A closed-book festival

EVENT: Reading Cape Town: Who reads what and so what? (Wednesday 21 September; Hiddingh Hall)



Deborah Posel, Arthur Dick and Vincent Shabangu talk about how Cape Town reads.

“Isn’t this an elitist pastime?’” Every South African literary festival gets the question. If recent FLF (Franschhoek Literary Festival) FLF commentary is anything to go by, lit fest patrons are also swiftly dismissed as a “stiffly excited crowd of mainly middle-aged white women.” Wednesday afternoon’s panel discussion at Hiddingh Hall, Reading Cape Town: Who reads what and so what? seemed a good place to clear the air before proceeding on my white, female, elitist way. The first speaker, Professor Deborah Posel, director of HUMA (Institute for Humanities in Africa), agreed that a festival like Open Book appeals only to a “tiny sliver” of Capetonians who “venerate books” and see them as “markers of distinction”. She gave a quick rundown of our national reading statistics. A recent study suggests that 51 percent of households do not own a single book. The mere 13 percent of us who list reading as our favourite pastime are, yes, white women. Still, there are hundreds of thousands of readers out there who are not white women. What are they reading? Religion and self-help mostly, says Posel, who has sent students out to do their own enumerating in Cape Town’s 52 bookshops and 100 libraries.

What they’ve found suggests that most Capetonians would probably find Open Book topics too secular and unimproving for their taste. “Sin, sex and self-control” could work as a festival topic, but probably not the self-esteem book See Yourself as God Sees You, with a picture of Bambi on the cover.

As Posel points out, literary reading is only one type of reading culture, and a shrinking one at that. The point is that our city does read – books fly off its library shelves and the shelves of Bargain Books, CNA and 12 dedicated faith bookshops. Apart from aspirational and inspirational texts, Capetonians enjoy the usual suspects: Mills&Boon, paranormal romances, thrillers, Afrikaans light fiction. A passion for reading develops when people have a focus, when they need to push against something, whether it be spiritual drought within or political oppression without. That was not a comment from the panel, but from the floor. Cape Town has a long history of reading against and reading with focus. Archie Dick, Professor of Library Sciences at the University of Pretoria, gave a fast and fascinating overview of the city’s historical reading practices, from slaves who pretended illiteracy in order to avoid punishment, to activists who smuggled banned books into the country by bribing customs officials with samosas. Even when political material was hard to come by, you could still read A Tale of Two Cities for what it said about revolution, or comb through government propaganda for its artless quotation of subversive material. You could rely on hero librarians like Vincent Kolbe, who hid the good stuff in an anonymous sports bag under the library desk.

I’ve always thought that the best books are books about the love of books, and many of Dick’s anecdotes got me thinking about Dai Sijie’s exquisite Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. But Dick is not a sentimentalist – he knows that for activists, books were certainly not aesthetic objects but props to facilitate the real business of debate and “conscientising”.

Unfortunately, the panel’s time wasn’t well-managed and the participants didn’t really interact, so it was left to the audience to make connections. Those connections might have been helped if imagination and scholarship could have been combined to produce the type of interactive reading map of Cape Town which Posel originally envisaged but abandoned because of technical constraints.

I’d love to see a reading map of Cape Town, with all its bookshops, libraries, newspaper subscriptions and literary sites lit up. Click on the palm tree on Moravian Hill, the site of a bed and breakfast motel in Cape Town, and discover that a typewriter, once used to copy Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, lies buried there, safe from the clutches of the security police. Who knows? If the Secrecy Bill is passed, we may need to exhume that typewriter yet. Professor Dick certainly thinks that the old Cape tradition of “copying, concealing and sharing” may come into its own again. There’s a deep paradox here, namely that any threat to our right to read revives (or in some cases, initiates) a passionate loyalty to books.

The last and most entertaining speaker was Vincent Shabangu, a community development worker who spent several years in jail in the 1980s for public violence. Shabangu is dismissive of prison life today – “it’s like home: it’s fun” these days, with phones, TV and a choice of cheese or jam on your bread. Shabangu told wonderful stories of the 26 and 28 gang members, who reserved all privileges for themselves, including the right to read. A gang lord would sit staring at the front page of a newspaper “for an hour”. Since he couldn’t actually read, this act was purely a demonstration of his power. In exchange for library rights, Shabangu taught the gang members to read and interpret the news. He also had the sad task of explaining to them that Mandela’s release didn’t mean that the doors of Pollsmoor prison would be flung open for them too: “You guys, you have to stay where you are because you are criminals.”

Both Dick and Shabangu brought out the paradox that jail terms force otherwise reluctant, slow or easily distracted readers to follow a sustained programme of reading. It’s not a solution any of the panellists would have proposed, but perhaps the thing to do with these born-frees who won’t read is to lock them up somewhere.  Have a closed-book festival.