South Africans, Egyptians among top world readers: So why does the rest of Africa 'hate' books then?

“Societies that do not read generally tend to be largely philistine, anti-intellectual and mired in superstition.” True?

JUST days after South African athlete Oscar Pistorius was controversially found guilty of manslaughter, not murder, of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkam on Valentines Day last year, comes news that the first book on the case is out.

Entitled “Oscar: An Accident Waiting To Happen”,  it’s an account of Pistorius’s relationship with ex-girlfriend Sam Taylor, through the eyes Taylor’s mother Patricia, with journalist Melinda Ferguson.

Suggesting that many Pistorius books are on the way, the South African current affairs website  Daily Maverick, said in a report on the new book that “the Oscar Pistorius publishing industry is already in gear”.

That perhaps is only to be expected. When it comes to both fiction, and particularly, non-fiction books, South African writing and publishing is way ahead of other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In the popular African imagination, though, because of the fame of authors like Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, Nigeria is thought to be the book capital of the continent.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Entering a major South African bookshop in a Johannesburg or Cape Town mall or airport, one encounters a long shelf of non-fiction books in English by South Africans, and there will be a separate one in Afrikaans.

On a recent stop in one of the biggest bookshops in  Lagos, there was a single lonely non-fiction book by a Nigerian on recent public affairs sitting on a shelf; “ The Accidental Public Servant”, by former minister and distinguished public servant Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai.

The Mandela story

On the other hand, in the “short” 20 years it has been in power, there are dozens of books on South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) by South Africans, far more than any other country on the continent has written on its ruling parties that I could find. Not counting books by international writers, more non-fiction books have been written on Nelson Mandela by South Africans than any other country on the continent has done on a single of its leaders.

Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere was one of the most charismatic and admired African leaders but, as a leading intellectual in the country noted with a shamed face, “no black Tanzanians have written any book worth the ink on Nyerere”.

Several data on book reading and publishing put Egypt and South Africa in a class of their own in Africa, however with Egypt edging the southern nation comfortably in both regards. The rest of Africa trails in the distance.

In a list of the 30 top book-reading nations in the world, the   NOP World Culture Score Index places Egypt 5th. Egyptians spend 7 hours 30 minutes on average per person reading every week. South Africa is 15th, with 6 hours 18 minutes. No other African countries make it into the top 30.

Both Egypt and South Africa read more than several of the world’s leading producers of books and other intellectual and cultural products like the USA and UK – where TV viewing seems to distract most.

That, however, is not enough to mollify South African Book Development CEO Elitha Van Der Sandt, who recently  decried the fact that only about 40% of people read books in South Africa and only one percent bought books.

South Africa’s and Egypt’s performance, in that sense, is relative in a continent – and indeed world - where fewer and fewer people are reading the good old fashioned paper book.

The continent’s dysmal reading culture is evident in the fact that every African country has its version of the saying that “if you want to hide something from an African, put it in a book”. Kenyans take it a step further, and say “if you want to hide money from a Kenyan, put in the book”, the idea being that Kenyans love their money so much, if they cannot look for it in a book, then they are truly adverse to reading.

That view is not far from reality; the outlook for book publishing is not glorious either. Good data is hard to find and tends to be spotty when available.

However, a much-debated entry in Wikipedia (the data is from varied years) that tracks book publishing in the world, and from which Africa rankings have been derived puts the following countries in the top 12.

Books published per country per year:

1.  Egypt (2000) 9,022

2.  South Africa (1995) 5,418

3.  Nigeria (1991) 1,314

4.  Morocco (1996) 918

5.  Tunisia (1996) 720

6.  Algeria (1996) 670

7.  Kenya (1994) 300

8.  Uganda (1996) 288

9.  Ethiopia (1991) 240

10.  Zimbabwe (1992) 232

11.  Tanzania (1990) 172

12.  Botswana (1991) 158

It is striking that all of Central Africa, Lusophone (Portuguese)-speaking Africa, and all of French-speaking  West Africa are absent from the top 12. It would be a rush to say these regions “hate books” or don’t read, as no major studies examining why the continent on the whole has both low book readership and publishing, have been undertaken.

Some telltale indicators, can be gleaned from the list though:

•You need an economy to publish – and buy  – books. Poorer Africans therefore hardly publish or read.

•Secondly, just like with newspaper readership, civil war seems to kill the book reading spirit. Apart from Algeria and Uganda, none of the top publishers have had civil war. Zimbabwe had war, but it was a liberation war, and a short insurrection in Matebeleland in the 1980s. It seems then that somehow long or vicious civil war is not book-friendly.

However, the book profiles of Egypt and South Africa seem to also draw from other exceptional circumstances. The two, on close examination, have one thing that all other African countries don’t and, therefore, point to the third element necessary for the reading – and publishing – culture to thrive:

•It seems African countries that have a lively non-fiction scene, need to have a big event in history that divides local, regional and international opinion and or unites it dramatically. At least, events on which there is consensus for or against. South Africa had apartheid, a globally divisive issue, then Nelson Mandela, whom nearly all the world treated like a saint. It then fell into a hyper angst about the post-apartheid settlement and continues to tear its hair over it daily.

Egypt had Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Revolution he led and his panArabism ideology, the war with Israel, and Anwar Sadat’s historic peace agreement with Israel. When it comes to intellectualising the “Middle East Question” Egyptian intellectuals still provide the intellectual leadership for the whole region.

The possibilities for that to give birth to grand ideas for books is endless.

The issue all this raises is whether it is a worrisome sign for a country’s people not to love books. One blog, Emergent Africa, thinks it does and takes a very extreme – and some would argue hyperbolic – view.

“Is there a relationship between underdevelopment and a lack of curiosity”? it asks. Commenting on the  NOP World Culture Score Index, it  argues, controversially, that “Societies that do not read generally tend to be largely philistine, anti-intellectual and mired in superstition.”  —- DO YOU AGREE? COMMENT below.


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