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Publishing Diversity in South Africa and the United Kingdom

The State of Multilingual Publishing in South Africa



South Africa’s Constitution (1996) recognises eleven official languages as equal and that all official languages must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably (Republic of South Africa). This paper investigates the state of multilingual publishing — publishing in all of South Africa’s official languages — and through this how close the country has come to meeting the Constitutional requirements. Findings have shown that most books in South Africa are published in English and Afrikaans and that the nine remaining official languages serve mostly for books to be used in schools. Thus tertiary institution students cannot read books for their studies in their mother tongues, and general readers cannot access books for leisure reading. There are various reasons books are not being published in African languages to any great extent, including historical legacies, few authors and small reading markets.

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  • 1 In this article indigenous and African languages refer to languages that originated in South Africa (...)

1South Africa has eleven official languages which include English, Afrikaans and nine other African languages: isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho, Sepedi, Setswana, SiSwati, Tshivenda and Xitsonga. The languages that are most published, however, are English and Afrikaans, with South Africa’s indigenous1 languages — even the official languages — lagging far behind in the production of literature. During apartheid, English and Afrikaans were South Africa’s two official languages while other South African languages were very much ignored. Before 1993 and the democracy, indigenous languages were all fairly widely spoken as mother tongue languages in South Africa, but their economic and political roles were extremely limited and the speakers tended to be poor, poorly educated and largely rural (De Kadt 19). The end of apartheid brought about freedom for South Africa’s peoples, and all languages could be developed equally. However, there are various problems with the development of the official languages, and still today most indigenous languages are not standardised as English and Afrikaans are.

2South Africa’s Constitution (1996) recognises the historically “diminished use and status of the indigenous languages,” and declares that the state must take “practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages” (section 6). It also states that all official languages must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably. The Pan South African Language Board, which has been established by national legislation, must — according to the Constitution — promote, and create conditions for, the development and use of all official languages and promote and ensure respect for all languages commonly used by communities in South Africa (Republic of South Africa). However language, despite being politically important in contemporary South Africa, is not an issue that is prioritised (De Kadt 19). Webb also argues that South Africa’s official languages are not standardised, “fully-fledged” (159) languages as English and Afrikaans are. He goes on to explain that standard languages are important in the lives of communities in at least the following ways: (1) they are the languages of communication with government, in public administration and the justice system; (2) they are the languages (varieties) used for the distribution of and access to information in formal contexts; (3) they are the languages of higher-level employment and participation in the political, economic and educational life of a country; (4) they are the languages of intellectual development, public debate and literature, and are basic to establishing a culture of reading; and (5) they are the symbols of national unity, social identity and social prestige.

3With English representing what many black speakers (especially the urban youth) want to be while at the same time being the main language of political power, state control, the provision of education and participation in the economy (Webb 161), many South Africans are moving away from their mother tongues and towards English, as the underdevelopment of African languages means they are not fulfilling their roles as explained above. Thus the demand for African language literature decreases, and the difficulties in standardising the languages increase.

4This paper will attempt to show that the growth of the official African languages has not reached the same level as English and Afrikaans and does not enjoy ‘parity of esteem’ in the South African publishing industry, and that this underdevelopment of nine of the official languages is thus in discord with the South African Constitution.

Multilingual publishing in South Africa: background and context

5Multilingual publishing refers to the publishing of books in all eleven official languages of South Africa. Since the beginning of South Africa’s publishing history, the government has played a role in controlling what was suitable or not for publication. Colonialists brought English to the country, along with their support of western culture “as a value system both superior and preferable to indigenous culture” (Oliphant 112). Kaschula (117) claims that the natural development of isiXhosa orature and literature, as with all South African indigenous literature, ended with the arrival of European missionaries in 1799.

  • 2 Bantu languages are part of a family of languages spoken in the southern part of Africa, and are la (...)

