THE NGO NETWORK ALLIANCE PROJECT - an online community for Zimbabwean activists  
 View archive by sector


Back to Index

Cape Town Book Fair to eclipse Zimbabwe
African Review of Books
February 04, 2005

When President Robert Mugabe used the platform provided by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair to launch a tirade against gays and lesbians, the outcry was swift, and while the fair organisers did their best to distance themselves from the sentiment of their country’s leader, that speech ten years ago marked the beginning of the decline of one of Africa’s most prestigious industry events.

While the book fair survives, and reported a record number of exhibitors in 2004, it has been dealt another blow with the announcement that Cape Town is to host an annual international book fair from 2006 in partnership with the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The combination of the might of the German book fair, the world’s biggest, and South Africa’s strong publishing industry, stable political situation and attraction as a tourism destination will draw visitors and exhibitors wary of Zimbabwe’s political and economic situation.

The South African event will take place in June, just ahead of the Zimbabwe fair and visitors already avoiding that country, there is little likelihood of international publishers, literary agents and book sellers attending both events.

Industry participants have already begun questioning the value of attending the Zimbabwe book fair, because although it is well attended by international visitors, non-government organisations and civil society organisation, few business deals are completed at the fair.

Hans Zell, of African publishing industry analyst Hans Zell Publishing Consultants, says a book fair in South Africa has been on the cards for some time, as was seen in the failed Bookeish! initiative in 2003. "ZIBF faces a challenge and needs to refocus on becoming a regional fair," he says.

"It is a slightly unfair situation as Frankfurt has wide international contacts and huge promotional and public relations budgets. But a lot depends of the first [Cape Town] fair," he says.

Holger Ehling, vice-president of corporate communications for Frankfurt Book Fair, says, "The ZIBF has been on a downhill path ever since Robert Mugabe interfered for the first time in 1995. That certainly had a negative effect. It has become mainly an exhibition of aid organisations and civil society organisations and less of a book fair than it used to be."

There is hope that the general elections in Zimbabwe planned for March will begin the process of change in Zimbabwe, "but the early signs are not good", says Mr Ehling.

The ZIBF admits the political situation has made life difficult for it. The fair is also struggling financially. One person close to the situation said the ZIBF was "in danger of going under", which was "such a pity as it has such a long heritage".

Moreblessings Mpofu, ZIBF acting director, says most businesses in Zimbabwe are experiencing difficulties as a result of the economic situation and the particular situation of the book fair is not unique.

Ms Mpofu says the Cape Town Book Fair will not undermine the Harare event. "It is a challenge and the new entrant offers the potential for co-operative partnerships," she says.

"We can work to create better relations in the book industry in the region. I haven’t heard of them trying to get rid of us."

Mr Ehling says "book fairs do not gobble each other up", but rather act in a complementary fashion. "It is the declared wish of the Frankfurt Book Fair that the Zimbabwe International Book Fair should not suffer," he says.

The choice of June for the Cape Town fair was based on making it affordable for visitors, says Mr Ehling. "We have this problem with the Frankfurt Book Fair where hotels are fully booked and prices go up by 300% to 400% during the fair. If the Cape Town Book Fair was to be held in January or February, prices [during the summer tourist season] would have had a detrimental effect on the fair."

The Frankfurt Book Fair has previously lent its support to the ZIBF and Ms Mpofu says "we still have a good working relationship with Frankfurt".

It would make sense for large exhibitors to send books to the Harare event after having exhibited in Cape Town. But that is not going to happen in the short term. Frankfurt did not have an exhibit at the 2004 ZIBF and is unlikely to have one this year, but that is because there is not interest from German publishers, says Mr Ehling

Ms Mpofu says: "The Frankfurt fair is a business-type event rather than one aimed at promoting culture, as the ZIBF is, and in that context we can understand a venture like the Cape Town Book Fair."

She is hopeful that the economic situation in the country will have improved enough within the next six months to benefit the ZIBF.

A person close to the situation says the Zimbabwe fair overshot its budget last year and has not been paying agents and staff. Traditional customers of the ZIBF are also not committing themselves to the fair this year. "The economic and political situation in Zimbabwe is having a serious knock-on effect on the book fair."

Mr Zell says: "The ZIBF is still a marvellous event and it faces a challenge now to refocus. If the political situation changes in Zimbabwe it will be a completely different picture.

"There has been too much hype around the ZIBF. It used to be an event that you had to have to go to, but now only the ‘usual’ organisations, such as Unesco, go to the fair.

"Small, independent publishers have to justify their visits to book fairs and this is becoming difficult with affairs as they are in Zimbabwe.

The fair as political platform has damaged its reputation and even "the well functioning part of the ZIBF, the Indaba, [a two-day conference ahead of the fair] has become heavily politicised," says Mr Ehling. Last year the keynote speaker presented Robert Mugabe as a hero, saying ‘Carry on Zimbabwe’. He admits he would "hate to see the whole thing die", but: "If this is used as a celebration for Mugabe there is no hope."

The Cape Town event, a joint venture between the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Publishers Association of South Africa (Pasa), will run for four days at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.

The fair organisers say they expect to attract thousands of visitors, and will showcase leading international and local publishers. "With the technical, financial and international marketing involvement of the Frankfurt Book Fair and Cape Town’s incomparable location it is envisaged that the Cape Town Book Fair will become a must-attend event on the international cultural calendar," they say.

The Cape Town fair, like its Zimbabwe counterpart, will also host a festival component involving local schools, libraries and communities.

In addition to the involvement of the Frankfurt Book Fair, South Africa’s National Department of Arts and Culture has pledged a financial subsidy, seeing this as part of its cultural growth programme.

Pasa has announced that it will be appointing a book fair director and inviting tenders for a public relations company by March 2005.

Please credit if you make use of material from this website. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.