Last Saturday Thorsten and I went to a launch of Eve Fairbanks’ new book, The Inheritors, at the Soweto Book Café. I was excited because: 1) Eve and I have been friends for years and I was keen to hear some discussion about her award-winning book, which tells the story of modern South Africa in a very unique way; and 2) I had never been to, or even heard of, the Soweto Book Café (SBC), but I had a feeling it was something special. And it was.
Getting to SBC is an iconic Soweto experience: We wound through the city (Soweto is technically part of Joburg but it’s really a city unto itself) to Zondi, a township smack in the middle of Soweto, and had a few inevitable GPS hiccups along the way. SBC is right beside a main artery but not accessible to that road by car, so we looped around on narrow side streets to get there. Like many Soweto small businesses, SBC is in a residential neighborhood with no sign on the outside.
We parked at the end of a haphazard cul-de-sac; walked past a pile of rubble through the open garage door, into the house; climbed a hidden staircase; and entered a roughly hexagonal, magical book universe.
SBC is a first-floor (second-floor, if you’re American) addition to a formerly single-story family home, surrounded by a brick balcony with big, round windows that act as portholes into the surrounding township. I was enchanted.
About the Soweto Book Café
Soweto resident Thami Mazibuko founded SBC in 2018, a couple of years after he moved back to Zondi from downtown Joburg and realized he and his neighbors desperately needed a place to access books. Books are expensive and hard to come by in South Africa, as are libraries and locally owned bookstores (or any bookstores) — especially in townships.
Thami started out with his own small collection of books, then gradually grew his stock through donations and relationships with local publishers. Thami and his assistant, Xolani Mahlangu, now stock thousands of books of all kinds: pop fiction, Western classics, African literature, reference books, text books, travel books, books in multiple South African languages. SBC became not just a bookshop but a library, book distributor, book club venue, study hall, and event space for the surrounding community.
SBC was perfect for the launch The Inheritors, a large portion of which takes place in Meadowlands (a Soweto township close to Zondi). The launch was well attended by a diverse, engaged crowd and Thorsten and I were so glad we went.
The Soweto Book Café is at 1023 Mafumbu Street, Zondi, Soweto.