Big love for black books

Thando Mgqolozana, the founder of the Abantu Book Festival. Picture: Lerato Maduna
Thando Mgqolozana, the founder of the Abantu Book Festival. Picture: Lerato Maduna

The second annual Abantu Book Festival is about to get under way in Soweto. Charl Blignaut called up acclaimed novelist, and the founder and director of the festival, Thando Mgqolozana, to talk through the highlights of the programme that celebrates.

In hindsight, it’s been an astonishing journey since angry young novelist Thando Mgqolozana stood up at the Franschhoek Literary Festival in 2015 and denounced the whiteness of South Africa’s literary scene, declaring a boycott of the festival circuit. In the ensuing debate, the ripples have been felt at book events across the country, but nowhere more so than in the wave that crashed to shore in Soweto last year.

Kicking down systems is one thing, building new ones another. Mgqolozana and fellow novelist Panashe Chigumadzi dared to dream of what a decolonised, feminist, queer-friendly, black-first book festival might look like and proceeded to build it brick by brick against some pretty considerable odds.

On Thursday through to next Sunday the baby turns two.

I’m looking at this Abantu 2017 programme and it’s exciting, lean and mean, muscular, hardly an average session in sight. What did you learn from the first year that helped you with this year?

One of the things that we did last year, and that we could get away with, was to have these bloated panel discussions with five people. Last year, everyone was excited just to be there. But it’s my experience that if you are going to invite someone, you better be able to give them the time to deliver the content.

How many times have I attended panel discussions where, once introductory statements are over, half the time is gone and the panel only starts getting down to the good stuff as the time runs out!

This year we really wanted to focus more, so you are not going to find more than three people on stage. In most cases we have two people. So you’ll have Phemelo Motene sitting down with Zakes Mda. You have someone like Athambile Masola with Zubeida Jaffer. Real depth in the conversation and enough time for the audience to engage. Our audiences don’t just want to sit there and listen.

Women to the front

I remember seeing you there last year and you were quite overwhelmed by how successful Abantu was.

Yeah. I was overwhelmed most of the time. For me, I wanted us to have a different festival that centres black people and black stories, but what transpired was way beyond what I anticipated in my wildest dreams. The most beautiful thing for me was the spirit that people brought to the festival, so much happiness. For once people felt free, they did not have to explain themselves.

The energy was powerful. I’ll never forget last year’s opening night. Fists in the air from the get-go. For me it went beyond black-first because it was women-first. Is that happening again this year?

Yes. I saw a tweet from someone who said they’ve looked at the programme and where are the men? (Laughs.) We have Mandla Langa, Zakes Mda, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Nthikeng Mohlele, Osiame Molefe. But the foregrounding of black women is deliberate. Whatever struggles black people are going through, black women always have it worse. The keynote address last year was Gcina Mhlope. This year it’s Zimbabwean novelist and film maker Tsitsi Dangarembga. Elsewhere it’s always a Wole Soyinka or a Ben Okri. I’m not saying that men are never going to have a platform, I just do not want Abantu Book Festival to be this patriarchal event. Already it’s been founded by a cis-het black man. But I really want to be conscious about my own biases, my own privileges and do the necessary political work.

Cheap tickets and free food

I hear the tickets to the opening are selling fast.

Ja. This year we’re in the bigger space at Soweto Theatre. I think we have over 400 seats and two days ago more than half had already been sold.

This year again, day events are free and night events are only R20.

Everything would be free if we could. One of the things I’ve been observing is people are buying bulk tickets and giving them to people who have not been exposed to literary events before. We created a book festival, but this thing is apparently more than that. It has become a cultural festival. Maybe we should think of it as the book being the catalyst to many more conversations and activities.

I couldn’t believe my eyes last year that there were free hot meals with the R20 tickets.

We are doing it again this year for night events. We don’t want to be feeding people unhealthy food, so we serve plate food. We want people to focus on buying books and not have to worry about food. I remember when I was on the Students’ Representative Council at the University of the Western Cape in charge of academic affairs. At the beginning of every year my duty was to help students who had been academically excluded, to motivate for readmission. It was quite common for people to say they failed because most of the year they had no food and struggled to study. This is a fundamental reality. We want Abantu to be accessible to everyone. We don’t want you to sit there and you’re hungry. I hope we can afford it always.

The mostess

Spoken word star Lebo Mashile is hostessing the opening, or mostessing in fact. For me her writing career epitomises what Abantu stands for.

Lebo and I, before I even started Abantu, after Franschhoek, we had exchanges and she was one of the people who said what Thando is talking about is right and we should learn from other African countries how to do the book thing. She has always had this hope of a black book festival. She will host the opening and host the very sensitive discussion on Khwezi with Redi Tlhabi [Khwezi: The Remarkable Story Of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo] and Mmatshilo Motsei [The Kanga and the Kangaroo Court: Reflections on the Rape Trial of Jacob Zuma].

It is tricky because there’s a danger of Kuzwayo becoming instrumentalised in death, weaponised even. And people were not there for her in life.

