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“I Do Feel Like a Bit of an Askari Sometimes” – Thabiso Mahlape on Being a Black Publisher in a White World

Thabiso Mahlape, a publisher at Jacana Media, spoke about her role in the publishing world during Tuesday evening’s debate around Decolonising the Literary Landscape.

The event, organised by Jacana and held at Wits University, was chaired by Eusebius McKaiser, with authors Thando Mgqolozana and Siphiwo Mahala, as well as Ben Williams, Sunday Times books editor and founder of Books LIVE, and Corina van der Spoel, festival organiser, book facilitator and former manager of Die Boekehuis.

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Mahlape’s comments followed those of African Flavour Books owner Fortiscue Helepi, who said: “I might not last for five years, but I would have stood up and showed our kids that we are reading, and that a black person can open a bookshop and not a tavern for once.”

“At first I wasn’t going to say anything here tonight,” Mahlape began. “My entire publishing focus is publishing black stories.

“The publishing world is white and, like they said, I do feel like a bit of an askari sometimes. I have been called a sell-out by a person who wanted to be part of the panel tonight but he isn’t here.

“I’m doing all that I can. I fight, my boss [Bridget Impey] is here, she knows. We fight about, you know, black-white issues, from the air-con to the books that we publish.”

Mahlape also responded to a previous comment from the audience around self-publishing, saying that she is really happy it is taking off: “One thing that it’s going to do is that it’s going to ensure that we have more readers.

“What’s going to become of me if I’m publishing black stories and there aren’t any people buying or reading those stories? I might as well retire.”

Another issue that was raised in the audience was about how publishers locking authors into contracts. Mahlape said that she believes the practice is wrong and explained how she recently removed a clause in someone’s contract stating that Jacana had first rights to their next work.

“Publishing is a highly emotional process,” she said. “The last thing you want is people that you hate working with you – it’s hard enough working with people who like you.”

Mahlape congratulated Mgqolozana for his stance, and his recent comments at the Franschhoek Literary Festival.

“Thando and I have a very difficult relationship,” she began, explaining how she reacted when he rejected an invitation from the Mail & Guardian to attend their literary festival, because they had “invited him in a very insulting way”: “A part of me, and I suppose it’s the askari part of me, wanted him to keep quiet and not upset things. Like them I owe you an apology, Thando, because I’m very proud of you.”

In closing, Mahlape announced a new publishing initiative: “I’m very proud of the black list that we have at Jacana. My boss and I had spoken about making this announcement tonight and we decided we weren’t going to do it but I’m doing it anyway, that from August we’re going to be launching my own imprint under Jacana called the BlackBird.”

We’ve transcribed some soundbites from the event here, but to get the full feel of the debate, listen to the podcast:

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See a Twitter timeline of the #LitApartheid hashtag:



Flickr album from the event:


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