Is there any point to literary festivals in South Africa? With a spate of new ones having launched around the country over the past few years, a few enthusiastic adherents of the concept certainly seem to think so. 

Darryl Earl David, a University of KwaZulu-Natal English literature lecturer who has been involved in establishing a number of festivals, including the Midlands Literary Festival and the inaugural Soweto Literary Festival (both held in 
August), says: “Literary festivals are about tourism. They’re about promoting a culture of reading. They act as imaginariums for the next generation of writers. But in my case, I organise literary festivals to honour South Africa’s great writers. Writers that we are indebted to, whom we dare not forget because of their literary legacies.”

Alexander Matthews
Image: Retha Ferguson Alexander Matthews

David’s efforts and passion should be lauded, but I couldn’t help ponder how much effect his enormous efforts are having towards achieving his stated goals. If event details and programmes are near-impossible to find online, what are
the odds of being able to lure visitors from afar, or promote reading — except among the select few who stumble across the festival and then make the effort to get there (and those are probably hardened bookworms already). 

As a platform for discussion, should a festival try to trigger a national conversation? The Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF) every May virtually guarantees a brouhaha of some kind that makes headlines in the next day’s paper — whether it’s Rian Malan clashing with Antjie Krog or Wouter “Dr Death” Basson pitching up at an awards party. 

However, these controversies tend to melt away quickly — although a notable exception was Thando Mgqolozana’s announcement at 2015’s FLF that after three novels and plenty of festival appearances he was finally abandoning “the white literary system” he claimed the festival formed a part of. His utterances stoked a much-needed discussion around “decolonising” publishing that continued long after the festival had ended — a discussion that has inspired the creation of the upcoming Abantu Book Festival in Soweto, which will feature only black writers in its line-up. 

But back to the FLF. Despite its notoriety as a bastion for Sauvignon Blanc-swilling, middle-aged, white audience members (in other words, the demographic who tend to drop a lot of cash on books), Franschhoek arguably has the greatest impact of all our literary festivals among the wider 

A full audience enjoys an Open Book Festival event at The Book Lounge
Image: Retha Ferguson A full audience enjoys an Open Book Festival event at The Book Lounge

In addition to its annual Book Week, where local school kids get to hobnob with authors appearing at the main festival, the FLF’s Library Fund has spent about R1.5-million on stocking four local school libraries with 5 000 books, as well as providing a roving librarian and library assistants for weekly library lessons — nurturing a love of learning in more than 3 000 youngsters. 

I have participated in literary festivals in various guises — as journalist, panellist, and organiser (I was convenor of the FLF’s poetry programme in 2015) — and know full well the immense time and effort that goes into making an event of this kind happen. Then it’s over — in a flash — until next year. All that remains are the photos posted on the website (and in the case of the FLF, audio recordings of each panel, which I doubt anyone listens to). 

I can’t help but wonder what could be achieved if that time and effort were poured into other ways of nurturing literature, of facilitating conversations about books and the ideas they contain. If we carry on like we’re doing at the moment, literary festivals are likely to remain at the very fringes of public 
consciousness. If we want to have a deep and lingering impact — if we want to energise and democratise literature and reading — we either need to eschew the format entirely in favour of other approaches, or develop creative ways of sharing stories and ideas so that they travel far beyond the festival venue.

How do we package the conversations that happen on stage in ways that ensure they reverberate long after the event? The answers may perhaps lie in the tools the internet age has given us: YouTube, SoundCloud, Facebook, and others, as well as in more traditional forms — such as radio, which still has an
enormous following in South Africa. Look at the success of TED and TEDx talks, and at the popularity of podcasts. People clearly want to listen. How are we going to reach them?

Comics Fest; The Fugard Theatre in the heart of District Six is one of the main venues for the Open Book Festival
Image: Retha Ferguson Comics Fest; The Fugard Theatre in the heart of District Six is one of the main venues for the Open Book Festival


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September 7-11 2016

November 3-5 2016 (TBC)

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Garden Route
March 16-19 2017

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