Concept of the JBF: A Space for Debate, Alternatives and Movement Building

Khanya College as a movement building institution

The Jozi Book Fair (JBF), now in its 10th year, is a project of Khanya College, and over the last few years has become one of the flagship projects in the College’s overall strategy and perspective of building social movements. Khanya College emerged out of the anti-apartheid struggles in the 1980s, and its core mandate was to develop a radical and alternative approach to education. Its slogan, “Education for Liberation”, captured the idea of the transformative role of education for and by the oppressed. The underlying philosophy of Khanya’s ideas about education drew from a range of radical and progressive education movements and the broader movements for social change. These approaches included the work of Paolo Fre,ire, the “education with production movement” emerging out of the liberation movements in Southern Africa, and radical experiences coming out of countries in Latin America more broadly.

Since the 1990s Khanya College has positioned itself as a movement building institution. In this context, it defined as one its key objectives the creation of spaces and platforms for the development of the theory and perspectives of movement building, and for equipping activists with the tools to understand the societies in which they live and act. The JBF as a space needs to be seen against the background of the overall positioning of Khanya College as a movement building institution.

The Context of the Launch of the JBF

The launch of the JBF in 2009 took place against the background of the decline of the social movements that had emerged in South Africa, and indeed globally, at the end of the 1990s. At the global levc el, the battle of Seattle in 1999 signaled the resurgence of social movements that challenged the political and economic orthodoxy that had been dominant since the end of the 1970s. This battle led to the launch of the World Social Forum in 2001.

As we moved toward   cvbs the end of the decade of the 2000s, many of these movements had gone into crisis and decline. In South Africa key components of these movement had collapsed by around 2009, including the APF, the Social Movements Indaba, and the Landless People’s Movement. At the Southern Africa level, the last Social Forum was held in 2009. Among NGOs, SANGOCO had also gone into decline and was soon to be shut down.

The JBF as a response

Against this background of the crisis in the social movements, the Jozi Book Fair was launched as a response to, firstly, the decline in spaces for debate and engagement among social movements, and secondly, as a response to closing spaces for democratic debate in the broader South African context. We believe that the struggle for democracy and egalitarian philosophies and practices can only be won in the broader public domain.

An open public space

While Khanya’s commitment to create spaces for debate was pursued through a number of programmes, the specific contribution of the JBF was that it was positioned in a way that brought the struggle for progressive ideas into the broader public domain, and went beyond the focus on activists in the social movements to include the broader public. The JBF is therefore an open public space that brings together activists, writers, readers, artists, publishers (with a focus on small publishers), academics, public intellectuals, NGOs, trade unions, women’s movements, youth movements and social movements.

Cultural interventions & critical social debate

The JBF space recognises that the development of egalitarian alternatives has to take account of the critical role of cultural interventions in this process. Khanya went back to the experience of the early 1970s, where emerging cultural movements of the time – including poets, writers, dramatists etc. – played a catalytic role in the re-emergence of the mass movement of the 1970s and 80s. The JBF is therefore a space for non-fiction, fiction (novels), poetry, theatre, art, music, film and other art forms. All these art forms are seen as vehicles for critical social debate. A central argument of the JBF is that debate and alternatives have to be underwritten by a strong culture of reading and writing. Thus, borrowing from Paolo Freire, the JBF speaks of “reading the word and the world”.

A democratic space

The JBF space is grounded on the understanding that it not only has democratic and transformative objectives, but that it must also be organised in a democratic and transformative manner. Seventy percent of the more than 120 events of the JBF are self-organised by the public – individuals, organisations, movements, institutions and so on. This also means the JBF is an open space and is not politically prescriptive, except that the organisers, Khanya College and collaborators, ensure that the participants in the space respect certain basic egalitarian principles like anti-racism, gender equity and anti-misogyny, anti-xenophobia, non-violent forms of engagement and respect for other’s views, and other principles that form part of the progressive movements for change.

This democratisation of the way the JBF is organised has been taken a step further. The JBF has facilitated the creation of ‘thematic networks’ within the JBF. These networks of NGOs and movements now organise key programme lines in the JBF including deciding on topics, inviting speakers, organising audiences from organisations and the public, and promoting the events. Currently there are networks on Education, Labour, Environment & Food, and engagement continues around a Women’s platform and extractives & mining.

The JBF & working class organising

In order to strengthen the link between the debates and organising, the JBF makes a special effort to ensure that movements that are organising in townships are given a space in the fair, and that they host events and participate in debates. The imperative of working class participation in the book fair space is driven by the understanding that egalitarian alternatives must be driven by the oppressed themselves. This underwrites an important feature of the JBF.

This feature is that the creation of spaces for debate, and the culture of reading, writing and discussions that underwrites these spaces, cannot be created as a once-off event, even if it’s an annual event. The JBF therefore has activities throughout the year, and in key instances it runs major projects that produce writing from within the working class and the social movements, and from within the broader public. These programmes include, among others, seminars, book launches, writing workshops, readings skills workshops, training for library monitors, and workshops for small publishers.

Setting up infrastructures that expand spaces for debate

The JBF works with other Khanya projects to overcome the stranglehold of the established and global publishing houses and media on the emergence of new voices – both fiction and non-fiction. Khanya has set up publishing and printing facilities, and has begun to set up distribution and sales infrastructure for books and other publications in order to ensure that the exchange of ideas within the working class, and in the broader society, is deepened.

The Strategy

The strategic orientation is to root the JBF within “primary organisations of the working class”. This means that the JBF must be rooted in schools, in youth organisations, in cultural organisations of the working class, in trade unions, women’s organisations and in social movements.

As part of realising this strategy, in the next decade the JBF has a special focus on work among schools (children & youth), out-of-school youth and youth organisations. The focus includes developing writers among the youth, publishing youth writing, setting up newsletters and magazines to feature youth writing, creating platforms for youth performance and arts, fostering and supporting youth cultural networks and developing social consciousness and leadership among youth. The strategy is predicated on the understanding that the majority of South Africa’s population is young, and that a strategy of building and defending spaces for debate must build a culture of debate among the youth. As part of this perspective, the JBF therefore seeks to create a strong culture of reading, writing and debate among youth.

A focus on youth as the core of the strategy in the next decade is also important for the sustainability of the JBF and its work of defending and advancing spaces for the regeneration of egalitarian philosophies.

The Theme

Every year the JBF organises its ideas around a specific theme. The theme may identify a particular constituency, such as youth or women, or it may identify a topic that is important for driving public debates among a range of constituencies. The theme allows the book fair to focus its mobilisation around particular constituencies and issues.


The Programme

The programme of the JBF includes Projects implemented throughout the year to create and support readers and writers, and an Annual Festival that brings together readers, writers, movements, communities and the public every September, to debate the key issues facing South African society. This annual festival is preceded by a year-long programme of training, seminars, book launches, workshops, conferences and publishing that converge at the Annual Festival.

An independent space for debate and alternatives

The JBF’s contribution to a democratic and egalitarian society is that it creates an independent space for debate that is rooted in the working class and social movements. In a context when the dominance of conservative orthodoxies has closed down debates on democratic and egalitarian alternatives, the JBF is a key space for supporting democratic self-organising.