Media24 Books apologise after outcry over lack of diversity in its annual book awards

Media24 Books has apologised after outcry over lack of diversity in its annual awards. (Images: Getty Image)
Media24 Books has apologised after outcry over lack of diversity in its annual awards. (Images: Getty Image)
  • The announcement of the winners of the Media24 Book Awards 2020 was met with strong criticism for its lack of diversity.
  • Many highlighted the fact that the winners list, finalists, and judging panel lacked representation. 
  • A judge in the competition, journalist Pauli van Wyk, in protest, declined her remuneration and has asked that her seat in future be filled by a black female.
  • Media24 Books has acknowledged its mistake and said it would "actively address the issues to avoid a repeat of this oversight in future".

Media24 Books on Friday announced the winners of its annual literary prize.

The yearly awards, previously known as the Via Afrika Awards, come at a time when literary prizes are few and far between.

"To be in a position to continue rewarding our authors in these straightened and constricting, almost stifling, times is particularly gratifying," said Eloise Wessels, managing director of Media24 Books, in a video published online announcing the winners across the six categories.

The prize money totals R210 000 and the awards recognise the "best work published during the previous year by the Media24 Books division which includes NB Publishers (Human and Rousseau, Tafelberg, Kwela Books and Queillerie) as well as Jonathan Ball Publishers".

This year's announcement of the winners was met with anger, as social media rightfully expressed it's disappoint at the glaring lack of diversity of not only the winners list, but also the shortlisted nominees, and the judging panel. Six writers, five men and one woman swept up awards across the categories, adjudicated by a panel that itself only had 2 black judges (out of 18).

The Black Lives Matter movement and the work of activists locally have cast a spotlight on issues of race and power. The winners of the Media24 Book Awards, selected from a total of 80 submissions, included six white men and one white female, while the adjudication panel of 18 members included only two people of colour.

'Uncomfortable to have participated'

Upon the announcement, Pauli van Wyk, a well-known journalist and one of the 18 judges, sent a letter to the organisers expressing her dismay with the results.

In it she shares that late last year she was again asked to serve on the judging panel, but until around March or April 2020 she was unaware of who her co-judges would be.

According to Van Wyk she doesn't want to detract from the authors who won, nor their skills but is "extremely uncomfortable to have participated in a process that is so racially slanted" when she knows very well that "there are a multitude of black authors and black professionals who could have been selected as judges".

In her letter, Van Wyk, who has sat on this panel before, requests that her position as judge for the 2021 literary prize instead be filled by a black woman. "I further decline the judge's remuneration as part of my protest against this year's Media24 Books Literary Prizes.

"If you allow it, I request that you use the money already budgeted for to support a black author or investigative journalist in writing their book. If you struggle to think of appropriate black judges, I am willing to list a few suggestions," she said.

In 2019, Niq Mhlongo was the only black author to win an award for Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree. Again, the judging panel of 18 contained just two people of colour.

'The panel shows a remarkable lack of melanin'

Author and editor Fred Khumalo, who has published under Kwela Books, commented on the awards on The Johannesburg Review of Books, giving Arts24 permission to share his comment as well.

Khumalo writes: "Without taking anything away from the books that won, the composition of the judging panels speaks volumes. Given this insularity - the panels show a remarkable lack of melanin - it is not surprising that the results do not show an appreciation of the abundance of talent in this country, talent in all its multicultural and gender diversity."

He added: "Not a single Black African judge! No one is asking for diversity for its own sake, but the reality is that most practicing writers, especially of fiction, are women and Black people whose work is outstanding, by international standards. I am saying these words with the full understanding that the Media24 Awards are for books published by the various wings or imprints of that company."

'We made a mistake'

Approached for comment on the matter, Wessels provided the following statement: "We acknowledge that the lack of diversity in the judging panels of the Media24 Literary Prizes is unacceptable.  We take the feedback and criticism from our fellow citizens and the literary community to heart and we will actively address the issues to avoid a repeat of this oversight in future.

Wessels added: "We strongly condemn any form of discrimination and remain committed to promoting a workplace and a society that is inclusive and diverse. We made a mistake for which we sincerely apologise and are committed to setting it right in future."

Respected journalist Ferial Haffajee on Friday tweeted that she would pull out of a possible book with Jonathan Ball Publishers if the issue with the lack of diversity on the judging panel isn't fixed.

Haffajee told Arts24 on Saturday that she has since been in contact with managers and editors at Media24 who assured her the issue would be fixed. She added: "We should be aware of retreating into laagers and to always respect our constitutional value of non-racialism which does not mean not seeing race but which means ensuring all panels we construct are fully representative of our beautiful rainbow nation."

Author Jonny Steinberg who won the Recht Malan Prize for Nonfiction for his book One Day in Bethlehem, released the following statement to Arts24: "It is gratifying to be acknowledged for one's work. And the judges on the Media24 Awards panels are people of the utmost integrity. 

"But there is a wider problem. Black literary talent is flourishing. The diversity of experience represented in South African literature is large. I would love to have competed in a field where this diversity was on display."

The winners list of the Media24 Books Awards 2020:
  • Recht Malan Prize for Nonfiction: Jonny Steinberg for One Day in Bethlehem.
  • The Herman Charles Bosman Prize for English Fiction: Trevor Sacks for Lucky Packet.
  • The WA Hofmeyr Prize for Afrikaans Fiction: Zirk van den Berg for Ek wens, ek wens.
  • Elisabeth Eybers Prize for Afrikaans and English poetry: Loftus Marais for Jan, Piet, Koos and Jakob.
  • MER Prize for Youth Novels: Edyth Bulbring for The Choice Between Us.
  • The MER Prize for Illustrated Children’s Books: Shared by Fanie Viljoen for Die dag toe die draak kom: ’n Boek vir meisies, and illustrator Theodore Key for Die hasie van fluweel

- Arts24 is part of News24 which is owned by Media24.