Thando Mngqolozana is standing his ground on keeping the annual Abantu Book Festival black.
Johannesburg - Thando Mngqolozana is standing his ground on keeping the annual Abantu Book Festival black.

The festival, held in Soweto last year, drew flak from people who believed that excluding white people from the event was counter-productive because they had the financial muscle to ensure its survival.

However, the founder and director of the festival, Mngqolozana, said opening it up to “others” would further entrench “whiteness” at literary events.

“This issue of this so-called exclusion of white people is exactly what whiteness does. It centralises itself; that’s the success of colonisation... whiteness will always be the centre,” he said. “Each time it (the festival) gets bigger and better.... We’re talking about the so-called exclusion of white people and not the good things we’re doing.”

Mngqolozana then pointed out that people with different skin colours were welcome to make contributions to the “platform for black writers and readers - where they can for once, as a literary community, experience the fullness of their humanity without feeling that they are in the margin, or they have to be careful about who they are in that space”.

He said white people he had known for over 10 years “were the first people to donate (to the festival), and continue to do so. They never asked to attend the festival because they understood the nature of allyship,” he said, adding that allyship needed to be understood in a certain context.

Mngqolozana’s festival, now entering its fourth year, receives funding from the Department of Arts and Culture, the City of Johannesburg, Gauteng’s department of sports, arts, culture and recreation, and support from organisations such as the Miles Morland Foundation and the National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences.

Thabiso Mahlape, head of BlackBird Books (a subsidiary of Jacana Media) said: “I’ve heard people tell others not to work with me because I’m ‘cushioned by whiteness’. What else would cushion me? What I found fascinating was how much funding South African film productions get. And we don’t have that. We don’t have the government trying to subsidise anyone in the literary space.”

She said that the “literary space” was one of the most liberal cultural arenas but, for financial reasons, was dominated by white people. “We publish books for black people and we don’t even hit the kind of sales that we should be hitting. This is also because of socio-economic reasons (and) you can’t divorce them from the history of the country.”

Mahlape pointed out the challenges created by a lack of government support. “If the government right now, which is black, doesn’t seem to care, what am I supposed to do? For a conversation like this to be existing, is quite insulting. Where else do you expect us to get the money?

“The government ought to be our biggest customer, in terms of libraries and more.”

Fourie Botha, the head of Umuzi (part of Penguin Random House) highlighted that the challenges faced by publishing businesses were mostly created by economic factors.

“You need a huge amount of working capital to run a publishing business because it takes a very long time to produce a product that sells slowly and at a relatively cheap price, so it takes many months before you get a return on your investment.”

Botha added: “Finding and developing under-represented voices is important and a ‘new voice’ has always excited a publisher. I’m not completely sure that specific imprints for specific persons will be all that helpful, apart from helping publishers to focus their lists and their efforts.”

On why the country did not have a greater number of black-owned publishing houses, the head of Kwela Books (subsidiary of NB Publishers), Carolyn Meads said the history of oppression had created inequality across the board, including, but not limited to, the publishing sector.

“Currently, the publishing sector faces many challenges and you don’t really see many new publishing houses springing up, whether white- or black-owned. What has played a role, as far as I can see, is a combination of there not being black-owned publishing houses in the past due to political reasons, and few new ones emerging now due to economic reasons.”

Sunday Independent