The closed African Flavour Books branch at Braamfontein.

In October 2018, African Flavour Books, the popular South African bookstore founded in 2015 by Fortiscue Helepi, which stocked only books by black Africans, posted a message on its Facebook page.

But by January, writers were tweeting:

On 10 April, the South African newspaper SowetanLIVE ran an article about the circumstance surrounding the development. Written by Londiwe Dlomo, it brings to light how the the bookstore “derails self-publishers as it closes shop, goes underground.” The article highlights “a social media storm” which “ensued. . . after self-published writer Vangile Gantsho posted about her monetary losses following a business deal with the famed African Flavour books,” revealing that the bookstore’s Braamfontein branch had closed down. Its other branch is in Vanderbijlpark. Gantsho’s tweet:

Interviewed for the article were the writer Dudu Busani Dube, author of Hlomu The Wife, and the publisher Thabiso Mahlape, founder of Blackbird Books. “They do owe me money, a lot of money. I have invoices dating back to 2017,” Dube told SowetanLIVE. “They kept saying we’ll pay you, we’ll pay you but then I don’t know what happened. The next thing we knew the store was closed and nobody’s saying anything, that’s where we are.” For Mahlape: “I think how it went is that there was a time where they owed a lot of  big publishers. So how it works is that you get a credit limit and once you reach it and you haven’t paid it, you can no longer get any more books. So they couldn’t get books and the only books that they could get were from independent authors and self-published people, and people who didn’t know that they were in a rough place. It makes me so sad.”

According to SowetanLIVE, “how their business relationship works is that as an author you supply the bookshop with your books at a retail discount. The shop then sells the books and you as the supplier invoice the shop.” According to the article, and authors who have since spoken about it, Fortiscue Helepi, the chief operating officer, has yet to answer his phone, and Nokuthula Helepi, the chief executive officer, has hers put to voicemail.

On 21 April, Sunday Times announced the longlist for the Alan Paton Award, with Fortiscue Helepi among the judges. His inclusion caused several writers to call out the newspaper on social media.

Today, 25 April, a group of 17 writers—including Niq Mhlongo, Zukiswa Wanner, Cynthia Jele, Mohale Mashigo, Koleka Putuma, and Lebogang Mashile—signed a petition to Sunday Times calling for Helepi’s removal from the panel. Sihle Mthembu, one of the signatories, shared it on Twitter.

In response, Sunday Times made a tweet, stating that Helepi would be stepping down from the Alan Paton Award judging panel.

Hours later, Zukiswa Wanner wrote a piece for Mail & Guardian, titled “No Flavour in This Judge.”

“Readers will be surprised by my about-turn on African Flavour Books. After all, a year or so ago I wrote about what wonderful work it was doing as an independent bookstore,” she writes. Here is an excerpt:

The red flag was on its way. It came when there was a delay in payment of some books I had given for resale. I have no idea how many times I sent and re-sent invoices; they were just not responded to. I then passed through the shop and saw Helepi, who quickly informed me that the payment would be done that day. “We are so busy, my sister, so sorry. But I haven’t forgotten you,” he said.

When I got out of the Braamfontein shop that day with a small publisher who had also not been paid, we were unaware that we had essentially given this man and his bookshop stock for free. We were also unaware that the bookstore would be closing unceremoniously, leaving many people high and dry. It soon became clear that we were not the only two people who had lost stock. On social media, many self-published writers, distributors and small publishers bemoaned the income they lost because of the actions of Helepi.

She criticized the tweet by Sunday Times:

Following an outcry and a letter of protest from some writers, the convenors of the Sunday Times awards removed Mr Helepi as judge on Thursday afternoon. Disturbingly, the tweet announcing this appeared to show more concern for Mr Helepi than for the writers who suffered loss of income from his actions. It read, in part, “The Sunday Times has learned with regret of the difficulties faced by African Flavour Books and its proprietor Fortiscue Helepi, and hopes that the situation will be resolved.”

As for me, all I can do is offer a public mea culpa for not having spoken up about his non-payment the moment it happened. Many in the book industry would have been saved from the financial loss that they are now trying to recover from.

This is saddening considering the regard that African Flavour Books enjoyed.

We will keep you updated on the development.