William Gumede | Why reading is crucial for economic growth

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Reading is not only essential to increase  knowledge but is also crucial for the overall development of countries.
Reading is not only essential to increase knowledge but is also crucial for the overall development of countries.

Very little sustainable development can happen within a country without the fostering of a society-wide reading culture, writes William Gumede.


Reading is a stepladder out of poverty, not only for individuals, but for entire countries.

Developing a far-reaching culture of reading in societies, has been a crucial development trigger that has lifted many poor countries out of desperate poverty.

Reading is not only essential to increase an individual's knowledge, broaden their range of opportunities and expand their personal growth, it is also crucial for the overall development of countries.

Very little sustainable development can happen within a country without the fostering of a society-wide reading culture. Societies that don't read, are bound to remain locked in underdevelopment. This fact is often poorly understood by policy makers in many African and developing countries.

A crucial foundation

It is important to stress that reading is a crucial foundation, not only for individual development, but for a country's development. In South Africa, in community protests against lack of public service delivery, libraries are often misguidedly set on fire by protesters.

Incredibly, even during the student protests at higher education institutions, such as the Fees Must Fall protests which called for free access to education, knowledge and learning, campus libraries were regularly destroyed. This shows the extent to which books and reading are not seen as at the core of individual, community and country development.

Many countries that, in the post-Second World War, transformed from poor to developed country status, such as South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, had cultivated a dramatic expansion of reading among their citizens before their economic takeoff .

South Africa lacks a culture of reading, which has crippled not only individual, but also the country's, development. Naturally, high levels of illiteracy undermines reading. Yet, many South Africans who can read, do not.

READ | Why it is essential that we become a reading nation 

Black communities in particular, are not reading. Most of the reading is often done for essential tasks.

South African leaders, from across the spectrum, from politics to religion do not appear to read widely either. And often when they do read, they read very narrowly.

This lack of reading among South Africa's governing elite has contributed to a poverty of ideas, imagination and policy; which can often be seen in the country's empty public debates, decisions and strategies.

Many South African political leaders do not appear to see the point in reading. It is therefore not surprising that many in leadership positions in government frustratingly also appear not to give the due development importance to reading.

Sadly, in South Africa, it appears that reading is not seen as a societal good. There is still a social stigma attached to those who read – both among adults and children. As a prerequisite to foster a nationwide culture of reading, the stigma attached to reading should be combatted.

Encourage children to read 

It is important that we start a societal culture of reading by encouraging children to read. If adults do not read, children are unlikely to read. Children are more likely to read if there are books around them: at home, in schools and in the spaces they frequent.

In fact, reading should start while children are still in the womb. For example, both mothers and fathers could read aloud while their children are still in the womb. Grandparents, parents and siblings should regularly read to younger children.

It is important that parents start reading-based activities and plays in children's early years. Reading should be incorporated into playing, whether at home or at school. Adults could play with their children with letters, words and writing.

READ | Instil a culture of reading

Children should be encouraged to read in everyday situations, such as when parents shop. They should be encouraged to read grocery labels, ingredients and road signs.

South Africa also needs a culture of reading in schools, beyond reading just for passing tests. A culture of reading is absent in many government schools. Reading should be made part of every facet of the curriculum.

- William Gumede is a professor at the Wits School of Governance.


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