« Nelson Mandela’s autobiography is South Africa’s biggest bestseller in recent years
[This] provides some clues about the state of South African publishing, » wrote literary critic Shaun de Waal in South African daily newspaper The Mail & Guardian. The mémoires of South Africa’s first Black president, Long Walk to Freedom, were published in the United States in 1994 and imported back into South Africa later. For strictly financial reasons, Nelson Mandela signed an agreement with Little Brown & Cy, a Bostonian publisher, in order to raise funds for the African National Congress (ANC).
The reason that works of well-known and respected authors such as Nadine Gordimer, André Brink and John M. Coetzee are also published abroad, mostly with Penguin in London, is also financial. South African publishers such as Tafelberg, David Philip or Human & Rousseau, have managed to survive as best they could. For the most part they represent foreign publishers in South Africa and import the exact number of books ordered by bookshops, in small 200-copy lots. The market is small and books can be deemed to have obtained commercial success once they’ve sold as little as 3,000 copies for English-language works and up to15,000 copies for works written in Afrikaans.
The most-widely spoken language constitutes a major niche and caters to the demands of a (white and mixed-race) readership concerned with preserving its cultural heritage. Dalene Matthee’s novels sell far better than any English-speaking author (English is spoken at home by less than 10% of the population). For both historical and financial reasons, the nine official African languages are barely represented.
The changes that have swept through South African politics since Nelson Mandela was freed seem to had little impact on the literary world. Major works have been written on the transition period, the best of are The Mind of South Africa (Arrow Books, 1997) and Tomorrow is Another Country (Truik Book Distributors, 1994) by the journalist and historian, Allister Sparks. Over the past two years, around 10 essays have been published on the works of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an independent organisation set up to shed light on human rights violations committed under the apartheid regime. The most famous work to come out of this process is The Country of My Skull by Afrikaaner poetess, Antjie Krogg.
Fiction, on the other hand, has proven to be rather slow in coming since there has not been a new generation of black authors to take up the relay. Mandla Langa (Memory of Stones, 1999) and Zakes Mda (In the Heart of Redness, 2000) are the only authors to have joined the pantheon of black classics such as Njabulo Ndebele (Fools and Other Stories, 1984), Bessie Head (A collector of treasure, 1977) and Esk’ia Mphahlele (The Unbroken Song, 1988).
Lesego Rampoloken, a poet who gained enormous popularity in the early 1990s, always reads his poems with a musical backdrop of dub or rap. He tells of life in the townships, of the black neighbourhoods that are still there today. Promoted by the Congress of South African Writers, which has published two collections of his works, Talking Rain and Horns for Hondo, he is still very much an underground poet. Should this lead us to think that these authors have run out of inspiration since the end of the old regime? Has it become impossible to write in a post-apartheid South Africa?
« It’s a myth », responds Annari van der Merwe, Director of Kwela Books, a publishing house founded in 1994 by the Afrikaans media group Nasper to attract new multi-racial talent. « Society is just as bad as before. There are still just as many stories to be told. On the contrary, the writers are no longer under the same pressure, except that they now have the pressure to be politically correct ».
The South African literary landscape seems so barren because it has suffered the full force of the changes introduced after Nelson Mandela was elected. The government immediately devoted most of its budget to bringing all state teachers’salaries into line since they were previously calculated according to the teacher’s ethnic origin. The problem was that up till then local publishers had always funded unprofitable literary publications with revenue from the education system, by supplying textbooks to schools and libraries. After 1996, there was a spate of lay-offs and publishing programmes were frozen. There has been a slight improvement in the situation since the new Minister for Education, Kader Asmal, was named in 1999.
Annari van der Merwe is one of the rare publishers to list a number of confirmed writers such as Achmat Dangor, a novelist of Indian origin, or other younger authors, in her catalogue. In 1987, a mixed-race lecturer in literature at the University of Strathclyfe in Scotland made a name for herself with You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town. She has recently published David’s Story, the tale of a mixed-race anti-apartheid fighter whose love story did not outlast the end of the anti-apartheid era. Sello Duiker, a young 26-year-old black author is currently considered to be one of the most promising writers of the « new » South Africa. Following his first novel, Thirteen Cents, has recently completed The Quite Violence of Dreams, the first black South African homosexual novel.
///Article N° : 5514