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Notes towards a discussion on “Multilingualism, Publishers, Readers and the Question of Literary Language in Africa: For whom are Stories Told and Books Written?”

Hannes van Zyl
  • Die Taalsekretariaat
  • Doelstelling
  • The eye is never innocent. Gombrich and others have illustrated comprehensively that the act of seeing involves intricate mechanisms of expectation, selection and decoding inside the human brain. These mechanisms are partly physiological and psychological, but also derive from education and choice, where the controlling factors are essentially cultural.

    That is why the Inuit, with a special sense of snow, see twelve variations in texture where others witness only uniform whiteness. That is also why American scholars coming to Africa with educational films to teach illiterates to read and write discovered that people have to read and write first in order to follow the films. To understand a film, and to accept the breaks between frames or the movement of figures out of frame as conventions of continuity, demands sophisticated optical and linguistic training. Those who have never seen a film or a television programme before experience a bundle of disparate images and jumps.

    Artists, even those who are revolutionarily original, construe visible reality from the rules, conventions and forms with which they grow up. We never see the world with an innocent eye, devoid of cultural influence.

    The ear, though perhaps less varied in its processing of information than the eye, also relies heavily on mechanisms controlled by cultural factors.

    Literature, too, is culturally grounded, but different from the visual arts or music. It is possible to say that in the late 19th and early 20th century Paris was the art capital of the world, as New York has been since then, or that Moscow, Vienna, Berlin or Paris were at various times considered the capital for music. But it is not possible to conceive of a single place in the world as the focal point for progress and innovation in literature.

    A literature in any given language excludes those who do not know the language. While we can speak with some precision of American, French or Russian Literature, it is with much less certainty that we are able to refer to literatures that cross over various languages. Calling a body of work a “literature” implies that, apart from its unique language, it has certain internal cross-references which give it a unique cohesion.

    The large number of languages in Africa, the political history of the content, and the profound differences in culture make it difficult to think of an African literature in any but a very tentative sense of the term. The practice of literature and publishing in South Africa is an illustration of this fragmentation.

    Attempts to write a history of South African literature have been only moderately successful thus far. South Africa’s eleven official languages and the fact that literature is written and published in each one of those eleven languages is only the first problem. Given the fact that a literature excludes those who do not know the language, and the fact that only Afrikaans books have been translated to any significant degree, an overview and a full comprehension of South African literature is difficult to arrive at.

    Even when one considers only one language, say English, several problems still present themselves. The majority of English works by South Africans are first published in London and/or New York and mostly, but not always, re-imported into Southern Africa. A further factor contributing to a fragmented literary history is the fact that from 1960 to 1990 as many as half of South Africa’s English-language writers were expelled from the country or went into exile. Many of the works published in exile never found their way back to South Africa. Consequently, for those decades there was insufficient interaction between the literature produced in South Africa and the work by South Africans elsewhere in the world.

    One could also consider that English co-exists in South Africa with Afrikaans and with a number of black languages. This leads to constant mutation, a degree of language tension between what authors hear in the street and what readers may expect on the page. This may, I believe, increasingly lead to different versions of the same text for local and for overseas editions, as in Leon de Kock’s recent translation of Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf.

    Wittgenstein, Whorf and others made us aware that language is not merely the vehicle of thought, but rather the determining medium of thought. Every language is a vast pattern system which informs the way in which a particular language community communicates, analyses nature, and notices or neglects various types of relationships and phenomena. These patterns of perception diverge to a greater degree between languages when it is further accentuated by differences between a written and an oral culture.

    Oral literature is formulaic: knowledge, once acquired, has to be constantly repeated or it will be lost. Writing allows for variations and makes the individual acquisition of knowledge possible. Originality and the concept of copyright gain importance only in a relatively mature written literary culture.

    For black writers producing much of the work being written in English now, writing in English is not merely a grappling with the texture and meaning of language — the implied reader changes when there is a switch from, say, isiXhosa to English. Books written in English by black authors are to a very large degree books written for white readers. The communities in which those authors grew up simply do not yet have a strong reading culture and supporting industry.

    The book industry in South Africa differs from those of most other countries in Africa in that it is not completely dominated by school text book publishers. There is a further difference: most school text books in South Africa are published locally; they are not imported by the local offices of multi-national publishers.

