“If you want to hide something from a black man, put it in the book…”
Though I grew up in a rural village, I have never headed cattle as my father was never a stock farmer. But the death-defying oral literature, with its dynamism of a chameleon adapting to new environs, which we have inherited from our forebears and elders celebrating heroes and heroines of our motherland – Tshaka, Mantatise, Sekhukhune, Moshoeshoe, Ramabulani, Tambo, Mandela, Phokanoka, Mbeki, Sisulu, Molotlegi, Mahlangu and all other warriors of our struggle – has relayed to me the symbolism of an angry, fearful cow when it smells the aura of death in its midst. Its powerful, thunderous mooing will verberate across the far-away mountain of Modimolle, “Thaba ya badimo”, and the great Limpopo river. Yakhal’inkomo, the African bull belows. Its blood will be on the boil! Its ire will all be reflected in its eyes. Its stomping hammer on the ground will shake the earth. The wailing, heart-rending, foot-stomping poetry of Mongane Wally Serote has also captured the essence of this cataclysmic energy of a cow whose end is nigh. Yakhala’inkomo. And so it was with the harmonic, yet violent, African jazz sounds of that honourable son of the Eastern Cape, Winston Mankuku Ngozi. Yakhala’inkomo!
Yes, in this technology-driven world, oral culture alone is not adequate for survival. Our end is nigh as long as we continue to believe that “if you want to hide something from a black man, put it in the book”, and then you are sure he will never find it. We have to discover the hidden mysteries represented in letters printed on pages of the book. And to do this, we have to borrow the dying cow’s aggressive agility, its mammoth strength, to fight the current situation which makes our ground fertile for death to strike. This is our national responsibility. A culture of illiteracy in the twenty first century, aptly titled the African century, is a culture of dearth. Statistics, though considered controversial in some quarters, are indicating that there is shocking number learners in South Africa who are barely illiterate and their numeracy skills are embarrassing. Add to these, a huge number of adults who are aliterate – that is, they are literate and yet are reluctant to read. I call these some of the worst crimes against humanity. Whereas this is reflective of the legacy of colonialism and apartheid in this country, our indomitable quest to destroy this malice has to be a reflection of our heart-felt desire to build ourselves into a truly twenty first century nation – a nation free from illiteracy and aliteracy. Beyond this, we have to be a nation with a culture of reading and writing, scholarship and research, learning and teaching. I am talking about a nation with an established culture of knowledge production and PUBLISHING.
It is only when we are turbo-charged with the energy tantamount to the dying bellowing bull that we could achieve this noble ideal. This demands of us to change our ways of living, to be born again, to reawaken, to change our perception of the world, and basically to entrench in our psyche a culture of reading and writing as a national priority. I am consciously emphasising a dialectical interdependence between reading and writing since I believe they are as intertwined as in “a-chicken-and-egg” parable. The African renaissance discourse, as part of the liberation aesthetics, has to call on all of us to be reborn. It demands transformation in all spheres of our life. Transformation has to first take place in the mind.
Is this a harsh, brutal indictment against ourselves as a people? ABSOLUTELY NOT. If we were not aware of the popular “joke” I have quoted in my opening, I would be tempted to rephrase my answer.
Transformation: when, what, who, where & how?
Like I have mentioned earlier, we need to transform all the sectors of our community in all areas of life NOW in order for us to escape this morass of illiteracy and aliteracy. Transformation for me starts with authorship – particularly in African language and textbook publishing programmes. The irony of these two categories is that in one, you have the speakers of the indigenous languages (predominantly black) dominating the section, and on the other, you have an obvious absence of black authors except in a few cases where they are affirmed or drawn in as token authors of forewords/introductions. There are various factors for this. They are all reflective of the legacy of apartheid colonialism, whether in our broader society or the publishing industry which continues to feed into this unfortunate situation. It is also a reflection of the poverty of academic training which is supposed to produce full-round publishers. Black African-language authors who were given the opportunity to write, and to be published, were predominantly those who were willingly subjecting themselves to the dictates of the apartheid hegemony by either writing praises about the regime or ignoring the hardship that our people were living under. They were motivated by their desire to have their materials prescribed in schools – the only viable market for their products. On the other hand, there were voices of dissent which were ignored by the publishing industry, or their self-published books were never given the opportunity to be read in schools. Again, it was largely believed that African languages, excluding Afrikaans in this instance, could never develop to a level where they could coin concepts with lexical equivalents to the lexicography/vocabulary of Mathematical and Natural Sciences. In the publishing industry, this was further broken down into meaning that there couldn’t be black publishers and editors who could be competent to publish in these academic areas. The resultant position is that we have very few black publishers of core textbooks in the entire industry accompanied by only a handful of black academic textbook authors. By transformation we mean we need to develop new publishers who could give voice to new authors, we need to hear voices of freedom, non-sexism and of non-tribalism. We need to hear voices that articulate the African renaissance.
Most of us, people of colour, who joined the publishing industry as publishing professionals in 1994 after the dawn of democracy got in by default – we didn’t receive formal academic training, we were either former teachers/ lecturers or journalists. It was only towards 1998/9 that we saw an influx of professionally-trained black publishers into the industry, most of whom coming from the University of the Witwatersrand. Unfortunately, the post-graduate publishing programme was offered as a module of African Literature, which meant this wasn’t really sufficient to redress the imbalances that existed in the industry where we had black publishers trapped in the corner of African languages and linguistics while other people published core-textbooks. The status quo still remains. If I were to give advice to the universities, I was to say that the post-graduate publishing programme should be multidisciplinary in such a way that it could attract students from other faculties such as Commerce and Engineering outside of the Arts Faculty.