6During apartheid, the Nationalist government supported Afrikaans, with many state-owned publishing houses further encouraging the production of Afrikaans literature. The apartheid policy then exacerbated the destructive approaches to indigenous languages already in operation as it designated separate language boards for language development (Kaschula 117). While English started playing second fiddle to Afrikaans — its success can be “measured in terms of the volumes of works published at the height of apartheid — Afrikaans outstripped all other languages and literatures by far” (Oliphant 117) —, it was still associated with international audiences. African languages were published at this time, but for books prescribed by government for school so there was no natural creative expression, and African language books became associated with schools only. While resistance literature was written in African languages, this was not published and did not reach the wider public; many authors and their work were also banned or exiled. Maake writes in 1991 that “there is an abundance of literature in Bantu2 languages, but it is a matter of quantity rather than quality, and even in terms of quantity this literature trails far behind Afrikaans and English literatures. In 1982, for instance, 26 books were published, most of them in Zulu, compared with 67 in Afrikaans and 40 in English. The literature of both Afrikaans and English is more mature, but Bantu literature is mainly read in schools” (61).

7The new Constitution of 1996 brought hope for South Africa’s indigenous languages, but transitions and changes have not been as smooth as could be hoped. In terms of multilingual publishing, not much has changed since the country became democratic, and “the statistics clearly show a healthy production of Afrikaans and English literature in comparison to a very meagre output in the nine different African languages” (Van der Waal qtd. in Morgan 183). Reports show that speakers of indigenous languages seem loath to read literature written in indigenous languages since the only book that sells well in African languages is the Bible. In total, new title production in 2010 was 1129 in English, 699 in Afrikaans and 958 for African languages. Schoolbooks are the only sub-sector with a significant production of new titles in the African language category, and the decline in new title production was 15, 8% (Struik and le Roux 49-50). African languages are thus read in schools, in a teaching environment, and not for leisure.

8While Afrikaans has historically been seen as a language of oppression, English has become a language of freedom — it is the accepted language of business and prestige and thus the pathway to better jobs; often African language speakers are encouraged to pursue English rather than their mother tongue: “South African black writers, scholars and intellectuals of different political ideologies and persuasions have consistently and persistently been unanimous on the adoption of English as the medium of communication among Africans” (Maake 61). This means that even African language-authors often prefer to write in English, as this may give them access to wider, and international, audiences. “Sipho Sepamla, a black novelist of some repute, [has] expressed unreserved support of English as the language of political unity, and of the imperative need to sacrifice African languages on the altar of political expediency” (Maake 61). English has class status and those who can speak it are seen as knowledgeable. As a result, African languages have continued to suffer, with many people seeing them as being inferior to English. Also, “the lack of visible realisation at government level (where most politicians have capitulated to the use of English parliament) does little to convince the speakers of indigenous languages of the worth of their languages” (Kaschula 118).

9Results from the 2011 census show that South Africa’s two largest linguistic groups are isiZulu speakers, with 22,7% of the population being first language speakers, and isiXhosa speakers with 16,0%. Afrikaans is the third largest home language with 13,5% (a large part of the coloured community in especially the Cape speak Afrikaans), and English is next with 9,6%. English is also South Africa’s lingua franca. Significantly, English speakers have increased from the census of 2001, from 8,2%, while many of the first language speakers of indigenous languages have decreased. English has also moved up from being the sixth most spoken home language to the fourth most spoken home language (Census 2011). This is possibly because more people are raising their children in English while they are mother tongue speakers of an indigenous language themselves. South Africans who speak an African language tend to be multilingual, while English and Afrikaans first language speakers tend to be either monolingual or at most bilingual (Banda 54), since these languages are most needed to function in the community. However language proficiency among people who are multilingual does not necessarily entail their ability to read a book in a non-mother tongue with ease.

10Publishers argue that that, while the most spoken home languages are African languages, there is poor reader demand for African language books, and that it would not be financially viable for them to publish books in these languages. During apartheid, books that were prescribed by government in African languages for black schools failed to develop a good reading culture. “In the urban areas where black Africans were forced to reside in segregated townships far from work, with inadequate free time [and] low wages” (Swanepoel 610), people were focused on surviving, not reading. African language books are still very much only associated with school education; the high status of English and perceived inferiority of African languages adds to this problem. It may be argued that, if the demand/ supply dialectic holds true, if publishers published more African language books outside the school market, more people would read these texts. Publishers are businesses however, and to make a profit they need to publish where they see a market. Authors also realise this, and often — even though they are mother-tongue speakers of African languages — prefer to write in English in order to get published, and to ensure a wider audience. Malcolm (39) states that “the chief difficulty the Zulu writers encounter, now that they have begun to write, is the fact that the Zulu people are not readers to any great extent. Therefore unless a book can be used in schools and a market thus assured, publishers are generally unwilling to undertake its printing”. Unfortunately many publishers show no innovative strategies to create high quality work in African languages which will remain cheap and accessible. This also reflects the nation’s attitude towards its own languages (Kaschula 127).

