We must create a culture where reading – in all languages – is respected

Zakes Mda.Picture: Johnny Onverwacht
Zakes Mda.Picture: Johnny Onverwacht

The South African Book Fair is a platform for inclusive celebration of books and literature. It is a celebration firstly of a culture of reading, and secondly a culture of writing. The latter can only flow from the former.

By a culture of reading I mean an environment where we have embraced the habit of reading in our personal lives and are intensely engaged with the written word in its diverse forms. Reading becomes a culture when it has been internalised into a way of life, and has become a popular form of family entertainment.

Proficiency in reading and writing does not necessarily amount to reading as a cultural practice. There are many South Africans who have not read a single book since leaving high school or university 10 years ago. They have the ability, but do not care to use it because reading is not part of their way of life.

A culture of reading produces an engaged and motivated reader who is not reading for utilitarian purposes; for instance, to pass an exam, to prepare and present a report to the boss or to a prospective client, to secure employment, and a myriad other situations that may compel us to read. We are talking here of reading for pleasure, for edification, for entertainment, and for fulfilment.

A culture of reading can be cultivated at any age, though like all habits, good and bad, it is best instilled early in childhood.

This is difficult for many South Africans. The national survey into the reading and book-reading behaviour of adult South Africans 2016 commissioned by the South African Book Development Council found that 60% of our people are living in households without a single book.

It notes the obvious, that poorer households with lower levels of education are less likely to have books in their homes. Only 5% of adults with children in their home read to their children.

South African children from the more comfortable classes – a small percentage of the population – have the fortune of being born into a reading culture. They are more likely than not to adopt it for themselves and advance it.

I was fortunate to grow up surrounded by books, my father being a teacher of literature, but later a lawyer. My passion for reading began with comic books, a genre that I continue to devour with relish to this day. There was no intrusion of television those days, so reading became the predominant family entertainment. The first full-length adult book that I read when I was eight or nine was Ingqumbo Yeminyanya, an isiXhosa novel by AC Jordan. Later, Sesotho novels by such authors as JJ Machobane, Thomas Mofolo and the Khaketlas shaped my literary worldview with their breathtaking treatment of the landscape, the importance of setting, the romance and nostalgia of place, the domaine perdu.

It therefore saddens me that, today, literature in indigenous African languages is so marginalised that we can only conceive of a culture of reading in English. This is not because books in indigenous languages do not exist. Every year new books are published in most of the languages of South Africa, in addition to the classics in languages such as isiXhosa, Sesotho and isiZulu that have had a literary tradition dating from the 1800s.

The problem lies with book distribution rather than the book publishing sector. You may go to any of our major bookstore chains today, say Exclusive Books or CNA, and ask for the latest Sesotho novel by Nhlanhla Maake, a Setswana novel by Sabata-Mpho Mokae or an isiXhosa novel by Ncedile Saule, and the likelihood is that you will not find it in stock.

It is a catch-22 situation because the bookstores will tell you they don’t stock such novels because no one buys them, but the readers will tell you they don’t buy them because they are not in stock.

This is a cumulative result of the marginalisation of indigenous languages in South Africa today in all spheres of life. Our whole democracy is conducted mostly in English, a language understood and used by a minority of South Africans.

Millions who don’t speak or read the language are left out. They cannot be full participants in our democracy when they are not informed participants.

Parliament itself pays only lip service to indigenous languages and privileges English, as honourable members childishly ridicule those who break the Queen’s language in their shoddy speeches. One wonders why they don’t present these speeches in their own languages as Afrikaner members proudly do. Infantile giggles and titters and howls become the order of the day. A grammatical mistake becomes a joke that will be repeated for that whole session. The message is clear: you do not belong in these august halls if you are not proficient in English.

Obviously, fluency in English is a measure of intelligence in our colonised minds. In this kind of environment where indigenous languages are disrespected and despised even by their own speakers we would not expect bookstores to stock books in them.

Cultures evolve; they are acquired and discarded as per need. I remember in my teens how it was fashionable to read James Hadley Chase and Peter Cheney. Every township youth of my generation read these authors. We exchanged books and competed on who had read the most titles. We awaited the release of a new title with eagerness. Even those who came from homes that had no culture of reading, the equivalents of today’s 60 percenters living in households that do not have a single book, were not left out. To become part of the conversation you had to read these authors. Those teenagers grew up to be great readers of books – of literary fiction and non-fiction. Some of them became writers of note.

A lot of the young people who read my books do so because they saw peers posting their covers, Facebragging and humblebragging on Twitter about what they enjoyed or hated in them.

Books then become an important topic of discussion, and those who do not want to be left out read them as well so that they may be part of that “woke” and “lit” conversation. Others have formalised the cultivation of book-reading by establishing book clubs on Twitter. I am thinking here of such media personalities as Tebogo Ditshego with his @ReadaBookSA whose followers view book-reading as a badge of smartness and suavity. Indeed, their slogan is #IntellectualSwag.

Instead of the distrust and disdain of information technology shared by many quintessential book readers, we can marry the two.

An interesting programme that is performing wonders in cultivating a culture of reading is run by Palesa Morudi and her partners in Cape Town. Called Cover2Cover Books it was established in 2010 as a social enterprise to fill a gap in the publishing market – namely, the millions of teenagers living in South African townships not serviced with books.

Besides its conventional book publishing activities for young readers and the trade market, I am fascinated most by their harnessing popular technology through their FunDza Literacy Trust to grow a community of readers. Stories serialised on their mobisite are accessed via cellphones by more than 60 000 readers spread throughout South Africa. This is interactive reading as readers exchange views on the stories.

Later, some of this fiction is published as hardcopy books. Some of these readers write their own stories that are circulated in the same manner.

The programme does not only create new readers, but new writers as well. It is a nationwide book club mediated by ordinary, basic cellphones.

There are book clubs throughout South Africa, and the wonderful thing about them is that they were not imposed from the top by some official or government structure but emerge from the grassroots, initiated by community members themselves. Those of us who are writers are occasionally invited to such places as Qwaqwa or Butterworth whenever the book club is discussing our books and we happen to be available.

What will strike you about the informal reading circles and book clubs is that they are predominantly female. On rare occasions, you find one or two men here and there.

Perhaps we need research of our own here on why men don’t join book clubs and what can be done to socialise them into a culture of reading. This is of utmost importance to me because I see it as the only way to teach men to be in touch with their emotions and to humanise them out of patriarchal values. It does not matter to me if they decide to form their own male book clubs if that is what makes them feel safe and comfortable, as long as they get to read books, especially fiction which inherently deals with interiorities, feelings and emotions in addition to critiquing social and political structures. After all women have found agency in spaces occupied by women. I have observed in many book clubs I have attended in South Africa that women, without being schooled in feminist theory or critical theory, automatically take a feminist perspective in their discussions, and formulate their own language of resistance in their interpretation of the books they read.

According to the South African Book Development study, the library tops the list of places where adult South Africans prefer to obtain their books. One in four adult South Africans visits the library. The study however is silent on the frequency of these visits. Is it one in four every week, every year, in their lifetime? Book buying is crucial, for it sustains the business of writing. But in a poor country like ours we need a library in every town, every township, every village. We need mobile libraries that will reach even the remotest of places.

Let me end by emphasising that cultures reproduce themselves. A reading culture once cultivated produces more readers and more readers produce more writers, who then in turn produce more readers. It all begins with a seed.

This is a shortened version of author Zakes Mda’s address at the opening of the South African Book Fair on September 8. Read the full speech here:


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