Desired State: Black Economic Empowerment and the South African Popular Romance

Publication year

Between 2010 and 2011 two new publishing enterprises appeared in South Africa: Sapphire Press, an imprint of Kwela Books, which is in turn owned by the giant NB Publishers, and Nollybooks, a small-scale entrant into the market. Between them, in the course of their first two years, these publishers brought out twenty-seven romance novels. Aimed explicitly at a black female readership, and written to a tightly prescriptive set of guidelines, these postapartheid romances are of identical length, have similar plots, characters, and themes, and are packaged and marketed in much the same way. They tell the stories of feisty, attractive young women, often from poor backgrounds, working their way up the ladder of professional success and falling in love with handsome, successful older men, often their bosses. Hero and heroine are always black, and the romantic attachment between the two is always the main theme. The progress of the romance is bound up with the overcoming of work-related obstacles, and the ending of each novel harmonizes the romantic and professional triumph of the heroine. (154)


In this essay, I examine the extent to which these texts are entangled with the logic of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). They project fantasies of ideal employers and harmonious workplaces, decoding for their readers real anxieties about affirmative action and gender equality, and they unambiguously assert a woman's right to a career. And, while they often imagine utopian outcomes of current economic policies, they also encode deep anxieties about the consequences of neoliberalism and BEE. (155)