Multilingual publishing in the different sectors

Educational sector

11Educational publishers provide learning materials for schools which include textbooks, teachers’ guides, workbooks and prescribed literature. Educational publishing makes up the largest part of South African publishing. In 2006, the educational sector made up 65,37%, the academic and scholarly sector 17,72% and the trade sector 16,92% of the total net turnover of the South African publishing industry (Struik, Vender and Galloway 21). By 2006, at roughly 5% of national GDP, South Africa had one of the highest rates of government investment in education in the world.

  • 3 Further Education and Training students may attend FET courses which are vocational or occupational (...)

12The structure of the educational system in South Africa is not ideal since criteria by which books were selected had not been standardised and there has often been a lack of communication between the different provinces. In the past all the provinces had insisted on approving books before allowing schools to use government money to order them. This is where the problems set in: some provincial committees worked without specific criteria, others developed criteria but did not apply them, and the criteria varied from province to province (Van Rooyen 319). In 2011 the process was centralised for the first time; publishers are now submitting materials for acceptance to one central body, which will choose the best books according to their standards, and ensure that they are supplied to the whole country. These standards may include correctness of language (language level as well as politically correct terms, texts that are free of sexism etc.) and the number of illustrations that will offer appropriate representation of the South African diversity. The publishers have to adhere to very specific instructions in order to make sure their books will not be rejected. Thus this sector is extremely competitive. The PASA (Publishers Association of South Africa) Broad Trends report, compiled in 2011 with 38 participating publishers, provides figures on the turnover of local books according to language for 2008-2010. The sale of schoolbooks has indeed declined in all languages. English dominated the sale of FET3 textbooks with a market share of almost 100% and also the sale of ABET workbooks with a market share of almost 95% (Struik, le Roux 38-40).

13Yet, this is the sector where almost all of the country’s multilingual publishing takes place. The official policy states that learners should be taught in their home language up to age ten, after which they can decide which language to use (Van Rooyen 311), and educational publishers publish all the African language books that may be used at school, in all the official languages. Quantities of books in the various languages differ, as there are languages with more speakers than others. While it is important that children be taught in their mother tongues, teaching in English to students who have acquired it as a second or third language may impede learning (Banda 51), and this often creates a problem when learners have to go into the workplace or want to attend a tertiary education institution, where English — and to a lesser degree Afrikaans — is the norm. This limits the work opportunities and makes learning new skills a real challenge.

1418% of the South African government budget is spent annually on education, 75% of which goes to salaries for teachers. Despite this, about 5 million South African adults are completely illiterate, which means they never went to school, and another 5 million are functionally illiterate, which means they left school before grade 7. In other terms, about 20% of the population is illiterate or has a low level of literacy. More affluent (independent) schools have an advantage in that there are about 20 students per class, whereas poorer (dependent, state) schools have about 50 students per class, which makes the teaching process more difficult. Children at independent schools have a matric pass rate of about 97% in comparison to dependent schools’ 67,8%. (Lillie 10-11). Education in South Africa is not free and many poor parents cannot afford to send their children to school. Furthermore, many poor schools do not have basic facilities, such as running water. Those who have money are thus more likely to receive a good education, which increases their chances of being literate. Many South African children’s first experience with books occurs at school, which leads them to perceive books as teaching tools — reading is thus rarely seen as a leisure activity. Those that are fortunate enough to attend a school with a library may have a better chance of seeing the value of books beyond teaching tools, but even those who go on to receive a tertiary education often only read prescribed books.

