Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 28, November 2001 

 
 

REVIEW ARTICLE: The Politics of Publishing in South Africa, edited by Nicholas Evans and Monica Seeber

ISBN 0953726215 (Holger Ehling, UK) and ISBN 0869809873 (University of Natal, South Africa), 300pp 2001. International Edition in association with International Publishing Monitor (UK)

Review by Sulaiman Adebowale
Sulaiman Adebowale is Assistant Editor (Publications and Communication) at CODESRIA, based in Dakar, Senegal. He is currently with the Bellagio Publishing Network while studying Electronic Media at Oxford Brookes, UK.

In the age of the ubiquitous turn of the century attempts to (re)present a post-modern third millennium worldview, few nations today could be more convincing than South Africa in its efforts at reinventing itself. The South African struggles have rightly gained our sympathy, they are not just reforms of existing policies and laws, but encompass a desperate need for a deeper and more fundamental restructuring of every space and facet of a society scarred and marred by years of racist apartheid ideology. The enormous challenges impeding such an attempt have made the South African story at the turn of the century a moving meta-narrative.

The Politics of Publishing in South Africa is one facet of this complex process, but it is equally an astonishingly enlightening story of how publishing as an industry in all its shades and forms has participated in, influenced and been influenced by the political history of the country. It traces how writers, editors, publishers, printers, and including the booksellers and readers _ notes in `an ensemble of discrete processes which centres on the production and dissemination of literary artefacts' (p. 107), using Andries Oliphant's definition _ pursued their various roles in developing a culture of publishing, but also in fostering and destroying apartheid and contributing to the socio-economic development of the country.

In this sense, however, it is tempting to conclude that the book is a story with an obvious ending. A review of the culture of a society's publishing should encapsulate its connections with the larger society. But The Politics of Publishing in South Africa is more than just a publisher's account of the story of a nation. Firstly, the book is a collection of critical and candid analyses of the past and present involvement of citizens of South Africa, bound together by a communal relationship to the written text, in shaping their country's future. The open and self-critical Truth and Reconciliation Commission mentality pervading the chapters suggests not just a willingness to banish the evils of the past but also an understanding of the nature of and possible answers to some of the challenges facing them.

For instance, Phaswane Mpe and Monica Seeber's critical overview explores the history of publishing in South Africa and explicitly paints the multifaceted faces of South African publishers over the years. In a world where labels _ self-given or attributed _ still play a role in identity construction, it is interesting to note that mergers and acquisitions, a direct product of developments in the publishing sector and global capital today, have `changed the complexions and cultures of companies in ways that render apartheid "collaborators" and "non-collaborators" simplistic and unreliable categories for classifying publishing houses' (p. 31). True, the current relevance of an `apartheid stigma' in the scheme of things is arguable. But looked at in the perspective of, for example, government policy _ strongly advocated for in the entire book as a crucial element to put things right _ there is need for more than just resources to resolve some of the development questions facing the country.

Secondly, by recognising an ongoing forever-changing story and chronicling it as such, The Politics of Publishing in South Africa attempts to grasp the nature of the current culture of publishing. The fluidity and malleability of actors continuously reinventing themselves to survive suggest that South African publishers are close to understanding how to cope with a global culture of mobility. Some publishers will survive, others won't, which may or may not be as a result of what they did or did not do, or simply, as shown in the demise of the `Alternative Press', because times have changed. Dick Cloete's and Guy Berger's accounts of the downfall of the dynamic, fiery, indigenous, small and independent publisher, such as Ravan and Skotaville, in post-apartheid South Africa are telling, but aptly situate the context of the business. The loss of foreign donors, lack of support from the new government coupled with a decreasing interest in South Africa and a decline in local political mobilisation mean those publishers must have to do more than reinvent themselves. But we are neither to cry for them, nor laugh at them, opines Berger. Alternative publishers served a particular critical period in the country's history; they were crucial to the social movement that brought about the South Africa of today, but new factors would have to assure their sustainability and relevance now. This is arguably a serious debate beyond the confines of publishing, but certainly worth pursuing further.

The challenges of publishers in a country with a `rich publishing history' (p.3) from a `third world' part of the globe to achieve recognition for their development are noteworthy, and the writers in this book do try as much as they can to inform the world. The particularity of the South African case is glaring in the wealth of a nation in the company of the poorest countries in the globe. But much more than that, as Nicholas Evans and Monica Seeber argue in their introduction, there are pointers of `uniquely South African' roles in publishing, whether multinational or indigenous, that `do not parallel the story of underdevelopment in publishing on the continent'. However, Eve Gray's discussion of the near-absence of South-South co-operation, involving South Africa and other nations in the South, e.g. India, and the overarching dominance of imported academic books from the United States and the United Kingdom seems more indicative of the true status of the South African publishing industry. Gray's article makes an effort to place academic publishing in South Africa beyond the transformation taking place within South Africa itself _ its changing higher education policies, the influence of distance education, government policy and the responses of local publishers to these _ to include the external dynamics _ regional, continental and global _ impacting on academic publishing in the country. Like Gray's, Nicholas Combrinck and Maggie Davey's near sardonic dialogue is a realistic characterisation of publishing not just in South Africa, but of its place among others, be it industries or countries.

However, the turning point of this commendable book, which also touches on other important issues _ professional training and development, language policies, writing, education and digital technologies _ is the concluding article on copyright licensing. In a painstakingly argued piece entitled: `Protecting the Publishing Industry: Reprographic Reproduction Rights Administration as a Strategy and Tool for National Book Publishing Developments', Monica Seeber ignores other salient issues influencing questions of copyright ownership and control, intellectual property, piracy and international regulatory mechanisms. It is valid that we need to act effectively against piracy and violation of copyright material, be it locally produced or foreign, not just with a view to sustaining the publishing industry, but also as part of our interconnection with the global world around us. But it is equally compelling that a discussion of copyright devoid of the impact of the digital environment (p.282) seriously impedes, rather than facilitates, our search for ways of assuring the sustainability of the publishing industry, especially the fragile ones in the South. The reasons behind this assertion are manifold. Some pointers worth mentioning are as follow:

Firstly, that `[t]he immediate imperative is _ since …the book continues to be the primary means of transferring knowledge in Africa _ to put our analogue houses in order and take steps to eradicate, or at least control, copyright infringement through unauthorised photocopying' (p 282) is not convincing. Recent developments in publishing have confirmed that the impact of digital media cannot be constrained to digital publishers only; it affects the standing and survival of print publishers, given the obvious facts that virtually all print media exist today first in their digital format.

Secondly, past and present advances in information technology have made it imperative for discussions of copyright to be situated in the practicalities of enforcing and controlling copyright violations. It is not just enough to appeal to the moral and ethical sides of would-be copyright thieves, but to be realistic about the limitations of enforcing copyright laws today. The Politics of Publishing in South Africa would have been more fitting if Seeber's well-researched discussion on the issues above was balanced with other perspectives, especially one that connects copyright issues beyond the confines of `analogue media' _ perspectives that seek ways of surmounting the problems posed in earning returns on investments in publishing in the digital era. The significance of media convergence discussed by Steve Kromberg is one of such possibilities, and this ought to be linked with copyright issues. Then, we can fully understand the value of South African publishers' attempts at protecting intellectual property rights alongside the question of `Why then is the level of literacy in South Africa so low?' (p.3), or of how the country can cope well with the `change in statutory inequalities of apartheid to the nominal equality of constitutional democracy' (p. 125) as Oliphant succinctly puts it.  [end]  [BPN, no 28, 2001, p 15-17.]

 

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