    An educational crisis in South Africa in the mid nineties saw state expenditure on school text books decline from a high point of around R800 million per year to about R240 million, before gradually increasing again. This meant that the relatively stable, but neverthelesss fairly stagnant general book market of almost R600 million a year is, for the moment, bigger than the school and tertiary text book market in South Africa.

    The general book market of R600 million a year, measured in retail rands, translates into about R330 million of publishers’ income. About R120 million a year is earned by local publishers, the rest are books imported into South Africa. Of the R120 million about R45 million is earned by books published in Afrikaans. Publishing income in the indigenous black languages in the general market is insignificant, certainly less than R1 million a year.

    Book retailing in South Africa is dominated by three booksellers: the media chain CNA, with about 350 outlets; the bookshop chain Exclusive Books, with 25 substantial, specialist bookshops; and the BMA book clubs Leserskring and Leisure Books. This concentration in the retail industry, where almost 70% of the market shared among the three top companies works to the advantage of multi-national publishers who are able to make titles fairly widely available even if they deal with only three booksellers. At the same time it allows for relatively effective low-cost entry by small local publishers, provided that titles are accepted by one of the three leading booksellers. These leading booksellers are generally fairly sensitive to the needs of local publishing, including small local publishers; yet the main requirement for buying a title would be the sales potential of that title.

    There are three factors which make it difficult for local publishers, especially smaller publishers, to sell a title effectively if it is not bought in significant quantities by every one of the three leading booksellers.

    1. Library spending has declined to about 10% of the local general book market and libraries are not able to support local titles and local publishers to the extent that they once did.

    2. With a small reading public spread over a vast geographical area and a weak presence of independent booksellers, book distribution in South Africa is relatively inefficient and costly.

    3. Bookshop ownership and management in South Africa are predominantly English. It is rare to find multilingual bookshops anywhere in the world. In Canada one would expect a bookshop to be either English or French; in Switzerland either German, French or Italian; and in Belgium either Flemish or French. Multilingual “international” bookshops are limited to a handful of big cities.

      The fact that the most effective channel to bring books to readers, namely the bookshop sector, is predominantly and almost exclusively English, means that the little literature published in black languages has only a small chance of reaching readers in those languages.

    It is quite remarkable that a significant, though still modest number of Afrikaans books is sold in bookshops where the staff’s language, reading habits and book knowledge are mostly English.

    Afrikaans literature and Afrikaans publishing stand out as a unique achievement in South Africa, and also in Africa. In South Africa it is the one indigenous language that sustains both a diverse literature and a significant publishing program. More than 300 titles per year, almost one title per day, are published annually in Afrikaans.

    There are perhaps three dominant factors that have enabled Afrikaans literature and publishing to flourish relative to the literature and publishing activities in other indigenous languages.

    1. Afrikaans was, from its inception, a literate language. It developed from Dutch and although the two languages are quite distinct today, the relationship with Dutch allowed Afrikaans to be taught at university level as part of courses in Afrikaans and Dutch from as early as 1918, when there were probably not yet 100 titles published in Afrikaans. Afrikaans gained more status only from tertiary teaching; in prescribing books to students quite soon after publication a market for Afrikaans literature was allowed to develop.

    2. The fact that Afrikaans is quite distinct from Dutch, at least for the general reader, facilitated the development of Afrikaans publishing. While Afrikaans authors could, at least for several decades, refer back to a long tradition of Dutch literature, their books could not be published in the Netherlands. Neither could Dutch books find a general market in South Africa. While authors writing in English could be published in London or New York, Afrikaans authors could be published only in South Africa.

    3. Afrikaans literature and publishing have for at least seven decades provided decisive political support for the language.

      Afrikaans was the only indigenous language under systematic attack by British law. Lord Charles Somerset made English the sole language of the courts and encouraged the use of English in schools and churches. When Lord Alfred Milner redoubled Anglicisation efforts after the Anglo-Boer War, his policies only contributed to Afrikaans becoming a rallying point in the awakening of Afrikaner nationalism.

      Afrikaans was recognised as an official language in 1925.

