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A green reading revolution in Durban signals a new chapter for the written word


Dr Imraan Buccus is a senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute and a postdoctoral fellow at Durban University of Technology.

A quiet revolution is going down in a public park in Durban. The fighters are armed with books.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

They have torn down the barricades to the written, spoken and performed word. Everyone feels at home under the giant essenwoods with lush green grass underfoot. In sandals and shorts. Fedoras and doeks. The Durban Book Fair has been going strong for three years in the Mitchell Park animal sanctuary.

Authors, poets and playwrights gather piously every first Sunday of the month to launch new offerings from local wordsmiths. It’s a feast for local bookdealers and book collectors too. None of the fuss and funding of structured book festivals looking for celebrity crowd-pullers. Volunteers run everything from the programming to packing the chairs on the 120-year-old bandstand.

They’re more than a trifle unconventional too. A pair of Shetland ponies prance among the poets to draw young readers to the fair. Mickey and Minnie came in full foam costume at the height of the Durban summer to reel the tiny tots into storytelling. An eccentric aficionado of the holy weed sets up a Native American tepee and plays a didgeridoo to set the literary mood. Indian classical dancers, school wind bands and wrinkly rockers have also joined the monthly communion. The coastal city is an ideal setting as Africa’s only United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) city of literature.

The book fair has now morphed into an NPO to give expression to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s enthusiastic promotion of reading and KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala throwing his weight behind a “one township, one book” campaign to promote local writing. Chairing the non-profit is a high-energy advocate at the Durban Bar, Zandile Qono-Reddy. “A Unesco city must be an active citizen project,” she gushes in between mobile texts enticing silk Tembeka Ngcukaitobi to bring his book Land Matters to the book fair’s May Day programme.

The citizen angle is echoed by local author Kiru Naidoo, who worked with heritage publisher Anivesh Singh to launch the project outside the straitjacket of government. “We hope that government will come on board now that we have solid proof of concept, but the organising must remain in the hands of accountable volunteers,” adds Naidoo.

The Durban Book Fair’s track record is indeed a stellar one, boasting about 120 new books launched in spite of the Covid-19 interruption to its physical park programme.

The book fair has linked with Unesco cities and book festivals around the world by making innovative use of social media. The project started out as a motley handful eager to bring books into the park. It now has authors and patrons by the truckload eager for both a platform and a monthly fix.

The Covid-19 pandemic is now in local retreat, but the organisers are taking no chances. Each author session on the bandstand is pegged at 30 attendees, well below what regulations allow. The overflow is spread on the lawns. One hopes that the organisers are stocked with enough ammo to keep the revolutionary fervour brewing. Forward with the written word, forward! DM168 

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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