Academic sector

15In higher education publishing books are produced for individual lecturers or individual departments within higher education institutions (Van Rooyen 329). Very few indigenous language books are published at this level, the only ones being for subject-specific purposes — such as new language acquisition or specific study of that language. Partly as a result of African languages competing with English, some African languages have not developed sufficient vocabulary for certain books to be published — for example a medical book is not likely to be published in IsiNdebele because the specific vocabulary does not exist yet. This is also linked to the non-standardisation of indigenous languages. Specific diacritics make typesetting difficult and a lack of qualified editors also present a problem.

16This results in a massive output of books in English, frequently imported, and academic publishing is becoming more and more English language exclusively. In 2006, the turnover of local academic book sales per language was 78, 11% English, 21, 87% Afrikaans and 0, 02% African languages (Struik, Venter and Galloway 21). No sales of academic textbooks in any of the African languages were recorded in 2009 or 2010. However, the market share of locally published English textbooks increased from 89,1% to 93% between 2008 and 2010. Assuming that almost all of the directly imported textbooks are in English, the use of English textbooks in tertiary education is estimated to be 97% of all textbooks used (Struik, le Roux 38-43). Classes are mostly taught in only English or Afrikaans. This is why it is so important that books have an easy language level; students from all over the country with various levels of English comprehension enroll in these institutions and are unable to buy books in their mother tongues. A study conducted by Beukes and Pienaar in 2006 among higher education students found that 40% of students claimed that they grew up using English as their mother tongue but 80% chose to use English as their primary language (Beukes, “Language Policy” 46).

17Overall there is a low book-buying culture among students. It is estimated that only an eighth of the students at tertiary education institutions are able to buy books (Andrew 75). South African publishers cannot cover all the study fields, and there is still scope for sales of imported product in less popular and technical subjects, or in subjects where illustrated texts are used. Thus the language level and vocabulary is often difficult for South African students, and the context in which examples are given, often remains foreign. In many cases, mother tongue African language speakers still prefer English as a medium of education (Banda 54).

Trade sector

18The trade book industry encompasses fiction, non-fiction and children’s books, and targets the “general reader” (Van Rooyen 299) who buys and reads books for leisure.

19While some South African publishers do publish local content specifically, there are also many multinationals and many books are imported from countries like the UK or the US. The trade bookselling sector is dominated by big chains such as Exclusive Books and CNA, and independent bookshops are almost non-existent. Moreover, bookstores are generally located in affluent areas and this decreases access to books for large parts of the population. However, even rural areas usually have a Pick’n Pay or a Checkers, a supermarket chain which is visited by most sections of the population (Andrew 85-86) and if more books were to be distributed through these outlets, the problem of access might be overcome. Online bookselling and the selling of e-books are also picking up among the existing reading market. According to a study commissioned by Google South Africa, the country had 8,5 million internet users in 2011, compared to 6,8 million people in 2010 which brings internet penetration in South Africa to approximately 17% (Mail & Guardian). This shows that more of South Africa’s population is using the internet, but in order to read an e-book one needs compatible device with which to read, and payment is mostly made through credit card. This continues to be a luxury reserved for the more affluent part of the population, and e-books are not reaching a new market; those that were already readers of the print book are the ones buying e-books.

20There are very few books published in the trade sector other than in English and Afrikaans, and this is related to the debate of supply vs. demand. The few books that are published for adult readers are also not readily available in the commercial bookshops in South Africa. Soweto, a city with a population of 3 million people, ranging from millionaires to squatters, did not have a single bookstore up until fairly recently (Morgan 186). Exclusive Books opened a store in Soweto in 2007 but it closed down in 2009, and has been replaced by Van Schaik, an educational bookstore. This reflects the market’s preference for educational books rather than leisure reading.

21In a study done by PASA for the period 2008-2010, English fiction ended 31,1% below its 2008 turnover value and Afrikaans fiction ended the reporting period 12,2% above its 2008 value. The turnover in African languages fiction remained low, although it showed an increase of 22,4% over the reporting period. Afrikaans fiction increased its market share from 69,6% in 2008 to 78,6% in 2010. Turnover in 2010 for both English and Afrikaans non-fiction was higher than their turnover in 2008, but African languages’ non-fiction turnover declined by 31,5% (Struik, le Roux 49-50). The relative decline in sales in Afrikaans and English books is most probably due to the recession during the reporting period, while changes in curriculum at school contributed to the decline in African language book sales.

