The greatest mission of all – reading

Read SA! Franschhoek Literary Festival, 13 May


On a sunny Sunday morning in Franschoek’s library, author Zukiswa Wanner, children’s author Dianne Stewart, broadcaster Karabo Kgoleng, Dorothy Dyer of the FunDza Literary Trust, and Patti McDonald, Avusa Education publisher and the driving force behind the Sunday Times Storybook series, enter into an engaging discussion about the crisis of literacy in South Africa.

They talk about structural problems at education, governmental, and media levels, and various efforts being made to foster a culture of reading in and beyond the classroom. Moderating the event was Zukiswa Wanner, who, after wishing “all the parents and single moms in the audience a happy mother’s day”, opened the debate.

Referring to annual evaluations made by the Department of Education, Patti McDonald points out that there was “a very serious problem with literacy in this country”. As contradictory as it may seem, Karabo Kgoleng and Patti McDonald call attention to the fact that “we have one of the biggest budgets in the world for education”, but we also continue to see over-crowded classrooms, inadequate facilities for teaching and learning, insufficient support materials, and underqualified teachers as major, and persistent, problems.

Part of the issue is a language mismatch between school and home environment. Many teachers have no training or experience in teaching learners to read in their home language. English and Afrikaans are the two languages most dominantly used in the fields of media, government and education, and so it is necessary that African learners be exposed to them as early as possible.

On the other hand, as Wanner, Kgoleng, McDonald, Dyer, and Stewart, who has herself studied African languages, agree, African learners should also have the right to pursue education in their mother tongues. In this context, Patti McDonald mentions the initiative of Avusa Education and the Sunday Times, which has published a million storybooks, translated into English, Afrikaans, isiZulu, Setswana, isiNdebele, Sepedi, Siswati, Tshivenda and Xitsonga. These books are distributed freely to schools across the country.

Another problematic issue is that many schools either do not have a library, or if they do, there is no librarian, and too few books in the library. This is especially significant as many young readers and their parents cannot afford to buy books. McDonald and Kgoleng make it clear that it is mandatory to “take things into our own hands, be civil activists like in the eighties again, but also take the government to task”.

In the framework of the Read SA! Campaign, Wanner travelled to many countries in Africa (including Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia) and found that in some less privileged schools, for all the lack of state funding, quite creative efforts have been made to foster a climate more conducive to reading. This is also the case in South Africa, she said.

For example, where government would not or could not provide a librarian for a school library that was not being used, the school’s teachers would cooperate with parents and get a former (unemployed) student who to work for the school library. Especially in the poorer schools, she found a lot of students were “hungry for books”.

Dorothy Dyer, an English teacher at LEAP Science and Maths School in Cape Town and herself the author of many text books for children, explains that for a lot of kids, books are “like vegetables, they know they’re good for them, but they wouldn’t consume them anyway”.

Kgoleng adds that reading is simply not considered “sexy” enough for today’s youngsters. Dyer’s desire to get her most reluctant students to read was the impetus for an initiative, the FunDza Literary Trust, aimed at making books more attractive to South Africa’s children/young adults.

For the “Harmony High” series a number of dedicated writers created books that were relevant to young adults’ own real-life issues. This pool, Dyer says, is growing as the projects get bigger. The books are engaging and fun to read (the key word, she says, is “soap opera”).

Moreover, the content and subject matter are distinctly South African, centering on a group of teens who attend Harmony High, a fictional township high school. The four books already published in the series bear the titles Broken Promises, Sugar Daddy, Jealous in Jozi, and Too Young to Die, the latter being the first book to focus on a boy’s perspective and thus designed for a demographic particularly averse to reading.

The books are distributed at under-resourced schools, libraries or other beneficiary organisations. Dyer says the feedback has been overwhelming. Teachers report that students can identify with the characters and their stories, and students have voluntarily taken books home to read for the first time ever. Because many books are expensive, part of the FunDza Literacy Project is to make stories accessible via SMS - many teens in South Africa apparently can afford a mobile phone but not a book!

To foster a sense of anticipation, new chapters are released on a daily basis. Moreover, in order to transform reading from a solitary activity into a more socially entertaining pastime and thus create reading communities, the FunDza mobi network offers young readers a number of attractive options. Via this mobile platform, readers can provide feedback on the books or stories that they read, participate in interactive storytelling, and discuss and showcase their own writing.

In this way, readers are encouraged to become writers themselves, to become cooperative instead of passively receptive. Instead of consumers, they become the producers of their own stories. Endorsing efforts that encourage children to become writers, Dianne Steward emphasises the “relationship between good readers and good writers.”

Wanner then wants to know how adults can be encouraged to read more, especially the work of local writers. Given the fact that South Africa has 26,000 libraries, it is quite astonishing to hear that only a small number of the books in those libraries are by South African authors.

Kgoleng, who was introduced by Wanner as “very, very hard-working, even if she is not getting paid for it”, mentions that she offered free book reviews to the Daily Sun, a tabloid with a daily readership of five million, but was told they “don’t do book reviews”.

Speaking as a black woman, she criticises the perception among black people in South Africa that reading books is “elitist” - and thus regarded as a “white” pastime. She also expresses her impatience with the fact that “we celebrate idiots” and “elected a president who hasn’t even completed high school”.

Quite problematic was also that local bookstores automatically assume demand is mainly oriented towards an international market, making them very cautious about selling South African books (unless the author is someone like Nadine Gordimer). This vicious circle, however, can only be broken if local writers are promoted in local bookstores. That is the only way readers will become aware of them.

Furthermore, South African publishers have to stop looking for “approval from the West” in the form of translations into German and French and sales in the US. Kgoleng adds that the atmosphere of going into a bookstore counts a lot - one doesn’t want to feel like a bull in a china store, afraid to break something in a place that looks sterile and inhospitable.

Instead, as Kgoleng reflects about her own favorite bookstore, it should look cozy, allowing - no, inviting- one to sit back on a couch with a glass of wine in one hand and a book in the other.

Libraries and book stores are the physical and imagined homes of books and they must break down the feeling of elitism associated with reading and other forms of literary practice.

The five speakers all agreed that reading must be integrated into everyday life as a family activity; children (and, as both the speakers and audience members confessed, also adults) love being read to. Reading should be turned into an activity that brings pleasure, enables identification, encourages communication and broadens horizons.

McDonald’s dry remark at the end of the debate that she still needs to get her own son to read inspired laughter in the audience – an audience, which, by the way, was largely composed of white, middle-aged (middle-class) parents, school teachers and university professors. It would appear that the process of deconstructing the perception of race-and class-based elitism associated with a culture of reading in South Africa has only just begun.

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