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2 October 2014 00:08 (South Africa)
South Africa

Op-Ed: The politics of reading and the reading of politics

  • Mark Heywood
  • South Africa
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When the Freedom Charter cried out that “the doors of learning and culture shall be opened” it did so for a reason – because a privileged few had peeped behind those doors and seen the treasures of culture and understood their importance for equality. So how is it that in recent years the doors of learning and culture have been slammed shut for millions of children in South Africa? By MARK HEYWOOD.

On 1 May 2014, on the starting line of the Wally Hayward Marathon in Johannesburg, a young black runner unfolded a sheet of A3 paper on which he had typed in big bold font the words: “Quality Education For All”. He then asked another runner to use his cellphone to photograph him holding his makeshift poster. Once that was done, he scrumpled up the poster and left it on the side of the road. When I asked him what that was about, he replied that he was a second year civil engineering student at Wits University and that he understood that he owed his opportunity to be at university to the quality of his education. Such an education, he said, should be available for all.

Five days later I was in the North Gauteng High Court. On that day judge Neil Tuchten handed down his judgment in the latest round of litigation challenging the absence of textbooks in many Limpopo schools. In answer to a strange defence made by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) that “a teacher can fulfill the function of a textbook” he seems to have found it necessary to philosophise at some length on the importance of books. In Tuchten’s words:

Books are the essential tools, even weapons, of free people. That is why tyrants throughout the ages have sought to restrict and even deny the access of their subjects to the written word and even to burn and otherwise destroy the books of those whose cultures and ideas they seek to suppress.”

To appreciate that Tuchtens’ soliloquy was no exaggeration we need only recall the power of a few books in history. In 1791 the English radical Tom Paine published The Rights of Man. In its first three months the official edition of the book sold 500,000 copies. This was at a time when most English novels sold 1,250 copies, while non-fiction averaged 750 copies; the British population numbered ten million with only 40% of them literate. In the next few years The Rights of Man influenced both the French and American revolutions.

Fifty years later another book, Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, inspired a wave of readers in revolutions that shaped much of the twentieth century. Although far from being my favorites, books such as the Koran and Bible have had a massive influence on the trajectory of human history. So did Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.

A book should be written about books that shook the world – in fact it probably has already.

The importance of the book is not something alien to South African culture. Our indigenous literature was primarily oral until the mid 19th century, but the arrival of books as part of the baggage (literally) of colonialism had a profound effect on both our literature and politics. The library of Lovedale College in Alice was probably one of the greatest influences on late nineteenth century African nationalism, as well as on successive generations of African writers. A C Jordan (Pallo Jordan’s late father) started his great and terribly under-read Xhosa-language novel Inqumbo Yeminyana by connecting the Xhosa oral tradition to Shakespeare with King Richard II’s invocation:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground,

And tell sad stories of the death of Kings:”

Chris Hani, another Lovedale graduate, was also an unabashed Shakespearean In an interview he described his:

fascination with Latin studies and English literature. These studies in these two courses were gobbled up by me and I became an ardent lover of English, Latin and Greek literature, both modern and classical. My studies of literature further strengthened my hatred of all forms of oppression, persecution and obscurantism. The action of tyrants as portrayed in various literary works also made me hate tyranny and institutionalised oppression.”

He went as far as telling a journalist that:

I want to believe that I am decisive and it helps me to be decisive when I read Hamlet.”

I agree with Hani. One of the “importants” of reading is that it both connects with and catalyses the quest for social justice -- an argument I have made fleetingly in another article.

The reader, the writer and the activist often become bound up in each other. Witness the lives and writings of people like William Cobbett, George Orwell, Sol Plaatje or Esk’ia Mphahlele. But writing does not catalyse change in a didactic or pedantic or lecturing way. The crude simplicities of modern politics have learnt nothing of its nuance. Rather the power of literature is its ability to evoke empathy, to create recognition and cognition, to reflect the infinite diversity of thought and emotion. Its motivating force is its power to inspire in multiple ways.

This must be why the United Nations Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights described the importance of a good education – which will always centre on reading of some form – as being not just the practical skills it gives to young people, but because “a well-educated, enlightened and active mind, able to wander freely and widely, is one of the joys and rewards of human existence.”

I have already mentioned the role of great schools like Lovedale College in encouraging reading and, indeed, it is at schools where one expects the culture of reading to begin in children. When the Freedom Charter cried out that “the doors of learning and culture shall be opened” it did so for a reason – because a privileged few had peeped behind those doors and seen the treasures of culture and understood their importance for equality.

