Xhosa finally part of South African literature

June 2006 -

Despite the country's eleven official languages, virtually all books published in South Africa are in English or Afrikaans. Poet and author James Matthews, owner of publishing house Realities, is trying to change that. With support from the Ministry of Art and Culture he is publishing a series of books in Xhosa. Sindiwe Magona's book Abantwana Baba Ntwana Bam, launched at the end of April in Cape Town's Langa Township, is the second in the series.

Sindiwe Magona

"The dominance of European languages in the publishing world in South Africa is not only a legacy from apartheid," says Matthews, whose own work was forbidden by the white regime. "We can't blame apartheid for everything. It is also caused by the mentality of the commercial publishers. There is nothing to prevent them from publishing books in the African languages. But they believe the financial risk is too great."

Magona's book, for example, was published in 1990 in an English translation, titled To My Children's Children . "The original version was also published back then," Matthews continues. "But it was almost as if the publisher was doing the author a favour. The book in Xhosa was merely an afterthought."

Because there are so few books in African languages, the reader audience is small. "It is a Catch-22 situation," according to Matthews. "Schools in the Cape are primarily populated by children who speak Xhosa. But there is almost no literature in that language. That is what I am fighting for. We want these books to be widely distributed, but there is so much bureaucracy. It is a long process."

Earlier this year Realities published a collection of poems in Xhosa, titled Amazwi Amatsha. The collection came into being through an advertisement in a local newspaper asking poets to submit their work. The publishing house hopes to bring three more books in Xhosa before the end of the year.