I will risk being called a nitpicker stuck in the grime of the past and bravely say, Afrikaans literature's success was made possible mainly by apartheid means. And today, publishing houses and several bookshops are still ensuring that Afrikaans literature remains available for its readers. And if the same could have been done for one of our indigenous languages, the same results could have been easily realized.
I know you will roll your eyes and ask: but what about lack of readership among Africans? The debate on the reading culture among African students and the young generation has been raging on for years . Some people would point a reproaching finger at our past government, saying apartheid is to be blamed for its role in social engineering and favouring of Afrikaans. Others would even blame African parents for not introducing reading culture to their children. Here there could be many more contributing factors than just the well known: 'reading culture is an alien culture to Africans.' And I am not going to try to list those factors here.
As a writer myself, I have also tried to fathom what could be the main reason why most people around me don't seem to be enjoying reading like I do. How can reading for them present such a demanding task? Is it the content or just reading itself that puts off some of my family members and friends? If it is a matter of content why can't they buy books of lighter content? And if it is reading itself why do Africans still seen reading newspapers like the Daily Sun, Sunday World, or City Press? Perhaps it is fiction Africans are not willing to read or buy. No, I need to rephrase that statement, it is fiction that African people are not willing to spend their money on. Bookshops have been reporting that quite a few of fiction books have been disappearing lately on their shelves without being paid for. And reports go on to reveal that, most of those unlucky thieves who happen to be caught in the act of stealing are Africans. So after all that has been said before, can we agree that Blacks do read?
As a writer who predominantly writes in Zulu I can tell you that I have made peace with the fact that I am only writing for learners. I don't even dream of seeing any of my Zulu novels displayed in any commercial bookstore in South Africa. Even if it happens that by some chance of luck my Zulu book makes it to the bookshop, I won't be expecting it to sell more than any Afrikaans novel. And I no longer blame commercial publishers whenever they drag their feet in publishing more books written in indigenous languages. It doesn't make any commercial sense to them to produce without taking consumption and demand into consideration. My only gripe here with commercial publishers is that they should come clean and say indigenous fiction would be given a second preference in all their literature competitions.
It has always been my dream that one day I will own a bookshop selling books written by African writers. I am not sure how many books written in which indigenous languages my 'dream bookshop' will be stocking up, but I can tell you right now that Zulu would be on top of my list. Given a chance and effort- Zulu literature can be a remarkable literature success in South Africa. And I believe only African writers can make this one dream possible without blaming commercial publishers and bookshops which are still mainly controlled by people who care less about indigenous languages. Let me wrap up by saying, it is not lack of writers of good content that discourage Africans from buying books. But it is rather a complete disregard for indigenous languages shown by several publishing houses and bookshops.
Dumisani Hlatshwayo is publishing executive at The African Professional magazine. Twitter @