Underground library to the rescue

In the midst of ongoing protests over municipal boundaries in Vuwani, Limpopo, schools are being torched, but there is a flicker of hope – the Underground Library.

Born in the aftermath of service delivery protests in Mohlakeng, Johannesburg, in February last year – which left parts of the municipal building, local clinic and the library damaged – the Underground Library was the brainchild of a few young people rallying against their circumstances.

It’s this group that now wants to help the thousands of schoolchildren affected by the Limpopo protests, by providing them with textbooks ahead of the June exams.

Neo Mathetsa, chairperson of the Mohlakeng Youth Movement, says: “We know how it feels to have service delivery protests disrupt the community and students. We feel for the pupils in Vuwani and we would like to assist wherever we can, since we were also assisted last year.”

Pointing to their store of books, Mathetsa says: “These are the books we would like to supply to the schools [in Limpopo]. They are study guides and textbooks. We are in the process of identifying the schools to see what their needs are, before just giving away the books.”

Last year the Mail & Guardian carried a report on the Underground Library’s plea for books, which was met with an overwhelming response from nongovernmental organisations and individuals touched by their mission to promote a healthy reading culture.

The group offers a safe reading and cultural space for young people in the township. This includes afterschool care, where pupils can get their homework and assignments done with the help of the library’s facilitators.

Mathetsa says they “have seen an improvement in a lot of our young students’ reading, pronunciation of words and their confidence to read out loud”.

A small backroom serves as the library and reading area, so there isn’t enough space for the 3?000 books the group has collected. But this problem is being solved: the group will soon be getting containers to house their books a stone’s throw away. The Underground Library also supplies books to another community library in Mohlakeng.

Mathetsa adds: “We carefully consider who we give our books to, because we want to donate books to students and schools who we know will actually use them and not let them sit and collect dust. We received a lot of support from people in different provinces last year.

“We received more books and textbooks and we want to help the [Vuwani] students to prepare for their exams seeing as we don’t know when the government will help them.”

Last year, service delivery protests affected matric pass rates in Limpopo, with one school’s dropping from 73% in 2014 to 68% in 2015. In Malamulele, Limpopo, disgruntled residents set five schools alight last year. The principal of Nkathini High School, MF Shithoali, says it took months for the school to recover fully.

“One room full of books and stationery was burnt down last year. Most of our text books and unused exercise books were burnt before we could hand them out to pupils,” he says, adding: “Thankfully this year we haven’t been targeted.”

Mosibudi Ratlebjane is the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation fellow at the Mail & Guardian

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