Book Fair and Literary Festival: ensuring the literacy of future nations

Bra Hugh Masekela signs a copy of his book Still Grazing: The Musical Joourney of Hugh Masekela, for a young fan. (Photo: Sfiso Sibonyani)

Bra Hugh Masekela signs a copy of his book Still Grazing: The Musical Joourney of Hugh Masekela, for a young fan. (Photo: Sfiso Sibonyani)

A crisp morning on the last day of September saw the birth of a new event on the South African literary calendar. Future Nation Schools, a game-changer in the South African basic education landscape launched a Book Fair and Literary Festival at their Lyndhurst campus. It featured engaging conversations from established authors such as Unathi Magubeni, Dr Judy Dlamini, Malaika wa Azania, Athambile Masola and Sipho Noko. The festival engaged on the future of African literature, its content, creation and distribution to the masses.

The book fair tackled a variety of topics that affect our nation. Indigenous people often have rich and diverse cultures based on a profound spiritual relationship with their land and natural resources. Dichotomies such as nature versus culture do not exist in indigenous societies, so why do such dichotomies exist in the education of indigenous learners? This was the question focused on by arts practitioner Dr Sipho Sithole.

Indigenous people do not see themselves as outside the realm of nature, but as part of nature, and they have their own specific attachment to their land and territory, and their own specific modes of production based on a unique knowledge of their environment. The introduction of indigenous dances into biology classes, for instance, may be an engaging way to learn about human physiology and the relationship between the muscles.

Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, scholar, author and hip hop artist, shares similar views with those of Sithole. It was discovered by the United Nations in the creation of the Sustainable Development goals that there are millions of young people living in slums and inner cities who can be reached using hip hop as a “language”. In various institutions in the US, some courses of study are based on celebrity, studying Lady Gaga’s marketing strategy or “the politics of Beyoncé and the popularisation of black feminism”. Teachers are using millennial rappers to conjure up interest in the works of Wordsworth and Shakespeare.

This then raises the question: is Shakespeare still relevant in the quest for a decolonised 21st Century African education? The answers vary, but ultimately it is important to note that the writings of Shakespeare were a means to transmit certain messages and values, and we must adapt these lessons to fit into an African context, where we learn about themes of betrayal, love, agony, fate, etcetera from characters who are true reflection of ourselves, to have representation in the stories we read. Mpofu-Walsh recently simultaneously published a book and hip hop album titled Democracy & Delusion, speaking about politics to a youth that listens to hip hop. This is a true definition of decolonising education, making the essence of the message accessible not only to the privileged but to everyone through the use of technology and innovative ways of teaching.

Nali’bali is a campaign created by Jade Jacobson and her team. It utilises media such a newspapers and radio to cultivate a culture of literacy and to discover new means of distributing African books and related content. The publishing and distribution industry has been controlled by a few individuals who in some cases exploited writers by giving up 80% to 90% of sales revenue to distributors and sellers. There was suggestion of development of more “informal” methods of distributing books arise — books are being sold at traffic lights, spaza shops, markets, street corners and small book dealers, creating increased access to local content at prices fair to the author and reader.

The classroom is not the only place to learn. Children need to immersed in a culture of making, designing and engaging in a method that is more than just the traditional “sit down and read”. It is this approach that Sizwe Nxasana, co-founder of the Future Nation Schools emphasises at Future Nation Schools — a culture of project-based learning, where the classroom moves from being “indoctrination centres” to being a part of an institution of progressive and engaging learning.

In many indigenous cultures, social and political institutions are part of the cosmic order, and it is on the basis of their worldview, beliefs, values and customs that indigenous people define their own forms of governance, as well as their customary laws and norms. In his presentation, Sipho Noko spoke of the importance of writing academically in African languages. His talk was aptly facilitated by Hleze Kunju, who this year became the first to publish a PhD in IsiXhosa, his own language. Achille Mbembe’s was quoted, directly referencing the situation faced by many previously colonised people: “A negative moment arises when new antagonisms emerge while the old antagonisms have not been resolved”. This is the plight of the African learner who, in the quest for decolonisation, realises she lacks command of her mother tongue, while struggling to conjure a good command of the English or other colonising language.

Another critique raised on the day was that themes ranging from science to sociology have been seldom explored in indigenous languages. People are their language and the creation of the accurate epistemology of our systems is necessary for the preservation of these languages, their pasts and futures.

A book exhibition and sale was an all-day feature; established and start-up publishers displayed their wares at the book fair. Various authors such as Thando Mqqolozana and Malaika wa Azania could be spotted in the vicinity. Azania gave a presentation on young female authors and representative forms of existence. “It is a tragedy that we do not celebrate writers such as Noni Jabavu, who was a female journalist and writer in the 60s, crossing between Africa and the then diaspora with her typewriter. An effort is being made to recover some of her manuscripts, which are a necessary heritage for South Africa. The black writer is diverse and not the one-dimensional figure imagined by European gatekeepers, who prefer a certain kind of black writer…”

Dlamini’s book Equal But Different was the subject of a panel discussion about gender equality in education with author Khaya Dlanga. The book narrates women leaders’ stories, sets contrasts and establishes similarities in the daily successes and struggles of women across the spectrum.

As Bra Hugh Masekela said “We don’t want a situation where our children are [only] listening to indigenous languages in museums, because no one speaks or engages the language to develop them. And when others ask our children who they are, they reply with ‘we used to be African.’”

It is important that educational institutions such as the Future Nation Schools and Sifiso Learning Group garner support to create and protect decolonised forms of expression and the transmission of beneficial knowledge for education.

For more information about the schooling group visit: futurenationschools.com

Future Nation Schools donations

A salient characteristic of indigenous cultures is that they are often based on a collective perspective. Indigenous people consider their lands and resources to be collective assets, they see their cultural values and activities — their very identity — as a function of the group, not individuals. This also applies to the ownership and custody of their cultural heritage, which is also collective. It is this philosophy that prompted Sizwe Nxasana, chairperson of NSFAS and the National Education Collaboration trust, and his wife Dr Judy Dlamini to make a significant donation to schools in neighbouring Alexandra township. R20 000 was given to each of the five schools to improve their library services.

Paul Mashatile, former Gauteng premier, represents the Vincent Shabalala Education Trust operating in Alexandra. The trust identifies promising learners and guides them in a supported programme from grade 10 until university. To date, more than 200 learners have been part of the programme, and more than 50 graduates have returned to assist with tutoring those in the programme. Future Nation Schools donated in excess of R100 000 to the trust to help underprivileged learners.

The traditionally black tertiary institutions including the previous technikons and universities such as Fort Hare have undergone major transformation since 1994, but still lack much-needed support to match the standards of the traditionally white tertiary institutions. Nxasana obtained an honorary doctorate from Walter Sisulu University, and during the fair, donated more than 25 000 books to the university’s library. These books have an estimated value of more than R12.5-million and span across many disciplines, from IT to AI to robotics and sociology. The university sent a delegation headed by the chief librarian to show its appreciation of his generosity.