Other factors influencing multilingual publishing

22While South Africa’s publishing industry is successful in producing local content, illiteracy, poverty and economic instability are obstacles impeding its growth, especially in the multilingual publishing area, for example illiteracy, poverty and economic instability (Seeber 279). Publishers themselves point “at the lack of reading culture, stemming from the lack of education and from poverty” (Mahal 15) as the biggest problem in the publishing industry when considering the small reading market. In the absence of a good reading and book-buying culture, many publishers fall back on producing schoolbooks to survive, even if their main area of specialisation is not in education (Seeber 279).

23According to information collected by the HSRC’s annual South African Social Attitudes Survey (Poverty in South Africa), many South Africans are still lacking enough food and income to meet all their household needs. This leaves no room for the purchase of luxury items. Illiteracy rates currently stand at around 18% of adults over 15 years old, teachers in township schools are poorly trained, and the matric pass rate remains low. South Africa is home to millions of adults who are unable to function adequately in the modern world due to under-developed reading and writing skills (Sisulu). Furthermore, “in a developing country access to published works is often difficult even for the literate, since...libraries are usually understocked, and bookshops...are rarely to be found outside the more affluent parts of urban areas” (Seeber 279). Traditionally, local bookselling has served a wealthy minority of the population (McNaugt, Bowen 18). The major booksellers stock few indigenous language titles, and the majority of books sold are in English. However, most stores have dedicated Afrikaans language sections; and if the store is situated in a geographic area that is considered to match the demographic distribution, the Afrikaans language section will be situated prominently within the store (Andrew 99).

24Libraries provide resources to those who cannot afford to buy books, or those who do not have access to the internet. However, most libraries are still located in more affluent areas which means extra travelling costs for those who are far away from the nearest library. Unfortunately funding of provincial libraries has been cut severely in recent years, and various initiatives to take books closer to the more disadvantaged or remoter centres of population have collapsed through lack of government backing (Andrew 85-86). Cutbacks in library purchases have had a negative effect on African-language publishing because black communities cannot afford to buy books in volume, and libraries are the biggest purchasers of African language titles (Sisulu). Black communities are doubly deprived because existing libraries cannot stock up on the required volumes of books in African languages and there are very few libraries in the townships. For example, Soweto’s population is served by less than ten libraries (Sisulu). In addition to this, there are very few school libraries: “it is a sad fact that 92% of public schools in South Africa do not have a library” (Mahal 14) which means that “fewer than 6000 of the nation’s 25000 public schools have libraries” (Van der Vlies). Challenges facing libraries at the moment include difficulty in staffing the libraries with qualified personnel — a problem most prominent in rural areas — and a lack of appropriate material. “Librarians and publishers, with the help of NGOs...are trying to generate a reading culture by pressuring the government to establish more libraries and train more librarians, so as to enable free and democratic access to books and reading experiences to a larger and poorer section of the South African community” (Mahal 15).

Writings in Nine Tongues

25Against this economic backdrop, I have chosen to analyse the 2007 catalogue portraying multilingual publishing in South Africa, to examine the extent to which this general situation is indeed reflected. Writings in Nine Tongues is a catalogue that was brought out in 2007 (no new catalogue has been brought out since this publication) by the Publisher’s Association of South Africa (PASA) so that publishers could showcase — seemingly in response to criticisms — what indigenous language publishing has been taking place in the country and to prove that publishing in these languages is in fact alive and well. It showcases all the titles published in the nine indigenous and official languages in the following genres: novel, traditional literature, short story, drama, essay and prose, poetry, multi-genres and non-fiction. Descriptions of each book are given in the language of the book as well as English, and for each book is provided the age of the target reader. Books are sorted by language, genre and publisher. A first remark suggests the predominance of educational multilingual book, as trade publishers are almost entirely absent from the catalogue.

