Jacana Media’s Bridget Impey on the State of Publishing and the Zapiro Litmus test
25 Nov 2015
In September last year, 60 independent publishers from around the world met in Cape Town, South Africa, for the closing of the International Assembly of Independent Publishers held under the umbrella of UNESCO. The report from the assembly includes Jacana Media publisher Bridget Impey’s presentation titled “Overview of the publishing industry in South Africa: which specifics and which issues?”, which she has kindly agreed to share with us:
My partner, business partner and the one who started all the trouble by setting up the publishing list of Jacana Media 12 years ago, Maggie Davey, likes to tell a story when she introduces herself to the commissioning students on the Wits Honours Publishing course. The story is complicated, relates to the ease with which she, based on a racing tip from her mother, became a habitué of Paddy Powers online racehorse gambling network. She’s only half serious, but the story serves to illustrate how all publishers are gamblers. The students usually do a double take, but by the end of the story they can easily see themselves as punters, slapping wads of notes into ever encouraging printers hands, saying; I’ll put 100 grand on the cookbook and 15 on that fiction title.
And that picture is the simple one, the one that publishers all over the world recognise. But it’s the underlying terrain, the state of the track that in South Africa is a little different. But we’ll come to that in a moment.
On the outside we are much like any other country. Bestsellers are the books published for people who don’t usually buy books. And in South Africa we have a lot of those, people that don’t buy books that is. But not that many bestsellers. It is becoming readily accepted that South Africans do not read books. They read newspapers and magazines –more than two-thirds of South Africans regularly read print media, according to the South African Book Development Council– but they are not so-called committed readers: only 1%, or around 500,000 of South Africans regularly buy books and only 14% are regular book readers, figures far below the estimated literacy rate of 88.7%. And perhaps the most telling statistic here is that only 5% of parents read to their children.
“But”, says author and literacy advocate Sindiwe Magona, (Mail & Guardian) “there exists a myth that we’re a non-reading culture. The trouble with myths is that they very soon become self-perpetuating.
“Because we see that we don’t read, or the myth exists that people don’t read –whichever comes first– we accept it as fact. We do not look at the causes. We do not look at remedies.”
So, let us start with the causes, which seem to sit squarely upon the high cost of books in South Africa.
Are they high, maybe, but Tebogo Ditshego, founder of the social media campaign Read a Book South Africa, rejects the notion that the lack of a widespread reading culture is economically driven. “South Africans, for example, spent R10.4-billion on gum and chocolate in 2010. In comparison, the book industry only makes about R3.5-billion a year. “The challenge is to create a culture of reading books by educating parents about the importance of reading books to their children.”
Our local Nielsen bestseller list reflects the lack of committed readers:
Over the spread of a year there’s a more than generous sprinkling of religion, a fair bit of true crime and quite often a heavy sporting influence. Locally written fiction is noticeable by its absence as it is the imported variety that sell. Cookbooks feature strongly, as does local memoir and local current affairs. Much of this top of the pops list is in Afrikaans. Given that our language ratios, according to the 2011 census read as follows: isiZulu is the most widely spoken language, being the mother tongue of 22.7% of South Africa’s population, followed by isiXhosa at 16%, Afrikaans at 13.5%, English at 9.6%, Setswana at 8% and Sesotho at 7.6%. It’s clear that we have a long way to go before the publishing industry truly reflects our demographics.
But the books on the bestseller lists are frequently the books that are not challenging. It’s harder to make the books that matter, the books that change things, that challenge us and which more properly reflect and expose the state of this state, thus revealing the state of the book. And one of the factors that militate against this kind of publishing is that it isn’t always going to break even, let alone make a profit.
I’d like to illustrate an overview of the state of publishing in South Africa by using the story of a cartoonist, Zapiro, to tell that story. But first, a little of how we got there.
I stumbled into publishing in the early 1980’s. Repression and suppression, detention without trial, dozens of books were banned every week. It was a fraught and difficult yet passionately interesting time to learn the business, and the fact that I was taken in by David Philip Publishers, as were fellow Jacana publishers, Maggie Davey and Russell Martin, has done much to shape the way we see our current list, as well as alerting us to possible threats ahead.
In those days we cared so deeply about what we were publishing that the financial bottom line was more than a little blurred most of the time, and Marie Philip’s catch-phrase, ‘living from book to mouth’ often meant that we didn’t know whether printers, and or our own salaries, would be paid. David and Marie knew how to take risks, and we employed a remarkable range of subterfuge and stealth in order to get books and the information therein into the hands of readers.
When publishing the exposé, Detention and Torture in South Africa by Don Foster, Dennis Davis & Diane Sandler, we took the liberty of, without prior warning, mailing copies to each of the names on our mailing list. It followed much the same principle of those organizations that mail out Christmas cards packs to an unsuspecting public, and who rely on an honesty system to get paid. It worked. Many South Africans were hungry for information and booksellers in the main supported our list.
