10 August 2002

Africa's Biggest Book Fair Faces Bleak Future

Zimbabwe's annual book fair, once Africa's largest, has become the latest victim of the country's political and economic crisis, with the number of exhibitors falling sharply this year.

The southern African country is in its fourth year of economic recession and suffering acute food shortages many blame on President Robert Mugabe's controversial land reforms.

The executive director of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF), Moses Samkange, said about 200 exhibitors took part, down from 260 last year and confirming a trend which has seen the number drop from 416 in 1999.

"I'm looking at the economic situation where even our local Zimbabwean people fail to pay the meagre 6,000 (Zimbabwe) dollars ($109) which is our exhibition fee," he told Reuters.

Mugabe has ruled out a devaluation of the national currency even though the gap between the official and black market rates against the US dollar is a huge obstacle to honest business.

But it's mainly the Zimbabwean government's negative image abroad that is crippling the fair, exhibitors said.

"Frankly speaking Zimbabwe is bad news. Zimbabwe has become, because of policies pursued by government, something like a pariah state," said Peter Ripken, a consultant for the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's biggest, who was exhibiting at Harare.

"The state of lawlessness, and autocratic rule...which is all reported in the news in Europe, leaves publishers saying, no Harare for the time being, no way," Ripken said last week.

Zimbabwe publisher Regis Mtutu, who has braved the economic climate to set up a stand at the fair, said he had received limited business inquiries since trading began.

This year should have been a celebration since it coincided with the selection of Africa's 100 best books of the 20th Century. But in a sign of the times, an award ceremony for the writers was held in South Africa, not Zimbabwe.

Only about 10 per cent of this year's participants in Harare are foreigners, with many staying away over the sickly economy and perceptions of lawlessness after violent election campaigns and the invasion of white farms by pro-government militants.

Ripken warned that both local and foreign publishers could soon switch to fairs emerging elsewhere in Africa which were enjoying the government financial support lacking in Zimbabwe.

"I definitely see that tendency of exhibitors moving to other regional book fairs. The Nigerians have started an international book fair and they have the backing of the government, which the Zimbabwean book fair does not," he said.

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