Democracy is deepened at the level of the local state through the active engagement and participation of citizens. In this context, culture provides an important inter-generational bridge to cement the city’s relationships with its people, and their relationship to each other.
It is therefore not coincidental that most book fairs are city based, for example Gothenburg (Sweden), Leipzig and Frankfurt (Germany), Bologna (Italy), Helsinki (Finland), Jaipur and New Delhi (India), London and Edinburgh (Britain). Kolkata Book Fair (India) takes place over 10 days, opens at 12noon and continues till 8.00pm daily. This is encourages family-households to attend on weekend. People pop in after school and after work. Crowds are mulling participation. In these contexts cultural institutions like the Book Development Trust in India promote all books fairs in the country. This ensures that readers, reading, all languages and cultures are promoted nationally, no single book fair or language or social class is promoted at the expense of others.
The problem with traditional book fairs and literary festivals in the context of this country’s inequality is that they are elitist ‘cocktail circuits’ and reproduce the status quo. Besides prohibitively expensive entrance fees and session fees, they are gate-keepers, deciding on what and who should attend, they tend to exclude the participation of the majority and their indigenous languages. Similarly, just hosting a literary festival in a black township may still promote elitism and does not necessarily deepen a reading culture.
Given the nature and historical legacy of social inequality in South Africa, reinforced through poor education, few libraries, publishing monopolies and prohibitively expensive books, a grassroots or ‘decolonized’ book fair like the Jozi Book Fair should be encouraged in every town and city.
This will significantly contribute to ending the weak culture of reading and its associated social ills, contribute to mobilising broad layers of the public, community members, children, youth, adults, local organisations, stockvels, churches and people of all social classes to participate. This will also facilitate and encourage the emergence of cultural initiatives in all languages from below and will contribute to cultural revival.
Creating readers means supporting the children and youth on a daily basis. After the past 20 years, it is time to orient to the masses.