Not playing by the book

2017-06-25 06:02

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Celebrated academic Kole Omotoso is accusing a fellow professor of having stolen his copyright.

Most people know him as “the Yebo Gogo guy” from the iconic advert, promoting telecommunications company Vodacom. But Professor Kole Omotoso is, in fact, a leading academic and a respected novelist and playwright.

And he is not impressed.

He alleges that a senior academic and publisher, Professor MM Mboya, has stolen his copyright and ducked.

The issue has to do with The Combat, the second of Omotoso’s nine novels. It was published in 1972 and republished by Penguin Classics in 2008.

In 2007, it was translated by Mboya into isiXhosa as Iimbandezelo, and then suddenly appeared on the website of Mboya and his wife’s Pretoria firm, Ilitha Publishers, where it is on sale to this day for R84.62. It has also appeared on the education department catalogue of books available for order from schools in the Eastern Cape, targeting grades 7, 8 and 9.

“Mboya and I met sometime in 2005 or 2006,” Omotoso, who is the father of renowned film maker Akin Omotoso, told City Press from his hometown of Akure in Nigeria, where he lives when he is not working in South Africa.

“He said he wanted to translate it into isiXhosa. I said it was okay. Nothing was signed and there was no talk of publishing it.”

The matter is now in the hands of Omotoso’s lawyers. But no one is having any luck getting a response from Mboya.

“Over a period of six months I tried to reach him, just [for him] to get me copies of the translation for my own records, without any success,” says Omotoso.

“I approached a few people who knew him to get him to speak to me about the sale of the book, again without success. I got my lawyers to write to him, as well as the department of education in the Eastern Cape. He did not respond to the lawyers.

“I have now decided to go public with this story because I consider Professor Mboya’s behaviour in this matter unfair and unbecoming of a person of his status,” he complained.

City Press has seen emails from the Eastern Cape education department to Omotoso’s lawyers. A legal director explains that the department does not put tenders out for book titles. Rather, publishers submit titles for consideration. These are then placed in a catalogue that schools order from.

“In cooperation with the Publishers’ Association of SA (Pasa), the orders are then placed,” the letter reads, adding that Pasa gets the books, stores them in a warehouse and distributes them, receiving payment from the department.

The department also advises Omotoso’s lawyers to find sales figures of Iimbandezelo from Pasa.

Contacted by City Press this week, Pasa’s executive director, Mpuka Radinku, says the process does not work that way.

“Pasa is an industry association. It does not publish or supply books. Neither does Pasa receive orders to print and distribute books. Pasa simply facilitates the process of appointing a distribution and logistics service provider that provides a warehouse for the education department in order for publishers to deliver their books to a central place,” he says, adding that only Ilitha will know the sales figures for Iimbandezelo.

Radinku says Pasa – of which Ilitha Publishers is a member – is also unaware of the complaint. “However, now that you have made us aware, we have forwarded your email to the relevant member to respond to these allegations.”

Repeated attempts to phone Mboya failed this week as all his numbers were perpetually engaged. He also failed to respond to City Press’ emailed questions. We even tried faxing him because, after dialling his fax number repeatedly, a man answered and responded to a query as if he was Professor Mboya, but the conversation then went dead.

Omotoso, who is working on a memoir about a life shared between Nigeria and South Africa, says: “It is distressing because South African publishing is better organised and resourced than what goes on in Nigeria. People just take your book and pirate it here. I have found two of my pirated books on the streets of Akure. For an academic to do that is a double disappointment.”

The novel, says Omotoso, is “a parody and parable” of the Nigerian Civil War, in which two friends find themselves on different sides of a dispute and cannot find a resolution. In the end, they decide it is best that they each shoot themselves dead.

  • Since this story was first published, Mboya responded to the allegations by Prof Omotoso. Mboya claims he had a “gentleman’s agreement” with Omotoso that he may translate the book into isiXhosa and use 100 copies to “test the schools market” for prescribed reading. Mboya claims he distributed the translated copies to different schools from 2007 to 2012 and also included the book in a marketing catalogue on his website, but that none of the schools were interested in prescribing the book for their learners. According to Mboya he made no profit from marketing the translated book. “It is disingenuous for your client to go around accusing our client in public of theft of his copyright and entitlements thereto as our client had a verbal gentlemen’s agreement with your client,” Mboya’s attorney wrote to Omotoso’s attorney after City Press’ story appeared. Mboya did however undertake to remove the book from his website because of the pending dispute with Omotoso. He also threatened legal action against Omotoso and City Press.

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