Yes. This is a conversation Lebo and I had. And this is happening a week before the ANC’s December conference and people are using Khwezi as a political tool. We don’t want that to happen. Cos there’s that and there’s also erasure going on. We are inviting the One in Nine Campaign activists who were there for Kuzwayo. Also, Mmatshilo suffered badly after publishing The Kanga and she’s had these conversations privately with Lebo. Lebo is one person who can really handle the conversation.

Writers talking with writers

In this line you’ve got the groundbreaking academic Pumla Dineo Gqola talking about her new book Reflecting Rogue: Inside the Mind of a Feminist, which to me is a bible for critical thinking around culture. She’s also in conversation with Dangarembga and with Sisonke Msimang, whose debut Always Another Country is one of the most beautifully written memoirs I’ve seen.

I couldn’t think of anyone better. Pumla is a trained literary critic. And not just to talk about Tsitsi’s most famous book Nervous Conditions, but Pumla knows the whole body of work. Sisonke’s book, I loved most of it. There’s a lot of new work being put out and a lot of it is disappointing. I was reading it and thought, I must talk to Sisonke about writing fiction, because she has the talent. Here’s a decision to pair writers to talk about writing, who truly appreciate one another. It’s all part of the experiment.

I love the title of another of the sessions: Not the Youth League. It recognises the wonderful elders Kgositsile the poet and all-round icon Sindiwe Magona.

Last year, we had Don Mattera and Wally Serote facilitated by Eleanor Sisulu. The facilitator this year is someone who appreciates these doyennes of literature, Mandla Langa. He knows the literary and political journey. They are all excited about it. Also, Charl, a young guy like Thando Mqolozana comes talking radical things pretending this is the first time. We need the voices of the radicals who came before us. We need to celebrate them, because if their names are not JM Coetzee or Nadine Gordimer they are not getting this kind of recognition.

Editing the editors

There are quite a few more practical sessions for media workers, editors, publishers and archivists. I have my eye on the brilliant political thinker and writer Osiame Molefe’s session on editing.

And you have Phakama Mbonambi who created the sadly now defunct literary journal Words Etc and Grace Musila who is now editing Pumla’s work. What is missing from that discussion is an experienced fiction editor and their absence is not an accident. Because who is that black person who has been editing our novels? I want us to talk about the editing process, which really became very relevant this year.

You mean with the drama over the errors in Bonang Matheba’s From A to B?

Yes, but also observing my mail. I receive so many submissions from people wanting help with their stories and the lack of formal editing processes we have.

It’s confusing because, as books editor, I have received more local books this year than ever before. But they are almost all dotted with errors. From well before Bonang’s book. We seem to have a crisis that editors and proofreaders are being cut back to save money in the financial pinch. It’s all so much faster and sloppier nowadays.

Editing errors do happen, but I’m also finding there’s a lot more of that happening and it’s discouraging. I don’t know if it’s influenced by the information age, where everyone is self-publishing on different platforms. There’s less respect for the discipline. We don’t invest enough in developing editors. You know when you read an internationally published book like Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, you find a long list of people being thanked for their contributions to refining the text. In South Africa you hardly find it. A book passes three people and it’s on the shelf. We encourage self-publishing here, but if you’re self-publishing you must make a decision to invest in an editor.

Speaking of which, there are quite a few book launches. Notably the new Zakes Mda and popular writer Angela Makholwa’s new one on blessers. And Florence Masebe’s poems, that offer a book as a way of healing pain that so many people can relate to.

It’s very exciting. Flo’s is again another sensitive event and Abantu is a safe space where people can be vulnerable. It’s okay to cry and share. Angela’s going to have actors performing from her book. And I’ve always felt Bra Zakes is not celebrated as much as he should be in this country. When I was creating Abantu I had someone like him in mind. I could not have him last year because we could not afford him. Even though he may have done it for free, that’s not what we wanted. He has asked for a reading from his children’s book The Prels of Ukhahlamba.

Legends entertain the kids

The kids programme looks divine! I mean, bring the little readers and the legendary mother of storytelling Gcina Mhlope will look after them. And art activities and performances and everything.

Yup. We were going to do it ourselves, but we thought no, let us invest in people who know better than us. Gcina sent us a programme with the people she wants to work with. We will have adults supervising so that people can leave their kids and attend a book event. All the kids will receive a Sindiwe Magona children’s book in their mother tongue.

Your daughter is a year and a half. How has that impacted on you and children’s books?

I’ve read about Chinua Achebe and Salman Rushdie and, I think, Gabriel García Márquez. As soon as they had children they started to feel the need to write children’s books. Chinua didn’t like what he was finding out there for his children to read. I’ve started writing some as well, for children. I want her to have the same feeling I had when I encountered the likes of Magona. Books in which she could find herself.

Watch the films, do the concert

I’m excited that the Winnie documentary is on; it’s an important film. And there’s lots of music.

Yes and there’s a new #FeesMustFall doccie and This Land and Uprize! on 1976 and The Bullhoek Massacre. It’s explosive. Nobody knows this history of black people refusing to pay taxes and creating a black-owned economy. We’re closing with a Free Education Live concert. They approached us this year because our agendas are aligned and Abantu Book Festival is also a product of Fallism. Abantu is not just about books, but about the whole black experience.

To see the full programme of the festival that’s on from December 4 to 7 at the Soweto Theatre, visit

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