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Niq Mhlongo Niq Mhlongo was born in Midway-Chiawelo (Soweto) on the 10th of June 1973. He completed his matric at Malenga High School in Limpopo Province in 1991. In 1994 he enrolled for a BA degree at Wits University, majoring in African Literature and Political Studies. He completed the degree in 1996. In 1997 he enrolled for a law degree at the same university and changed to the University of Cape Town (UCT) the following year. He continued studying law at UCT from 1998 to 2000. He then dropped out at third-year level to write his first novel, Dog Eat Dog, which was published in April 2004 by Kwela. He is currently employed by Fair Lady in Cape Town as an intern feature writer.
"The greatest fear that we face as young South African writers in this post-apartheid era is that our work will not reach our intended audiences. For those writers who rely on their book sales for a living, it must be frustrating, every time you read a Sunday newspaper, to see that your book is not even listed among the top ten best sellers."

Distributing the word to the kwaito generation

Niq Mhlongo

The greatest fear that we face as young South African writers in this post-apartheid era is that our work will not reach our intended audiences. For those writers who rely on their book sales for a living, it must be frustrating, every time you read a Sunday newspaper, to see that your book is not even listed among the top ten best sellers. Although the population of this country is above 40 million it is a fact that our book market is very small. It is also a fact that we are competing with well-established foreign writers who are doing very well both in their own countries and in what is supposed to be our small book market. The question that we need to ask ourselves as writers is why the South African book reader would prefer to read a book by a foreign writer as opposed to one by the home-grown variety. If our work fails to reach our intended audience in our own country, surely there must be something wrong either with the way we write our books or with the way we market them.

When the former president of South Africa, Mr Nelson Mandela, said that "our generation is fast disappearing" at the launch of Elinor Sisulu's biography of her parents (Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In our Lifetime) I don't think he was referring to the new breed of kwaito generation that has already established itself in South African literature today. The end of apartheid gave rise to this new, youthful and energetic generation that expresses itself through kwaito, Afro-pop and rap music as well as through poetry - hence I refer to it as the kwaito generation. This is the new national, hybrid generation that is united in a new kind of struggle: against Aids, poverty, xenophobia, unemployment, crime etc.

It is our role as young writers to start writing about topics that reflect the new South Africa and its youth today. We are now living in a complex world where apartheid and the injustices of the past are no longer that relevant to our lives. Of course our work as young South African writers will still echo with the relics of apartheid and its packages of injustice, but there is a need to broaden our imaginations and shift away from that kind of literature. Our kwaito audience is a new breed and it demands that we must write about issues that are relevant to us today, otherwise there will be fewer and fewer people who will be interested in our work.

It is a pity that there are so few fiction writers in South Africa today (despite our reputation overseas as a nation rich in literature), and we can not blame our readers for searching beyond our borders for a good fiction novel. If we are to appeal to our audiences, it is time that young South African writers started closing this gap in our literature. We must be proud that our country is one of the leading powers on the African continent, and I'm sure that most people would be interested to know what it is like to be living in the new South Africa today rather than the apartheid clichť that seems to represent us internationally. What makes foreign writers sell more in our country is that they offer the readers a variety of topics to read about, whereas most South African books are predictably about racism and apartheid. This is not to suggest that there is no good literature in South Africa today. Sello Duiker's Thirteen Cents and Phaswana Mpe's Welcome To Our Hillbrow are two of the few books that speak directly to the kwaito generation. Duiker's novel addresses the issues of homelessness and homosexuality, whereas Mpe tackles Aids, xenophobia and suicide, amongst other things. These books show the path that we as young South African writers should follow in order to reach our audience.

When I wrote my debut novel Dog Eat Dog my intention as a young South African writer was to acknowledge the existence of this new kwaito generation and to highlight some of the problems that we face as the youth in this country. These readers were my intended audience. Unfortunately, our books remain unseen and unread by this audience, largely because they are unemployed, or else our book marketers are failing to make inroads into the township. Aggressive marketing needs to be done in both rural areas and townships to enable all South Africans to reflect on their own lives and experiences through our books. It is clear at the moment that out of the 42 million people in this country, only a tiny percentage read books. But only the people who live in the urban areas enjoy easy access to bookshops, and consequently our books do not reach other parts of our society. For example, if you stay in a township or a rural area and want to buy a book, you have to travel to the malls or towns that are sometimes very far away. On top of that, our books are very expensive compared with the overseas best sellers. I challenge you to visit any local book-selling shop today to compare the prices of any South African novel with any best-selling novel from overseas and you'll be surprised to see that our books are very expensive in comparison. This discourages our audience, because most of the people who make up the younger kwaito audience (in the rural areas and in the townships) are young people who are unemployed.

