Why South Africans love political non-fiction: A Q&A with politics writer Qaanitah Hunter

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Qaanitah Hunter is politics writer and editor who'll be participating in the upcoming South African Book Fair (Photo: Supplied)
Qaanitah Hunter is politics writer and editor who'll be participating in the upcoming South African Book Fair (Photo: Supplied)

Qaanitah Hunter is a politics writer and editor with News24. On 12 September, she participates in panel discussion: Expose! Stories That Gripped The Nation alongside Jacob Dlamini, Rehana Rossouw and Jacob Dlamini at South African Book Fair. The SABF opens its virtual doors on 11 September.

Arts24: The pitfalls of South Africa’s literary markets are oft-spoken about. The markets are small. The returns to writers, even smaller, and works of fiction barely make it off the shelves. Works of political non-fiction, however, are evergreen, popular content. In recent years, some of the more popular titles have found themselves in a lot of controversy, with accusations of inaccuracies and even, outright lies. Why do South Africans love political writing so much?

Qaanitah Hunter: South Africans love political writing because the Jacob Zuma era gave the public more drama, intrigue and grit than any fictional thriller could produce. John Grisham and David Baldacci have nothing on the ‘rogue unit’, the Stalingrad legal defence, state capture and so many of the other scandals that plague the country. Some of the stories in the last ten years are so bizarre and the politics so salacious that it grips readers as if it’s a movie. The Zuma-era offered great spectacle.

Arts24: You work both in fiction and political non-fiction. Diary of a Guji Girl started as a blog, and was eventually published, selling 1000 copies in it’s first week. You also authored Balance of Power, which looks at the rise of Cyril Ramaphosa within the ANC. It seems like you occupy many, various writerly identities. Comparatively, how did the writing processes differ? How were the books received by the public?

QH: Diary of a Guji Girl actually sold 1000 copies in its first week. I was 19, trying desperately to be a political journalist and also had a crazy hobby of writing fiction. So I decided to start blogging the very, very badly written story which was picked up by an independent published and published in a book. It was widely successful among a niche readership of brown Muslim girls. They are loyal readers! Despite the popularity of the book, I am slightly embarrassed by the fiction I write. As someone who is a ‘serious’ political reporter, I always wanted to be known for my hard core political writing- not a story about a girl from a farm town who falls in love on her first day at university. Balance of Power was that for me. It was a culmination of eight years of literally following Cyril Ramaphosa around. The readers were mainly people who knew my reporting from the Sunday Times and now News24. Although, a few of my loyal Guji Girl readers had grown up and enjoyed the political offering.

I put Diary of a Guji Girl online to promote young people to read local fiction and prompt more people to write- even if you are not a pro. 

Arts24: Questions around ethics always seem to dog political literature. A reflection and indictment of South Africa’s poltical landscape, readers seem to have very little trust. However, they but the books anyway. What do you think this can be attributed to?

QH: This is an interesting question. I think readers discern based on the authors. So what sets Balance of Power apart from other similar books? The fact that I have long been covering the president builds trust in readers that I should be trusted. It is the same with other books on Bosasa etc. I think publishers are to blame in some respects. There needs to be more fact checking in the editing process.

Arts24: You mentioned that you’ve already recorded you panel for SABF. Can you please tell us what we can expect from the conversation?

QH: Have you ever had an intellectual conversation that was so incredible you felt a bit giddy after? That is how I felt after chatting to Iman Rappetti, Rehana Rossouw and Jacob Dlamini. They are all my literary crushes so I was blushing a bit. I think people can expect a thought provoking discussion about ‘connecting the dots’ between the past, present and future. Our books are all very different but somehow we found common threads about the state of South Africa.

Arts24: Working in a fast-paced news cycle, what kind of freedoms and/or allowances are afforded to you by working on similar content, but in long-form?

It is very difficult to get the time and space to work on long-form writing. When I wrote Balance of Power, I still had to produce leads, breaking news and keep up with the demands of the newsroom. Fiction writing is more of a hobby for me- it is what I do in my spare time (which is probably why I am not good at it at all). I am very supportive of giving reporters time off to work on long form projects that enrich their work ultimately.

Arts24: What was the most-surprising discovery you made when writing Balance of Power?

The most surprising discovery I made was that contemporary politics in the last decade was dominated by males. It is rare for a black female to venture into this space and you see it manifest on bookshelves in book stores. This has to change. There are so many incredible female political writers and they should be given opportunities to document South Africa’s recent history and take ownership of the stories they tell.

Buy your tickets for this panel discussion here.

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