Address By Deputy Minister Ntombazana Botha, At The Opening Of The 4th National Toy Library Conference,RANDBURG

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15 Oct 2007

Programme Director
Ms Cynthia Morrison
Chairperson of ALL-SA, Ms Avrille Gork
Conference Delegates
Distinguished Guest, Dr Christine Powell
Ladies and Gentlemen

Good afternoon

It is, indeed, a privilege for me to be invited to open this conference. I am particularly happy that you did not ask me to do the keynote address as I am not an expert on the subject of toy libraries or, better still, active learning and leisure libraries.

Let me, at the outset, congratulate Active Learning and Leisure Libraries – South Africa for the sterling work they have been doing since the establishment of the organisation in 1993. The role you have played and which you are still playing, as an organization as well as the role played by individual Toy Libraries that of ensuring that little children develop their full potential, is highly commendable.

In an article by Elizabeth Pretorius which was looking at the relationship between reading ability and academic achievement, she refers to an article which appeared in the Sunday Times on 16 July 2000, with a headline which read “South African pupils are the dunces of Africa”. She states that this Sunday Times feature article was reporting on the findings of a comparative study of literacy and numeracy rates among primary school children from twelve African countries. The study, which was commissioned by the Education Department for a continent-wide UN education monitoring project, apparently concluded that South African children were faring poorly in comparison to their peers in the other eleven African countries.

Anthony Johnson, in his article in Dispatch Online in August of the same year, examines the conclusions of the UN study and observes that “…… the study reveals in the technical notes section that the questionnaires given to learners, educators and principals were only in English”. Johnson concludes by saying: “Little wonder that the South Africans fared particularly poorly on the UN’s numeracy questions that involved word sums or stories – most of them didn’t know what the words meant!”

We cannot, therefore, wish away the past as it will sooner or later catch up with us. Without belabouring the point about the legacy of apartheid, suffice it to say that many of the challenges we face today in education and early childhood development are a direct result of the apartheid education system which was intended to make blacks “drawers of water and hewers of wood”.

I guess there are about two or three generations of the majority black population that missed out on good quality education at the foundation phase.

It is, therefore, important to take into consideration the social, political and cultural factors when determining any strategic intervention, such as toy libraries, to help children develop to their full potential.
 
The task of our democratic government has been made more complex by                                      a fractured and dislocated public library system which it inherited. In the past, public libraries existed to provide information and for leisure reading for a privileged few, predominantly white urban middle class.

Today, in an effort to redress this disparity, our government has identified community libraries as key agents of development to improve the quality of life of all citizens. Our Department of Arts and Culture, as you may be aware, is responsible for administering national legislation relating to national libraries. It is also responsible for the formulation and coordination of policy for community libraries in partnership with provincial departments.

Government recognizes the need for all South Africans to have improved access to library and information services, and these should be expanded to all our communities. It is in this context that initiatives such as toy libraries remain critical in creating opportunities for children to learn and grow in safe environments.

Toy libraries play a crucial role in support of education, lifelong learning and early childhood development.
 
Library services for children have never been as important for children and their families as they are today and toy libraries, in particular, are crucial in promoting early numeracy, literacy and reading habits amongst young people.
 
A quality children’s library equips children with learning and literacy skills, enabling them to participate and contribute positively to their own communities. This will help to stimulate critical thinking and a healthy spirit of ubuntu which are necessary to sustain our democratic values.

Toy libraries have a special responsibility to support the process of learning to read and to promote books and other media for children, especially in their mother tongue. Toy libraries must strive to build library collections that reflect the diverse cultural and multilingual heritage of our country.

In order to achieve this, toy libraries must position themselves as agents of change. They must, therefore, deepen their knowledge and understanding of the diverse needs of all our children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Much more still needs to be done, especially in rural areas in terms of nurturing creativity, preserving culture, providing access to information and safeguarding intellectual freedom.

Another challenge that toy libraries face is to provide appropriate and stimulating play materials necessary to achieve essential outcomes. Toy libraries can play a vital role in introducing and providing access to appropriate and user-friendly play technology.   Toy libraries should also undertake vigorous awareness programmes to educate parents about the value of the services they provide and the long-term benefits of play.

The cornerstone of the toy library movement is play. Play has long been acknowledged as a crucial factor in children’s development, linked to cognitive and social development. It is related to the development of creativity, healthy brain development, self-confidence and physical fitness.

However, many children in our country have never had an opportunity to play and grow up as children. They have never enjoyed childhood; instead, they have taken on the responsibilities of adults and, in some instances, they have been neglected or abused physically and emotionally. They are often left vulnerable, becoming early victims to crime and drugs. Toy libraries can serve as an antidote to many of these social problems and play can help in the healing process.

Play is a crucial tool for those who teach, work with and care for young children. Parental involvement should also be encouraged, even those parents regarded as less educated or illiterate should be encouraged to be involved. When parents and children play together it strengthens the bond between them and, consequently, the family unit. As George Bernard Shaw said: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing”.
 
I am happy to learn that traditional games and toys have also been introduced in toy libraries. This approach links children with their tradition and culture and helps them to discover their own identity, who they are and where they come from. Through traditional toys and games children are able to know and identify with their forebears and uphold the positive values of their society.

The promotion of toy libraries has yet another important spin-off. A lot of toys can be manufactured in the craft sector and this could help create jobs in a range of industries. This, in turn, offers opportunities for innovation, creativity and skills development.

However, the current landscape of toy libraries in the country is a matter of concern. How many toy libraries do we have in the country? Who do they serve? What is the current state of their collections?

In South Africa, I believe, toy libraries are not widespread and tend to be highly structured – either therapeutic or remedial in nature or linked to Early Childhood Development Centres.

It is, therefore, important to ask these questions to determine the extent of the need in view of the huge investment the Department of Arts and Culture is about to make in the public library system. 

The development and maintenance of our nation’s libraries is one of our priorities as the services offered by public libraries form part of the bigger goals of government programmes such as the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (Asgisa), and the Joint Initiative for Priority Skills Acquisition (Jipsa).

It will be an ongoing challenge for library practitioners in South Africa to ensure that the sector is transformed. They must ensure that all children have easy and free access to reading materials in the language of their choice and relevant to their information needs and interests, in compliance with the guiding principles of the UNESCO Manifesto which South African public libraries subscribe to.

I wish you a very successful conference and fruitful deliberations as you go about the task ahead of you in these four days. As the Ministry and the Department of Arts and Culture we are looking forward to a closer working relationship with Active Learning Libraries – South Africa.

G.K.Chesterton, a writer and a poet, says: “The true object of all human life is play”.  So, I’m inviting you to come and play.

I thank you.