Keynote address delivered on behalf of the Deputy Minister Dr Joe Phaahla, at the inaugural meeting of the board of the South African Library for the Blind (SALB),Pretoria

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29 Oct 2013

Dr William Rowland, Chairperson of the Board; distinguished members of the Board; the Director of the South African Library for the Blind, Mr Francois Hendrikz and his staff and colleagues; officials of the Department of Arts and Culture, I am very pleased to inaugurate the new Board of the South African Library for the Blind, whose excellent service has spread beyond our country’s borders.

I would like to congratulate Dr Rowland on his appointment as Chairperson and have pleasure in welcoming him back, after chairing previous SALB Boards very successfully. I also extend a very warm welcome to members of the previous Board who have been re-appointed, as well as newcomers to the SALB Board, who have clearly indicated their passion in promoting the interests of the visually impaired community. Dr Rowland is a former CEO of the South African National Council for the Blind, as well as a former President of the World Blind Union. He is also a member of the team of consultants who in 2012 concluded a ground-breaking investigation into various issues concerning the production of Braille materials in South Africa and the concomitant issues of producing quality Braille. Dr Rowland is all to well aware of the mandate of the SALB to enhance access to information of visually impaired readers via the procurement and making available of audio, digital, and Braille materials. This mandate subscribes to the democratic values of equality, respect for human dignity, the advancement of human rights and freedom, non-racialism, non-sexism, and accountability.

I am proud to state that the Department financially supports the SALB, the National Library of South Africa, Blind SA, as well as the recapitalisation of public libraries throughout South Africa. The Department fully realises the value that libraries add to the quality of our citizens’ lives by providing timeous information to inform, educate, entertain, and empower. The library sector is a vibrant component of the arts, culture and heritage sector which is governed by the Department of Arts and Culture and I would therefore like to place the library sector in a broader context, before returning to library services for the visually impaired specifically.

The Department is currently engaged in a consultative process with stakeholders to revise the White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage across the country. The review of the document has been brought about by the transformation that South Africans have experienced over the past years. Under the leadership of Minister Paul Mashatile the role of the sector has started to be reviewed since he is of the opinion that the new vision of arts and culture goes beyond social cohesion and nourishing the soul of the nation: arts, culture and heritage play a pivotal role in the economic empowerment and skills development of the nation.

The revised White Paper addresses the strategic re-positioning of the role of the national Department of Arts and Culture, and the transformation of the approach, institutional structures and processes for equitable delivery of arts and culture to all.

The transformation and recapitalisation of public libraries in South Africa has been on the Department’s programme of action since 2007. The programme is ongoing and making a huge difference in the lives of communities, especially the young people in remote and under-serviced areas. These libraries are valuable institutions where students, learners, job seekers and every member of the community could get access to all kinds of information, the Internet, photocopiers, and study facilities. In 2012/2013 the conditional grant programme delivered 14 new libraries, while 36 existing libraries were upgraded. The programme will receive a huge injection with the allocation of more than R1 billion in the next two years.

The Department has now also reached the point whereby it is ready to submit the South African Public Library and Information Services Bill to Cabinet. We have just completed an investigation to cost the financial implications of the Bill, which is a requirement before new legislation could be submitted to Cabinet for approval. The report also offers a five-year rollout plan for library infrastructure based on the norms and standards described in the Bill, which will inform future planning of infrastructure projects in provinces. We still have a long way to go to reach our target of making information accessible to all, and need the dedication and cooperation from all stakeholders for this purpose.

Another strategic objective that the Department is managing is the promotion of access to information for all, including to citizens with visual impairments. You might not be aware that provincial library services, in partnership with the South African Library for the Blind, have started to roll out reading facilities for the visually impaired in public libraries. Through the use of modern technology it has become possible to expand services to all citizens and readers.