Ebooks, or the perceived threat thereof, have done much to change that bookselling landscape. Like the rest of the world we’ve seen smaller shops closing their doors. We have however a glimmer of light shining in that previously gloomy landscape with the advent of the ‘new’ Exclusive Books, who are showing a zeal and passion for bookselling that has been long absent except for the independents. Maggie, Russell and I were all still at David Philip when we first published Zapiro in 1996 in a wonderful collection entitled The Madiba Years. Zapiro who consistently ignores the fine lines of what can and cannot be said in South Africa, is an equal opportunity shit stirrer, and is often described as ‘Our national conscience’.
But being so very closely linked to matters of the day, he is also a little like a litmus test. He’s our national canary, lowered into the depths to test the levels of democracy and free speech. And the reactions of various organizations as well as the sometimes overwhelming response of the state illustrates vividly their discomfort and the lengths and expense to which they will go to try to shut him down.
That discomfort was very publicly displayed with the outrageous reactions to Brett Murray’s ‘The Spear’ painting, an artwork which formed part of a satirical exhibition depicting corruption within the ANC and which showed President Zuma, with his manhood on display.
The uproar was ferocious. The ANC laid charges against both the artist and the gallery. The leader of The Nazareth Baptist church, one of South Africa’s biggest religious organizations called for the nation to ‘Ban the Spear and Stone its Maker’. Gwede Mantashe, Secretary General of the ANC led a march on the Goodman Gallery and ANC followers across the country burned copies of the City Press newspapers because they had carried pics of the image. Not quite burning books, but pretty dammed close.
While Brett Murray caused an immediate and politically fuelled storm, Zapiro has been ongoing and consistent in his pressure. He continued to push boundaries after the bestselling success of The Madiba Years.
With each annual publication that followed the titles and cover images grew progressively provocative. They encapsulate the national zeitgeist in such a resonant fashion that his books regularly top the best-seller listings. In The ANC Went in 4 X 4, he pointed to the corruption and greed of the ruling party.
In 2006, Zapiro was sued by Zuma in a R15-million defamation lawsuit for three cartoons of the ANC leader around the time of his rape trial. In a litigious frenzy, after the rape trial he issued R67 million worth of charges against a number of organizations. Zapiro, bearing by for the largest share of this refused to back down, and instead published the I’m suing you for damaging my reputation cartoon.
2007 saw the publication of Take two Veg and Call me in the Morning showed controversial Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang at her worst.
2012, when The Pirates of Polokwane appeared was the year of THAT cartoon. The Rape of Lady Justice exploded into the public view. Battle lines were drawn, sides were taken, and Zuma issued his R5 million suit against Zapiro and the Sunday Times.
Two years ago But Will it Stand up in Court, neatly referencing Brett Murray’s Spear painting as well as Zuma’s latest R5million claim against Zapiro and the impending court case.
Zapiro has often had to deal with the heavy hand of the state, (and not just the ANC led government) during the years of apartheid many of his cartoons were banned. Zapiro has over the years had to face censure from a number of religious groups: the Jewish Board of Deputies, (with most complaints related to his position on Palestine) the Muslim Judicial Council, (after he depicted the prophet reclining on a psychiatrist’s couch and bemoaning his followers’ lack of humour). He has had to respond to South Africa’s Hindu Dharma Sabha who stirred up outrage on a global scale after he portrayed Ganesha in a cartoon related to a cricketing scandal. This religious outrage can be very disturbing, there have been threats to Zapiro’s family and chilling hate messages but it is the sustained onslaught of the State, particularly Jacob Zuma’s ongoing lawsuits against him, that most pertinently reflects on the state of publishing in the country.
In June 2012 Zapiro was awarded the International Publishers Association’s Freedom to Publish prize. In a press release issued at the time Bjørn Smith-Simonsen, Chair of IPA’s Freedom to Publish Committee, commented: “Jonathan Shapiro has had the enormous courage to draw and publish essential, and often controversial, political cartoons in newspapers and books for many years now. He has also been remarkably consistent in his fight for freedom of expression during the apartheid era, and in the years since it ended. He has been criticized and publicly intimidated in South Africa, and has even received death threats. The defamation lawsuit initiated against him by the country’s President is set to begin on 25 October 2012. Despite the lawsuit, Jonathan Shapiro is not afraid. In fact, he is one of the brave voices speaking out against the dangers of corruption and authoritarianism, thus using with courage –through subversive humour– his right to freedom of expression and freedom to publish. Jonathan Shapiro exemplifies everything that the IPA Freedom to Publish prize stands for.
