Why Abantu Book Fest Needs To Reconsider Its White People Stance

Attendees at the 2018 Abantu Book Festival.

The Abantu Book Festival took place for the third year in a row this past weekend, and more people than ever attended. The festival is a feat for South Africa’s literary sphere, as the first annual event celebrating Black writers, writing and publications. It is a long-overdue space to engage with existing and emerging African literature in South Africa, and has only gotten bigger and more popular since its first year, however, something is different this year. Whereas over the past two years, attendance by white readers and writers was not an explicit issue, in 2018 organisers and attendees alike made demands that that white people not attend the festival.

Since the death of Rainbow Nationalism, progressive political spaces have taken a stance against white participation, a stance strongly associated with populist identity politics, which denounce white involvement in Black radical movements. These kinds of politics are touted by the Economic Freedom Fighters and Black First Land First public personalities such as Andile Mngxitama. This ideology is not limited to the organisers of the Abantu Festival, and occurred frequently during Fees Must Fall, and are seen gaining popularity in the greater South African political scene.

While it has become more popular in university circles, festivals, and organisations, excluding white people is a useless political move most of the time, as it mostly occurs as a form of self-aggrandising “fake wokeness” with no desire to change society. Still, exceptions to this do exist, such as UCT’s Black-only dinner meeting. The difference is that a dinner, an event which was described as a safe space for Black emotive expressions, as part of an explicitly political Decolonial Winter School, has a different objective to the book festival.

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In the case of Abantu, which many see as a social event and educational exploration of Black literature and discussions, excluding white people who read books by African authors and want to listen to these discussions seems counter intuitive. It’s supposed to be a celebratory arena for African literature, a place of a new imaginative, inclusive, pro-black, pro-poor politics. The festival has substance. It’s not meant to be over inflated, empty populist rhetoric. Reading is one of the strongest methods to educate people into politics of democracy and justice, and if anything, white people should be hyper-exposed to Black writers and their work, in the same way that men should read as much work written by women as possible. It just doesn’t seem reasonable to say white people shouldn’t attend.

Politicisation takes place in certain ways, some radical and some reactionary. One way is through transforming society into a world without oppression, which requires genuine struggle and alliances across the board. However, the “woke” politics we are seeing today moves towards creating escapes from the problems rather than eliminating racist structures in society. The creation of spaces where there is no racism is only accessible to elites anyway. Escapes from the problem do not solve the problem.

If Abantu Festival wants to create a safe space for Black writers and readers, it makes no sense that white attendance is denounced while Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is lauded as the ‘Beyoncé’ of literature, placed on a platform with Pumla Dineo Gqola and fangirled over despite her obviously regressive and dangerous politics.

Adichie has insulted and relegated the struggles of Transgender women in the feminist and LGBTQ movements, has demeaned the work of feminist and postcolonial academics in reimagining the world’s history, has openly and unapologetically stated her support for Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, women directly and indirectly responsible for the destruction of poor colonised women all over the Global South.

Her views are unacceptable, no matter who she is and what she’d written. She is not the Beyonce of literature, she is a dangerous populist figure risking the tenuous gains made by many people in resistance movements over the world through her fame and regard.

And yet she was not excluded from attendance and speaking. She was enabled to spout her views which endanger Black women in an arena focused on the stories of Black people. She was not challenged – as people expected – on her statements. And yet, she is not being cancelled. And it isn’t necessary that she must be, just as it isn’t necessary for her to be continually praised despite everything.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Ducks Questions On Transphobia

It is important to ask ourselves where the problem lies. Is the problem of racism a white people problem or structural – and therefore everyone’s- problem? Is it inherent in white people or a learned social behaviour reinforced by the structures and institutions of domination we live under? Social ills are structural problems which must be dealt with by creating a unified force of people who hold political beliefs that these ills are wrong. White people’s skin colour created a level of privilege which has a large role in conscientising them towards oppressive structures, but anti-racist struggle is not the reserve of Black people, nor are we the only ones capable of it.

Excluding white people from these spheres is not revolutionary. It only affirms certain people of their supposed radicalness, which in the grand scheme of things doesn’t matter.

Those who hold the power of racism over us do not care about Black people’s exclusive book festival. It only becomes a problem to the status quo when people understand racism as a systemic issue rooted in capitalism and reinforced by misogyny and queerphobia, and then unify people against this system across the divides this system has artificially created. Those actions will see death and violence and disappearances threaten Black bodies.

Abantu Book Festival is an important space for the growth and recognition of Black writing, and should continue to make gains and attract as many people as possible for more years to come. This is a watershed moment for South Africa’s literary spheres. And yet, the best use of this space would be to create a space not only of Black praise, but also education and inclusiveness. The threats to Black writers and readers are not white people attending Black book festivals, those who are coming to this space are more likely interested in being re-educated, or learning. They maybe be white but their ambition to listen. Some of them may just be only a little more problematic than some of the Black capitalists in attendance- so where does that leave us then?

Ultimately, what is the goal of these politics? Is this calling for a complete exclusion of white people from radical spaces? Is the point of progressive politics a new and unimaginative form of solitary politics, or dignity and justice and equality for all?


