In 2015, post-apartheid South Africa’s Rainbow Nation began to reckon with the question of decolonising the country’s colonial past and present. It was a turning point. The catalyst? An incident where poo was thrown at the statue of imperialist Cecil John Rhodes on the campus of the University of Cape Town and the formation of the #RhodesMustFall movement, which eventually saw the monument deposed, and fire ignited in student awareness and hearts all over the country.
That week, author Thando Mgqolozana used the 18th annual Time of the Writer Festival, hosted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal, as his platform to announce that he was quitting the white literary industry: which he described as “the colonial literary fraternity.”
He said the same thing at a bigger literary festival later that year. And the bigger the lit fest, the bigger the stir: the 2015 Franschhoek Literary Festival, which was founded in 2007 and since then has gone to become the biggest of South Africa’s literary do’s. And Mgqolozana’s actions got the literary industry in a froth about what it would mean to decolonise South Africa’s literary industry.
Some were defensive and pointed to the progress made since 1994. If, for example, we are to talk of black women writers specifically, much had certainly changed since 1994 where the list of published black women did not extend very far beyond Sindiwe Magona, Ellen Kuzwayo, Noni Jabavu, Miriam Tlali, Bessie Head, Phyllis Ntantala and Lauretta Ngcobo, most of whom were published overseas.
Since then we have seen women such as Zukiswa Wanner, Kopano Matlwa, Zoë Wicomb, Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, Phillipa Yaa De Villiers, Rayda Jacobs, Rehana Roussouw and Yewande Omotoso emerge. Black men writers who emerged after doors were opened by the likes of Zakes Mda, Lewis Nkosi and Mandla Langa, include Sello K Duiker, Niq Mhlongo, Fred Khumalo, Ndumiso Ngcobo, Nakhane Touré and Simphiwo Mahala.
While those gains are appreciated, the sentiment from black authors was that it was no longer good enough. The first port of call was to acknowledge the white dominated literary value chain from editors, publishers, critics and reviewers who remain in the majority white, to festivals, retailers and awards that remain in the majority white-owned and administrated.
This white literary domination certainly manifests itself in the school system where reading culture is lamented. When I was a matric student at a private school in 2009, my class read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. In all my 12 years of schooling in post-apartheid South Africa, this was the first time I had read a setwork by a black African author. Remembering this as I attended the Time of the Writer Festival for the first time this year in March, I also tested whether much had changed during a talk at Durban Girls’ College, by asking the group of girls ranging from Grade 9 to matric whether they knew who my fellow festival attendee Niq Mhlongo was.
They all said no. When I asked them about the other festival authors whose names were printed on the back of my T-shirt, I had the same answer. Somewhat embarrassed, the teachers were quick to tell me that next year the Independent Education Board was going to have Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah as a matric setwork.
In this context, it is appropriate that speaking as the co-curator of the 19th Time of the Writer festival themed “Decolonising the book”, Mgqolozana spoke of undoing a literary festival system where “[t]he vast amount of literature produced in this country is written in English, our languages come last. Bookstores are everywhere except where black people reside. Libraries are filled with everything except maybe the work of black writers. Until a few months ago, there was little to no mainstream literary activity by black writers for black readers in communities currently occupied by black people.”
Under Mgqolozana and Tiny Mungwe’s charge, this year’s Time of the Writer Festival left the elitism of university campuses and “went to the people” hosting its sessions in places such as KwaMashu, Clermont and Umlazi where authors were forced to abandon their usual style of engagement as they interacted with audiences that included primary and secondary school learners, community leaders and municipal workers. Outside of changing existing literary festivals, we have new black literary festivals on the scene. Already, in April we will see the Rutanang Festival in Potchefstroom, December will see Mgqolozana’s Abantu Book Festival in Soweto.
In terms of retailers, fighting the good fight in Vanderbijlpark since 2013 is the renowned independent store African Flavours Books which is owned by the wonderful Helepi couple who are fiercely dedicated and committed to African literature. Long before the major franchises have the latest in African fiction, they are usually the first to stock them and they also maintain a hefty stock of classics published by Heinemann’s African Writer Series. Beyond their African novels and non-fiction titles, they sell poetry anthologies and a good range of books in vernacular languages.
Very excitingly, we are also beginning to see small changes in publishing. My publisher Thabiso Mahlape has spent the last five years publishing works by black authors such as Redi Thlabi’s Endings and Beginnings, McIntosh Polela’s My Father, My Monster, and Bonnie Mbuli’s Eyebags and Dimples. Last year she made the leap from working under major publisher Jacana media to establishing her own publishing house, BlackBird Books, which has published four new black authors including myself, Nakhane Touré (Piggy Boy’s Blues), Stevel Marc (The Refined Player: Sex, Lies and Dates) and Philani Dladla (The Pavement Bookworm).
My experience in the publishing industry highlights the importance of black-owned publishing houses such as BlackBird Books. Last year I had just about given up my publishing dreams after rejections from major publishers that often went “we like your manuscript, but we don’t think that there is a market for this kind of work”. I learnt very quickly how pervasive this sentiment was in our notoriously white-male dominated literary industry that often laments the “a lack of black readers” while ignoring that there are comparatively few books on the market that resonate with their own experiences.
Fortunately, I was introduced to Mahlape who, by then, was exclusively publishing black authors and looking for stories that she felt would resonate with black audiences. Tellingly, my novel along with the other books in Mahlape’s stable, have gone on to beat “market standards”, with three of four now in their second print run.
As a new author, the future looks rosy. Certainly, many of the changes that have been made, such as the reframing of Time of the Writer Festival to centre black audiences in their communities, have been lost on me because I have never known it any other way. I imagine that similar to my experience as a post-1994 black child going to a formerly whites-only school for the first time and not fully appreciating the significance that the event has for black parents who have fought for many years for that moment to come.
In turn, my hope is that 10 years from now when we will have built a decolonised literary industry that has a multitude of black publishers, editors, festivals, critics, reviewers, retailers dominating the industry, the significance of this struggle is lost on emerging black authors of 2026 because they have never known it to be any other way.