So how is it that in recent years the doors of learning and culture have been slammed shut for millions of children in South Africa?

The publicity surrounding the 2012 Limpopo textbook saga was the first time many people became aware of the scale of textbook shortages at schools. Textbooks are the core of teaching and are necessarily tied to school curricula. However, an object of teaching is to stimulate a wider interest in learning, humanity and its forms of expression. Learning should stimulate the desire to read. It is hard to do this without the building blocks. Yet, putting the small matter of textbooks aside, when it comes to the availability of books for pleasure or enquiry the situation is even more disastrous.

Here facts speak best for themselves:

  • According to Equal Education in 2012, of our 24,793 public schools only 1,855 (7%) had a stocked library.

  • According to the DBE itself only 53% percent of secondary schools have libraries that meet ‘minimum standards’. This amounts to approximately 1.7 million learners with access to books. However, when the measure was ‘preferred standards’ the national average dropped to 25%.

Thank God basic education is a constitutional right! Right? Wrong. You would imagine that this justified some urgency to rectify this appalling deprivation. Think again. According the Minimum Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure that were made law by the DBE in late 2013 the government may take up to 10 years before “all schools have a minimum, adequate and suitable school library collection.”

Thank God equality is a constitutional right! Right? Wrong. Think again. Sadly, the more disadvantaged the child the greater the deprivation. South Africa’s 22 public schools for blind children do not yet have any textbooks in braille for the new CAPS curricula (introduced three years ago).

But blindness does not only reside in children who are born without sight. Of late it has befallen many officials and politicians and been combined with learning in stupidity. Section27 has recently come across a publisher who is suing the DBE after 124,000 business studies textbooks that were ordered by the Limpopo Department of Education were printed but not paid for. After two years of storing the books, and although payment for the books was still awaited, the publisher offered to give the books to the Department. Astoundingly, the Department refused his offer and the books had to be destroyed.

So if children can’t get books at school, where else can they go to read? The obvious answer would seem to be the public library.

Wrong, think again. Unfortunately we live in the era of the decline of the public library. According to an August 2013 report by the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) there is a national backlog of 2,762 public libraries with this figure varying from a low 23% in the Western Cape to 85% in Limpopo. The DAC estimates that it would cost R16bn to build all the libraries needed to meet the current shortfall. It seems most unlikely in these fiscally constrained times that this budget will be raised.

The heroic traditions of our literary culture, and the catalytic role played by books, make the decline of reading in post-Apartheid South Africa an even greater tragedy. That the very government that claims to follow the traditions and spirit of Mandela, Tambo and Hani is overseeing this decline makes it even more grotesque.

In the past, the Apartheid government decreed that education of black children should only be at a level to equip them to be ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’. This may be a thing of the past at a policy level. But if the truth be told, today quality education for most children is being made impossible by the callous disinterest of many on the old and new elite in the spiritual lives of children. Access to decent housing, health and education are generally the most commonly cited markers of inequality. However, the denial of access to quality education and reading is as a great a manifestation of this new inequality – one with perhaps far-reaching consequences for democracy.

At this point the future of reading does not look good. Our tradition of reading from books is disappearing and in its place a new tradition reading from cell phones and other gadgets is rapidly establishing itself. Whilst we can be grateful that this is a source of some information and words for children, there is mounting evidence about the poor quality of comprehension and cognition that comes from this type of ‘reading’. It is perhaps a palliative, but no substitute.

Sadly, the deprivation of books and learning has become part of a vicious circle that keeps the poor in thrall. One wonders whether poor people would be in a much greater revolt if they understood just how the odds are stacked against them, and how life-experiences from point of cradle and kindergarten will carry them in poverty all the way to the grave. It is widely known that nutritional intake in the first 1000 days from conception is central to a child’s development including mental development. But much less is known of an American study of poor and rich parents that found that by the age of three, children born into low-income families heard roughly 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. Subsequent research has revealed that the ‘word gap’ becomes an achievement gap at school and then on throughout life.

So reading is important. Reading books, hearing books, holding books, learning, being read to – these are all important keys to the rich stores of humanity. But the tragedy is that fewer and fewer people are gaining access to the keys. It’s up to you few privileged readers to consider the implications of this and what we should do about it. DM

This article is based on a speech presented at the ‘Pleasure and Politics of Reading’ seminar of PEN-SA held at the 2014 Franshhoek Literary Festival.

School children walk past a big open sewer on their way home from school, Alexandra Township, Johannesburg, South Africa, 06 February 2012. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK.

  • Mark Heywood
  • South Africa


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