Given the current status of the standoff between local media and the ANC – around a “DEFCON 2” if The Party were the US military – it’s probably not a great idea to bait the joint chiefs with a book title that so heinously disrespects their leader. Still, that’s just what publisher Two Dogs and blogger Azad Essa are about to do.
When they started out in 2006, Grant Schreiber and Daniel Ford intended their new publishing house Two Dogs to be targeted solely at men. The tagline was “books men read” and the early catalogue included such fetching titles as Women’s Bodies: A User’s Manual and I Can Do That! Fitness For The Lazy Guy. Since that auspicious beginning, perhaps realising that the large majority of the book-buying public are not men, Two Dogs have expanded their range to appeal to female readers too.
Ndumiso Ngcobo’s trenchant social commentary, the bestselling Some Of My Best Friends Are White and its follow-up Is It Coz I’m Black?, has been published by the imprint, as well as the equally genderless Kak series – Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Kak? The Whingers Guide to South Africa, Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Still Kak?, and Complete Kak! The Comprehensive Whingers Guide To South Africa And The World.
As this catalogue and the name of the publishing house might suggest (Two Dogs, get it?), these guys aren’t frightened of a little controversy. Which is a good thing, because they’re about to publish a book called Zuma’s Bastard, and they might have to draw on such courage when the Hawks come knocking at their door.
The book, to be released in early summer, is a collection of posts and memorabilia penned by the 27-year-old Thoughtleader blogger Azad Essa. Mainstream South African publishers have yet to fully embrace the blogging phenomenon, and so Zuma’s Bastard doesn’t just break the mould in title alone, but what Two Dogs have in Essa is an award-winning blogger who’s somehow managed to convince City Press editor Ferial Haffajee to write the foreword.
What’s more, Two Dogs have brought their innovativeness to the book’s cover design. A competition was advertised for young designers with a prize of R2500 going to the winning entry, which will be announced on 25th August (see the Zuma’s Bastard Facebook page for the shortlist and winner). The competition was covered by both the Sunday Times and Mail & Guardian (see links below).
Essa, a masters graduate from Durban who started his blog so that he could break into mainstream media, recently landed a job as a journalist with the Al Jazeera Network in Doha. The Daily Maverick got hold of him there.
The Daily Maverick: Why the title Zuma's Bastard? The press material claims it's not meant to stir controversy, but surely that's a somewhat disingenuous claim?
Essa: The title is not completely legitimate, but there’s good justification for it. Without giving too much away, the book is made up of two headers: “Zuma’s Bastard” and “Encounters with a desktop terrorist”. They are equally important because they collectively introduce readers to the central theme of the book: a rabid Indian bastard on the loose under Zuma’s watch.
I don’t know what it means to fight for freedom. And in many ways, the title locates me as a child of the Zuma presidency. I was too young during the honeymoon Mandela period to engage in the new democracy and so it doesn’t count. Zuma, touted as the man to lead us away from tendered one-night stands and deliver on promises to the people, capital and who-ever-else he conned, has created a nation of bastards, trying to make sense of it all.
At the same time, I have straight hair, “Indian” skin and go to mosque; I am a desktop terrorist with views of the world that are politically incorrect, sometimes blasphemous and incongruent with the good Indian muslim boy who must open a shop, play the system, marry a virgin and look forward to more in heaven.
If anything, the book is about the coming-of-age of a generation of South Africans who want to finally fight for their freedom.
The book is definitely not anti-Zuma, despite the flattering title. That would be far too easy. The book, like the blog, addresses a variety of themes relevant to South Africans, the usual suspects included, but written from a fresh and humorous perspective. It’s a bludgeoning view of the world from an Indian perspective. And my cousins aren’t going to be thrilled.
Of course the title is meant to create a stir, but we also think it’s the character of the writing (rather than a shocking title for kicks). And about the press material; they probably sent you the polite version.
The Daily Maverick: Given the forthright tone and general theme of your blog, what are your views (in brief) of the current battle (war?) between the media and the ANC?
Essa: The ANC have developed some incredibly anti-democratic ideas over the past decade. If they could help it, there would be no opposition party. I mean, we hardly even have one right now, but many ANC-card carrying members believe that the opposition, by definition, slows down decision-making and progress because of their continual nagging and bitching about every new government initiative. This media war follows this exact argument where they want to curtail media freedom and deter journalists from getting in the way.
Obviously this makes total sense and I fully support the ANC in their plans. I always wanted to live under a dictatorship.
The Daily Maverick: As far as we can tell, it's rare for a local publisher to publish a collection of blog posts. Why do you think your blogs have broken the mould?
Essa: Yes, that’s right. Publishing a collection of blog posts is generally unheard-of in South Africa.
Perhaps the answer to this is that my blog on Thoughtleader was never meant to be a blog, in the traditional sense (a couple of scribble lines written for the heck of it). I only resorted to blogging because I was battling to get published in the mainstream media. I literally approached the platform as an opportunity to get my work out there, into the mainstream.
Almost every article was an acid test, a purposeful experiment with style, content and message. It was geared towards creating a portfolio that would get me the column or journo job I craved.
I come from an academic background, where all this knowledge would rotate amongst colleagues in the so-called scientific community. This was my major gripe with academia; it didn’t seem to understand the need to communicate, unpack and create conversations with people outside the circle. And the circle was already so very small. At the same time, I felt a lot of our journalism – due to a variety of constraints – was dumbed-down rhetoric that failed to ignite excitement, dialogue and bring young people to the fore. So I thought, before I became a dinosaur myself, or heaven forbid, get a real job, I might as well throw the dice, and write about our political and societal issues in a style that would literally cut through the bullshit and open up the issues, as I understood them. It took some effort, but I had to believe that I could merge academic texts with popular culture and give issues some sex appeal and personality. This gives the articles edge, because they are serious and yet disguised in an irreverent capsule.
And it worked. The blog won best political blog in 2009, and I was profiled by a couple of magazines and newspapers as a type of new-age writer that called it as he saw it without becoming too heavy on the reader.
The Daily Maverick: Why the competition for the cover? It's a good idea, we think, but it’s rare too. What motivated the decision? (At the time of publishing this article, there was still no final decision. We chose two out of top six covers to illustrate this article. - ed)
Essa: This was rather simple. This was about a collection of writing on a blog traversing the publishing world. Without the online interaction, reader engagement and traffic, there would be no successful blog. So we, as in my marketing heroine Fathima Paruk, Two Dogs publishing manager Tim Richman and I thought it would be fitting that readers play a part in developing a cover that would best represent the writing. There would be a cash prize and loads of publicity for the best designs, and we’d solicit a cover from a young creative. Everyone would win.
Incidentally, it helped that I knew a number of promising young designers, and I had the confidence that we’d receive some top-notch entries.
Breaking into any creative industry is tough, and knowing how hard I’ve had to work and how thankful I am for the opportunities that have come my way, we thought, why not spread the love?
It only occurred to us later how it might fit in with our marketing strategy. But we really didn’t expect such a rousing response. The covers received were excellent and we’ve picked up some serious traffic.
Interview by Kevin Bloom