      In 1948, after the Nationalist Party came into power, the civil service gradually became predominantly Afrikaans and the higher functions of Afrikaans were safeguarded and entrenched in Parliament, the public service, the courts, public broadcasting and so forth. In business and in government it was at times either necessary or advantageous or both to be able to speak and/or produce documentation in Afrikaans.

    After 1994 the higher functions of Afrikaans were no longer as well protected by government. Afrikaans was now not one of only two official languages, but one of eleven. The immediate effect of the transformation was that English became the de facto language of government, the courts and business. This led to a rapid decline in the number of pupils studying Afrikaans at university.

    Paradoxically the decline in Afrikaans school and tertiary text book publishing coincided with an increase in the number of titles and the sales of Afrikaans books in the general market. This latter development had started much earlier, in the mid 80’s, following on a general increase in affluence among Afrikaans speakers, more relaxed censorship laws, improved marketing channels for Afrikaans books and an opening up of Afrikaans writing, which all led to an increased readership for Afrikaans literature.

    There is no sure sign that this growth will be sustained. The likely scenario is a gradual curtailment of the number of titles published in Afrikaans. But Afrikaans publishing and its support network, from media coverage to marketing channels and reader interest groups, seems strong enough to ensure survival and perhaps even growth in Afrikaans publishing.

    My personal observation, as a publisher, is that Afrikaans authors are increasingly anxious to have their work translated into English — for English readers in South Africa, but especially for readers elsewhere in the world. This desire is driven both by an author’s natural wish for the widest possible readership and literary acknowledgment, and by an awareness that income from an Afrikaans market alone may not be sufficient to provide an adequate income for a professional author. To press this personal observation further, I think there has been a gradual shift in the implied reader in much of Afrikaans literature: whereas once one had a strong sense of an implied literary and academic readership, there seems to have been a shift towards the general reader. In future one may find a gradual, subtle shift in some authors towards a more international readership. This potential shift would certainly gain momentum if the dwindling numbers of Afrikaans students becomes a trend of young Afrikaans readers gradually reading more English books. It is already a truism, supported by some market research, that the majority of Afrikaans readers read at least an equal number of English books.

    Previously, only a few prominent Afrikaans authors abandoned Afrikaans in favour of English or one of the other international languages. Perhaps the most significant among these were André P. Brink and Breyten Breytenbach, who both started to write either in English in reaction to the strict censorship laws imposed in the seventies and the accompanying political policies of the National Party government. Today Brink and Breytenbach continue to write in both Afrikaans and English; they have acknowledged the fact that English has become a window to the world for Afrikaans authors, a role that Dutch cannot fulfill.

    Though the government under National Party rule supported the use of black languages in education and to some extent in public life, this formal encouragement of indigenous languages was resisted by Eskia Mphahlele and other black authors, who generally preferred to write in English.

    Thus at the time, in the mid eighties when the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo decided to write henceforth only in his mother tongue Gikuyu, the majority of South African black authors had already decided that it was preferable to write in English in order not to collaborate, even indirectly, with apartheid policies.

    Kole Omotose, discussing the dilemma of the black author in Africa in Season of Migration to the South, notes discreetly that a stance like that of Ngugi wa Thiongo is really meaningful only when the author has already built up an international reputation in English, as Ngugi wa Thiongo had, and when his works continue to be translated into English as soon as they appear. Like a number of black scholars Omotose welcomes the use of English as a window to the world for Africans, yet simultaneously finds it regrettable that not enough is done by governments in Africa to encourage and develop indigenous African languages. A commitment to using African languages does not preclude taking advantage of European languages in Africa.

    Writing and publishing in the indigenous black languages of South Africa will not flourish — indeed, will not even happen — if there is not strong support from the state. Thus far it seems as if the new government in South Africa has had other, more pressing, priorities than the advancement of the indigenous languages. It seems likely that without support from the state English may increasingly become the language of literature in South Africa. The poly-system of Afrikaans publishing, extending from authors to publishers and marketing channels to media support and readers, simply does not exist in any mature form for any of the black languages.