  1. White people stance, first and foremost, is to acknowledge that apartheid was an atrocious system from which they still benefit immensely and secondly, bring back the land… Abantu Book Festival is a safe space for a Kaffir like me, as opposed to the Franschoek Literary Festival where I am made to feel like dirt every time I walk into a restaurant or a hotel… Leave Us Alone and Let Us Be… without having to incessantly explaining vernacular punchlines to your privileged ass… Learn isiZulu, SeSotho, isiXhosa, something… Besides, you were raised by strong women who speak these languages… have a sense of decency… and yeah, fuck your privilege… We Shall Overcome…

  2. Pathetic analysis that reduces the suffering that black people suffer the world over. The first useful point would have been to critique the Franschoek literary festival in #Stollenbosch and it’s reproduction of racism and elitism. How about we cancel that festival as point of departure? Until then, continue basking in your privilege with your white friends. Andizi.

  3. I’m still stuck on “fake wokeness” separating as a means of self preservation and self determination isnt new and definitely should not be judged by a “fake allie”. Stay in your lane. No one asked you to tell black people how to change their situation. We dont need you to save us….

  4. I would choose to walk away because wow, the ignorance levels. But I’ll educate instead. I’ll do the politically correct thing and give anyone who agrees to this an alternative truth. Ironically, this is such a single story! Anyhow, here:

    The Journalist – 9 Dec 2018 – Kay-Dee Mashile

    The Journalist – 9 Dec 2018 – Anele Gcwabe

    You are welcome!

  5. I also don’t agree with the exclusion of entire race from an event that book lovers across the board would’ve loved to attend. But most of this article is an emotional rant.

  6. Whites always have their spaces where they discuss their own thing and blacks never get invited nor allowed to participate in the discussion other than to serve as tea girls and tea boys. Why when black people want to do their own thing, it becomes an issue for white gaze?

  7. I don’t know who you are Mishka but in retrospect you would have to agree that the article you have written is widely misleading and very disrespectful to the black community as a whole. Our culture, dignity and worth was decimated and subjugated for centuries and when we for just three years are gradually trying to find our selves with out the pervasive overriding efforts of assimilation and extinction. You personally being excluded and thus opting to respond in a article of this fashion is you merely refusing to see the bigger picture. So what if you guys are not allowed to attend? It’s clear in the name of the festival and in the associated parties what’s the purpose of this event is and what it’s intentions are. If you feel you want to enjoy African liturature, buy the book and read it, of you can. This is a situation where the African family only requires your respect, let us be for a moment. We never had the chance before.

  8. It’s tiring dealing with white people, even well meaning ones. This is about survival kla. The moment white people get involved in spaces usually reserved for Black People, Black People end up getting pushed out. Look at Afropunk in USA for easy reference. Don’t swerve so far out of your lane to talk about stuff you don’t obviously appreciate.

    As an FYI the responsibility for fixing Racism, lies on White People. Don’t place the onus on Black People.

  9. Can’t we be let to a space where we ‘breathe’ and just be ourselves by ourselves? Every space we find ourselves in is surrounded and defined by whiteness such that we even tend to forget who we are. It is spaces like Abantu Book Festival that we breathe and remember who we are aunthentically. I went there because I’m tired of wearing a mask, so that space offered me to just show up and be. I was thrilled to see Kasi mothers walking in holding kids in hand to just enjoy being themselves. In a way spaces like Abantu Book Festival are therapeutic to our psyche. We need healing from centuries of oppressive trauma of colonialisation and slavery.

  10. I think the author may be a bit premature in announcing the death of the rainbow nation. Out there in the real world away from the racist ebony towers of woke-ism normal South Africans are slowly working our way towards creating a better country where everyone feels at home. The foul race-baters are still in the minority thank goodness.
    Good article! There is only one way to end prejudice and that is by doing the hard work of seeking the common ground and that entails being uncomfortable! Hiding behind a sign saying “Slegs Swartes” gets us nowhere.

  11. I find the article’s argument unconvincing – it accuses ABF of ‘fake wokeness’ but then attempts to ‘out-woke’ it in a rather self-righteous and convoluted discussion of Adichie. That said, kudos to the writer for their courage in taking this subject on, since I do think there is a critique to be made here. And writers should surely be able to disagree and contest ideas without being accused or shamed for disrespecting the black community – that seems like a very conservative argument intent on silencing any dissent. There should be always room for critique of the left from the left, otherwise it will all be left to the right.

    I accept the rationale for Black / POC only spaces in many cases, in much the same way as I understand why women might sometimes want to gather without men being around. But to make the attendance of a large-scale, public literary festival barred to ‘white people’? That just seems like a mistake that will condemn us all to continue living within the petty and ugly mind of apartheid, and will lead to all kinds of absurdity (e.g. organisers ruling via Twitter on whether children of mixed race couples are permitted. What next? The one-drop rule?)

    Also, if anything, literature is a technique and technology for understanding and moving across difference: into psychic experiences and architectures other than one’s own: across space, time, race, gender – if only in a temporary, partial, limited sense. The kind of groupthink fostered by a segregated book festival seems totally opposed to everything that is most important about imaginative writing. It also leads directly to public discussions that rely on racial stereotype and caricature (as above) and (even worse) are just very boring and predictable for anyone living in a complex society. And all this at a time when ethno-nationalism and walls (both intellectual and actual) are on the rise around the world. I imagine that most readers and writers across the globe would be absolutely astonished by this policy. ABF has clearly created something important and amazing, and I wish it all strength. I hope the organisers will reconsider their stance, but somehow I doubt it.

  12. Adichie, is not trans so stop asking her about that community!!!! If she is ducking the questions let her and I think she is doing the right thing about not answering the questions. It is not her community and she has no comment. Period!!!
    Stop trying to find issues and just talk with her about her work is that more productive. “It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die.” ~ Steven Biko


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