Not just a library, it’s a revolution

Moved by the razing of their library during a service delivery protest, a group of young people in Mohlakeng started a call to “donate a book” that resulted in the Underground Library.

On Monday Randfontein’s mayor, Mzi Khumalo, donated land to the interactive project. It is opposite Neo Mathetsa’s one-roomed home, which initially served as the library-cum-stage.

Mathetsa and 11 of his friends have revolutionised how readers interact with their books.

“When people come here, they don’t just take a book and walk away. We ask them questions about the book. We encourage them to read out loud. And we also say they need to be able to act out extracts from the book, just like at the theatre,” said Mathetsa.

He and the other members of the Underground Library started the initiative after residents of Mohlakeng, a township south of Randfontein in Gauteng, burned down the municipal library earlier this year. The group, formally known as the Mohlakeng Youth Movement, asked residents to donate books for the library. At the time, they used municipal garbage bins to collect reading matter from around the township. The group said they had identified the lack of a reading culture in their community and wanted to encourage it.

Overwhelming response
The call to donate books received an overwhelming response with people across the country and abroad sending books to the Mail & Guardian‘s Johannesburg and Cape Town offices. It soon became apparent that the location of the Underground Library in Mathetsa’s little home was not sufficient to hold all the books and its members.

Randfontein’s mayor said he wanted the Underground Library to succeed. “It is not often you have young people standing up and doing something positive in the community. Usually you have young people looking to government to do certain things for them. When I looked at the library, I understood it is not just a matter of the library but a revolution,” said Khumalo.

Khumalo said the Underground Library team was bringing back the work of cultural bodies prevalent in the 1980s. Back then townships were the centre for creativity, theatre and debates on topical issues, but now the youth “take part in things like nyaope and prefer going to taverns – these things that are ravaging our communities,” said Khumalo.

The municipality will provide security services as well as water and electricity to the library.

The land donated by the municipality is still used as a park. During the early hours of the day children play on the rusted swing that has only two swing seats made out of tyres. Others walk up the metal slide, which is covered in black grime. The seesaw is broken but some children still play on it. The park is filthy: used nappies, broken bottles and torn clothes litter the area. Some children sift through the rubbish looking for things to play with. Three four-year-olds, knee-deep in garbage, find metal from old cellphones and start to collect broken phone pieces.

Informal gambling
As the day progresses, the players in the park change. Two young men walk in with six empty beer crates and a brown board. They set up the crates and balance the board on top, carefully placing two miniature dice. They explain that their informal gambling game starts at R2 a head.  On a good day, the two, aged 17 and 20, make R300, money they use to buy food, clothes and go to school.

Asked how he felt about the park being donated to the Underground Library, the 17-year-old said: “Either way it is not a stress because we can move our game to another park on the other side of the township. At least the park will be clean.”

He added that he was keen to join the library.

Khumalo said the municipality would draw in business people, especially from the area’s mining houses, to take the library on as part of their social corporate responsibility projects.  

“They [the Underground Library team] can’t volunteer forever. If there are positions that we can create inside the municipality and link them up with the project we will do that … but we don’t want to take over the project.”

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