Over the last two weeks it has become a national past part-time for self-appointed “public intellectuals” to discuss reading habits of other people, including those of the President of the Republic. Buoyed on by these developments I wish to to enter the weight in, unfortunately less sensationally by suggesting conceivably that it is less important to ask whether the president reads or not as opposed to “do you and I read?”
Numerous studies have revealed irrefutably that South African children don’t fair favourably when compared with peers in other countries on numeracy and literacy tests. The findings of these assessments are unfortunately unsurprising considering the fact that most adults also don’t read. According to a study conducted by the South African Book Development Council (SABDC) only 14 percent of the population reads books and only 5 percent of parents read to their children. In the face of this evidence, it unfortunate that debate on the value of reading in children's lives has often been circumscribed. Often, at the expense of an enriched discussing, focussing obsessively on the role of schools and literacy skills. Important is this may be, especially for a country like South Africa, we also need to be able to objectively interrogate causes of poor literacy levels and locate such a debate with the context of a society which does not have culture of reading.
In order to do so we must start off by noting the importance of reading, and importantly writing, beyond its utilitarian commercial value (reading and writing gets one a job) and accept it as important tool for fostering national building and strengthening a fragile democracy through on-going development and exchange of ideas which represent our diverse experiences as a people. It is said that “a nation that does not read much does not know much. And a nation that does not know much the is more likely to make poor choices in the home, the marketplace, the jury box, and the voting booth. And those decisions ultimately affect the entire nation...the literate and illiterate.” Noting this daunting responsibility, who should we a society go about shouldering the responsibility of getting the nation reading?
According to the same study 78% of South Africans found the cost of books as a hurdle to accessing them. Seen as luxury one can do without very few working class families, also faced with increased food prices and transport fares and now Etolls, can seriously consider stretching their budgets further in order to save few rand to purchase “luxury” reading books. As a response to reality the Department of Arts and Culture has over course of the last 19 years increased the number of public libraries from 953 in 1994 to 1503 in 2012. Most of these being situated in previously underserved working class communities. Yet despite this remarkable progress, 27% of South Africans still report that they do not have access to a public library.
Paradoxically, R650-million was spent in building the Maponya Mall in Soweto which officially opened on September 27, 2007 by former South African president Nelson Mandela. It was the first mega mall built in a township and first blacked-owned. With more than 200 stores and a cinema complex yet the mall did not have an Exclusive Books (considered an obligatory tenant in other malls of similar size).Was this simply a case of Exclusive Books simply following its market research, which advised them that there was no market?
That being the case; in instances where libraries and “good quality book stores” are available, where book shelves are covered by 50 Shades of Grey and reams and reams of Harry Potter, one may also be forgiven to believe that they are walking in a book store or library in the American Midwest. Why should young South Africans be reading of tales of Wizzards, Witches and goblins in Hogwarth while our folkore is rich is stories of Tokoleshe’s and mkhovu’s of our own. Titles telling stories South Africans can relate to, about people they can relate, in a language they understand are far in between. While there is a significant number of books publishing in indigenous African languages, however most is virtually limited to school as part of form work. In commercial book stores, there are no other books which can be referred to as books written in an African language with the exception of a bookshelf tucked away in the corner carrying a few Afrikaans titles
In the face of this evidence, it becomes clear that new innovative solutions are required to overcome the challenge. The challenge being not only how to ensure reading material is accessible to all South Africans, but importantly also ensuring that South Africans can access QUALITY reading material. Creative collaborations are required between the state and the private sector to ensure that a wider selection of books are made available to a broader audience of readers at a lower cost.
As a gesture to encourage reading in general and promotion of South African publishing in particular, serious consideration should be given by the national treasury to zero rating (scrapping of VAT) of locally published books. In so doing, it can play its part in reducing the cost to accessing books. Consideration should also be given by the Department of Arts and Culture towards funding the distribution of an annual selection of locally published books for distribution in all public libraries and schools. An anthology of South African folk stories can be compiled and distributed freely to all South Africans as part of the process of preserving our rich heritage of storytelling. Publishing houses should give serious consideration to releasing South African books no longer available on print circulation on ebook formats which can also be accessed through social media platforms like Mxit.
If me and you start reading, it will matter less as to whether the President reads or not.
Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on MyNews24 have been independently written by members of News24's community. The views of users published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.