Making space: the counterpublics of post-apartheid independent literary publishing activities (1994-2000)

Finlay, Alan William
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Abstract This thesis explores how independent literary publishing activities during the period 1994-2004 sought to engage in public debate and deliberation, and thereby moved beyond purely literary concerns. It explores how the publishers understood their publishing activities as acts of public engagement and contestation, and argues that they can usefully be considered counterpublics, a characteristic which feels unique to the post-apartheid period. The mid-1990s saw a surge in literary publishing activity in South Africa that included journals and magazines, books, pamphlets, websites, readings and performances, and recordings. These publishing activities can be considered independent in that they occurred outside the support structures of institutions such as the commercial book publishing industry or universities, and were typically initiated by writers, who relied on their own time, energy and skills to publish. While independent literary publishing was not a new thing in South Africa, the post-apartheid period showed some striking features, including a heightened concern with the act of publishing itself, the emergence of several black-owned publishers, and a new relationship to the state in terms of access to funding. This thesis focuses on the publishing activities of five publishers: Dye Hard Press, Botsotso, Timbila, Kotaz and Chimurenga. It discusses the often complex contribution the publishing activities make to what we consider a post-apartheid public sphere that is central to democracy, and to public deliberation broadly conceptualized. It argues that public sphere theory offers a way of talking about the divergent characteristics of the publishing activities, which can be considered acts of poetic world making that position themselves in contestation with the post-apartheid mainstream. They are counterpublic in that their world making tends to contest the exclusions of the mainstream in publishing and editorial practice. However, it suggests that their relationship to the mainstream is at times ambivalent, and their independence not always assured. This is particularly felt in the reliance of some of the publishers on state and state-aligned arts bodies for funding for their survival, but also in other areas such as their difficult relationship with commercial book dealers, and the mainstream media. This thesis suggests that it is here where the very nature of both their dependence on and independence from the dominant public as publishing activities is in itself a shifting site of contestation. Their proximity to the mainstream 3 in terms of state funding also suggests the need for a theorization of what we might call “embedded counterpublics” in highly stratified societies such as South Africa.