    It is likely that the government may find it easier to support black authors writing in English, rather than authors writing in the indigenous languages. There is simply not enough infrastructure (or in other terms, not a sufficiently developed poly-system) for writing and publishing in the black indigenous languages to render a return on investment equal to the results when black English writing is supported. And for the majority of black readers the language of aspiration is English, even where young children are concerned. When publishers present children’s books in African languages free to schools and libraries, there are often requests to exchange copies in the black languages for English copies.

    It is thus likely that in future more English literature will be published locally, but that the overwhelming majority will still be published in London and New York; that publishing in the black languages will not develop to any significant degree, and that Afrikaans publishing will survive and even prosper, to a limited extent.

    Yet any prediction about language in South Africa must be relative: we do not have enough factual analysis for valid predictions, and speculation about what might happen is in any case often grounded in subtle and profound desires and longings.

    A question that both the black and Afrikaans intelligentsia may frequently ask in future is: how central is language to the social goals being pursued and to the sense of individual and group identity?

    I will conclude with a gentle reminder of those subtle differences between languages, and between oral and literate cultures, that continue to amaze the keen reader in South Africa.

    From a potentially long list of experiences that touch on some of those differences, I will restrict myself to two examples:

    One: As a young university lecturer I tried, in an outreach programme and together with a number of colleagues, to take lectures from white classrooms to black rural, mostly mature, working students. In my field of study, films, I discovered at close range the culturally structured quality of human sight. We also discovered that it was more effective to get students, such as teachers, together for a meeting when news of the meeting was by conveyed by word of mouth rather than by a written message. Black taxi drivers telling teacher commuters of a meeting were much more effective than letters or faxes. We also discovered that what may have appeared to us to be vandalism was, rather, considered a practical act of common sense, as when those pages not needed for study and examination were simply cut out of a book and put to some practical use.

    Two: I would like to refer to one published example, Drawn in Colour by Noni Jabavu, published by John Murray in London in 1960. The author’s grandfather, John Temgo Jabavu, was the first black newspaper editor in South Africa and led a deputation to the Houses of Parliament in London to protest against the projected union of South Africa. Her father, DT Jabavu, was Professor of Latin and African languages at Fort Hare. Noni was educated in England from the age of 14, studied music at the Royal Academy and married film director Michael Cadbury Crossfield.

    Drawn in colour begins with the return of Noni to South Africa for the funeral of her brother, a medical student at Wits, who was knifed to death in Soweto. The book ends with her listening to her father and a friend chatting on the verandah of his house in the Eastern Cape. They discuss, fittingly, the arrival of a young black doctor in the district. The author conveys to her readers in London an African sense of time that is subtly different from a Western experience of time. Relatively few hard facts are covered in the discussion between the two men. But it is a long and extended discussion, due to the polite pauses and coded encouragement necessary, even between two old friends, to allow one another to chat in the cordial manner they both clearly wish to do.

    The thrust of the conversation is that it is much more satisfactory to travel thirteen kilometers along a very difficult road to see the young black doctor rather than a clearly competent white doctor close by . We are told how the white doctor examines his patient efficiently and quickly. Without a word. Then he writes a prescription.

    The black doctor, by contrast, takes his time to slow down the examination. He talks to the patient. Even when the patient does not fully understand, the examination is a comforting experience because the doctor tells the patient something that the patient can hear. The black doctor allows for pauses, for a use of language that is wrapped in discretion, that progresses according to custom and code and allows for complicated adjustments between individuals while misunderstandings are being resolved in order to restore equilibrium.

    Noni Jabavu manages to indicate something of the give and take that is necessary between people and their respective languages and cultures when they occupy the same geographical space. She suggested back then, in the late fifties, that South Africa would not experience the same bloodshed that she predicted for other parts of Africa, Rwanda specifically. A mature understanding of democracy and the ability to listen and to adjust, particularly in the Xhosa, but also generally in the other tribes in Southern Africa, she predicted, would suggest eventual adjustments to one another, rather than continuous conflict, and concluded: Akukhonto, Jili. Alles sal reg kom. All will come right!


    Gombrich, E H 1959. Art and Illusion. London: Phaidon

    Gray, S. 1979. Southern African Literature. Cape Town: David Philip

    Omotoso, K. 1994. Season of Migration to the South. Cape Town: Tafelberg

    Steiner, G. 1977. ‘The kingdom of appearances!’. New Yorker. 7/4/1977


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