Njabulo Ndebele: Africans must treasure their literature

From a speech on African literature delivered in Cape Town by the chairman of the Africa 100 Best Books Project

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As far as books are concerned, Africa is still, to a large extent, a colonialised continent. As we know, publishing in Africa began as an extension of missionary activity, and has since been characterised by the dominance of multinational companies.

Africa accounts for 12 per cent of the world population, but only 2 per cent of the world's books originate in Africa. Africa imports approximately 70 per cent of its books from Europe and the United States.

Factors constraining book production in Africa are numerous; Relatively small markets, high levels of illiteracy, poverty, unemployment and low per-capita incomes, piracy and illegal copying, inadequate funding of textbooks and libraries. Support from the state for books and publishers is low.

It is often easier for publishers in Africa to deal with publishers in Europe than publishers in neighbouring countries. African writers who can and want to reach a lot of readers prefer to publish in London, New York or Paris.

While these problems constitute major challenges to African governments wishing to grow local and export markets, nurture local book production and ensure the survival of local languages and culture, governments in Africa could do a whole lot more. We need national book policies, part of which should be to ensure the sustainable publishing of books from Africa by Africans for Africa.

Libraries too, properly utilised and integrated into communities, have a central role in any growing book and reading culture. Thus they should be an important aspect in any national book policy.

The point I am making is that Africans themselves have a crucial role to play here. They must not expect others to value their literature if they themselves do not buy it, read it, learn from it, and treasure it.

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