Address by the Minister of Arts and Culture Mr Nathi Mthethwa, at the opening ceremony of the World Library Congress, International Convention Centre, Cape Town
16 Aug 2015
On behalf of the South African Government and IFLA, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, I would like to extend a warm welcome to all international and local delegates gathered here today in this vibrant yet rainy city of Cape Town, affectionately called the Mother City.
We gather here on this important occasion at the opening ceremony of this 81st IFLA Annual World Library and Information which has as its theme Dynamic Libraries: Access, Development and Transformation.
This theme is an important one because we live in a rapidly globalising reality where the voices that dominate the discourse of global power are not always our own and where the dominant narratives are not written or devised by us.
The voice of the librarian is not at the forefront of global discourse.
The voice of the South and the marginalised are not at the centre of this power.
Yet the insights contained in books, the value of what history teaches us, what science and the arts can bring us, this robust engagement based on true knowledge, before one proceeds with action, is what the world so sorely needs.
This can only come to us through the pages of a book, through the literary wealth of the world and those who have come before us.
We are entrusted with the safekeeping of the history of civilisations, tasked with remembering the lessons from the past, the documenting of the ‘here’ and the ‘now’ and the transmission of all this to future generations.
Let us never forget the responsibility placed upon us to treasure the artefacts and knowledge of the past, even as we travel at seemingly breakneck speed through a rapidly moving age.
The very speed at which our youth traverse through the highways and byways of the internet, the quick fix that social media provides, the various languages of technology, suggest that we are making rapid progress.
Yet without libraries, without ways of preserving our legacy of books and the knowledge they contain, without a worldwide information society, without encouraging new researchers, new authors, new guardians of the books of the future, we shall not have moved one inch – rather we will have taken two steps forward and one step back…
The digital divide is real. So too is the real divide between rich and poor, north and south, black and white, men and women, the divisions in how resources are assigned and in how information and knowledge are disseminated.
On this continent we have been truly blessed as we have been home to the ancient universities of Mali and we are the guardians of the manuscripts from Timbuktu. Africa has housed the great library of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the world, and artefacts and texts, rock and cave paintings, can provide insights on the history of the African people and the world from the earliest of times.
In those days papyrus and parchment, scrolls and tablets, captured the histories, the literature, the science and mathematics, the economics, the languages and the cultural and spiritual imagination of the people of vast regions of the African world.
Yet today we use paper and e-books and have fully entered the realm of a digitised world.
Yet like the civilisations of ancient Africa, we too are faced with the challenges of preserving and disseminating this knowledge.
The great author, Ben Okri, whom we recently hosted in South Africa as part of our Africa month activities, describes an ideal civilisation which we all strive for in his novel, Astonishing the Gods. From this text allow me to quote a few inspiring lines:
“The city [was] a vast network of thoughts. Courts were places where people went to study the laws, not places of judgement. The library, which he took to be one building, but which he later discovered were practically the whole city, was a place where people went to record their thoughts, their dreams, their intuitions, their ideas, their memories, and their prophecies. They also went there to increase the wisdom of the race. Books were not borrowed. Books were composed there and deposited.”
It is this vision that we strive for. We want libraries all round the world to become places of engagement, self-knowledge and an understanding of the wisdom of the race.
It is in this context that we take the opportunity to share best practices and discuss what we can do together to strengthen our libraries and their role in sustaining development.
Libraries do make a difference in our daily lives as nations, states and people of the world.
We need to encourage libraries as spaces where information conveyed through new technologies can help to revolutionise and transform our people’s lives for the better.
As African ministers who gathered here on Friday in a historic first pre-World Library Congress ministerial session, we expressed our collective support for the library sector.
We shall ensure that as we consolidate our libraries and build the information society, that our voices, our narratives, our ideas have equal power.
We need to equip our libraries with common foundational texts, that elaborate on our shared African identity.
Only through dissemination of this knowledge can Africa take its rightful place in the wider world, understanding our commonalities and appreciating the multiplicity of cultural expressions.
We believe that timeous access to appropriate information in the right language can promote social cohesion across national borders since languages are shared.
For us on the African continent, the African Union Agenda 2063, ‘the Africa we want’ also calls for an information society.
