Abantu Book Festival as an archive of the future

A radical feature on South Africa's literary calendar, Abantu celebrates black intellectual labor, and resists the tropes that marginalizes it.

Zuko. Image via Abantu Book Festival Facebook page.

For anyone wishing to understand contemporary South Africa, there is no better place to start than to become informed about Abantu Book Festival, an annual celebration of Black-centered reading cultures. Abantu centers and takes seriously Black intellectual labor, resisting the tropes of newness and emergence that often diminish and marginalize Blackness.

The archive of photographs, videos and blogs about the gathering around books allows one to try to insert yourself imaginatively and affectively into this community, and to confront the ethics of attempting to do so. If viewing this Black-centered archive makes some viewers feel excluded or disoriented, so much the better—the ethics of engaging with Abantu, and the nature of the relationship one might have to the community gathered there, is part of what Abantu has to teach.

On the opening night of the first Abantu Book Festival in the Soweto Theatre, on 8 December 2016, South African poet Lebo Mashile was more exuberant than usual. She welcomed the audience, marking the importance of the occasion: “It has been a gap in our hearts for a long time,” she said, to murmurs of assent. Her comments about a “gap” referred to the absence of spaces like Abantu, where Black South Africans can gather to discuss books and ideas. The nature of this “gap” did not need to be explained to the audience, who understood the significance of Abantu: it is a radical alternative to the ways in which the publishing industry and literary culture in South Africa have worked to marginalize Blackness and Black reading audiences. Indeed, the impetus for Abantu was precisely to counter the extraordinary claim, often made in the media, that Black South Africans do not read or buy books.

The project is the brain child of Thando Mgqolozana, who announced his exit from the white-centered South African literary festival scene in a series of hard-hitting tweets in 2015. Addressing a nearly all-white audience at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, he famously said: “Look at yourselves! It is not normal!” and then proceeded to outline his transformative and inspirational agenda on Twitter.

Mgqolozana is an internationally celebrated author, whose acclaimed debut novel A Man Who is Not a Man (2009), was followed by Hear Me Not Alone (2011) and Un/Importance (2014). He is widely read and a highly-respected figure, whose work is frequently included (inside as well as outside South Africa) in courses about South African literature. Beyond the Black-centered spaces of Abantu and its publics, however, his work is often described as “emergent” and he is frequently heralded as a “new voice,” even ten years after his debut novel was published.

Such descriptors entrench ways of reading his work (and the work of other Black South African writers) as always and timelessly young, unchangingly new, and always emergent. This ignores the deep literary and intellectual precursors in the great Black thought traditions of South Africa, and entrenches a sense that Black intellectual and writing traditions are surprisingly new. This stress on the newness and freshness of the work, and descriptions of Black South African voices as ahistorically “emergent” (akin to the near universally rejected descriptor “born-free”) deletes the contextual and historical bloodlines that have sustained and shaped contemporary Black intellectual traditions.

In my monograph, Written under the Skin: Blood and Intergenerational Memory in South Africa, I argue (in the chapter, “Who can see this bleeding? Women’s blood and men’s blood in these #Fallist times”) that South African scholars, creators and academics like Mgqolozana are taking up the hard and demanding labour of “reading” the bloods under the skin—of our own times, and also of the past—and making evident their intellectual histories and affective bloodlines. In their thinking, their creative practices and their scholarly work, we see a recalibration of how we are to understand the South African present, as well as our shared, divided, multidirectional and oppositional pasts. These thinkers are disputing and debating the terms through which to understand contemporary South Africa, and they frequently do so through reference to intergenerational forms of memory.

Abantu is one of the spaces where such contextual and historical intellectual bloodlines are made evident, through an emphasis on the dynamic inter-connectedness between reading and the continuous and activist work of bringing a networked Black self into being. “Abantu Book Festival: Imagining Ourselves into Existence,” is the slogan of the project. The location (Soweto), the name (abantu, the plural of the Nguni noun umntu which means a (Black) person as part of a community of other persons) and the emphasis on “ourselves” are all distinguishing marks of the activist vision behind this literary festival.

There have been complaints that Abantu excludes or is unwelcoming to white people, but there are many ways to pay attention to Abantu even if one does not actually attend the festival. Abantu has become much more than a physical gathering; it is also a living and evolving archive of images of Black people reading and talking about books, the web site and social media presence cataloging a proliferation of book clubs and communities centered around books, and a vibrant reading culture which places the Black self as part of a networked community of others.

The third edition of the Abantu Book Festival took place in Soweto in December 2018, and the growing collection of images, videos, blog posts, Facebook (Abantu Book Festival) and Twitter updates (@abantu) continues to convene its publics and to make clear the impact of the extraordinary phenomenon that is Abantu. This collection of images and memories constitutes a rich historical and affective resource. It creates and preserves beyond the physical gathering what Litheko Modisane in his 2013 book on cinema audiences has called so memorably “Black-centred publics.”  The ongoing documentation of the project emphasizes, if the title of the festival does not already do so, the significance of Abantu in laying claim to a vibrant and already existent literary culture with long histories; and crucially as Black and Black-centered.

As a teaching and learning resource, the value of what is becoming an archive of the future is immense. In years to come, it will (and should) be impossible to understand and to think about the South African literary and cultural scene without paying serious attention to this festival, and even centering it. The availability of the online traces of the embodied offline community creates a proliferating and vibrant time capsule: this is now, we are here.

Further Reading