Speech by Minister Pallo Jordan at the inaugurating of the New Campus of the National Library, Pretoria

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01 Aug 2008

Professor Rock Ralebipi-Simela, Chairperson of the National Council for Library and Information Services,
Professor Muxe Nkondo, Chairperson of the National Library of South AfricaBoard,
Dr. Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation,
My Esteemed Colleagues, the Ministers and Deputy Ministers here present,
Your Excellencies Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Mr. Tommy Matthee, President of the Library and Information Association of South Africa,
Ms. Rachel More, President Elect of the Library and Information association of South Africa,
Mr. John Tsebe, the National Librarian,

We are here this morning to open the Pretoria Campus of the new National Library for business. Built at an estimated cost of R374-million, this new National Library building represents a significant investment in its future by our nation.

This building can accommodate as many as 1300 users at a time, a vast improvement from the rather cramped conditions from which the library was formerly forced to operate.

The National Library of South Africa is this nation’s custodian over published materials. We want this new building to evolve into a centre of excellence that provides access to an extremely valuable resource to society at large. The National Library Act 92 of 1998 provides for the National Library to collect, record preserve and make available to the South African public materials, including national heritage documentation, published in print and other forms. These new premises will greatly facilitate the execution of that mission.

The story of Neal Petersen, one of South Africa ’s unsung achievers, testifies to the life-changing potential of libraries. Neal Petersen was born disabled, yet he became one of the first black South African yachtsman. He taught himself the skills of navigation and boat design from the books he found, or rather that were found for him, in the public library. He went on to take part in the Around Alone (formerly BOC Challenge) Race, becoming the first black man to race solo around the world. He is now a motivational speaker in California, USA .

Neal Petersen owes much of his achievements to one brave librarian, Ms. Letta Naudee formerly of the Wynberg Public Library – now the Head of the Sea Point Public Library, Cape Town - who risked everything to give Neal Petersen access to the knowledge he craved.

In those days our public libraries were racially segregated and all the books on sailing were in the “Whites only” section of the library. Ms Letta Naudee would sneak books out the back door for him, bravely defying the racist laws of that time. Such little acts of courage in the face of tyranny can make a world of difference. Neal Petersen’s achievements tell us to that.

It required a political revolution to create the political space to transform our libraries from facilities segregated on racial grounds into the open, truly democratic spaces they can become. Centres where knowledge can be sought and found; where ideas are debated and exchanged. From the segregated base we inherited in 1994 our public and community libraries were situated to serve the informational and recreational needs of a largely white, predominately middle class, clientele of book borrowers.

We are trying to make our libraries warm and engaging public spaces thronged by young learners seeking knowledge. To effect such a radical shift in user patterns requires radical initiatives. Along with the expansion and extension of library services, South Africa needs to leapfrog its libraries from a book-based, segregated past into an open, democratic, inclusive, international and multi-media informational future.

Today’s event is but one small step in the right direction.

An additional R200-million is available for Libraries this year. The nine provinces are eligible for these funds as conditional grants for the upgrading of their libraries. But the pace at which we are rolling out the first phase of this project is much too slow. The immediate objective is to improve service. To do this all libraries will:

  • Improve access to libraries through better staffing and more sensible opening hours;
  • Update informational resources, especially educational support material;
  • Install new library infrastructure
  • Promote children’s literature
  • Stock more books in indigenous languages
  •  

A process of wide-ranging consultation among stakeholders is evolving a transformative vision of South Africa ’s libraries. The Library Charter, unveiled this year, sets the new directions for our country’s community libraries. Because the realization of its vision is urgent, R39 Million has been set aside for the upgrading of public entities and the SA Library for the Blind.

The power of written word resides in the fact that recording words transforms them into powerful means of communication, not merely between two people, but potentially amongst millions. Freed from the need for personal contact, the written word made it possible to dispatch and to receive accurate communication from afar; it enabled readers and writers to commune with the present, the past and the future. Liberated from the constraints of time and space, the thoughts, opinions, emotions, beliefs, values and experiences of people acquired infinite mobility, even immortality.

The power of the written word has been vindicated again and again by repressive regimes who seek to control the flow of information between and amongst people. The struggle for freedom of expression, of which media freedom is an important component, and the struggle against racial oppression and colonialism in South Africa have been integrally connected and that association is encapsulated in the person and the struggles of Thomas Pringle.