26My analysis of the catalogue was done by comparing two of the African languages — IsiXhosa (one of the most widely spoken) and IsiNdebele (much less widely spoken) — in order to further investigate the state of multilingual publishing in South Africa. The proportions of books in the various languages mirror the proportions of speakers of those languages (Edwards, Ngwaru 5); books are published according to reader demand, but this means that the less spoken languages have a smaller variety of books to choose from. Thus many of the findings from the comparison between IsiXhosa and IsiNdebele could be generalised to the other languages as well.

27The analysis of Writings in Nine Tongues has revealed a series of problems. The titles that have been published include output over a much longer time period than 2007, the date of publication. So that some titles have been published over a number of years, while the catalogue gives no indication of the date of publication and whether or not the book is still in print. This is problematic because it prevents accurate analysis of actual title production per year, and whether or not access to these books is possible. The languages are then divided into the nine official languages, and this foregrounds the limited number of titles available in each language, contrary to general appearances. It was also difficult to classify the books according to different age groups, as the catalogue has well over 40 age bands, or ages of the readers the books were aimed at (Edwards, Ngwaru, 2). There was no specific way the ages for the readers of each book were sorted, so it was difficult to determine the average age of readers publishers cater to.

  • 4 Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET) is education for — often illiterate — adults and provides (...)

28In my analysis, it was found that the majority of books are for children between the ages of 0-14 (which is supported by Edwards and Ngwaru’s findings), with a few being for older students or adults. Most of the adult books are for ABET4 purposes. These books are however not appropriate for literate adults who want to do leisure reading. The books that are provided in Writings in Nine Tongues are mostly those published for teaching purposes — to be used by schoolchildren or for ABET. The most published genre is novels; however picture books and readers for the young are included in this category, which makes analysis difficult: classification systems are thus unsatisfactory (Edwards, Ngwaru 4).

29There is much more available across the board in IsiXhosa than in IsiNdebele. Some publishers who have IsiXhosa titles do not have a single IsiNdebele title. This is probably due to reader demand, less author diversity or the publisher specialising in only a few languages, but this still means less variety for readers of IsiNdebele (and also of other smaller African languages). The more widely spoken languages seem to get more support from role players in the industry; many literary prizes, for example, are awarded to the bigger African languages, while minority languages like isiNdebele and Siswati are written out altogether (Phaswane 213).

30In many instances, we find author collaborations and not single authors. In some cases four authors will work together to write a reader for an 8-10 year old, for example an IsiXhosa novel by Macmillan written by B. Coombe, H. Moore, M. Slingsby and I.N. Gilbert. Some authors write for more than one publisher, and some titles are translated into the various languages, or one author will write a few novels for a publisher which are then translated into all the languages, which means that the publisher actually has only one author for the African languages. This shows that there are often only a few authors who are creating a large proportion of African language titles.

31Most publishers of African language books are educational or specialized in children’s books. There are very few trade publishers that carry African language titles, and if they do, it is only one or two titles. Many of these publishers do publish educational or academic publishing as part of their list but not exclusively. For example one of the biggest educational publishers is Heinemann, whose list features 12 IsiNdebele titles and 16 IsiXhosa titles, whereas Jacana Media — a trade publisher — has two IsiXhosa titles and no IsiNdebele titles. Trade publishers sometimes delve into the educational market for survival, and this may often be the only reason they make these titles available. Thirty-three publishers participated in this catalogue, and in my analysis of the ones that published IsiXhosa and IsiNdebele books, seventeen were classified as educational publishers, one as self-publishing, four as trade publishers, six as children’s publishers and two as ABET publishers. Some publishers have imprints specialising in different areas, and some publishers have more than one specialisation, though if they listed educational publishing as an area of specialisation they were counted as such.

  • 5 The Bantu Education Act was passed in 1953 and brought education of black children under the contro (...)

32What has been inferred from the analysis of Writings in Nine Tongues is indeed a reflection of the current situation of multilingual publishing in South Africa, which has seen little or no improvement since the publication of the catalogue in 2007. There are almost no books available in African languages beyond books for schools. Various factors, such as the legacy of the specific function of literature in Bantu5 education, adult illiteracy, and the hegemonic function of English — considered to be a requirement for upward-social mobility — are all partly responsible for this situation (Van der Waal qtd. in Morgan 186).

  • 6 Literature about a changing South Africa: the country’s transformation from apartheid to democracy.

