Dig deeper to figure

2017-08-27 06:00

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In the wake of the thwarted vote of no confidence against President Jacob Zuma, my phone buzzed to life with the speedy humour and amateur autopsies that typically escort all big news events down the tawdry carpet of history.

One message contained a recording from 702’s Bongani Bingwa’s talk show on Women’s Day. In it, an anonymous caller, claiming to be an MP who was present in the parliamentary chamber during the notorious vote, states: “How can anyone in their right mind ask us to agree that Jacob Zuma has no confidence … He has more confidence than anyone I have ever met … Anyone who expects us to vote that Zuma has no confidence must be blind or stupid.”

It was the sort of sound bite that makes your shoulders drop and your lungs expel all the air from your body in exasperation. But, of course, it wasn’t real. Bingwa, it appears, had been “punked” by a caller who played into the fact that the public’s lack of confidence in political leadership extends beyond our beloved president.

It was A-grade fodder for fake news peddlers, and it reminded me of a recent speech given by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, who said that a nation that doesn’t read is a nation that falls for rumours.

Rumours can be comfortable and affirming honeypots to fall into when they broadly fit your world-view. To escape them, you need to dig and make a concerted effort to read widely from multiple sources to test their validity. However, people who don’t read much are unlikely to fully engage in this sort of activity, and people who cannot read will never be able to engage this way – they will always need to rely on the word of others to help them discern fact from fake news.

This conundrum is exacerbated by the likelihood that people who don’t read have a limited world-view to start with.

In a nation where only 14% of adults are habitual readers, will we ever become informed enough to decisively join the dots between state capture and state failure? And what does this mean in the long-run, when more than half of South Africa’s children are unable to read for meaning, in any language, at the end of foundation phase?

We sit today with an impending crisis, the implications of which are tremendous. The odds of succeeding are stacked against the most vulnerable members of our society – our children.

The South African childhood story is not a story that starts with “once upon a time”, it’s a story that starts with “hardly ever”. Hardly ever are children read to at home by their caregivers. Hardly ever does their home have more than a few books in it. Hardly ever do they attend a preschool where the practitioners have a formal qualification to be there. Hardly ever are they in a class at school with fewer than 35 classmates. Hardly ever have they learnt to read in their mother tongue before the language of instruction changes to English in Grade 4. Hardly ever do they receive what is required for them to become readers through the formal education system.

Author Sindiwe Magona once wrote: “Just as you can’t fall in love with someone you haven’t met, we can’t raise children who are readers if they do not meet books.”

Unlike the many other issues we face, this is a problem that is solvable.

To engage fully in citizenship and speak truth to power in ways that change things, we need a nation of readers. To help raise that nation, we need to do as Magona advises – let children meet books. Books in their own language; books where they can see themselves; books where they can see the other.

Jacobsohn is managing director at Nal’ibali.

For more information about the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign and the Story Bosso contest, as well as reading tips and stories in a range of South African languages, visit nalibali.org, nalibali.mobi or find them on Facebook and Twitter @nalibaliSA

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