Because of them being trapped in African language publishing, the number of black people in publishing versus other sectors of the South African society does not reflect the demographics of our country. This was even worsened by the crisis that struck the industry in 1998 and 1999, in which the annual textbook spend shrunk from a high of R850m in 1996 to just under R250m in 1997. The vision of an accelerated transformation that was created by the influx of black people into the industry soon turned into a mirage when the process was reversed by the two major spates of retrenchments which happened during those two years. It is still a wonder to me that the publishing industry is the only sector of our economy where we do not have an association or forum of black publishing professionals bring them together to discuss transformation as a collective. The black accountants have done it. The journalists. The lawyers. Everyone except black publishing professionals and editors. Yes, a few black holding companies have bought equity into a number of publishing multinationals, but the operational management of companies is still largely in the hands of white people.
New marketing strategies
We also need to devise new effective marketing strategies for us to be able to create a culture of reading – a culture of creating a new PERSONALITY. In the past before 1994, marketing in publishing meant one having a good (meaning corrupt) contact within the ex-Department of Education and Training which was mainly for black schools, and the department of education in various bantustans. The contact was to ensure that your book got prescribed and had a market. The contact was to be rewarded with a percentage of royalties payable on the title. Many publishing companies survived on this. And they were considered to be very successful. And that’s why they couldn’t survive the tough market conditions of post 1994 – which is characterised by a drive to stamp out corruption.
Our people have been denied access to good books for a very long time. Now is the time for us to bring this to a halt. We often hear book chain suppliers such as the CNA and the Exclusive Books complaining that black people do not come to their bookshops to buy books. At the same time, we hear those few black people who are ready to buy and read saying they can’t find relevant books by relevant black people in the bookshops. If publishers can’t access black readers through bookshops, they need to design ways of reaching them. This has to be NOW. This calls on publishers, particularly multinationals, to come into partnerships with indigenous, emerging book publishers and suppliers. This will help to accelerate the indigenisation of our publishing industry.
But to generate new audiences, we have to develop the kind of literary products that our people would love to consume. This is the argument I made in 2000 when I was one of the ten writers short-listed for the Sunday Times Bessie Head Writer’s Fellowship. This was for my proposal on developing a novel based on the twentieth anniversary of the most notorious Soweto gangster group. Called the Wire Gang, led by Samuel Kubayi, the group terrorized the township until they were arrested and imprisoned in 1983.
I indicated the novel was to be part of a new literary genre which I was developing, kwailiterature! This was the kind of series intended to free our literature from the shackles of prescription obsession – since the publishing industry in South Africa is mainly targeting the educational market. My characters were to speak the language that people in the street talk.
No. English. But our people’s English. Our own construction. Our own phraseology!
Gutter English? No. English spoken by our people, even those living in the gutters.
Mothobi Mutloatse, one of the literary giants of this country, once said his 1970s Black Consciousness Staffrider brigades had vowed to bastardadise English.
He sounded harsh at the time. But I believe all languages have to be bastardised in writing, since they are bastardised everyday in spoken formats.
So what is kwailiterature? It is to literature what kwaito is to the music industry, what the `yizo–yizo’ aesthetic (developed by Teboho Mahlatsi and Angus Gibson’s `yizo–yizo’, then followed by Gaz’lam and Tsha Tsha) is to the television industry, and what Y-FM is to the radio industry!
Kwailiterature is about taking stories from the gutters and telling them into the mainstream. We have to take them from the cold and warm people’s hearts with their touch.
The crisis in South Africa is not about lack of writers, but lack of readers. We need this kind of literature to establish a South African literary aesthetic. My take is that we should invest money into developing audiences. We don’t provide our readers with the kind of literature that mirrors them. They speak their language.
Obviously, the emergence of a book publishing industry and the partnerships I have spoken about, require a culture of reading for its survival and further development. And most significantly, the industry needs BUYERS! The state, through its statutory bodies such as the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) have a critical role to play in this regard. Organs of civil society, such as the NGOs, have a stake too in this effort. The publishing industry has to make an investment into this. I’m referring to the contribution of the publishing industry as an “investment” because I believe that a culture of reading will in the long run translate into a culture of BOOK-BUYING. We could begin by our communities organising book clubs/reading circles; publishers publishing good, relevant books; state funding initiatives aimed at the development of good literature, development of a reading culture, and the preservation of our arts and culture. The state could also establish mobile libraries in communities which do not have access to them. All these endeavours will ensure that NEW VOICES and NEW AUDIENCES are developed and nurtured in the new century, the AFRICAN CENTURY.
The key adjective we should attach to the concept of development is “sustainability”. We shall never take control of our development programme as long as we do not have the means to “sustain” it. In a nutshell, this calls on all of us, particularly leftists, to stop considering the word “PROFIT” as a taboo. As long as our programmes do not break-even, we shall go under, or shall remain dependent upon the hand-outs from the donor communities; as long as our enterprises do not make profit, it will remain impossible for us to develop them further. It is within this context that our government has positioned the arts and culture as “industries”. Making a profit does not necessarily equate to compromising one’s revolutionary principles or political conscience. It means one gathering adequate resources for further programme development. Upholding this view is tantamount to upholding a NEW PERSONALITY, who like a chameleon, adapts to survive and conquer every new material conditions one is confronted with. It is a PERSONALITY of the new AFRICAN CENTURY, it is a PERSONALITY of the future centuries.
Enjoy your weekend.
Saul Molobi (FCIM)
Publisher: Jambo Africa Online
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