

The Jaipur Literature Festival in Jaipur
The Jaipur Literature Festival in Jaipur, Rajasthan, to which thousands of book-lovers flock. (Vishal Bhatnagar/ NurPhoto/ Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, I finally made my first visit to India, as one of the guest authors at the prestigious Jaipur Literature Festival.

In Delhi, I found an airport bigger and more orderly than our OR Tambo. Seven minutes after I alighted from my flight, my passport was stamped.

The charming immigration officer had looked at my landing card and small-chatted: “Oh, Jaipur? I guess you are a writer. I wish I wasn’t working so that I could come to the festival.” Did I have any of my books with me, he wanted to know because he would have liked a copy. Sadly for me, they were in the checked-in luggage. I am yet to hear the same request from our immigration officials to any writers coming to South African literary festivals. Flip, most of the time guest writers have delays at the airport because the immigration officer has not heard of the event, even when it’s government-sponsored.

The I in Brics — 1, the S — 0.

But when I arrived at 3pm, there were no longer planes flying to Jaipur and I was made to go by road. Jaipur is a four- to five-hour drive from Delhi. Although I personally enjoy road trips, I could not imagine literary festival organisers in South Africa allowing the same for a guest, more so after a flight longer than eight hours.

My driver didn’t make things better. He delayed us by at least 30 minutes as he chatted with the volunteer about who should pay for the airport parking. Then, as soon as we entered Jaipur, he stopped to meet up with some friend before he dropped me at the hotel, without bothering to explain anything to me.

Given that the Jaipur Literature Festival has been running for more than a decade, there is certainly a need to get more reliable drivers to make the road trip better for guests. In this way South Africa gets a point and equalises.

But then I attended the festival itself and any mistakes the organisers had made about transport recededed into the shadows because it was so well organised. To start with, the bookshop occupied the same space as the marquee that hosted Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at Abantu (in Soweto) last year and could hold more than 1 000 people.

Unlike South Africa, India does not tax books unless they are imported. In this way, I was able to buy books by Indian author friends for very low prices, including a hardcover launched less than two months back for R112. And this was one of the pricier purchases I made. This means that when one is a foreign writer like I am, it makes more sense for you or your agent to get an Indian publisher when entering the Indian market.

There is a clear indication of support for the publishing industry by the state. In India, unlike South Africa, reading is not believed to be, as one former finance minister allegedly stated when asked to remove taxes on books (looking at you to respond, Trevor Manuel), “for the elite”.

India has many failures, some of which, such as corruption and state capture by business, are similar to South Africa’s. The support of the political elites for the publishing industry, though, has ensured it has enough of a literate population that is innovative and can experiment with improving other sectors of the economy.

South African elites would rather keep the majority illiterate so that we are grateful for a bag of Iwisa and some canned fish at election time instead of learning how to grow our own mealies and catch fresh fish. Perhaps as the election date looms closer, it may be worthwhile to find out what different party policies are on scrapping taxes on books and what those parties have done or are doing to ensure this happens. If we don’t question this, we will continue to mourn 30% pass rates while the ANC continues to celebrate them as a win.

And, with our illiteracy, we will continue to be the last member of Brics in more ways than in the arrangement of letters in an acronym. We are a much younger country than India, so it may seem unfair to compare, but we are not too young to make an effort to learn and catch up.