Phambili Books: more than a bookshop


JOHANNESBURG — South Africa has, at last, a democratically elected government. Nelson Mandela has made the three-decade journey from the rock piles of Robben Island to the President's residence in Pretoria. These are significant milestones in the black majority's road to liberation. Socialists and anti-apartheid activists throughout the world fought hard for this victory. Now that sanctions are lifted and South Africa is back in the travel brochures, many activists will be considering visiting to see first hand the changes taking place. Green Left Weekly's Johannesburg correspondent NORM DIXON gives a few tips for the political traveller.

The first stop for the visiting leftie has to be Phambili Books, Johannesburg's — and South Africa's — only left bookshop. Located at 55 Kruis Street, two blocks north of Ster-Kinecor cinema complex in the heart of the city, it is essential for political orientation.

The shop is seldom empty. It buzzes as township activists, ANC officials, trade unionists, Communist Party members, academics, Trotskyists of a variety of shades, and, yes, a visiting Green Left Weekly reporter stand about thumbing the pages of the newest books and magazines.

Phambili has a huge range of books on South African history and politics, many not easily available outside the country. All South Africa's socialist journals can be found, from the essential to the esoteric. You can also pick up copies of South Africa's leading gay and lesbian magazine, Exit, as well as good range of postcards and videos. And if you are feeling a little homesick, or can't keep your mind off the struggles you left in the back home, you can find the latest left publications from the United States, Britain, Palestine, Australia (GLW and Links), and Africa.

It is the place to go if you want to know just what's going on — like when and where meetings, conferences and demos are taking place, what debates are raging on the left and in the liberation movement, who has what "line", and who to speak to to find out more. The person to ask is Dale McKinley, who manages this subversive centre. Being at the centre of this political funnel, there is little McKinley does not know about South African left politics.

"Phambili means 'Forward'," McKinley told me when I first arrived in Johannesburg. "Phambili Books was started in June 1990 just after the unbanning of the ANC. It would not have been particularly smart to push these books in public before 1990. The whole reason for starting the bookshop was to get progressive, radical literature to people in the townships and rural areas. We've found that the demand for good Marxist and radical literature is tremendous in South Africa. That's very heartening. A lot of our sales are the Marxist classics."

Born in Zimbabwe, McKinley is an active member of the ANC and recently joined the South African Communist Party. He spent several years in the United States where he was active in the anti-apartheid movement and Central American solidarity movement. His Phd thesis on the history of the ANC from 1980 to the present may soon be published by a major left imprint.

"Phambili is not only a bookseller; we involve ourselves in public debates. We have initiated a series of public meetings on topical issues. We've had a meeting on lessons to be learnt from Chile and another recently on the ANC's Reconstruction and Development Program. We try to be a community bookshop as well," McKinley said.

"Running a progressive bookshop puts you in touch with a range of organisations and activists. You get their different perspective, papers and points of view. Everything flows around you," he explained. His reading of the mood of the South African people is that "there is a will among a large part of the people to push for a radical agenda". Sections of the ANC leadership misunderstand this or deliberately ignore it. "That's not just the feeling of a 'far-left' or an 'ultra-left', as some people would characterise it, but it is a general feeling on the ground ... The main challenge here in the next several years is for the mass formations — the civics, the unions — to push that radical agenda on to a potentially reluctant ANC government."

McKinley detects a view among "a lot of people on the left that there needs to be unification of the left". Any definition of the left in South Africa has to "encompass the vast majority of the members of the ANC. The ANC is a multi-class, multi-racial organisation but it does tend to have an openness that other organisations don't and that may be the saving grace for building a new left in South Africa from within the ANC and from other organisations."

Is socialism possible in South Africa? "I'm an eternal optimist but I think we have to be realistic. Socialism is not going to pop onto the horizon in the next five to ten years ... In the longer term, I'm absolutely optimistic because the contradictions of capitalism internationally and locally are not going to go away, they are only going to get worse. South Africa has a highly politicised, sophisticated, urban working class and the vast majority of the people believe in a broad socialist agenda. The opportunities for mobilisation around a socialist agenda are going to throw themselves up continually. In the short term we have to just keep on fighting."

Phambili Books is at 55 Kruis St, Johannesburg. Phone 00 11 27 11 29 4944. Fax 00 11 27 11 337 5736.