33Not only are there few indigenous language books easily accessible for purposes of leisure reading, but it also appears that many African language speakers tend to prefer reading in English, as mentioned before. “Although the rural population and some teachers and academics read books in the indigenous African languages, most other readers consider it a waste of time and prefer reading English books” and the near absence of reviews on African languages books in the media is poor promotion for these languages among its users (Morgan 187). Unfortunately, literature in indigenous languages also often becomes unavailable to the country’s ‘general’ readers. “It is of grave concern that some of the works of transformation literature6 are already out of print. Mtuze’s Ungakhe uxelele mntu (‘Don’t tell a soul’) is no longer available, perhaps because it has never been used in schools. When a nation’s literature is dependent on prescription for schools in order to survive, the irony of transformation is patent. Clearly there is little or no adult readership” (Kaschula127).

34The 2010 PA Market Report on South Africa has shown that the local publishing industry in South Africa is dominated by English language publications, which accounted for 72% of sales across all sectors. Books published in Afrikaans accounted for 16% of sales, and African languages for 12%, mainly isiZulu, IsiXhosa, Sepedi and Setswana (Andrew 9). This means 12% of all sales are shared between nine African languages. Thus the number of publications available — across all sectors — for each African language is extremely small. This has been the case for many years and “it can be said with a degree of truth that the literature has not yet, qualitatively or quantitatively, achieved the standards of Afrikaans and English literature, and that both creative écriture and critical writing are unpolitical, and have not fully established a bond with African literature as a whole” (Maake 157).

Recent developments and future possibilities

35With the democracy and the adoption of the new constitution new provisions were made for the eleven official languages of the country. The Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology convened a Language Task Group, known as LANGTAG, to advise government on developing a policy and implementation plan based on the constitutional language provisions, and in 1996, they presented government with a comprehensive report, the LANGTAG Report, outlining a clear framework for the development of a language policy and plan (Beukes, “The first ten years” 11). A Language Policy Advisory Panel — the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) — was appointed to draft a language policy and plan drawing on the framework provided by the LANGTAG Report. They produced the first draft of the Language Policy and Plan for South Africa and the South African Languages Draft Bill (Beukes, “The first ten years” 11-17). Only in 2003 did the Cabinet finally approve the National Language Policy Framework (NLPF) which would eventually consist in, among other things, a Policy Statement, an Implementation Plan and the South African Languages Act (Beukes, “The first ten years” 11-17). Government did publish the Implementation Plan after approving the NLPF.

36These developments seemed very promising, and have resulted in a language policy process that is exemplary by all standards (Beuke, “The first ten years” 17). However a salient language policy remains to be implemented, and “questions pertaining to the how and what of translating this progressive policy into practice will not be answered in the affirmative but would rather suggest a gap and clear tension between the development and institutionalisation of language policy” (Beukes, “The first ten years” 17); in other words while there are excellent plans and goals set out in these documents, none have been effectively carried out or successfully reached. Implementation failure, related to the use of African languages, is blamed on inadequate congruence between government’s stated language policy and actual language practice (Beukes, “Language policy” 36). Beukes goes on to explain that

37Notwithstanding the commendable language policy and planning it is clear that South Africa currently finds itself in a ‘retrogressive’ situation of widespread policy failure. Government’s lack-lustre approach to policy implementation, together with the hegemonic position of English and negative attitudes regarding the functional uses of African languages, has resulted in language matters taking a back seat in government’s transformation agenda. The fate of the country’s indigenous languages is a matter of concern (Beukes, “Language policy” 43-44).

38In July 2011, a draft language policy was presented to the government. On 17-18 January 2012, the Portfolio Committee on Arts and Culture held public hearings on the government’s proposed SA Languages Bill which have revealed that most participants agreed that the bill as it stood was inadequate (Pan South African Language Board). PanSALB’s first point of departure was that the bill is unlikely to give effect to the government’s constitutional obligation. More recently, in December 2012, PanSALB claimed that they are working on the issue of equitable use of the official languages through the enactment of the South African Use of Languages Bill in 2012, which provides for the regulation and monitoring of the use of official languages by national government for official purposes and to endorse the compulsory teaching of an indigenous language in all schools (Zwane). These promised measures, however, are still to be seen, and there are doubts about whether they will be carried through. Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has set up a ministerial advisory panel to examine the development of indigenous African languages in higher education that would focus on obstacles to installing effective language policies and practices at institutions of higher education and training. Nzimande said that the panel will submit its report in June 2013. Although these are steps in the right direction, De Kadt postulates that “as long as language policy languishes, language will continue to throw up barriers to development, both for individuals and for the country as a whole” (De Kadt 26).

