The International Time of the Writer Festival coincides with the South African Library Week taking place from 11 until 21 March, under the theme, “#libraries4lifelonglearning”.
The Month of March marks Human Rights Month Celebrations in South Africa to remind South Africans about the sacrifices that accompanied the struggle for liberation and to celebrate the achievement of democracy in South Africa.
This year’s celebrations take place under the theme, South Africa United Against Racism.” In the recent months, the country experienced upsurge in racist incidents that manifested themselves especially on social media.
The theme for this year’s edition of the festival, “Decolonising the Book” resonates with the strategic objectives of the Department of Arts and Culture.
We espouse a book sector that is diverse and seeks to cultivate equitable growth of all South African languages.
The promotion of a culture of reading is a subject very close to my heart. I am speaking here not only as a Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture, but also as a qualified librarian who remains passionate about the promotion of the culture of reading. In my experience of working both as a teacher and librarian for many years, I have witnessed the power of books in changing lives.
It is now common knowledge that literacy underpins development in various aspects of life and a heightened culture of reading is a fundamental ingredient in the creation of a prosperous society. A widespread culture of reading would create a more knowledgeable society, contribute to the acquisition of skills and advance the economic potential of the book sector.
It is through a thriving culture of reading that we can educate and improve our present condition. It was the late president Nelson Mandela who once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Each one of us can do something to promote a culture of reading and change somebody’s life.
In this democratic dispensation we have the challenge of having inherited an inferior education system and minimal library infrastructure. Libraries are essential centres of information and vital tools for self-empowerment, especially for those who cannot afford to buy books.
As the Department of Arts and Culture, we have been entrusted with the daunting task of undoing years of deprivation due to the skewed nature of development in our communities. When we attained our democracy in 1994, libraries were sparsely located and concentrated in the cities, thus serving the privileged few.
Millions of rural communities and those living in the underdeveloped townships had limited or no access to books.
I am convinced that the choice of the theme for the festival “Decolonising the Book”, takes cognisance of these dynamics that are prevalent in our society. It is also an acknowledgement of the fact that the transformation agenda in the book sector is not going at the most desired pace. As government, we are committed to promoting a culture of reading and writing and ensuring that there is increased access to books for the majority of our people.
Ladies and Gentlemen, our society today is confronted by a new set of challenges and the writing fraternity is not left unaffected. The recent revolution against colonial structures and access to education manifests itself in the literary landscape through robust and incisive intellectual engagement. I must commend the constructive manner in which this discourse has been handled in the literary landscape thus far.
We have always been conscious of the imbalances that exist in the knowledge economy. It is against this backdrop that education and access to books are some of the priorities of our government today. The Department of Arts and Culture has contributed enormously to the development of library infrastructure over the past decade. In the current MTSF, covering the years from 2014 – 2017, the Department of Arts and Culture is investing a further R3 billion for library infrastructure through the Conditional Grants programme.
Through this programme, we have over the years built multitudes of libraries and refurbished others in various communities across the South Africa. In the province of KwaZulu-Natal alone, we have built nine new libraries and nine others have been upgraded. We have libraries that are currently under construction in Vulamehlo, Msunduzi, Jozini and other municipalities across the province.
However, we are acutely aware of the fact that building library infrastructure alone is not enough. We must make sure that we fill the library shelves with relevant material. It is disheartening to visit a library and never get to see books written by South African authors. We must prioritise local content and create a supporting mechanism for our writers, especially those writing in indigenous African languages.
One of the greatest ironies of our democratic dispensation is that now that we have eleven official languages recognised by our constitution, there is a significant decline in the production of literature in indigenous languages. We must exploit this constitutional prerogative and take pride in our languages. We should look up to sages like Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, who turned to his native Gikuyu language in order to express himself in his most authentic voice.
In his book, Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi eloquently argues, “Language caries culture, and culture caries, particularly through orator and literature, the entire body of values by which we perceive ourselves and our place in the world…” It is inspiring to see that Time of the Writer has dedicated part of the programme to deliberating about the importance of language preservation and promotion.
I am confident that the host of writers who will be speaking on the various topics will seek practical measures to improve access to books and promote a culture of reading in our society. Writers are the repository through which our stories are preserved and passed from generation to generation.
It is gratifying to notice that the new generation of writers is determined to snatch the baton from their predecessors and take our literature to greater heights. This generation of writers seems to be disputing Antonio Gramsci’s assertion that, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” Time of the Writer serves as the point of convergence for the young and the old.
The presence of literary giants such as Dr Serote and Dr Magona here this evening serves as a reminder about the importance of a continued intergenerational dialogue. Writers have the acumen to weave together the past, the present and the future into a composite whole. They create stories that generate impeccable foresights informed by the wisdom of the past but deeply rooted in the present.
As the Department of Arts and Culture, we will continue with our efforts of working with the sector in order to cultivate a culture of reading and writing. We must work together and develop strategies for establishing alternative modes of publishing, promotion of our diverse languages, establishing new distribution channels for local books and engendering new audiences.
Most importantly, let us renew our commitment to making reading an integral part of our lifestyle. We can change the world – one book at a time. And this is the time.