/ 19 March 2008

New library opens world of knowledge in Soweto

If you build it, they will come.

When City of Johannesburg councillor Bongani Zondi looked at Soweto’s Arthur Ashe tennis courts, he didn’t see dusty tarmac and frayed nets. In his mind, a library stood there, welcoming Sowetans to a world of books and knowledge.

This week, Johannesburg’s newest library opened its doors in what has become a smart precinct that also includes a skills centre surrounded by well-manicured grass and trees — and a half-dozen remaining tennis courts.

The Jabavu library is punted by the city as the largest and best equipped in Soweto. Black gutters and roof supports complement the red bricks of the library building, situated on 2 400 square metres of land in a township that is home to about two million people.

The Vodacom Foundation and the City of Johannesburg, with the help of the Gauteng department of transport, roads and works, made Zondi’s dream possible.

“This [area] only had tennis courts and people were pressurising me to build a church, but I already had an idea for a library in mind,” Zondi said at the library inauguration ceremony on Monday.

Construction of the R14-million library started in 2005 with a contribution of R1,6-million from the Vodacom Foundation and R1-million from the provincial department.

The skills centre — which provides free training in sewing, baking and computer skills — was the first to be built. The library itself will offer literacy workshops for elderly people. The Soweto Old-Age Home is situated across the road from the library, and residents will be able to learn to read with the help of library staff.

“That is one of the unique features of this library; it involves everyone in the community, from child to grandma,” Zondi said.

Ignatius Jacobs, provincial transport minister, said his department was happy to be part of this project.

“We don’t only deal with taxis, you know. We deal with infrastructure and I believe that good infrastructure contributes to an organised community. A good library like this will help keep children out of the street and will help them stay in school and not do drugs and all the other social illnesses,” he said.

According to Atilla Lourens, head of the city’s department of library affairs, Soweto has 17 libraries, eight of which have been upgraded and “are in a good condition”.

“The way they [Sowetans] utilise their libraries is still not good enough. The people here still use libraries for studying, not for recreational purposes, and we had hoped that with the upgrading of the existing libraries it would change,” she said.

The book budget of the city’s libraries has increased from R3-million last year to R10-million for 2008.

Lourens said the fact that Sowetans use libraries only for studying can be traced back to the apartheid era. “Black parents are not likely to teach their children about libraries because their association with libraries is not a positive one. They associated them with the apartheid government, and another thing is that they read because they want to learn something, not for the joy of it,” she said.

The two-storey Jabavu library boasts a “business corner” with books and material for entrepreneurs, an audiovisual section (known as the “Cool Youth” area), 25 flat-screen computers that will have internet access by the end of April, and a children’s section with storytelling sessions presented by library staff.

“We will be working with the crèches around the area. A timetable will be drawn up for different days when different crèches will bring their children for storytelling time. This is a way that we are trying to get children used to the library environment,” said Tholakele Makalima, the regional manager of Soweto’s libraries.

Makalima said that people in Soweto are supportive of libraries. “I must say, the response is not as much as it would be in, say, in the northern suburbs, but people are adopting the culture of libraries, and the more we feature other things that interest people in our libraries, like sport, the more likely people will open up to them.”

Behind the Jabavu library are the six tennis courts that were there before the library was built. “We are fusing sports, education and entrepreneurship for our people,” said Zondi, the city councillor.

In his speech at the library opening, Johannesburg mayor Amos Masondo said that the library was a great achievement that could make a great contribution to development. He urged the community of Jabavu to look after the buildings and facilities and to take care of the books and computers.

“Libraries do not in themselves possess intrinsic value unless they are used,” he said.