The popularity of nonfiction books in South Africa, brought into sharper focus by the incendiary reaction to author Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s recent book Gangster State, has long been a reality.
Myburgh’s book explores the alleged malfeasance of current African National Congress Secretary General Ace Magashule while he served as premier of the Free State province. It sparked protests in Johannesburg upon its release in early April, but the book’s supporters were no less passionate.
This is, of course, an extreme case, but nonfiction books have long been more popular than novels in South Africa. A 2015 report noted that 80 percent of book sales fall into the nonfiction genre, and that novelists consider themselves fortunate if they sell 1,000 copies.
History books and biographies are in fact popular the world over, and more likely to become bestsellers; the success of a recent memoir written by former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, Becoming, is merely the latest example of that.
But the average U.S. novel sells 4,000 to 8,000 copies, while nonfiction titles sell between 2,000 and 6,000 — numbers that are flipped in South Africa. There are those who believe that it is because of the nation’s volatile history.
As Jeremy Borain of Jonathan Ball Publishers told qz.com:
“Because of the heightened political conflict in this country, there’s always a lot to be played for by different and opposing views, constituencies.”
This was demonstrated in 2017, when Jacques Pauw — like Myburgh an investigative journalist — released a book entitled The President’s Keepers, which dealt with the alleged misdeeds of Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president from 2009-18. The government reportedly attempted to quash the book, to no avail.
Myburgh, for his part, told the Mail & Guardian that the reaction to his book was “very predictable” and added:
“I hope this kind of work leads to processes where even more info is unearthed. There are a vast number of people who know about these things. What needs to happen next is what all South Africans desiring a free and safe country want, and that is proper handling of this by law enforcement.”
That is keeping it very real — which is also what South Africans appear to want, in their lives and their literature.