South Africa: "Sex in the City" comes to Soweto

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Arizona Shezi is a sassy young journalism student and a mysterious beauty with “chocolate skin” and “long braided hair.”

Jason Khoza is a hotshot businessman in an expensive suit, with a strong face like “a sculpture of a Zulu warrior.”

The two attractive young South Africans meet when he arrives as a guest lecturer at Shezi’s university. But their chances at love are jeopardized by an expose she writes for the student paper on his company’s dodgy business dealings.

This is the kind of story that Moky Makura, publisher of a new series of romance novels, is hoping will turn young South African women into avid readers. The “Nollybooks” series of chick lit books is aimed at 16- to 24-year-old black women, many of whom are not in the habit of reading for pleasure. In South Africa, while the adult literacy rate is 88 percent, many people are “aliterate” — they can read, but choose not to.

Publishers don’t bother targeting this young female demographic, Makura said. “That was an opportunity I spotted.”

Makura has a clear idea of what she wants in a book: urban, aspirational, good-girl heroines who face a romantic development in their lives, with the story set in real South African locations — a Soweto version of “Sex and the City.”

She instantly rejects any book proposal featuring, for example, a woman who has AIDS and three children, because she doesn’t want depressing books. There is too much of that already, she said.
Do-good foreigners often write books about the tragedies of Africa, Makura said, but few are telling the story of a young, hip and upwardly mobile generation that is becoming increasingly important on the continent, part of Africa’s growing middle class.

Lead female characters in the Nollybooks series include a fashion designer, a chef, a hotel receptionist who becomes the assistant to a movie star, and a wedding gown seamstress who looks to internet dating to find love.

“We are peddling entertainment,” Makura said. “My books are being positioned as an alternative to movies, TV, shopping. I’m trying to make reading fun.”

Most importantly, these are books written by South Africans, about and for South Africans, “so they’re not being culturally colonized by America. ... The key thing is that people want to see themselves in the stories they read,” she said.

Makura, born in Nigeria, has worked in the South African media for many years, including as a presenter for an investigative TV news show. She also writes non-fiction books, including one called “Africa's Greatest Entrepreneurs.”

“I’m very pro-African,” she said. “I just realized we need to be doing more things for ourselves.”
Her email signature contains an African proverb: “Until lions learn to write, hunters will tell their history for them.”

“It completely resonates with me,” she said. “We as Africans need to be telling our own stories.”

To help with this, she is focusing on developing new writers in South Africa. The Nollybooks website includes coaching tips for prospective authors, such as how to develop a character and how to weave together a plot. Many writers of books in the Nollybooks series are first-time authors.

Her romance novels are marketed and packaged in a way that makes them stand out from traditional novels. Makura calls them “bookazines” — they are purse-sized books that include a masthead, table of contents, and additional features at the back, including talking points for book club discussions, a word quiz and an interview about reading with a South African celebrity.

The small size of the books is aimed at commuters, since South African cities have some of the world’s worst commutes, with people spending hours in cramped minibus taxis or buses to reach their jobs. And rather than have an embarrassingly cheesy photo of a couple embracing on the cover, the books have modern graphics that show a stylish solo woman.

Books are expensive in South Africa and bookshops can be intimidating, Makura said. She wants her books to be sold in non-traditional locations, such as hair salons and spaza shops (small stores in the townships). The price of each book is R49.95, or about $7.

Makura is also encouraging her readers to form book clubs and sell her books directly to their friends. Readers who host book-club parties can earn a commission from the books they sell. “We’re trying to break the myth that book clubs are the preserve of the middle-aged Oprah fan,” she said.

Makura points to the wild success of Nollywood — the Nigerian film industry, which produces 50 feature films a week and is hugely popular around the continent — as inspiration for her book venture.

“It proves that Africans want to hear their own stories,” she said. “Africans want to see themselves reflected.”