The Department commissioned an investigation into national Braille production needs and policy matters in South Africa with the purpose to develop a generally accepted Braille production strategy in order to render more effective and efficient services to visually impaired readers. The consultants submitted their report to the Department in 2012, with recommendations that should have a positive impact on the cost and quality of Braille production. My Department has since engaged with other key government Departments in taking the matter forward and will be liaising closely with the South African National Council for the Blind and the South African Braille Authority in that regard, as well major Braille production houses in South Africa, which includes the SALB.

Dr Rowland, members of the Board, ladies and gentlemen, having briefly sketched the broader context in which the SALB operates, I would now like to shine the spotlight on library services for the visually impaired, i.e. people who are blind or who have low vision. There is a large number of visually impaired people in our country and the challenge of the SALB and its Board is to meet the growing information and reading needs of visually readers, whether they live in cities with various amenities, or in the rural areas with few amenities. The SALB was formally established in 1999 through the South African Library for the Blind Act, No. 91 of 1998, and as such is one of the key cultural institutions of the Department of Arts and Culture.

The history of this library, however, dates back to 1919, from which humble beginnings it has developed into a key partner in supporting the Department of Arts and Culture’s mission, namely “to sustain and develop the information resources of the nation and to empower citizens through full and open access to these national resources.” A few years ago, my Department financed the SALB to launch a tactile book project with the purpose of stimulating the economy by employing and training people to hand-craft tactile books, and to facilitate reading for blind children by enabling their fingers and sense of touch to open up the world outside of their immediate surroundings and enable them to grow into fully-fledged citizens who can function independently.

In its mission to provide quality literature to its readers, the SALB is constantly exploring ways and means of broadening access to information sources nationally as well as internationally. One of the main barriers to provide reading material to the blind and visually impaired is compliance to national and international copyright and intellectual property legislation and requirements. In this respect, the SALB has made great strides in cooperating with the South African Publishers’ Association and the South African National Council for the Blind in removing these barriers so that information in printed and digital format could be reformatted to Braille, audio and digital format. The input of the CEO of the SALB to negotiating the South African response to the World Intellectual Property Organisation Treaty for Improved access for Blind, Visually Impaired and other Reading Disabled Persons (TVI) and proposed exceptions and limitations on copyright issues from an African point of view, in collaboration with other stakeholders, recently bore fruit when the Marakesh Treaty was signed earlier this year in Morocco, which will enable information materials for the visually impaired to be reformatted within a legal framework. As the South African Government is one of the 147 countries who signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of People with disabilities, the signing of this Treaty is greatly welcomed.

Please permit me to now turn to the role of the new Board in guiding, overseeing and monitoring the work of the SALB, which is the only library for the blind on the African continent. The inauguration of a new Board for the Library will be the sixth occasion of its kind since the passing of the South African Library for the Blind Act (Act No. 91 of 1998). In terms of the Act, the Board must be reconstituted after each term of three years. The Act stipulates that the members of the Board shall be persons who represent stakeholders and who have the experience, expertise and skills to assist the SALB in achieving its goals. A core function of the Board will be to fulfill an oversight role on the governance and finances of the Library. According to the SALB’s latest Annual Report, for the period 2012/13, the SALB received an unqualified audit opinion after its financial statements had been corrected, which is commendable. It is the duty of the Board to assist the SALB CEO and his staff to ensure that there is consistency of objectives, indicators and targets between planning and reporting documents and that all indicators can be traced back to the approved SALB Strategic Plan.

The Board should also ensure that these indicators are well defined to avoid any ambiguity in data collection, and that a proper system of record management is created and maintained to facilitate data collection and the preservation of documentation needed to verify financial statements. Legislation regarding financial and other compliance by public entities is growing more and more onerous and the guidance by well-qualified and dedicated Boards is indispensable to all organisations.

Dr Rowland, distinguished members of the Board, in closing I would like to thank you for your willingness to serve the visually impaired community of our country. I would also like to assure you that the Department is at your service whenever you may need advice on corporate governance and financial matters.

I thank you.