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“I Wanted to Prove a Black Person Can Open a Bookshop, Not a Tavern” – African Flavour Books Owner Fort Helepi

Fortiscue Helepi

African Flavour Books owner Fortiscue Helepi had some pearls of wisdom to share at the debate around “Decolonising the Literary Landscape” on Tuesday evening.

The event, organised by Jacana Media 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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Helepi, or “Fort” as he is known, is a chemical engineer, and the founder of African Flavour Books, a small independent bookshop in Vanderbijlpark devoted to African literature, which opened earlier this year.

He raised his hand during the comment session, asserting his devotion to growing South Africa’s local literary landscape – although he emphasises that he had to “hustle” – and warned against relying on government for funding.

“I think in this room I might be the only person who’s not angry, because I’m doing something about it,” he said.

“There’s one thing I can tell you – I’ve stayed away from government. Because once you invite those people in, they mess you up. They will move you from one pole to the other and you’ll never get there.

“I started African Flavour Books with my own cash that I saved for three years. And you can find Ngugi wa Thiong’o, you can find Thando [Mgqolozana], you can find Niq [Mhlongo] – they are our own Shakespeare and they are in front, they are not at the back!

“I have some people who travel from Joburg to go to a small town – Vanderbijlpark – to go to the bookshop. And I think it is possible. We can do it.

“Our kids are hungry. They want to read.

“But I’m facing challenges. The distributors are making sure that I don’t win. Jacana have been helpful. On the Dot distributors, they didn’t care about me because I am a small shop somewhere in the middle of nowhere, they were not interested. So Jacana helped me to be put into On the Dot distribution. And now I can get books. But it was difficult. I had to do it, I had to hustle, I had to do so many things to make sure I can get the books in there.

“And yes, you’re right, 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.

“That’s what I’m living for every day. I’m on it.

“But I’m not going to go to government for help. Actually I’ll die even quicker if I go to them.”

Also read:


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:


Book details


Recent comments:

  • MsLee
    June 11th, 2015 @10:57 #

    Wonderful to hear of this bookshop - I hope it goes from strength to strength. It's always a hustle for small businesses to get started, but I'm sure Fort's perseverance in the face of these early difficulties will guarantee that the store will be a lasting success. Thanks to Jacana media for its support for the new venture.


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