/ 23 May 2022

OPINION| Black writers and publishers are South Africa’s ‘linguistic orphans’

Words: Among SA’s celebrated people is activist, academic and writer Charlotte Maxeke

The most common question that people ask me when they are writing a book is how to find a publisher. 

Books are about posterity (and a little bit of vanity). They are about preserving stories about who, what and where we are and how we came to be. Books help us to see others and travel to places that passports, pockets and physics would otherwise not allow. They play delightful tricks with time and confound the imagination. They have created fortunes and driven generations out of impoverishing levels of ignorance. 

Writers remain the defenders of decency; the pen remains mightier than the sword. South Africa has its own battalion across the ages from Sol Plaatje, Archie Mafeje and Charlotte Maxeke to Bernard Ngubane, Esk’ia Mphahlele, Nadine Gordimer, Nat Nakasa and Can Themba. Today, poet Athol Williams is in exile for defending our democracy after exposing malfeasance at the state capture commission. 

The power that authors wield is undeniable. Their words provide succour during trying times and they also exhort us to revolution. Their words have helped us realise liberation and still they critique our continued colonial state of mind. Black writing in South Africa has seen growth, yet black writers and workers across the publishing value chain remain under-represented in terms of sales and ownership. 

Almost three decades into the democratic dispensation, black children in South Africa are not reading and learning in their home languages. Books by black authors are not present in public and school libraries. Our most illustrious wordsmiths find new audiences in translation into colonial languages before they find them in indigenous languages, if at all. The consequence is that the education and advancement of many black people is accompanied by progressive alienation from self. As Sandile Ngidi put it at the Academic and Non-Fiction Authors Association of South Africa Power of Authors Conference on 12 May, “We are linguistic orphans.” 

Preserving indigenous languages is such an urgent priority that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) declared the years 2022 to 2032 as the indigenous languages decade. Linguistic diversity is not simply about cultural heritage, language is not just an artefact. Investing in African languages contributes to increasing the potential for innovation because “language enables the delivery of information and knowledge coded in different socio-cultural, political, and economic contexts”, according to Unesco. 

It is a travesty of justice that the South African government gives lip service to book development, libraries and language education. These key areas are housed in different departments and under separate directorates. This means that any policies that exist do not work in tandem and, because of frequent changes in political principles at the ministerial level, any projects that do see the light of day do not result in full implementation. 

So, what does this portend for the future of writing and the sustainable livelihoods and protection of writers? First, it means that anyone who is drawn to writing as a profession should not quit their day job. Second, the publishing industry has to look at an equitable business model that does not exclude the most important voices in South Africa. This is not just an issue of social justice; it makes business sense. A wealthier customer base is good for the bottom line. 

Third, all stakeholders must lobby parliament for a process that holds the government to account for processes that enable corrupt and irregular procurement of textbooks and tenders in the publishing value chain. Fourth, there needs to be as much investment into African language and humanities education as there is into science, technology, engineering, and maths.

But there are green shoots to be proud of. Despite the closure of the South African Book Development Council, writers and those who are dedicated to keeping the story alive are flocking to book festivals to maintain their focus on audience development and more authors are opting to self-publish instead of waiting on the approval of publishing houses. 

We have seen the proliferation of book clubs and the publication of children’s books in African languages. A wonderful example of the latter is Puku Books, founded by author and activist Elinor Sisulu. The Academic and Non-Fiction Authors Association of South Africa remains dedicated to empowering authors through writing grants, workshops and sharing resources in service of the written word.

Our wealth does not only reside in the soil. It resides in our people. The challenges we face in the world of scholarly and leisure reading and writing are not unique to our country but it is crucial to overcome them if we want to be as good as we look in our Constitution.