I think that there should be a student discount in the bookshops to help encourage reading amongst the South African youth. Our book marketers must also try to market our books in the previously disadvantaged areas as well. Of course books are expensive, and this discourages people, especially younger people who are unemployed, but if you can find an American magazine in the garages of Soweto priced at R80, then surely you can try and sell a book there as well. I think there is a huge opportunity that is being missed in the townships with regard to selling our books. Somehow our book marketers are also ignoring the fact that the townships are becoming landmarks of the South African tourist trade. There are lots of famous historical sites that have the potential to be used as centres to promote South African books. Nowadays tourists who visit Gauteng, for example, would love to see Wandi's Place in Dube to taste South African food. There is also former president Nelson Mandela's house and the Hector Peterson Commemorative Stone in Orlando-West, etc. These are some of the popular places in the townships that I think our books can be sold from (as well as more commercial premises like garages).

It might be asked how practical it is to sell a book in the townships, because the townships are seen as being infested with poverty, crime, unemployment and diseases. Moreover, an average person from the kwaito generation reads fewer than three books a year, so why should we try and sell them books that they obviously don't want? My answer to these questions is that no one said it was going to be a smooth process, and we will never know the size and potential of this market until we try it. Yes, it is true that with the increasing range of entertainment media, the majority of township people are much more likely to want to watch television or read magazines like Drum, but it is also possible to change their mindset. We can do this as a joint effort between all the stakeholders, including the government, South African writers, readers and booksellers. In a fight against illiteracy in this country, the government must also come with strategies to increase access to literature in the townships. Public libraries in the townships must also serve this process, in the role of audience development centres, by constantly having workshops with the writers. At the moment there is no form of communication between the writers and libraries that would help to increase the demand for local books. It is a pity that most townships still don't have libraries, and that where there are libraries they are not well-equipped. In the Chiawelo (Soweto) Library, for instance, in the area that I come from, there are not enough good books to read. All the books you find there are very old and have little relevance to what is happening in the township or the country at present. The government and other charity organisations like our National Lottery must invest in this development and donate more local literature to schools and libraries to stimulate interest in South African writers in the younger generation.

Introducing courses such as African literature in schools can also help to forge some social cohesion in learners at their young age while at the same time exposing them to the culture of reading. By being encouraged to read books, learners will also be able to hear and understand the voices of marginalised groups such as women, the disabled, homeless people and the gay and lesbian community. Young people should also be encouraged to read and write stories in their own language, about themselves and their own future. In this way libraries would start to function as indigenous cultural centres and books would become the primary medium for spreading our ideas about our culture.

It is a sad thing that although South African writers are writing about the issues that concern the youth today, we are still unknown to our audience. To remedy this we as South African writers must also be willing to conduct non-profit workshops to help affirm and promote the richness and diversity of South African culture.

In the 1950s the so-called Drum generation (the second black generation of writers after the mission-educated writers) were able to spread their work through the then popular Drum magazine. It might have been easier for them to reach their audience in those days because print media was still the main source of information. With our kwaito generation the choice of entertainment is much wider; they can choose between electronic (internet) and broadcast media (television and radio) for information and entertainment. On top of this our books are also competing against different magazines and newspapers in the print media; thus, most of our fashion-conscious kwaito audience prefer to buy a magazine that will update them about the latest trends in fashion, rather than a book. It is for this reason that I think different South African media should come on board to create a forum that will support audience development and expose young writers to this new kwaito audience, and help us to market our work. Magazines, newspapers, radio and television stations that target the youth must also recommend and encourage reading among their audience so that the horizons of our younger generation can be broadened.

In conclusion, and to recap: In this article I have tried to look at some of the issues that affect book sales in this country (specifically with reference to South African writers) and have tried to come up with a few suggestions on how to improve the situation. Firstly, I have suggested that young writers need to shift from the type of literature that dominated the South African market during the time of apartheid. We need to identify our audiences correctly and write about issues that are relevant to our readers. It is a fact that the kwaito generation is the new breed of audience for young South African writers. And as writers we must start writing about issues that concern this new generation of readers. For us to fight against illiteracy and promote the culture of reading amongst our new audience, we must work together as South Africans. This will help us young writers to sell our books locally and market our work overseas.

Secondly, our book marketers must try to reach our main audience in the townships as well as engaging with the libraries and garages and opening book centres there.

Lastly, it is time to start taking the kwaito generation in the townships seriously by developing audience support programmes there. The fight against illiteracy in the townships and rural areas should not be the job of the government only, but of every South African.

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LitNet: 15 November 2004

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