 

Though he was amongst the 1820 settlers, Pringle did not live in the Eastern Cape , but settled in Cape Town where, together with John Fairburn, he established the “South African Journal” and the “South African Commercial Advertiser”. Pringle soon discovered that there were limits to freedom of expression in the colonies. As a staunch abolitionist Pringle was very critical of slavery at the Cape and regularly took issue with the colonial government’s policy toward the indigenous people. He led an unsuccessful campaign for the release and repatriation of David Stuurman, the Khoikhoi chieftain whom the British authorities had transported to Australia as a prisoner for daring to defend his birthright. After his newspapers were suppressed Thomas Pringle returned to Britain in 1827 where he continued his abolitionist activities becoming secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society that year.

Conjoined at birth, the struggle for freedom of expression has invariably been refracted through the struggle for racial equality and justice, and vice versa. The expansion and extension of our library services is the continuation of that struggle, employing other means.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Though books remain a critical factor in the dissemination of knowledge and information, electronic means of storing and disseminating information are fast overtaking them. Access to information promotes critical thinking, particularly among the youth, who can learn to perceive differing and even conflicting dimensions of the same issue. The librarian is the critical agent in this chain ensuring that these resources reach the general public.

Through the written word, the common people have laid claim to the treasure trove of humanity’s literary heritage. Our libraries make it the property of all our people, indeed, the property of people everywhere.

The reduction to writing of our indigenous languages was originally pursued to proselytize Christianity. Its unintended consequence was opening up a new world to the indigenous African. The book, the written word, and literacy were the gateway to the “Fountain of Knowledge”. Books have since occupied an important place in our lives both as an educational tool and as recreation.

Hence the importance of this morning’s event.

As a government that takes seriously the challenge of making the 21st century an African century, we are determined to ensure that all our people have access to literacy and can harness it to expand their horizons and their skills.

Through one of his characters, Chinua Achebe explained, that there is much more of crucial, social significance to storytelling – in our era, the writing of books - than mere entertainment. The social and economic potential of the publishing sector in this country can only be realized when all the diverse people of our country and the region have reasonable access to the means to read, to write and to be published. We have repeatedly appealed for partnerships among government, non-governmental organizations and the private sector to work together to create greater access to reading materials for more of our people. The development of a reading culture depends critically on the availability of literature in the indigenous languages.

We have therefore launched an Indigenous Literature Publishing Project, aimed at producing a series of publications in different languages by writers from different backgrounds, across South Africa . This, hopefully, will stimulate the growth and development of literature in indigenous languages and generate new readerships. We have also tasked the National Library with republishing out-of-print African language classics so that they are available to the public and institutions once again. We are also encouraging the creation of partnerships between state entities and private companies to give a lead to the private sector who have thus far proved very reluctant to publish in African languages.

This project should raise awareness of the works of quality that have been produced over the years in previously marginalized languages. Exposure to the entire spectrum of human experience as it is explored in indigenous African literature can only enrich the cultural life of South Africa .

Distinguished guests, Ladies and gentlemen ,As we march into the third millennium, there are a number of important lessons we can derive from our 20th century experience. We expect our libraries to become hubs, where necessary scholarship will thrive and the incubators of new generations of thinkers, writers and doers. We want them to educate South Africans to be upholders and defenders of tolerance, rooted in an appreciation that truth, beauty and good are elusive and extremely elastic and can only be sought in an environment of untrammeled contestation and debate among differing opinions.

Harold Pinter has written:

“Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.”

It is for these reasons that the best in the modern African political tradition has preferred secularism and pluralism, not only to nurture and preserve diversity, but also for their intrinsic value. Secularism rejects the boundaries and fences religion places around the search for truth; pluralism recognises a multitude of ways of conceiving beauty.

This year we have addressed the major challenge confronting aspiring writers: the absence of a viable and sustainable literary journal that provides an appropriate platform to advance their skills as emergent literary voices. We now have a new national literary journal, “Boabab”, whose first issue coincided with the recently held Commonwealth Writers literary awards, hosted in Franschhoek. Together we must build a mass readership in all South African languages. In the not too distant future we will be approaching writers to see what they are prepared to contribute towards the attainment of that goal.

In closing, distinguished guests, I recall Ulli Beier, an early chronicler of modern African creative arts, who dubbed his literary journal “Black Orpheus”. If our Orpheus is ever to win back his Eurydice, who was swallowed up by the darkness of slavery, colonialism and apartheid, like his classical namesake, he must march forward and upward into the light of the 21st century. He would be wise also to heed the admonition against looking back in nostalgic longing; lest, as in the classical tale, Eurydice is called back and reclaimed by the darkness of Hades.

I am extremely pleased to inaugurate this new campus of our national library.

Thank You.