Our Aspirations contained in this framework also envision a prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable people-driven development, wherein Africa’s people are our most precious resource.
The Agenda calls for the eradication of poverty through investing in the productive capacities of our people through a skills revolution, especially through the education of Africa’s children and youth.
In its Call to Action, the Agenda seeks to speed up action in building and expanding “an African knowledge society through transformation and investments in universities, science, technology, research and innovation.”
The Charter for Africa’s Cultural Renaissance connects African values with power and democracy. It affirms multiculturalism and recognises that there are many ways in which people see themselves and are able to make informed choices about their lives.
The South Africa National Development Plan 2030 also speaks to many of the same objectives. It seeks to ensure a high standard of living and that no South African falls below the social security net and quality life-long education and skills development to meet the demands of SA’s developing economy.
In our Cape Town declaration adopted on the 14 August 2015, the African Ministers gathered together on the status of libraries welcome the IFLA position regarding the post 2015 sustainable development agenda.
We committed to provide the necessary resources for the development of African libraries to respond to modern day challenges and provide access to emerging technologies;
We supported the establishment of a Pan African library organisation and institutional partnerships.
We encouraged the development and promotion of local content in African libraries as part of the promotion of African Renaissance and Pan Africanism.
It is with this declaration that we start this Congress on a high note with the belief that at the end of this gathering in Cape Town the World Library Congress will also conclude with an action plan embodied in a declaration that will take your commitments and business forward.
Institutional partnerships between libraries can go a long way in building knowledge hubs and centres of excellence.
We recognise that librarians are the trusted guardians of the world at large and that in sharing this wealth of knowledge, you bring people closer together, inculcate greater mutual understanding and cultural coalescence.
Our task therefore is also manifold as together we seek to increase the access of the world’s people to all the knowledge that can empower them, doing so in many languages, and protecting their knowledge and indigenous knowledge systems.
As countries of the world, we need to create an enabling environment to enable libraries and librarians to fulfil their role as agents of change and societal development as envisaged in the United Nations’s Post-2015 Development Agenda.
This Agenda recognises that poverty eradication is an essential requirement for sustainable development and emphasises access to equitable education and lifelong learning opportunities for all.
We further commend IFLA on its 2014 Lyon Declaration that indicates that libraries can and should play an indispensable and transformational role in sustainable development.
We recognise the rights of people to knowledge, the rights of the girl child to access education, the right to equality in access to knowledge so that it is not the domain of the rich but also empowers the poor.
We note the important role that libraries can play in providing universal access to information and knowledge. This further strengthens democratic participation and empowerment.
We recognise the critical role of access to information technology in helping to eradicate poverty, promoting human rights, and enabling sustainable development by bridging the gap between national policies and implementation at local level.
We need to work together to ensure that we attain our goal of sustainable development and that the libraries do not get left out of this agenda.
Together we need to build a global information society of informed people, where libraries flourish, where consciousness is heightened and where the culture of reading is a way of life.
I was pleased to hear of the various ways in which our counterparts on the African continent encourage a culture of reading and library usage in their countries. I have noted that the detailed IFLA congress programme also contains presentations from far and wide of how access to information can be improved and initiatives that are aimed at improving a culture of learning and reading.
In conclusion, I would like to quote from the Freedom Charter that was adopted by the Congress of the People 60 years ago in 1955, when South Africans from all walks of life gathered in Kliptown during the darkest days of apartheid. This helped to unite our people behind a common vision and and guided us in our struggle towards a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic country.
Among its ten clauses, the Freedom Charter declared; and I quote that “the Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Open to All!” It is this Charter that formed the basis of our National Constitution of 1996.
In the words of the late South African poet and novelist, Chris Van Wyk, from a poem titled Candle and written in the 1970’s at the darkest hour in our country, we need to persevere. He concludes the poem with the following words.
“Read brother read. The wax is melting fast….Read brother read. Only the wick shines red now. But it is not yet dark. Remember brother, it is not yet dark.”
Let us in this congress today pledge as the global library family to redouble our efforts in encouraging a world of readers and thinkers and embark upon fruitful discussions in the week ahead.
At the end of the last day, let us leave here with a shared vision and plans for our libraries sector that open the doors of learning and culture to all.
I thank you.