Mohlakeng: Youths fired up by a love of reading

Bag of knowledge: Lebogang Thabeng, Tebogo Links and Pius Xulu with one of the huge bags of books they have collected for their 'underground' library in Mohlakeng on the West Rand. (Gustav Butlex)

Bag of knowledge: Lebogang Thabeng, Tebogo Links and Pius Xulu with one of the huge bags of books they have collected for their 'underground' library in Mohlakeng on the West Rand. (Gustav Butlex)

In the wake of protests that saw their only library burned down, book-loving youths in Mohlakeng township in Randfontein on the West Rand have started their own “underground library”.

Twenty-three-year-old Lebogang Thabeng sits in his room, one of two built behind his grandparents’ four-roomed house in Mohlakeng. A bed takes up most of the room. On the bed are engineering textbooks.
There is no table. He is a third-year student at Westcol FET college in Randfontein and is preparing to write his final exams at the end of February.

“I am forced to study here now,” he says, pointing at the bed. A prepaid electricity meter on the wall shows he has run out of power.

“I can’t afford to go to Randfontein and use the library there. I still can’t believe our community burned down our library,” he says, referring to protests two weeks ago in which Mohlakeng protesters burned down the municipal building, the maternity clinic and the library.

“The municipal building is next to the library and the fire spread. Most of us used to go to the study section of the library to prepare for exams because there is no space to work at home and it is hard to focus.”

Thabeng tells the Mail & Guardian that, even though the old library had only a few old encyclopaedias, it always had electricity and the youth could sit at tables and study.

Creating a love for reading
“That’s why we, the Mohlakeng youth, started a movement to collect books and start an ‘underground’ library to introduce the youth to books and create a love for reading.”

The library is a tiny one-room house with precast walls and a corrugated iron ceiling. It is easy to drive past it because it is hidden behind a four-roomed house. On top of the library roof, tent fabric is secured by rocks to stop the rain from seeping in. Old newspapers are stuck over the windows. Inside the room, covering the floor, are boxes full of books; some are on the couches, on the bed, on top of the television and on the table. Ten people are squeezed inside the room.

“This is what we call the underground library and outside is our performance art stage,” says Neo Mathetsa, owner of the house and a performance art student at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg.

“Two years ago we got some primary and secondary school-children together to perform at an old age home. Most of them couldn’t read the script and that’s when we realised we can’t just wait for the government or the schools to save us. We had to teach these kids how to read and start a culture of reading in the township,” he says.

Mathetsa and his friends then approached churches, community leaders and walked from house to house, asking people to donate any books they had.

He says they wanted the project to be more than just the youth taking out books, which then gathered dust in their homes. That is why they started a programme to turn the books they read into performance pieces.

“We have Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. The kids will take these books home, then they will come back and then we perform them,” he says.

Learning in vernacular
Mathetsa tells the M&G they also promote books written in the vernacular, especially poems, which young people enjoy and can relate to.

While in conversation, 25-year-old Thabo Phooko walks in.

“Reader,” says Mathetsa, to which Phooko responds with a fist pump and the word, “reader”.

Phooko was one of the first people to use the library and has come to collect a book for his 11-year-old brother.

“That little one is about to come back from school, I need a book. He watches too much television. We must find him a book. We can’t have kids just coming home and playing outside getting into trouble,” he says.

Mathetsa tells him one of his most popular books is Puo ya ga mme [Mother’s Words] by JS Morule and ME van Zyl, and hands over a brown soft-cover book to Phooko to sign.

“This is how we keep track of who has what book. They sign for it and leave their residential address and we follow up with them,” he says.

Inside are the names of people who have taken out books, their addresses and signatures.

Lack of reading
Mathetsa tells the M&G one of the reasons he and his friends started the initiative was because there was a lack of reading in the township.

“Schoolchildren can’t read; high school kids can’t read. I realised this two years ago. I came home with scripts for a community project – uplifting the community – I got several children to act in one of the plays. They couldn’t read,” he said.

“Most have never owned a book and they have never been encouraged to read a book. Ngoana ga itse ho bala [A child cannot read]; that’s a travesty,” he says.

These sentiments are shared by the youth of Majakaneng, outside Brits in North West, who took to the street to protest over, among other things, no libraries in the area.

“A lot of youth are on strike here in Majakaneng. Have you stopped to ask yourself why most of the people that are striking are the youth? It’s because there are no facilities in Majakaneng,” says Simphiwe Mahlangu, who was born in 1994.

“There isn’t even one library here. There is no library. But when you look around, there are a lot of pubs and taverns but there is not even one library. There isn’t a book for anyone to pick up and read.

“If you ask the youth here when was the last time they read a book, they can’t tell you. And that’s what we are fighting for,” says Mahlangu.

The underground library will be launched on March 21, but the library will go beyond the launch date and needs your help.

Use this hashtag: #undergroundbooks to communicate with us as well as organisation on Twitter. 

For more information contact 

• Thuletho Zwane: ThulethoZ@mg.co.za, 011 250 7354, 081 328 5264  

• Sebabatso Mosamo: SebabatsoM@mg.co.za, 011 250 7492, 082 483 6216 

If you would like to donate books to the underground library please deliver them to the M&G offices at Grosvenor Corner, 195 Jan Smuts Avenue, corner of 7th Avenue, Rosebank.  An official launch of the library has been planned for March 21 at the Mohlakeng Arts Hall.

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