“We therefore call for Jonathan Shapiro’s acquittal and on his government to stop using defamation lawsuits as a tool to stifle freedom of expression, and in this regard to uphold Article 16 of the South African Constitution, Article 12 of the 2002 Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.
In accepting the award Jonathan Shapiro responded: The African National Congress, the very movement that brought democracy to South Africa, now as the ruling party responds to criticism by curtailing the spread of information and by stifling freedom of expression. Journalists, whistle-blowers, corruption busters, cultural activists and even judges have been targeted. Politicians who demand that artists and writers conform will find that many of us consider it our duty to be patriotic sceptics.
But did it stand up in court?
Dario Milo, the go-to lawyer of choice in media matters tells the story: On 29 October 2012, President Zuma formally withdrew his defamation claim against Sunday Times, and the cartoonist Zapiro, and offered to pay 50% of their legal costs. The claim related to Zapiro’s “rape of justice” cartoon. Given that Zuma’s original claim was for R4 million in damages to his reputation and R 1 million in damages to his dignity, as well as legal costs and interest, the withdrawal –which sees Zuma paying money to those he sued and not the other way round– has rightly been hailed as a victory for the defendants.
In the meanwhile, one week before the trial, Zuma withdrew his claim that the cartoon harmed his dignity, and so avoided having to get into the witness box.
Then came Zuma’s withdrawal also of the defamation claim, on the eve of the trial. This backing down was explained, in an exercise in mental gymnastics, by saying that Zuma wanted to avoid setting a legal precedent that may have limited freedom of expression. But the president would have lost the case. This is because Zapiro’s opinion –that Zuma and his allies were prepared to abuse the justice system to ensure the dropping of criminal charges against him– falls squarely within the defence of fair comment.
But in any event, if this explanation is valid, why does the president still have 12 defamation and dignity cases, with claims for over R50 million, against 7 newspapers, a radio station, two cartoonists, a columnist, op-ed writers, and journalists? And why did he institute action against an art gallery?
So our Zapiro litmus test warns us of a malaise, a sickness in our environment. (Although our canary is anything but enfeebled). Not all is rosy in the state of the book and our dis-ease will not be soothed by endless rounds of encouraging religious platitudes and cookbook bestsellers proposing a revolution solely of the dietary variety.
The track, the terrain on which we operate is filled with hidden peril. In Johannesburg the media delight in reminding of the spectre of acid mine drainage. Corroding the foundations of the city, laden with toxic heavy metals and tinged with radioactivity it is a real, though not often visible, threat to those of us living in its vicinity. A super-villain with the power to bring down the city.
And it seems that in general the public is more interested in being scared by the toxicity of acid mine drainage than by the even more widespread menace of the looming State Protection of Information Bill.
The current methods of intimidation have been the extensive threat of defamation lawsuits. And it is an effective deterrent. ‘Discretion is the better part of valour’ is not a game changing war cry, but publishers regularly opt for the safer route, mindful that a court challenge issued by the state is likely to set one back a million rand before even setting foot in a court room. And that’s without the collateral damage of time and effort tied up in the business of defending oneself.
And which independent publisher can afford those kind of costs?
Maggie Davey, in her 2010 Ruth First lecture tells the story of how Jacana didn’t publish the Evelyn Groenik’s book; Who killed Dulcie September? Citing huge legal threat, phone tapping and even a call from Pik Botha, previously Minister of Foreign Affairs, who solicitously whispered into the telephone, ‘The world is a very dangerous place my dear’. Despite winning the court case brought by some who wished to suppress the information in the book, Jacana could not sustain the ongoing legal costs, nor countenance the threats to staff.
Researchers into sensitive matters, the arms deal, the Marikana massacre, the National Prosecuting Authority among other hot topics, regularly report that their laptops have been stolen in suspiciously unusual ways, drop-boxes lose information and the menace seems deliberately evident.
The bill on the State Protection of Information is yet to be signed into law and opposition to its implementation remains high. It has been labelled the “secrecy bill” due to the severe restrictions it places on the freedom of information and the excessive penalties it imposes upon those who infringe the law. Any information that is deemed to be of “national interest”- a vague term that remains largely undefined- can be ‘protected’ under this bill, whether that information be a government document or files from a police investigation. And the sentence for publishing ‘protected’ information? 25 years in prison.
In a statement to mark International Press Freedom Day, South African National Editors’ Forum chairperson Mpumelelo Mkhabela said a public interest defence clause in the Bill would truly enhance the ability of media to assist in the fight against corruption. He urged the ANC and President Zuma in particular to send the Bill to the Constitutional Court for ratification before signing it into law.
“The Bill is arguably the biggest threat to press freedom and freedom of expression since the dawn of democracy. We stand ready to challenge it in court should the president sign it into law.”
This year’s press freedom celebrations coincide with South Africa’s 20th anniversary of the demise of apartheid and the advent of democracy.
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”