People and Places

The Cape Town International Book Fair, South Africa
By Bassey Irele

--Contents-- bookshelf with book coming out at viewer

The 2006 Cape Town International Book Fair was held near the beautiful Cape Town waterfront, tucked in between mountains and shadowed by the impressive, ever watchful Table Mountain. Comfortable winter temperature hovering between 59 and 63 degrees. Equally impressive and comfortable was the the venue of the Book Fair, the huge Convention Centre conveniently located within walking distance of a lot of the major hotels. In addition to hosting as many as the 15,000 attendees who visited the Fair by June 19, the center also houses a restaurant, a Bureau d'Echange, a Business Center, and several cafes. It was a large focal point encouraging interaction of groups of book people. Unfortunately participants did not come from all corners of the continent. Could this be a result of budget constraints, a deliberate regulation of paying participants, or simply an oversight?

Those who could come had more than a full share of workshops, academic discussions, panel discussions, book talks, poetry readings, and cultural activists who effectively nudged our consciousness regarding issues hovering over the African book industry. Many were encouraged to contribute to the ever-recurring debate about publishing opportunities for new authors, African literacy level and reading habits, book market trends, use of indigenous versus European languages, publishers' market-driven interests, indigenous publishers running an uneven race with the multi-nationals, etc. Participants enjoyed an opportunity to see and shake hands with such African book world celebrities as (to name a few) Zakes Mda (Whale Caller), Alexander McCall Smith (The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency), Richard Grant (The Wah Wah Diaries), Werewere-Liking Gnepo who won the 2006 Noma Award for her book, La Mémoire Amputéé, Lewis Nkosi (Mandela's Ego), Fred Khumalo (Touch My Blood), Gcina Mhlope (Stories of Africa), Antjie Krog (Country of My Skull), Imraan Coovadia (The Wedding), Musa Zulu (The Language of Me), John van de Ruit (Spud).

Several books were launched: Africa Bible Commentary, Der Staat gegen Mandela, a German edition of Joel Joffee's The Rivonia Story, David Luries's Images of Table Mountain, Karina Turok's Life and Soul, Portraits of women who move South Africa, and Textbooks for Midwives.

Newspaper columnists also enjoyed some of the attention. The seminar room was packed beyond capacity on each of the two occasions that Tom Eaton (Mail & Guardian, South Africa) spent roughly two hours bantering with "Sandy" McCall Smith about anything and everything.

To inspire more creativity and contributions to the information world, there were launches of awards and competitions: Sunday Times Alan Paton Awards, Maskew Miller Longman Literature Award, the long established Noma Award, and the new Nielsen BookScan Gold and Platinum Book Awards for South Africa.

Participants whose interest was the book business were offered sessions that gave them a statistical overview of the South African book world. Other sessions looked at the educational perspectives of doing business, academic publishing, publishing trends, emerging black market and cultural differences in South Africa. Both Google and Elsevier gave demonstrations of their latest products.

Most uplifting of all, South African youth - tomorrow's leaders - were not left out of the excitement. Young readers, budding writers, impressionable minds, were treated to stories, decorative arts, music, acting, creative writing, book making, etc by the ever energetic, captivating, and motivating Gcina Mhlophe, Niki Daly (Where's Jamela?), Reviva Schermbrucker (An African Christmas Cloth), and storyteller, Dorian Haarhoff.

We visited several Exhibitor stands including Henrietta Dax's (Clarke's Bookshop) who graciously invited us to dinner in her house. She filled our stomachs (Jill Coelho, Laverne Page, David Easterbrook, Dorothy Woodson and Bassey Irele) with good food and wines. She also enlightened our minds with some city tid bits. A relaxed and cozy way to end a busy day.

We were also feted by Mary Jay (African Books Collective) at the Marimba Restaurant located in the Convention Center. The grand occasion was the presentation of the 25th Noma Award to Werewere-Liking Gnepo (La Mémoire Amputéé). We listened to lots of speeches, we ate, we drank, we applauded appreciatively, and we departed with Werewere's appeal ringing in our ears - "When we go away from here, I would like to feel reassured that you will take away from this marvellous moment of sharing, provided in such a generous spirit, my invitation to each of you to individually take responsibility - be empowered - to build another Africa of which we can all be proud." Amen, dear sister!

Successful even beyond the expectations of the sponsors and organizers, the 1st Cape Town Book Fair has come and gone. We all left with pockets full of business cards, names and contact information scribbled on bits of paper, piles of catalogs, and a feeling of accomplishment. However, we have all come this far but we can not afford to rest on our laurels. A more diverse crowd of participants - more west, east, north and central African representation - is essential to make future Cape Town Book Fairs truly significant for African publishing.


Having accomplished our mission in Cape Town, South Africa, Jill and I continued on to Nigeria. Our business in Nigeria involved meeting with some Obafemi Awolowo University faculty and staff members. The objective was to discuss the logistics involved in collecting and evaluating certain audio visual materials on Yoruba oral history that had been produced over the years. The ultimate goal is to have these tapes and documents digitized, thereby preserving them while at the same time, making them more accessible to a global range of researchers. After a smooth landing at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos, we were expertly received and transported by the driver of International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) to their Guest House in Ikeja.

Lagos was its usual large jumble of noise, people, dust, exhaust fumes, concrete, patchy tar, metal bars and gates. For Jill, it was her first taste of Lagos life and oh, was she fascinated! We met with Jonathan S. Dipeolu (always gracious, generous and helpful) and took care of a couple of business issues. We stopped in Ibadan before continuing on to Ife and met with Oluranti Olumoroti (Hogarth Nigeria/Options Books) to straighten up some subscription details, revisit our collections profile and discuss some book acquisition challenges.

We are now back at work, fully recovered (rather quickly!) from our jetlag. We are still going through the pile of business cards, the hurriedly scribbled notes to try and make accurate connections with bits of remembered conversations, faces … you know how it goes!

For more Book Fair Comments:

Huge attendance:,,186-1695_1964793,00.html

Tatty covers belie great content: releases/content/13578/content.html

Related Sites:

Local language use (“Tongue-tied literature: South African writing is struggling with an identity problem not helped by the commercial imperative to publish in English”, writes Ben Oswest. For full article:

Back to top

Next page

Back to Table of Contents