39Apart from government and the language policy, some publishers are trying to increase their author pools in order to allow new voices to be heard, and to diversify author profiles. In the case of the educational publishers, where time is always of the essence and authors need to know how the publishing process works and what their roles are, author workshops are held in order to “groom” authors. Many up-and-coming writers, of different races and genders, publish in the trade sector. Yet, most writers still write in English, as they strive to reach an international market. Books that are written in another African language are often translated into English for the same reason. In many tertiary education institutions, the author pools are not diverse at all, the same textbooks being used year after year, with few new editions sometimes coming out. Here special efforts must be made to diversify author pools.

40An incentive for authors to write in African languages includes writing competitions and literary prizes — awards for a variety of African language works may encourage more authors to write in their mother tongues. Translations would then make these books available to a wider market. Literary prizes in South Africa include the Maskew Miller Longman African Heritage Awards, the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature and the M-Net Book prize, which is open to writers in all South Africa’s national languages (Kaschula 124). Despite these efforts, many successful South African writers choose to live abroad, and Henrietta Rose-Innes, winner of the 2008 Caine Prize for African writing, has argued that “there is ‘not enough support, financial or otherwise, to keep the middle ranks’ of writers inside the country ‘going over the long haul’” (qtd. in Van der Vlies).

41Big steps have been made in the last two decades: South Africa has moved from two official languages and huge inequalities, to eleven official languages recognised by the country’s Constitution. However, it is clear that multilingual publishing in South Africa still has a long way to go. English-language books remain predominant in the South African publishing industry, although two African languages are the most widely spoken. Publishers do not want to publish African language books outside of the school market because the reading market is small and they argue it would not be financially viable. Aware of the limited readership, authors who strive — desperately, for some — to get published, some desperate to reach international audiences, will most often choose to write in English. Thus while the new Constitution has provided freedom for all to write — men, women, black and white, language diversity has not improved much, and titles are mostly produced for the schools market. Access to books is a big problem for many potential readers and book-buyers because of the locations of bookstores or libraries; reading culture, affected by poverty and illiteracy, is another factor that decreases the book-buying market, and the popularity of African language books is further hindered by the lower social status of African languages.

42Only after all these problems start to be remedied will the book-buying markets increase and so too the market for books in African languages as more than just a teaching tool.

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1 In this article indigenous and African languages refer to languages that originated in South Africa, excluding Afrikaans. Afrikaans is also considered an African language “because [of] its hybrid nature, together with the fact that [it] is only spoken in South Africa” (Beukes 2004, 25)

2 Bantu languages are part of a family of languages spoken in the southern part of Africa, and are languages that share similar structural features. In this case Bantu refers to the indigenous languages of South Africa (as opposed to English and Afrikaans).

3 Further Education and Training students may attend FET courses which are vocational or occupational by nature meaning that the student receives education and training with a view towards a specific range of jobs or employment possibilities (What is FET?, 2013).

4 Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET) is education for — often illiterate — adults and provides access to nationally recognised certificates.

5 The Bantu Education Act was passed in 1953 and brought education of black children under the control of apartheid government, and funding of black schools became conditional on acceptance of a curriculum created to make sure they learned only what was beneficial to government. This meant black children were only predominantly taught manual and industrial skills, how to do manual labour for work in factories and so forth.

6 Literature about a changing South Africa: the country’s transformation from apartheid to democracy.

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Electronic reference

Jana MÖLLER, The State of Multilingual Publishing in South Africae-Rea [Online], 11.1 | 2013, Online since 15 December 2013, connection on 20 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author


University of Pretoria
Jana Möller is a lecturer at the University of Pretoria. Her research focuses on Information Science, with specializations in Publishing, Translation and Professional Writing.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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