The letter was sent out by authors Nadia Davids, Mark Gevisser, Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Ronnie Kasrils, Sisonke Msimang, Professor Njabulo S Ndebele, Yewande Omotoso and Zukiswa Wanner.
Among the signatories are the novelists JM Coetzee, Zakes Mda, Mandla Langa, Ivan Vladislavic, Lauren Beukes, Damon Galgut, Margie Orford, Marguerite Poland, Achmat Dangor, Siphiwo Mahala and Angela Makholwa; the non-fiction writers Albie Sachs, Jonny Steinberg, Pumla Dineo Gqola, Elinor Sisulu, Andrew Feinstein, and Hennie van Vuuren; the poets and storytellers Gcina Mhlope, Lebo Mashile, Lindiwe Mabuza, Antjie Krog and Ingrid de Kok; the artist William Kentridge; the cartoonist Zapiro; the journalists Jacques Pauw, Ferial Haffajee, Anton Harber, Justice Malala, Adriaan Basson, and Pieter-Louis Myburgh; the broadcaster-writers Redi Tlhabi, Eusebius McKaiser, John Maytham, and Bruce Whitfield; the political and economic analysts Moeletsi Mbeki, Tony Leon, Judith February, Greg Mills, and Songezo Zibi; the academics Tshepo Madlingozi, Mcebisi Ndletyana, Jaclyn Cock, Shireen Hassim, Bill Nasson, Nicoli Nattrass and Eddie Webster.
An Open Letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa, Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and the South African National Coronavirus Command Council.
As published South African authors, and readers and writers, we are proud of and grateful for the sober, compassionate, and science-based leadership our government has shown during the Covid-19 pandemic. We are mindful of the difficult choices you have to make, every day, in an attempt to save our lives and our livelihoods, and we have noted your call for public response to the proposed regulations governing the easing of the lockdown. It is in this spirit that we submit our request: that all books, not just “educational” ones, be available for trade, at Level 4 of the lockdown.
The book industry was vulnerable even before the pandemic. We as a country are at great risk of losing not only our booksellers, but our publishers too. We are concerned about the jobs that will be lost, as well as the loss of vital cultural and intellectual space. This space will not be easily regained once the Covid-19 crisis is over.
From May 1, restaurants will be able to deliver cooked food. We understand the value of this, to the economy, the service industry, and consumers alike. We would like to urge that brain-food be delivered, too, as an essential service: not just so that writers can keep writing and publishers can keep publishing and booksellers can keep selling, but so that readers can keep reading, new ideas can keep sprouting, and that the life of the mind of our country can keep growing.
Reading is one of the few art-forms that can be practiced at a social distance; it is a pastime that both encourages safe behaviour in the present and is an investment in our individual and collective future. University students, in particular, need uninterrupted access to books to prepare them for a meaningful contribution to the knowledge economy.
We are not being simply nostalgic when we say that there is nothing like a physical book: it distills, holds, and transmits knowledge like no other “device”. From the young child discovering the world through her first storybook to a grandmother, now alone during the lockdown, with only her books to comfort her, it is the foundation of our literate society. If we are going to ensure that our country continues to develop and strengthen a reading culture, we need to nurture and protect writers, publishers, booksellers and readers.
We have noted the new ways technology is being adopted because of the pandemic, and we understand that, in the future, there might be more trade in e-books and less in physical books. Still, publishers will be necessary to make those e-books, and so we don’t want to lose them. And, of course, the pandemic has put into sharp relief the digital divide. For a long time to come, e-books will not be an option for most South Africans, and for this reason the paper publishing industry must stay alive.
Of course, there are books in circulation already, and it could be argued that it is not essential for more to be bought and sold right now. We would disagree. To allow the book industry to trade right now is to give it a lifeline. Without that lifeline, we could well lose it. Forever.
In South Africa, purchasing a book is often a luxury, but many in the book community work to promote national literacy, to ensure that books are widely available for loan and purchase, and to promote the understanding that books are a necessity rather than a privilege. We would like to see emerge, out of this crisis, an opportunity for developing better book delivery at a community level, so that the key work already done to build literacy in South Africa will not be lost.
We do not ask that bookshops be open physically for business just yet. Rather, we ask for a simple addition to the current Level 4 regulations: that all books be available for purchase online or over the phone and for delivery, and that all booksellers, big and small, be allowed to trade.
All books are educational.
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