Although it was never explicitly stated, the implication that white people were not welcome was made clear; a response to a Twitter enquiry indicated that a white person would not be welcome, but their mixed-race children would.
Co-founder and managing editor at the Rational Standard, Nicholas Woode-Smith, argues why such an exclusionary attitude is harmful, especially to black authors, who the festival was presumably trying to promote. Even the Daily Vox, a publication known for its “wokeness”, criticised the decision to exclude white people.
And the decision should be criticised. As Woode-Smith points out, South Africa enjoys freedom of association and individuals should be allowed to interact with whoever they wish.
That the Abantu Book Festival received funding from the City of Johannesburg and the Department of Arts and Culture means, on that basis alone, that the organisers should not have been permitted to exclude anyone by race.
This aside, if the aim of a festival like Abantu is to bring literature and authors to those who would not ordinarily be exposed to them, the organisers failed dismally. Inclusion of all (especially those you would not ordinarily reach) is the best way to spread your message.
But those who seek to exclude others on the basis of race are on the wrong side of history and the future of South Africa is one which includes all who call this country home. Our own research at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) reflects this too. Most South Africans believe that the different race groups need each other for the country to be a success.
I reflected on this over the New Year while attending the Smoking Dragon music festival in the foothills of the Drakensberg. The festival had no set genre, the music ranged from ska to Afro-jazz to deep house and everything in between. The audience were as diverse as the music on offer and reflected South Africa and its people in all their glory.
I was exposed to music I would normally not listen to and spoke to musicians whose genres were not those I was particularly familiar with. At the same time, people were brought together through a shared love of music. There was no such thing as “black” music or “white” music. People simply enjoyed what was on offer.
At the same time, people of different races and ages mingled happily, a condition doubtless enhanced by the surrounding beauty of the Drakensberg, along with the refreshments on offer. But I am sure nobody felt their enjoyment of the festival was lessened in the slightest because people of another race were there too.
Those who seek to exclude others on the basis of race or argue that, fundamentally, black and white people cannot enjoy the same literature or the same music are wrong.
And, despite the best efforts of some politicians and some people in the media, events like Smoking Dragon, where people of different races mingle happily, are common.
The fact is, racism is on the decline. Much of South Africa is losing its mind over photos from a primary school in Schweizer-Reneke, showing that black children separated from white children (although subsequent photos showed the children happily integrated).
But the collective madness which seems to have gripped some in the chattering classes indicates that such incidents are few and far between. If racist incidents were as common as some would like us to believe, people would not bat an eyelid at incidents such as those at Schweizer-Reneke. The fact that it is on the front pages of newspapers indicates that racism is, broadly, on the retreat.
There’s no news in a dog biting a man, but when a man bites a dog, you’ll know about it - it’s rare enough to make the headlines.
As the IRR’s 2017 report on racism, “Holding the Line”, found, most South Africans believe racism is on the decline. Some 60% of South Africans (and 63% of black South Africans) believed that race relations had improved. The proportion who believed race relations had worsened was roughly the same overall and, for black South Africans in particular, was 20%.
The proportion of people who had experienced racism was also fairly low. Some 72% of all South Africans (and 77% of black South Africans) said they had never personally experienced racism.
Despite the best efforts of some, South Africa’s rainbowism has not failed. It may seem at times that the Rainbow Nation is being held together with chewing gum and string, but ordinary South Africans are happy to work, play and simply exist together.
Away from the rhetoric of politicians and radio talk show hosts, rainbowism is a more resilient ideology than many give it credit for.
I had a glimpse into South Africa’s future - and it’s a festival like Smoking Dragon, not the Abantu Book Festival.
* Marius Roodt is head of campaigns at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes economic and political freedom.