Nearly half (47,6%) of the country’s children never read a book or drew pictures (44,7%) with a parent or guardian, according to Statistics South Africa’s 2017 General Household Survey.
The survey was released during preparations for the 2019 edition of the South African Book Fair. It is research like this — along with studies that show that nearly 80% of children in grade 4 cannot read and understand sentences in any language — that validates the book fair’s core mission to locate books in places that will encourage reading in the everyday lives of South Africans.
Indeed, it was to address the multitude of challenges in increasing access to books that the book fair was conceived. In 2017 the South African Book Development Council set out to revisit the concept and relevance of a national book fair.
In this, we were responding to mounting calls for a more reflective and representative showcase of South African (and African) literature and culture.
The council then committed to implementing a book fair that created greater access to the event for all South Africans, and dedicated itself to engaging audiences who ordinarily do not form part of mainstream book-industry events.
The first South African Book Fair was in September 2017 and, two years later, it is presenting a programme and marketplace that moves this vision forward. The fair is the culmination of National Book Week, initiated by the council in 2010, in association with the department of arts and culture.
Taking place from September 2 to 8, and celebrating 10 years in 2019, the campaign aims to mitigate findings of a 2006 study — repeated in 2016 — that showed an increase in the number of households that do not own a single leisure-reading book.
This year the book fair has taken its place as a national industry platform to exhibit and showcase the book industry and its ancillary services.
A strong emphasis is on increasing access to the mainstream book industry through exhibition subsidies for small and medium enterprises and entrepreneurs.
The enterprise development programme focuses on skills development to make small businesses, particularly those owned by black women, more competitive and able to penetrate the mainstream market.
Creating and increasing access to new markets, and contributing to black empowerment are consistent threads in each fair, as is ensuring it is a national platform for new talent and new business opportunities.
This year the book fair moves to a new location — Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. It is a setting that celebrates the concept of lekgotla and is a heritage facility that tells the story of our country’s journey to democracy. The fair’s 2019 programme has been curated to facilitate lively and topical discussions around our central theme — Our Stories.
The fair provides a national platform for newly published literature, through representation of diverse writers, and by showcasing high quality local and indigenous language book, an important link to the South African Book Development Council, which has two projects focusing on indigenous publishing and text editing in indigenous languages. This is vital because the book industry still primarily serve a traditional market of mainly white buyers. There have been efforts by the industry to shift this, but it still does not adequately represent South Africa.
The council aims to position and better connect the book industry to all South Africans. Books are important to the country, and it is the council’s aim, no matter the challenges, to bring books to more of the country’s citizens.
Just because the industry has not been able to meet the needs of all South Africans does not mean the role it plays, and will continue to play, in all aspects of development — social, educational, economic and political — should be discounted.
A more informed citizenry will lead to greater economic growth, because people will be better able to intelligently interact with the world around them and participate in development in the country.
But the opportunities the fourth industrial revolution brings will not be available to the majority of South Africans. Given that 73% of the adult population says they are not interested in reading, how will they be able to participate in the fourth industrial revolution? And how will the 78% of grade 4s, who are unable to read for meaning, be able to use these opportunities?
It is the council’s aim to demonstrate the importance of collective strategies between the book industry and government, so that the reading figures are significantly improved. The book fair is a vehicle to connect the book industry to more diverse audiences. Through these events the industry gets to know their untapped market better and can then better respond to and serve the book needs of the country.
It is my hope that, by 2025, there will be books and stories to be told in every home, and that families will see reading books together as valuable bonding time.
I’m looking forward to a time when South Africans everywhere will find answers in books for life’s daily difficulties — and will pick up a book expectant of the satisfaction they will get from reading it.