Literacy: Once upon a time, parents taught their children to read

In the growing dusk of an evening in February 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out on the balcony of Cape Town City Hall. Fumbling with the microphone and reading glasses borrowed from his wife, he spoke, exhaustedly but powerfully, to the 50 000 or so people who had filled the Grand Parade below him.

Sindiwe Magona, the prolific writer, civil servant and community activist, was glued to her TV. But unlike the millions around the world caught up in the fervour of that day, she was fretful.

"Excited as I was," she said, "the fact that Mandela was proclaiming freedom from a building that housed a whites-only public library was starkly ironic to me. For the longest while – and people so easily forget this – black people did not have access to real libraries. We had some libraries in the townships, but they were so obviously inferior that people stayed away.

"Literacy is the cornerstone of development politically, socially and economically," she said. "We had had centuries of deprivation of the right to read and we thought that everything would change with the end of apartheid. We hoped children in the townships would flock to the libraries. But they didn't! It isn't that simple."

It is becoming readily accepted that South Africans do not read books. They read newspapers and magazines – more than two-thirds of South Africans regularly read print media, according to the South African Book Development Council – but they are not so-called committed readers: only 1% of South Africans regularly buy books and only 14% are regular book readers, figures far below the estimated literacy rate of 88.7%.

Culture of talking
As much as the country lacks a book-reading culture, it also lacks a culture of talking about the reasons why a populace that reads books is important.

"Reading can be such an important tool," said David Harrison, chief executive of the DG Murray Trust, a funding body for literary education and childhood development institutions.

"It can create a sense… of context. It helps you understand what's happening in your life and grants you a greater range of tools to build resilience and a greater sense of opportunity."

Conceptual and analytical thinkers – the kind of thinkers that regular reading produces – are best equipped to participate in all sectors of the economy and, crucially, start sustainable businesses.

Also, said Harrison, it enables people to "feel affirmed in their sense of purpose, belonging and identity".

"But," said Magona, an author of more than 100 children's books and other works of memoir and fiction, "there exists a myth that we're a nonreading culture. The trouble with myths is that they very soon become self-perpetuating.

"Because we see that we don't read, or the myth exists that people don't read – whichever comes first – we accept it as fact. We do not look at the causes. We do not look at remedies."

So, let us start with the causes.

In a survey on the habits and perceptions of reading the South African Book Development Council conducted in 2006, it was found that the cost of books was one of the main barriers restricting their reading in every demographic identified.

Depending on who you ask, the main reasons for high book prices in South Africa are large publishers' overreliance on bloated modes of distribution and a tiny market for most books, which necessitates smaller, more expensive print runs.

Tebogo Ditshego, founder of the social media campaign Read a Book South Africa, rejects the notion that the lack of a widespread reading culture is economically driven.

"South Africans, for example, spent R10.4-billion on gum and chocolate in 2010. In comparison, the book industry only makes about R3.5-billion a year, so I am sure more than 1% of the population can afford to save up and buy four books a year," he said.

"The challenge is to create a culture of reading books by educating ­parents about the importance of reading books to their children."

Mental development
This seems to be the main challenge: disrupting the self-perpetuating culture of not reading by inculcating new habits, even before children get to school.

 "We have massive potholes in the development of our children," said Harrison. "After six weeks of age, when children leave the postnatal clinic, they drop into a hole not to be spotted again until grade R."

In by far the most cases, the mental development of children younger than six is the sole responsibility of parents and caregivers.

A reading-slanted approach to early childhood development has benefits not only for high-level literacy, but also for broader mental development, parent-child bonding and school readiness.

"We're not asking if schoolchildren have even got the ability to learn in the first place," Harrison said. Along with adequate nutrition and a clean bill of health, reading can ensure that children are "maximally receptive" to schooling.

More than half of South Africa's children drop out of school before they reach matric. Much of this can be attributed to the lack of adequate amenities and human infrastructure in thousands of schools.

Books not readily available
But some of it, in Harrison's estimation, can be attributed to a lack of confidence in language. This is exacerbated by not reading as well as a sudden shift of focus from home language to the language of instruction after grade three.

"But we have to place more value on reading than just for school preparation," he said. "It's understanding that our society needs parents who have a strong bond with their children and create active, informed citizens. That can all stem from a strong background of reading and exploration."

This cannot happen if people do not have access to reading materials.

"Just as you can't fall in love with someone you haven't met, we can't raise children who are readers if they do not meet books," Magona said.

Millions of South Africans live in places where books are not readily available. According to the South African Booksellers' Association, there are about 1 600 bookshops in South Africa. About one-third are in rural areas. Most bookshops registered with the association are in Gauteng and the Western Cape, South Africa's two richest provinces per capita, and they are concentrated in the wealthy suburbs of large towns and cities.

A logical stopgap would be the country's network of about 1 200 public and mobile libraries, but they are also inequably distributed and resourced. Further exacerbating the issue is the 92% of public schools that, according to education activist group Equal Education, do not have functional libraries.

Until the infrastructure is improved, other ways of making books available have to be explored. Increasingly, private and non-governmental organisations are showing that, when relevant and exciting literature is made accessible, differences can be made. The Nal'ibali initiative, for example, attempts to foster reading clubs and parent-child book reading through multilingual newspaper supplements. Organisations such as Yoza and the FunDza Literacy Trust address distribution deficits by serialising original short fiction for youths on Mxit. Tens of thousands of children are now reading books on their cellphones.

But the problems are too deep-rooted to be treated with just good books and sound bites. A radically different approach is needed. The question is: At what point does addressing South Africa's reading culture becomes not just a postscript to the goals of better education, economic growth and social healing, but a crucial means to these exact ends?

"It's a question of opening the national debate," Magona said. "Otherwise, we will keep amassing deficits that no one can afford to pay."

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